Friday, April 11, 2014

Voices of Southern Dissent

I currently reside in Virginia.  I have a son who was born here.  But I struggle with the state's Southern identity, an identity which, for many, is bound up in the American Civil War and the experience of secession.  I don't mean to suggest that all Virginians are racist or that Southern pride is nothing more than support for slavery.  But, because the Confederate rebellion was a part of Virginia's history, many Virginians feel the need to support it or at least remain silent on the matter.  As someone opposed to the rebellion of the Southern states and their practice of slavery, I find this position problematic.

But I think it is worth mentioning that the South was not monolithicly pro-secession in the 19th century and thus need not make a pro-secessionist bent part of its identity today.

Consider, for example, the Loudoun Rangers, a cavalry unit raised in 1862 in northern Virginia, a unit which fought on behalf of the Union and tangled with Mosby's partisans.

Or let us consider Texas, a state which was my adoptive home for eight years.  Sam Houston, one of the founding fathers of the Republic of Texas, was elected governor in 1859.  Houston was no liberal humanitarian: although he enjoyed warm relations with the Cherokee Indians, he owned slaves and opposed abolitionist efforts to free them.  However, he saw secession as ill-advised and treasonous.  When a Texas convention voted for secession and subsequent accession to the Confederacy, Houston refused to recognize the moves, calling them illegal.  Houston was eventually removed from office for refusing to take the Confederate oath.  He explained:
Fellow-Citizens, in the name of your rights and liberties, which I believe have been trampled upon, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the nationality of Texas, which has been betrayed by the Convention, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of the Constitution of Texas, I refuse to take this oath. In the name of my own conscience and manhood, which this Convention would degrade by dragging me before it, to pander to the malice of my enemies, I refuse to take this oath. I deny the power of this Convention to speak for Texas....I protest....against all the acts and doings of this convention and I declare them null and void.
This is the kind of political idealism - whatever the costs - that Southerners love.  It is also deeply Unionist.  Regarding the war to come, Houston proved himself more clear-sighted than his opponents:
Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South.
Houston and the men of the Loudoun Rangers were rare, but not unique.  North Texas was full of German and Czech settlers - some of them refugees from the revolutions of 1848 in Europe - who supported the Union.  West Virginia was so off-put by the war of secession it seceded from rebel Virginia.  In addition to the many African-American units raised from among the freed slaves of the South, white Unionist forces were also raised.  The 1st Alabama Cavalry was formed in 1862 by men who opposed secession - most from Alabama, but some from elsewhere, including Georgia.  The regiment fought in various campaigns and was present for the surrender of the rebel Army of Tennessee in 1865.  Arkansas raised eight white regiments and six colored regiments for the Union.  Similar units were raised in Louisiana and North Carolina.  Tennessee formed upwards of 30 regiments in the service of the Union.

I am looking forward to reading David Downing's A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy.  This is a Southern legacy I may be able to embrace and teach to my children.


Quotations are from James l. Haley, Sam Houston, University of Oklahoma Press (2004), by way of the estimable Wikipedia, which also supplied the image.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Toward a Theory of American Heraldry

Readers of this blog will know that I am a strong proponent of heraldry, having proposed heraldic arms for the City of Charlottesville (see left) and Albemarle County, to complement or replace the current seals of questionable aesthetic merit.  But does heraldry have a place in America at all?  Are not heraldic arms associated with monarchy and therefore fundamentally at odds with the American republic?

First, the legal question: Can an American assume arms?  In many countries, such as Britain, arms are legally protected.  They may only be used by a grant deriving its authority from the sovereign.  In other countries, such as South Africa, the governing authority registers arms, but, provided they conform to certain standards, cannot reject an application because it does not grant the arms; everyone in South Africa has a legal right to bear them.  In the United States, no heraldic authority of either flavor exists (the claims of various online organizations notwithstanding).  Thus, the only legal limits on arms are those on any logo: you cannot use for commercial purposes a design that someone else has registered.  You can use your own design without registering it, provided you are not concerned about someone else stealing your design and have no intention of taking legal action against them for doing so.

