What is it with books and writers? Often, really lousy writers and their equally lousy books achieve great popularity, while miraculous works of miraculous artists and thinkers fall to the margins of obscurity. For example, no one read William Blake much until he was rediscovered by the Pre-Raphaelites and William Butler Yeats. The same was the case for a few centuries with John Donne until T.S. Eliot rescued him from neglect in the early 20th century. In the spirit of rescuing from neglect, below is a list of books I wish more people would read.
The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz
Milosz, who died in 2004 at the age of ninety-three, was a Nobel Prize winning poet and one of the great writers of the 20th century. During and following World War II, Milosz and his Polish countrymen lived first through the horrors of the Nazis and then through the tragedy of Communism before he defected to France in 1951 and eventually made his way to the United States. His first book to gain notice in the West was The Captive Mind, published in 1953, a methodical taxonomy of the ways in which some of his friends and acquaintances by degrees and through duress eventually capitulated to the new reality and, as another writer so tragically-beautifully described, “Came to love Big Brother.” His observations are humane while brutally honest, as this example from his Preface shows:
“The Method, the Diamat—that is, dialectical materialism as interpreted by Lenin and Stalin—possesses a strong magnetic influence on the men of the present day. In the people’s democracies, the communists speak of the ‘New Faith,’ and compare its growth to that of Christianity in the Roman Empire. There has been instituted in France a group of worker-priests, who do regular work in the factories and living the Gospel to the laboring masses while sharing fully in their living conditions. A large proportion of these men have abandoned Catholicism and been converted to Communism. This illustrates the intensity of the ideological struggle which is going on today. And let it be remembered that in the people’s democracies indoctrination is enforced by the whole power of the State.”
Waiting for God by Simone Weil
Weil (1909-1943), who was called “the only great spirit of our times” by Albert Camus, may be one of the most perplexing, challenging, and intimidating thinkers of any age. An atheist Communist from a secular Jewish family who eventually rejected revolution as “the true opiate of the masses” and embraced a mystical Christianity, she was scathing in her scrupulosity. When I first read her I was fascinated, but simultaneously guilt-ridden; I simply couldn’t measure up to her moral integrity. This passage from one of the letters in Waiting for God bears witness to a penetrating intellect married to an unshakable sense of Christian charity:
“I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far as to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal.”
It may be that many people do read Weil. But it could never be enough.
The Tree of Life by H.J. Massingham
Massingham (1888-1952) was a British writer and ruralist and The Tree of Life along with his The English Countryman was written during World War II as a response to the degradation of the environment and agriculture that he saw as identical with the degradation of Christianity following the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions and the bag of false promises offered by the Enlightenment. Like his contemporary Rudolf Steiner, Massingham warned about the impending doom coming on the heels of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, which were for him only the “logical” (in an illogical sense) conclusion of the divorce of humanity from the land that enclosure laws (one of the greatest evils ever perpetrated) presaged and assured. Every page of his books drips with common sense and uncommon wisdom, as we see in this passage concerning “the conquest of nature”:
“In the interests of commerce and that science attached to commerce, it has rifled the world of its natural fauna and flora, reduced and potentially exhausted its natural resources, dislocated its natural balances and violated its natural beauty…. It is not surprising that religion, crushed between these steel rollers, ceased to be the bread of ultimate reality and emerged as the lifeless dough of a sanctimonious nonentity.”
Freedom and the Spirit by Nicolai Berdyaev
Berdyaev was one fiery spirit. Born in Kiev in 1874, he was a devout Marxist before defecting to a radical Christianity after he opposed the totalitarian ethos of the Bolsheviks. As a reward, he was arrested and later forced into exile. Freedom is an important theme in his works and a radical spirit haunts every sentence of his work. He was equally critical of political and religious dogmatism and profoundly inspired by the mysticism of Jacob Boehme. I chose Freedom and the Spirit because it is the first of his books I read, but all of his books bear the same quality. And not enough people read them. Sophiology haunts Berdyaev as does a mystical eschatology (he did, alas, suffer through the Bolshevik Revolution, two World Wars, and the growing specter of Communism). He knew slavery, which allowed his knowledge of freedom to flower:
“I have come to Christ through liberty and through an intimate experience of the paths of freedom. My Christian faith is not a faith based on habit or tradition. It was won through an experience of the inner life of a most painful character. I knew no compulsion in my religious life, and I had no experience of authoritarianism either in faith or in the sphere of religious devotion…. Freedom has brought me to Christ and I know of no other path leading to Him.”
