My academic studies have always been sacred to me. Nevertheless, the times now demand that any Catholic knowledgeable in some specific field dedicate himself, in all humility, to something different; to awakening a fear of what is happening around us healthy enough to inspire his fellow believers with a zealous spiritual and intellectual outrage leading to militant action of all kinds. Hence, my modest effort to put what I know of the Church’s History to an immediate practical use through what I expect to be a series of “Letters From Hell”, coming out as often as the muses sing to me. You have before you the first installment of this series entitled “They Die and Yet They Smile”.
Allow me to begin by insisting that my overall title has not been chosen idly. Always having had a perhaps too easygoing attitude towards personal as well as public problems, I have never been one to toss around the word “diabolical” flippantly. Now I must. It is not I who has changed. It is the situation that has altered, so much so that even I in my innate frivolity have to face up to it.
What we are living through today is absolutely satanic, and all the more dangerously so in that the diabolical disorientation that has been aided from below has spread throughout the entire globe seemingly without warning. So fast was it, that no real time was provided for healthy minds and souls to mobilize and organize a serious coordinate defense against it. In any case, the consequence is that I now feel as though I am “living in hell”, in the sense of being completely surrounded by powerful, conscious, demonic forces whose identity is often difficult to prove, but which are all too clearly active through their fellow travellers. And all of these together are determined to thwart the hunt for weapons to defeat them that is being conducted by everyone that I consider to be on my side of the fence.
Similarly, let me also add that whim played no role in the choice of the specific title of this first installment of my “Letters From Hell” either. For the phrase “They Die and Yet They Smile” is an historical one taken from the work of Salvian (c. 400-490), a Christian writer from southern Gaul, entitled De gobernatione dei (c. 400-490) whose meaning is all to applicable to our plight in our current diabolical environment. Why? Because Salvian had to do deal with the horror of a population composed to a large degree of T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men”, ready to die “not with a bang but a whimper”, bringing down their entire civilization with them. And we, unfortunately, mutatis mutandis, are confronted with the same nightmare that stirred his apostolic zeal.
A crucial moral failing of the collapsing Fifth Century Empire was the seemingly total indifference of much of the Roman population to any understanding or concern for the greater common good whatsoever. Highborn men in the Western part of the Empire foolishly worked to rid themselves of generals who could have saved Italy from Gothic invasion because they were not part of their particular senatorial clique. Ambitious nobles in the East had no qualms about stirring up the popular Constantinopolitan circus horse racing factions to riotous behavior to ensure their political victory at the expense of the State. And men of all classes, from the highest to the lowest, regularly displayed an irritation with hearing about anything that might interfere with their routine both of daily work as well as daily “fun”, innocent or otherwise.
Who thinks of the Empire? This was the query of St. Augustine in The City of God, expressing an awakened Catholic’s absolute bewilderment over the behavior of a population still generally pagan in its thoughtless passions, despite its recent conversion to Christianity in name more than reality. This was evoked by his astonishment over the fact that the refugees arriving from Rome in 410 were more interested in the theater schedule and the fortunes of their favorite stage actors in Carthage than they were moved to any anguish over the unprecedented sacking of the Eternal City—their city. Too bad for them that that sack and what it portended for everyone in the entirety of the ever-weakening Western Roman Empire well indicated that the theater season in general was bound for a pretty rough ride for the foreseeable future.
It was with reference to a similar phenomenon somewhat later in the century that an alarmed Salvian recorded the total cluelessness of his fellow citizens as what was happening around them. His particular province of Southern Gaul was under imminent threat of barbarian invasion—an invasion that had been faced by the citizens of a city elsewhere not through their manning the walls against it but by their gathering in the circus to listen to a rhetorical contest of speakers reciting speeches of Cicero against the Cataline Conspiracy from centuries beforehand. Were his fellow Gallic Romans nervous? Not at all! He lamented that they seemed to wander through the day with “smiles” on their faces, happy with the satisfaction of their immediate petty tasks and passions, some innocent, some not so, even though anyone with eyes to see could realize that they were dying as a viable Roman community.
