Monday, July 20, 2009

Hat On Your Head, Hope In Your Heart

Those of us who laughed and nodded our way through Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, yet put the book down thinking the author had somehow (well, entirely) missed the point, have a counter-text in Angels and Ages: Adam Gopnik's beautiful little book, ostensibly about Lincoln and Darwin, but really about how liberal minds make sense of the divine, that is, the immense thing left over once they make sense of the facts--a book as valuable for its tone as its arguments, indeed, a book whose main argument is about the tone Lincoln and Darwin needed to be trenchant and, therefore, loved.

I won't try to recapitulate Gopnik's way of getting into his subject. I'll only say that he leaves you understanding something those of us who grew up in Montreal, and came of age day-dreaming our way through McGill's Stephen Leacock Building, knew from the air--especially given the contrast between the Victorian atmospherics on the campus and the clannish residues of rural, ultra-montaine Quebec (and, for that matter, immigrant, Jewish, St. Urbain Street). It is that liberal civilization is an achievement. Liberty derives from the way we collect and adjust to evidence. It derives from the way we prepare for and argue a case in court. We are otherwise lost in our families, instincts and appetites.

"You have to be taught to hate," we hear from "South Pacific." Nonsense. Every child knows how to hate. You have to be taught toleration, which is not a simple thing, and takes years of learning moral tact. And yet what an enlightenment education cannot teach you, or even explain, is the need to assume ordinary human dignity: the personal poetic that distills from one's culture, the desire for fugitive truth. For this you need a leap of (there, I've said it) faith. "There is more to man than the breath in his body, if only the hat on his head, and the hope in his heart," Gopnik ends his book. Every sentence that gets you to that succinct conclusion is worth your time.