Travelogue, literary autobiography, and journalistic exposé of the mores of capital punishment, Rue Rilke chronicles its author’s initiatory Rilke pilgrimage to France and Switzerland and—upon his return to America—his up-close involvement in death penalty politics. Immersed in the legal and human drama unfolding in Houston in the days leading up to an impending execution, the intimate linkage of love and death learned from Rilke aid him in his efforts to confront his country’s sanction of lethal violence and make spiritual sense of his torn, too often black-and-white world.
ABOUT THE BOOK: In 1895 Thea Eide leaves her arctic home in Norway for a better life in America. After a harrowing journey, she arrives in Gunflint, Minn., expecting to find her aunt and uncle and the life she was promised. What she finds instead is an enormous wilderness and a village full of strangers. Twenty-four years later, her son, Odd, is cobbling together a life of his own. A fisherman, boatbuilder, and bootlegger, all he wants is his fair share. When he and Rebekah Grimm, a woman as much his sister as his lover, are forced to flee Gunflint in Odd’s newly built boat, they leave behind the only world Odd has ever known. Told in alternating and parallel narratives, The Lighthouse Road explores the themes of love and family and what it means to live an honest life in a suspect world.
But taking pride in one's country and wittering on about its greatness are different things. Glenn Beck, a conservative broadcaster, ended a recent interview thus: “Do you think this is a country of divine providence? A country of American exceptionalism? If you believe those two things to be true, that means God has a special purpose for this land and freedom.”
The ban will also liberate America's politicians to speak like normal people. At present, failing to lard their speeches with God and greatness can get them into serious trouble.
When Barack Obama visited France last year a British reporter asked the president whether he believed in American exceptionalism. Mr Obama said he did—“just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” You may think that an agreeably tactful answer. And yet some conservatives have turned it into a profane text, one that proves Mr Obama's unfitness for the great office he holds. More than a year after the event they are still banging on about it. In the Washington Post last week Charles Krauthammer wrote the latest of a stream of articles about the Perfidious Reply. With these words, say his detractors, Mr Obama showed his true colours as a man who does not believe genuinely in America's greatness and is secretly reconciled to its eventual decline.
Rather than confronting the havoc and bloodshed to which the United States has contributed, those who worship in the Church of America the Redeemer keep their eyes fixed on the far horizon and the work still to be done in aligning the world with American expectations. At least they would, were it not for the arrival at center stage of a manifestly false prophet who, in promising to “make America great again,” inverts all that “national greatness” is meant to signify.
Nowhere does he consider the possibility that his formula for “national greatness” just might be hooey. Between 1997 and 2017, after all, egged on by people like David Brooks, Americans took a stab at “greatness,” with the execrable Donald Trump now numbering among the eventual results.
Under the circumstances, it’s easy to forget that, back in 2003, he and other members of the Church of America the Redeemer the invasion of Iraq. They welcomed war. They urged it. They did so not because Saddam Hussein was uniquely evil — although he was evil enough — but because they saw in such a war the means for the United States to accomplish its salvific mission. Toppling Saddam and transforming Iraq would provide the mechanism for affirming and renewing America’s “national greatness.”
If that was ever good advice, it is rotten advice now. Americans are not unhappy because they lack an energetic government; many think Mr Obama's administration too energetic by half. The last thing the country needs is to be distracted from its practical problems by the quest for an elusive greatness. Put such language away, says Lexington. America is indeed a great and exceptional country. But it isn't talking about it that makes it so.
When war loses its capacity to exhilarate, seekers after national greatness need something else. Re-enter Mr Krauthammer, fulminating this time against Mr Obama's sensible decision to downsize the plan he inherited from Mr Bush for America to return to the moon by 2020, and thence to Mars. Would returning to the moon and heading for Mars reconnect Americans with their greatness? Many might think the idea batty in present circumstances. But that, of course, is the whole trouble when greatness, undefined, is made into an objective in its own right.
European countries may have better mass transit systemsand more comprehensive health care coverage, but nowhere does theordinary citizen have a better chance to climb up the ladder and toachieve success than in the United States.
What this means is that in America, destiny is not given butcreated.
This is why the greatness talk is not only divisive and obfuscatory but also sometimes dangerous. One antidote to ennui is war. In a recent history of American foreign policy, “The Icarus Syndrome”, Peter Beinart draws a comparison between the Kennedy administration and that of George W. Bush. Kennedy was ardent for glory and the cold war provided the arena. In the eyes of some American conservatives, the war against al-Qaeda offered a similar opportunity to answer the call of greatness. In both cases, Mr Beinart argues, the desire to do great deeds and not simply what was necessary led to episodes of overreach and disappointment.
This would not be the first time American intellectuals have been troubled by the sense of greatness slipping away. Previous episodes have not always coincided with hardship at home or testing foreign wars. Times of ease and plenty can bring on the same longing. In the 1950s, that golden age, Arthur Schlesinger Jr wrote “The Decline of Greatness”, lamenting the departure of great men and the nation's descent into bland conformity.