Call me an eccentric or a crank if you must. Accuse me of tilting at windmills like old Don Quixote: But by all that is holy I will do what I can to insure that so enormous an event as the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr., shall not be swamped by the tormenting transience of the blogosphere, and by so insignificant an event as a presidential election.
Being the eccentric that I am, I had been for almost ten days reading precisely nothing but Buckley (with one brief interlude of Oakeshott-on-Hobbes). Most of the Atlanta Public Library’s collection of Buckley nonfiction is now at my house, though I cannot hope to compete with the beautiful picture presented by my friend Kevin Holtsberry (at right).
So ten days of Buckley — and then Odyssey of a Friend arrived at my local branch, and Buckley retreated (though he never vanished) to make room for the greater man.
Odyssey of a Friend, as most Conservatives know, is a collection of letters, sent by Whittaker Chambers to Buckley during the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was published by the latter, after the former’s death. The rough sketch of a great work of history and philosophy, a book which Chambers never completed, emerges from these riveting epistles. Its haunting lineaments are unmistakable, but most of its specifics are lost to us.
Whittaker Chamber was a prophet, truly. He was granted (blessed or cursed it is hard to say) an image of the future; and awful prescience of things to come, which forever stalked his thoughts. He said that despair led him to Communism: and in a thousand anecdotes of revolutionary fanaticism, committed to memory during those decades of laboring to overthrow the Capitalist and Christian order, he showed us what horrifying determination despair may engender.
It was hope, despair’s contrary and contradictory, that brought him back. And few men sacrificed more for the cause of Liberty, conceived in contrast to the tyranny of Communism, than he. And no one was more convinced that the cause was doomed.
But even with the tremendous transformation, from Despair to Hope, the shrewd analsis of history, the mind trained under revolutionary discipline for perception of objective facts, remained his great asset. He was still a seer, and a superb judge of events.
These letters bristle with insight and that eerie precognition. “Never suppose that the Left has finished with Nixon,” Chambers admonishes Buckley in 1954. For in Nixon the Left sees a man who may be their equal in cunning. “For the Right to tie itself in any way to Senator McCarthy,” he pronounces, “is suicide” — exactly because, alas, McCarthy “can’t lead anybody because he can’t think.” He writes about the differing strategies of Socialism and Communism with such clinical detachment and piercing intuition that the reader is left eyes wide. The purpose of the machinations of Alger Hiss, who was released from prison during the span of these letters, is transparent to Chambers; and you can almost feel the doom closing around him as he describes how powerless he is, and how he must stand alone against this onslaught, lest more important things fall with him.
Dilating on the Hungarian uprising of 1956, Chambers lets loose with perhaps his most remarkable prophecy:
I must try to show why most of the argument about the crisis has seemed to me almost wholly beside the point. Actually, there is more than on point. But one of them has to do with the absence in the West for forty years of a sense of destiny. Power, yes; a sense of destiny, no — and this has found expression in a failure of will, and, to a large degree, of rational hope. Hence, too, by default Communism has been the only force in the world, felt as a force of destiny — its only real strength. This force is not only now corrupt; it is insanely preposterous. It is insane that Communism itself should have destroyed more Communists than all the other governments of the earth taken together; or that, by official record, the last three chiefs of the Soviet secret police should have been traitors to the revolution, intelligence agents of foreign powers all their active lives. And it is insane that the rest of the world could co-exist with, and largely connive at, such insanity. In the absence of any other effective force, there has now emerged, on the Polish and on the Hungarian plains, another force, pathetic in its physical impotence and inequality, but heroic in its purpose which has challenged both the morally empty West and the corrupt Communist power in which, hitherto, destiny has inhered.
Let the reader consider, in this context: (1) just who was doing the Lord’s work out “on the Polish plains,” under the jackboot of Communism, in 1957, and (2) to what office this man would eventually rise. Let him consider the beatific irony of how Stalin’s famous sneer, “The Pope? How many divisions has the Pope?” was answered; and who sat upon the Throne of Saint Peter when the answer came down.
Let him consider, finally, what this piece of staggering prophecy means for our age, where the despair of the West confronts a new antagonist, which is also a very very old one. Let him consider again the ineradicable truth: that even forces “pathetic” in their “physical impotence” may throw down the mightiest empires of this world.