Second, the historical angle: Do American have a tradition of using arms?  Here the answer is clear: yes.  While American heraldry is less standardized than that of Britain or other countries with heraldic authorities, it is widely used.  George Washington's arms are fairly well known (see left), having been adopted for a variety of uses such as the flag of the District of Columbia and the Purple Heart medal.  Thomas Jefferson, one of the more anti-traditional of America's Founding Fathers also bore arms.  John and John Quincy Adams utilized heraldic arms, as did most of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  But, you ask, is there still a vibrant tradition of heraldry, or was it only a brief carry-over from the colonial period?  One could likely write a dissertation on such a question, though it seems to me the US military provides a strong answer in the affirmative.  Heraldry may not be used in every aspect of everyday life, but for certain purposes we certainly retain it.  (I highly encourage the perusing of the US Institute of Heraldry's website if you have any interest in military heraldry.)

Third, the ideological angle.  Just because Americans have used heraldry does not mean they should?  Is is truly consonant with America's republican constitution?  Here I think we have to step back from Britain and its heraldic world, much though I love it.  When one does so, one discovers that in much of Europe heraldry had little to do with the sovereign.  In Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands, burgher arms were assumed by various members of what we would call the middle class: merchants, artisans, clergy, and the like.  Similar practices can be found in Scandinavia, were farmer have also traditionally borne arms.  Thus, heraldry has no fundamental connection to a monarchy and why should it?  Heraldry is simply a method of visual representation of individuals or organizations.  That non-noble heraldry has a long tradition in the German-speaking world is no minor point for the United States; German-Americans constitute the largest single ancestry group in the country and the Declaration was translated into German even before it was passed.

Thus, there is no reason that any American, so inclined, should not assume arms.

But what are the proper sources for such arms?  In one sense, the same answers given elsewhere apply in the US: symbols associated with one's place of origin or residence, profession or interests, or visual puns (canting).  I might add that one should draw on such associations as one deems appropriate.  If you care deeply about genealogy, use the traditional heraldic colors of your country of origin.  But if you couldn't care less about your umpteen greats grandfather, find something else to depict.

But there is a more tricky matter: how does one indicate familial connections?  British heraldry, and most other systems, has methods for handing down arms from parents to children (usually fathers to sons).  But in America, status is - in republican principle, at least - held by virtue of one's innate human nature and one's role as a citizen, not by birth.  So should, for example, a son use his father's arms, differenced with the appropriate mark of cadency?  Certainly, if one wanted to strongly stress a familial connection, one could do so, though I would certainly not want to require it.  Moreover, I think it runs contrary to our republican spirit - not to mention basic creativity - to forgo modifying inherited arms.  Nevertheless, experience shows that we all owe a great deal to our parents, for both good and ill, so if they bear arms, one would do well to incorporate elements from those arms into one's own.

A related matter concerns marshalling, that is, the combining of arms.  Typically a married couple will place their arms side by side (no objections here) and their eldest son will quarter his parents' arms.  I have two objections with quartering.  First, it tends to become very cluttered very quickly, rarely working beyond a single generation, and often not even then.  Aesthetically it is often a failure.  (See, for example, the unnecessarily cluttered arms of Mary and Philip, above left, or William and Mary, right.)  And what is the point of heraldry if it is not clearly identifiable?  Second, quartering again presumes the inheritance of arms.  I think it far more interesting and American for each individual to design his or her own.

Some final considerations:  While Americans are not bound by the laws of other countries, they would do well to respect them.  Thus, I would strongly discourage any American from copying outright arms which are registered not only here, but also abroad.  This is bad taste and runs contrary to the fundamental heraldic notion of unique identification.  Moreover, I would encourage Americans to avoid those symbols which are typically reserved elsewhere (e.g. the use of royal crowns) and use cautiously those elements of heraldry - such as supporters and standards - which are sometimes associated with special privileges.  Perhaps the most common error in this regard concerns the heraldry of Scottish clans.  Americans often assume that, having a certain surname, they belong to the corresponding clan and therefore have a right to use its arms.  Not so.  Under Scottish law, arms belong to the chief of a clan; members of the clan, that is, the chief's supporters, use a crest badge.  So don't go plagiarizing any Scottish chiefs.  It's rude.

While I cannot make promises on the timing, several more posts regarding heraldry are in the pipes, and I hope to expound on these ideas further in the context of some examples.

