At first, our taxi driver asserts that the United States will surely triumph overseas—thanks to the teams of dedicated, patriotic geniuses who diligently work in the field of American foreign policy.
On second thought, he wryly reflects, the Soviet Union employed teams of geniuses, too.
At least, that’s what my wife tells me he said; I speak no Russian, so I could not understand a single word of the ex-Red Army sergeant’s reflections upon his experiences in the Afghan War. I doubt the irony is lost on the immigrant cabbie, however: The government of the country in which he now lives is struggling to put down the same forces that it once kindled against him and his comrades-in-arms.
Personal, familial commitments have forced me to put aside my instinctive distaste for New York City, and so my wife and I are staying for the week with relations of hers in “Little Odessa”—the heavily Slavic section of Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. The trip is not without its redeeming factors: If I must be in a megalopolis, I would much rather stay in more earthy ethnic neighborhoods—actual, working neighborhoods—of Russians and Eastern Europeans than in, say, a trendy, upwardly mobile, and vanilla-cosmopolitan sector.
Another taxi cuts in front of us, and the sergeant-cabbie vents his frustration. “I have no problem working with Africans or Puerto Ricans or Chinese,” he explains, “but a woman has no place driving a cab.”
Later, my wife and I explore downtown Manhattan—for which some Indians were once given a few cheap, gaudy, shiny beads that pretty much sum up the existential worth of the place to this day. As we make our way through the crowds, I feel drained. This is not just a melodramatic effect of a vivid imagination or “the sensitive artist”: New York City repels me, and I am startled (and somewhat relieved) by the vehemence of the repulsion. Whatever temptations are dangerous to my soul, the prospect of living a Sarah Jessica Parker lifestyle isn’t one of them.
This nothing-zone glistens with the stylish sheen of utterly superficial sophistication. I am reminded of something Doc Wilson once told me—that those of no substance try to give their lives meaning by identifying with power. That’s what all the billboards and subway advertisements for Citibank MasterCards, for Club Med, for law school are about: the naked, servile adoration of power.
And there is its totem, the Empire State Building, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, secularized Western Man’s revisioning of misanthropic Buddhist paintings in which Nature is depicted in waterfalls and forests and mountains—all dwarfing a few tiny, insignificant human figures. It is a warped sort of mysticism that seeks to drown humanity in infinity. Constructed in the midst of the Great Depression, the building proved as useful for those seeking to commit suicide as the art-deco spire proved utterly useless as a docking port for airships. The impersonal god Progress drives an absurd bargain—and it shows in the temples erected by its devotees.
We find a different sort of adoration on Archbishop Fulton Sheen Place—East 43d Street—at the Church of St. Agnes. We are also pleased to discover that we have made it in time for Confession. St. Agnes, as it turns out, is a very solid parish with a Tridentine Mass, and (wonder of wonders) the priests there operate on the premise that offering absolution frequently and regularly is part of their job description.
It is a humble-sized church, sitting right down the street from the towering U.N. Headquarters—an outpost of Christendom enduring under the shadow of an Hegelian monolith.
The subject of the homily is Saint Benedict, patron of Europe, whose feast day it is. I wonder what the good saint would prescribe vis-à-vis the neobarbarism of our time—a barbarism of quite a different order from that which accompanied the decay of the Roman Empire, a barbarism that extols barbarism for its own sake, as a matter of principle.
As bad as Roman decadence must have been, only in the postmodern West would an attempt to define the words with which we try to communicate be seen as oppressive. And only under Americanism would a man be dubbed a bigot—deemed evil—for preferring a deep knowledge of his own inheritance over a shallow dabbling in someone else’s.
The Mass concludes, and we go forth to serve the Lord—darting through a curtain of suddenly torrential rain to reach the sheltering scaffolding that leads to Grand Central Station. We dive underground with the mob to catch the shuddering subway back to Brighton Beach.
My wife does some shuddering of her own—she is of a sensitive temperament, and being submersed in a sea of troglodyte-lemmings in the New York City subway does not agree with her. Later on, it reminds her of the underground lair of H.G. Wells’ Morlocks from The Time Machine. Why would people live like this?
I agree with her, of course—except that, in the real-world megalopolis, one frequently finds the brute viciousness of a Morlock and the infantile, technology-dependent helplessness of an Eloi manifested in one and the same person.
The next day, we hit the beach at Brighton. My wife loves the ocean—the rhythm of the waves, the invigorating saltwater, the seaweed that is washed ashore and picked up by middle-aged Russian women and plastered on their skin for its nutritive value. I have a slightly different take, recalling late-night watches on the red-lit bridges of warships cruising off the coastlines of various countries, the smell of land mingled with the flavor of cheap U.S. Navy coffee. I spy the occasional big merchant vessel steaming by, out in the traffic lanes, and feel a twinge of nostalgia.
After a cold swim, we head out to do some shopping—vodka and caviar for my brother and his wife, bird’s-milk candies for my wife’s family. At a bookstore, we acquire a work of Nikolai Berdyaev for my wife’s library. I have had a fascination with Berdyaev for some time. He was a Russian Orthodox existentialist whose better writings emphasize personality and the personal as essential to Christianity; he strove, with mixed success, to develop a Christian theory of creativity.
“The secret of the existence of personality lies in its absolute irreplaceability, its happening but once, its uniqueness, its incomparableness,” Berdyaev wrote. Yet personality is communal; it presupposes communion with others, and community with others. For Berdyaev, the profound contradiction and difficulty of human life is the result of this communality.
Whatever else he may have got wrong, he hit the mark on this point. Scrutinizing Little Odessa, one can gain an entirely different perspective on the predominant errors of American intellectual thought. This place is best seen not as a corner of America filled with immigrants but as a Slavic colony, an extension of the collective nation of Russia—which, like all nations, is not entirely defined by geography, and even less so by the fleeting fads of particular political systems and ideologies.
A nation is not a contrived set of regulations and statutes and institutions but a personality. A nation is a people.
People, as in small-scale entrepreneurs who place Orthodox icons next to their cash registers; people, as in clusters of housewives and widowers leisurely sitting in lawn chairs in front of their apartment buildings, talking, arguing, reading copies of A Walk Through the History of France in the Time of Napoleon. People, as in muscular, one-legged Afghan vets crutching their way around Brighton Beach.
I am happy to be loading up the car for our return home to the Bluegrass State. I am even enthusiastic about meeting the mad traffic that stands athwart our exit from the Big Apple. Like the merchies cruising up and down the shore, we bear cargo—both purchases and experiences. Brighton Beach has given me a tiny taste of the Russian world of today, going beyond ideas constructed in my imagination from readings of Berdyaev, of Gogol and Turgenev and the rest; and the danger of mistaking my sporadic study for a deep knowledge of a land and its folk has become clearer to me. Dostoyevsky is great, but he would warn us that reading is no substitute for living. Condi Rice, I’m told, has claimed The Brothers Karamazov as her favorite book.