John Paul II: who slays the Gorgon of despair?

Eric Gill, engraving, 1926

In my previous post I came to the conclusion that Russell Kirk approached the question of the Gorgon indirectly, as is appropriate to any enactment of the myth. He boldly announces her nearby presence in chapter one and then he talks and walks around her until the very last chapter and the penultimate paragraph of the [original] book. He names the gorgon as a life without meaning, or the despair that life is worth living. The multitude is rushed headlong into the empty whirlwind as traditions, communities, habits, and sacred beliefs are upended by the Machiavellians and Cartesians.

The despair of the “last man” remains in large measure unreflective; but for the man of reflective temper, including a conservative such as Russell Kirk, despair is also a temptation. To behold the long and near-inevitable descent of human beings and the undoing of culture (“Civilizations do not fall at a single blow” he says in the last paragraph) must so tear the heart and boggle the mind that one could become as hardened as stone. Although it may sound strange at first, Kirk suffers as Zarathustra did upon beholding the last man and upon considering eternal return. Nietzsche named the gorgon “nihilism.” “‘What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?’–so asketh the last man and beth.” Here all men have become as good as stone, for “there cometh the time when man will no longer launch the arrow of his longing beyond man–and the string of his bow will have unlearned to whizz!” Kirk is very close to Nietzsche here concerning the decadence of culture and the undoing of excellence.

Kirk however will have none of the false hope of the ubermensch or the fantasy of eternal return. Clearly he sees religion as the center of renewal, if renewal be possible. The central question concerns whether man is made in the image of God. Yet he often speaks, in this book, tentatively or gropingly of religion. So Perseus is a mythic role but his identity is a mystery, a vague hope, an earnest wish.

If I suggested in an earlier blog that Pope John Paul II is that Perseus I may have misspoken. Yes he was a man of “undreamed powers of mind and conscience.” But I now would say that John Paul was but the herald of the true Perseus, because that man is Jesus Christ. John Paul analyzes the problem, remarkably along very similar lines to Russell Kirk. Kirk read the signs of the times. He did achieve the shoring of the fragments against the ruins. He knew not how to turn a people, a culture back to hope. He did not know how precisely to restore man to his wholeness of being. John Paul too was a poet and philosopher. But John Paul II was a priest and pontiff. He could show us directly the way, the truth and the life. And he could stand us behind the true Perseus, the Christ.

I have traced this account in previous blogs on the Redeemer of Man. Here is a brief account. He cuts to the chase by section eight: “Does not the previously unknown immense progress-which has taken place especially in the course of this century-in the field of man’s dominion over the world itself reveal-to a previously unknown degree-that manifold subjection ‘to futility’?” It is St Paul and not Nietzsche who has the most authentic of the nothing and our despair.  All the signs of the times point back to the cutting of the between man and God through sin. What does modern man fear, he queries in sections fifteen and sixteen of the Redeemer of Man, and he explores many similar issues as does Kirk: alienation, consumerism, weapons of mass destruction, anomie, greed.  Kirk’s account is more extensive; John Paul II is keeping it brief. But John Paul takes it back to the sundering of man from the source of the good and true through the sin of Adam. With good reason we despair for we are in the dark and lie helpless before our darker force. We repent, acknowledge the duality and turn it to power and satisfaction and aggrandizement. The Prince of the world has much to promise, however dark and bitter in the end. Carpe diem.

John Paul announces the good news:

Christ, the Redeemer of the world, is the one who penetrated in a unique unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his “heart”. Rightly therefore does the Second Vatican Council teach: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a type of him who was to come (Rom 5:14), Christ the Lord. Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling”. And the Council continues: “He who is the ‘image of the invisible God’ (Col 1:15), is himself the perfect man who has restored in the children of Adam that likeness to God which had been disfigured ever since the first sin.” §8

Yes Dante has shown the depth (and the height); Kirk has the prescience to see the fifty year decline of his beloved country and the undoing of its traditions. And the Gorgon hovered nearby. John Paul, following his master, takes us to cross the “threshold of hope.” His master’s sword by which he slew the true terror of sin and despair is the cross, hence the image above of the crucifixion by Eric Gill.

Pope John Paul II is in a way the Perseus called for by Kirk, but only if we understand this along the lines of the doctrine of “in persona Christi” as only a priest can be..

1 Comment
  1. Your two recent Gorgon posts… are timely for me. I just returned from summer vacation. During the day my sons, wife and I kayaked on the Medina river. At night we watched movies my sons had rented– some modern but entertaining remakes of the Perseus myth. It was fun to see teenage boys getting worked up by such an ancient story, Perseus and Medusa. With that and your posting I think maybe there is something to that myth.

    ps, I want you to know: the summer JP2 forum you held was terrific, and I was even thinking about it again last night while slipping in to sleep. There was so much there which left deep impressions with me.

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