Monday, March 17, 2014

St. Patrick's Day

This year in honor of St. Patrick's Day, a few polkas.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the Irish dance polkas, but it's true. In the middle of the 19th century, a polka craze swept through Europe, starting in central Europe and going all over the world--for instance, German settlers brought the style to Texas, where Mexicans adapted it until it became Norteno/Tejano music. Polkas were brought to Ireland at the same time, but until recently the polka craze was generally confined to two small regions within Ireland. The first region was Sliabh Luachra, the hill country along the River Blackwater on the border of Cork and Kerry. In Sliabh Luachra, the style of polka played there is very fast and very syncopated and obviously meant for crossroads dancing. There the fiddle and button accordion were the primary instruments for dance music and still are today. The first clip features two well-known Sliabh Luachra musicians playing a set of polkas: Jackie Daly on accordion and Seamus Creagh on fiddle. Notice how on the first tune Jackie Daly plays an octave lower the second time through.

 

Here is a link to another set of polkas (the video could not be embedded), played by another fine fiddle-accordion duet from Sliabh Luachra: Matt Cranitch and Donal Murphy.

The other region where polkas were played was in the northwest around Sligo. There the style is slower and less syncopated and a bit more graceful. There the fiddle is also popular, but the flute is more common than the accordion. The following video features Matt Molloy, from Ballaghadereen on the Roscommon-Mayo border, playing flute and on fiddle John Carty, who was born in London but whose family hails from Sligo. The second tune they play is called "The Killavil Postman"; Killavil is the village in Sligo where the famous fiddler Michael Coleman was born. The set of polka begins at about 3:30, with "The Killavil Postman"
 starting at about 4:38.

 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian

There is something terrifying about waking up and finding that one's watch or phone or glasses are not where one left them the night before.  Who moved them?  Was someone in the house?  The sudden feeling of uncertainty and vulnerability can be quite powerful, at least until some simple explanation is discovered.

Elizabeth Kostova's first novel, The Historian (2005) is a story about Vlad Ţepeş, better known as Count Dracula.  You could call it a vampire novel, and so it is, though scenes of gushing blood or visceral horror are few.  Rather, the suspense comes from often small incongruities: something, or someone, is not where, or when, or how they should be.  Kostova deftly manipulates such occurrences, building a novel which is strikingly well-paced, always pressing forward, but never hurtling along.

The story is told in four time periods: the present, from which a historian looks back on her own life and that of her father; the 1970s, in which the narrator is a teenage student living with her father, a kind of diplomat, in Europe; the 1950s, in which her father was a graduate student in history, spending some of his time conducting research abroad; and the 1930s, in which the narrator's father's academic adviser was a new historian.  This may sound dreadfully confusing, and in less capable hands it would be.  But Kostova manages to keep all these various periods, and the letters or stories by which we learn about them, surprisingly clear.  The basic problem faced by our protagonists is simple: there is a supernatural evil on the loose, something vampiric, something related to the historical figure of Vlad Ţepeş.  Beyond that they, initially, know virtually nothing.  The clues must be pieced together.

Kostova's mother was a librarian and her father an academic.  Clearly she has a historian's heart.  Much of the novel is spent in archives, digging up shreds of evidence, then trying to make sense of what they mean.  Kostova understands and - at least by this historian's judgement - manages to convey the small triumphs and defeats of sifting through convoluted scholarship, incomplete copies of old documents, and frustratingly elusive bibliographies.  Her protagonists' efforts to find the truth and use it for the good of humanity, while never overwrought, may be seen as an ideal to which every historian, in some small measure, aspires.

I doubt Kostova was inspired by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) - though certainly literary agents hoped her debut novel would have similar success - but whether intended or not, I see The Historian as a kind of answer to Brown.  It is everything he attempted to be: a historical/scholarly detective novel weaving together foreign cultures, ancient secrets, and a hint of spirituality.  But Kostova's work may also be read as a rebuke of all that is wrong with The Da Vinci Code.

To read The Da Vinci Code is to feel like a crack addict, constantly turning pages because one cliff hanger follows upon another.  It is tactically adept at setting up such suspense, but the strategic effect is less satisfying.  There is no strong undercurrent to The Da Vinci Code, no constant tug beyond the immediate.  If Brown's work could be described as a page-turner, Kostova's is a chapter-turner.  That it sustains interest over 642 pages is a testament to the careful pacing.

