What’s Wrong with the World

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A World, Shattered

The spiritual crisis engulfing the West entails not only revisionist academics’ skepticism concerning the Resurrection as an historical fact, or of the doctrine of the Trinity. So decadent and thoroughgoing is the skepticism of modern man that a willful embrace of ugliness, a worship of personal power for its own sake, and an unrestrained exaltation of the self are the most obvious features of our culture and our public life. A rejection of form as such is implicated here. There is a calamitous discordancy in all our public rituals. Our national anthem is seldom performed with reverence and beauty, being reduced to wild and extravagant displays of “range” on the part of the performer. The confused Novus Ordo Catholic liturgy celebrated in virtually every contemporary parish lurches from the sudden, crashing onset of noise, to awkward silence, is afflicted by incessant contradiction in the movement of the unconsecrated to and from the altar, and suffers from a near-complete absence of coherent form that is the necessary picture frame of ritual. Disorientation is our preferred orientation.

The last hundred years would seem to bear out Fr. Seraphim Rose’s contention in Nihilism: The Root of the Revolution of the Modern Age that Western man, having once received and accepted the truth of Christian revelation, could not but descend into nihilism and madness if ever he rejected it. I will not bother trying to defend that proposition, though of course there are many people who would dismiss it or find it offensive. Still, what in economics has been referred to as a hermeneutics of “revealed preferences” might be worth something here; that is, the truth about people can be discerned not by asking them what they think about a subject, as in a public opinion poll, but by watching what they say and do under relevant conditions. And we can say that the disintegration of the Christian consensus, the embrace of a thousand heresies that put man and his politics in place of God and His divine Law, and the rejection of the “Old Order” of the European monarchies ultimately manifested itself in the mechanization of mass murder known as the First World War. Thus when the German Expressionist painter Otto Dix (1891-1969) went to fight in the trenches on behalf of the Kaiser, he said that he carried with him two texts: the Holy Bible, and Frederich Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra.

The Great War was, in one sense, the end of the world. Dix’s often grotesque, desolating works in the years during and after that war (which I do not recommend beyond their interest as objects of analysis) do not so much portray the visible destruction of the European cities, which were left largely unmolested by the shells; indeed, one could have toured Munich, Paris, London, Budapest, or Prague in those days without detecting that there even was a war. Instead, the images Dix crafted are of a world shattered, and it is striking to me just how closely the artistic style of the period resembles nothing so much in aspect as a broken mirror, a lugubrious expression of angst by a civilization that no longer knew what it was, but was haunted by the terrible knowledge that all things were now twisted and misshapen. His self-portraits vividly show us the transmogrification of the Western man, beginning with the scowling 21-year-old Dix’s Self-Portrait with Carnation (1912):


By the end of his first few months during the “Phony War” of late 1914, we see the piercing, knowing eyes recede into anxious blots of doubt, lurking beneath the prominent golden sun of the gunner’s insignia, the bright baubles of state obscuring the increasingly faceless and uncertain man:


By the time of Self-portrait as Mars (1915), the human being is annihilated, having been reduced to the raw material of the apocalypse, a metallic figure with a wheel in place of his heart, the self now scattered as shards in a maelstrom:


The Western art world, influenced by cubism and led by Expressionists like Dix, was belching forth an endless stream of content that was evocative of cataclysm, of a world broken and devoid of beauty. This visual style, replicated in thousands of similar images from the interwar period, was perhaps most famously delivered to a mass audience by the classic Robert Wiene film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.


It is a remarkable point that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is sometimes credited with introducing the concept of the “twist” ending in cinema, and that the particular twist envisaged here is the now-shopworn script in which the main characters are revealed to be the inhabitants of an insane asylum, the entire story a homicidal delusion. Such was the logic of the cosmic cul-de-sac of post-Kantian modernism, which promised a morality that was both universal and a product of the human mind.


