A Post-Enlightenment Advent?
From the "Right on Carmine and Bleecker" series
(The Remnant, December 25, 2007)
If you happen to be in New York City this Advent Season and want to hop on the subway to visit Greenwich Village, the West Fourth Street station is probably your most suitable destination. Take your first right upon emerging from its southwest exit and you will find yourself on Carmine Street, quickly passing Joe's Pizzeria at number seven and then my 1890 tenement house two doors away. Cross in front of the Village Bistro, make an immediate right again down Bleecker before hitting the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii, and in one minute you will arrive at Rocco's Cafe. Tug open its all too heavy door, sit, order a cappuccino and a cannoli (they will fill it fresh for you on the spot), relax, and enjoy. But keep your eyes open. The show will give you lots of food for thought about God, the world, and the future. At least it always does so for me.
Rocco's is my "office", my workplace from September to May, in a neighborhood with many more congenial Catholic counterrevolutionary inhabitants than people living outside of Manhattan might ever imagine. Alas, I do have to limit my visits to the cafe to afternoons on the fifty-six days a year that I take the ferry out to Staten Island to "teach" at St. John's University. I also have to interrupt them on Saturdays and Sundays to bring the children to their music lessons near Central Park and the entire family to Mass at St. Agnes by Grand Central Station. But how can I complain? I am among the last of that vanishing breed, the tenured professor with an easy schedule, and I often get to stay rooted here from the moment of my sunrise double espresso until my minute-long "commute" home in the evening.
That first jolt of java is slightly delayed on the mornings that my wife accompanies my elder son Nicholas to his boxing gym down the road, just south of the old World Trade Center, and I have to baby-sit for Olivia and Peter until they return for the start of the home schooling day. When the weather is warm, I also regularly leave Rocco's a little earlier in the evening, in order to sit on my front stoop around the corner with a big, strong, gin and tonic, a bag of nuts, and a copy of Plato's Republic. Still, however long or short it may be, my daily presence at my beloved Village cafe is as certain an event as Immanuel Kant's predictable stroll in Koenigsberg in eastern Prussia.
In fact, Rocco's is necessary to the survival of all of the members of my unshakably urban household. Does my wife have to go out to do the laundry on Cornelia Street? So what? She knows that she can drop the children off to finish their lessons or draw alongside me during the time that she is gone. Do I have an appointment with Gino the barber on Greenwich Avenue? No problem. Rocco the younger, Federico the waiter, Jessica at the counter, and Joe the espresso man will keep my table with my laptop and my books reserved, indignantly shooing off all unwitting trespassers. Does the carbon monoxide alarm go off in our second floor flat? Why worry? The kids can stay with Maria Elena, young Rocky's aunt, while we pow-wow with the firemen from Houston Street. So close is my own relationship with the place that my children insist that the aroma of cookies and pastries which comes home to dinner with me every night will never leave my body again, even when dead and buried deeply below the Cross Bronx Expressway next to my Sicilian grandfather. "Let's go see daddy!" four-year-old Peter said last week on one of the few days that I was at the university. "He isn't there", my wife casually answered. "Then who else could be?" he retorted, in absolute bewilderment and even downright embarrassment.
Actually, many, many people, the neighborhood regulars first of all. These include the starlet who lives on Morton Street, across from the cafe, just to the left passed Murray's Cheese, Faicco's Pork Store, and Joanne's herb shop; pall-bearers on break from funeral masses at Pompeii, followed by the parish priests and brother; janitors, teachers, children, and parents from the parochial school next door; a refrigerator repairman with a tolerance for caffeine so staggering that he alone could support Rocco and his extended family, both in Brooklyn and Calabria; an Italian gentleman who gives me a copy of La Repubblica each day and laments the appalling condition of my grimy glasses and shabby academic clothing; the old lady muttering repeated complaints about some cake she purchased around the time of the fall of Saigon; a landlord from nearby Jones Street, close to the Florence Meat Market where I buy my Newport Steaks, who stopped here for solace upon discovering a tenant dead in his bathtub--a Village Jean-Paul Marat without a Charlotte Corday to blame for his unexpected demise--and has not left since; that Peruvian who insists that it is always Wednesday; two Munchkins from the Abruzzi; and, finally, a small but vocal group of virulently anti-Israel Jews who enter and leave in a permanent state of reactionary agitation.