I found Kostova's exposition likewise adept.  In The Da Vinci Code, the history and significance of buildings or works of art are typically explained in dialogue that, at best, sounds like a lecture from art history class, at worst a badly written encyclopedia entry.  These are made all the more gouache by the fact that any semi-educated person will have a passing knowledge of who people such as Leonardo Da Vinci are.  Why Brown's characters stand in need of explanations is often unclear.  In contrast, the historical background of The Historian is mostly the medieval Balkans, caught between Christendom and Islam.  It is a region and period with which many Americans - even educated ones such as Kostova's characters - have little knowledge.  Moreover, Kostova neatly integrates much of her exposition into excerpts of articles or other materials which are more plausible than wooden conversations.

Finally, Brown's work is riddled with historical errors; I recall googling particularly interesting names or locations as I read it, only to discover that Brown had manipulated key details.  In contrast, Kostova nails the historical and geographic context in which her story takes place, while inventing all of the major characters - with the exception of Vlad Ţepeş - out of whole cloth, lest there be any confusion of fact and fiction.

Throughout the novel, Kostova displays restraint.  The pacing is strong, but not rushed.  The secrets are alluring, but not over the top.  There is violence, but it is rare and often occurs "off state," described in selective detail.  Although there are romantic interests between several of Kostova's characters, their intimacies are neither superabundant nor described in lurid detail.  Kostova does not rely on cheap tricks.

The Historian is not flawless.  The climax and ending, for example, though good, lack the brilliance of other sections of the novel.  Nevertheless, this is one of the finest works of fiction I have read in a long time and I strongly recommend it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Happy Feast of Sts. Cyril & Methodius!


"We have many saints' days in the church calendar, but this one is dear to all those who teach and learn, because it is when we honor the Slavonic heritage of alphabet and literature, and the teaching and learning of many centuries that have grown from Kiril and Methodii and their great invention."

~Anton Stoichev, in Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, pp. 465-66.

Cyril (b. 826/7, d. 14 Feb. 869) and his brother Methodius (b. 815, d. 6 April 885) were monks, missionaries, and inventors of the Cyrillic alphabet, used to bring the Gospel to the Slavic nations.  Cyril, fluent in Hebrew and Arabic, as well as his native Greek, undertook missions to the Turkish empire and the Khazar Khaganate on the Black Sea, and taught philosophy.  Methodius, an abbot, traveled with his brother to Moravia, at the invitation of the local king, where they set about translating the Scriptures and developing a new vernacular liturgy for the Slavs.  Though political schemers tried to use the brothers to support the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople against the Bishop of Rome, they were affirmed in their work by several popes, one of whom appointed Methodius archbishop of the new territory.

Cyril and Methodius are commemorated on 14 February in the West and 11 May in the East (or, where the old style Julian calendar is still used, 24 May, by the new Gregorian reckoning).

The brothers are recognized by the Catholic Church as two of Europe's six patron saints, along with Benedict of Nursia (d. 543), Bridget of Sweden (d. 1373), Catherine of Sienna (d. 1380) and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (d. 1942).

Today is a particularly good day to pray for Christian unity, not only because Cyril and Methodius worked with both Eastern and Western Christians, but also because the present Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus, Kirill I, takes his name from one of these great evangelists.

Today's image comes from For All the Saints.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Six Other Books That Will Save Civilization

Thanks to Aaron for suggesting this topic. Before I discuss the six books I have chosen, I would like to make two preliminary remarks.

First, any time a bibliophile is asked to present a list of superlative books, it is a difficult task. But when the criterion for inclusion is not just his personal favorites, or even the most important books in a certain field, but something as grandiose as “books that will save civilization,” he naturally looks back at his own intellectual development to search for the books that were most crucial or enlightening in his own life. But when I reviewed my own intellectual development, I was surprised that what stood out in my memory were not primarily certain books but certain people and certain conversations. The books I did remember were often connected to those people and the conversations I had with them; strangely enough, I also associated a few books with people with whom I have never even discussed them. What this suggests to me is that the preservation of civilization will not depend so much on safeguarding certain texts, but on passing down to future generations the spirit that animates these texts. “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

