This story is fiction. The city of Clifton, and the University of Clifton, exist only in my imagination. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. These stories have as their main character a sexually active gay college student. If this is offensive to you, or if it is illegal in your area, or if you are under age, please leave now.
This story involves a search for personal acceptance, worth, and meaning. There is a religious element in these stories. If you don't like that, maybe now is a good time to leave.
My stories develop slowly. If you're in a hurry, this is probably not for you.
Thanks to Colin for editing.
Constructive comments are welcome on my e-mail at email@example.com.
Bryce, Chapter 36 - History Lesson
It was Tuesday evening, and both Bryce and Damon were seated in the reception area, on call during the business meeting of Sigma Alpha Tau fraternity. As nothing seemed to be happening, the guys seemed at a loss to find something to talk about, just passing the time aimlessly. The topic of the confusion between Henry Clay and his cousin Cassius Clay came up, to the amusement of most of the pledges. But Damon made a remark which caused Bryce to ponder the implications. He said, "This other Clay (meaning Henry) is one of the reasons I feel no part of things when American history is taught."
Later that night, seated in a booth at Pat's Tavern, Bryce raised the issue again. "Did you mean what you said earlier this evening about not feeling part of American history?"
"Sure. As far as I can see, until some time in the 1960s most of American history is the story of white people oppressing my people," Damon replied.
That pained Bryce, but he decided to explore the issue further rather than get angry about it. "You don't feel any connection with the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, George Washington? Not even the Civil War?" Bryce pushed.
"That's all the history of white people. Look at that Declaration of Independence. It says all men are created equal, but it didn't mean black men, it only applied to white men," Damon insisted. "And as for your George Washington, he was another slave holder, just like Henry Clay."
Bryce decided not to push any further that evening, but he was really disturbed by this attitude. Maybe his grandfathers' influence, both of them, was stronger than he realized, but he definitely felt a part of American history from colonial times to the present. His study of history gave him a sense of continuity, which in turn gave him a sense of identity. It was this sense of continuity, of belonging to a long tradition, which was also one of the many ties binding him to the Catholic Church. He did not understand people who were rootless, with no thought for where they came from. Alex Haley had been anxious to find his roots, even if they were among slaves. How can anyone not care where he comes from? That's being a one dimensional person. It's like not caring about the country in which you live. It's like not caring what your government or your society stands for. It's like being an isolated little atom adrift in a meaningless cosmic stream of nothingness. This had to be looked into. For the first time, Bryce felt a distance between himself and Damon which absolutely had to be bridged. Bryce's thoughts wandered back to a piece of poetry by Sir Walter Scott:
Lived ever a man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said
This is my own, my native land?
On Wednesday, Dr. Anjot led a class discussion of Voltaire's well-known novella, Candide, subtitled l'Optimisme. Dr. Anjot provided background, including the philosophical influence of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz (1646-1716) and the poetic influence of Alexander Pope (1688-1744). In his work "An Essay on Man" of 1734 Pope reflected what the scholar Basil Willey called "the optimism of acceptance" in such phrases as:
All Nature is but Art unknown to thee;
All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;
All Discord, Harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal Good;
And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
He also discussed how the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 convinced Voltaire that nature was not benign. As he had already abandoned any meaningful belief in God, there was no foundation for the acceptance of an optimistic philosophy such as that of Leibnitz. This caused considerable tension within Voltaire's outlook, as he was moved to defend the oppressed as he saw it, but he could find no acceptable grounds for doing so, having rejected both religion and nature as criteria of goodness.
In Candide we have what at first reading seems to be a light-hearted adventure story. From the outset, there is no doubt that it is also satire. Candide was a German servant in the household of the Westphalian nobleman Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh (Voltaire shared with his sometime patron, Frederick the Great of Prussia, the opinion that German was a barbaric language, fit, as Frederick said, only for servants). When Candide, at age 18, is caught kissing Cunigonde, the Baron's daughter, he is summarily dismissed, sent off to make his own way in the world. After grueling experiences in the Bulgarian army, arriving in Holland he encounters Dr. Panglos, who had been tutor to the Baron's children. Panglos taught what Voltaire calls "metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology," which was a caricature of the philosophy of Leibnitz as popularized by Christian Wolff. It seems that Dr. Panglos had contacted syphilis from a serving girl in the Baron's household, which had then been destroyed by marauding Bulgarians. Yet, he remains optimistic. This is all part of a greater plan, he insists. So they link up in the household of a kind Anabaptist. Voltaire, like many later social critics, always made the outcasts of society into his heros. It is the heretic who is good, and the orthodox who is cruel. Always. Again, Bryce saw why Voltaire would appeal to someone like Tim Jonakin.
