What Is Actually Happening Feed

Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Subtitle: "Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution"

It's always true of human societies that serious and seemingly, perhaps actually, insoluble problems exist, but there are degrees, and it's more the case now than ordinarily. It's not always the case that an entire civilization plunges, as ours has done, into ideas and behavior that are obviously self-destructive and can only result in decline, possibly collapse. In some ways these are even manifestly crazy, in the sense of being fundamentally at odds with reality.

Those who recognize and are properly alarmed by this are frequently engaged in a somewhat desperate search for a solution, usually at least partly political, because our culture is now very heavily politicized. But I don't think our problems can be solved in any decisive way. I don't see how the plunge can be stopped, because the most powerful elements of society are passionately committed to it. We'll just have to ride it out and hope that it won't be fatal (whatever that might mean).

Obviously there is much that can be done here and now to slow it down, at least, and to ameliorate the harm being done. And I admire those doing the difficult work of--to choose one example--resisting the teaching of sick ideologies to school children. Nor is the organized political opposition insignificant or (entirely) ineffective, flawed though much of it is. More power to all of them.

But I've lost much if not all of my interest in talking about solutions. What interests me more now is the question of how we got here. Or, more accurately and importantly: where the hell are we? What exactly is going on? Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic shed a great deal of light on those questions. In this book, Carl Trueman brings Rieff's insights, published almost sixty years ago, and those of others into the present. The others are, principally, Alisdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. And now I'm going to have to read them, too.

If you want to understand why this thing that we call the culture war is so intractable, you might read part 1 of Trueman's book. (It's probably in your local library, as it's in mine and I live in a fairly small town.) There he lays out the situation: the fundamental difference is between those who view the human situation as fundamentally a matter of finding and accepting one's place in an objective external order, usually (maybe necessarily?) a sacred order, and those--the more representatively modern school--who see the individual as more or less creating or inventing himself, and, as a natural corollary, wishing or demanding that the world accommodate, or be subjected to, the self. When the two parties disagree, as they now do

...there is no real argument taking place. There is no common authority on which they might agree to the terms of debate in order to determine exactly what it is they are debating. The one looks to a sacred order, the other to matters that do not rise above the concerns of the immanent order.

If there is no reasoned debate, there can be no reasoned compromise, only a stalemate of warring armies. And that's probably the best we can hope for in the near future.

The rest of the book traces the development of this contemporary concept of the self, and the social and political implications of it. First came Rousseau's assertion that man is "born free but everywhere in chains," the chains being or at least beginning with the degrading and corruption influence of Society. From there to the sexual revolution and its current phase is a grimly fascinating story, running through Freud, Marx, and 20th century figures such as William Reich and Herbert Marcuse, and summarized in these two passages:

...the rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. to follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity--and therefore sex--political.... To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically....

"The personal is the political," said the feminists. I always took this to mean that, for instance, when a husband leaves his socks on the floor, and his wife picks them up, a significant political event has occurred. And I think they did mean that. But Trueman demonstrates that it also means something much larger, something absolute, something bigger than anything else in the minds of the sexual revolutionaries (a category which includes a large subset of progressives but not all). This is the long-developing revolution which became a truly mass movement in the late 1960s, and is now, as is often observed, in effect a militant religion. Its strictures were foreshadowed by Reich, who believed

...that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes.

All this seems to me essential for understanding what's happening, which is to say that this is an essential book if you want that understanding. It is not the only pathology at work, though. Trueman does not deal with directly political problems, chief of which in my opinion is the mysterious apparent death wish of a large segment of Western culture, the hatred and repudiation of its own past and ferocious denunciation of those who persist in valuing its traditions, especially of course its religious tradition, and who refuse to make the expected acts of repudiation. There is probably a connection between this and the hypertrophied narcissism described by Truman, but I'm not sure what it is.

Trueman-RiseAndTriumpOfTheModernSelf

*

I was going to say more about Vatican II and the article by Larry Chapp to which Marianne linked in the comments on the previous post, but I'm in the process of moving (not far, still same locale) and both time and internet access are limited. Next week....


The Son Avenger, and Other Things

One of the blog-related matters I've been wrestling with is that I've gotten way behind on discussing recently-read books. Part of the reason for that is plain old procrastination, with my own personal twist: anything, especially a writing task, that seems likely to take more than, say, fifteen or twenty minutes keeps getting put off: I don't have time to do that right now, I'll do it later. I'll have more time after I get [random thing] out of the way. And pretty soon half a dozen or so such tasks have piled up, while I attend to a series of things that at least in theory should only have taken a few minutes each. Here, I think, is the one that's been in that backlog the longest.

I finished The Son Avenger, the fourth book in Sigrid Undset's Olav Audunsson tetralogy, several months ago. It is very much a worthy finale to Olav's biography. The title I'm using is the one chosen for the Chater translation, which is the one I read, and I don't know whether it originated with Undset or was approved by her. In any case, it (the title) is very apt. I'm not giving away very much if I say that the heart of the story is a murder committed by Olav early in his life, kept secret and unconfessed out of concern for the effect its revelation would have on those whom he loves and for whom he feels responsible. The title suggests the way that dilemma is finally resolved, and what I think of as the holy irony of it.

I'll repeat what I've said before: this is a great novel, and Undset is a great novelist. I don't use the word "great" in the casual sense in which I would say, for example, that Revolver is a great album. I mean a kind of greatness that should stand for centuries, and probably will.

I don't now what the title of this volume will be in the Nunnally translation. It appears that the third volume was (or is to be) released only this month, and I can't find any mention of the fourth on the publisher's web site. It will probably be a single word, in line with the titles of the other three: VowsProvidenceCrossroads. These are defensible titles, but I prefer those of the old translation: The AxeThe Snake Pit; In the Wilderness. The difference is a good instance of my reasons for preferring the older translation: to my taste it is, to pick one of several possible words, richer. A post from November of last year, "Olav Audunsson and Undset Translations," goes into more detail on that question. 

Still, I don't think the new translation (or that of Kristin) is bad, and it seems to have brought new readers to Undset's work, which is a very good thing. And what very great deal of hard labor it must involve.

(Yet I cringe when I recall Nunnally's use of "fetus" when a character feels an unborn child kicking in her womb. There is a phrase used by people in the book to refer to the unborn, presumably an idiom of the time or at least appropriate to it, which a translator can hardly avoid: "the one under my [or her] heart." Or, when a character is suspected but not known to be pregnant, someone says that "she does not go alone." I'm not mentioning this as a political complaint; it's a literary one. "Fetus" jars. It's out of place. It would be like Olav riding off to a council of landholders saying that he's going to "network" with others.)

Here are links to posts about the second and third books: The Snake PitIn the Wilderness. If I wrote about the first one, I can't locate the post now.

*

I promise I am not going to give in to the temptation to talk about politics regularly, but I am getting this off my chest:

Let's stipulate that Donald Trump is a bad man and was a bad president. I think the opposition to him, which has aptly been called deranged, and the four-year-long refusal to accept the results of the 2016 election did more harm to the country than Trump himself did. Still, I believe what I said in 2015: I think he has a screw loose. And I think that without all the frenzy on the part of the opposition his presidency would still have been, overall, a mess. 

Granting that, I cannot take seriously the political judgment of anyone who doesn't see that Biden is at least as bad, as a man and as president. The blogger Neoneocon summed him up some time ago: not very smart, not very honest, not very nice. That's clear, has been for most of his career, and continues to be demonstrated at least once a week. 

I'm not going to bother laying out the evidence. I've pretty much given up trying to argue about things that are a matter of simple observation. From the moment he took office, Biden has been maliciously, dishonestly, divisive, slandering the very large number of Americans who don't support him, and engaging in the most inflammatory rhetoric of racial hostility since George Wallace. And unlike Trump, who had most of the ruling class and the federal government in particular against him, Biden has them on his side, giving him a degree of power, official and unofficial, that Trump never came close to possessing. 

At this point, anyone who doesn't see this is either a very partisan Democrat or just not looking, perhaps too embubbled in the media environment designed and maintained to suppress everything that doesn't serve the progressive cause, or maybe just too appalled by Trump to see things clearly. I have a certain amount of sympathy for that last one--Trump often was and is, so to speak objectively appalling. But it still constitutes a failure of judgment. 

Just this past week Biden was caught, when he didn't know he was near an active microphone, saying "Nobody f***s with a Biden." That sounds like the voice of a long-successful criminal, suggesting a long history of misdeeds. That's the real Joe Biden. Kindly old Uncle Joe is as much a public relations creation as Ronald McDonald. 

And what did he, and/or the staffers who set it up, believe his Sith Lord speech would accomplish? If Trump had engaged in this kind of authoritarian theater the shock and horror might have produced actual fatalities among those suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome. 

BidenAsDarthSith

This complaint is prompted in part by the evidence of serious corruption involving the Biden family, and the almost complete ignoring of it by the mainstream press. See this National Review story, which ends:

The evidence is that we’re living in an age of deep, dangerous, and pervasive corruption, and most of our institutions are either silent, indifferent, or complicit. This cannot end well.

*Journalism2


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


More From Rieff (1)

...the kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called "spiritual"--because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood--with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg....  Having broken the outward forms so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order. (p. 2)

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.... (p. 10)

Not only our Western culture but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations--in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. The analytic attitude does contain a certain time-element of asceticism, but it points toward a character ideal that is in principle anti-ascetic and therefore revolutionary if viewed from perspectives formed in the inherited moral demand system. The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode. (p. 40)

That last sentence is an adequate summary of the condition(s) analyzed in the book.

The "spiritualizers" in the first quotation appear to be the Romantics in particular, though the general cultural drift they represented was not confined to them. One might think, in argument to that general point, of the many instances in Christian scripture and thought in which we are admonished to attend to the spirit and not the letter. And the "spiritualizers" do, too. But their mistake is to suppose that the spirit need not be, in fact should not be, embodied, that to give it a body is an unacceptable limitation. Jesus himself tells us that the law is to be made alive, not done away with. 

What immediately strikes the reader of our time is the apparent paradox in which the destruction of all settled convictions has turned into an extremely rigid heresy-hunting orthodoxy. But it's only apparent. What we call "society" is as intrinsic a part of being human as is the individual. And every society has, also intrinsically, its expectations of conduct, its standards by the light of which some things are acceptable and some are not. Or, to use Reiff's terms, its controls, or interdicts, and remissions.


Rieff Was Right

I'm finally reading The Triumph of the Therapeutic and find myself thinking that Philip Rieff was the smartest person of the 20th century. But I revise that thought immediately: "smart" is not the best word, suggesting mere intelligence, a high score on an IQ test. "Wisest," "'most perceptive," "most prophetic" would be better. He was the most accurate and profound analyst, from a somewhat detached, observational, semi-scientific point of view (he was a sociologist), of the cultural revolution (his term) which took place in western civilization over the past several centuries. Notice the past tense: in Rieff's view the transformation has been accomplished.

The book is subtitled "Uses of Faith After Freud," which only hints at the magnitude of its achievement, which is to name and explain the type of civilization which was coming into being after the long twilight of Christian civilization, described by Matthew Arnold as one in which we are

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
("Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse")

Arnold is in fact referred to in the second sentence of the book. And Yeats's "The Second Coming," which unfortunately has now been overused in politics but remains as vivid and significant as ever, is its epigraph.

I'm not qualified to write a broad analysis or critique of the book. It's difficult and in some ways simply over my head. Among other things, Rieff was deeply knowledgeable about Freud and Freud's psychoanalytic procedures, and the greater part of this book is about Freud and his wayward disciples or successors: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence. I've read some Lawrence, a bit of Jung, no Reich at all, and as far as I remember no Freud. (I hedge that last one slightly because I may have read some excerpts from The Future of An Illusion in a religion class in college.) And sometimes Rieff is, for me at any rate, simply obscure. He is, by the way, a superior prose stylist.

Fortunately, there is this appreciation by Jeremy Beer. It was published in The American Conservative in 2006 and is included in the contemporaneous edition of the book published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Here is a taste, and that's really all it is:

Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”

I'm quite sure there is much in this book that I haven't clearly understood. But much of what I do understand is brilliant. What sets Rieff apart from others who have made similar broad observations is the depth of his insight into the nature and significance of the transition, and his deeply negative, but entirely unpolemical, view of it. Unlike, for instance, many Christian thinkers, he is dispassionate about the civilization which is ending and does not view its restoration as a possible solution, or even desirable. He is relentless in crushing the false hopes of Christians who believe that they can somehow preserve the faith by adapting it to the therapeutic culture, and in that respect he often seems to understand Christianity better than most Christians. Nor does he see any of the strategies and techniques proposed by Freud's successors as providing a solution, a way out of the crisis. The chapters on Jung, Reich, and Lawrence are essentially demolitions of their proposals. Freud, he seems to say, had only very modest expectations, and did not propose a grand solution, only coping strategies. 

Over the next few weeks I plan to pick out some specific passages and quote them, perhaps even venture to discuss them. Right now I have on my mind a notion sparked by this sentence, which is really just a passing remark: 

After all, Trinitarian Christianity is responsible for our present inclination to attribute an aura of divinity to the person as such--an inclination derived from the original attribution of personality to God.

Out of its context that may not strike you as so important or original, and the context is too extensive to quote. But in light of Rieff's overall effort to explain and justify his title phrase, and his treatment of the collapse of Christianity as a definer of culture, it jumped out at me. What he is pointing out is that in secular modernity, this "aura of divinity" has persisted alongside the quasi-scientific presumption of ultimate meaninglessness.

These two beliefs simply cannot be reconciled. The lame attempts to establish meaning as a purely subjective and temporary thing are only a temporary hedge against the reckoning. And (this is what suddenly struck me) the attempt to maintain both doctrines results in intense psychological conflict which I think is one of the drivers of the politics-as-religion phenomenon we're currently calling "wokeism." 

I know it's a cliché to point out that post-Christian civilization is carrying forward various features of Christianity, often in a distorted or corrupted form, but this is illuminating as a specific detail of that process. The "aura of divinity" becomes something to which the term narcissism doesn't quite do justice. The individual will is a sacred will, able not only by its own power, but by the permission and affirmation of (progressive) society, to alter reality--as long as, in the old classical liberal view, it doesn't hurt anyone else. And yet there is ultimately--I mean, ultimately--nothing essentially important or significant about the person as such: he is only an individual of an animal species not fundamentally different from any other, the result of random physical events. And according to current advanced thinking even his belief in his own conscious self is an illusion. 

If our future is to be defined by progressive ideas, this tension must eventually resolve itself, perhaps in a recurring tension and release, by means of some sort of scapegoating mechanism, perhaps in the age-old division of people into the significant and the insignificant. I'll leave the possibilities to your imagination.

TriumpOfTheTherapeutic

Yes, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn is Christopher Lasch's daughter, and the connections between the ideas of the two men are clear.

Now I have to admit that I have not actually read the entire book. It's not because I didn't try, but I have an odd problem. I've been reading a review copy of the book that was sent to me years ago when it was re-issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (I'm sorry, ISI, that I never reviewed it.) I discovered that it's missing most of the Reich chapter (and shows a few other minor physical defects which I presume were corrected before a final printing).

So I ordered a new copy. It arrived on a Friday some weeks ago. I opened the package and laid the book on the dining room table. Early on the afternoon of the next day I went out of town for a night, returning late Sunday. A day or two later I looked for the book and it was not on the table where (I thought) I had left it. I have absolutely no memory of doing anything else with it. Nor does my wife. But I've searched the house, especially the bookshelves, and it hasn't turned up. I'm very much afraid that I did something one hears of old people doing: put it in some place where it doesn't belong, and forgot that I had put it anywhere at all. But if I did that, it must have been an obscure place. Yes, I looked in the refrigerator and the freezer and the pantry. And although I was pretty certain I had not taken the book with me on that overnight trip--I had consciously considered doing so, and decided not to--I had someone check the usually vacant family house where I had stayed. Not there either. And not in the car.

It still hasn't turned up, and my fear is that somehow it got put into the recycling bin, where a lot of paper on the dining room table goes, or the trash. Far-fetched, but if it were anywhere plainly visible I'd have seen it by now. I refuse to buy another copy (although that would probably cause the missing one to return) so I will have to live without the Reich chapter. I do have the first few and last few pages of it, and Reich is discussed along with the other two in an earlier chapter, so I think I got the general idea. I was a little surprised to see Reich taken so seriously, as I had the impression he was rather a nut. And apparently he was, but some of his ideas are quite prominent in our culture now.


The Fatal Bent

I was discussing C.S. Lewis's Perelandra the other day with someone who considers it the weakest of Lewis's science fiction trilogy, in fact pretty much forgettable. I disagree, and find it eminently memorable. And one thing I always recall vividly is the opening, in which the narrator takes a twilight walk from a railway station to Ransom's cottage three miles away. I've always thought that scene, and the narrator's steadily increasing sense of dread, one of the most effective openings of a novel I've ever read. 

Thinking of it, I picked up the book and read that opening scene again. It really is quite good, as good as I remembered. But one thing jumped out at me, not necessarily part of that incident proper but a bit of explication by the narrator as he thinks about Ransom's revelation that our world is ruled by evil angels who

...are the real explanation of that fatal bent which is the main lesson of history.

That does seem to be the general drift of history, and I'm afraid we're seeing that fatal bent in operation again. Those who've been reading this blog for a while know that I've been concerned for many years about whether the United States can survive the cold civil war that's been in progress since the '60s, if not longer. We call it "cold" in the sense that the Cold War was cold--that it did not involve physical violence. But the emotions involved are very hot and getting hotter. I hope I'm wrong, but I find it difficult to imagine our ever being truly one nation again. Each side of the culture war now believes that compromise is a lost cause, and that its survival or at least its well-being can only be achieved by the decisive defeat of the other.

Few nations can match the combination of material prosperity, personal freedom, and stable, reasonably democratic government that we have achieved. Setting aside all the valid criticisms of the thinking and practices that brought about these things, and of the injustices and other defects that were and are part of it, the achievement remains astonishing in the broad context of human history. And few serious people seriously want to give up all its benefits.

Yet here we are: rich, angry, ungrateful, stupid, ignorant, as impassioned as we are irrational, indifferent if not hostile to the foundations on which the achievement rests. The most egregious and fundamental of these is the attack on the constitution, which amounts to a rejection of the rule of law, of the whole concept of a government of laws and not of men, upon which rests the structure of representative government.

Most often the attack is implicit, but sometimes it's explicit. I'd be willing to bet that no more than one out of ten of the people currently protesting the possible reversal of Roe v. Wade understand the constitutional question, or even in general the way the whole system works, with its complex balancing of power. And, worse, I'd bet that zero out of ten care. And, to be fair, there's a similar indifference in some quarters of the right.

What went wrong? Well, I could go on at length about that, and have done. And I certainly have strong ideas about which side is more at fault. But beneath those details I see the fatal bent in action, the universal tendency which is independent of places and times. There's still room for hope that it won't accomplish the ruin toward which it tends, but that probably requires a level of awareness of what's happening that doesn't seem to be very widespread at all. 


Compact: A New Post-liberal Magazine

"Post-liberal," in case you've missed it, is the tag now being applied to people, mostly on the right, who are more or less giving up on the classical liberalism which is the foundation of our republic. Or, if they haven't given up on it completely, have come to the conclusion that liberalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, which is now playing out in various political and cultural crises. A new publication called Compact, subtitled "A Radical American Journal," is the voice of some of them, though their masthead is by no means limited to conservatives: it includes Glenn Greenwald and some others who seem to be on the left (no "seem" about Greenwald, unless he's changed his mind about a lot of things). I believe the editor, Sohrab Ahmari, considers himself a Catholic integralist, and I see the names of one or two others who might accept that label for themselves. Matthew Schmitz, formerly of First Things is there.

I don't consider myself to be a post-liberal, but I do understand and sympathize with their pessimism about liberalism. My own basic view is expressed in the title of this post: "You're Gonna Miss Your Classical Liberalism When It's Gone." But I recognize the problems that are pretty much intrinsic to liberalism and certainly look as if they might destroy it. Here is a long post from 2017 about Ryszard Legutko's The Demon in Democracy, which discusses some of these ideas. I thought I had written a post about Patrick Deneen's Why Liberalism Failed, but if I did I can't find it at the moment. 

And I don't think it's too egotistical of me to point out that I reached the same basic conclusion as the post-liberals over twenty-five years ago, and wrote about it in Caelum et Terra. You can read the whole somewhat lengthy essay here, but a few excerpts, from a section titled "Nine Popes Without A God," will do to as my assessment of the (possibly? probably?) fatal flaw(s) in our constitutional system:

It has frequently been observed that American institutions presume the existence of a coherent, more or less univer­sal, more or less Christian, ethic. It has been pointed out that the collapse of this consensus will lead, is leading, has led to the collapse of society. Both these statements are true. And nothing confirms them more clearly than the present condi­tion of the Supreme Court....

The law of the land, the law which really must be obeyed on pain of punishment, is the Constitution....

It would be unwise to try to make Scripture serve as the constitution of a civil government; Scripture is not meant for that purpose and can reasonably be invoked as sanction for a number of different forms of government. But it is equally unwise to make the Constitution into a scripture. And that is what America has done, or at least tried to do, because there is no other place than the Constitution to look for the establishment of fundamentals upon which all Americans must agree.

It is no one’s Bible, no one’s Magisterium, to which Americans may, in the end, legitimately appeal on public matters. There is, literally, no higher law in the United States of America than the Constitution..... As far as the law and customs of the nation are concerned it is the Constitution which judges religion; it is the Constitution which says what really matters, what is right and wrong. This is quite a burden to place upon a thoroughly pragmatic document written one summer in Philadelphia by a group of men trying to organize a government. And of course now that the ethical consensus which underlay that document has cracked, the inadequacy of the document alone is obvious. If the people cannot agree about what a human being is or what its purpose might be, what a family is, what a right is, what liberty is, then the Constitution is utterly impotent to guide them...

Even those who approach the Constitution as a fundamentalist approaches Scripture accept the fact the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means.

It is in many circles somewhere between bad manners and villainy to admit to having fixed beliefs on most moral and philosophical questions. Yet it is clear that the human mind requires such points of fixity, and so we find the most skeptical intellectuals placing the most naive trust in the judgment of the Supreme Court. It is not just that they acknowledge the fact that the Court has the last word; there is almost a sense that they believe that the Court’s decisions constitute what is right and true, at least for the moment.

Things have gone a good deal further now, of course. There are significant numbers of people with significant levels of influence who don't even pay much lip service to the written text of the constitution, but simply look on the Supreme Court as a sort of wise tribal council with the power to decide matters as they see fit. The same people are likely to have quite definite and fixed beliefs on certain moral and philosophical questions. A few of those beliefs are, to be blunt, insane, and many are toxic.

And so the sense of despair about the possibility of salvaging liberalism has set some people to figuring out what comes next. Here's how the founders of Compact describe their project:

Every new magazine should be an intimation of a possible future, a glimpse of how the world might be. Our editorial choices are shaped by our desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community—local and national, familial and religious—against a libertine left and a libertarian right....

We believe that the ideology of liberalism is at odds with the virtue of liberality. We oppose liberalism in part because we seek a society more tolerant of human difference and human frailty. That is why, though we have definite opinions, we publish writers with whom we disagree.

Compact will challenge the overclass that controls government, culture, and capital.

I'm not endorsing the magazine. In fact I've only read a couple of pieces from it. But it's interesting, in itself and for what it represents. At the moment you can read it without paying, but that's meant to change soon, and I doubt that I'll be subscribing, as the price is a little high for my level of interest: after the first year it will be $90 per year. But then again I may change my mind when I've read more of it.


Dostoevsky's Demons Revisited

As political frenzy revved up over the last year, I found myself wanting to re-read Dostoevsky's Demons, thinking it would offer some insight and perspective on what's happening. Or rather not so much what is currently happening as what has been happening for the past 150 years or so. I had thought on my first reading that I didn't fully grasp it, and hoped it might be clearer on a second reading. As usual I found that it had been longer than I thought since the previous one. I guessed three years or maybe four; it was actually seven.

But looking back at the post I wrote then, I find that it still stands pretty well as a summary of my opinion. So here's a link to it.

What I said then about a great novel being like a symphony that must be heard more than once was certainly proved. I did enjoy the book more this time around, and felt more sure that I understood it. The feeling I described of seeing the people and events as through some kind of fog or smoke was much less pronounced this time, in fact mostly gone. I did, however, again and again find myself thinking of what I had said then, quoting a friend: that many (most?) of Dostoevsky's characters seem "just barely sane." And the funny parts were funnier, especially the meeting of the would-be revolutionaries, which was more or less recognizable to anyone who's ever been around young people full of big ideas about changing the world. And the long rhapsody delivered at the disastrous fete by a windbag character said to have been modeled on Turgenev is flat hilarious.

I also thought of a remark from W.H. Auden which I encountered many years ago in some magazine and no longer remember the context of: that the Russian and American temperaments are more alike than either is like the English. I think that's true. I can't really imagine anyone in Demons transposed directly into an American, but I can easily imagine ones equally crazy in very similar ways.

I read the translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, which was the same one I read before. I had thought about reading the old and formerly standard Constance Garnett one, but a bit of comparison suggested that the differences were not as great as, for instance, those between the recent Undset translations and the older ones.