Second, the scenario Aaron has presented us with is that of a dictatorship. If America ever descends into such a state, I do not expect a brutal fascist or Communist dictatorship but something more akin to A Brave New World. Surveillance of the citizenry will be all-pervasive, but for the most part it will be superfluous, for this dictatorship will deaden the soul through subtle propaganda so that the citizenry will not know that there is more to life than what the state has to offer. As Cardinal Ratzinger stated at his last public Mass before he was elected pope, what threatens the modern world most is the dictatorship of relativism. Relativism, though, does not mean that the dictatorship would never forbid or command certain actions or thoughts in an “absolute” way. Rather, relativism in this sense means what Nicolás Gómez Dávila termed terrenismo, or “earthliness”: the denial of transcendence, of any measure beyond a man's own whims. So, the spirit I aim to keep alive with all these books is a certain Sehnsucht, a yearning for transcendence. They are not systematic, and they are not generally concerned with doctrine, though I would never deny the importance of doctrine. The books I have chosen, then, are books that I think will keep this spirit alive while hopefully escaping censorship. They therefore do not include explicitly religious books, such as the Bible or the writings of the saints; I assume the underground Church would preserve these.

Joseph von Eichendorff, Poems. Joseph von Eichendorff is the archetypal Romantic. Indeed, he is so archetypal that some of his less distinguished poems can come across as mere clichés of Romanticism. But, in an age when the only thing that seems to interest people is sex, von Eichendorff understood that romantic love pointed to something greater than just sex. He understood the restlessness of true love.

Du hast mir wohl gegeben 
Ein Herz, das hat nicht Ruh. 
Und mitten im Leben 
                                         Sehnt es sich immerzu.

                                         Ich weiß nicht, was im Herzen
                                         Mich so lebendig rührt,
                                         In tausend Lust und Schmerzen
                                        Mich ewig nun verführt. 

Joseph von Eichendorff also understood that true love is often accompanied by pain. Indeed, pain is sometimes inseparable from true love; one cannot be had without the other:

Der stirbt vor Liebe nicht, ein Halbgetreuer,
Wer von der Liebe mehr verlangt als Pein.

And finally, there runs throughout his love poems a sense that the whole cosmos is somehow involved in each individual love story. Eichendorff conveys the lover’s feeling that the entire world revolves around his love for his beloved. Even the birds, the forests, the mountains, and the stars play roles within the love story. Love is something so important that it involves the whole universe. However, whereas with some Romantics this leads to a narcissistic solipsism, with von Eichendorff there is a sense that the lover is caught up in something greater beyond himself.

Joseph Roth, The Legend of the Holy Drinker. On the surface, this novella’s plot sounds like the story of just another homeless drunk who dies prematurely because of his vice. In Roth’s telling, though, the drinker’s death is holy because it is permeated with a profound longing for the Lord. Andres Kartak (the holy drinker) loses his way in life because of his excessive zeal for justice: he defends his landlord’s wife against her husband’s abuse, but ends up killing the man and landing in prison. Once released, he winds up living under the bridges over the Seine in Paris, spending every penny that falls into his hands on drink. But one day he is given 200 francs by an anonymous gentleman who asks only that he repay the sum to the shrine of St. Therese of Lisieux at St. Marie des Batignolles. Kartak tries again and again to make it to the shrine but is always distracted by friends and alcohol. And then, on the Sunday when he makes it as far as a bar across the street from the church, he collapses in the bar and is taken to the sacristy, where he dies reaching into his pocket to give the 200 francs to the priests who are custodians of the shrine of St. Therese. Sadly, but significantly, it is only in this death that Roth finds a way to transfigure Kartak’s utter failure on earth into a holy and touching death. Like von Eichendorff, Roth conceives of Sehnsucht as a kind of melancholy love. It is this melancholy that helps the reader to understand the transcendent quality of love—even in the love that makes us happy on earth, there is a sad quality that makes our hearts restless and impels us to search for something beyond this earth to satisfy our hearts.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s outlook on life perplexes many people today. He was a man who wrote a story depicting in heroic fashion the little hobbits who resist evil against all odds, but who privately called this life “a long defeat,” a man for whom even the ultimate victory against Sauron was tinged with melancholy, by the scouring of the Shire and Frodo’s departure from the Grey Havens for the Undying Lands. He was a man who wrote humorous poems for his children and merry drinking songs for his friends, but who was also given to brooding and perhaps even suffered a nervous breakdown while trying to work on The Lord of the Rings. It is the juxtaposition of these two qualities that perplexes so many today.

