Politics & Policy

Berrigan Agonistes

(Pixabay)
The Gimlet Eye columnist D. Keith Mano heads to The Bronx to watch the renowned Jesuit protestor speak, come, and . . . go.

Editor’s Note: This piece originally ran in the March 1, 1974, issue of National Review and is part of a weekend series of classic D. Keith Mano columns.


It’s a bomb. Father Dan must know that. He has put two and two together by now. Anyway, with just that small arithmetic he could count the house. Friday afternoon at Bronx Community College, a class B farm club in the city educational system. The overlarge auditorium is maybe 15 per cent full; a 5 a.m. Mass draws better. And everyone has received two neat, persuasive mimeographed sheets at the door: berrigan an antisemite. It doesn’t seem, well . . . propitious. Priests used to get tithes; now lecture agents do. But the clown from Creative Artists Public Service who arranged this dog probably booked Christians into the Colosseum. Read the poems, grab your white envelope, and exit pursued by a Jew. Lord, can any good come out of the Bronx?

He’s got an odd build. Slim in the thigh, yet unwieldy, barrel-sized at pap level. He walks to the lectern, coccyx outthrust, as if still jammed in a chair. Blue shirt and blue jeans; his frayed cuffs cost extra at the mod shop. And a bolo tie. On the slide, near his Adam’s apple, some predatory bird in outline, wings spread. From Row D it could pass for a feathery crucifix. Father Dan’s skin appears mascaraed: orange, with third degree wrinkles, unhealthy. Plus the Vandyke beard, a second-string Shakespearean villain, Oliver or Don John. But the teeth are nice, amiable and rabbity, his best feature. The sort of things you might dice cabbage with. They work a busy cud inside his lower lip. The hair is neat and flat as a yarmulke: crew-cut for the Seventies. And don’t tell me the Almighty hasn’t His sense of humor. There’s an embryonic bald spot, tonsure-shaped, on top. His scalp refinding its vocation.

The voice is frail, shy; but his diction sounds prissy. Po-em formed at the business end of a moue. Father Dan speaks to the audience as I speak to kittens: just on the long side of baby talk. He apologizes for the formality, lectern and all. Hopes they’ll have time afterward for a rap session. I wonder. He seems somewhat uneasy: two bearded Jewish youths stand, arms interwrapped, near the last row. Tsuris coming from that direction. When Father Dan reads the poetry a hush falls over his own voice. He rasps poems out, forcing excitement, the way you might recite Clement Moore to four-year-olds on Christmas Eve. Grandfatherly half-glasses heighten the image. Dramatic tension in his throat; not too much of anything in the words.

Daniel Berrigan is not a poet. He hasn’t the equipment. His imagery, his language are humdrum as check stubs. And nothing but prison poetry this afternoon. We endured his trivial crimes; now we endure his trivial punishment. Verses on: a tooth extraction, a visiting skunk, an anal search. Your average pickpocket has as much to say. He needs the Jesuit identity: then, at least, elegiac phrases like “mother f—–” scrounge up some impact. A priest’s vulgarity is still special. But Berrigan doesn’t even take God’s name in vain. He has renounced that persona, if not the faith itself. Jesus and Vietnam and Watergate are overwhelmed by peevish complaint. He seems to say merely “I — I — was imprisoned. I was made uncomfortable. I.” And his insipid poems go more or less applauseless — except when Berrigan shills for himself. “How about that?” he asks. Polite, isolated handclaps after a long pause. Forty minutes of what amounted to prison housekeeping, the soul’s dull laundry, and Father Dan sits. The fee is as good as pocketed; he prepares for small talk.

The talk is not small. A young Jew, stocky and bearded, rises at his seat. “On October 19, 1973 you made a speech to the Association of Arab University Graduates — ” His blocky hands are shaking, but the voice is electric. There are no moues in his diction. Berrigan, seated, has begun to blink: one per three seconds. The cud is shredded inside his lower lip. And Father Dan’s bizarre, provocative sentences are read back. His antagonist repeats them with the rhythm of litany. “If only a people could stand back from the blood myths of Divine Election.” “Israel is the creation of millionaires, generals, and entrepreneurs, a criminal Jewish community that has become the repository and finally the tomb of the Jewish soul.” “The Jew is the slave master whose behavior is motivated by a Nazi-like racism.” Berrigan waits.

“What does it mean to me, a Jew, to hear a priest say that my Jewish people has lost its soul? And you say ‘the Zionists in our midst’ — you know what that means to me? The traitors in our midst, check out the size of their noses. There is legitimate criticism of Israel, but these are the words of an antisemite. You may not know you’re an antisemite, but I know it. Father Berrigan, I can hardly believe you said these things. Someone close to you is whispering it in your ear.”

Berrigan seems struck by this. He comes back to the microphone. Eyes, as he crosses the stage, are on his feet.

“I wish you had printed my entire speech,” he said. He will say it several times. The mild, modest voice seems now a device. “I merely wanted to open some forbidden subjects. I would have said the same thing before a gathering of Jews.” This is enormous; hard to believe. The audience is unsettled. Berrigan temporizes. For ten minutes the Jew has pressed him with quotations. Finally, “I don’t think we can get any further with this. I want to say only that I am as antisemitic as I am anti-Catholic.” Not all that reassuring if you think about it.

Berrigan takes other questions. It goes something like this:

“Are you going to run for the Senate?”

“No. I’m going to run the other way.”

You haven’t answered me.

“Are your brother and Elizabeth happy?”

You haven’t answered me.

“Yes. They’re in love. Living in a ghetto commune.”

Berrigan sits. An oblique hand sign: lecture over. From his judge’s bench/lectern he has overruled dissent. The man who, in Catonsville, spoke for his superior moral passion has been out-passioned. Diminished. Daniel Berrigan’s time has come. And, as suddenly, it has gone.

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D. Keith Mano was a TV screenwriter and author of ten books, including Take 5, recipient of the 1987 Literary Lion award, and columnist at National Review magazine for 17 years.

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