Unbecoming American: Sacerdotal Scholarship

Where is the index? A cultural historical explanation

The publication of Church Clothes in 2004 was intended to satisfy two requirements. First of all the academic regulations of the German university system prescribe that the doctoral degrees can only be awarded for published research. The candidate must prove by submitting a publisher’s contract or by delivering some 200 depository copies of the final work in library quality format. I was fortunate through my association with Maisonneuve Press, which I had helped found in 1987, to find an editor, Robert Merrill, who was also persuaded that it merited a place in the series he had initiated, “Washington Studies in World Intellectual History”. The second reason for its publication was personal. Aware that I would have difficulty finding anyone to support my research interests financially I committed myself to writing a book that would satisfy the scholarly requirements for an advanced degree. The degree and attendant publication were my reward for a book I had to write.

The Church into which I had been baptized had interested me intensely since my early youth. I decided at the age of 16, after several pleasant veranda conversations with the parish priest, that none of what was said in the mass had any meaning for me. The pastor finally responded by telling me I should stop going if that was the case. I did, partly. I stopped attending mass as a parishioner or one of the faithful. However it was only in my 50s that I found myself unable even to enter a church without a kind of shudder. As a youth my father relocated us several times. Those moves were radical not only in a geographical sense but in terms of timing and development.

The German pedagogue and philosopher Rudolf Steiner defined the critical stages of childhood development in seven-year terms. The first period ends about the age of seven when the deciduous teeth fall out and are replaced by permanent ones. The second period coincides roughly with puberty. Steiner asserted that these biological transformations also marked fundamental changes in the psychology or personality of the individual. It is not very hard to imagine the plausibility of this argument if one considers that such maturity actually includes the replacement of virtually all the cells in the human body. Hence a fourteen-year-old is not a five-year-old with nine more years of residence. Rather she or he is a completely different organism. The comparison with metamorphosis is not exaggerated. Thus my father’s relocations roughly coincided with those stages of growth. When he died in the middle of the second stage, something like one of those boosters they told us had placed a few American pilots on the moon, I was compelled to organize my personality on my own. An early penchant for collecting, writing and organization provided the foundation for a proto-scholarly approach to my own development. I cannot say if that was precocious because I was too solitary to engage in comparisons. Nonetheless my interest in stability of place and institution had been repeatedly frustrated by changes in homes and schools, friends and foes. As an only son, in a household of females, my personality became a historical research project before I even knew the nature of that activity.

The practical questions of where am I at home and to whom or what do I belong evolved into theoretical experiments. By the time I began my tertiary education I had decided to study institutions and organization and how they operate—what I thought I would learn in the field of political science and eventually the law. I began with two institutions about which I knew the most, the military and the Church. My increasing interest in the law led me to examine what I later learned was called “the land question.” Although I had never wanted to become a teacher I found myself studying education and its relevance for the institutions and organizations I was studying. Both my bachelor’s honors thesis and my master’s thesis were attempts to reduce what I had learned and what I thought about these issues to writing. Each time I produced an essay that met with curiosity and misunderstanding. Nonetheless I was fortunate in that my readers were willing to pass my work for the purposes of completing my degrees. They accepted in form what they might otherwise not have cherished in content. I still had a very naïve understanding of academic research and writing. As a result I did not notice until I had finished the first draft of my doctoral thesis—which became this book—that what I thought was a virtue was in fact a professional deficit or vice. From the very beginning I have always been very curious about everything but not very focussed on any one thing. My interests have guided me to examine the relationships of the parts of everything to what appears as a dynamic whole. I could not understand the Church merely by studying it. I had to study all the things around it. The purpose of research and analysis was to find the ways the Church as one formation are expressed, perceived, maintained or changed throughout the environment in which it is found. Political science, to the extent its practitioners have attempted to imitate quantitative or laboratory science, has paid lip service to the impossibility of observing its subject matter in isolation while establishing cadres of professionals who pretend that this is possible. I found it impossible. I could not work that way.

This inability to specialize or to perform as a laboratory technician in social sciences was one reason for my failure to find professional employment for any length of time. However the absence of a career path also liberated me to choose and pursue subjects that I felt important in the ways that seemed to me most fruitful. I have known many scholars whose employment is barely distinguishable from that of an assembly line worker or a bank teller. They spend the bulk of their time reproducing the ideas of others and “counting other people’s money” instead of their own. By the time they have attained the rank and station which would allow them to choose their own research interests, they are exhausted, distracted or retired. Although I never wanted to become a teacher, in fact I worked for much of my life as a teacher of languages, history and social sciences. I found similar problems not addressed in the profuse literature about education and schooling. Almost all of my colleagues had been pupils, then students and finally teachers. They had never left school or seen anything else. Their proficiency, whether great or small, was limited to the vessel in which they had been travelling since the age of four or five. Every pupil or student was essentially raw material that it was their job to process whether it was to become an Opel Cadet or a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. The idea that all but a very few of those children or young people would spend the rest of their lives in school or university had little consequence for their daily practice. The cliché that most appropriately describes this condition is “if all you have is a hammer then everything else becomes a nail.”

