History and Memory
I first encountered John Lukacs through a New Yorker article in which he described a hike through Switzerland, staying nightly at a hotel. This riveting article made me an instant fan of the writer. Born in Hungary in 1924, Lukacs came to this country in 1946. The author now of more than two dozen books, he could have had a chair of history at Harvard, Yale or Stanford. Instead he chose to spend his academic life teaching at Chestnut Hill, a small women’s college run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Philadelphia.
For this decision there were, he discloses in this too short volume of reflections on history and on his life, two reasons: his attachment to the home where he has lived for over half a century, in Chester County, outside Philadelphia; and what Lukacs calls “my alienation from my profession.” Following age-mandated retirement from his college teaching position, he was invited to teach a single course at the nearby University of Pennsylvania. He knew only two of its history department’s 45 professors. “Soon it was obvious that none of the others desired to meet me.” After three semesters, he was terminated. “He is a historian,” he overheard another professor saying of him in a condescending tone at an academic conference 15 years ago, “but he is really a writer.” Lukacs’s experience can be replicated in other professions. For every prelate of the caliber of a Basil Hume, a Karol Wojtyla or a Joseph Ratzinger, there are easily a dozen priests with similar or greater gifts who languish unknown because they are too “different,” too prone to “make waves.”
Non-philosophers will find Lukacs’s opening chapter, on his philosophy of history, heavy going. I recommend starting with Chapter Five: “Intermezzo: My Churchill Saga,” in which Lukacs tells how he became fascinated with the man who, alone and by sheer force of will, forced England to fight on against Hitler when others in the inner War Cabinet wanted to ask for terms of peace. Lukacs tells the story in one of his most fascinating books, Five Days in London: May 1940—made possible by the opening of the British cabinet archives for that year in 1970. Churchill’s subsequent silence about those tension-filled days in which “Hitler came close to winning the Second World War” was an example, Lukacs writes, of his magnanimity. He did not wish to embarrass the man who wanted to throw in the towel: his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, subsequently Britain’s wartime ambassador to the United States.
Immediately following is Lukacs’s chapter titled “The World Within Me: Wives and Loves,” in which he pays tribute to the two wives who have pre-deceased him, and the one to whom he is still married. Why did he not marry Hungarian women? There were none around. “But there was more than that. Beyond (or beneath?) their various charms there was my wives’ Americanness that I found attractive.” “Hungary [he writes in another connection] is my mother, America my wife.” The reader who can finish this chapter unmoved has no soul.
A recurrent theme in the book is Lukacs’s consciousness of living not at the end of an age, but beyond it. With the fall of Communism in 1989 he became aware “that an entire civilization, the European era of five hundred years, that I cherished and to which I belonged, was gone.” He deplores the decline of the written and printed word, the change from a verbal to a pictorial culture; the cult of sloppiness, ugliness, even brutality; the unconcern with which our 41st president, from a privileged background, referred to his “grandkids.” (That many readers will not understand this last example merely illustrates how far we have come, as Lukacs has written elsewhere, from a world in which mothers were “Mummy” to one in which they are “Mom.”) “The barbarians are now well within the—largely demolished—gates.”
Lukacs lives close to a stream that feeds into a nearby reservoir. “One unforgettable evening about a dozen years ago,” he decided to row downstream to friends, two miles distant. They shared a drink, and Lukacs rowed home. Alone, in the middle of the reservoir, with no light save for a sickle moon, “I was full of gratitude for what God and this country had allowed me, for this silent world where I belonged, where I had chosen to live.”
In a moving personal statement of faith at the book’s end Lukacs regrets the consequences of growing old: a weakening of his appetite for life, for reading and for the past. Not weakened, however, is “my gratitude to the past, including those who loved me and whom I loved. Beneath and above them is my enduring gratitude to God, for both my past and my present. Will the sincerity of this gratitude suffice to escape His adverse judgment of me? I do not think so; I only hope.”
Lukacs concludes with a quotation from Pope Leo XIII, who wrote when he opened the Vatican archives to historians in 1883: “In a way all history cries aloud that God is.”
“Send the audience home wanting more,” they say in the theater. With this beautiful book, by turns captivating, amusing and moving, John Lukacs has done just that.