Sense and Nonsense: On the Loneliest Month

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Somewhere, in Belloc’s Hills and the Sea (1906), which Scott Walter gave to me, I recall reading a remark about November — that it was “the loneliest month.” I cannot now find this particular line or its context, look though I may. I was sure I had underlined it, as is my habit. In any case, at the time I read it, it struck me somehow with great poignancy, as Belloc often does. Perhaps because of Thanksgiving, and of the friends with whom I usually celebrate it, I have never quite felt that way about November, when the days do dwindle down, as the song goes. Even though Belloc had an American wife, he probably would not have much known Thanksgiving. Although its origins in a sense are from our English Pilgrim Fathers, Englishmen like Belloc would not have contrasted our Thanksgiving homeyness with his loneliest month.

As I see it, a certain coziness hovers about November. We of the Northern Hemisphere are near to Winter: days are short; evenings begin early; the shortest day yet is in December. We live in a fortunate place on this revolving planet where seasons distinctly change and days noticeably lengthen or shorten. Once, when I spent a week in Nairobi, I remember being utterly dismayed that the sun rose and set every 12 hours at almost the exact same hour of the day. I also recall another time being in Newcastle-on-Tyne at the Summer Solstice and marvelling that the sun seemed to set for only a couple of hours. Certain months or days, I suppose, do cause us to describe them as lonely or happy or unending or sad. Loneliness has the sense of missing human, and perhaps even more, divine, company when it is wanted.

Boswell recalls, in 1776, a period of the year in which he did not record, as was his usual wont, the exact time and place of many of Samuel Johnson’s discussions. However, Boswell did have some notes about sundry diverse conversations that he grouped together as best he could (II, 35). On one occasion, Johnson talked about the now contemporary and politically correct subject “of the misery which we cause to the brute creation.” Johnson, however, knew of the argument that brute creation is compensated for any misery by existence itself. He recalled, to this effect, a remark of the Scottish philosopher — “the able and benignant Hutchinson” — in his Moral Philosophy, that “if they (animals) were not useful to man, and therefore protected by him, they would not be nearly so numerous.”

In spite of all we hear these days to the contrary, this observation of the Scottish philosopher is still closer to the truth than the “vanishing species” threats with which we are bombarded by all sorts of nature funds. In fact, Julian Simon pointed out that very few species are vanishing at all, and that the vanishing of species that do vanish has little to do with man. In fact, today man is involved in the counter-natural principle of preventing species from vanishing.

 

Johnson, however, was judicious in thinking about this topic, or “topick,” as he would write it. The question is, he thought, whether the animals themselves would, given such an alternative, endure existence on this condition of their misery caused by humans. We have to presume, on this supposition, that animals are not animals, but quasi-human beings with intellects and wills. This reflection led Johnson to recall a comment of Madame de Sevigne who complained “of the task of existence having been imposed upon her without her consent.”

In her Lettres a sa fille et a ses amis, published in Paris in 1813, this distinguished lady seems to have wanted to exist before she did exist in order to ascertain whether it was worth her while to exist or not. Presumably, if she judged, on the basis not of God’s but of her prior analysis, that her own existence was not worth the trouble, she would then have continued to be nothing. I judge, on the same principle, that she would not have chosen to be an animal instead. Just how this blip of something in the midst of sheer nothingness could ever come to be, to decide whether to exist, I have never been able to calculate.

Furthermore, this passage reminded me of the month some thirty years ago I spent trying to learn French at Caen in Normandy, the home of Calvados and great cheeses. While I was there, I spent a good deal of time with a young German student, his wife and little daughter. He was definitely a brooding, philosophic, German, young man. I remember him voicing the same complaint as Madame de Sevigne, namely, that he had not been asked whether he wanted to exist or not. Trying to explain that the whole point of our existence is that it is not ours to choose to exist or not, remains one of those self-evident issues whereby, if you do not immediately see it, you will probably never get it straight. To this very point, in his Autobiography, Chesterton recalled, with approval, his grandfather’s remark that he would thank God for his existence even if he were condemned to Hell. That position, in fact, may be more radical even than that of Madame de Sevigne and my German friend.

