This was a book I wouldn’t have chosen to read.
I knew nothing about Alice von Hildebrand; and, of the life of a European academic living in New York I cared even less. When it arrived, to be honest, I predicted it to be altogether erudite – ‘highbrows living in ivory towers’ – ultimately something as learned, as it would be dry, very dry in fact. I opened it, giving it no more than a chapter or so to convince me otherwise…
That opening chapter was of two children trapped on a World War Two merchant ship as the sirens sounded for a German U-boat attack. Alone in the world they stumbled through the half-light clinging to each other, not sure whether this was the end of their short – if eventful – lives. It was both gripping and intriguing with the narrator’s voice engaging. Who were these children and how had they ended up there? Needless to say what was to follow was as far from what I had expected as those two girls were from home on that night when they thought their final end had come…
The name von Hildebrand is known to many: but probably Dietrich rather than his wife, Alice, however, after the publication of her Memoirs of a Happy Failure that may well change. In these pages we have a remarkable memoir to say the least, but also what we have is a life told from the ‘inside out’, because this philosopher’s thought has informed her every step and in these pages it shows.
Alice von Hildebrand (née Jourdain) was born on 11th March 1923 in Belgium, Brussels to be precise. Her upbringing was to be typical of a then European bourgeois family; and, being the daughter of imminently respectable people, the whole trajectory of her life would have been mapped out in a predictable fashion. Events then rumbling in nearby Germany were to place an incendiary under this, however, one that detonated in the spring of 1940. And as the tanks of the Third Reich rolled across the frontier, the young Alice and her family fled in the opposite direction. First to France, thereafter, with much-prized visas secured through the help of family connections then living in the United States, the two sisters made a desperate bid for America. Through the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic their flight continued on board a ship hunted by U-boats. They survived, making it as far as New York. Little did Alice know then but it was to be this city that was to play a pivotal role in her life thereafter.
The ‘family connections’ that had helped aid her escape were an uncle and aunt holed up in the Waldorf Hotel. It was to here that Alice and her sister were to reside initially, in what at times reads like a tale akin to ‘Cinderella’. Alice was the least favoured of the two girls and was made to feel it. It wasn’t just the emotional impact this had, but also the effect it had upon her growing ambition to gain an education. Here we come to one of the main themes of the book, and one that shows just how far society has advanced in allowing women to be educated and educators. Back in the 1940s, this was all still a novelty, and one the author of this book challenged. Also, here, in that first skirmish, we meet an aspect of Alice’s character that shines forth subsequently: tenacity.
Eventually she ended up teaching at New York’s Hunter College, one of the City University colleges, and was to remain there from 1947 to 1984. The book is essentially her time as a college philosophy professor. This is no happy tale of academia though: more akin to something like a survival story, a ‘behind enemy lines’ adventure, or even a story of covert Christian witness in times of persecution. It is all of these and none; for it is a unique story of a unique woman as much a survivor as she is a fighter.
Alice von Hildebrahand has written this memoir with John Henry Crosby. Not sure who wrote what, nevertheless, what is clear is that it catches perfectly the voice of Professor von Hildebrand. Having now heard her on EWTN, it’s impossible to forget her, or her accent. Sounding solidly but non-specifically north European, her heavily accented English is a one off: all the more striking given she has lived in America, more specifically New York, for over 70 years. It is unmistakable, and anyone who has heard it will recognise that ‘voice’ from the first page onwards; it is as if she is speaking directly to the reader in an intimate tête-à-tête about her life and its meaning.
Another aspect of the book that works just as well is the short chapters. The book is a series of anecdotes laced together by their central character: Professor von Hildebrand. It could have been a dull travelogue recounting a series of people and places – it is anything but. The shortness of the chapters propels the narrative onwards at a tightly edited pace, which is something given this is the life of a scholarly college professor. Somehow it reads as an epic life, and a thrilling one at that. Even the minor characters, present only for a few pages, come alive partly I suspect because everything and everyone is filtered through the humane lens of the narrator. She emerges not only as an expert storyteller with an eye for detail and an understanding of differing personality types but also as a wise woman with a turn of phrase that is often profound. Definitely unique, and, just like her accent, definitely ‘a one off’.
In fact, by the end, I found myself wanting to meet Professor von Hildebrand. Is this the greatest accolade one can bestow upon the writer of a memoir? What comes across page after page is the positive impact she has had in the lives of others – often with and through the active cooperation of her husband. In addition, she recounts a number of conversion stories in which she was involved; all the more remarkable as those so converted did so after exposure not to Catholicism per se but to the then much derided concept of objective truth.
This is not a life about teaching philosophy. This is about a life that has been lived philosophically, and her ‘system’ has been simply that truth is knowable – a system of belief she was prepared to fight for. Because let’s not forget, this is a woman who single-handedly took on the relativism of where she was teaching, and through ‘dungeon, sword and fire’ held out against the odds. Oddly, the last chapters show that even her ‘enemies’ finally realised just what they had in their midst and belatedly did provide her with some degree of recognition and honour. That said what passes before that was nothing less than a Golgotha.
Year after year, with low level, some times overt, hostility, the leftists who ran the philosophy department treated her shabbily. They tried time and again to rid themselves of the ‘french lady’ and failed, only because Professor von Hildebrand stuck to her guns and because her accusers had no answer to the weapons she deployed, namely: truth and humility. Her innocence and her faith were both a refuge and a protection. Let’s be in no doubt of the viciousness of that struggle, she wasn’t and, as a result, suffered much. Through it all, she persevered, however, merely saying that one can endure much if one believes in what is being suffered for. Easier said than done, however, but in her case those dark years are there to witness.
Her memoir is as much a social history as it is anything else. We walk the corridors of education then, as now, beset by a mindset that proclaimed a philosophy that wasn’t as much a way of thinking as a way of denying thought: relativism. Succinctly, she dismisses this as a way of rationalising people’s own poor behaviour – making wrong right and right non-existent. Given that the same beast has now escaped and unfettered roams today’s streets, it is good to be reminded of someone who has been joined in battle with this entity for quite some time, and has the measure of it, and possibly the secret of its beating.
What is largely missing from all this is her husband. He has a walk on part, impressive but never centre stage. She talks of a book about his final illness – he died in 1977 – already having been written. If it is as entertaining as this then rest assured it will be well worth reading.
An academic in an ‘ivory tower’? On reflection, perhaps there is something of the ‘ivory tower’ about Professor von Hildebrand after all. Not in the sense of a place of hiding, however, but rather of a world where there are knights in shinning armour out to slay dragons. Having escaped the clutches of the Nazis, this woman arrived in a foreign land with little to commend her to it and proceeded to make her way teaching Truth in the teeth of fierce opposition. Into a time of increasing doubt and intellectual shadows, she came to unfurl a flag that countenanced no such doubts. Thereafter, for decades, with the Sword of Truth drawn she did battle, never flagging, and in the end somehow strangely triumphed. She talks of her husband as a ‘Knight of Truth’, yes, but every knight needs a Lady and in Alice Jourdain, Dietrich von Hildebrand found his; on reading Memoirs of a Happy Failure of this, beyond any doubt, we can be certain.