Candide, along with his companions, who grew in number as the story progressed, Bryce knew from his reading, then underwent one major disaster after another, including the Lisbon earthquake. But it did not stop there. They were sold into slavery and shipped off to South America. They were chased through jungles by cannibals. All the females were frequently raped by savages of one sort or another. And every time one such disaster befell them, Dr. Panglos would attempt to console them with his pseudo-Leibnitzian philosophy, summed up in the mantra, "All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds."
In the end, Candide and his entire entourage, consisting of not only him and Dr. Panglos, but also a servant, Martin, the girl Conigonde, and many others, end up on a small farm in the Turkish Empire. Once again, Bryce noted, in order to find happiness one had to leave the West, just like so many contemporary critics, who see the West as responsible for all the ills of the world, do in spirit, if not geographically. It is strange, then, that so many people in other parts of the world seem to want the advantages that the West has created. They keep coming to the United States, legally or illegally, and to Western Europe as well. In this despising of his own civilization, too, Voltaire is a precursor of the modern enemies of the West, including the enemies of Christianity. Goodness lies elsewhere. Always. On this little farm, Candide's servant, Martin, summarizes the solution they have to all the world's problems: "Let us work without philosophizing, it is the only way to make life bearable." The final sentence of the novella has the title character quash further philosophizing with the words, "we must cultivate our garden."
The more outspoken students in the class were loud in praise of this little work, lavishing every compliment on the marvelous style, deep thought, and compelling logic of the author. Bryce sat for some time without participating in this orgy of adulation. After a while, however, Dr. Anjot, with a twinkle in his eye, called on Bryce to give his opinion of the piece.
"I completely agree with all that has been said about Voltaire as a writer," Bryce began. "He is a master of words and wit. But I'm afraid I can't share the enthusiasm for his philosophy. He has set up an impossible situation from the outset, refusing to allow any true goodness in the society of his day, and then blaming that society for all unhappiness. He clearly accepts the deterministic outlook of the times every bit as much as Dr. Panglos, but he refuses to accept the consequences of that outlook. He very admirably is appalled by the evils of society, but cannot develop a consistent philosophy for dealing with those evils. Martin's statement is a clear recognition of that. If we think about our assumptions, we might be forced to re-evaluate them."
This assessment was met with a chorus of protests from most of the other students in the class. In the end, Bryce gave up citing passages to back up his interpretation. They had made up their minds that, because Voltaire was in harmony with the prevailing contemporary climate of opinion, he was a great thinker. Bryce's last words on the subject were: "Okay, if you think dropping out, ignoring the problems of the world, and isolating yourself on a commune is a rational solution, then welcome to 1970."
Bryce was so upset with the attitude of the other students in his French class that he isolated himself in the library, for the first time even skipping his Psychology class. He was in no mood for more Freudian interpretations, more deterministic philosophy, from Dr. Greeley. Instead, he immersed himself in something unconnected with any class he was currently taking. For two hours, he attempted to refute Damon's contention that blacks were a part of American history only as the objects of oppression until a half century ago. It was not easy. Yes, there were always dissenting voices who insisted that blacks were fully human and equal to whites, but they were a minority. There were those who attempted to do something about the condition of blacks. Some were practical, like Cassius Clay. Some were crazy, like John Brown. There were inspiring stories about blacks who attempted to help themselves, like Pierre Toussaint (1766-1853), Isabella Baumfree, a.k.a. Sojourner Truth (1797-1883), George Washington Carver (1864-1943), and DuBois' namesake, W. E. B. DuBois (1868-1963). Some of them had some less than admirable traits, just like the heros of white America. Bryce did not see a real difference, nor any reason to reject one and accept exclusively the other. How could he get Damon to see the positive in such figures as Washington. In his perusal of the shelves, Bryce came across the recently (2003) published work by Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America. In its concluding chapter, hastily scanned, Bryce found convincing evidence of Washington's inner turmoil over the problems of slavery and emancipation. He found it interesting that Washington provided in his will that all the slaves he owned be freed, whereas Thomas Jefferson, who was far more outspoken in his criticism of slavery, freed only five among his hundreds of slaves, and those were all members of the family of Sally Hemings, reputedly his own children.
Over lunch, Bryce attempted to discuss the results of his research with Damon. He ran into a roadblock. For some reason, Damon adopted the position that nothing positive was done for blacks prior to the activities of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. When Bryce mentioned the stories of the many sexual liaisons of Dr. King, Damon dismissed those as pure racist propaganda. It was while they were arguing about this matter that DuBois Kennedy approached. DuBois listened to the exchanges between Bryce and Damon for a while before joining the debate. When he did, to the chagrin of Damon, it was on Bryce's side.
