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For B, and other youth whose grateful acres host, if not prairies, at least patchy meadows. And for Gary McVey.
It’s been a year since Will Arbery’s play, Heroes of the Fourth Turning, took the conservative Catholic blogosphere – or rather, that part able to see the play or a private script – by storm. Now the script is available to the public. I ordered my copy here. If you can afford to, read it. Theaters remain closed, but the theater of imagination richly rewards reading a play. Reading reveals motifs easy to miss when a play just happens to you in performance and you can’t revisit it. This review addresses unspoken pressures, like the prosperity gospel (which may not influence orthodox Christians’ theology, but can influence their social expectations), behind what conservatives speculate is Heroes’ demonic finale, the “We” who may, or may not be, Legion.
Heroes opens near dawn at Justin’s house, after the Charlottesville riots but before the eclipse. Age 38, Justin is the cowboy of the tiny Transfiguration College in rural Wyoming, a conservative Catholic Great Books school. An all-around country guy and studly Rad Trad, he breaks horses for the students’ extensive wilderness curriculum. Studly, yet safe: Justin graduated from Transfiguration seven years ago as an older student who found Transfiguration a refuge from the “poison” of the world, where he’d seen Marine service and divorce. He takes Catholicism too seriously to make remarriage thinkable, committing himself to a celibate warrior-monk-style existence. A deer interrupts Justin’s morning meditation. Perhaps it is thirsty (he later mentions tinderbox-dry conditions). Justin shoots it and struggles, despite his manly competence, to gut it on his porch. The blood on his porch won’t wash clean.
That night, Justin hosts a party. Heroes is about the party’s stragglers. Transfiguration College has a new president, Gina, and Justin is good buddies with 25-year-old Emily, Gina’s ailing daughter. Kevin, 28, and Teresa, 29, were Justin’s classmates at Transfiguration. All three had “Dr. Gina” as a professor, and Transfiguration is close-knit enough to invite its alumni back to campus for Gina’s investiture. When Emily, who didn’t attend Transfiguration, asks Justin, “Hey does this school actually… make good people?” Justin replies that most Transfiguration alumni are “Healthy. Happy. Humble. Building families. This school makes ninety-nine percent great people.” Those aren’t the people we see. We see the “weird lingerers” on Justin’s unclean porch.
Teresa, Gina’s one-time protege, is a rising right-wing pundit and coked-up Bannonite, Coulter 2.0 in the making. Ruthlessness is Teresa’s mission. Bannon loves The Fourth Turning, and so does she. She says there’s a war coming, and her peers can be heroes, if only they’ll rise to the challenge. Teresa loves winning and despises “weak” people, including her own mother, as “diseased”. She has answers for everything and repeatedly demands others apologize to her for not having paid her enough attention.
Kevin, who is miserably drunk and lonely, has spent his years since graduation mired in petty addictions, despite Transfiguration’s claim to teach its students better. As Kevin says, Transfiguration’s “explicit mission was to train me to be a leader in the world, but I was not ready for the world. It’s been seven years and this whole time I’ve been paralyzed. What have I done with all of it?” He’s drowning in self-loathing, clinging to Catholicism because “It lets me be weak.” His faith seems plagued with adolescent doubts his Transfiguration years should have slayed. Only, they didn’t. Kevin’s head knows plenty, but his heart yearns to play holy fool, though he wrecks the “holy” part.
Teresa wonders how a Transfiguration alumnus could be so contemptibly weak, no longer “strong” and “one of us” but “a pale American soy boy.” Kevin can’t contain his vulgarity. He worries he has a demon, his twisted outbursts and visions hinting he might be right. Still, as Teresa says, “I think you blame your problems on demons, but really you’re just morally lazy.”
Emily, Gina’s daughter, spent her college years getting as far from Transfiguration as she could, only to be dragged back by disability. Emily hasn’t rebelled against her Catholic faith. She fled to the Big City not to luxuriate in debauchery, but to do pro-life work as a crisis pregnancy counselor. Still, she has rebelled against the notion that full Catholic faith entails the politics Transfiguration promotes, making her “the play’s closest thing to a liberal foil”, as well as the play’s closest thing to Everywoman.
