The Fraying

     This will be a rather sad piece, I fear. Still, hang in there. You never know when a ray of light might come through the clouds.


Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying: “Stetson!
“You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

     [T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land]

     Among the Modernist poets, Thomas Stearns Eliot stands supreme. His superb images and allusions were made possible by great perspicacity and a wealth of learning to which few others of the era could aspire. His mastery of hidden rhyme and metric schemes spoke of a singularly sensitive “ear.” Yet much of his work is terribly depressing, daunting to read in quantity, and troublesome to recommend to others for that reason. His magnum opus The Waste Land is emblematic of his sensibility.

     The Waste Land speaks of post-World War I Europe: the devastation and enervation the Great War wrought upon it. Physically, Eliot’s Britain suffered somewhat less than the Continental nations. Yet Britain’s exhaustion was as deep as that of France or Germany, if not deeper. As the center of “advanced” sociopolitical thought for the West, its malaise would have unequaled consequences for our civilization.

     Eliot could sense this. Indeed, with the symptoms of civilizational decay all around him, one of his intellect could hardly deny it. Nevertheless, he worked tirelessly to record his perceptions, in poems of exquisite structure and power. But I wonder if he could have withstood the rot that is upon us of today.


     Among the things a civilization requires for cohesion is a set of near-unanimously agreed norms. They don’t necessarily have to agree with the norms or principles of other times and places, though to be sure, some norms are more stable than others, and bring more practical advantages to the civilization that adopts them.

     There are other features common to successful civilizations, of course. But its norms are a necessary feature. The civilization of classical Sparta held to its norms better than the rest of the world around it. Until it was overrun by superior force, it was the stablest state of its time and place – even though its norms would elicit horror if they were imposed upon a contemporary people.

     When a sufficient percentage of the populace disaffiliates from the common norms, the civilization is in trouble. It develops insular sub-populations: enclaves and exclaves in which persons from the larger society would be uncomfortable, even endangered. Historically, for the greater part of the nation to reassert and reimpose the norms by force upon such sub-populations has seldom worked. What matters, then, is the allegiance itself: the emotional bonding to the norms by the overwhelming majority.

     Though a society’s norms may appear as mere customs to an outside observer, their operational character is that of moral boundaries. Some things are compulsory; some things are forbidden; and some things, though not proscribed by law, are simply “not done.” To conform to the norms is to be “a citizen in good standing.” Violators are punished, whether by legal penalties or social ones.

     The norms of pre-World War I Europe were Christian and optimistic. The century before the War had brought unprecedented economic, technological, and social progress to every nation of the Old World. The ninety-nine years from the conclusion of the Battle of Waterloo to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand were the greatest era of peace and civilizational development Mankind had ever witnessed.

     Note: I said progress, not “perfection.” There are no perfect eras and no perfect societies, and there never will be. Mankind is fallen. Our propensity for serious errors and outright evil is ineradicable until the Second Coming. Besides, find me two people who agree on what would constitute a “perfect” society. Defining “perfection” in any context is like trying to sculpt steam.

     The unprecedented destruction of the Great War shattered Europe’s confidence in its norms, and thus in its future. Socialism, atheism, moral relativism, and solipsism – intellectual pathogens that had been held in check by the principles of the Christian Enlightenment – were freed to wreak destruction upon a generation of disaffected and unmoored young Europeans. Their elders were mostly too tired and disheartened to check them.


     A civilization’s norms are often best expressed in compact imperatives:

  • Obey the law.
  • Be considerate.
  • Respect life.
  • Defend the family.
  • Stay clean.
  • Avoid excess.
  • Love your neighbor.

     Really, could a torrent of words express those values any better? I think not, though I’m willing to entertain arguments to the contrary.

     These ideas, which were once considered so fundamental as to constitute a complete moral-ethical education, were nearly universally accepted and observed in both America and pre-Great War Europe. The “lost generation” that prevailed artistically after the War largely dismissed them as “failed” – without having argued successfully against them. They regarded the War itself as an unimpeachable refutation.

     Note that even though several of the premier artists of that era were Americans, the sense of civilizational enervation and decay hardly touched the United States. Americans were willing to consume the products of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck without taking them as panoramic descriptions of the nation as a whole. American society had its problems – the Great Depression would teach us that — but we continued to believe in ourselves. We remained a nearly-unanimous Christian-Enlightenment society. Dissidents were few; deviates did their best to stay hidden. The insular sub-populations among us were not significantly influential.

     Initially, World War II appeared to do no greater damage to our norms and our fidelity to them than had World War I. The thinkers and commentators of the first two postwar decades remained optimistic. They foresaw unending social and economic progress, this time with America lighting the way for the rest of the world. But they may have been mistaken about that.