"So, King was a womanizer. Big deal. There's good evidence for that. If you throw out the evidence just because you don't like it, you'll never make it as that hot shot lawyer you talk about," he told Damon.
"You going to tear down Dr. King?" Damon protested.
"Damon, I'm not tearing down anybody. King was a great man, and a crucial part of the civil rights movement. Without him, who knows where we'd be today. That doesn't mean he was perfect. Nobody's perfect. Look at my man. DuBois was incredibly naive when it came to his views about Stalin and the Soviet Union. He's still my hero," DuBois insisted.
"And that's what I'm saying about Washington," Bryce insisted. "Yes, he was a slaveholder, and yes, by today's standards he was probably a racist, but that doesn't mean he wasn't a great man, a hero, who did amazing things to benefit all of us. Without him, our country might be very different, and I mean different in a negative way. Look at his insistence on the subordination of the army - his army - to the civil authority. If he had gone along with the Newburgh Conspiracy in 1783, our history might have been like that of many Latin American countries, with military takeovers every generation or so."
When Damon protested that the fact that Washington was a slave owner trumped all that, DuBois responded, "Damon, you sound like Robert Blanton."
Robert Blanton was the President of the Black Student Organization, the Mr. Aeropostale who Damon so disliked. That comment stopped him dead.
"Seriously," DuBois replied. "Look, are you perfect?"
"Hell no,"Damon admitted.
"Then why do you think others need be? So, King had his women. So DuBois was naive about Stalin. They were still great men, leaders, heroes. And, as far as I'm concerned, Washington is a hero, too, even with his flaws," DuBois insisted.
"Yeah. The book I was looking at in the library called him an imperfect god," Bryce chimed in. "A guy doesn't have to be able to walk on water to be a good guy. Everybody has his good and bad points. It's a question of balancing out how much good and how much bad. Even if Washington owned slaves, he's in the good guys column. And even if he built the autobahns, Hitler's in the bad guys column."
"Okay," Damon reluctantly conceded. "I guess I can see that. Maybe I did get carried away there."
"Good. I'm relieved to hear you say that. I'll work on you some more later. There's a lot about our country and its history you can admire, even if it's not perfect, either. Even Henry Clay ...," Bryce began.
"Don't push your luck," Damon insisted, as they picked up their trash and exited the University Center, on their way to Biology.
"Even the bad guys have good points," Bryce insisted as they approached the Audubon Building. "Mack was a good soccer player, even though he sucked as a human being."
Damon suddenly turned and tripped Bryce, causing him to crash onto the ground, tumbling off the pavement into a pile of leaves. "Even us bad guys have our good points. I'm quicker than you," Damon proclaimed, looking down at this boyfriend.
"Okay, I get the point. Enough is enough," Bryce conceded, picking himself up.
"Right. Don't rub it in," Damon said.
"For now," Bryce added under his breath.
Later, during his History class, Bryce had trouble concentrating as Dr. Dickinson lectured on the founding of the Bank of England, England surpassing the Dutch Republic in the economic field, and the rise of England to the status of a great power in the international sphere, all during the reigns of William and Mary. He was considering the implications of his exchange with Damon. If it was true that the "correct" views regarding race and slavery were minority views during most of American history, kept alive by devoted and dedicated individuals fighting against the preponderant opinion, then that was a parallel to what he and Father Miller had touched on with respect to the position of gays in the thinking of the Church. There was no disguising the fact that the preponderant opinion, backed by the Pope and the bishops, was against him. But preponderant opinion was against racial equality for much of history as well. Opinion has shifted with respect to the race issue, at least among the majority of Americans. If he could just hold out long enough, might not opinion shift with respect to the gay issue with the majority of Catholics? There were at least some encouraging indications. Most Catholics seemed to be unaffected by the teachings of the bishops on this issue. If they actually know someone who is gay, they are more accepting, regardless of the bishops.
Bryce's attention was brought back to the class when Professor Dickinson said, "The rise of England to the status of a world power was bought at a price. That price was the domination of English society for the next two centuries by the wealthy. But at the same time, the tradition of limited government, government by law rather than by royal prerogative, and some kind of balance between King and Parliament was preserved under William and Mary. Charles and James envied the royal power of their cousin Louis XIV, but a century later there was no need for a bloody revolution in Great Britain, as there was in France, to bring the government and the country back into balance."
That was unexpected, Bryce thought. With all the things I admire about the Stuarts, I guess they were not perfect, either. And, as much as I dislike William of Orange, I guess he was not all bad. Maybe there's something to be said for Locke, even if he is anti-Catholic. In a way, maybe I've been as narrow in my approach as Damon.