But, it is precisely the juxtaposition of the joyous with the melancholy that makes up life for Tolkien. Tolkien enjoyed a pipe and a mug of ale as much as any hobbit; the comforts of this earth were a blessing for which he continually gave thanks. But, for the homely hobbits, and for many men today, the elves are a strange but necessary presence, an uncomfortable reminder that there is more to life than the bourgeois desire for a warm seat by the family hearth. The elves are the most beautiful people in Middle Earth, and the most ethereal, most sublime beauty any of the hobbits ever beholds always comes from the elves. They also have the longest, most dramatic history of any of the peoples of Middle Earth (a fact constantly alluded to in The Lord of the Rings but not explained except in The Silmarillion). And yet they do not quite belong in Middle Earth. There is a certain sadness about the elves. They are always mindful that they are but pilgrims on this earth, and that there is true home is over the sea. This sad longing makes the elves even more beautiful than they would be. Beauty and melancholy belong together in the elves.

Despite this melancholy knowledge that the present age will pass and despite the fragility of their beauty, the elves can be a stout, courageous people. The Silmarillion is full of their exploits in war. Even in the later age depicted in The Lord of the Rings, the elves have retained something of the mythical Germanic heroes whom Tolkien studied in his professional life, those heroes who were determined to fight the good fight until the end despite the certainty of failure. Of course, Tolkien was a Catholic who confessed God’s ultimate victory over evil; but that victory is a long way off, and only comes after we pass through the veil of death.

Tolkien teaches us that beauty and melancholy have a mysterious affinity in this life, but also that one who reveres beauty can be courageous.

Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Scholia to an Implicit Text. “The most subversive book in our time would be a compendium of old proverbs.” What exactly Gómez meant by this aphorism—as with so many others—is a bit unclear at first glance, especially outside the context of his other aphorisms. But again, as with so many of his other aphorisms, this one grabs the reader’s attention with its apparent paradox: How could a proverb be subversive? But, as Gómez grasped so clearly, we live in a world that is upside down, politically, aesthetically, and religiously. Our chief task today is simply to recover as much of the wisdom of our fathers as possible and to pass it on to our own children. According to Gómez, we have rejected the old commonplaces only to be ruined by our own attempt to “be as gods.”

The heart of Gómez’s own message is that man must renounce his aspiration to be master of the universe. He calls on his readers to recognize God’s absolute sovereignty, acknowledge their own status as creatures, and then to live out this truth in their own lives. As a being created by God, man finds himself “immersed in religious experiences” from the first moment of his existence; the universe is fundamentally a mystery to man. It is man’s unbreakable desire to find the source of the universe that gives birth to Sehnsucht. Gómez Dávila views this persistent longing for the transcendent as grounds for hope that this world will not surrender completely to terrenismo, the belief that there is nothing beyond this life.

Finally, Nicolás Gómez Dávila is a particularly apt author for this thought experiment since he has already passed through the censorship of political correctness in the modern West. Martin Mosebach tells how in West Germany in the 1980’s bad carbon copies of his aphorisms were passed around from one sympathizer to the next like samizdat literature in the Soviet Union. He was a practically unknown author, but his German readers were certain that he would be widely condemned. And, indeed, some segments of the German press have equated interest in Gómez with neo-Nazi tendencies. It is the mere specter of being on the right politically, rather than expressing any actually despicable opinions, that leads the politically correct authorities to condemn a writer today.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. At first glance, the idea that Tocqueville could inspire any feeling resembling yearning or Sehnsucht is an odd one. Tocqueville was an expert historian and political analyst, whose precise prose is a model of French clarté; he was not a poet. Nevertheless, in all of his writings (both on America and on France) Tocqueville’s passion for his subject shines through; the reader always knows that Tocqueville believes the subject he is examining—the advent of democracy in modern society—is central to the fate of the world for the next several centuries.

