Civilization is Slow Hard Work: A Review of Lee Oser’s “Old Enemies”
Lee Oser. Old Enemies: A Satire. Boston: Senex Press, 2022.   Lee Oser’s new novel, Old Enemies, takes place in a contemporary world dominated by ideology, secularism, technology, mass media, and the politics of outrage. Events of recent memory include widespread riots, the toppling of statues, and the continued decline of civil discourse in America.… The post Civilization is Slow Hard Work: A Review of Lee Oser’s “Old Enemies” appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Lee Oser. Old Enemies: A Satire. Boston: Senex Press, 2022.

 

Lee Oser’s new novel, Old Enemies, takes place in a contemporary world dominated by ideology, secularism, technology, mass media, and the politics of outrage. Events of recent memory include widespread riots, the toppling of statues, and the continued decline of civil discourse in America. An aggressive woke ideology has become increasingly mainstream. Attempts to “cancel” heterodox voices, especially if such voices are heard from the political right, are increasingly common. Throughout this novel, Oser satirizes the various ideologies of our current world that thrive on cultural upheaval. Old Enemies is a satirical but equally insightful response to the events of the past few years, as well as a call to conserve and renew our heritage threatened by woke vandalism.
The story follows the narrator, Moses Shea, an ex-journalist who has been blacklisted from the journalism scene in New York. As the story begins, Moses is down on his luck. He now works for the relatively unimportant Consumer Electronics Show Daily News, but he used to work for the esteemed Times’ Times. He now works long hours doing a job he does not like, but he used to be “an important man” reporting for a top newspaper.[1] He is also middle-aged, double-chinned, and single but he used to be young and in love. The reader quickly learns that Moses had the love of his life stolen away from him by a college friend named Nick Carty, who is now a successful businessman. Nick married Moses’ college girlfriend for a short while, but then he deserted her.
In a strange turn of events, Nick gives Moses a phone call and offers him a new job. Not wanting to turn down a new opportunity and salary increase, Moses accepts the offer. Nick is the head of Carthage Corporation, which recently purchased a new supercomputer named Hannibal that plans to manipulate and dominate social media. However, for Nick’s corporation to accomplish this goal and attain a bigger profit, their algorithms need the “poetry of advertising.”[2] Nick tells Moses that his job will be to mentor young people as they come up with slogans for consumer products. He is perfect for this task because he is skilled with languages and an avid reader of the classics. Nick has Moses and the team do their work at what used to be the campus of Saint Malachy College, an old great books school. Nick bought the campus after much of it was burned down following a student-led riot. As the story continues, the plot deepens in complexity and pace. Eventually, Moses finds himself in a difficult situation and back in the national spotlight.
Although it is a contemporary novel about contemporary issues, Oser has the unique ability to transcend the debates of the current moment to speak old truths in new ways. One such truth is imaginatively conveyed in a scene immediately after the narrator arrives at the old campus of Saint Malachy College. Here readers meet Donna, a poor Italian woman who Moses encounters in the rubble of what used to be her son’s dorm. Her son worked hard and earned a full scholarship to college. After entering, however, he joined a radical political organization and now cohabitates with his professor. The dorm has been demolished, and her son’s Saint Anthony medal — which was in the family for generations — is lost somewhere in the rubble. With a metal detector in hand, Donna hopes to recover what her son has lost. Her son’s connection to a religious and cultural heritage was taken by the university, and she wants to get it back. Oser gives readers the image of a person searching for a fragment of cultural debris.[3] She searches for tradition in a world that has increasingly cut itself from the past. As Moses puts it, “[s]ome instinct told her that if she could return to the source, if she could recover what had been lost, things would come right again.”[4] In scenes like this, Oser creates an image that is vivid and thought-provoking and invites the reader to deep spiritual and intellectual contemplation rather than just read the pacing of the novel.
Here Oser does not depict tradition as something that can be simply handed down. After Moses observes Donna trying to find her son’s medal amidst the rubble, he wonders to himself how long she has “devoted to her impossible quest.”[5] The reader may think at first that Oser is conveying a message of despair: that the restoration of Western culture is impossible, that fragments of cultural debris are all that we can ever have. As the two characters continue to speak, however, a more hopeful view emerges. Moses tells Donna that tradition cannot be simply handed down, but it can still be preserved with sweat and labor. The sources of civilization cannot be taken for granted, and we cannot assume that posterity will receive them just because our parents did. But the sources of civilization can still be renewed from age to age, even if such renewal is difficult work. Moses tells Donna the truth that her son’s professors never said: “That civilization is slow hard work. That we’re all seriously flawed. That knowledge is hard to come by and you have to sweat for it.”[6] Readers may wonder if Oser had one of his favorite authors, T.S. Eliot, in mind when writing this scene. As Eliot wrote in his renowned essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”[7]
