Thursday, June 8, 2023

“Witness”: A Story for the Ages

 From The Imaginative Conservative:

“Man without mysticism is a monster.” This is one of many truth-telling lines in Whittaker Chambers’ truth-telling book, “Witness.” It’s also one of the most telling pieces of evidence in an autobiography that Chambers hoped would be a story for the ages, rather than simply a brief against Alger Hiss. Little could he have known that it might yet prove to be an important story for the very age in which we are living.

To be sure, Witness is also a brief against the Communist Party. Chambers had joined the party in the mid-1920s when he was in his mid-twenties. Convinced that America was then a “dying civilization,” he could see no meaningful alternative.

More specifically, Chambers’ autobiography is a brief against what he had gradually come to regard as essentially a “fascist,” even a “terrorist” organization. For the Whittaker Chambers of Witness, communism, fascism, and socialism were virtually indistinguishable. After all, if “socialism was “justified,” well then “terror was justified.” Having finally become convinced of all that, having observed the Soviet purges with “great revulsion,” having concluded that communism was “more evil” than Stalin,” Chambers would leave the party in 1938.

Last, but far from least, Witness is a brief against the “dying civilization” that was the United States of the Jazz Age. The America of F. Scott Fitzgerald, flappers, and general frivolity was dying? The young Chambers vaguely thought so at the time. The mature Chambers of Witness was convinced of that.

Having recently re-read what must still rank as one of the most compelling autobiographies in all of American literature, I can assure you that it deserves to be re-read—or read—as we contemplate what’s left of a civilization that Whittaker Chambers tells us had begun to die long ago, a civilization that as of the mid-twentieth century was also dying of “indifference and self-satisfaction.”

None other than H. L. Mencken would likely disagree—and not simply because the 1920s was his heyday, when he was the life of the party, prohibition notwithstanding.

Who knows for sure, but the full-time Baltimorean (Mencken) might well have had a part-time Baltimorean (Chambers) in mind when he wrote the following: “I dislike and distrust all communists and Calvinists and other such enemies of reason. But I dislike and distrust ex-communists and ex-Calvinists very much more.” (Read more.)

No comments: