What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.

About

What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Gulag

Aleksandr_Solzhenitsyn_1974crop.jpg

Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is, of course, a monumental work of history. The three formidable volumes, multitudinous in their breadth, comprise a daunting task to even the most tenacious of readers. The effort untaken by this remarkable man, to collect the material that fills his volumes, recurrently boggles the mind.

We’re intimidated by the prospect of reading it? Reflect now on the prospect of assembling and composing it.

But part of what elevates this work to the status of literary achievement of the highest order is the personal voice of Solzhenitsyn, which grounds the entire chronicle. Just when a flash of skepticism, from years of active reading, urges the internal question, “But how could he know about that?” — something in the phrasing, or something in the comparison, or something in the context, supplies the answer: “Because he was there” or “because a man he shared a cell with was there.” This is not only history, but testimony and autobiography.

Even more than the personal experience undergirding the history, there is the sheer vigor and range of the great Russian’s pen: its capacity for varied styles, for formality and intimacy, for poetic and prosaic diction, for imitative dialogue in diverse voices, for irony and subtlety as well as brute fact piled on brute fact, almost a catalogue of horror and misery. This diversity of literary form buoys the narrative and supplies it with its mark of singular genius.

Consider the following excerpt, from near the end of Volume 1. Observe literary sensibility that suffuses it, and the scorching sarcasm that drives it. A literary man uses literary references; but far from a mere academic literature, his writing presents reality: Solzhenitsyn brings our very noses right up next to the wretchedness visited upon prisoners of the Gulag.

The imagination of writers is poverty-stricken in regard to the native life and customs of the Archipelago. When they want to write about the most reprehensible and disgraceful aspect of prison, they always accuse the latrine bucket. In literature the latrine bucket has become the symbol of prison, a symbol of humiliation, of stink. Oh, how frivolous can you be? Now was the latrine bucket really an evil for the prisoner? On the contrary, it was the most merciful device of the prison administration. The actual horror began the moment there was no latrine bucket in the cell.

In 1937 there were no latrine buckets in certain Siberian prisons, or there weren't enough. Not enough of them had been made ahead of time — Siberian industry hadn't caught up with the full scope of arrests. There were no latrine barrels in the warehouses for the newly created cells. There were old latrine buckets in the cells, but they were antiquated and small, and the only reasonable thing to do at that point was to remove them, since they amounted to nothing at all for the new reinforcements of prisoners. So if long ago the Minusinsk Prison had been built for five hundred people (Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was never inside it; he moved about freely), and there were now ten thousand in it, it meant that each latrine bucket ought to have become twenty times bigger. But it had not.

Our Russian pens write only in large letters. We have lived through so very much, and almost none of it has been described and called by its right name. But, for Western authors, peering through a microscope at the living cells of everyday life, shaking a test tube in the beam of a strong light, this is after all a whole epic, another ten volumes of Remembrance of Things Past: to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket, where prisoners are taken out to the toilet only once a day! Of course, much of the texture of this life is bound to be quite unknown to Western writers; they wouldn't realize that in this situation one solution was to urinate in your canvas hood, nor would they at all understand one prisoner's advice to another to urinate in his boot! And yet that advice was the fruit of wisdom derived from vast experience, and it didn't involve spoiling the boot and it didn't reduce the boot to the status of a pail. It meant that the boot had to be taken off, turned upside down, the boot tops turned inside out and up-and thus a cylindrical vessel was formed that constituted the much-needed container. But, at the same time, with what psychological twists and turns Western writers could enrich their literature (without in the least risking any banal repetition of the famous masters) if they only knew about the scheme of things in that same Minusinsk Prison: there was only one food bowl for every four prisoners; and one mug of drinking water per day was issued to each (there were enough mugs to go around). And it could happen that one of the four contrived to use the bowl allotted to him and three others to relieve his internal pressure and then refuse to hand over his daily water ration to wash it out before lunch. What a conflict! What a clash of four personalities! What nuances! (And I am not joking. That is when the rock bottom of a human being is revealed. It is only that Russian pens are too busy to write about it, and Russian eyes don't have time to read about it. I am not joking — because only doctors can tell us how months in such a cell will ruin a human being’s health for his entire life, even if he wasn’t shot under Yezhov and was rehabilitated under Khrushchev.)

So there it is: Proust and the latrine bucket.

A few pages later, Solzhenitsyn describes the humiliation which almost invariably greeted political prisoners when they arrived at the dismal transit prisons.

Very soon these unfortunate souls will be introduced to the blatnye, the thieves or common criminals; and they will be plundered ruthlessly by them — because throughout the Gulag the common criminals, often conspiring with the guards, ruled over the “politicals.” Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of his impotent confrontation with the blatnye is unforgettable:

Getting to my feet, I turned to their senior, the pakhan, the ringleader of the thieves. All the stolen victuals were there in front of him beside the window on the second tier of bunks: the juvenile rats hadn't eaten a thing themselves. They were disciplined. Nature had sculpted the front part of the ringleader's head, in bipeds usually called a face, with nausea and hate. Or perhaps it had come to be what it was from living the life of a beast of prey. It sagged crookedly and loosely, with a low forehead, a savage scar, and modern steel crowns on the front teeth. His little eyes were exactly large enough to see all familiar objects and yet not take delight in the beauties of the world. He looked at me as a boar looks at a deer, knowing he could always knock me off my feet.

And there is also the commerce in human flesh.

During the years when the prisoners’ cases didn't carry any indication of their final destination, the transit prisons turned into slave markets. The most desired guests at the transit prisons were the buyers. This word was heard more and more often in the corridors and cells and was used without any shadow of irony. Just as it became intolerable everywhere in industry simply to sit and wait until things were sent from the center on the basis of allocations, and it was more satisfactory to send one's own “pushers” and “pullers” to get things done — the same thing happened in Gulag: the natives on the islands kept dying off; and even though they cost not one ruble, a count was kept of them, and one had to worry about getting more of them for oneself so there wouldn't be any failure in fulfilling the plan. The buyers had to be sharp, have good eyes, and look carefully to see what they were taking so that last-leggers and invalids didn't get shoved off on them. The buyers who picked a transport on the basis of case files were poor buyers. The conscientious merchants demanded that the merchandise be displayed alive and bare-skinned for them to inspect. And that was just what they used to say without smiling — merchandise. “Well, what merchandise have you brought?” asked a buyer at the Butyrki station, observing and inspecting the female attributes of seventeen-year-old Ira Kalina.

Human nature, if it changes at all, changes not much faster than the geological face of the earth. And the very same sensations of curiosity, relish, and sizing up which slave-traders felt at the slave-girl markets twenty-five centuries ago of course possessed the Gulag bigwigs in the Usman Prison in 1947, when they, a couple of dozen men in MVD uniform, sat at several desks covered with sheets (this was for their self-importance, since it would have seemed awkward otherwise), and all the women prisoners were made to undress in the box next door and to walk in front of them bare-footed and bare-skinned, turn around, stop, and answer questions. “Drop your hands,” they ordered those who had adopted the defensive pose of classic sculpture. (After all, these officers were very seriously selecting bedmates for themselves and their colleagues.)

Solzhenitsyn calls his three-volume work, “An Experiment in Literary Investigation,” which strikes a note of modesty somewhat at odds with the compendious nature of these books. But throughout the text he is at pains to underscore its emphatic want of comprehensiveness. He dedicates the work to “those who did not live to tell it,” asking forgiveness for “not having seen it all, nor remembered it all.” In the long section documenting the Revitribunals, the purges and mass trials — three solid chapters’ worth, covering a hundred and thirty odd pages — he repeatedly emphasizes the fragmentary nature of the official record, and its concentration in Moscow.

