February 21, 2008
What is the use of raising “dead” historical issues such as the rights or wrongs of World War I, or the virtues of Habsburg Austria as opposed to Woodrow Wilson’s America? That question has come up more than once in responses on this site to previous blogs of mine, and I think it’s an interesting one. Is it mere self-indulgence to muse over historical “what-ifs,” or maintain theoretical allegiances to political arrangements abolished before one’s own father was born? Should we collapse our horizons narrowly to the bounds of the probable, and keep our gazes fixed straight ahead of us? If we don’t, we’re prone to charges such as “escapism”….
Perhaps the best answer to start with comes from the author of our only great modern epic in English, J.R.R. Tolkien, who famously quipped, “The only people who would object to escapism would be jailors.” I don’t think that Tolkien was referring solely to totalitarians whom he despised, such as the Communists or the Nazis. Deeply influenced by the likes of Chesterton and Belloc, raised (as a fatherless boy) by a priest who’d studied under Cardinal Newman, Tolkien was concerned as well with the soul-deadening qualities of “moderate” world views such as Fabian socialism and Manchester liberalism.
A veteran of the Somme who’d seen all his closest friends butchered by machine guns or gas, Tolkien spent the 1930s and 40s in a manner quite unlike his contemporary, the equally gifted W.H. Auden. Appalled at the gathering darkness of what he rightly called a “low dishonest decade,” Auden felt it his duty to be “committed” to the contemporary struggles that assailed him daily in the newspapers. He wrote about the Popular Front, various intra-Communist disputes, the gathering force of fascism—and even after his conversion to Christianity, a concern with current events continued to pervade his work.
Tolkien took quite the opposite approach. Indulging in what an engagÃ© author would no doubt have disdained as purest escapism, Tolkien followed the Anglo-Saxon culture which occupied his academic specialty to its roots, and conceived the idea of writing what (in his view) had never been written: A great national epic for England. Having long indulged a hobby of constructing languages from scratch (his first was Elvish, inspired by the Finnish he’d come to love through reading the Kalevala), Tolkien began to imagine histories and geographies which might have given rise to those tongues”and soon enough was embarked on the decades-long, never finished task of writing The Silmarillion, a vast account of imaginary pre-history lying behind the rise of man. (Almost along the way, he wrote the much more accessible The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.) This new world’s roots lay deep in the often fragmentary pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature which predate the Norman conquest, but Tolkien’s themes were of enormous contemporary significance: the sanctity of the local, the hatefulness of tyrants, the intimate connection between personal honor and the preservation of liberty. Resisting the temptation to make of his work an allegory of his times, Tolkien created a work that will long outlast any of the political works of the century”even, I’d argue, Orwell’s. The powerful film adaptations which came out a few years ago mostly do justice to the timeless timeliness of the works”which certainly fit Pound’s definition of poetry: “News that stays news.” Whatever bureaucratic, militaristic, multicultural nightmare polity awaits us and our children, these works will serve as samizdat, reminding anyone who reads them “It was not always thus. And it need not always be so. Men have dreamed differently, and so may you.”
If myths that draw upon our civilizational history can liberate our minds from current ideological constraints, so too can a reverent appraisal of the past”and one that refuses the categories imposed upon modern discourse by the powerful. Having grown up in the 1970s and 80s as a fervent anticommunist with a hankering for military intervention, there was every reason to expect that I would have turned out, like so many of my classmates, a neoconservative. And so I would have done, had it not been for some crucial reading I’d undertaken in high school. Inspired by his columns in National Review, I dove into Leftism, the greatest work of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn. At once a partisan of liberty and a European monarchist, Kuehnelt-Leddihn helped me see that the civilization of the West was far more than a set of propositions derived from Ancient Greece”tragically submerged for 1,000 years or more”which reasserted themselves in the Enlightenment, and now inspire our mighty commercial democracy. Instead of such a “Cold War ideology” as David Gress diagnoses, I gained a glimpse of the much more complex reality which underlay the liberty, prosperity, and civic order that we cherish. It had as much to do with anarchistic feudal lords in medieval Germany as with squabbling Athenians, and owed a great deal more to the likes of St. Benedict than the confrÃ¨res of Francis Bacon. The rich and gorgeous texture of our civilization”along with the best political forms it had evolved over the centuries”that was what was worth “conserving.” The world of political possibilities did not begin with Thomas Paine, move smoothly through the Gettysburg Address, and end with MLK’s “I Have a Dream,” as the acolytes of Harry Jaffa who dominate today’s conservative movement would have us believe.
If we are to have more recruits to movements like the Ron Paul revolution, more thinkers who are at once prolife and antiwar, pro-market but skeptical of mere economism, more civilizational patriots of the likes of Pat Buchanan, we need to keep reading (and passing on to young folk) books that free our minds. We need to look to models and heroes who reach beyond our nation’s narrow borders and limited history. There is more to Western history than “Just-So” stories of ancient Greece as retold by Victor Davis Hanson, or pious mush concocted by the ghosts of William Bennett. In fact, I’d argue that it’s dangerous to study either ancient or American history without steeping oneself in the great Middle Ages that bridged the 2,000 years between them. Such patchy learning is what gives birth to ideologues.
In a sense, the ongoing struggle between rightist and leftist tendencies in culture might be called the war between nostalgia and utopia.
Conceived narrowly, a utopia is simply “nowhere” (c.f. Erewhon), but more broadly it suggests a poetic and philosophic vision of what might be”indeed, what should be. While none of the world’s utopias have ever come to pass, the goals they advertised have inspired millions, and moved the world. Without the feminist and Marxist utopias, the world ruled by fathers and bankers might never have been challenged”for better or (mostly) worse.
Nostalgia, viewed etymologically, suggests not merely a hazy wistful vision of the past, but “longing for home.” In the wake of the French Revolution, a wave of constructive, Romantic nostalgia helped rebuild the bridges between ordinary people and their governments, and burnish the reputation of the Church after centuries of “Enlightened” vilification. Only a critical nostalgia that looks to Valley Forge—and back behind it to Lepanto, to Aix-la-Chapelle, to Byzantium—can help reattach contemporary Westerners to the civilization which their own elites never cease to vilify, and offer some hope of carrying it on into the future.