All of this was brought into focus for me by a piece of architecture that was not, surprisingly, the work of a corrupt American Cardinal of the Catholic Church. Nor was it the work of Daniel Libeskind, whose original concept for the post-9/11 reconstitution of Ground Zero was an adolescent expression of avante garde contempt for ordinary standards of beauty and form (his colleague Jeffery Kipnis probably said more than he intended about the contemporary art world when he remarked of Libeskind, “There’s only one Daniel in the world of architecture. I’m glad there’s Daniel, and I’m glad there’s no other.”) No, I am myself a modern man, so of course what actually got me thinking about this particular continuity in our art and architecture was the new football stadium for the Atlanta Falcons. Though long an enthusiast of organized sports, I just cannot imagine what would attract a person whose only knowledge of the subject was this artist’s rendering to take part in anything that happened in that building.

The incessant braying of our loud, vain, ugly public rituals signifies terminal decay. Now having been inured to it, there is next to no offense against beauty and dignified public order that will not find its defenders, all the more if it is packaged as entertainment. Spectacles of apocalyptic violence and destruction are more popular than ever. They are no longer even expressions of introspective horror, but of positive delight at the cleansing of a world devoid of meaning and coherence, and a return to something simpler--the void. Incredibly, this was the “promise” of the First World War which, many people do not realize, was in its beginnings very popular and a cause of exhilaration and even optimism across Europe.

It occurs to me that what all this imagery prefigures for the human race is indeed a cleansing fire, but not one of our own making. In contrast to that unhappy thought, in my next post I will take a glimpse back at the beauty and the order that still was, even amid so much turmoil and confusion, and still might be, if only in our own little gardens. But now, to bed.

Comments (24)

Nice post, Sage.

Sage, one of the things your post brings to mind is the absolutely crucial historical and cultural importance of WWI, the way that that war itself really shattered the world. I sometimes think that Americans, especially of course in our impoverished contemporary educational milieu, have had less of a sense of this than the British. I remember reading a PD James novel (which I actually didn't like much overall) set in the early 90's that had an elderly female character who had lived through WWI. James had just a few paragraphs describing what the Great War had meant to her and how it fell athwart her entire world and changed it, and it gave a very vivid picture.

On contemporary art (about which I'm mostly ignorant), I always run into a conundrum when I read My Name is Asher Lev. The book is quite good, literarily, but what we're supposed to believe is that the artist learns from a modern teacher who takes his incredible representational genius, starting when he's a teenager, and forms him into a Picassoid artist while retaining his individuality, his genius, his love for what he paints, and the meaning he puts into it. As the book goes on, the Picasso-style teacher is almost portrayed as the good traditionalist, fighting the good fight against the degenerate Duchamp school. But I myself find it pretty much impossible to picture any of Asher Lev's work once he starts painting as his mentor trains him. Yet we're supposed to understand that there is all this profound meaning in it. Presumably that was what Potok (the author) thought. It's one of those suspension of disbelief things one just has to put up with when reading the novel.

Modern art might be representative of some nihilism at the heart , but it might also be representative of how technology has rendered artists pointless. People used to paint pretty pictures to adorn this or that structure that required them, usually churches, but two things changed. One, technology made effortless copying of already existent masterpieces much cheaper and easier than bothering to hire someone to make a new one. If you want a Madonna col bambino, you can just get a perfect reprint of one of the three billion ones already in existence, for next to nothing. Two, churches are no longer plastered top to bottom with artworks anyway. The Protestant revolution started the job, but even the Catholic church doesn't really bother anymore.

With no real reason for being, artists have no choice but to create something odd or shocking in the hopes that someone, somewhere, will actually pay attention to them.

Re: WWI, it took a conscious act of discipline not to digress into exactly that subject, Lydia. One of the obvious reasons that it has always gotten short shrift is that we have very little film of the battlefront. Of course it goes well beyond that, but it's a factor. Anyway, it's a very tragic and even alarming thing to me that people generally don't comprehend how much that conflict changed the world. The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian, German, and Ottoman Empires, the ascendance of Lenin, the appearance of "war administration" as a general model of governance in the U.S., etc. Maybe most fascinating of all is that there are few subjects that have attracted more attention from professional historians than the question of what actually caused it. A new book offering a new theory was just published within the last few years, though I never read it. Anyway, my whole understanding of the Western world changed forever when I learned how epochal were the changes--the great social significance of "the murder in the cellar," and so on.