But outsiders abound as well. Joe pours coffee for deputations from every corner of our Global Fatherland, catering to all of their often quite peculiar whims. Some of the people who pop in gawk at the display cases as though they had never seen or tasted anything but a Hostess cupcake or a Scooter Pie. Others are real cognoscenti, food freaks who rush here from the airport in the time between two flights to buy a year's supply of marzipan to be shipped back to their isolated mountain greeneries. Iberians and Greeks, Japanese and Brazilians, Indians and Arabs---all check in to see what's what, though they are hopelessly outnumbered by Italians happy to find a place where they can crowd around the bar to down their breakfast "home style", at impossibly breakneck Roman speed. There simply is no such thing as a barrier to the outsider as far as Rocco's is concerned, so much so that I have even convinced my son Peter that King Louis XV trundles over from Versailles to enjoy his coffee break here.
I am not alone in occupying a Stammtisch at the cafe. About a dozen of us remain for hours going about our varied business. There are anti-Americanist writers like myself. A little flock of accountants who got a life for themselves by doing their daily combat with petty numbers in this sugary enclave. The owner of a specialty sword shop across Sixth Avenue next to the funeral parlor and facing the funky and outrageously expensive nihilist private school. A highly educated bartender who prepares himself for tense dealings with the drinking public on his evening shift by playing the role of customer and reading texts that remind him of the music of the spheres.
Most of us migrated to Rocco's together, some twelve years ago, when another favorite spot, the Cafe Lucca, on Father Demo Square at the corner of Carmine and Bleecker, unexpectedly closed down. Oh how we cried on the night it was shut! Happy again now, we all sit in regular spots at our separate but equally traditional tables, lined one behind the other, parallel to the coffee and pastry counter. All of us face streetside. All blurt out comments about events and clients, either to our comrades or to the owners and staff, always in appropriately loud New York voices, though disguised in Italian, French, or Spanish if their use seems necessary to hide the vehemence of the opinions we express. Everyone feels part of one big neighborhood family, and, strange to say in our highly atomistic and anti-social Imperium, everyone really is. I had long ago read about scenes like this in Balzac's Human Comedy, though I never dreamed that I would have the privilege of becoming a major actor in one of them.
Now there is a good reason why I am devoting so much time to this description of the Village cafe and street scene that provides the stuff of my daily existence from September to May. I am doing so because both our revered editor and I thought that it might be worthwhile to write future articles on topics of Traditionalist Catholic interest based upon themes that suggest themselves from observation of this instructive environment. Hence, my desire to fix its character firmly in Remnant readers' minds, once and for all.
Ironically, much that I now see around me is not that different from what I might view from June through August when I am in Europe. This is not primarily due to New York's role as the "capital" of an ever more homogeneous cultural empire extending to the farthest ends of the globe. Similarities of ambience are chiefly owed to the reality that there simply seem to be more European visitors in my arrondisement this Advent--and elegantly dressed ones to boot---than there are neighbors. They are here because the collapse of the dollar has transformed New York City and the United States as a whole into one enormous Third World playground for them. Even old friends from Oxford in quite straightened conditions are arriving, just to do their Christmas shopping. And what's more, the employees of the bars of the Bezirk, my bartending buddy among them, are relieved that they are here, eager to "pour them rum 'n' coca cola, workin' for the Old Word Euro".
Why the eagerness? Because increased tourism from the European Union is just about the only happy economic news in the Village this Advent. Everything that long prospered in my neighborhood, and also helped mightily to make it honorably distinct, has been disappearing, bit-by-bit, since the turn of the millennium. The downward momentum has picked up even more in the past year or two. When I first moved here a quarter century ago there was an egg store down the street open several hours of a morning for only a couple of days a week. Now, not only such oddities have vanished, but a good half of our necessary "mom and pop" stores, and almost all of our many "bring your own bottle" restaurants along with them.
