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Excerpts from Joseph Freeman's Never Call Retreat

It was for her sake that he was occasionally invited to the house, for there was little love lost between Father and Uncle Peter. The latter, a devout Catholic, had objected to his sister’s marrying "a freethinker, a Mason, a downright infidel." This my father never forgave him, especially since he did not like Uncle Peter and called him a "superstitious relic of the Middle Ages."

At some of our Saturday night parties, Uncle Peter would sit in the corner near me, listen to the Babel of argument and drop caustic remarks in an undertone. He would puff hard at his pipe, stroke his walrus mustache and grumble through clouds of smoke:

"Ah, they've found salvation at last. . . . It's all in the magic word new!"

A monarchist and clerical, Uncle Peter was especially irritated becasue he knew that sometimes, after most of the guests had left and a few intimate friends sat down with Father around a fresh bottle of wine, there was even talk about a "new society."

The fact is, my father had begun calling himself a socialist. I doubt whether he belonged to any political party; more likely dramatic criticism had led him from a consideration of social problems as presented in the theater to a consideration of social problems as they appeared in real life. His views on the evils of the old order and the marvels of the new were abstract and for the most part, I suspect, a tribute to a prevailing literary fashion. But my father was an eloquent man; when he denounced the evils of "child labor, imperialist exploitation, poverty, inequality and war," my young heart trembled with a nameless fear and hatred for the prevailing world. On the other hand, his glowing pictures of the future classless society filled me with a wonderful sense of hope and longing, though if anyone had asked me what it was I longed for, I would have had a hard time explaining.

While my parents loved me, they neglected me a great deal, too. Father had to write an article a day for his paper, but into that one piece went months of the most complex social life and all the intricate intrigues of the theater and the literary cafés. I didn’t see him all day; at night I saw him sometimes only after the theater. Mother had little life outside of her husband's; all her time and attention were devoted to furthering and sharing Father's career. Even in the summertime, when we went to the Semmering mountain in the eastern Alps for our vacation, my parents were busy entertaining friends and placating enemies. They were a wonderfully devoted couple, as I look back on them today, I think they are to be envied; but as a child I sometimes secretly resented their neglect. I will not be angry, doctor, if you tell me that I was somewhat jealous of my father. [25]

[. . . .]

"If you did not consider it a trifle," I said, "you might be able to write better poetry. Then, perhaps, you wouldn't like anyone to censor it."

I'm no Milton, if that's what you mean."

"If you were, you would fight as hard as he did for the right to utter your thoughts without that magisterial interference which you find so delightful in Plato."

I opened the, window and looked out into the deserted street. The skies were dark blue and clear and there were brilliant stars over the spires of the great, sleeping town. I began to feel sorry for some of the things I had said. My skepticism, which spared nothing, spared my own thoughts least of all: How can you belittle a giant like Plato who tried to find a way to establish justice among unequals? You know damned well that Kurt submits to the magistrates because he identifies them completely with the best interests of his community. Isn’t it true that great men of action understand the world of fact better than the poets, whose province is the world of truth? Only true law perfects the noblest of dramas. If Kurt knew English history better he might have said to me: how can you look at Milton and not see the immense figure of Cromwell behind him? For the world of fact, Cromwell; for the world of truth, Milton. Yes, Milton never submitted his poems to the censorship of any magistrate and you are asking Kurt to act like a demigod. How many men could bear the loneliness that went with Milton’s grandeur? The great English poet had God to lean on. Kurt does not believe in God, and he needs someone to lean on, someone to resolve his doubts, palliate his sense of guilt with censure, sustain his self-regard with praise. He leans on Hans Bayer the way I once leaned on my father, Uncle Peter, Professor Boucher. Upon whom do you lean now? A shadow called Man--a shadow that may never exist in a future that may never come. Your arrogance is more shameless than Kurt's fear. [194]

[. . . .]

You can understand how it was, doctor. My story of man’s struggle toward democracy had already briefly sketched the rise of man from the amoeba to Amos, and had indicated the atrocities and advances of four thousand years of recorded history from the days when the Assyrians flayed their war prisoners alive and nailed their skins to the walls of their fortresses and Hammurabi issued his enlightened code, to the days when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judaea and the multitudes heard the Sermon on the Mount. And now the amoeba who had grown into a two-legged hunter, a cannibal, a warrior; a slave in the galleys, the fields, the mines; a priest, a poet, a philosopher, a Caesar; this creature which for thousands of years had shed blood copiously in triumph and torrents of tears in despair was now faced with the most tremendous idea that had yet filled the earth with light; that all men are equal in the sight of God and love is the absolute condition of the resurrection and the life. Equality and love and the essential unity of mankind the world over, announced with such felicity and power by St. Paul: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus," and that great luminous phrase which transcends the deadly barriers of race: "And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth."

The most sublime things in Western literature have been written about that idea and people have slit each other's throats and burned each other at the stake to settle the real meaning of the gospel of love, and it would be stupid and unpardonable presumption on my part to do art than indicate its most obvious outlines. But how could I make the readers of my book see the thing in practice? How could I give living shape to the old problem which in the folly of my youth I used to call "the square and the circle"? What single episode could I select which would show the effect of the gospel of mercy and justice upon the amoeba which became first a cannibal, then a warrior seething with wrath and vengeance? How could I make vivid the power of contrition and forgiveness which the new faith set up like a mighty, luminous dam against the furious seas of blood and tears raging across the world? And how could I make real the most terrible chastisement which the church had at its disposal--the power to cast the sinner out of the fold, to exile him into the greatest loneliness known to man, leaving him utterly abandoned, utterly hopeless in the outer darkness whose borders led to infinity? And how could I make anyone today believe that this awful power affected the greatest as well as the humblest? It was at this moment that the second story about St. Ambrose and the Emperor Theodosius leaped to my mind, and I set it down hastily in my notebook. [387]

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