RIGHTING A WRONG (REVIEW)
Among our nation’s widely read political commentators and analysts, there is probably none whose outlook comes closer to Commonweal’s than E. J. Dionne. Even if he were not a friend of mine, I would have found the lead review of his new book Why the Right Went Wrong (April 15) maddeningly off target.
The review by Samuel Goldman is courteous—and in the season of Trump we must be grateful for small blessings—but it is otherwise strangely askew. Dionne’s book is a highly detailed, perhaps too detailed, “narrative of disappointment”; it tracks how Republican conservatives, from Goldwater to Nixon to Reagan to Romney, from the Southern Strategy to the Contract with America to the Tea Party to Trump, planted in their own ranks the seeds of today’s bitter mood of grievance, resentment, and betrayal.
Goldman simply ignores all this. Instead, he chooses to treat a book titled Why the Right Went Wrong as though it were a book titled How the Right Can Be Reformed. “It’s doubtful that conservatives will find the guidance they need in this book,” Goldman writes, as though that were either Dionne’s or Commonweal readers’ chief interest.
It is true that Dionne hopes his historical narrative will constitute “a plea to American conservatives” to rediscover moderation, a notion the reviewer finds “fundamentally misconceived.” The social and institutional “base” for moderation, he rather apodictically explains, has disappeared. Conservatives should instead seek “a constructive agenda” replacing “stale ’80s-era slogans.”
I am not sure if that’s another way to describe moderation. In any case, such a search might well begin by reading Dionne’s book for what it is rather than for it is not. It might register how the undoing of moderation on the right didn’t just happen but was assiduously cultivated.
New York, N.Y.
SEEING JESUS ON THE SCREEN
In his review of the film The Revenant (February 26), Richard Alleva contends that director Alejandro Iñárritu distracts the viewers with “corny mysticism,” and that the film is “moral[ly] and artistic[ally] confus[ing].” I disagree. What makes The Revenant, a very violent film, so compelling is not Hugh Glass’s surviving to seek revenge for the death of his son Hawk, but his unrelenting will to endure unimaginable suffering in the harshest of wilderness conditions in the dead of winter, and to persevere. Glass’s physically arduous and grueling trek of survival is also a powerful spiritual journey and a story of faith. Some scenes depict Glass’s Christian faith. In my view, these scenes are not morally and artistically confusing. Glass’s vision of a dilapidated church and Christ on the cross immediately reminded me of Francis of Assisi as he gazed on the San Damiano Cross in the also-dilapidated San Damiano church, where Francis hears the voice of Christ say, “Francis, repair my church.”
Like the suffering Christ on the cross, Glass endures his own suffering in the snow-covered wilderness in freezing temperatures. Like Christ, who never abandons us and gives us hope, Glass’s visions or hallucinations of his dead son and dead wife (which are not surprising given what his mind and body endure in unimaginably harsh conditions) also give him the hope and the strength to carry on. They help him to survive. The dead horse, whose carcass Glass transforms into a warm and protective shelter to lie in and cover his naked body, reminds me of Christ’s tomb and His resurrection. Like Christ, Glass is not dead but is resurrected—hence the film’s title. Glass returns after being attacked by a bear and left for dead by the man who killed his son. The Revenant is a powerful theological narrative of incredible human suffering, endurance, and perseverance, and the story of a man who is resurrected by the cross that he bears and his unshakable faith and determination. There is no “corny mysticism” in The Revenant, which is also a tale about suffering for the sake of love—the love between father and son, husband and wife, in life and in death.
Adjunct Theology Professor,
The author replies:
“Seek, and ye shall find.” Ms. Díaz-Gilbert sought a spiritual experience while watching The Revenant and found it. Nobody should gainsay that. But I must point out that her spiritual experience springs from what the film reminded her of rather than from the film itself. A vision of a dilapidated church reminded her of Francis of Assisi. But why should it remind me or anybody else of that particular saint? Can’t a dilapidated church symbolize a loss of faith? And need a horse’s carcass remind anyone of Christ’s tomb? We seem to lack an objective correlative here. Consider: in The Count of Monte Cristo the unjustly accused Edmund Dantes sews himself into a shroud and is flung by guards into the waters outside the prison. Should that shroud remind me of Jesus’ shroud? Isn’t the watery descent like Jesus’ descent into hell, and isn’t Dantes’ emergence the Resurrection? Later he finds treasure on the isle of Monte Cristo. Aha! That name! Mount of Christ! Dumas’s swashbuckling classic, thus interpreted, is the greatest spiritual classic since the Confessions of Saint Augustine.
Though both Christ and Glass are revenants in the sense that they both return after apparent deaths, Jesus returned to preach compassion and forgiveness while Glass returns to take a terrible revenge on his enemy by delivering him into the hands of natives who will torture him to death. A spiritual conclusion to a spiritual movie? I think not. I urge Ms. Díaz-Gilbert to see the earlier version of the Hugh Glass saga, Man in the Wilderness. There she will find that the spiritual reawakening in its hero is much better defined and motivated than anything in The Revenant. And may I also urge her to consider that a work of art is never a Rorschach test.