Revealing the Private
Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Secular
By Robert Coles, $16.95.
New York: Crossroads, 204 pp.
IN Milan Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, he remarks at one point in the seemingly disjointed work, that it is indeed a novel, for when it is not about the work's main character, it is for her. This same sentiment seems to run through Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities Robert Coles' latest published work, Harvard Diary. For when it is not about his father, one has the sense, this collection of essays is for him.
Culled from the column for The New Oxford Review that he has filled for several years now, these essays resemble closely the letters that his father used to meticulously prepare as he tried to make sense of a world whose meaning otherwise might escape him. As a young child, Coles recalls, he was perplexed by the obstinancy of his father's letter writing habit, but in this volume he seems to have grasped fully its purpose and its potential as a means of reflecting on grand themes in short spaces.
Of course, Coles has taken his father's technique to a new dimension--one which inevitably changes the task altogether--by making his private musings public. His entries are almost without fail thoughtful and challenging meditations on the importance of spirituality, humility and the capacity of other people to awaken ourselves to such oft-forgotten traits. However, the somewhat more noble task of one man confronting a few blank pages in quiet reflection--alone with himself--is lost in the more didactic enterprise that comes with addressing an anonymous mass of readers.
For when Coles sticks to himself, struggles on his own to come to terms with a particular novel, or even a particular conversation with someone, he is a joy to encounter. Despite the up-front Chrisitianity of this volume, one begins to hear a more ecumenical spiritualism at the heart of his writing, as he consistently makes the argument that in this world we have too often closed our eyes to or explained away the mysteries of the next.
As one thinks of other collections of columns which have recently been published, generally by journalists, one becomes even more grateful for the publication of Harvard Diary. Michael Kinsley's recently published compilation of his articles, The Curse of the Giant Muffins, marks the effort of one clever and clear thinker who has devoted his mind to picking apart the foibles of various well-known individuals.
COLES in contrast is doing something far less popular these days, and consequently, something far more urgent, reminding us of the tremendous integrity of so many who either live with us or who have lived before us. Time and again, Coles uses his three or four pages to stop and marvel at the courage or faith or humanity of those he has come into contact with, be it Dorothy Day, a sharecropper, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or a six-year old Black child who went to class despite racist taunts as the New Orleans public schools were being integrated.
In the face of the unrelenting cynicism of those who take the time to put pen to paper on a regular basis these days, Cole's sentimentalism--what even he admits to be a weakness for sugary-sweet melodrama--is not only refreshing, but also provocative. It forces us to consider whether we measure up to standards set before us, for in deifying certain individuals, Coles seals off from us the escape route of searching for faults in those seeking to do good.
Coles tells of his confrontation with a 10-year old farmworker in the 1960s. Positive that this girl must somewhere have some of the anger and resentment entitled to her by her class, he challenges her only to find that she is blessed with sympathy and compassion for all. "Do you think we should really cry for eveyone, everywhere according to Jesus?" Coles asks. "Yes sir, I do," she answers. Stories like that are enough to turn you in on yourself--who you are, how much anger, or love, is part of you.
But if one of the improvements on his father's habit of writing letters is that more people are touched by Coles' inward struggles, one of the drawbacks is that it invites a kind of topicalism and didacticism which seems quite out of joint with the spirit of this book.
His attempts to work out his thoughts on abortion and school prayer, which tend towards conservative conclusions, lack the generosity of his other efforts and even his other paragraphs in those same essays. When he remembers his own pleasure at praying in school, or the courage of those patients of his who have chosen to have children when an abortion would have been understandable, Coles is compelling and his wonderment, challenging.
BUT when he goes on to argue for a return to prayer and school, or to suggest that abortion should be made illegal, he loses his way. His usual sympathy for the underdog gives way to the kind of careless (one is tempted to say, heartless) cynicism so regrettably familiar to all of us. In his brief chapter on school prayer, he makes light of the "emotions" of the lone dissenting child who, because of his doubts about God deprives others of the right to pray for theirs.
Coles does not consider the possibility that the reason some may oppose school prayer springs not from doubt, but instead from faith in a different, less popular God than Jesus. And one wonders why in this instance the dissenter's very loneliness does not inspire compassion rather than contemn from Coles.
His entire book seems to indicate that religion works its magic best when it evidences itself in a conversation between two people searching to learn about each other. One would hate to see this spontaneous spiritualism traded in for a designated time of quiet. It is equally discouraging to see it so quickly forgotten or belittled by Coles in his eagerness to have school prayer legalized.
Near the end of his diary, Coles reflects that he is very much his parent's child, and one of the characteristics of his parents was that they were not particularly political. Coles' forum invites him to be political, or at least to comment on particular questions of public policy. But there are thinkers aplenty willing to bear that burden, and Coles would do better to leave that work for them, as he generally seems content to do.