It was his remarkable grasp of the central drama of modern history allowed Tocqueville to foresee the danger for the soul lurking in American democracy: “soft” despotism. According to Tocqueville, the soft despotism which democratic societies must fear will rarely torment citizens; it will instead “degrade” or “enervate” them, keeping them in “perpetual childhood.” Men will look to the administrative state to “entirely relieve them from the trouble of thinking and all the cares of living.”

The ancient tyrants tortured the bodies of their enemies, but in doing so they provoked great acts of courage. Tarquinius Superbus’ cruelty inspired Mucius Scaevola to burn his right hand; the early Roman’s status as a citizen meant that he was called upon to sacrifice for the city in battle. The later Roman emperors’ persecution of the early Christian martyrs only increased the number of converts who marveled at their courage. In the modern world, on the other hand, politicians for the last hundred years or so, when not waging wars on one another, have labored to dull the pains of life for their citizenry and thus preempt rebellion by making the citizenry too comfortable to risk their well-being. Bismarck, for example, was one of the first politicians to realize the effectiveness of this tactic: he attempted to head off his socialist opposition by adopting some of their programs, such as workman’s compensation. Catholics he found to be more intractable, hence the necessity of open persecution in the Kulturkampf. Later on, after the second world war, it was a common complaint of the West German left in the 1950’s and 1960’s that the Wirtschaftswunder had made Germans too preoccupied with wealth to examine the horrors of their recent past or attend to the injustices of the present. Comfort dulls consciences. Tocqueville understood that the modern preoccupation with comfort presaged the deadening of the democratic soul, which would no longer be capable of any great actions once it lost any sense of transcendent justice.

Tacitus, Annals. I hesitate to include among these more poetic books any of Tacitus’ works, for his tone is often biting and sarcastic, rather than yearning or sehnsuchtsvoll. Where he does achieve his stated objective and writes “sine ira et studio,” Tacitus’ Annals are a sober, and sobering, account of the Roman Empire from the end of Augustus’s reign to the Year of the Four Emperors (69 AD). But where he does write with emotion, what comes through most clearly is his scorn for the emperors whose reigns he chronicled.

The danger of Tacitus, though, is also his greatest virtue: he teaches us to be discontented with the present. Even mankind’s greatest ages can be marked by utter degradation; even the glory and splendor of the Roman Empire are marred by corruption and decay. Even before he reaches Nero, he depicts in detail the pettiness of Tiberius, a man too weak to do what he knew was right. Tiberius originally recognized the sycophancy of his many flatterers and the opportunism of the legions of informants, but he had a deplorable lack of forthrightness in both speech and action. He could not rule except through subterfuge. No longer was it possible for two men in public office to express open, manly disagreement with each other; the ancient republican virtues of virtus and παρρησία were no more. Tiberius’ longing was for the days of the old republic.

Implicit in discontent with the present is a tendency to cynicism. Tacitus must have experienced this temptation in his own life. He rose to the consulship at a time when the consulship did not carry much importance with it. He knew that the supreme political virtues under the emperors were no longer virtus and παρρησία but deceit and cunning. However, Tacitus resisted the temptation to cynicism. He revered his father-in-law as a man striving to live an upright life in a corrupt political system, leaving a monument to him for posterity in his Agricola. Tacitus also gives many examples of men who remained true to the old ways in spite of great pressure, even to the point of death, thus giving us an idea of the courage a man requires if he is going to live a virtuous life in a corrupt age.

Near the end of what remains of the Annals (XVI.35), Tacitus recounts the death of the noble senator Thrasea, who was attacked by senators loyal to Nero for persisting in his “perverse vanity,” their term for his refusal to flatter the emperor. Before he dies, Thrasea speaks to his son-in-law Helvidius words that we would all do well to remember ourselves: “We pour out a libation to Jupiter the Deliverer. Behold young man, and may the gods avert the omen, but you have been born into times in which it is well to fortify the spirit with examples of courage.”

Sehnsucht without courage is nothing.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Texts That Will Save Civilization

During World War II, Karol Wojtyła helped found the underground Rhapsodic Theater, believing that, so long as Polish culture existed, the Polish state could eventually stage a comeback against the Nazis (and subsequently Soviets). But without a culture, there would be no soul left to animate the body politic.

