Saturday, October 10, 2020

October 10: Communist Sympathizers, Hero's Quest, Luke Skywalker

Merton gets politically involved at Columbia . . .

There was a sort of a legend in New York, fostered by the Hearst papers, that Columbia was a hotbed of Communists. All the professors and students were supposed to be Reds, except perhaps the president of the university, Nicholas Murray Butler, living in solitary misery in his big brick house on Morningside Drive. I have no doubt that the poor old man’s misery was real, and that his isolation from most of the university was very real. But the statement that everybody in the university was a Communist was far from true. 

I know that, as far as the faculty was concerned, Columbia University was built up in concentric rings, about a solid core of well-meaning, unenlightened stuffiness, the veterans, the beloved of the trustees and the alumni, and Butler’s intellectual guard of honor. Then there was an inner circle of sociologists and economists and lawyers, whose world was a mystery to me, and who exercised a powerful influence in Washington under the New Deal. About all of them and their satellites I never knew anything, except that they were certainly not Communists. Then there was the little galaxy of pragmatists in the school of philosophy, and all the thousands of their pale spiritual offspring in the jungles of Teachers College and New College. They were not Communists either. They cast a mighty influence over the whole American Middle West, and were to a great extent conditioned by the very people whom they were trying to condition, so that Teachers College always stood for colorlessness and mediocrity and plain, hapless behaviorism. These three groups were then the real Columbia. I suppose they all prided themselves on their liberalism, but that is precisely what they were: “liberals,” not Communists, and they brought down upon their heads all the scorn the Communists could pour upon them for their position of habitual compromise. 

I do not understand much about politics. Besides, it would be outside the scope of my present vocation if I tried to make any political analysis of anything. But I can say that there were, at that time, quite a few Communists or Communist sympathizers among the undergraduates, and especially in Columbia College where most of the smartest students were Reds. 

The Communists had control of the college paper and were strong on some of the other publications and on the Student Board. But this campus Communism was more a matter of noise than anything else, at least as far as the rank and file were concerned. 

The Spectator was always starting some kind of a fight and calling for mass-meetings and strikes and demonstrations. Then the fraternity boys, who elected to play “Fascist” in this children’s game, would get up in the classroom buildings and turn the firehoses on the people who were standing around the Communist speaker. Then the whole thing would come out in the New York Journal that evening and all the alumni would choke on their mock turtle soup down at the Columbia Club. 

By the time I arrived at Columbia, the Communists had taken to holding their meetings at the sundial on 116th Street, in the middle of the wide-open space between the old domed library and South Field. This was well out of the range of the firehoses in the Journalism building and Hamilton Hall. The first meeting I went to, there, was very tame. It was against Italian Fascism. There were one or two speeches—by students practicing the art. Those who stood around were mostly members of the National Students’ League, who were there out of a sense of duty or partisanship. A few curious passers-by stopped a while on their way to the subway. There was not much excitement. A girl with a mop of black hair stood by, wearing a placard pronouncing some kind of a judgement on Fascism. Someone sold me a pamphlet. 

Presently I picked out the quiet, earnest, stocky little man in the grey overcoat, a hatless, black-haired Communist from downtown, who was running the affair. He was not a student. He was the real article. This was his assignment: forming and training the material that offered itself to him at Columbia. He had an assistant, a younger man, and the two of them were kept pretty busy. I went up to him and started to talk. When he actually listened to me, and paid attention to my ideas, and seemed to approve of my interest, I was very flattered. He got my name and address and told me to come to the meetings of the N.S.L. 

Soon I was walking up and down in front of the Casa Italiana wearing two placards, front and back, accusing Italy of injustice in the invasion of Ethiopia that had either just begun or was just about to begin. Since the accusation was manifestly true, I felt a certain satisfaction in thus silently proclaiming it as a picket. There were two or three of us. For an hour and a half or two hours we walked up and down the pavement of Amsterdam Avenue, in the grey afternoon, bearing our dire accusations, while the warm sense of justification in our hearts burned high, even in spite of the external boredom. 

For during that whole time no one even came near the Casa Italiana, and I even began to wonder if there were anyone at all inside of it. The only person who approached us was a young Italian who looked as if he might be a Freshman football player, and tried to get into an argument. But he was too dumb. He went away mumbling that the Hearst papers were very excellent because of the great prizes which they offered, in open competition, to their many readers.

If Merton's involvement in the Communist Party seems tepid, it was.  I believe he was more in love with the idea of belonging to something bigger than himself than to actually subscribing to any of the teachings of Marx and his followers.  Merton, young and parentless and rootless and mightily unschooled in any kind of moral or spiritual belief system, is looking for a place to call home.  So, any opportunity for involvement fills Merton's emptiness, his need for human connection.

I believe that most people are on a quest for human connection in their lives.  In a way, it's the hero quest we are all on--going through all kinds of struggles and battles, overcoming overwhelming obstacles, in order to find a place and people to call home.  It's a transformational process, involving all kinds of steps--call to action, meeting a mentor, crossing the threshold, death and rebirth, reward, the road back, and resurrection.  Odysseus.  Hercules.  Jesus Christ.  They all go through it for the sake of love.

This evening, I indulged in a quest for human connection myself.  My daughter and I have been steadily working our way through the entire Star Wars universe of films, watching them in order of release.  (As any real Star Wars fan will attest, this is the ONLY way to make your way through the trilogy of trilogies.)  After a long break, we returned to this quest tonight, watching The Force Awakens, the first of J.J. Abrams' reboot of the franchise.

Now, I'm well aware that many people reading this post will not share my affinity to Luke Skywalker and company, so I won't wax philosophic on the moral and spiritual teachings of the Star Wars franchise, although George Lucas depended heavily on Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces in its creation.  In fact, Campbell and Lucas became close friends at the end of Campbell's life, and Campbell himself recognized the religious and mythical echoes in the Star Wars films.

Tonight, my daughter and I made the jump to hyperspace.  We sat on the couch together, under a warm blanket.  And there were our old friends, Han and Leia and, eventually, Luke.  I was reminded of the hot July day I saw A New Hope for the first time.  I was nine years old, and I think, somehow, the Catholic boy in me recognized the unfolding gospel of Luke Skywalker.  Joseph Campbell famously said, "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself."  That's Jesus.  That's Obi-Wan.  And Han.  And Luke.  (It's even Darth, when you think about it.)

That Star Wars lesson stuck with me into adulthood.  I've tried to let it guide most of my adult decisions.  I'm not perfect.  I've made some pretty selfish choices in my life.  I still do.  (My daughter gave me some Lake Champlain chocolate Five Star Bars for my birthday.  I'm not sharing them with anybody.)  However, as a teacher, son, brother, husband, and father, I find sacrifice an important part of the equation.  Especially with my wife and kids.  

I work about three or four jobs on a consistent basis.  To pay bills and maintain health insurance and help finance my daughter's college education.  Yes, I am frequently exhausted at the end of my days.  Barely able to stay awake to correct papers or quizzes or exams.  Yet, I can't imagine doing anything else.  It's who I am.  I'm not sure if that makes me a hero.  But I know my kids are happy and safe.  They know they are loved.  That's what matters most.  I don't need Yoda to tell me that.

In my kids, I am home.  I learned that a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.  

And for that lesson of what surrounds and penetrates me, and binds my galaxy together, I give thanks.

Only one last thing for Saint Marty to say:  May the Force be with you.

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