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.
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