We beg the reader, throughout, to keep in mind: from 1918 on, our judicial custom determined that every Moscow trial . . . was by no means an isolated trial of an accidental. concatenation of circumstances which had converged by accident; it was a landmark of judicial policy; it was a display-window model whose specifications determined what product was good for the provinces too; it was a standard; it was like that one-and-only model solution up front in the arithmetic book for the schoolchildren to follow for themselves. Thus, when we say, “the trial of the churchmen,” this must be understood in the multiple plural ... “many trials.”

The Historical Society of Cavendish, Vermont, where the Solzhenitsyns lived for almost two decades in exile, has published a book and website to commemorate that small mountain town’s once-upon-a-time most famous reclusive resident. (The story goes that a Cavendish general store posted a sign: “To shirt, no shoes, no service, and no directions to the Solzhenitsyns.”) HBO has commissioned a biopic on the man, his life and times, written by a veteran of the brilliant Second World War productions Band of Brothers and The Pacific. These are encouraging developments. No man contributed more doggedly to the exposure of the evils of the Soviet system than Solzhenitsyn.

Comments (56)

I am continually amazed at how almost none of my college students have ever even heard of Solzhenitsyn. I have them read his Templeton address ("Men Have Forgotten God") in all my composition classes, and recommend _A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch_ to them. I just started _Gulag_ this summer, then got sidetracked by life. Thanks for this post, which has brought me back to it.

Solzhenitsyn's role in exposing the true evil of the Evil Empire is often underestimated.

Indeed.

I think his literary talents are underestimated as well. This man is in the running for the greatest writer of the 20th century.

Paul,

Regarding Solzhenitsyn's literary talents, I was thinking about his work in relation to the Holocaust literature, especially Night given the recent death of Elie Wiesel. Obviously Night is a quicker and easier read, although as Beth mentions, for high-school students I'm sure plenty have been assigned and read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch which is probably a better comparison to Night than The Gulag Archipelago. Still, given what I know of the book and your excerpts here (I've never read it) I would certainly want more and more Americans exposed to at least parts of this magisterial work while they are in school.

It seems like any good WWII history program can make room for the horrors of both Nazism and Communism and we are lucky to have Solzhenitsyn's work to help us understand the full scope of the crimes and horrors of life under communist rule.

Paul,

Thanks for providing these amazing, powerful readings. Solzhenitsyn has made sure that the insanity of communism will never be forgotten.

Paul Sr

I am always surprised at the numerous Conservative writers labeling Solzhenitsyn as a Russian nationalist (as if it was a bad thing to be). And it may be that is his never translated "200 years together" led to his suppression in English-speaking world. He violated the conservative political correctness. The last two volumes of the Red Knot were also left untranslated.

>> I am always surprised at the numerous Conservative writers labeling Solzhenitsyn as a Russian nationalist (as if it was a bad thing to be).

Nihil admirari. Look, context matters. You say that Conservative writers are dismissing him because of a “political correctness.” Yet those who make this charge are open to the same charge.

Slavophilia was a thing. A big thing. Tocqueville wrote that the U. S. and Russia were and would be the two main ideological poles of the world, so in a way you could say he predicted the Cold War. Read Slavophile writing from the 1840s and it will curl your hair with it’s anti-Westernism. When Lincoln spoke of those who would be gleeful to see the American experiment fall apart via civil war, most can only imagine monarchists but anti-Westernism was there at the same time in force.

Now if you bring up Slavophilia, people will say “Ah, but you’re dismissing Solzhenitsyn aren’t you!” The answer is, to put something in its proper context is not a dismissal, but rather a beginning of proper engagement.

This is the problem I have with the approach of many so eager to cry "dismissal!" of Solzhenitsyn. By such handwaving we're supposed to dismiss the fact that for 200 odd years in Russia there's been an ideology that is deeply hostile to Western culture, and the US or "Americanization" as the US is thought to be the highest embodiment of its supposed opposite, in Russian history. And that because Solzhenitsyn isn't a card carrying member of the most doctrinaire and rigid of its flavors means there's nothing to see here. We're supposed not to notice that most of his deeper criticisms and language just happen to coincide with Slovophile hobby-horses. And we can't discuss the underlying issues either, because, oh man, that's deep stuff isn't it?

Look, I don't think we should allow anyone to claim the mantle of a prophet. No special pleading should be allowed. Solzhenitsyn put his pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. There are two poles to be avoided here, as everywhere. One is moderating him and making him speak the words certain of us want to hear. But the other pole to avoid is to allow his critique to go without critique. What gives him a free pass? Is he a prophet? To allow awe of a great writer and courageous man transfer into a claim to the truth without a full vetting that a full knowledge of the subject would invite is irresponsible. Somewhere between Solzhenitsyn dismissal and ingesting Solzhenitsyn Kool-Aid there is a discussion to be had. Or, if you prefer, between the poles of Slavophiles and the so-called “Westernizers” if you prefer. Or self-criticism and self-loathing, or any number of other opposing terms. But few wish to have it, and most certainly not where romantic sensibilities run deep.

"Solzhenitsyn's program is myth making rather than practical politics ... in reality the nationalist and isolationist tendencies of Solzhenitsyn's thought, and his own patriarchal religious romanticism, lead him into very serious errors and render his proposals utopian and even potentially dangerous." -- Andrei Sakharov

"... they managed to combine a macro cosmic German critique with microcosmic French criticisms to arrive at an overview of America reminiscent of British Tory polemics less familiar to them." -- Dale E. Peterson, "Solzhenitsyn's Image of America: The Survival of a Slavophile"

Oops. Accidentally chopped off the last word of Peterson's article.

It is "Solzhenitsyn's Image of America: The Survival of a Slavophile Idea".

It's a great read.

Mark, the point of this post is to allow Solzhenitsyn's own words speak, not dragoon him into some ideological contest. But it's undeniable that once Western literary elites discovered that, far from being a liberal or democratic socialist, Solzhenitsyn was in fact a Christian who stood at arms-length from both liberalism and socialism, they began to unfairly dismiss him. The Gulag Archipelago could not be ignored; George Kennan was spot-on when he called it "the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times." So at least a few liberals forced themselves to read and absorb it, with reluctance and hesitation, because the spiritual content did not sit well with them. But the Harvard address stupefied many Western liberals; and not a few of them declined to ever read a word of his again. Any number of biographies (Joseph Pearce's for instance) lay out in great detail that extended campaign of misrepresentation that followed Solzhenitsyn in the Western media from the late 1970s on.

Again referring to his own words, rather than journalistic accounts of those words, Solzhenitsyn's political arguments were almost always stated modestly, carefully, and with marked generosity. He certainly was not always right, but he was always worth listening to.

Just to mention a couple specific points on which the liberal caricature falls apart: in his fiction particularly, the lively sense of humor quickly undermines the false image of some dreary Russian reactionary. Meanwhile, his warm admiration for John Paul II likewise emphatically weakens the assumption of an intransigent Russian nationalism (for Russian nationalists have rarely spared a word of warmth for the Pope in Rome).

Do you have a link to Peterson article?

Paul, unfortunately the Peterson article is behind a paywall. It can be googled for on jstor, but check your messages though.

Look, my point is simply that the whole Solzhenitsyn in relation to the Harvard lecture type events of his life isn't really very mysterious at all. And it has nothing to do with The Gulag Archipelago. My point is that it no more makes sense to claim the Harvard address has deep meaning we must respect but not argue against than to claim John McCain should be president because he bore such trials as a POW so honorably. It just makes no sense. People almost seem to imply not paying the right respects to his Harvard address is to not properly respect his Soviet dissident status or his status as a writer. I just don't get it. The two things could not be more different.

