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Berrigan Without Blood : TO DWELL IN PEACE An Autobiography by Daniel Berrigan (Harper & Row: $19.95; 416 pp., illustrated)

February 07, 1988|Thomas Cahill | Cahill is publisher and editor of the Cahill Reader's Catalogue and co-author of "A Literary Guide to Ireland" (Scribner's). and

The Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, vowed and priested at mid-century in the cold church of Pius XII, was expected to assume the white-marble facade of his fellows. He did not. At first, he attracted some attention as a poet--a promising one who won awards and, more impressively, the esteem and friendship of other poets, such as the eagle-eyed Marianne Moore. I can recall his advice to artists, included in "Time Without Number," his first book of poems, for I at 18 read the poem so many times that I still have it by heart. It ended:

\o7 But yours be no shutter blink transfer of view:

Your paint be blood, your canvas you.

\f7 Thirty years later, this strikes me as a young man's poem. And to any Jesuit worth his salt, the histrionic note in it sounded a warning: indiscreet; a grandstander; could prove embarrassing.

Berrigan proved very embarrassing. From poetry, he moved on to peace, but his kind of peace meant (as should only have been expected) painting things in blood--e.g., draft records and missiles. He was lucky, however, to be performing his shenanigans in the post-Johannine church, where simple muzzling had become decidedly unfashionable.

Now, after many years of carryings-on, he has written "To Dwell in Peace," a bellicose book that may be the least revealing autobiography since Marcus Aurelius. Its greatest disappointment is its language, for Berrigan has evolved a style so artificial and ethereal that it can only be called bloodless, so diffuse and unfocused that it is impossible to render its character without quoting whole pages. A brief excerpt makes Berrigan sound far more pithy than he is: "Finally, in June of 1952, amid considerable wonderment and rejoicing, I was ordained. The event was accounted at the time as a grace, and still is." Whose wonderment and rejoicing? His? Who accounted the event a grace? God knows.

This is a story without characters, except for a ghostlike self (usually referred to in the third person or--as in the above--very nearly in the fourth person) and a large, overbearing, poetical father, who unfortunately drops from view before we have learned much about him. Berrigan disdains to offer us incidents, actions, or any dramatic flesh-and-blood (that word again) portrayals. Instead of the dirty materials that make up a real life, we are served only posturing anachronisms. Jesuit seminarians do not vacation; they "disport" themselves. Children are forever being "cosseted"--though "in no wise" "the child," Daniel himself, a delicate boy in a large family of large brothers.

Few friends are named, many slights remembered. There are shameful lapses in humility. In the introduction, Berrigan compares himself at length to St. Francis of Assisi--quite favorably, I think (if I am properly slicing through the rhetorical thickets): "Mine was a pilgrim's progress, through a landscape fiercely anti-human and depressingly allegorical." Wow. He has traveled widely and wisely: "Over the years, his glance will fall on large portions of the world's beauty and horror." He recounts his tribulations as an author: "Some thirty-five books later, translations in many languages, other prizes gained. And yet the publishing of each book has been chancy in the extreme. Many have been long delayed, others remaindered, others, with dreadful ease, have passed out of print. At least one, in the bear pit of corporate mindedness, was tossed in the shredder without my being notified." These are sufferings most authors will envy.

As chaplain at Cornell, he "cared not a whit for the usual emoluments" (whatever they may be). He presents himself as living now in a New York slum where few have the courage to venture--"in an old, shabby pre-World War I building on West 98th Street. And as the year's go on, we have been joined by other hardy souls for whom life on upper Broadway presents no terrors." West 98th Street is not a bad patch of Harlem but the heart of Yuppie-ville, and thousands of six-figure acquisitors will gladly pay Father Berrigan a great deal of cash for his shabby little apartment.

He bewails his urbane, jet-setting life as if it were something beyond his control--"cast as I am into the bad machinery of airports and aircraft and city streets. . . ." Then comes a sentence from which I cannot recover: "Alas, I am cursed or blessed to live in mainline America. I often must travel amid affluent parasites, whose clothing and credit cards and briefcases and vocabulary of money and comfort and security--all are a converging sign, in the biblical sense, of a dying fall."

Behind the self-absorbed sanctimony, one detects an unforgiving man, whose professional pacifism has a passive-aggressive ring to it, who is (horribly) like the father he dismisses thus: "If you hated your world, you probably ended hating the people of that world. . . . You fitted ill; nothing befitted you. You were infinitely superior. . . . How much better to wrap oneself in a cloak of untouchability and summon the ghosts and language of the dead." The father is the key--the father and his resented dominion. If he had started here, dropping the cloak of untouchability and the language of the dead, and calling up the courage to grapple with his real monsters, he could have given us a very good book.

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