Footnotes, bibliographies, and indices are customary tools for scholarly writing. I do not deny their utility. Here I merely want to explain the absence of indices, the character of the bibliography and the idiosyncratic nature of the footnotes. Taken together these deviations from the generally accepted standards of academic scholarship may constitute a defect, despite the fact that the committee that approved it did not see this defect as an obstacle to award of the degree Doctor of Political-Economic Science (Dr. rer. pol.). I have been asked about these deviations by readers who found the book difficult to use. Here I do not offer an apology but an explanation.

I am immensely grateful for the indices, footnotes and bibliographies in the many sources upon which I drew while conducting the research for this book. When I first decided to remedy the aforementioned defects for a second edition I started to read the essay again. I was reminded of why and how I wrote it and determined that it was impossible for me to write an index.

My work owes an enormous debt to the late Morse Peckham whom I must identify as my undergraduate mentor although I only attended his lectures in the graduate division and read his principal theoretical work Explanation and Power as a galley print before it was actually published. Since he no longer taught undergraduate courses while I was a student, the only way to work with him was to enrol in independent study courses. I persuaded him to supervise my bachelor’s thesis and spent the rest of my time in his graduate cultural history lectures. Peckham’s far too neglected work was almost always devoid of footnotes. His earliest theoretical work, Man’s Rage for Chaos, was initially published not by a scholarly press but by a firm (Chilton) mainly known for its automotive handbooks. It would have been impossible for him to provide more than a sliver of bibliography because the voracious reading, observing and listening that generated the data for his books far exceeded the capacity of any useful scholarly apparatus. Peckham’s work did not display the sources of his evidence or insight. Instead it provoked the attentive reader to do that work—to go out and find what his books told the reader could be found in the culture. He would say “words don’t refer to anything, people do.”

Before I met Morse Peckham I had read the work of a very different author, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I was about 10 or 11 years old when I asked my grandmother to buy me a copy of The Gulag Archipelago that had just appeared in paperback.

As a mere schoolboy who had been reading whatever history and geography books the school library contained, I still had no idea what footnotes were. Solzhenitsyn had attempted to give an account of his experience and interpretation of the institution most notoriously associated with Joseph Stalin during his tenure as leader of the USSR, the prison system and its labor camps. (He did not know about the US version of forced labor camps which has persisted long after the demise of Stalin and the Soviet Union.) The Gulag Archipelago describes what he and those whom he knew or whose histories he had investigated during the Stalin era. Largely comprised of testimony and commentary, the massive book is filled with footnotes that often filled as much or more of a page than the ostensible primary text. It was a personal narrative amplified by innumerable accounts and accompanying explanations. The sheer mass of footnotes lends Solzhenitsyn’s story a ponderous weight no ordinary reader can balance. In the West it has been treated as a primary source despite the gradual disclosure and proliferation of data that cannot be reconciled with the story of a universal prison-industrial complex, the gulag, that Solzhenitsyn and his patrons in the West were committed to expose and condemn (and with it any claims to legitimacy by the USSR).

Solzhenitsyn’s use of that scholarly tool, although he was no academician, endowed the work with an authority not only an eleven-year-old felt obliged to accept. However the way in which the footnotes have to be read—in order to even understand the book—makes it difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. One soon no longer knows which text is central and which is ancillary. I came to the conclusion that the distinction is meaningless. The footnotes to the Gulag are not a traditional scholarly appendage to an empirical research report and assessment. They are in fact commentary on the principal text itself. In other words, Solzhenitsyn was writing and interpreting his writing at the same time. The footnotes have to be read as an integral part of the text flow and not as references or distinct evidence for the assertions of the principal story. It is best compared with a work of exegesis.

Twice in my early years I seriously considered a religious vocation (I had seen enough of the military to recognize that I was singularly unsuited for the Army or the Navy, and I have no wings.) Unlike my great-uncle who at sixteen already committed himself to a Latin lay teaching order, the Brothers of the Christian Schools, I was unsuited for life in an organization. It may be impossible to know the existence or nature of a deity but only an idiot would suggest that the Church did not exist. If “God” did not exist, the Church would have invented him. Yet the culture into which I was born and the intangible qualities I had obviously inherited determined in ways I can only now appreciate the character that shaped my desire to satisfy an insatiable curiosity and compulsion to observe and explain—at least to myself—what I saw. There had to be some reason why my first school teacher, Wanda Wojtowicz, wrote in 1964, “During work period he is so slow, mainly because he will stop and watch others.” In her last comments promoting me to the first grade she noted, “he is still quite slow in work—but he does eventually get it done and usually very well.”