Solzhenitsyn torqued off everybody, and maybe he complained about how he was treated but I've not heard that. I doubt he was surprised by the reaction. He may have like it. And I'm fine with any of that. What I'm not fine with is people telling me I've got to respect views of his that I'd scoff at if it were anyone else because he pissed off Liberals. Especially be pissed off everyone. Makes no sense. His status as actor in the "most powerful single indictment of a political regime" isn't in question. Why would anyone think I'm questioning that by trying to put his Harvard speech in context? Two entirely separate things. Entirely separate.

It wouldn't be at all accurate to say he mainly stupefied capital L Western liberals. It pretty much stupefied anyone except for anti-liberals, which very much includes classical liberalism, which means Conservatives right down to Rush Limbaugh (and no I'm not up for another "there's no such thing" as a classical liberal discussion). See the links by Conquest and Friedman at the end.

All to say, my intended point above to Bedarz was that whatever one thinks of Solzhenitsyn, there should be no surprise whatever that Conservatives "label" him a Russian nationalist because that is exactly right. Moreover, there is no surprise whatever that they would be PO'd at him too and wonder about his motives in such things as the Harvard address. Where are the Burkeans when you really need them? You know, prejudice and all that? Really? There's no surprise at all.

None of that is a dismissal of Solzhenitsyn. Not even close. So all I'm saying is that Solzhenitsyn's Harvard address has been placed off-limits for discussion by a certain ideological stripe that obtains on the left and right. I'm not going to name it. Conservatives and Liberals both invented Solzhenitsyn in their own image. I'm not. I see him as a different animal, and yes his Russian background matters. How could it not?

Here is George Friedman and Robert Conquest on him. They fully respect him, yet know his weaknesses. That is to respect him, unlike accepting everything about him uncritically.

https://www.stratfor.com/weekly/solzhenitsyn_and_struggle_russias_soul
http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB121815367233222513

Look I'm not a mystic. Since poets and the philosophers have been battling it out for supremacy since dirt, I'm not favorable to name-dropping of writers with implied claims of the superiority of unstated arguments. Now either Solzhenitsyn's writing backs his point of view given in the Harvard address or it doesn't. I say they're separate things and he was free-lancing. Those favorable to illiberalism don't see it that way, but who wouldn't want an embodiment of an argument that is untouchable. But that isn't legitimate. In this environment, Slavophilia is a thing that matters, and no that isn't to traffic in genetic fallacies or ad hominem. I'm fine with self-criticism, but it needs to be on the mark and I simply don't think it was. This is merely to treat him as a man and not a prophet. Nothing I've said should be that controversial, right or wrong.

For those with an affiliation to an educational institution, this is the link but the paywall blocks all but a preview. https://www.jstor.org/stable/25088833

Mark, if your beef is simply with B.I., rest assured that I share your impatience with his drive-by provocations.

But if your beef is with Solzhenitsyn as such, or my posting on him, or something generalized like that -- well, that's where we might have a disagreement. Here I have put up a post composed mostly of chunks of quotation from the latter fourth of the first volume of Arhkipelag GuLag with a small bit of commentary. I feel like, out of this you have constructed a suspicion me of some kind of childish worship of Solzhenitsyn. You introduce this term, "Slavophilia," at a website where the word Slav has maybe once appeared in 10 years. It's oddball behavior, man. (Unless, that is, you confine your remarks to B.I.)

To me, Solzhenitsyn is admirable, though far from infallible, on several levels: (1) as a witness against Soviet tyranny; (2) as a superb and singular writer; (3) as the exemplar of virtuous and gracious exile (look on Google for his moving address to the Cavendish town hall when he left for Russia in 1994); and (4) as a valuable and openhearted critic of Western capitalism.

Probably you would dispute with my estimate of him on points (3) and (4), but that's okay. I don't mind.

>> To me, Solzhenitsyn is admirable

There's no question about that. But everyone deserves a critique. No one is beyond critique. It shows respect and is taking them seriously.

I can't even imagine disputing #3. I wouldn't dispute with him over 1 - 4. But about point 4, I'll always have a dispute with those who claim a unique value for Solzhenitsyn's Western critique if they won't state what his unique value is. What was it? And you know you ask that question of people claiming this great or unique value and there is nothing but silence. I don't accept name-dropping, nor nudging or winking.

So my beef isn't with Solzhenitsyn, it is with his use and abuse. I think his statements about the West aren't unique at all, unlike his other contributions. It isn't clear to me at all he even thought he had a unique critique. Is there any evidence he thought he had a uniquely valuable message? I suspect he'd disagree with that. I honestly can't see anything he said that wasn't said by more people than you can shake a stick at. I also think what they say is typically misguided, corrosive, and unhelpful.

Here's another example of the same phenomenon. Scholars say "Christians should read Nietzsche because they can learn a lot from him". Ok, I say "What can you learn?" It's not that I don't believe one can, it's that I think very few who say it do. Because they can't say what it is. Just random non-memorable stuff I guess. In fact you can read his entire corpus three times over and miss the point. Rene Girard has said few scholars grasp Nietzsche main point regarding Christianity, perhaps his main point overall, and demonstrates this fact effortlessly. Girard says what it is in a quite succinctly, so much so it could be put in a sentence or explained to children quite easily and memorably. So Nietzsche's critique is unique, and easily missed, and is hence is very valuable. But it wouldn't mean much of anything in my opinion without people able to publicly summarize the contribution for a given audience, and there's little value in people claiming value in trudging through his works when for most it will be quite unprofitable.

So yeah, I have a beef with B.I.'s use of Solzhenitsyn, but it's nothing personal. No harm no foul. It's a common thing to fall into. And the Slavophile thing I think is huge generally and I think more people should know about the depth and roots of anti-Westernism. I think it would educate people about the secular ideology that is behind Islamic terrorism if folks knew how far back the anti-Westernism really goes, and how virulent it was long before global travel and trade was common.

Well gotta go. Cheers.

I am asking again what precisely is wrong in being a Russian nationalist. Or a Slavophile.
I first noticed this imputation in National Review where Solzhenitsyn was never cited without these damning labels.
At that magazine ever signing paeans to American exceptionalism!

I don't think liberals are behind suppression of Red Knot and 200 years together. It is curious that the conservatives do not seem to be interested in this phenomenon.

>> I am asking again what precisely is wrong in being a Russian nationalist.

Nothing.

>> Or a Slavophile.

That is the value of the Peterson article. If only it were love of all things Slav, as with Francophile or Anglophile, there would be nothing at all wrong with it. Unfortunately, it isn't similar to that. As far as I can tell there is an intense rejection and hostility to Western society or even the idea of it. It sees the mere presence of them as aggressive, as if the attractions of it were an invasion them from across the globe.

>> I don't think liberals are behind suppression of Red Knot and 200 years together. It is curious that the conservatives do not seem to be interested in this phenomenon.

Suppression? Or merely not translated into English yet? I googled and found that a partial English translation of the latter is found in "The Solzhenitsyn Reader". I read books all the time with nothing but sources to German writing in the footnotes, many of which may never be translated into English. It's market realities, not suppression.

Slavophile is a misnomer. It really should be a -phobe word, and even that doesn't do it justice. I knew a guy who called himself a Francophobe because he disliked the French, but it was nothing virile or extreme in any way. It was just a prejudice, and nothing more. It is hard to imagine anyone defining themselves by their differences with the French.

Here's an accessible piece on it Slavophile movement. It writes of the evolution: Slavophilism -> Panslavism -> Bolsheviks.

http://www.personal.kent.edu/~swestga1/SlavophilismWesternism19century.pdf

The major ideas of Slavophilism, as penned by Khomiakov and Kireevsky, conclude that due to Russia’s pure Orthodox values and traditions, Russian life is superior to that of the West. The very character of the Western Europeans is despicable and contains a vile artificiality. Western Christianity does not incorporate the loving and inclusive traditions as the Orthodox Church and the true nation-loving Slav cannot adopt Catholicism and Western European Christianity without betraying his own culture and people.

These beliefs were universal amongst Slavophiles. The Russian Westernizers were seen as isolating themselves from everything that was distinctively Russian. As Slavophilism evolved, the answer to Russia’s future depended in a return to the “native principles, in overcoming the Western disease.” Once cured, the mission of the Slavophiles would transcend into a purely evangelical goal of delivering Russian culture to the deteriorating West. Though many intellectuals supported the Westernization of Russia since the reign of Peter the Great, the term “Westernizer” had not been coined until the Slavophiles wanted to shed a poor light on the individuals, portraying them as being anti-Russian. In the 1840s, the cohesive group of Westernizers appeared as a loose union of varying Western ideals that banded together in their opposition to Slavophilism.

The very character of the Western Europeans is despicable and contains a vile artificiality
If this is what Slavophilism is then Solzhenitsyn is certainly not a Slavophile. I have read his works more than once and never did encounter such a sentiment. This statement would be true for the notorious Slavophile Dostoevsky.
intense rejection and hostility to Western society
Precisely what is meant with "Western society"? Do you mean pre-Enlightenment that the Orthodox had theological disputes with, or the Enlightenment, French and English, or the current post-Enlightment one, with dissolution of all norms?

I note that the Western society displays the same intense rejection and hostility to the Orthodox society.
But when have the Orthodox sought to invade the West?
Dostoevsky did write, through one of his novel characters. that the star would rise in the East.But how is this different from

Shining City on the Hill
and
Last Best Hope of the Mankind
?

No one says he's a Slavophile. But for all his brilliance on some things he merely thought in terms handed to him in the recent past. Few scholars even subscribe to the secularization thesis anymore. It no longer seems tenable. Even Peter Berger has renounced it. See "Desecularization" pages 56-58 & "Mistakes of Secularization Theory" on pages 62-63

https://books.google.com/books?id=3WyiAAAAQBAJ&q=desecularization#v=snippet&q=desecularization&f=false

What do I mean by Western society? In context at them moment it seems to me it's not what it means to me that's relevant, but rather what those who think it's their enemy, those who define themselves in opposition to it, think it means.

You want me to tell you what is Western society, and yet you have no trouble opposing it to "Orthodox society", whatever that means, so it seems you already think you know.

I missed the "dissolution of all norms"? When was that? Or was that the post-apocalyptic movie that made Mel Gibson famous? :)

You can have the last word. I gotta let this drop.

Going back on my word here, but read the Natan Sharansky block quote here on how Slavophile/Westernizer thing plays out still.

http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/202441/aleksandr-solzhenitsyn-paradigmatic-zek-vladimir-tismaneanu

I think Sharansky nails the point, and it is why I find the polarities so relevant today.

“In a sense, Solzhenitsyn believed that one had to choose between being a man of his people and a man of the world. As I argue in my latest book, Defending Identity, this is a false choice. We can be both, as long as our commitment to our own unique history, people and faith is coupled with a firm commitment to freedom and democracy. For all his great insight, this was something that Solzhenitsyn never saw.”

I think Solzhenitsyn was essentially a political Augustinian.

To me much of this caviling is comparable to the old "but Lincoln was a racist" argument that various Leftists and relativists have tried over the years. More often than an attempt to enlighten and inform, this stuff is just hectoring which, if it has any focused design at all, really comes down to an attempt to turn people away from reading Lincoln. A hotshot literature professor pops off some choice quotes -- maybe some of the murky maneuvering he had to make around the issue of miscegenation -- "since I won't have her as a slave I must want her as a wife" -- and he can count on a couple more students, who thereafter decline to read any Lincoln.

So enemies of Solzhenitsyn have, over the many years, used similarly effective totems to warn off readers from making the effort to actually read him. It's pretty shameful, for instance, the cold-shoulder he received from the Ford Administration. Even American establishment Republicans thought The Gulag Archipelago was too imposing (and in fairness it is pretty imposing), so they never read it; and were thus ill-equipped to defend him against the baseless charges of reaction and authoritarianism. It wasn't until Thatcher and JPII embraced him that he surmounted these 1970s-era smears.

Overall, Sharansky's treatment seems pretty fair, so I certainly would not categorize him with the fools mentioned above. No doubt the two dissidents had some very real disagreements. No doubt Solzhenitsyn could be a stubborn and strong-willed man.

But even in the context of the text you quote, Mark, the implication that Solzhenitsyn had no "firm commitment to freedom and democracy," is belied by, for instance, his address to the people of Cavendish, Vermont, wherein he explicitly held out the grassroots democracy of Vermonters as something Russia lacked and could learn immensely from.

In certain strains of American opinion, both on the right and the left, any kind of particularism tends to get treated as next door to bigotry. Patriotism is conflated with virulent nationalism; critiques of political universalism are regarded with intense suspicion; writings are dissected and quotes torn from context in order to insinuate dark motives. I find it extremely tiresome.

For the sake of some perspective: Our current sitting President, along with both candidates to replace him, are demonstrably more tainted by outright authoritarianism than Solzhenitsyn ever was. It seems churlish to emphasize these aspects of his thought, in his later years, which did not sit well with Western right- and left-liberals, at the expense of his magnificent vocation as a witness for truth and liberty against Communism.

I think it might depend on the purpose for which we are bringing S. into a discussion. For example, if as a witness for liberty and the human spirit against Communism only, then other disagreements would be less relevant. If as a general cultural commentator or critic, then they would seem more relevant. One of the things we have done in the West, and it's actually to our credit in a way, is to ask dissidents from Communism and/or Nazism both to talk to us, to give lectures, to tell us about life, the universe, and everything. Solzhenitsyn is one example; so is Elie Wiesel. So is Czesław Miłosz. In that context of treating a courageous dissident, especially one who has suffered, as a kind of super-pundit, I suppose that a moderate, sober critique of some of the person's ideas, while retaining the important truths, could be quite in order.

Whittaker Chambers was a similar moral witness in an earlier generation. Although Chambers became a Quaker [with Barthian leanings] he was granted a serious hearing by conservative Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic Christians.

That's a good comparison, T. Yuetter. But I'm not aware of any sustained and vitriolic denunciation of Chambers, save from unrepentant Communists. He is revered on the Right, respected in the Center, and grudgingly endorsed by even many on the Left.

Of course, Chambers died much younger. And he was unhealthy much of his life. He lacked Solzhenitsyn's extraordinary stamina and determination (Since the Russian's determination and stamina exceeded pretty much all recent men, to say nothing of all recent writers, we're not going to hold that against Chambers.)

But a practical result is that Solzhenitsyn's literary output was many, many times that of Chambers. And he lived to see more than Chambers did. He lived to see Communism thrown off in Russia and Eastern Europe, and then twenty years beyond that. Solzhenitsyn, who was once sure his lot was to perish without issue, re-married late in life and fathered three boys, who have made their own way in both America and Russia.

In truth, Chambers more truly deserves the doom-and-gloom Reaction treatment, while Solzhenitsyn always had an edge of extraordinary vigor and almost optimism about him. Eight decades on this earth and he still has the ambition to write about Russia and the Jews, among the most tangled and tragic of all stories!

In this sense, Solzhenitsyn was more "American" than Chambers, since he emphatically believed that liberty and virtue would triumph: but only if men would embrace God's lot for them as men and as peoples -- which lot (he with all Christians taught) will inevitably include suffering and self-limitation.

I think I've followed exactly what I think Lydia is saying and I think I've been pretty clear on that. The point is about accepting as valuable something for which nothing Solzhenitsyn endured or produced necessarily informs, unless some reason is given that it does and I've never heard anyone state what was unique in it other than that he was a great man. That's why #4 above is the only thing I object to, at least it's reception by opponents of classical liberalism. That's why I distinguished between "Harvard lecture type events of his life" and everything else. That's why I called such things "freelancing".

I think many of the assumptions that his critiques of Western society rested have been strongly challenged in recent years, and these things can be discussed individually on the merits. Not assumptions about economics, since those are as murky as ever. But such things as the secularization thesis, views of the "Enlightenment" (and yes, those are scare quotes), and the problems with the reasoning usually involved in statements and assumptions about what is "modernity" are huge among the enemies of classical liberalism. (Bernard Yack has done some really great work on the latter.) I'm not saying Solzhenitsyn was one of them. But in any case all these facile assumptions have been undermined from the 70's when they were assumed true. Much has changed since Solzhenitsyn's prime.

So it seems to me when people invoke his name in societal critiques of the West they're advancing a bundle of disputed understandings of past decades without argument. Of course I have no problem with reading his literature.

Whittaker Chambers legacy and reputation remain controversial. Chambers did suffer from sustained vitriolic denunciations from liberals as well as from the unrepentant Stalinists. Even after the conviction of Alger Hiss; the liberals derided Chambers. Uber-Liberal Dean Acheson said that "I do not intend to turn my back on Alger Hiss." In August of 1975, fourteen years after Chambers death, the Massachusetts Bar Association readmitted Hiss to the bar. In 1984 President Reagan responded by posthumously awarding Chambers the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Ironically Chambers was vindicated by more then one historian who had started out on a mission to expose him.

Chambers and Solzhenitsyn were both insightful social critics. Chambers wrote brilliantly, with a poetic flare. But Chambers was a journalist, not the creative novelist we find in Solzhenitsyn.

I wonder is Chambers would have joined Solzhenitsyn in saying, "Men have forgotten God; that is why all this happened." Chambers had a perfect opportunity to say words to that effect in his brilliant review of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Well Chambers questioned or raised the question of whether Western culture was worth saving I believe, at least when he thought it would lose the Cold War. That does sound like a controversial character. Solzhenitsyn would never have entertained such a thought for his nation, nor should he.

But both Solzhenitsyn and Chambers understanding of "modernity" are highly problematic, and ever more so with the passage of time. Do be sure to read Bernard Yack's "Fetishism of Modernities: Epochal Self-Consciousness in Contemporary Social and Political Thought". It is a brilliant piece of scholarship, and the footnotes provide a wealth of material as well. Solzhenitsyn and Chambers were brilliant, but neither were rigorous or systematic thinkers.

Also, his "The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche" is a minor classic. I could be wrong, but if I recall correctly that was where he made clear that the Cold War has obscured from history the fact that Germany saw itself decidedly outside the Western and European tradition and opposed to it.

"in any case all these facile assumptions have been undermined from the 70's when they were assumed true. Much has changed since in any case all these facile assumptions have been undermined from the 70's when they were assumed true. Much has changed since Solzhenitsyn's prime.

I've ordered The Fetishism of Modernities from the library.

Solzhenitsyn's larger overall critique isn't necessarily undermined because he might have missed some of the details. Surely, not all current critiques of "classical liberalism" are based on outmoded facile assumptions? I'm thinking of contemporary scholars like Christopher Shannon, Brad Gregory, Patrick Deneen, David L. Schindler, etc., who seem to be quite conversant in the contemporary literature but still find liberalism (in the broader sense) suspect.

Mark is mistaken. Chambers never questioned whether Western culture was "worth" saving; he questioned whether it could be saved. Very important distinction. But that points to the difference between him and Solzhenitsyn that I mentioned above: Chambers was a melancholy man who constantly fought despair, while Solzhenitsyn brimmed with energy and hope, even in the darkest evil of the Gulag camps.

I agree with Thomas Yeutter, though: both men are brilliant literary exemplars of the proud anti-Communist tradition.

~~Chambers never questioned whether Western culture was "worth" saving; he questioned whether it could be saved.~~

Right. And I don't think that that questioning was purely related to the possibility of the West losing the Cold War. He seemed to have considerable doubts about it irrespective of the outcome of that conflict.

>> Mark is mistaken. Chambers never questioned whether Western culture was "worth" saving; he questioned whether it could be saved.

Oh I dunno about that. I consider the author Daniel J. Mahoney a good source. Perhaps we could pull up the intro to Cold Friday book on Google books and parse the text, but I won't do it myself until later if no one else does. But for now it's a plausible attribution until someone shows how Mahoney got it wrong.

http://www.firstprinciplesjournal.com/print.aspx?article=494

In Cold Friday, Chambers went even further than asking if by joining the West he was, in fact, joining the losing side. This question haunts Witness and contributes to the pathos that informs every one of its pages. In Cold Friday, Chambers raises the more daring question of whether the West deserves to be saved. Is it sure enough of its principles to merit victory in its struggle with Communist tyranny?
...

The priest quietly asked Chambers: “Who says that the West deserves to be saved?” In Chambers’s view, Father Alan’s remarks “cut past the terms in which men commonly view the crisis of our time.” His remark went beyond questions of geopolitical rivalry or even ideological disputation. His question did not ask whether the West had “the physical power” to survive, but rather if it was justified in doing so. Chambers did not dwell on this question because he had some perverse desire to join the losing side. Rather, he believed that the question went to the very heart of the modern crisis. In his view, the West had lost a sense of its purpose and could not provide men with a compelling reason to live or to die.

I've ordered The Fetishism of Modernities from the library.

Howdy Nice. I'm glad to see you're still here. I always remembered your decent spirit. Well I hope you'll comment on what you think of the book sometime. It's extremely well written, and accessible. Yack doesn't phone it in. I got mine from the library too, like almost everything I read. But I think I'm going to need my own copy of this one.

Solzhenitsyn's larger overall critique isn't necessarily undermined because he might have missed some of the details. Surely, not all current critiques of "classical liberalism" are based on outmoded facile assumptions? I'm thinking of contemporary scholars like Christopher Shannon, Brad Gregory, Patrick Deneen, David L. Schindler, etc., who seem to be quite conversant in the contemporary literature but still find liberalism (in the broader sense) suspect.

Well it isn't just details that Solzhenitsyn (and Chambers) miss. If there is a critique he offers that doesn't fundamentally rest on certain conceptions of "modernity" that are entirely disputable I'd agree. And maybe there are, but I'm not sure. I'm open to suggestions, but if not, the question comes down to whether or not his view of modernity as an integrated and coherent whole is plausible. It comes down to the merits of what Yack calls a "left Kantian social criticism", a much tougher sell than those who employ the term "modernity" would like to think. I'd argue it is neither coherent and unified, and frankly Yack simply destroys any such pretense. Not that the term (or its antique equivalent) has no value, but in an open-ended and full sense it simply doesn't and it highly distorting. I never needed Yack to tell me it was used in tendentious and invalid ways, but he just gives it a full conceptual analysis and traces the history of it. It's fascinating.

On Shannon, Gregory, Deneen, and Schindler, you've got me there. I'm not familiar with them. But you raise an interesting question and I'd like to look up some book reviews of theirs to see if I can get a picture of their overall views. I view anti-liberals as the bitter-enders of the world. I'm anti capital L liberal, but I have a fairly comprehensive positive Conservative view, like others of my kind. I don't have the same negative appraisal of socialists or any other group or variant who have an actual view they wish to achieve, even though I think they're wrong. I can respect a non-negative approach, whatever it is, far more than anti-liberal view. I think it akin to nihilism. And I think it particularly egregious for Christians, because many or most of these seem to lose sight of the Fall. It isn't clear what place the Fall has for many any more. The human condition. And who kicked off this way of seeing things? Here's Neville Morley, in the book Antiquity and Modernity, where his account sounds notes much like Yack:

… In the middle of the eighteenth century, contemplation of history had revealed to Jean-Jacques Rousseau the inexorable decline of humanity as it fell away from the state of Nature … All civilization, not just modernity, represented for Rousseau an estrangement from nature and naturalness, the sole consolation for this development being the creation of opportunities for the exercise of virtue, “the soul’s most delicate feeling,” within society. However, modern society could nevertheless be seen as a special case, in so far as the political institutions of earlier societies – above all, in Rousseau’s view, Rome and Sparta – had not threatened man’s humanity in the same way. Later writers followed Rousseau’s lead in locating the source of modern discontent and social malaise not in the human condition itself but in the structures and institutions of contemporary society. Further, “society” or “civilization” were henceforth considered as coherent wholes, and therefore susceptible to analysis in terms of their structures and organizing principles. These two ideas then raised the possibility of, or at least the longing for, a complete transformation of social structures that would enable humanity to recover the qualities felt to have been lost in the transition to modernity.

C. S. Lewis' view of the Fall, and mine, is gone for many. So people take increasingly utopian views of social and political institutions, independent of whether or not alternatives for comparison are even available.

Thanks, Mark. I do check in here every so often but seldom comment.

I have a copy of Cold Friday, but I'm not at home right now. I'll look at it later, however. I think the resolution to the issue might be to say that Chambers perhaps felt that the West, in its present state, might not deserve saving because it had, so to speak, gone past a point of no return in its decline. This is a bit more nuanced than saying the West doesn't deserve to be saved, full stop. But it is, as Paul says, more pessimistic than Solzhenitsyn, and more than many of Chambers' contemporaries, such as Kirk and Weaver.

Another writer to add to my list above would be William T. Cavanaugh. I've read two of his books, and have just ordered one of his more recent ones, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. What I find interesting about all these guys is that they are all Catholics (I am not) and that they all attempt, in one way or another, to "get around" the somewhat totalizing nature of the modern left/right binary by appealing to certain pre-modern understandings of things, without, however, falling into anything like a stale antiquarianism of ideas.

As to the Fall, I must say that I've believed for a long time that at the root of "the crisis of modernity" lies a bad anthropology: the rejection of the Fall and therefore of original sin.

Chambers seemed to be looking beyond the Cold War; when he wondered if the West could be saved, or was even worth saving. Solzhenitsyn never doubted whether or not the West would be saved. Solzhenitsyn had an optimistic eschatology. Chambers did not. The reason for this may be that Solzhenitsyn was both Orthodox and small 'o' orthodox; while Chambers was at best neo-orthodox.

I have sometimes chided my Eastern Orthodox friends for having a defective understanding of original sin, and therefore of the depravity of man. Such a criticism could not be made against Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn was Orthodox; but was also a man that fully understood the fall, original sin, and the depravity of man.

As an Eastern Orthodox, I resemble that remark! :-)

Of course, we in the East think it's the West that has the defective understanding. But regarding Solzhenitsyn that's neither here nor there.

Chambers seems to have believed that the West, in embracing liberalism, had sold its Christian birthright, and most likely could not get it back. The rot had come from the inside, and could only be slowed, not reversed. Solzhenitsyn apparently did not think things had gone that far.

Solzhenitsyn differs strongly from the main line of Russian Orthodoxy in at least one way -- his unmistakable warmth toward one of the Popes in Rome, namely, Saint John Paul II. Generally speaking, probably only hardline Calvinists or deep woods Baptists exceed Russian Orthodox in denunciations of the Whore of Babylon.

I'd say it is in S.'s fiction, above all, where his great heart for all the diversity of humankind shines.

If anyone knows of Chambers recording specifics of his views of Catholicism or Orthodoxy, I'd ask that they point me to these writings. I know Chambers contributed a brilliant chapter to Claire Booth Luce's mid-century Saints for Now on St. Benedict, and I know he, as a general matter, respected Catholic traditions, but on details of theology and history he did not (so far as I know) address himself in any systematic way.

Chambers was not a theologian. Not even a lay theologian. Even to refer to him as Barthian or neo-Orthodox is, IMO, to overinterpret. A circumstantial piece of evidence for this absence of understanding of theology (which I seem to recall that he explicitly mentions in Witness) is that he never once mentions the issue of the Trinity in deciding to become Quaker after being baptized in the Episcopalian church. It never seems to have occurred to him. Pacifism he gave a lot of thought to. He wasn't a committed pacifist and wondered if he could still become a Quaker in good conscience. But Trinitarianism (and the lack of it in historic Quakerism) doesn't even seem to have been on his radar. That's why it's probably somewhat artificial to talk about Chambers's theology.

>> He wasn't a committed pacifist and wondered if he could still become a Quaker in good conscience.

Little known fact is that Quakers joined the army during the American CW in at least as great, and quite likely higher, percentages than others. Until research was done recently most assumed otherwise, not realizing that people always act more reasonably than they talk.

>> As to the Fall, I must say that I've believed for a long time that at the root of "the crisis of modernity" lies a bad anthropology: the rejection of the Fall and therefore of original sin.

Amen brother. Secular alienation theories. I think the Yack book will be quite interesting for you. Also, Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin were trained for the pastorate at Tübinger Stift, the famous Lutheran school for pastors. That they quite clearly saw a secular Christlike role in their view on alienation and it's antidote isn't even disputable. This fact is covered in copious detail by Joshua Billings in the book “Genealogy of the Tragic” (chapter “Tragic Theologies”).

What makes current critiques of modernity plausible is that they trail in the wake of left Kantian critiques of modernity (split into separate realms of science, morality, and art). Individual aspects of any age are fair game on the merits, but a unified and coherent thing called modernity is imaginary, but quite useful to traffic in secular alienation theories. It might as well be the demiurge the way it is used by many.

On decline, I think people aren’t sufficiently mindful of the fact that the West was thought to be in decline by influential writers or groups since it was fashionable to think in terms of progress or regress. That’s why I brought up Slavophiles. It clearly demonstrates the fact. And I don’t think any insider/outsider distinction on the question is tenable. I think it’s a fascinating phenomenon.

I think Herman’s “The Idea of Decline in Western History” is am important book for people who posit decline to read. I don’t think people realize that even great men were subject to “this time it’s different” thinking. I also think Yack’s book is about the best one to get a certain perspective on postmodernism. Though it can’t be characterized exactly, and to try is to miss the point, but it does involve a backward look of a certain cast and periodization at the least. Pair Yack with Hicks' “Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault” and I think one is way closer to getting something useful than the usual stuff people say about postmodernism.

BTW, on the romantic critique I personally know people who say publicly “after the Enlightenment people think they’re brains on a stick”. They're quite serious, but I find it very comical.

Nice, I realized after posting that I may have misunderstood you. As you can no doubt see, I regard idea of ”the crisis of modernity" itself to be a competing narrative for many aspects the Fall. On this view, though the Fall may well be rejected by the non-religious, it isn’t necessarily and certainly not by real Christians. In the latter case, in my opinion those adamant that we’re in the midst of a “crisis of modernity” don’t appreciate many of the Fall’s real aspects since they’ve been obscured by encroaching secular alienation theories.

In light of this it seems to me many Christians tend to see the Fall as explaining mostly gross or intentional evil. As if when bad things happen someone must have intended it. Gone is C. S. Lewis’ understanding of a clean office with men with smooth shaven cheeks. It’s why good intentions can be as destructive as bad ones, etc. It seems to me may people who believe in the Fall have very little imagination when it comes to its effects that surround them at every moment, whereas they seem fascinated by many or most alienation theories.

I see the "crisis of modernity" as a more-or-less inevitable consequence of liberalism's rejection of Christian anthropology, although that's not the whole story, and the root runs deeper. As a sheer unreality it was bound eventually to come to crisis. As Walker Percy (I think) put it, it's like the cartoon character who runs off the cliff edge, and is able to continuing spinning his legs in the air without falling, until he looks down. Original sin, like gravity, eventually catches up with you, whether you believe in it or not.

"In light of this it seems to me many Christians tend to see the Fall as explaining mostly gross or intentional evil. As if when bad things happen someone must have intended it. Gone is C. S. Lewis’ understanding of a clean office with men with smooth shaven cheeks. It’s why good intentions can be as destructive as bad ones, etc. It seems to me may people who believe in the Fall have very little imagination when it comes to its effects that surround them at every moment, whereas they seem fascinated by many or most alienation theories."

I agree with this, which is why I find it necessary to view any accumulation of human power as suspect -- state, corporate, or the current amalgam of the two. Thus I can accept neither Mises nor Marx. But I will not go so far as to say that as a result of the Fall all human good intentions are inherently problematic. Despite our inherent tendency to muck things up, sometimes we do get it right.

Re: the crisis of modernity, I'd highly recommend the recent book of that title by Augusto Del Noce, translated from the Italian by Carlo Lancelotti. Del Noce was a political philosopher, well known in Europe as a critic of Marxism, but only just now being translated into English. I found the book immensely helpful.

By the way, I did dig into Cold Friday a bit last night and found some interesting stuff. Probably won't be able to post anything on in until tomorrow, however.

>> But I will not go so far as to say that as a result of the Fall all human good intentions are inherently problematic. Despite our inherent tendency to muck things up, sometimes we do get it right.

I'd agree with what I think you mean. Although it all depends on what one means by "inherently problematic". As far as outcomes I think our actions are problematic in the sense that our wishes are always frustrated. That's where an understanding of the Fall would produce realistic expectations in this world, and why secular alienation theories generate unreasonable expectations and bitterness and despair. I would say because of what some psychologists would call idealistic distortion.

>> I see the "crisis of modernity" as a more-or-less inevitable consequence of liberalism's rejection of Christian anthropology, although that's not the whole story, and the root runs deeper.

But as Yack will show, there is an equivocation between temporal and substantive meanings of "modern". Because we're claimed to be in a modern period, it is then claimed that everything that happens in this period must be modern because of the period, no matter how close to past times such things hew. It makes no sense. Many activities and ways of being can only be carried on as they were centuries ago. And I don't think Yack says it, but the implication is that no new things that occur offset the effects of other things, but they surely do.

I don't think there is a "crisis of modernity". The Cold War was a crisis. We have crisis of illegitimate births now, which people seem strangely incurious about except to shout "secularism", which I don't think works at all. And other crisis we could name, but I don't think those are modern crisis. I'm not even sure they're new in the sense of unique.

Look I hate to sound dismissive, but I think there isn't much new on the "modernity" front. I don't think there ever was. I looked up the wikipedia page and another quick page on Noce.

"... rationalism leads to contradictory outcomes, as exemplified by the trajectory of Marxism. ..."

Well it all depends on what you mean by rationalism. That is a term loaded with a lot of historical baggage. I think it is generally caricatured beyond repair. Anybody knows Marx was a nut, a most extreme theoretical fundamentalist, so what he has to do with it I don't know.

"... Del Noce regarded the expansion of atheism as the central question of modern philosophy."

And then this: http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/italys-philosopher-against-modernity/

“The question of eroticism is first of all metaphysical,” he argues. And it arises in the context of a de-sacralized West, “which today has manifested itself as never before.”

"Tracing the origins of eroticism, Del Noce says the ideas of sexual freedom had already been fully formulated between 1920 and 1930, beginning with the anti-rationalist Surrealist writers and then further developed by Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957)."

“The question of eroticism is first of all metaphysical,” he argues. And it arises in the context of a de-sacralized West, “which today has manifested itself as never before.”

I think there’s good bit of nonsense there. You have the “disenchantment” thesis we all know and love, and the secularization thesis. From where I sit we’re about where Martin Luther came in telling us that the idea that marriage as a sacrament is extra biblical and has brought marriage to a bleak position and immorality on a wide scale, and indeed the institution was dramatically changed in the Lutheran Reformation.

It and much else has been re-sacralized, and I think it owes largely to the romantics. The 60’s he’s complaining about was just a newer manifestation of romanticism, that ever destructive phenomenon from the 18th century. So now we have a crisis of illegitimacy spawned by the re-sacralization of marriage, family, and I think friendship too. One soul in bodies twain. Blah, blah, blah. I'm quite sure that is Pascal Bruckner’s view too, and others besides. Still the church keeps doubling down. Look at how the gay lobby is hoisting the church on it's own petard. They can't respond effectively without admitting they've been peddling a destructive relational idealism for many years.

As far as the secularization thesis, it isn't a global phenomenon. Some places are secularizing while others are de-secularizing. And it isn’t just in the developing world. I don’t think there’s a shred of evidence that the US is less religious than in past times, and in fact is quite probably more so based on the only data we have. People can quibble over what that means, but there's no reason beyond romantic beliefs about the past to think that those who attended church long ago were quite devout. They weren’t.

So I'm sorry but I’m not loving the Noce from what I’m seeing. :) I just don't see the grand differences between those who employ "modernity" in this way. But I guess I'm in near-threadjack territory so I probably should quit on this.

