Romantic Nationalisms And Pop-Kultur: An Interview With Andrzej Waśko

This month we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Waśko, the foremost authority on Romantic literature in Poland. He is the author several important books and currently serves as the advisor to Mr. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Professor Waśko is here interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with a question about your recent article about the popular band Queen. You are a scholar of Polish Romanticism. You wrote your first major work, which received a national award, on Adam Mickiewicz (the prince of Polish Romantics) and your second on Polish conservative Romantic Zygmunt Krasinski. The role they played in Poland (along with the third major poet Juliusz Slowacki) may be compared to Byron, Shelley and Keats in England.

All of them belong to an epoch which existed two hundred years ago. The English rock group Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. How come a professor of literature writes about about popular music?

Andrzej Waśko.

Andrzej Wasko (AW): These topics are not as far apart as they seem. The aesthetic revolution, called Romanticism, which broke out in Europe after the French Revolution, began earlier with the rehabilitation of popular songs and with the ballads of Goethe and Schiller; and later with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mickiewicz and others.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, in the genre of popular song on the “lower” level of culture. Joan Baez and other folk music performers began their careers with the same or similar folk ballads. At that time, the post-war generation, largely made up of university-educated workers’ children, was knocking on the gates of the middle class. These people needed their mythology and it was provided, at least to some extent, by popular music – Joan Baez, as already mentioned, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, and many others.

Here, I see a certain analogy to the situation that took place in the 19th century. Romanticism gave a cultural identity to the bourgeois and popular masses that began to build modern nations on the ruins of class-based society. The history of pop music is the story of what happened to society in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, today there is a radio in every car. Popular songs are a topic that a literary historian can talk to a taxi driver about.

ZJ: Your last remark reminded me of Allan Bloom’s conversation with a taxi driver. This is what he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “A few years ago I chatted with a taxi-driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily, he had undergone ‘therapy.’ I asked him what kind. He responded, ‘All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis,’ but what he liked best was ‘Gestalt.’ Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-brow talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi-driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with original sin or devils inside him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”

One may draw many conclusions from Bloom. One such is that once high-brow ideas fall to a level of ordinary people, the inevitable result is nihilism. Let me invoke the lyrics of Queen:

Empty spaces.
What are we living for?
Abandoned places.
I guess we know the score.
On and on.
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero,
Another mindless crime
Behind the curtain.
(“The Show Must Go On”).

Queen’s song and Lennon’s “Imagine” – “no heaven, no hell” – can be said to repeat the basic building blocks of Existentialism, especially the ideas we find in Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre considered the world without God to be a reason to rejoice. Camus, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by it; he understood that in such a world the only jurisdiction of philosophy is suicide. This is not different from what we find in Queen: “does anybody know what we are looking for?” Are these songs existentialist philosophy of the Parisian cafes turned nihilistic?

AW: The fact that the songs you quote and probably many others show traces of the existential philosophy of Parisian gurus, such as Sartre and Camus, seems very likely to me. Certainly, Lennon welcomes the vision of an axiological void and proclaims it as “good news,” just like Sartre.

Both the philosopher and the ex-Beatle call for a revolution, each in their own way. In practice, however, Lennon’s way turns out to be more effective, because his song is pretty, it reaches the masses and moves their emotions. But the lesson Lennon gives his followers leads to nihilism – in a world where there is nothing to die for – “nothing to kill or die for” – there is nothing to live for.

This was understood by Camus and I think also Freddie Mercury, whose lyrics, on the contrary, are not cheerful. “What are we living for?” – in a world devoid of essence, without absolute values and absolute norms. Of course, this is also existentialism for the people. But at the same time it is a lamentation over a world ruled by nihilism.

Taxi drivers I speak with in Poland are more likely to lament and never say anything about psychology, which is otherwise a very fashionable field at universities in Poland. Rather, it is the establishment that thinks like the Atlanta taxi driver Bloom writes about. This is pure and self-conscious nihilism – but it is rather rife among teachers and students at universities.

