It took me six hours to destroy it all, that cold, wet winter day.
Freezing rain coating the leafless trees and the slush of snow left from the previous days’ storms. A weak fire in one of the stingy, grudging little fireplaces they used to build in Manhattan apartments. And me, alone with thousands of pages of unpublished writing by Richard John Neuhaus, burning the record he’d kept of his life.
Reading the new biography by Randy Boyagoda, seeing the clips of Fr. Neuhaus on websites discussing the book, I’ve had that day come back to mind recently — replaying, this time in doubt, the decision I made to destroy his diary. Certainly Boyagoda’s work would have been considerably easier if he’d had the diary to guide him. Substantially different, too, I suspect, Richard’s internal narrative shaping in entirely different ways the external actions of his life.
But, now that I think again about that destruction, I realize I was conflicted even at the time. In the hospital, a few days before his death on January 8, 2009, Richard John Neuhaus asked me to go to the basement of his New York house, find his diary, and make sure no one else saw it. And about a month after he died, I did.
What I was expecting were a few notebooks or leather-bound journals. What I found were mounds and mounds of paper — stacks totaling maybe ten feet of the stuff. The man seems to have had hypergraphia every moment of his life: all those days spent writing his books and essays, finished by evenings spent writing thousands of words of diary entries. Running from the pages of the 1960s, typewritten on both sides, to the pages of the 2000s, printed every evening from his computer, the stacks were a guide to their own age, fading from brownish yellow at the bottom up to white on top, and all of them reeking of Fr. Neuhaus’s ceaseless cigars.
Virgil on his deathbed wanted the manuscript of The Aeneid to be destroyed, although the emperor Augustus wouldn’t let it happen. Max Brod refused to follow Kafka’s instruction to burn his stories, and in 2009 Nabokov’s son Dmitri ignored his late father’s wishes and published the unfinished novel The Original of Laura. The case of Nabokov was much discussed around the time of Fr. Neuhaus’s death, and I think I may have been influenced by my general feeling that the son had violated his duty.
In the end, the deciding factor for me was not inside those pages, but in the fact of his asking and the fact of my agreeing.
Of course, the personal notes of a theological writer, priest, and public intellectual are not the same as manuscripts by famous artists. History is full of holes where the diaries of the famous and the interesting were destroyed. And that often seems a good thing, at least to those who knew the person. I remember I slipped on the narrow basement stairs, my shoes slick from the ice, as I hauled out the first load of ashes, and for weeks afterward I had bursitis in the arm with which I’d painfully caught myself. And perhaps that throb in my arm made me sensitive to the dark tone in Richard’s writing as I browsed random pages.
The intricacies of his turn from Lutheranism to Catholicism were fascinating, but neither denomination needs to hear the criticisms he indulged when the only audience was himself. That’s particularly true given that he used his diary to try ideas on for size: developing positions to find out whether he agreed with them. And then, in its more personal elements, he used the diary as a kind of pressure valve, a way of describing, and thus releasing, the annoyances of the day. The observations he made about the people he met were often sharp witted and sharp edged — and this, more than anything else, was probably what made him ask me to destroy it.
In the end, the deciding factor for me was not inside those pages, but in the fact of his asking and the fact of my agreeing. The promises we make the dead are more absolute than promises we make the living, for the dead are no longer able to keep their secrets or defend their privacy. Richard John Neuhaus’s biography, the stories told of his life, would be different if the biographers had his own account to rely on. But he didn’t want it that way, and, having given my promise, I felt I couldn’t later refuse.
And so I spent a cold, dark day in the middle of a New York winter alone, burning paper in a narrow grate.
Joseph Bottum. "Burning Fr. Neuhaus's Diary." The Weekly Standard (May 18, 2015).
Joseph Bottum is one of the nation's most widely published and influential essayists, with work in journals from the Atlantic to the Washington Post. He is a contributing editor for The Weekly Standard, holds a Ph.D. in medieval philosophy. He lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota, in the town of Hot Springs and is the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words, The Catholic Awakening: How Catholicism Replaced Protestant Christianity as America's National Church, and An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.Copyright © 2015 The Weekly Standard
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