Emily is “very compelling and nice” despite illness since age 18, modeling her perseverance in suffering on Flannery O’Connor’s. Still, Emily wants “to die a lot.” She hates guns, perhaps for the same reason Kevin does: “I was always afraid of holding one cuz I thought I’d just stare into the barrel and pull the trigger.” She wishes people had more empathy for viewpoints not their own, and though Teresa tells Emily, “You are the good in this world, girl,” Teresa also chides, “Oh don’t with the empathy. Liberals are empathy addicts. Empathy empathy empathy. Empathy is empty.”
Emily had already described her life as empty, though not from empathy. Rather more obviously, illness cuts Emily off from activity typifying virtuous youth. Kevin admits he has chosen not to amount to anything
This is not what I was given —
I have chosen this —
I have chosen to destroy myself —
but Emily’s failure to launch seems given, not chosen, and she hates it even as she finds grace to endure it. Emily has lately been bedbound. How does youth build a future from bed? How could Emily build a marriage, especially one as open to childbearing as her faith demands? Nobody asks these questions aloud, but nobody has to. They loom over Emily unspoken. They loom largest in comparison to her own mother, Gina, the new college president, who is supposed to arrive soon to drive her home. “Soon” takes a while, though.
Gina eventually arrives, exciting Teresa, who stayed to ask Gina a favor. Gina is truly the woman who has it all — a fruitful family, a full career, secure faith, and even the heroism of accomplishing it all despite risk and pain. Each child she bore would kill her, Gina says the doctors said – and she bore eight. Then breast cancer. And finally, in late middle age, Gina simply bears pain. Pain crowning a fulfilling life, therefore pain easy to frame as redemptive. Unlike Emily’s pain.
Emily, Heroes implies, suffers from chronic Lyme disease. This diagnosis attracts patients desperate to escape blame for their suffering, which may say less about them than it does our fear that accepting undiagnosed illness invites malingering. The existence of chronic Lyme is disputed, casting doubt not only on the morality of the doctors who treat it, but on the morality of the suffering patients, too.
I don’t endorse that doubt. Neither does Arbery, who dedicates Heroes to his sister, Monica, whom he calls “my hero” who “keeps letting me write about her”, a woman who used to work at a crisis pregnancy center and who suffers grievously from chronic Lyme. Nor do Justin, Kevin, or Teresa – though Teresa teases that Emily uses the fact of her illness to exploit others’ sympathies. The only one to drop a hint of suspicion that Emily is malingering is Gina. Yet the hint is dropped, and Arbery must know that creating a character with contested disability differs from creating one with uncontested disability.
While the stragglers wait for Gina, they indulge in one last late-night college bull session. The session is occasionally interrupted by a deafening screech, “Part machine, part animal”, that Justin excuses as his generator. Each conversant has a leitmotif, or schtick, whether it’s Kevin’s schtick as devil’s advocate or Justin’s “grateful acre”.
Teresa is the fast talker, talking up the New Right in oh, so many ways. The “scandal of the particular”, for example: God reveals Himself to particular nobodies, even in the person of the particular nobody Jesus — and this particularity, she insists, entails nationalist politics. And, of course, liberals are evil. Inconsistently, Teresa defaults to contempt for the scandalous particularities of the living, breathing nobodies around her, preferring to reduce them to archetypes, like the archetypal “heroes” in The Fourth Turning.
Emily’s schtick is of the “Can’t we all get along?” sort, though she herself struggles to get along with Teresa and Gina. She’s annoyed her schtick isn’t as articulate in debate as the others’ since she doesn’t value debate as they do — she’s not from Transfiguration, after all. She insists liberals aren’t evil, even when they’re part of an evil system, and that conservatives and liberals can share friendship and common goals. Still, even Emily gets her Big Conservative Moment, a paean to givenness opposing transgender politics:
“We are given ourselves,” Emily begins. “There’s a mystery in the givenness. And we’re sharing that givenness with God. And I don’t judge” what Kevin calls “this transgender thing” but she does “feel like these days that it’s like…it’s like popular to reject the truth of ourselves as given.” Emily calls the grateful acre of her body
a friggin prairie of pain,
and I can’t choose to make it go away
It’s just what I’ve been given.
