The Living Statue of Liberty vs. the Old Junos (and Jesus on the Cross)

Robert Wright has recently given up blogging at The Atlantic to write a book about Buddhism. His parting admonitions on foreign policy include these two sensible gems:

[1] The world’s biggest single problem is the failure of people or groups to look at things from the point of view of other people or groups–i.e. to put themselves in the shoes of “the other.” I’m not talking about empathy in the sense of literally sharing people’s emotions–feeling their pain, etc. I’m just talking about the ability to comprehend and appreciate the perspective of the other. So, for Americans, that might mean grasping that if you lived in a country occupied by American troops, or visited by American drone strikes, you might not share the assumption of many Americans that these deployments of force are well-intentioned and for the greater good. You might even get bitterly resentful. You might even start hating America.

[2] Grass-roots hatred is a much greater threat to the United States–and to nations in general, and hence to world peace and stability–than it used to be. The reasons are in large part technological, and there are two main manifestations: (1) technology has made it easier for grass-roots hatred to morph into the organized deployment (by non-state actors) of massively lethal force; (2) technology has eroded authoritarian power, rendering governments more responsive to popular will, hence making their policies more reflective of grass roots sentiment in their countries. The upshot of these two factors is that public sentiment toward America abroad matters much more (to America’s national security) than it did a few decades ago.

This past week I’ve been dipping in and out of Samuel Huntington’s famous book, The Clash of Civilizations, and Wright’s parting shots dovetail rather well with it: we must figure out how to live peacefully with people formed by civilizational forces quite different from our own, and to do so with wisdom. Do you suppose we’ll be able to do it?

I think of Western civilization since the Enlightenment as a seductive modern woman–the New Woman, Lady Liberty in New York’s harbour. So long as she exists–and she will always exist, her milk has been spilled–she will draw the old civilizations slowly but surely into her orbit. She will be, as Jesus once was, the stone over which the others continue to trip. But she doesn’t need to exercise force to achieve this. Her mere existence constitutes the inescapable gravitational pull.

Henry James’s short story, “The Last of the Valerii,” is helpful here. Written in the late 1800s, it is set in Rome. The narrator is the godfather of an American woman married to an Italian Count. The couple lives in a villa, and while the godfather is staying with them, it enters the woman’s head—her name is Martha—to have excavators dig up the yard in search of ancient gods and goddesses.

This creates a serious problem because the excavators find one: an exquisitely preserved Juno. The marble statue, taller than the average woman, is hoisted from the ground and set on a mound of rocks where it is presented to the Count’s wife. But it is not the woman who falls under the idol’s spell in delight, but her Italian husband. He becomes obsessed with the old Juno, going so far as to offer it a blood sacrifice.

To save her marriage, the American wife contemplates joining her Italian husband in Juno worship, but her godfather wisely advises her against this, for it is not she that is the fiction, but the Juno. She is the living woman, the Juno is mere stone.

When, however, her husband’s Juno worship does not stop, and her gravitational pull over him does not appear to be winning him away from the Juno, she decides to bury the idol when he is asleep. This breaks the spell. The husband returns his attention to his living Juno:

He hesitated a moment, as if her very forgiveness kept the gulf open between them, and then he strode forward, fell on his two knees, and buried his head in her lap.

This, I submit, is how the world is going writ large. People belonging to older civilizations and traditions are resisting the Enlightenment, but because it is alive, most will ultimately come around to embracing it, burying the old nostalgic gods in their backyards.

But then, of course, the spectre of the old Junos will haunt us in a new round of religious and nationalist revival because the contemporary world of urbanism, consumerism, liberty, democracy, science, and technology is unsatisfying. There will always be people, even if in the minority, digging up the old Junos. And who can blame them? We’re in a bad existential situation. There is no escape from our embeddedness in the vast and ancient cosmic silence–and from suffering, history, and death.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” asks Mark’s Jesus.

Jesus on the cross will not go away because we’re all on the damn thing with him. He is also a Juno giving push-back to the Statue of Liberty.

I can see why Robert Wright is moving from writing about international affairs to doing a book about Buddhism. Somehow we’ve got to come to a greater understanding about the world and figure out how to be kind to one another in an absurd situation.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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