Berns on Berrigan

I studied the writings of both Harry Jaffa and Walter Berns intently when I was in the process of abandoning liberalism and becoming conservative. I think I read just about everything each had published as of 1973. Fortunately for me, that included Jaffa’s great book on Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided.

I consumed Bern’s writings on the Constitution and the First Amendment, but I especially enjoyed Berns’s essay on Daniel Berrigan, published by National Review in its November 9, 1973 number. Borrowing from Berrigan’s own tribute to himself, Berns called the essay “The ‘essential soul’ of Daniel Berrigan.” If you know anything of Berrigan or the time, you will enjoy this, although it is utterly timeless in its depiction of the self-infatuation of the left:

It is Dan’s talent for publicity that accounts for the swiftness of his elevation to the ranks of the exalted. Unlike [Thomas] More, Dan has written a play about his own martyrdom—probably the first to do so—in which he is likened to Jesus Christ and Socrates. Thus he serves as his own chronicler, being unwilling, the times being what they are, to wait for an apostle or a Plato or Xenophon, or to trust them with the nuances of the material. The Trial of the Catonsville Nine has been a smash hit in theaters in Europe and Canada, as well as in the United States; and now, thanks to Gregory Peck and the actor who plays Dan, and managed to catch his “essential soul,” there is the film, capable of bringing the message to millions. The third act is the important act; here the nine defendants speak to the court and, through the agency of Dan’s poetry, to Gregory Peck and the rest of mankind. Dan sees to it that his brother Philip speaks first and that he himself speaks last, sort of wrapping it up for the defense, and not only last, but longest, getting 14 and a half pages to John Hogan’s one and a half, for example, or Mary Moylan’s three and a half. Anyone can burn a draft card, but only a poet can be trusted to immortalize the event, because only the poet, or someone like him, can see its full significance. Only the poet will know what to say in the dramatic presentation of the trial, because only the poet can see the significance of The Trial….

It is surely not the profundity of his political thought that accounts for his fame and the esteem in which he is held…. The fact is, it does not make sense; there was no relation between his analysis of the political situation and the action he proposed by way of remedy or solution….

The Trial of the Catonsville Nine may be a dramatic and propagandistic triumph, but its poetry, and the license enjoyed by poets (in general and by this one in particular), conceals the absurd or, alternatively, the pernicious character of the doctrine it espouses….

The Dark Night of Resistance won the Thomas More Medal as the “most distinguished contribution to Catholic Literature in 1971,” and it will not do for an Episcopalian political scientist to question this award or to suggest that 1971 must have been a particularly poor year for Catholic literature. Dan recounts in this book how in Hanoi, where he had gone to assist in the repatriation of the first American fliers released by the North Vietnamese, he experienced one of his rather frequent spiritual awakenings, this one brought on when he encountered Buddha, the “many faces of Buddha,” at a time when “the United States of America was taking an Infant Jesus to its religious heart, changing His underpants on major feast days. A culture of infancy savored and prolonged; a religion for infants.”

One might have thought that the Thomas More awards committee would be put off by such talk—I mean, it certainly does not seem very Catholic, or even very Christian, not, at least, to someone brought up on the Book of Common Prayer; but in the day of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair and Oh! Calcutta! one must be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that there is some truth in the old saying that all roads lead to Rome. Still, Christianity a “religion for infants”? Nowadays you get Christian prizes for that?

The essay is excerpted here and reprinted in Berns’s In Defense of Liberal Democracy.


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