Obviously, I am on the side of Chesterton’s grandfather in this delicate matter, even as I am aware of the remark of the Lord that it’s better to have a millstone tied around one’s neck and be cast in the sea than to scandalize a little one. Clearly, all of these are extreme cases. Indeed, the idea that we should first ask for our approval of our own existence before we exist just can never happen. It is one of those contradictions that serve to make a point about the nature of existence and choice itself. Presumably, God wanted us in existence, that is why we are here. Our prayer should be closer to that of Christ’s in His agony, that this chalice pass from us — not our will, but the Father’s be done.

This brings me back to Belloc. One of the essays in Hills and the Sea is entitled “The First Day’s March.” Belloc’s French army tour left a lasting impression on him which could be seen in almost everything he wrote. After a day’s march, the battery took its usual halt. Some commanders, Belloc recalled, like his own, preferred to have the men clean up a bit before going into the town. Others, however, liked nothing better than “when they could bring their battery into town covered with dust and the horses screaming and the men haggard, for this they thought to be evidence of workman-like spirit.”

Then two trumpets sounded the call known among the French as “the eighty-hunters” (“quatre-vingt, quatre-vingt, quatre-vingt . . . chausseurs“), which announced the approach of the large guns. The town was Commercy, and as the troops went through the town, the little boys carefully watched “with pride.” Belloc added, however, that these very boys did not yet know “how hateful they would find the service when once they were in for its grind and hopelessness.” By contrast, Belloc continued, he himself had no way of knowing “the great pleasure he would have” ten years hence looking back on this very scene. Then Belloc concluded, and this is the point I want to make with regard to Madame de Sevigne, “nobody knows beforehand whether he will like a thing or not; and there is the end of it.”

Thus, in our November loneliness, the seasons shorten. We realize that to decide whether we would have chosen our own existence is a vain query. It is much more preferable, as it were, to allow our existence to be freely given to us as a gift. To have chosen our own existence, it would not have been enough just to know about our existence and about our miseries. We would also need to know whether, in spite of it all, we might like an existence even if it be bound up with misery and suffering, as are all human existences. Scripture tells us that God Himself chose this way for His Son.

There is no way to decide this alternative beforehand. Even the existence of those who choose to be in Hell is a worthy existence. They are not created to be second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. They do not and cannot deny their own goodness as God made them. What they do choose is an ultimate loneliness, an exclusion of all else but themselves. This decision leaves them within a world of their own making.

No one knows “beforehand whether he will like a thing or not.” This uncertainty is especially the case in November, the loneliest month, not because it reminds us of Hell, of only ourselves, but because it reminds us of that other loneliness which suspects that existence is a gift even in the misery that inevitably follows with it, though does not constitute it. Existence is not, in fact, “imposed” on us without our consent. Our consent is, as it were, subsequent to and dependent on our prior existence. We cannot ourselves choose from out of nothingness to be ourselves drawn by ourselves from out of nothingness. If we could in fact do this, our loneliness would be absolute since we would be our own gods — precisely the condition of those in Hell.

Only if our existence is a gift, however, can we accept it as not coming from ourselves. Then we can suspect that we might in effect like this thing we call our own existence and that destiny which, as it were, called it from nothingness in the first place. As long as it is not we who call ourselves from nothingness, we can have hope. In any case, what we cannot do is decide ahead of time whether we will exist or not. When we think about it on a lonely November day, we can give thanks for our existence, even for our existence in misery.

We are completely right to suspect that this only existence there is is designed for something that we could not possibly imagine beforehand. Our own choice would be based on our own resources and imaginations which are, by comparison with why there is existence at all, most paltry and limited. Belloc, like ourselves, ten years hence, a hundred years hence, eternity hence, had no idea of “the great pleasure he had looking back” on our existence and the misery connected with it.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.

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Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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