Philosophy of Economy by Sergei Bulgakov
Bulgakov, like his friend and compatriot Berdyaev, was also a Communist—and an atheist—and a Marxist economist, no less, before returning to the Orthodox faith of his childhood (his father was a priest) and eventually served as a priest in the Russian diaspora in Paris after being exiled from his homeland. Theologians have been interested in Bulgakov for some time, but this early work on economics is perhaps his least read. In it he proposes the idea of a sophianic economy, one characterized by wholeness and life, not death (the only thing sold by other forms of ecomonia in his opinion). With the world’s economies now in a state of extreme implosion, perhaps it is time to turn to Fr. Sergei once again:
“The empirical world is immersed in ‘process,’ in time and space, in history, and as such is imperfect and disharmonious; yet, like humanity itself, it is never wholly separated from a higher metaphysical reality, from the divine Sophia that ever soars above the world, illuminating it through reason, through beauty, through...economy and culture. Natura naturata with its mask of death still remains a creation of the natura naturans and, though they are in actu separate, they remain eternally linked in potentia. The world as cosmos and the empirical world, Sophia and humanity, maintain a living interaction, like a plant’s nourishment through its roots. Sophia, partaking of the cosmic activity of the Logos, endows the world with divine forces, raises it from chaos to cosmos.”
The Plato Papers by Peter Ackroyd
British writer and biographer Peter Ackroyd’s Plato Papers is a seriously funny and whimsically philosophical examination of the problems inherent in language, in historicity, and in epistemology. I’ve used it in introductory philosophy courses and it is an extreme delight. Taking place in 38th century London, the story tells of the orator Plato’s lectures on historical topics and his own doubts about what he—or anyone—is able to know. In one of his orations, Plato addresses the work On the Origin of Species by Charles D— whom his society suspects to be Charles Dickens (since the only surviving copy of the text ends at the “D” of the last name, the rest being obscured). What follows is a brilliant send-up of “scholarship”:
“It opens with a statement by the hero of the narrative—‘When on board HMS Beagle, as a naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts...’— who then proceeds to tell his remarkable story. By observing bees, and pigeons, and various other creatures around him, he manages to create within his own mind an entire world of such complexity that eventually he believes it to be real. This is reminiscent of another fiction we have recovered, Don Quixote, in which the protagonist is similarly deluded. The quixotic hero of The Origin, however, is portrayed as being obsessed with ‘struggle,’ ‘competition,’ and ‘death by natural selection,’ in a manner both morbid and ludicrous. He pretends to be exact in his calculations but then declares that ‘I have collected a long list of such cases but here, as before, I lie under a great disadvantage in not being able to give them.’ This wonderfully comic remark is succeeded by one no less rich in inadvertent humour: ‘It is hopeless,’ he states, ‘to attempt to convince anyone of the truth of this proposition without giving the long array of facts I have collected, and which cannot possibly be here introduced.’ Here is a character who, if real, would not have been believed!”
Talking with Angels, a document from Hungary transcribed by Giita Mallasz
This book, first published in 1988, recounts events from 1943 when a group of four young Hungarians encountered sudden locutions from a number of angels (in the understanding of the young people receiving them) while the Nazis drew closer and closer, eventually capturing and murdering three of them for being Jews. It is my understanding that the French actress Juliette Binoche has been trying to turn their story into a film, and I pray she can. It is a fascinating document from a time of trial, and one that can perhaps give us solace as we struggle through this current upheaval. Their trust in the reality of Christ and the ever-present help of the spiritual world is as reassuring as it is comforting. And desperately needed.
Bread is the first sacrament,
wine the second,
fire the third; they are
given to the one who no longer asks.
Your body and His are already one.
The cup in which His blood glows is already yours….
WE WATCH OVER THE ALTAR.
THE ALTAR IS THE EARTH: THE WHOLE EARTH
Michael’s latest books are an edition of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutzand Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at email@example.com See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses.