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.
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.”
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.]