As Eliot teaches, tradition involves the “historical sense.” In this way, tradition is a living awareness of the presence of the past. The author who writes with the historical sense puts pen to paper “not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” In this way, the historical sense is “a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together.”[8] It is clear by reading his new novel that Oser loves the literary tradition that he has spent much of his life studying and teaching. Over the years, he has attained a historical sense and has tried to find his own individuality as an author within a tradition.
Throughout Old Enemies, readers will find references, sometimes obvious and other times subtle, to various great authors. Writers such as Virgil, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, Newman, Eliot, and O’Connor are frequently referenced, among others. The reader who simply wants a funny novel with an entertaining plot will find these references tiring. Yet the reader who wants a novel written by an author who drinks from the wellspring of the Christian and Western tradition will find these references delightful. Both kinds of readers will discover a novel that is hilarious and entertaining. And at times, all readers will most likely laugh out loud.
Oser is influenced by his Catholic faith, penning it into the life of his narrator. But he does not do so in a way that is overtly pious. Like many Catholic writers, he includes religious themes in a way that is not always explicit. He touches on religious topics, but he does so within a larger context of the narrator’s life in contemporary society. Moses Shea’s faith is something real and believable. It is a faith held in a time when Christianity is in decline and increasingly severed from culture. At times, the narrator’s faith appears only implicitly and the reader wonders, based on his actions, how deeply held it really is. At other times the narrator’s faith is quite evident, such as when he comments on his love of the Low Mass or reminds readers that his father was a theologian.
In addition to being influenced by his Catholic faith, Oser’s novel is influenced by a broader commitment to Christian humanism. The fact that Lee Oser, himself an open Christian humanist, uses satire to critique the woke and utopian ideology of the 2020s is notable. When it comes to politics, there is nothing utopian about Christian humanism. In fact, Christian humanism is opposed to utopianism of all varieties. Indeed, the Christian religion is far more than a social program, and there is an important difference between humanism and humanitarianism. To those who want to use politics to create heaven on earth, Christianity cautions that the human being has a fallen nature and suffers from serious faults. Man cannot save himself by establishing an earthly utopia by means of a new cancel-culture. No amount of sentimentalism can save him, nor can it serve as an adequate replacement for true Christianity or true humanism. Wokeism, as satirized in Old Enemies, promises mankind an earthly paradise. Historical experience has shown that attempts to implement an earthly paradise almost always result in the creation of an earthly hell. As both a Christian and a humanist, Oser is a student of human nature. As a result, he knows that heaven-on-earth is impossible, that people are flawed, and that a perfect world cannot be established by destroying an old order.
Readers of this review should not get the false impression that Old Enemies by Lee Oser is serious or solemn. It may be true that ideology, secularism, technology, and politics have been pushed into every facet of human life, and it may even be true that they are suffocating the religious and cultural sources of civilizational renewal. All of this is made clear in Oser’s novel, but this does not mean that he has penned a solemn book. Oser’s satire is scathing, but it is also hilarious. This is especially the case toward the end of the book, as Oser brings the story to a conclusion. When confronted with contemporary ideologies that are hostile to our heritage, Oser picks up his pen to challenge them with humor. By helping us to laugh, he reminds us that God is always at work in the world, even if we do not always understand how. Erasmus would nod in approval of Oser’s new book.

NOTES:

[1] Lee Oser, Old Enemies: A Satire (Boston, Massachusetts: Senex Press, 2022), 7.
[2] Ibid., 33.
[3] The phrase “fragments of cultural debris” was coined and used by Russell Kirk.
[4] Oser, Old Enemies, 78.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 79.
[7] T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1920), Poetry Foundation, accessed online, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent. Oser has shown an interest in this line and insight from Eliot in his academic writing. For instance, see Lee Oser, “Christian Humanism and the Radical Middle,” Law and Liberty, November 5, 2021, accessed online, https://lawliberty.org/christian-humanism-and-the-radical-middle/.
[8] Ibid.

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