Contemporary art, and especially the fashion world, is all just inside baseball and status seeking. It's entirely insular, a lot of fakery, as nearly as I can tell (I'm a complete hack when it comes to art criticism, but have a pretty good nose for BS). It's really telling that Potok can tell you that Lev's work is freighted with all sorts of profundity, but that he has to leave the details vague. It is like a bad movie script in which we are told that two people have a great friendship, but we never actually see it. Art that tells rather than shows is bad almost by definition.

Well, to be fair, when it comes to the culminating work of the book (which I won't give away at length for spoiler reasons), he actually goes into a lot of detail. But perhaps because of my philistinism when it comes to Picasso-style art, I find it difficult to imagine being moved by it. For example, it involves portraying a particular person in the artist's life with the face split into three different planes looking in different directions, which is supposed to represent the torment of divided loyalties. This just doesn't do anything for me.

Eh, I think you're stretching with the football stadium. It's actually kind of cool looking. I mean, it's a football stadium. "Cool looking" pretty much fulfills its artistic obligations. And I also enjoy Picasso. With that said, I enjoyed the post.

But perhaps because of my philistinism when it comes to Picasso-style art, I find it difficult to imagine being moved by it.

I have heard it said that Picasso himself thought most of his art was drivel, and that the main reason he produced it was to befuddle idiots for good money. Has anyone else heard this?

I life that you are bringing up the many things that happened as a result of and during WWI. I am going to try to read a book on the origins of the War that I have not yet read, but it covers the the great war and (from what I have read about it) seems to overemphasize the influence of bohemian dissatisfaction as a *cause* of the war, and also the prominence of bourgeois beforehand. I like what you have to say about the fall of many other things, such as all the great old empires that had managed to survive for so long, as there was a lot more to pre war europe than just the Professional class and Bohemians.

I think you are on to something with the football stadium. I can recall attending traditional football games where one could relax in the bleachers, or cheer, or have fellowship with the people around you. Recently, I attended a pre-season Bills game with my son and the difference was depressing. Between every down, ear-splitting rock music assaulted us for the thirty-odd seconds between the play stopping and the team lining up again for the next play. It never let up and made me anxious the whole time and I could not wait for it to be over. I see the connection to the "awkward silence" of NO liturgy, where silence tends to be accidental--someone forgot to program crappy music.

Anymouse, a really outstanding study that provides a lot of context, which I find dramatic in spite the fact that it is a dry academic work, is Mason's Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867-1918. It is full of illuminating commentary on the real condition of the Old Imperium, such as the fact that as late as the eve of the Great War, a Magyar man in the Carpathian Mountains would almost certainly have answered, if asked what was his country, that he was "the King's man." Such was the reach of the Crown of St. Stephen, even then. Eleven European "nationalities," as it were--some people say it was fourteen--united under a single Catholic monarch, as late as the administration of Woodrow Wilson. Astonishing.

Pet peeve: When people say that baseball is slow-moving in comparison to football.

Nobody is denying that baseball is a leisurely sort of game. But don't call football fast-moving when you're turning a one hour game into a 3 and a half hour affair. There is literally more time not playing the game than playing it.

Any good DVDs about ww1 that can ably substitute for an in-depth reading about ww1?

Anymouse, a really outstanding study that provides a lot of context, which I find dramatic in spite the fact that it is a dry academic work, is Mason's Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867-1918.

Thanks for this recommendation, Sage. I'm on it.

Tony - I am familiar with that quote. It's a fake - here's the story:


Which is not to say that he is worthy of great praise. I consider him the Madonna of his day in the art world: he reinvented himself through his work regularly, keeping one step ahead of critics and collectors. Timing is everything in life.


Pet peeve: When people say that baseball is slow-moving in comparison to football.

Just slightly off-topic, but I'll bite.

There was a joke running around for a while, "Why do they call it the two-minute drill when there are thirty minutes left in the game?" I think the reason football feels like a faster game is that the plays themselves last longer, and there is more obvious activity going on between plays--guys running on and off the field, huddling up, etc. There's this abstract business and running about. But when you're actually at a football game, it feels painfully slow because you don't have the television flashing all this stuff in front of you from the sidelines, and so on. But objectively, you're right that baseball moves just about as fast as most any football game.

