Joseph Pearce, author of the bestselling book, Race with the Devil: My Journey from Racial Hatred to Rational Love, has recently returned from a brief speaking tour of Spain promoting the Spanish edition of the book. This is an interview that he gave to a Spanish magazine, published for the first time in the English-speaking world.
Journalist: You make an interesting point about your book: It is not a biography; it is, rather, the story of a conversion. That is an important nuance, don’t you think?
Mr. Pearce: Yes, the book tells the story of a journey from childhood innocence into the abyss of relativism and racial hatred and then, via a growth in reason and the presence of the healing hand of grace, to an embrace of the rational love to be found in Christ and His Church.
When reading your book, any Spaniard will be reminded of Saint Theresa’s words: “To be humble is to walk in truth.” You have always carried an awareness of your gifts with you, especially after your conversion, when you felt the need to atone and to do good. Don’t you think there abounds a (false) idea of humility that ends up clipping our wings?
The key element is to remember that the gift is indeed a gift, which is to say that it is given to us. It is not our own creation, nor is it ours by right. Since God is the giver of our gifts, we owe it to Him to use our gifts correctly. The correct use of our gifts is to employ them as a servant of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Knowing this enables us to “walk in truth” with humility. Our wings are always clipped by our own self-deceit, which is a manifestation of self-conceit, i.e. pride, of which false humility is but one example.
As a young man, one of your virtues was that of being a voracious reader. It is remarkable how many conversions reading has worked, from Saint Augustine’s “Tolle et lege” to your own. As you sorrowfully point out, people now read less: Do you think anything (films, music, social networks or television) will take up that role, or is it an irreparable loss (for faith also)?
It is no coincidence that the growth of technology has led to a growth in illiteracy and the irrationality which is its consequence. This universal dumbing-down of human culture to the level of the sound bite bodes ill for the future. I do not believe, however, that the human spirit is capable of a final descent into the primal soup of ultimate banality. There has to be a recoil away from this reductionist nonsense towards the faith and reason which the soul of man needs for its very sustenance and survival. I am convinced that the lingering suicide of the culture of death will be proceeded by a resurrection of the human spirit and hence of civilization itself.
Your Chestertonian fervor, at a time when the great Englishman was not much valued, is noteworthy. Do you think the appreciation of Chesterton is unstoppable, or will he be ostracized again? Is Chestermania here to stay?
The seemingly inexorable rise in interest in Chesterton is a cause of joy and hope. When I discovered his writings in around 1979 or 1980, he was largely unread and almost forgotten. His works were out of print and woefully neglected. I think that his books are now established as part of the canon, greatly appreciated worldwide by Catholics and Protestants alike. As such, it is to be hoped that what you call Chestermania is indeed here to stay!
The importance of Chesterton as a defender of the faith is unquestionable. Do you consider Distributism, his contribution to economics and politics, as feasible?
Distributism is not only feasible, it is necessary. It conforms with, and is an expression of, the Catholic Church’s teaching on subsidiarity. It places the family at the heart of economic and socio-political life. It calls for the protection and preservation of small government and small business against the encroachment of the power of big business and big government. In this age of secular fundamentalist monoliths, such as the European Union, and of globalist corporations, the creed of distributism, which Chesterton called “the outline of sanity,” is more needed than ever.
Tell us about your chickens…
As I write, it’s 6:20 in the morning and the roosters have been crowing for the past hour. Oh, the joys of summer! Actually, our chickens have been a great addition to our lives. Apart from the abundance of fresh, organic free-range eggs that they provide every day, they allow our family to commune with God’s creatures in a manner that is all too often absent in our increasingly artificial modern lives. True, we are only dabblers, mere dilettanti, but a little of the good life is better than none. Chesterton would approve, I’m sure!
A Spanish adage says God writes straight in crooked lines. What lessons and experiences from your extremist nationalist stage have come in handy for you now as a Catholic writer? I am thinking, for example, of your skill as a debater.
During my dark days as a political extremist, I edited two magazines, spoke regularly to audiences, including audiences of several thousand at mass rallies, and engaged in debate with my political and ideological enemies. Although this writing, editing, speaking, and debating was done in the service of a dubious cause, the skills I learned as a youth have served me well in more recent years. As you say, God writes straight in crooked lines. I hope, therefore, that He will continue to allow me to use and hone my skills for the building of His Church and the evangelizing of the culture.