Let me get back to the current situation with the note that the idea for this series and its first installment came to my mind while I was taking a walk along the Hudson riverfront from my neighborhood in Greenwich Village down to the end of Manhattan Island at Battery Park on July 4th. There is a certain irony in this fact, given that I had been visiting the area almost every day since the current invasion from Hell began in order to maintain my sanity. This is because the riverfront is one of the very few modern New York urban projects really successful in creating an attractive environment for human beings to mingle, have a snack and a drink, and regain their calm after a rough day at work. That calm seemed to me to be all the more enhanced by the general happiness of the individuals and families that I regularly encountered strolling through its gardens, next to its marinas, and, once the weather improved, picnicking on the large lawns giving out towards the river—especially on the Fourth of July.
But it was then that the memory of Salvian returned, his horrified reaction spoke more ominously to me personally, and the onset of an honest to goodness panic attack sent me fleeing to the security of my apartment. It was really only on the wretched hour hike back to my own city block that I fully realized just what the author of De gubernatione dei had to contend with, just how possible it was that I myself could perhaps become a modern example of his late Gallic fellow citizens, and just how much of a responsibility I had to warn everyone I could of the threat at hand.
For what I was surrounded by on July 4th was a population that was “dying while it was smiling”; enjoying itself on the road to the general doom of all. It became clear to me that this happy throng of individual persons, friends, and families had learned to live with the diabolical disorientation without further speculation on its nature and where it was taking their city, country, and world as a whole.
Yes, some of the party people eating and drinking on their picnic blankets had actually taken off their rubber gloves and face diapers. But all of them had their Chains of Compliance readily at hand to ensure submission to the demands of Dr. Faustus of the CDC—the man my friend David White calls the contemporary Oracle of Delphi—the instant they stood up from their holiday break to join the masked victims already on the walkways heading home. They could not in their wildest imagination grasp that they were slaves whose masters had liberated from thinking about the broad picture they had been painted into, grateful to the devil for his having let them tan their lower jaws and hands for a brief moment in the sun, and now ready to reattach their fetters and do his further will. They had learned to be happy in their servitude; a servitude which will get more and more demanding until the day they joyfully take some dangerous vaccine and put a chip in their bodies enabling them to be tracked down anywhere on the globe to complete their abolition as creatures of God.
One other image came into my mind as I—maskless, gloveless, encountering the occasional reproach from one of the more vocal of the slaves for daring to free myself from bondage, and knowing from experience that no debate on this subject was permissible—made my miserable way. It was an image of all of the documentaries that I had seen dealing with daily life in Soviet Russia or in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. All these showed what also appeared to be normal people going about their ordinary personal and familial tasks and diversions, eating, drinking, swimming, playing sports, dancing, looking for all the world as though they were in the most pleasant of circumstances imaginable. They, too, had accepted living under conditions of diabolical disorientation and were generally impervious to any argument that they were “dying while they were smiling”. Everything was the same on the Fourth of July but with Americans in the lead roles. Dr. Faustus, the Delphic Oracle would take care of the common good so long as they obeyed him and the forces that he himself may not have any idea that he is serving.
We believing Catholics, along with right reasoning people of varied other backgrounds, have got to be aware that the mob is more and more used to living in a world where, to quote Gounot’s Faust, “Satan conduit le bal” (Satan conducts the dance). That mob more and more is baffled by what we could possibly have to complain about it. Our job in confronting this horror is to try to find some way to make that mob see the Truth. But what my walk through a seemingly joyful antechamber of Hades reminded me on the Fourth of July was that we are fighting in the long run against forces more powerful than we are and that if we do not each day put on the Breastplate of St. Patrick those forces quite possibly could lead us to take a turn on the ballroom floor along with the other slaves and try to convince others around us that things are “really not that bad at all”.
But thing are that bad. Our neighbors are allowing the entirety of civilization to go into the Netherworld not just with a whimper but a smile on their faces.
Prof. John C. Rao
St. John’s University , New York City