The Portuguese fruit and vegetable place and Joe's Pizzeria at its previous location at the Carmine and Bleecker crossroads (easily recognizable to consumers of mass culture from Spiderman II) explain the reason. Both went the way of all flesh when the rent for these truly miniscule cubbyholes was raised by its new absentee landlord to $18,000 per month, and that for only a one-year contract at a pop. Holdovers, such as the stores I have noted by name above, generally remain because their proprietors own the building they are in, continue to possess some respect for the common good, and refuse to speculate with their real estate gold mines to the detriment of their fellow regulars as Rocco's.
A good number of the abandoned shops still remain vacant, giving some spots in the otherwise all too noisy "hood" an unusual Ghost Town pall. Those that have been reoccupied have been taken up either by businesses catering to appetites unrecognizable before 1960 or seemingly insatiable desires for pharmaceutical products, banking needs, fingernail care, tattooing, and painfully boring or hideously revolting t-shirts. Many of these establishments, already themselves part of ugly chains, are destined to be gobbled up by more Godzilla-like enterprises---all intent on joining indissolubly together in massive shopping-scrapers what both the well being as well as the simple entertainment of men and women out for a walk really meant to be kept forever asunder.
When, exactly, was it (the sight of all such endless CVSs and wannabe Walmarts makes me ask) that we stopped "making fun" of what we once considered a Soviet calamity---namely, the need to make all purchases at one, dull, monster store, like G.U.M. in Moscow---and began to praise visits to such lifeless Leviathans as the grandest achievement of God's own free market? Probably at the same moment that the flattening out of male and female into a single, indistinguishable, hermaphrodite drudge ceased to be viewed as an Orwellian totalitarian nightmare and metastasized into a laudable pluralist goal instead. But, once again, as Chris Ferrara and I have often noted, there is no surprise in all of this. Both Marxist and Capitalist materialism are but flip sides to the same Enlightenment coin, their Cold War quarrel itself having been, in Dr. Jeffrey Bond's words, merely "an 'in-house' battle" over who could reduce man to a lackluster, one-dimensional, producing and consuming animal most quickly and most successfully. Our side won this lugubrious contest. But an efficient G.U.M. by any other name is just as soul killing, and my Village, like the rest of the world, is paying the price---by watching the lights go off in all the little nooks and crannies unsuitable to global market analysis and hated by ideologues, tyrants, and dullards of every sort.
Seeing the foreign bargain hunters cavorting amidst the wreckage of the once both prosperous and normal local economy reminds me that Advent is the season preparing for the birth of One destined to bring about the rise and the fall of many in Israel. It is an interesting historical fact, as Professor Gerd Tellenbach points out in The Church in Western Europe from the Tenth to the Early Twelfth Century (Cambridge University Press, 1993), which deals both with the worst of medieval chaos and the Clunaic-Gregorian Reform, that the victory of a rising force can begin to be discerned precisely at the moment when its opponent's star seems, at least superficially, to be at its height. Everything I love, both sacred and secular, appears to be in ruins, brought low by the philosophes and their heirs---that unholy union of Lockes and Rousseaus, Whigs and the Radicals, Liberals and false Conservatives who, in Louis Veuillot's words, have never conserved anything but the record of their own impotence. But the star of Bethlehem is indeed once again unmistakably rising over this wreckage, since those who engineered it did so only to lay bare the barrenness of their own vision and prepare its re-emergence.
The unnatural Enlightenment star was bound to fall at some time; its weaker manifestation more dramatically, and its most successful with the biggest sudden thud. In rejecting all influence of supernatural and universal ideas over temporal life, the neon light of the philosophes illuminated a distorted image of the character of daily existence and where that existence was headed. Everything that has been built upon this distorted image has twisted reality still further out of shape, preparing mining shafts for individuals and societies to inhabit much deeper into the back wall of the cave than Plato ever dreamed possible. Our distorted "enlightened" world, being false, had to end by proving itself "impotent to pronounce a word that was not incoherent, to move a step which was not made infamous by injustice and wickedness, giving error no longer any other support upon the earth than the appetizing bait of interests and the brutality of force" ("Miss Cunningham in Tuscany", La Civilta Cattolica, Series II, Volume IV, 1853, 258).
