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Correspondence

Losing faith

Leaving aside the unstated but delicate--indeed delicious--irony that Damon Linker joined First Things well after Father Richard John Neuhaus wrote most of the books that he now finds so nefarious (and, in fact, even after the November 1996 editorial that called for regime change in the United States), one can more directly refute his bilious screed by pointing to Western Europe (“Without a Doubt,” April 3). There Linker will find a culture more to his liking--one where his anti-Catholicism will not make him feel in the least uncomfortable, and one where the ideology of birth control is virtually the very foundation of cultural morality. Of course (and for those same reasons), Western Europeans cannot be bothered to reproduce, which, in another ignored irony, leaves them exposed to the real theocrats: Muslim immigrants. Yes, it has become a cliche that even paranoiacs have enemies. But Linker’s enemies are entirely born of the private phobias of his overheated imagination. He writes of Neuhaus’s desire for “an omnivorous Catholic Church to devour and to absorb American culture and public life,” as if such a thing might actually exist. Yeah, right. This preposterous claim will surely come as a surprise to Catholics in Massachusetts, where Catholic Charities suspended its adoption program rather than conform to state law requiring it to facilitate adoptions by gay couples, and to Catholics in California, where Catholic Charities has been forced to provide contraception coverage in its employee health care plan. My only surprise in reading the bizarre abjuration of his past views was that he did not quote from Maria Monk’s Know-Nothing classic, Awful Disclosures. After all, these two professional anti-Catholics have at least this in common: They both leapt over the wall.

—Edward T. Oakes Associate Professor Department of Systematic Theology University of St. Mary of the Lake Mundelein, Illinois