     He looked unwell, not in the body but in the spirit. His face was slack and his mouth hung partway open. I could hear his breathing when he was still ten yards away. He tramped through the remnants of the spring snow as if he had lost his strength, or his will to use it.
     “What’s up, Louis?”
     Even his shrug spoke of a bone-deep weariness. “Nothing. Out for a walk. Are you busy?”
     I am never busy, as he reckons it. “Not at the moment. Coffee?”
     We went inside, fetched coffee and sat at my dinette table. It’s about large enough to set a TV dinner on and still have room for the salt and pepper service, but I don’t need more.
     “Are things not going well?” I said.
     “No, no real changes. Life goes on.”
     That it does. “You don’t look your best.”
     “I know.” He wrapped his hands around his mug and hunched over it, as if he sought words it wouldn’t take too much effort to speak.
     I’ve never been happy to wait, but I have learned to wait for him. It has never been time wasted.
     “They’re killing themselves, Malcolm.”
     “Who is?”
     He jerked an arm at nothing. “All of them. All the ones you thought I could protect.” The mug quivered in his hand.
     “How so, Louis?”
     He told me the story of Celeste and Alex and their baby. When he wound down, he waited for me to tell him he was wrong, in whole or in part. I had nothing to say. He was right.

     [From Chosen One]

     Of the seven imperatives that lead the previous segment, which would you say are still accepted and observed by the overwhelming majority in today’s America?

     I’d have a tough time arguing that any one of them retains its previous force. If they were important to the cohesion of American society, then what ought we to have expected from the weakening of allegiance to them?

     The norms of the Christian Enlightenment cannot sustain themselves without allegiants, and their number declines daily. No other norm – that of Cthulhu excepted – has arisen to cement us together. Whence, therefore, should we expect to go, other than to Eliot’s Waste Land?

     [With applause and deep gratitude to Anthony Esolen for his highly relevant essay of yesterday.]


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    • NITZAKHON on February 22, 2022 at 8:58 AM

    “Great civilizations can survive a lot of things, but not impoverishment of spirit.” – Mark Steyn
    And, channeling you, nor can we survive fetid corruption and cultural decay at the top seeping downward through the body politic.

    • NITZAKHON on February 22, 2022 at 9:20 AM

    Incidentally, related to impoverishment of spirit, I remember from the (very dry but still interesting) book “Armies of Pestilence” – about plagues through history – that up-and-coming civilizations could weather enormous setbacks from epidemics/pandemics.  Historically, it is civilizations in decline that get knocked out by disease.
    Note: This does not mean that the suffering caused by these catastrophes is immaterial, but rather that the civilization itself continues.

    • enn ess on February 22, 2022 at 3:19 PM

    The issue as I see it is not a significant number refusing to adhere to societies “norms”, it’s the leaders of various countries trying to dictate to its citizens the “norms” which they must now adhere to. And the significant number don’t like the new “norms”. And why not you may ask. It’s quite simple. Because those new “norms” have never worked in the past. Not the 1st time, nor the 33rd time nor the 397th time. But they keep insisting that it will work. 
    What does work, and has always worked, is to let people be their own sovereign entity, responsible for their own successes and failures. Get out of their lives and leave then alone. Consider how all the greatest achievements throughout history occurred. It damn sure wasn’t from gommermint intervention in individual lives. It was by gommermints leaving the individual alone. 

    • SWVa guy on February 22, 2022 at 4:02 PM

    This was, without a doubt your best offering, and you’ve written many. On New Year’s Day, after the wife and I spent the night at our daughter’s house, I rose early pre-dawn and went out on the back porch to have a smoke. Lookng out on US 23 at the minimal traffic. An 18 wheeler drove by, bound for who knows where. For some reason, I thought of the BS hurled at Ron DeSantis for being with his wife while she underwent chemo. At the same time our beloved Brandon was playing with his dog on a Delaware beach to no criticism. I said to myself, I’m with the trucker and Ron. Dominus Vobiscum. 

  1. First, I didn’t remember that reference to Alex and Celeste and their baby. I went to my Kindle, to pull up Chosen One.
    I was astounded to see that I’d apparently never bought a copy (I remedied that immediately). I guess I’d read most of the stories of Louis in serial format, but just hadn’t actually bought the book.
    As for the list of agreed-upon norms. ALL of them were widely ignored in the post-WWI aftermath. Media went to great effort to promote breaking all of those norms – drinking to excess, sexual promiscuity, consideration of others, breaking the law, deliberate tearing down of families, et al. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dresser, O’Neill – and on and on. All embraced the nihilistic and anti-American thinking so popular on the European Continent. And, after they destroyed their civilizations, they zoomed onto ours.
    Think of the literature of the 20th century that is standard. The Hemingway short stories, A Farewell to Arms, The Great Gatsby, Main Street, The Jungle, Grapes of Wrath. ALL with the intent of demoralizing and destroying the American Character.
    Like many, I read those books in high school, and thought of them, at that time, as unimportant artifacts of a time period. Little did I realize that they were deliberately assigned to seep into the mortar of our cultural and philosophical heritage, and break it up, leaving us helpless against the onrushing Leftist onslaught. 
    Ironically, it was the Social Studies Department that assigned readings – 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Eighth Moon, by Bette Bao Lord – that opposed that Leftist assault upon American values. Many of my teachers in that field were Korean War vets, and had a strong understanding of the enemy.

    1. What’s that? You never bought a copy of Chosen One? Linda! How can we Starving Artists huddling in our vermin-infested garrets afford our crusts and rags without your indulgent patronage?

      Oh, the pain, the pain…😉

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