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On the use and abuse of the American Martyrs

Tobias Wolff’s acclaimed short story offers a surprising examination of martyrdom, sham ethics, and “the greatest spiritual problem of our time.”

Detail from the 2015 cover of the deluxe edition of Tobias Wolff's "In the Garden of the North American Martyrs". (Image:

Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor is like a tuning fork summoning us to sing in the heroic pitch of our inheritance—to exalt the martyrs who, “by their eloquent and attractive example of a life completely transfigured by the splendor of moral truth . . . light up every period of history by reawakening its moral sense.” John Paul finds in these unwavering witnesses a way of “warding off a headlong plunge into the most dangerous crisis which can afflict man: the confusion between good and evil.”

Tobias Wolff’s “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” (1981) begins very far from the magnanimous witness of St. John de Brébeuf, who preached to the Iroquois even as they literally ate out his heart. The protagonist Mary is a pusillanimous professor of history who has made a career of near-plagiarism by stifling her own ideas to echo the thoughts “and often the words” of others. She is like the “painstaking micrologists climbing all over the pyramids of the great things of the past”—the abuser described in Nietzsche’s “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life.”

When a brilliant colleague was dismissed from her college for offending the trustees, Mary “shared his views, but did not sign the protest.” Far better, she thinks, to keep her own mind well hidden. Except that this cowardice causes her thoughts to grow faint, until “without quite disappearing they shrank to remote, nervous points, like birds flying away.” Mary loses her job when the school’s financial manager speculates away the college’s funds, leaving them suddenly bankrupt. We catch at the sharp edge of her true sensibility when she silently likens the (mis)manager to a “drunken plantation owner gaming away his slaves.” But she stays mum, and Wolff masterfully skips the story like a stone across water, over the continued daily concessions that dull Mary’s conscience.

When Mary’s friend Louise invites her to interview at a school in upstate New York, the mute desperation that has censored her soul for so long seems to cease, and—without any justification—she spends the plane flight feeling like she is finally “going home.” No nostos awaits her, though. Instead, her quest takes her through a show-trial interview that rouses whatever moral muscle she yet possesses.

On the evening before the interview, Louise flippantly confesses to having “taken a lover.” She plays at soliciting Mary’s reflections on the matter, but Mary’s responding patter, too, is a mere act (“Marriage is a great institution . . . but who wants to live in an institution?”), pitched as if she’s playing her true cards. Louise rages against her own children, who are wounded in spite of her own best efforts to “instill in them a willingness to see things from the other person’s point of view.” Tensing up like the headlight-caught deer their car passes, Mary refuses to challenge her friend’s perspectivist ethics.

When Louise further frustrates Mary’s fantasies of homecoming by addressing the teaching demonstration she’d forgotten to mention, Mary almost dares to show discontent before she succumbs to Louise’s strategy of parroting her unpublished article on the Marshall Plan.

In spite of a lifetime spent passing off others’ ideas as her own, Mary is unnerved by this canto of fraudulence. Why? Her resistance seems provoked by the shame of someone else knowing that she is not the author of the proffered words. Momentarily unsettled by Louise’s audacious falsehoods, Mary’s germinal yearning to do right is buried under a legion of little lies: When Louise asks Mary about her appearance, the latter forges a “You look wonderful,” though we know her friend’s “gaunt” and “pale” face reminds her, rather, of “the description, in the book she’d been reading, of how Iroquois warriors gave themselves visions by fasting.” When Louise asks Mary whether she has a good sense of humor, the latter first favors precision, noting that “in some things” Louise is funny, but her slightest truthfulness is taken as an affront because her friend is accustomed to the habitual disposition of a pushover. And, as pushover, she settles on reading Louise’s article.

Although the school she visits has hints of a “historically Catholic” commitment (“I forgot to tell you,” the tour guide says, “The communion rail comes from some church in Europe where Charlemagne used to go”), the tour’s main attractions are a) a power plant that demands a “reverent” adoration, for “the machine was the soul of the college” in the same sense that Henry Adams’ whirring dynamo has replaced the circumspect Virgin as the pinnacle and source of mystical experience in modernity, and b) a progressive statute requiring that “they have to interview at least one woman for each opening.”