ZJ: You made a connection between the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism and the post-French revolutionary world. In 1833, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his Diary: “My mind is a continental mind… It is a revolutionary mind.” What Disraeli is referring to is the influence Romanticism had on him. What made Romanticism such a powerful social force?

Second, for all the greatness and beauty of Romantic poetry, Romanticism turned out to become a political outlook which shuttered the old order no less than the French Revolution. Is there a connection between the slogans of the Revolution – equality in particular – and the Romantic exaltation of self-consciousness as the source of truth and a fountainhead of artistic creativity?

AW: What made Romanticism a social force was certainly the democratization of the language of literature and art, an example of which is the turn to ballads. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth tells us that poetry should speak the language that people actually use in their lives. The explanation lies in the saturation of art with emotions. Wordsworth and Coleridge talk about this in the Preface as well. This is the hallmark of Romantic literature – unlike the classics, the speaking subject in romantic poetry is always in a state of some emotional agitation, a mood he then communicates to his audience.

This is simple, and pop culture of the 20th century has similar features – it expresses the emotions and infects its audience. And contemporary people living in an extremely rationalized world, living in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” do not become machines – on the contrary, they want to react to the coldness of social institutions in which they find themselves. They want to cry or feel euphoric. They want to feel “like gods,” or lose themselves in a “great whole” – a service provided by, along with drugs, ecstatic music. In this regard, pop music of the second half of the 20th century uses some elements of Romanticism in an intensified and simplified form.

Your second question concerns individual self-realization and creation, which are inventions of literary Romanticism. Based on idealistic German philosophy, Romanticism builds the concept of the subject as creator – of poetry (from the Greek poiesis – creation), but also a creator of various geniuses. Napoleon changed the world thanks to his genius. Byron changed the world thanks to his genius, too. It’s a status of the self in society and in politics. It is a challenge for everyone, including me. Perhaps this is what Disraeli thought.

ZJ: Should we take the idea of genius to mean a way of democratization of politics as well? I do not mean democratization in the sense of universal suffrage and an electoral system; but in the sense of opening the public and political realm to people who in the past could never see themselves as social or political leaders. Being a genius became a form of political passport, if you will. It provided a new form of socio-political legitimacy. Poets became national bards, unelected national leaders.

AW: Yes, both the cults of genius artists (“prophets”) and the cults of charismatic political leaders have something to do with democratization in the sense you suggested. The genius embodies the characteristics of the community that recognizes him as its representative, as the medium of its thoughts and feelings, as the embodiment of the aspirations and goals it pursues. As Rzewuski put it: “There is a sympathetic bond between a genius and his people.”

ZJ: You mentioned Byron, an artist, who saw himself as having a social, political message. Let me quote here a stanza from Childe Harold:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe!
Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.

This is his message to the Greeks, calling on them to rekindle past greatness, to shake off the yoke of the Turkish oppression. This kind of message, formulated by poets, seems to be common for the Romantic period. We find it also in Juliusz Slowacki’s Agamemnon’s Tomb.

Could one say – call it a wild guess, if you want – that Romanticism created a path to a new political reality, wherein artistic geniuses (poets, writers, painters) but also all kinds of political charlatans, madmen and social reformers could call on a nation, or the world, to action? First it was done under the banner of liberation (as in Greece), or unification (as in Italy, or Germany), and later, in the 20th century, as a call to a regeneration of national spirit (as in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Now, in the 21st century, we hear an echo of national slogans: “Great China,” “Making America Great Again,” “Poland – A Great Project” (the name of an annual conference), and so many others.

Politics, before the American and French Revolutions, was a domain of one class, the upper class. But 19th century Romanticism changed it.

AW: Yes, Romanticism paved the way for charlatans as well; it gave them a certain role model. But you cannot blame the Romantics for the actions of charlatans like Hitler or Mussolini, who adopted the dress of geniuses. Otherwise, you could then also accuse Rubens or Rembrandt of paving the way for picture forgers. Morally and politically, everyone is responsible for himself.

Also, we should not toss together all political slogans designed to mobilize supporters with references to the greatness of the nation or the greatness of some future project. This is just commonplace in the politics of our times. Ordinary people want to feel that they are participating in some great collective endeavor. And PR specialists give it the form of slogans. I do not see anything wrong with that, although of course in totalitarian regimes it has a different dimension and can be terrible. But don’t overdo your concerns, remembering what the difference is between the present conditions and the regimes of the kind we lived in before 1989.