No one interested in WWI or that era and what followed should miss Paul Fussell's classic The Great War and Modern Memory. And Richard Gamble's The War For Righteousness documents the influence of Progressivism and esp. Progressive Christianity on drumming up support for the war.

"a really outstanding study that provides a lot of context, which I find dramatic in spite the fact that it is a dry academic work, is Mason's Dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, 1867-1918."

A very good work of fiction that portrays this dissolution from the inside, as it were, is Joseph Roth's 1932 novel, The Radetzky March.

Sage (and NM),

Well wonders never cease -- I have to strongly second NM's recommendation of Roth's book. It treats the Austro-Hungarian Empire very sympathetically and there are characters in the novel who have wise things to say about the danger of the coming modern world.

I'd argue it is one of the best novels of the 20th Century.

This was an excellent post and I particularly liked the pictures -- what a striking way to represent the change in artists' attitudes. I myself think there is probably a place for modernism (e.g. I find both of Dix's modern self-portraits to be quite intriguing), but the aesthetic response is not one that triggers feeling of contentment, serenity, joy, love -- the kind of feelings that might be drawn out by French impressionists or Renaissance artists treating religious subjects.

Finally, while I agree about the Falcons stadium, what bothers me about it (and the new cathedral in L.A.) are the harsh lines and overall blocky-ness of the structure(s). I don't mind a muscular steel structure if it points to the stars (e.g. the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower in Chicago) or steel and glass curves sitting in the middle of classical columns (this design was actually panned by the critics here in Chicago but having been in and around the stadium, I kind of like it).

I can't resist (a couple of quotes from the novel):

Back then, before the Great War, when the incidents reported on these pages took place, it was not yet a matter of indifference whether a person lived or died. If a life was snuffed out from the host of the living, another life did not instantly replace it and make people forget the deceased. Instead, a gap remained where he had been, and both the near and distant witnesses of his demise fell silent whenever they saw this gap. If a fire devoured a house in a row of houses in a street, the charred site remained empty for a long time. For the bricklayers worked slowly and leisurely, and when the closest neighbors as well as casual passerby looked at the empty lot, they remembered the shape and the walls of the vanished house. That was how things were back then. Anything that grew took its time growing, and anything that perished took a long time to be forgotten. But everything that had once existed left its traces, and people lived on memories just as they now live on the ability to forget quickly and emphatically.


Death hovered over them, and they were completely unfamiliar with the feeling. They had been born in peacetime and became officers in peaceful drills and maneuvers. They had no idea that several years later every last one of them, with no exception, would encounter death. Their ears were not sharp enough to catch the whirring gears of the great hidden mills that were already grinding out the Great War.


The porcelain-blue eyes of the Supreme Commander in Chief—eyes grown cold in so many portraits on so many walls in the empire and now filled with a new fatherly solicitude and benevolence—gazed like a whole blue sky at the grandson of the Hero of Solferino [the main character of the novel]. The light-blue breeches of the infantry were radiant. Like the serious embodiment of ballistic science, the coffee-brown artillerists marched past. The blood-red fezzes on the heads of the azure Bosnians burned in the sun like tiny bonfires lit by Islam in honor of His Apostolic Majesty. In black lacquered carriages sat the gold-decked Knights of the Golden Fleece and the black-clad red-cheeked municipal councilors.


The night was blue and round and vast and full of stars. The Kaiser stood at the window, thin and old in a white nightshirt, and felt very tiny in the face of the immense night. The least of his soldiers, who could patrol in front of the tents, was more powerful than he. The least of his soldiers! And he was the Supreme Commander in Chief! Every soldier, swearing by God the Almighty, pledged his allegiance to Kaiser Franz Joseph I. He was a majesty by the grace of God, and he believed in God the Almighty, who hid behind the gold-starred blue of the heavens, the Almighty—inconceivable! It was His stars that shone up there in the sky, and it was His sky that arched over the earth, and He had allocated a portion of the earth, namely the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, to Franz Joseph I. And Franz Joseph I was a thin old man, standing at the open window and fearing that his guards might surprise him at any moment.