Soon after Mary realizes that “she had been brought here to satisfy a rule,” she undergoes a mock interview whose committee members do not even pretend to entertain her candidacy. And, after that, to deliver the abandoned paper of a fraudulent friend who has lured her here on false pretenses? This shame rouses Mary to a sudden decision: she “would rather die” now than regurgitate Louise’s mediocre mind.

Heated by in this fusion of indignities, Mary suddenly inhabits the history of the room they are all sitting in—“the Long House, ancient domain of the Iroquois” who were “without pity,” torturing even the children among their captives, scalping and cannibalizing and leaving the living to slavery. But, says Mary—dropping her riskless bland style, rising to a suddenly lyrical swell—when the tribe captured the Jesuit missionaries Jean de Brébeuf and Gabriel Lalement, the former refused to stop rebuking them even as they “cut off his lips and put a burning iron down his throat,” slung a necklace of hot blades around his head and drank his blood. Overtaken by Clio (the muse of history), Mary rattles her chain of compromises, and when the department chair stands up to cut short her testament she channels Brébeuf’s last words, condemning the committee’s banal pride and commanding them all to “turn from power to love.” “Mend your lives,” she says—apparently to herself as much as to everyone else. She turns off her hearing aid to silence the protests of the people she has until now resembled, mediocrity-mongers whom Nietzsche imagines as “idlers” strolling around the ruined colonnades “greedy for distraction or stimulation, as among the accumulated art treasures of a gallery.” Wolff reminds us that Mary is not really rooted in the true martyr’s habitual virtue, though, as in the story’s final line she seems to be overshooting justice, effusing her spleen in a manner that comes closer to vengeance.

There should be something farcical about the story’s ironic finale, its academic transposition of a tragedy transfigured by Christ. But it rises to dignity through Mary, the former abuser of history, who now has turned to the past as (to cite Nietzsche) “the place where he finds the stimulation to breathe deeply and to make things better.” The same woman who watched her former colleague condemned to exile now plagiarizes the words of a saint, borrowing from him a prophetic charism that may now be stirred in her own spirit. Mary becomes an unlikely martyr, and in this role she fulfills Pope John Paul II’s contention that “Martyrdom rejects as false and illusory whatever ‘human meaning’ one might claim to attribute . . . to an act morally evil in itself.” The banality of the hiring committee’s evil lacks the Iroquois’ instruments of torture, but their motivation is no less the procedural instrumentalization of a human person. John Paul repudiates this sort of sham ethics, pointing us to the martyrs as galvanizing witnesses of firm moral norms which “serve to protect the personal dignity and inviolability of man, on whose face is reflected the splendour of God.”

In his essay on Brébeuf, Wolff confesses his “disgust with the flaccidity of spirit that comes upon us as the consequence of trying always to accommodate the justice in each claim on our sympathy and understanding. I believe this disgust is the greatest spiritual problem of our time.” As Paul J. Contino points out, both “the tolerance that can mask relativism” as well as the “spiritual dangers inherent in his disgust” present real temptations. Mary’s own flaccidity of soul might have continued to peter out interminably. Only when she is taken captive by an insulting policy whose spirit dwells far closer to “slave morality” than Christianity’s ever did, only then does she finally eschew the false humility of ressentiment and employ the past as a way of (Nietzsche’s words) “fighting resignation.” Only the raw courage of a Catholic martyr—a saint she imperfectly embodies—can give her a language that condemns her abusers even as it bids her use history for life.

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About Joshua Hren 7 Articles
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas. He regularly publishes in such journals as First Things and America, National Review and Commonweal, Public Discourse and LOGOS. Joshua’s books include: the novel Infinite Regress; the short story collections This Our Exile and In the Wine Press; the book of poems Last Things, First Things, & Other Lost Causes; Middle-earth and the Return of the Common Good: J.R.R. Tolkien and Political Philosophy; How to Read (and Write) Like a Catholic; and Contemplative Realism: A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto.

1 Comment

  1. I was struck by Mr. Hren’s phrase, “…the procedural instrumentalization of a human person.”

    It seems to me this term applies rather well to the recent CWR article by Steven Greydanus about the Buffalo massacre and racism.

    I submit that it applies to both the shooter’s view of his victims — as insignificant, disposable props to be dispatched in his pageant of hate — and to the way the devout adherents to the systemic racism belief regard such inhumanity, as ammunition for them to use against the country they hate.

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