After his History class, while Damon was in his Math class, Bryce felt the need to think quietly about the issues which had been bothering him that day. He decided against retreating to his room in the dorm, and instead got in his car and drove to St. Boniface. There, after a few words of greeting to his Lord, he settled into one of the pews, and pondered the various issues which were bothering him. It was quiet, which encouraged reflection. The location caused him to consider the instance of Pierre Toussaint, whom he had mentioned earlier in his argument with Damon. On a hunch, he rose and went to the rear of the church, where there was a rack of informational and devotional pamphlets. He thought he remembered something, and sure enough, there was a short pamphlet about Pierre Tousssaint. Born as a slave in Haiti, and brought to New York as a young man, Pierre was trained as a hairdresser by his owner, who subsequently freed him. Pierre became not only well-off from his skills, but also a leading abolitionist, and a strong supporter of Catholic charities. He and his wife Noel were leading figures in Catholic charitable circles, as well as a major fund raiser for the construction of Old St. Patrick's in New York City. They provided relief for many immigrants arriving in the city, especially during the Irish famine in the later 1840s. Bryce noted that it was Cardinal O'Connor, no friend of the gay community, who was responsible for the transfer of Toussaint's remains to the new St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the inauguration of canonization processes. Pope John Paul II proclaimed Pierre Toussaint "venerable" in 1996, meaning he was just steps away from formal recognition as a saint, and someone to whom prayers might be addressed. Bryce prayed to Venerable Pierre Toussaint to assist him in his relations with Damon. One finds allies everywhere in the communion of the saints.
Returning to campus, Bryce met with Damon for dinner. Over dinner, he continued his campaign to convince Damon that blacks were an integral part of American history from the beginning, and not only as slaves. He spent the time talking about the Rhode Island Regiment in the American Revolutionary War. In early 1778 the Rhode Island Assembly voted to enlist blacks, including slaves, in the war effort. They proclaimed that "every slave so enlisting shall, upon his passing muster before Colonel Christopher Greene, be immediately discharged from service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely free ...." Damon had not known about that, or about other blacks who served in the Continental Army. It was said by historians that Washington's army was the most integrated US military force until President Truman ordered integration after World War II. This was something entirely new to Damon. When Bryce suggested that he might qualify for the Sons of the American Revolution, an organization to which Bryce belonged largely because of the insistence of his mother, Damon laughed, but then was quiet, considering the possibilities. After all, if he were to become that hot shot lawyer he talked about, membership in such an organization would be an asset. He had never considered tracing his ancestry before this. His origins were a matter of chagrin to Damon. But, if he could get back to one of those soldiers in the Rhode Island Regiment .... This took up much of the time before Bryce had to depart for his Milton study group.
Over the next few days, Bryce continued to shower Damon with examples of efforts by and for blacks to improve their situation, always including the fact that many of these effort were inspire by the Declaration of Independence, and the assertion that "all men are created equal." He even spoke of the efforts of the American Colonization Society, of which Henry Clay was a founder, to encourage free blacks to return to Africa. This resulted in the establishment of Liberia, with its capital of Monrovia named for President James Monroe of Virginia. Those who were behind the American Colonization Society, like Washington earlier, did not believe whites and blacks could live in the same society peacefully, and the history of race relations since the Civil War seemed to prove them right. Bryce was determined, however, to prove them wrong. It seemed to Bryce that he was learning at least as much from this as was Damon. Humans were far from perfect. Any major improvement in human relations was a long, drawn out, and painful process. That was true of race relations, and it seemed to be true of the acceptance of gays by mainstream society as well. He considered the history of God's relations with humans, first with the Israelites, who kept falling into idolatry and had to be brought back with a series of disasters, eventually with exile and return. Then Jesus came, and God's own Son lost one of the original twelve. The history of Christianity was a history of schism and heresy, despite Jesus' prayer for unity at his Last Supper with his apostles. As Bishop Fulton Sheen said, the history of the Church is not one triumph after another, but rather a thousand Good Fridays followed by a thousand Easter Sundays. What was the phrase used in the Bible about the Israelites? "A stiff-necked people?" Yeah. That applies to all humanity. We keep wanting to do it all on our own, without admitting our need for God, and we usually screw it up. That was the sin of pride, and Bryce recognized it in himself, as well as in history. He was reminded of the words of another seventeenth century writer and Catholic, John Dryden, who wrote in his Religio laici the lines:
Thus man by his own strength to Heaven would soar,
And would not be obliged to God for more.