The American right nods sagely in agreement: Yes, life can be painful, but if the Emilys of the world can find the grace to humble themselves into accepting what they’re given, however excruciating, surely it’s not too much to ask the same of those who find their natal sex so alienating that the risky, costly process of passing for the opposite sex, or eschewing normal presentation entirely, seems like an attractive alternative. Except, for the most part, the red tribe does not teach suffering people to simply accept their suffering as given. Instead, we teach them the American way is to tough up and improve themselves till they triumph over suffering:
Like Teresa, we can easily insinuate that those who meekly accept suffering as given are, well, losers. They’re succumbing to the “victim mentality”. Christian orthodoxy cultivates one attitude toward givenness, but prosperity-gospel-inflected American orthodoxy cultivates another, and it’s easy for this American orthodoxy to shape American Christians’ social expectations even as their theology explicitly rejects it. When we anoint a prosperity-gospel president to figurehead American orthodoxy, it becomes even easier.
Claims that a president Trump made the world a crueler place mention Trump’s crudity, but how much cruelty would less crudity solve? To the extent Trump thinks about religion, he seems to naively accept a prosperity gospel, a cruel gospel, no matter how suave and well-mannered its proponents, shaming those who discover the hope it offers proves false. If a president Trump were bad, mightn’t a president Osteen be far worse?
The prosperity gospel whispers, what if Emily isn’t a hero? What if Emily is just a loser?
After all, Emily offers no proof she’s not malingering. Her eloquent testimony to suffering could be mere catastrophizing. Worse, Emily doesn’t even try to be tough. Emily asks to be carried when she can still walk. That a sick, lonely girl pining for romance or just human contact would want to be carried in the arms of a cowboy who accepts her as she is is understandable, even heartbreaking. But tough people aren’t carried when they can walk, no matter how much the walking hurts. Toughness would rather crawl than burden another.
No wonder Emily’s own mother, whom Emily describes as “a hero… walking around in tremendous pain every freaking day. And she never complains”, finds Emily’s illness morally suspect. Gina punctuates her exasperation at Emily with “And then you wonder why we have questions about this disease.” Ouch!
As Gina converses with Transfiguration’s “weird lingerers”, she rebukes their unquiet hearts, restless as parched deer, saying, “You’re all forgetting your being.” Soon Gina wonders aloud,
Aren’t we allowed to just be?
Do we have to keep making ourselves?
Gina must know the American right answers these questions no and yes, respectively. America is the land of self-making, after all. She may find these answers disenchanting; nonetheless, they shape her own expectations. If mere being were enough, why would Gina treat Emily as the dud of her large brood?
No, being isn’t quite enough for Gina, though she may wish it were. Not if it means being weak. Gina values toughness a bit too much for that. They all do.
Christians seek redemption through both productivity and suffering. American Christians more specifically expect suffering to produce; for pain to bear the fruit that proves you’re tough enough. We display our redemption through tough self-making, by being as productive as we’re “able” to be — and whether any particular suffering truly renders us “unable” isn’t obvious. Some tough cookies achieve mightily despite suffering, so why not us?
Though Gina’s pain has borne fruit: her exceptionally full life is well worth the pain. Though Justin’s pain has borne fruit: it bought him freedom from a worldly life he’d grown sick of. Weak Kevin admits his pain is self-inflicted, poison fruit from a self-poisoned tree. Tough Teresa can easily plump for “painful particularity” because she’s riding too high to feel pain. Only Emily’s pain has not borne fruit. Worse, while counseling crisis pregnancies, Emily witnessed too many women in degrading, unfruitful, pain; in pain that kills the self — though not in the spiritually fruitful sense of “dying to self” — and kills more on its way through. Emily needs pain to produce redemption, else Emily and many she’s counseled produce nothing. But Emily knows better than the rest how easily need goes unmet.
Gina has been too bright red a Catholic for too long to evade complicity in the red tribe’s prosperity-gospel morality or its populist racial politics. Gina’s romantic ideals blind her to expectations she unwittingly transmits and the full history of the movement she midwived.
Gina extols the virtue of slowness and delay, though slowness to unwind longstanding institutions entails slowness to unwind “peculiar” institutions. She supported Goldwater and Buchanan in her younger years, not because they attracted the segregationist vote, but her tolerating segregation while it still seemed like an established institution makes sense, if even good things should not be rushed. Now Gina worries there’s a racist in the White House. Now Gina tells herself the John Birch Society wasn’t invested in opposing civil rights, oh no, not really. Gina can’t bear to scrutinize the peace her movement once brokered with segregation. Teresa calls her on it.
