April 28, 2008

Speaking of Romantics, Richard’s rejection of the definitions of “the West” offered by Robert Spencer and Jim Pinkerton reminds me of one of the great original Romantics, Friedrich von Hardenberg (Novalis), and his essay that was one of the more important 19th century exercises in idealizing medieval Europe.  Never published in his lifetime, partly because its overt religiosity and medievalism embarrassed some of his colleagues, it has become a classic statement of the refusal to define Europe in secular terms, and even the refusal to define it as Europe, except perhaps geographically.  The tendency among some of us to valorize medieval Catholic Europe, noted by Dr. Gottfried in an earlier article, stems in some part from the Romantic reaction of newly converted Catholics such as Novalis, who repudiated the concept of “Europe” in place of Christendom with the same enthusiasm that Richard now critiques the category of “the West.”  In a very important way, Novalis was arguing, Europe as Europe was not the Faith, but was what would become of Christendom once the Faith was rejected or marginalized.  We can either start talking about a renewed Christendom, or we can keep talking about “Europe” and “the West,” but these are opposing, not complementary, concepts.  This is driven home with some regularity each time you hear “conservatives” glorying in the wonders of technological advances and secular modernity.  Unlike “the Rest,” as the majority of the world was rather dismissively described in the title of an otherwise often sound Roger Scruton volume from recent years, we have put religion in its place and don’t take it all that seriously.  

One of the things that brought Novalis to mind was my lingering skepticism about Mr. Pinkerton’s conception of who belonged in this West, and the ease with which he moved back and forth between the fairly meaningless “Western” and the powerfully meaningful “Christian.”  There was also an ongoing tension between an idea that we should live and let live, except that the “we” in question extended to far distant climes to which Americans have very few connections and so what ended up being defined as ours was so expansive as to make living and letting live impossible.  Thus the call for Western solidarity becomes similarly a call for a militarized frontier:

So instead of building missile-defense sites in Eastern Europe, dividing Europe from Russia, the United States should put those sites in Russia’s southern reaches, to face the real enemy, which is Iran and the rest of nuclear Islam.

This was one of the things that kept puzzling me.  If Iran and “the rest of nuclear Islam” are the “real enemy,” why and how are we going to live and let live?  No doubt a more cooperative and constructive relationship with Russia makes a great deal of sense, but Russia has no interest in treating Iran as the “real enemy.”  In truth, neither does America, which is why I have never quite been able to square my obvious sympathy with conceiving of our civilization as a Christian one with Mr. Pinkerton’s proposal.


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