The change of the title from The Possessed is interesting. I assume it's justified as a simple matter of translation, but it raises a question. The novel bears as an epigraph the story from the Gospel of Luke of the Gadarene swine, possessed by demons who cause them to run down a hill into the sea. Clearly the deranged ideas of Dostoesky's characters, and especially their nihilistic and amoral revolutionary fervor, are the analog of the demons in the story, and those who are driven by those ideas are the swine. The translation of the title therefore is significant: is it a reference to the demons or to those possessed by them? See this brief discussion at Wikipedia. Either works, of course. But there's a difference of emphasis, and on that basis alone I'm inclined to think that "demons" is more appropriate. Or, as some other translators have said, "devils."

I had not realized how many (English) translations there are. That Wikipedia page lists seven, two of them since Pevear and Volokhonsky's in 1994. 


The Lamp Has A Blog Now

And they've invited me to contribute a monthly post. I'm extremely flattered, and a bit intimidated, as it puts me alongside Peter Hitchens and probably some other people who are better writers than I am. 

My first post appeared yesterday. It's called "Being Honour Bred," a phrase from a Yeats poem which mentions people who lie without shame. It's a pretty grumpy post, which was not really the way I wanted to start out, but the poem has been very much on my mind. The next post should appear in late December and will be about Christmas.

Peter Hitchens's first post is here, and it's a jewel.


Why We're Divided (2) + The Lamp

By an appropriate coincidence, on the same day that I did that last post the new issue of The Lamp arrived. It includes an essay of mine which discusses the development of the counter-culture of the 1960s toward the current culture war, and the post reiterates a point made in that piece: 

The essential feature of the youth rebellion of the Sixties is that it arrived at the point at which the simultaneous decline of Christian culture and the rise of secular materialism produced a mass movement which was in fact a new ersatz cultus, the Great Awakening of a religion of human liberation. It has attracted converts ever since and gone a great way toward converting the culture of which it is an antagonist, recapitulating the conversion of the Greek and Roman world to Christianity. It is for many a feverishly impassioned faith. Like the Church it looks with fervent longing for a world to come. If it stops short of explicit utopianism, it nevertheless postulates an “arc of history” which is an asymptotic approach to utopia.

My title for the piece was "What Happened in the 1960s?" The editor(s) changed it to "What The Culture War Really Is," which I didn't quarrel with. ("Ersatz cultus" also is the editor's phrase, not mine--I just said "religion.") 

It was originally a chapter in the book for which I'm currently trying to find a publisher. My initial intention and ambition for the book was that it would be a combination of personal and cultural history, part autobiographical narrative and part discursive reflection and/or analysis of the times. Reactions from the people who read it either suggested or stated outright that I hadn't really unified those two aspects, and I think they were right. And among other things the book was way too long, and so I removed a lot of the discursive impersonal stuff, like the chapter which became the essay on the Sixties.

What's left is basically a memoir, and I think there's an oversupply of memoirs these days, so I'm not very optimistic about getting it published. Yesterday I ran across this rather wonderful quote from Wittgenstein's introduction to one of his own books:

I should have liked to produce a good book. This has not come about, but the time is past in which I could improve it.

That's something like the way I feel. I don't think I can rewrite the book as it now stands in such a way that it would be greatly improved, though I have not stopped fiddling with details, and will soon try sending this new version to a publisher. 

Though I had excised that one chapter, I thought it was worth preserving. I cut it down from its original 7,000 or so words (by removing personal stuff) to 4,000. Almost exactly 4,000, in fact, which I know because I aimed for that in order to get it down to the maximum word count for First Things, thinking it might be something that would interest them. Well, it didn't. Nor did it interest several other conservative/Catholic publications to which I submitted it, so I put it on this site for a while. Perhaps you read it. 

Then Robert Gotcher told me about a new Catholic magazine called The Lamp. It looked interesting, and they were (are) considering unsolicited work, so I sent the piece to them, and somewhat to my surprise they accepted it. At that point I took it down here.

The Lamp is an interesting publication, describing itself as "A Catholic Journal Of Literature, Science, The Fine Arts, Etc." It's eclectic to say the least. I'm tempted to add "to a fault," and very handsomely produced. It is, however, a bit pricey at $60 for a print subscription, $45 for digital. You can read their editorial statement here. And here is a list of the issues. I'm pretty sure that you can read them online if you register first. It will offer to link your registration to your subscriber account, but you can close that tab, go back to the issues page, and view the articles. I think.

TheLamp-Issue-07-cover-imageCover image from the current issue. I think it's great.