But the times they are a'changin', and no longer in the way that Bob Dylan depicted. Oh one does, of course, still hear the vast majority of people repeating the usual drivel about God and the world, but that is to be expected of them and means ultimately very little. Men will generally say publicly what is demanded of them. It is their private opinions that really count. Many of those whom I know truly well and meet each day---some of the cafe regulars, members of the Stammtisch, or neighbors and fellow tenants stopping by to share some opinions while I down my gin and tonic---are beginning to saying things that I would never have expected them to utter not that long ago at all. They are saying these things quietly because they are aware that in our "government of laws and not of men" the forces that dictate all too firmly what this absurd phrase means can badly hurt them if they are shouted out too loudly.
"It's just never going to be the same" is the Java Jive refrain echoing through Rocco's and my Village ears this Advent Season. That refrain says a lot, because it punctuates verses in which are listed one after the other of the damaging consequences of the Enlightenment. Although the war and sophist politics plays a role in them, the destruction of neighborhoods in the name of an individualism manipulated by the strong is the alpha and the omega of the whole sad ballad. Without even knowing the word "Enlightenment" or the names of its naturalist heroes, many of those around me are for the first time in their lives identifying the political, social, and economic "truths" that they live by as myths pure and simple. My historical analysis of what the Java Jive refrain really means is this: "The Enlightenment has shown all of its fangs, and it cannot even give the me the outward shell of its lying benefits any longer." What is coming next, these same friends and neighbors do not venture to guess. They want something different, but do not really know what it is that could satisfy their hopes. The grace of Christ has shown us what to tell them, so long as we, too, read the handwriting on the collapsing Enlightenment wall and understand that this includes the demise of Americanism and Pluralism as well.
Today, the day that I am finishing this article, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the day chosen by Blessed Pope Pius IX for the publication of his anti-Enlightenment Syllabus of Errors in 1864. Before I leave Rocco's, I will lift my evening espresso cup to toast what I think is coming next: the rising star of Bethlehem; the star of Christ; the star that our opponents think is still on the path to extinction. I see that star's rise in everything from my friends outraged and questioning bewilderment over the collapse of the neighborhood to the string of radical-bashing, tradition-friendly statements coming from our reigning pontiff---no matter how much his words may be contested or weakly implemented.
Exactly how that star will rise and for what purpose, I cannot say. My eyes and my ears still offer me endless local scenes of Christendom's collapse and mind boggling moral decay, telling me that the newly rising star of Bethlehem will illuminate a work that is primarily one of punishment and cleansing. On the other hand, those same eyes and ears also see a horde of simple natives and hard-working immigrants for whom John Locke and Adam Smith and Jean Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx mean absolutely nothing; neighbors who have approached the pastor of Our Lady of Pompeii with requests for a Traditional Mass; children from the sixty home-schooling families in the West Village alone, some of whom are eagerly studying their Latin and their Classics, and all of whom are hoping for a better future rather than for Armageddon. Whatever 2008 may bring, my heart gives me grounds to believe the following: that the false lights of the philosophes are going out, both here and (even more!) in other parts of the globe; that they will not be lit again forever. This, for me at least, is the Village's first post-Enlightenment Advent. And with it may come realization of the truth that:
God ... has established one sole order composed of two parts: nature exalted by grace, and grace vivifying nature. He has not confused these two orders, but He has coordinated them. One force alone is the model and one thing alone the motive principle and ultimate end of divine creation: Christ ... All of the rest is subordinated to Him. The goal of human existence is to form the Mystical Body of Christ, of this Head of the elect, of this Eternal Priest, of this King of the immortal Kingdom, and the society of those who will eternally glorify him. ("The Encyclical of 8 December", La Civilta Cattolica, Series VI, Volume 1, 1865, 287-288.)
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