For all Teresa’s brave talk of war against the Left, we see Teresa at her bravest standing up to her old mentor Gina, pinpointing Gina’s complicity. Taking the part in politics Gina took meant taking part in a racial backlash against civil rights, even for those rationalizing the backlash as only about unconstitutional overreach. It could never be just about constitutionality, even for those who fervently wished it were.
Teresa’s bravery springs from calculated harshness. White nationalism neither frightens nor shames Teresa, who argues the coming war means we can’t afford to find white identity politics shameful. Teresa wants Gina to feel pride, not guilt, over complicity, as Teresa herself strives to feel. Emily’s bravery, by contrast – that is, if Emily has bravery and isn’t just an empathy-sodden malingering mushball – springs from gentleness, from accepting givenness.
Arbery understands the right’s ambivalence toward givenness. When yielding to givenness affirms what we consider the natural, healthy, or even just customary categories of traditional society, we’re all for it! But when givenness justifies the slightest whiff of “victimhood”, we grow suspicious, as Gina does of her own daughter.
Does the givenness of historic racism still affect opportunity in this country? Tough. Rise above. No excuses. No yielding. No “victim mentality”. The only way through that givenness is for each individual to vanquish it. But if some individuals try to vanquish the givenness of their natal sex, that’s pure perversion, rejection of mankind’s duty to yield to givenness. Obviously, sexual categories are different from the long shadow cast by having once rationalized race-based slavery. Logic doesn’t forbid believing that some givens exist to be conquered while others don’t. Still, appealing to givenness doesn’t distinguish givens. We keep trying to have givenness both ways. And we keep failing.
The right champions sufferers like Emily to defend against Progressive sexual and racial politics, but absent that tribal threat, what is Emily’s suffering to the right? Quite possibly what Dreher describes: an object lesson in the dangers of being “too soft”, which isn’t a lesson in heroism at all but contemptible weakness. According to Tough Christianity, Emily is so soft, so empathetic, she succumbs to demonic possession in the end. Not according to the playwright, who cautions,
to catholics wrestling with “heroes”: those of you saying that the ending is evidence of the demonic, or “legion,” i would encourage you to think more simply & humanely, about a *single* voice, emily’s, crying out in particular pain, and laying that burden at the feet of her god.
But Emily’s possession is so “obvious” from the tough worldview!
It can’t be that Emily, grown up in the tribe of Christian toughness, harbors enough shame over her failure to productively tough through pain just like good ol’ mom that she finally explodes in self-loathing, calling herself (not Justin) belittling and obscene names. Why would Emily’s rage be the natural, human result of having failed to live up to her tribe’s conflicting expectations regarding givenness, when it could be blamed on demonic infestation brought on by too much empathy?
Or perhaps Arbery is right.
Only, if Arbery is right, who is “We”?
Emily’s explosion is not in Emily’s voice. It’s in the voice of a woman Emily once counseled who hated Emily and got the abortion anyhow, the perfect voice for Emily to use to attack herself and her faithful acceptance of suffering as both given and redemptive:
And my pain doesn’t make me better [obscenity], And my pain doesn’t bring me closer to Jesus [obscenity]… the acre is not grateful, the acre is in pain, the acre is dying, your faith isn’t full, your faith is empty, your faith is stupid, there’s no one there, there’s no one there and he hates you.
Once Emily’s raving ebbs and Justin voices his dismay, she replies,
I love pain
I love it
I love pain
We love it
Perhaps this isn’t the supernatural “We” of Legion but the ordinary human “We” of tribe. Emily, whatever her misgivings, remains a child of her tribe, the tribe willing – even eager – to put in the best word for discomfort, including discomfort for the nobodies (sometimes especially for them). As inevitable. As educational. As medicine for the soul, even as discomfort crescendos into pain.
We are the American right. We are Emily’s Legion. And we love pain. We love it! We love pain’s incentive power. We love pain as righteous judgment. Our Teresas stake our survival as “We” on loving the pain that owns our enemies. Even our Emilys – especially our Emilys – are duty-bound to trust pain’s redemptive power, hopeless as that duty sometimes seems. We need pain as a fact of life. We don’t just tragically accept it, we need it. Our moral order demands it. We fear for the soul of a citizenry too well insulated from pain. We fear the promise of society unlimited by pain. We may fear that promise because we’re morally certain any such promise, at least this side of heaven, is a con. But we don’t fear that promise just because we fear its impossibility. We also love the pain.Published in