This book was actually written in two months prior to the date I had managed to fix for the examination committee session. Its completion was preceded by ten years of intensive observation, including two months in Brazil in 1986 and three months in South Africa in 1991. It is the record of ten years of watching others.

What we have become accustomed to see and accept as scholarship has in fact been the habit of clerical activity, i.e. copying and illuminating texts. The original purpose of such activity was to produce iconographic and pedagogical materials by which the culture as defined by the Latin Church (and in a different style the orthodox Church) could be exemplified. That meant in the world ruled by Christendom the systematic and ritual reproduction of elements of the Faith. Scholarship was a tool used by the clergy for elaborating the instructions by which the Faithful were to be ruled and the unfaithful punished. That is still its function today. The conversion of illumination and exegesis into the rituals of scientific procedure in the 19th and 20th centuries was an ideological shift within an exceptionally aggressive culture with powerful methods for applying organized violence. Mass literacy meant that the homily delivered from the pulpit had to be printed. If such literacy was not to escape political control then the previously oral devices for imposing and regulating shared meaning would have to be augmented by a regime for control of text production and proliferation. There had to be means for establishing authority in the text and over the bulk of text in circulation. In the 11th century Scripture was sufficient for justification. In the 19th century both revolutionary wars and the rise of industrial power challenged and in some cases even overthrew the previous order of things. The Bible and the writings of the Church Fathers—real or forged—were supplanted by the works derived from studying the archives of the State. Later other sources were adopted as canonical.

Received history and scholastic disputation emerged as the product of the struggle to establish criteria and technology for authoritative or canonical interpretation. The university was transformed from a hostel for training priests to a machine for producing historical, social and technological tools with which to manage the partially laicized society. Now “scientific method” would replace the theological rhetoric for training the secular clerks and regulating what the Faithful ought to believe and practice. Instead of the absolute reference to Scripture, belief was to be regulated by the overdetermined structure produced by scholars who competed for canonical status and authority.

Church Clothes is an intentional reference to this insight appreciated in Thomas Carlyle’s enigmatic Sartor Resartus. What Carlyle demonstrated in Britain, Henry Adams formulated in The Education on the opposite Atlantic coast. Michelet reached a similar conclusion in his own history of the French Revolution. And they all owed a share to the Hegel in Germany. Nietzsche expanded these ideas. Tolstoy expressed them in the very special Russian idiom, one followed in the 20th century by Mikhail Scholokhov.

The problem of justifying, i.e. explaining the imposition of shared meaning by means short of brute force (with brute force always implied), the order of what we for want of a better term call human society can always only be temporarily solved. No justification or explanation can ever cover all conceivable cases or controversies. Moreover since that society is not immanent—even if ancient and habitual—every new generation must be taught how to behave and what to believe. Solutions to the problem of justification are only recognizable in retrospect. Those who found themselves compelled to manage the contradictions that result—as opposed to suppressing them—impelled what Morse Peckham tried to explain in his career studying Romanticism. I suggest that while Romanticism is a specifically Western cultural product, its reception in the 20th century was conditioned only partly by the revolutionary inspirations of 1789. In a quite different and more ancient context Neo-Confucianism might be seen as a response to these irresolvable tensions in the middle of the world. The importation of Western ecclesiastical structures, like the Jesuit-shaped communist party, has clearly not just Westernized China and Korea. It has also introduced organizational technology which amazed the Chinese when Matteo Ricci arrived in the Beijing in 1601.

When I decided to prepare a second edition of Church Clothes my intention was to add an updated introduction and an index, to make it a complete scholarly work and remedy the omissions of past expediency. I also recognized that many foreign language citations needed to be translated into English. I also knew that a minor scholar of my standing ought to have produced a book with rigorous attention to scholarly scaffolding.

Then after 27 years it was time to give the interested reader as well as other scholars the benefit of those tools. Alas I found it not only impossible but inappropriate to do so. This is a book which records the results of my observations of what others were doing—and still may be doing—in the languages in which I observed and assessed. There is no index to ongoing intellectual activity of this kind. There is no index to life, before it ends at least. The reader, the living, thinking person must tailor life while living it. That is why each tailor is always re-tailoring.



In Solar Terms

Fruit of the Vine: Volume 1: An Intelligent Family,

Author’s book interview:

Dr. T.P. Wilkinson, aka Wei Santang discusses his two new books, “In Solar Terms” and “Fruit of the Vine”. China Rising Radio Sinoland 231215

Poems and articles on Dissident Voice:


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