Damon Linker’s attempt to align Neuhaus with the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt is groundless. Schmitt defines the “essence” of politics as the job of distinguishing effectively between friend and foe; Neuhaus, by contrast, defines politics as a work ordained to the common good of persons and institutions. Schmitt contends that certain “emergency” situations call for a “commissarial [transitional] dictatorship”; Neuhaus holds to the republican form of government as precluding dictatorship in any form. Schmitt promotes a “decisionism” that divorces reason and will; Neuhaus holds that reason and will are reciprocally related. Schmitt, consequently, collapses the distinction between what is authoritarian and what is authoritative; Neuhaus does no such thing--neither in politics nor religion. john f. maguire San Francisco, California damon linker responds: Before he comments further on the ravages of the “ideology of birth control, “ the excitable Edward T. Oakes should ponder the fact that, while Catholic Ireland and France have some of the highest fertility rates in Europe (1.86 and 1.84 children born per woman, respectively, according to current estimates), Catholic Italy, Spain, and Poland have some of its lowest (1.28, 1.28, and 1.25, respectively). Meanwhile, fertility rates in historically Protestant (and today thoroughly secular) Scandinavia are comparatively much higher (1.78 in Norway, 1.74 in Denmark, 1.73 in Finland, and 1.66 in Sweden). Contemporary Europe has its problems, but an absence of Catholic orthodoxy is not one of them. As for Oakes’s dismay at my decision to distance myself from First Things and the authoritarian brand of Catholicism peddled by its editor-in-chief, I’m reminded of the old line about an independent-minded parliamentarian. Accused by a political opponent of having changed his position, the legislator replied, “Yes, sir, when I discover I’ve been wrong I change my position. And what do you do?” When it comes to the kinship I posited between Richard John Neuhaus’s ideas and those of Carl Schmitt, John F. Maguire misses the point. I did not propose that Neuhaus understands himself to be a descendant of Schmitt’s antimodernist political theology. I proposed that Neuhaus fails to provide a reasonable answer to the question of why modern men and women should submit their minds to the absolute rule of the Roman Catholic Church. And that failure places Neuhaus (no doubt unintentionally) in proximity to Schmitt, the patron saint of decisionism. unfaithful Lawrence F. Kaplan is right to show how Christian evangelicals have been trying to create new Christian communities in the Middle East at the expense of ancient ones (“Crossing Over,” April 3). Ever since 1911, when the Lutheran Orient Mission Society first sent missionaries to Kurdish Iran, the Kurds in particular have been looked on as ideal converts. The mission’s newsletter regularly referred to the project as “Kurdistan for Christ,” and Reverend L.O. Fossum, one of the leaders of the first American mission, went so far as to translate the New Testament into Kurdish. This kind of proselytizing ambition is far from waning. Some evangelical organizations may turn a blind eye to attacks on Chaldean and Assyrian Christians (some of whom were even converted by Protestants) in part because so many of these reprisals are carried out by Kurds, who are still viewed as spiritual free agents. These organizations regretfully appear more concerned about extending their share in the Middle East rather than standing up for some of the last native speakers of the language of Jesus. thomas meaney New York, New York dead poets’ society Helen Vendler’s strong reaction to Alice Quinn’s edition of Elizabeth Bishop’s unfinished poems in manuscript prompts me to offer a word about our rationale in publishing the book (“The Art of Losing,” April 3). The subtitle of Edgar Allan Poe & The Juke-Box is “Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, “ which accurately indicates the wide range of material included. This is a book about the processes of creativity, about how a great writer worked; our aim was in no way to present these texts as canonical, but to let her many passionate readers-- not only scholars, but anyone for whom Bishop’s poetry is meaningful--learn more about how she wrote. Vendler writes that other poets are burning their drafts, “fearing an Alice Quinn in their future.” Most of them should relax. Elizabeth Bishop is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest of American poets, which means that everything she wrote is of interest. This level of scrutiny will apply to only a very, very few. Bishop’s letters, edited by Robert Giroux in One Art, revealed much about this famously reticent writer’s difficult life, and I don’t think anyone found this untoward, though the writer herself would surely have had serious reservations about publishing them. Eventually, however, a great artist becomes his admirers, as W. H. Auden said of Yeats; recognizing that Bishop is an essential part of our cultural patrimony, her executors have wisely chosen the path of candor and openness in approaching her literary remains, and our publication of this volume is in this spirit. (Other books of her work are planned, among them an edition of the complete correspondence between Bishop and her closest fellow poet, Robert Lowell.) Accuracy, spontaneity, mystery--as Vendler points out, these were the qualities that Bishop admired most in poetry and strove to attain in her own writing. Watching Bishop at work here--seeing the substrate out of which her miraculous poems emerged, as Quinn allows us to with great sensitivity and tact- -lets us ponder the strange alchemy that makes a great writer truly great. And this only deepens the wonder, making her achievement all the more mysterious and moving. jonathan galassi President and Publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux New York, New York helen vendler responds: Of course drafts and fragments of significant poets can, should be, and are published--but they should be called (as, say, the corresponding Yeats drafts are called) “Manuscript Materials” and not “Uncollected Poems,” which means complete and acknowledged works published by the author (in journals) but never republished in a volume. Bishop never published any of the poems in Quinn’s edition (although the look of the book in size and jacket, uniform with that of The Complete Poems, makes them seem like equal parts of a finished and authorized body of work). And a rejected draft of fragment should not posthumously appear in a magazine over the signature “Elizabeth Bishop” as if it were an actual poem--as if it had the same status as an approved poem published over the author’s signature in her lifetime. I don’t know of any other dead poet who has been subjected to such a travesty. I did not (and do not) object to the fact of presenting a dead author’s drafts--how could I, since I use such instructive materials all the time. What I did object to was the manner of presentation in this case--the editor’s attempt to blur the line between a draft and a finished poem, especially the printing of drafts in magazines as finished poems, a practice Jonathan Galassi does not address or defend, though it is of a piece with the attitude and claims informing the edition. Nor does he defend the bizarre absence of transcriptions of the handwritten drafts or other inadequacies that I mentioned. I so admire Galassi’s edition of Montale that I wish he had been able to ensure that this edition was one of comparable quality.