I confess I am a grateful reader of your interpretations of Shakespeare in the light of his very probable Catholicism, which have helped me to understand his plays and poetry much better; but after reading that you were once a convincing defender of racial hatred, I fear I may have fallen into your dialectic web…
This is why we all need to be convinced by the evidence being presented and not merely by the artfulness of the person giving the evidence! I would define rhetoric as the gift of artfully defending the truth, and sophistry as the abuse of the gift in artfully constructing a lie. The evidence for Shakespeare’s Catholicism is convincing in its own right. I have merely presented that evidence, hopefully in a convincing way.
Your imprisonment, due to your extremist political activities, was a crucial time on your road towards faith. You name Saint John of the Cross and other authors who have shared this experience. And I can think of some more: our own Cervantes; the great Nicolae Steinhardt, whose book on his time in prison is called The Happiness Diary; etc. What does prison offer, which the world does not?
Apart from the handful of people that you mention, I would add the French poet, Paul Verlaine, the Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, and the great Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As was the case with these illustrious figures, my own experience of prison exemplified the paradox that prison can be a liberator. It can free us from ourselves and our pride-ridden prejudices. In many ways, prison serves as a metaphor for the role and purpose of suffering in our lives, which is to remind us of our mortality and prompt us to ask deep questions about the meaning of life, suffering, and death. Prison can serve as a memento mori pointing us toward the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Thinking of these things is the beginning of wisdom. As Oscar Wilde put it, speaking of his experience in prison, “how else but through a broken heart may Lord Christ enter in.” It is for this reason, echoing Solzhenitsyn, that I can truly thank God for my time in prison.
In prison, you vanquished your arachnophobia and even “adopted” some spiders as pets. This story has a great symbolic savour. Was it an effect of your loneliness as an inmate, or perhaps a Franciscan outbreak at the onset of your conversion?
I think it was more the latter. In living in such close proximity with spiders, I began to see something of God’s beauty in his creatures. Like suffering, the apprehension of beauty in God’s Creation is the beginning of the path to God Himself.
Your father’s role in your personal history is extremely compelling. One gets the feeling of a very intense mutual influence. Isn’t that a hidden storyline in your book, from the weight of his patriotism in you to his own conversion to the Catholic faith, guided by his Dickensian, Chestertonian brotherly love in spite of everything?
Yes, indeed. My father’s influence upon me was, under grace, the most potent force in my life. I learned most of what I knew and believed from him. My conversion was, therefore, in some ways, an unlearning of the pride and prejudice that I learned at my father’s knee but also the baptizing, so to speak, of the many good things that he taught me, not least of which was his genuinely Dickensian and Chestertonian love for his neighbor.
Your mother, on the other hand, stands in the background…
My mother was, in some ways, a powerful silence in my life. Unlike my father, who approached life very rationally, my mother was all about feelings. Although she could not articulate her thoughts, the love for me and my brother exuded from her very presence. She could be likened to a teddy bear!
Another very important biographical element is your rather Aristotelian idea of friendship as a source of great happiness, but also of tremendous disappointments.
I have come to understand that love is not merely a feeling that we have towards another but an action demanded of us by Christ. Love is not an irrational emotion but a rational command, given by Christ Himself, that we should lay down our lives for others. We must love our neighbours; we must even love our enemies. The feeling that we have towards our spouse will be different from the feeling we have towards our parents, or our children, or our friends, or our enemies. Love is not defined by the feeling, which is changeable and transient, but by the self-sacrificial giving of ourselves to the beloved. It is for this reason that true love brings great happiness to our friends and also to ourselves, whereas false love results in tremendous disappointments.
Abortion is a very current issue in Spain. When you learned that you were going to have your first child, as a very young man, you wanted to abort, but now you are relieved that the mother didn’t. One of your children has Down’s syndrome, and you speak of him with admiration and gratitude. You lost a baby daughter after eight months’ pregnancy. I don’t think there are many people as entitled as you are to reflect on abortion from all its different angles.
The whole abortion debate is a living illustration of the difference between rhetoric and sophistry discussed above. When all is said and done, it’s a plain fact that science and religion are in agreement that the child in the womb is fully human from the moment of conception. As such, and let’s not be bashful about saying it, abortion is the killing of babies, plain and simple. There is no right to “choose” to kill another human being so all talk of being “pro-choice” is absurd. Do we have the right to choose to kill an adult human being? Of course not. Do we have the right to kill a baby in the womb? Of course not. A society that sanctions the killing of babies is wicked. We live in a very wicked society. As for Leo, our son who has Down syndrome, he is a great gift of love to us. He is the happiest member of our family and the cause of much happiness to all of us. He is living proof that every child is a blessing from God. Deo gratias!
Books by Joseph Pearce may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.