I disagree with you six ways to Sunday here, but you're right about the threadjack potential. I'll try to get some notes on Chambers on here tonight or tomorrow.

~~~there is an equivocation between temporal and substantive meanings of "modern". Because we're claimed to be in a modern period, it is then claimed that everything that happens in this period must be modern because of the period, no matter how close to past times such things hew. It makes no sense. Many activities and ways of being can only be carried on as they were centuries ago. And I don't think Yack says it, but the implication is that no new things that occur offset the effects of other things, but they surely do.~~~

If I'm understanding this correctly, I agree. But I'd say that the root of modernity (as I'm using the term) lies in the Enlightenment ideas of radical human autonomy and human perfectibility. The crisis comes because in reality man is neither autonomous nor perfectible, and when he runs headfirst into this reality he is stunned. But still refuses to admit he might be wrong, because non serviam.

Man is utterly, radically dependent upon God. Western man has tried for 200+ years to live as if this were not the case. The crisis results from the colliding of the reality with the unreality, and modern man's unwillingness to honestly analyze this collision.

Quite true that "man is neither autonomous nor perfectible". But what the "Enlightenment" is is highly contested. There are reasons for this, it is no minor quibble. One thing is clear; when you posit that "Western man has tried for 200+ years to live as if this were not the case", it should have been said of humanity in general. So what the West or "modernity" has to do with it I don't know.

Bottom line is that what you posit as the condition of Western man, is true of all peoples at all times. Don't make me come over there and quote the Bible. :)

"Bottom line is that what you posit as the condition of Western man, is true of all peoples at all times. Don't make me come over there and quote the Bible."

Well, no: modern Western man has chosen to live that way outwardly, collectively and with intention, on a broad cultural level. Original sin no more gives cultural anti-Christianity a pass, than the universality of lust gives the Sexual Revolution a pass.

re: Chambers -- here's the relevant quote from Cold Friday about whether the West deserves saving:

"Diagnosis may be depressing. It does not follow, therefore, that a diagnostician is a pessimist. I venture that we should be extremely cautious in our guesses at Inscrutable Purpose, or our thoughts about what we deserve, or do not deserve to have happen to us. Here I am speaking less about individuals than about nations. 'Who says that the West deserves to be saved?' asked Father Alan [Bazinet]. Does anyone think he would like to try and answer that question?" (p. 29)

Here's another pertinent quote, this one from a letter to W.F. Buckley in 1954:

"I no longer believe that political solutions are possible for us. I am baffled by the way people still speak of the West as if it were at least a cultural unity against Communism though it is divided not only by a political, but by an invisible cleavage. On one side are the voiceless masses with their own subdivisions and fractures. On the other side is the enlightened, articulate elite which, to one degree or another, has rejected the religious roots of the civilization--the roots without which it is no longer Western civilization, but a new order of beliefs, attitudes and mandates...That is the real confrontation of forces. The enemy--he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within." (p. 225-226)

Strictly speaking he wasn't wrong to question whether the West was a cultural unity, but against Communism in the Cold War? Of course it was if for no other reason than our enemies thought so. That is human nature at the core of your rational-social nature. I think he's deluded to question unity the way it seems he did if I'm reading that correctly. Families can be riven with strife and hate each other, but come an external threat and they hang tight as can be and forget their differences. Human nature 101. Sometimes with S and Chambers you just scratch your head and wonder what they were thinking.

So was the West a cultural unity without a threatening foe? Probably not in a strong sense, and I don't see anything wrong with that. Still, there is a Greco-Roman tradition that I would say underpins it. Christianity is also in there, but it came a bit later and Christianity is hard to pin down culturally because of its universal nature. The term "unity" is fraught with difficulty.

Western civilization is a wreck, but so is every other civilization. It's a fallen world, and it's a relative thing. Look, I had night class at a state school in CA about ten years ago. It had nothing to do with politics, but the professor was a Pakistani immigrant. Department head I think. I don't recall much off-topic political discussion, except for one time. Not sure how it started, but he said "there's this idea out there that Western societies are morally corrupted (or debased or a word very much to that effect), but it's not true." He said, "everything that happens here happens throughout the ME, it just happens in secret". I thought that sounded about right. No one cheered or anything, in fact I'm not sure some liked what he said and one woman suggested we stay on topic.

Sometimes with S and Chambers you just scratch your head and wonder what they were thinking.

Pot, allow me to introduce you to this fine gentlemen, Kettle.

Anti-communism provided little deep cultural unity beyond a response to the perceived immediate threat. That was barely enough to hold the Right together, let alone the culture of the entire country.

"Christianity is also in there, but it came a bit later and Christianity is hard to pin down culturally because of its universal nature."

Western civilization's roots are in what was formerly called Christendom, which of course absorbed certain Greco-Roman ideas. The West is not only in denial about the existence of these roots, but is actively involved in cutting any of what they see as pretended roots to emphasize the point. Chambers' intuition was correct -- sever those roots, and the West isn't really the West anymore.

"Western civilization is a wreck, but so is every other civilization. It's a fallen world, and it's a relative thing."

True, but in a very important sense, not really pertinent. The West is, or is rapidly becoming, the only post-Christian civilization, and we don't really know what a post-Christian paganism will look like. Although we have some ideas:

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/10/christ-and-nothing#


>> Western civilization's roots are in what was formerly called Christendom, which of course absorbed certain Greco-Roman ideas.

I think the use of the word "certain" here seems to understate. It is a massive debt, which was absorbed by Christendom. Christianity absorbed it so deeply they can't be separated from each other when one says the "West".

>> Chambers' intuition was correct -- sever those roots, and the West isn't really the West anymore.

But this is a tautology. Sever the "roots" of anything and it dies. The question was always Chambers' judgment of the relative health of the West.

~~I think the use of the word "certain" here seems to understate. It is a massive debt, which was absorbed by Christendom. Christianity absorbed it so deeply they can't be separated from each other when one says the "West".~~

Agreed. I meant by "certain" exactly what the word signifies: some, but not all.

~~Sever the "roots" of anything and it dies.~~~

No doubt. But it doesn't die instantly. This is where Chambers' judgment comes in to play. That the roots are being cut isn't a question to him. The question is, how far along the resulting downward path are we, and is there any hope for turning things around?

But you seem non-plussed that the idea of decline was always present in the West. Since the beginning. I think you're not grasping the significance of this. Decline is always possible, and a worry, because it can happen.

I don't think it's question of progress or decline in a linear fashion. Not sure you can have one without the other. I suspect many things are cyclical. A dynamic nation, or life, is a "blooming, buzzing confusion". It's good that it is; people long for statism, but they don't know what they're asking for.

You should look into the country of Iran. I have some very dear Iranian immigrant friends. They are dear and extremely exasperating people. Persians think like white Supremacists. They act like minorities don't exist. They adhere to what is arguably a form of cultural racism. And the ancient empire they think they know I think is entirely imaginary. In fact the Iranian plateau was multilingual and multi-ethnic, and the unified multi-thousand year empire is actually many and not really connected. But I think their imaginary view of unity and roots is all there, and it's what Chambers seemed to idealize. But it's imaginary. It can only be that.

Here's an amazing book. Truth is stranger than fiction. Like I said, I saw it in person before ever reading a thing about it. I honestly don't think I'd have believed it if I hadn't observed it myself up close and personal.

https://www.amazon.com/Iran-Challenge-Diversity-Fundamentalism-Democratic/dp/1403980802

Ok man, I'm out for reals now. Catch you later.

"But you seem non-plussed that the idea of decline was always present in the West. Since the beginning. I think you're not grasping the significance of this. Decline is always possible, and a worry, because it can happen."

Yes, of course. But what's important right now is the nature and severity of the current manifestation of decline. Long-term depreciation of your vehicle ceases to be an issue if you're headed for a cliff at 70 mph.

Nice, why do you keep avoiding the fact that the only examples of this unity you wish are imaginary? What society in what time meets your criteria? You're clearly idealizing a past society. Is it medieval society? You wouldn't be the first. Or is there a current society that is doing the things S and Chambers describe? As I've said from the beginning, you can't judge without a comparison in a fallen world. What is your point of comparison?

Mark, I think you're missing the point. The 'reference' culture doesn't have to be ideally unified for it to serve as an example. Numerous conservatives have pointed this out over the years w/r/t the Medieval era, the Old South, the 1950's, whatever. Have you not read them? Previous societies do not have to be seen as golden in order to document the widespread rust present in ours.

I wasn't saying anything needed to be ideally unified. That's not what I meant by "idealizing". Comparisons are at the core of human nature. But we've already gotten sidetracked from the thread so it's a good place to end for now. We can pick it up another time.

Post a comment


Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.