That got me thinking about the defining characteristics of cultures, ours in particular. One of the curious wrinkles is that the most important texts in one sense may not be the most valuable. A work with which people can engage - and I realize that engagement is culturally conditioned; different people interact with texts and one another in different ways, including dramatic performances, poetry readings, morning newspapers, sacred proclamations - may be more important than the intellectual insights of a particularly erudite, but inaccessible, text.

We come then to a thought experiment: If our own country were overrun by tyrants, which works would you preserve for the sake of preserving our particular form of civilization? And why?

A bit Fahrenheit 451, I'll admit. The one parameter I'd place is this: we might as well assume that the tyrants of this little scenario are either foolish enough to permit the Bible and the Declaration of Independence, or so thorough in their thuggery as to prove them untenable for salvaging. There's no point filling our list with obvious choices; I think unusual ones provide far more food for thought.

One problem I have in approaching this question is how to define civilization, our civilization. American civilization? Western civilization? Christendom? Which of these is the most serviceable category? To which do I feel the most connection? Which is most worth saving? After all, I have multiple identities. My Catholic faith does not fit neatly into my American nationality; indeed, for much of American history, many people would have said the two were at odds. My status as an Anglophone (and, yes, Anglophile) links me to a variety of countries around the globe, though America initially defined itself in opposition its Anglophonic cousins.

I have no easy answers to these conundrums, at least not today, though I do have a few texts to offer for discussion:

Homer, The Iliad. This work is foundational to Western literature for a good reason. It does not simply come before later works; it engages with a variety fundamental questions about pride, friendship, free will, heroism, and loss. Little surprise, then, that G. K. Chesterton commented that, "if the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die." Or, as my friend Wondrous Pilgrim explained, "Hundreds of generations have read this and wept. Who am I to argue with them. (And I've wept as well!)."

Shakespeare. When considering the Bard's work, I must confess the inability to choose a single work, or even a single class of works. The histories exert a strong pull on me, not only because I love all things historical, but also because so many deal with questions of public life. But the comedies may prove just as insightful on this account - who would argue that The Tempest is not, among other things, about politics? - while also offering a lightheartedness that may be especially valuable in difficult times. Moreover, I think that drama offers two virtues worth mentioning. First, it is something one does. Whether one actually acts it out or simply reads it in a group, it invites a form of social participation beyond mere reading. Second, and related, drama invites discussion. The conversation over food and drink which follows a performance of Richard III or Julius Caesar may be some of the best civic discourse one can find.

Russell Kirk, Roots of American Order. In some ways, including this work is a cheat. Kirk surveys the origins of the American way of life, reaching from ancient Israel and Greece, through Rome, medieval Christendom, and the English liberal tradition, and on to the American Founding, all the way to Abraham Lincoln. Thus, in one vast sweep, this work encompasses the ideas and cultures of many other works which might appear on this list. At times I suspect Kirk indulges in a bit of wishful thinking, romantically claiming connections which are not quite so clear. But there is much to value in the history here surveyed, and even if America was not founded with all this in mind, modern Americans would do well to consider it.

G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man. Doubtless, this work benefited from the fact that I recently re-read it. But Chesterton's survey of human civilization, from its earliest origins to the Christian age, a survey which greatly influenced C. S. Lewis, makes a number of important arguments regarding the place of religion in society. Moreover, Chesterton reminds us that civilizations can progress but also regress, a worthwhile caution. Most importantly, Chesterton points to the supernatural power of God, which can reanimate humanity in ways even the best of merely natural civilizations cannot. And he writes with a very enjoyable flourish.

Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail. I have written about this letter before. I think it is worth including here for three reasons: (1) it gives a glimpse of America in the latter half of the 20th century, (2) it draws extensively on the Western intellectual tradition, demonstrating how it can be applied to contemporary issues, and (3) it encourages reflection on how the tools of faith and reason should be applied to political injustice, certainly a worthwhile topic in difficult times.

Walter Miller, Canticle for Leibowitz. This is another work I have praised elsewhere. Although a very different genre, like Letter from Birmingham Jail it invites consideration of how people of faith many carry on in difficult times. This novel of monks in post-apocalyptic America also raises important questions about how the remnants of civilization are preserved, suggesting that the work of preservation should be carried on even in the absence of tangible benefits, though preservation should never be assumed to be complete nor should it become an end in itself.



Suggestions for other inclusions?