Friday, August 4, 2017

Tonsor: Introduction: Move to Ann Arbor III


On the third morning of my journey, I woke up to a dream set in ancient Athens. It was about Aristophanes, the comic playwright. In the dream he was not the brilliant Aristophanes encountered in the Penguin paperback, but the absurd Aristophanes ridiculed in Plato's Symposium. There Aristophanes is carousing at a dinner party. He's drunk and hiccuping and prodded by his friends to deliver a speech about love. After a few minutes of goofy antics he gets over the hiccups and tells the famous myth of how every soul splits in half and then spends the rest of its life longing to reunite with its other. The story is supposed to explain why we fall irresistibly in love with our "other half" when we finally find that special person.[1]
Aristophanes -- Image at URL

This was one of my "eureka dreams." Ever since childhood, I've had dreams that take a common English expression and amplify its meaning in an allegory. In this case the expression was, "I gave my heart to [name of the person]," or "I left a piece of my heart back in [name of the place]." The interpretation of the dream was pretty straightforward. The soul represented the heart. If I left a piece of my heart behind in Colorado, then the pining, the longing, the sweet sadness I'd occasionally feel was simply my heart's way of expressing the desire to go back "home" and be whole again. Symbolically, the comic Aristophanes was there to tell me not to get down but to laugh and enjoy my new adventure. 

But enough of the amazing work of dreams!


After shelving the dream, my first thought was: Today will be a day of firsts. This morning I'll cross into Michigan for the first time. (It's true, I'd never stepped foot in the state, not even for a plane change.) This afternoon I'll see Ann Arbor for the first time. This evening in my new apartment I will go to bed as a Michigander for the first time.

Then my second thought propelled me to act on the first: I regretted having checked into a cheap hotel, for the bedsheets smelled faintly of cigarette smoke and one-night stands. 

I got up and walked out to the balcony to take in the early light of day. Sometime during the night the thunderhead had moved east and the cold front had passed through, leaving crisp Canadian air in its wake.

Standing on the balcony amid the gathering rush-hour of Chicagoland, I glanced back to the west, toward I-80, the road taken. I had crossed my Rubicon a thousand miles ago. Done. So I looked toward the sunrise, toward I-94 east, and felt happy that I was within four hours of my new home.


After clearing the congestion of Chicagoland and settling in to the reality of the road, I enjoyed the distinct change in landscape. To my left and to my right were mile after mile of forests as the highway traced the curving shoreline of Lake Michigan. 

To keep my mind occupied I reviewed the two Tonsor essays I had thought about thus far on the trip. The first was published in 1975. Tonsor was 51 years old and the context was the eve of America's bicentennial. As a nation we were drawing in a deep breath after much tumult -- the civil rights struggles, urban unrest, Vietnam War, student protests, and Watergate. Remarkably for a conservative writer, Tonsor's essay reflected an unexpected optimism about America's "revolutionary society."[2] 

The second essay was published in 1964. Tonsor was 40 or 41 years old and the context was the recent assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the launch of the Great Society by his successor, Lyndon Johnson. In the presidential election of '64, Tonsor's candidate, Barry Goldwater, had been trounced. It looked as if the nascent conservative movement had reached a fork in the road -- it would gain strength or die out. In this uncertain political environment, Tonsor's essay argued that it was imperative to uphold the integrity of history amid the temptations to propagandize.[3] 

If the first essay surprised the American in me, and the second essay affirmed the historian in me, then the third essay troubled the conservative in me. Deeply. Titled "The Haunted House of the Human Spirit," the editorial for Modern Age had been published just two years earlier, in 1985, when Tonsor was 61 or 62 years old.[4] It was springtime for conservatives. Reagan had been reelected in a landslide and it was "Morning in America." The question of conservatism's fate seemed to have been answered. The so-called Reagan Revolution had revved the economy into full recovery. With Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl, and Pope John Paul II all at the helm, America and Western Europe were once again asserting themselves vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. Together these leaders were ushering in a new era of conservative ascendency throughout the West. I along with my conservative-leaning friends were feeling optimistic about the future.

America's 40th President, Ronald Reagan (1981-1989). Image at URL

To my dismay, Tonsor's 1985 essay did not share the conservatives' giddiness -- not at all. In fact the editorial expressed deep skepticism about what was happening to the conservative movement. Tonsor actually saw it in ignoble retreat. How so? Because of all the conservative scholars and humanists who had abandoned higher learning to work in politics in Washington, DC. They had utterly betrayed their calling as humanists whose duty was to teach the rising generation. The dour professor urged the remnant of conservative humanists who still held redoubts in the academy to hold fast; do not be seduced by power. Politics, even Reagan's sunny politics, were only a temporary fix, not the cure. The real war conservatives had to fight was upstream of politics, in the culture. 

So the remnant's task was to prioritize the culture and remain true to their civilizational mission. As true humanists they must be guardians of the language, for our words comprise the deep taproot of the culture, the source of our embedded values and beliefs.

Another thing that struck me about "The Haunted House of the Human Spirit," besides the thoroughgoing pessimism it expressed, were the writers Tonsor cited. They were not the usual arrows in the conservative quiver: not Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas. Rather, Tonsor made his argument to the remnant by citing Martin Heidegger, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, and Carl Orff -- modernists all. I wondered why.

At the time, all of this was very confusing to me. As the mileposts on Interstate 94 swept me closer and closer to Ann Arbor, I seriously began to wonder if I had made a terrible mistake. 

Had I crossed the wrong Rubicon?

Forest typical of Michigan's Lower Peninsula
Image at URL



[1] Plato, Symposium, 189a-193d.

[2] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The United States as a Revolutionary Society, Modern Age (spring 1975): 136-45.

[3] Stephen J. Tonsor, "Tradition: Use and Misuse," Modern Age (fall 1964): 413-15.

[4] Stephen J. Tonsor, "The Haunted House of the Human Spirit -- an Editorial," Modern Age (fall 1985): 290-92.

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