Sometimes he [the Emperor] felt he was actually floating away from people and from the earth. They all kept shrinking the longer he gazed at them, and their words reached his ears as if from a remote distance and fell away, indifferent clangs. And if someone met with some disaster, the Kaiser saw that they went to great lengths to inform him gingerly. Ah, they didn’t realize he could endure anything! The great sorrows were already at home in his soul, and the new sorrows merely joined the old ones, like long-awaited brothers. He no longer got annoyed so dreadfully. He no longer rejoiced so intensely. He no longer suffered so painfully.

Jeffery, I've never read that novel, but based on those passages and your and NM's recommendations, it will definitely have to move up the reading list. Not much fiction captures my interest, so I'm grateful to you both for the tip.

Another great novel that documents roughly the same time period, except in Italy, is Lampedusa's The Leopard. And of course, much of what you write in your original post was anticipated by Dostoevsky. And finally, while I'm not sure if D.B. Hart has read Fr. Seraphim's little book on nihilism (although I wouldn't be at all surprised if he had), this watershed essay by Hart follows a similar line of thought:


I would be remiss if I did not also mention what is one of my favorite works of fiction of all time, A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Reading this book several years ago is what got me interested in WWI to begin with.

NM, I like that article a lot, especially this clarifying passage:

I should admit that I, for one, feel considerable sympathy for Nietzsche’s plaint, “Nearly two-thousand years and no new god” — and for Heidegger intoning his mournful oracle: “Only a god can save us.” But of course none will come. The Christian God has taken up everything into Himself; all the treasures of ancient wisdom, all the splendor of creation, every good thing has been assumed into the story of the incarnate God, and every stirring towards transcendence is soon recognized by the modern mind — weary of God — as leading back towards faith. Antique pieties cannot be restored, for we moderns know that the hungers they excite can be sated only by the gospel of Christ and him crucified. To be a Stoic today, for instance, is simply to be a soul in via to the Church; a Platonist, most of us understand, is only a Christian manqué; and a polytheist is merely a truant from the one God he hates and loves.

The only cult that can truly thrive in the aftermath of Christianity is a sordid service of the self, of the impulses of the will, of the nothingness that is all that the withdrawal of Christianity leaves behind. The only futures open to post-Christian culture are conscious nihilism, with its inevitable devotion to death, or the narcotic banality of the Last Men, which may be little better than death. Surveying the desert of modernity, we would be, I think, morally derelict not to acknowledge that Nietzsche was right in holding Christianity responsible for the catastrophe around us (even if he misunderstood why); we should confess that the failure of Christian culture to live up to its victory over the old gods has allowed the dark power that once hid behind them to step forward in propria persona. And we should certainly dread whatever rough beast it is that is being bred in our ever coarser, crueler, more inarticulate, more vacuous popular culture; because, cloaked in its anodyne insipience, lies a world increasingly devoid of merit, wit, kindness, imagination, or charity.

That fills in a lot of gaps I wasn't willing to tackle in this post. Still, I recommend Fr. Rose's text above all.

A friend of mine, a Classics Prof. at a not-too-distant Catholic university recently responded to this quote of Hart's from his most recent book, The Experience of God, page 215-216.

Hart: "For what it is worth...the age of the great totalitarianisms seems to be over; the most extreme and traumatic expressions of the late modern will to power may perhaps have exhausted themselves. Now that the most violent storms of recent history have largely abated, the more chronic, pervasive, and ordinary expression of our technological mastery of nature turns out to be the interminable spectacle of production and consumption, the dialectic of ubiquitous banality by which the insatiable economic culture of the modern West is shaped and sustained."

My friend's response: "Perhaps there will be no more totalitarianisms as final expressions of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Romanticism, as National Socialism and Stalinism were; but surely there is still great potential for a totalitarianism of the combined 1984/Brave New World type (total surveillance combined with total subservience to pleasure and power), a totalitarianism based purely on the three lusts--lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life--entirely stripped of the countervailing force of virtue, whether Christian, aristocratic, or peasant."

I believe that Hart and the prof. are both right. In some ways we will be left to do what we want, in others we will be jumped upon with both feet. In either, we will be watched, but supplied with an endless supply of gizmos, entertainment, and fast food (the new bread and circuses) to keep us satisfied and from getting uppity.

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