Book Club | Breaking Bread with the Dead

May 20, 2021

In this Post-Modern society many live divorced from the past. There is no ultimate truth, no historical backbone, no foundation built by ancestors, tribes, gods, or relationships to the land. As a modern people, we are no longer part of history, we make history. We define ourselves by our relationship with time, and we define time by its relationship with oneself.

You can see this happening everywhere, the relationship with the past, our own histories—our collective histories are being called into question. “We wonder whether statues, schools and flags should be removed, renamed or redesigned because of their association with causes, people and history which we now find evil, embarrassing or repugnant.” (Al Brooke, Englewood Review) But we are now overwhelmed by the present. “We are tossed to and fro by the relentless flood of now. Every news report claims our attention, every tweet demands our view, every story grabs our heart. There is no time for reflection on the past or the future.” (Al Brooke, Englewood Review)

Inside book cover

“It’s fashionable to think of the writers of the past as irredeemably tarnished by prejudice. Aristotle despised women. John Milton, the great champion of free speech, wouldn’t have granted it to Catholics. Edith Wharton’s imaginative sympathies stopped short of her Jewish characters. But what if it is only through the works of such individuals that we can achieve a necessary perspective on the troubles of the present?
…Discover what Homer can teach us about force, what Machiavelli has to say about reading and what Charlotte Bronte reveals about race. Not all the guests are people you might want to invite into your home, but they all bring something precious to the table.”

In his book Breaking Bread with the Dead, Alan Jacobs urges us to engage with literature from the past, and their contextual lives, to escape and fight our societal problem of “presentism.” He invites us to sit at the table with those apart from us, those different and conflicting with our perspectives and opinions. Jacob writes: “If we cannot break bread with our contemporaries who violate our political commitments—whose views seem so alien and wrong that to share a meal with them feels like a kind of defilement—then it would seem that asking us to break bread with the dead is a futile act indeed. But perhaps not.” (29)

Jacobs enters many conflicting worlds in this book, into many authors who had conflicts and criticism of each other, but each who can share a remarkable lesson to us today. He concludes; “When we own our kinship to those people, they may come alive for us not just as exemplars of narrowness and wickedness that we have overcome, but as neighbors and even as teachers. When we acknowledge that even when they go far astray they do so in ways that we surely would have, had we been formed as they were, we extend them not just attention but love, the very love that we hope our descendants will extend to us. The argument that I have made here for the cultivation of personal density is also an argument for serving as links in the living chain that extends into the distant past and also into the distant future. It is an argument for a genealogy of love.” (151)

Reviews:

Ethics & Culture, Andrew Spencer

The Wall Street Journal, Agnes Callard

Themelios, Zachary Howard

Videos:

The Trinity Forum, Online conversationTranscript here

American Enterprise Institute, web event (interview)

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