ZJ: One often links Romanticism with nationalism. There is a good reason to accept the assumption that the latter sprang from the former. When you read books about Romanticism, you come across a number of terms or expressions that their authors use to characterize Romanticism. Here is a handful: genius (that is, someone who defies rules by his untrammeled will), individual spirit, nation, mythological history of a people, authenticity, creative self-expression, self-assertion, the worship of heroes, and contempt for reason.

The genius of Romantic poets notwithstanding, reading their exaltation one gets the impression that this form of emotional exhibitionism, if you want, could happen only among people who have lost their minds, who rejected Reason, as they did. They were the first ones to believe that they can create nations, a people’s soul. As Herder once wrote, “A poet is a creator of a people; he gives them a world to contemplate; he holds its soul in his hand.”

Add messianism to this, which is a consequence of such a belief, and you have a fuller picture – we no longer deal with an individual genius who has risen above others but a nation which believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has a mission, that it has been given a special task to save others, or save even a civilization itself. Since there are no clear rational criteria for judging reality, the political realm must, it seems, become an “irrational” domain operated by individuals – leaders, if you will – who believe that they can lead the nation. As it happens, sometimes things went very wrong. In view of this, could you say a few words about the connection between Romanticism and nationalism.

AW: First, Herder’s words are the words of a literary critic, who is referring not so much to the times of his own epoch, but to the beginnings of civilization. “Philosophers are the children of civilization, but the poets are its fathers” – this is how what he says should be understood. The original language of humanity was, according to Herder, poetic language. Prose and the attitude to the world based on reasoning came later – Homer preceded the birth of philosophy in Greece.

The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was an apology for poetry understood as the original path of cognition, earlier than philosophy and science. You can partly agree that something like creative imagination actually exists and at times helps to solve some problems that seem unsolvable at first glance.

A feature of political Romanticism, as Carl Schmitt understood it, was the transfer of certain aesthetic rules and preferences to the field of policy thinking. If there is one language and one German literature, there should also be one German state. Genius can work in different fields. Thus, a brilliant poet plays a role within his own national community, etc. Under Byron’s influence, in the first half of the 19th century, extreme (that is, pre-20th-century existentialism) individualism wen hand-in-hand with dandyism, with mal du siècle, boredom (ennui), and the search for strong impressions.

All of this goes beyond nationalism; and all of it can be an object of criticism – and has been repeatedly criticized from the point of view of reason. But the Romantics were right in that man is not (and never will be) a fully rational being. If the process of modernization, which began in the West in the 17th century, is identified (as Max Weber would have it) with the process of rationalization of social life, Romanticism is an expression of rebellion against this rationalization, a rebellion rooted in the irrational characteristics of human nature. And it did not end in the 19th century. In the 1960s, it found expression in popular culture.

ZJ: Isaiah Berlin, in a series of articles on Romanticism, offered a number of insights that can explain why the currents hidden in Romanticism became pernicious.

One could distinguish several layers which created conditions that later led to the horrors of the 20th century, beginning with the sense of humiliation that stems from another nation’s cultural superiority. Such is the case of Germany vis-à-vis France, and the disruption of the old way of life, as happened in Russia under Peter the Great and, to a lesser degree, in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.

The old class becomes displaced and psychologically unfit, and creates a new synthesis, a new vision or ideology that explains and justifies resistance to forces working against the convictions and ways of life of the old class.

Finally, when a nation is at one with other forces, such as race and religion, or class and nation, we have all the conditions that can turn into a political force represented by the State. “One form of these ideas was the new image of the artist,” writes Berlin, “raised above other men not only by his genius but by his heroic readiness to live and die for the sacred vision within him… It took a more sinister form in the worship of the leader, the creator of a new social order as a work of art, the leader who molds men as the composer molds sounds and the painter colours.”

Heine, as Berlin explains, foresaw the future: “these ideologically intoxicated barbarians would turn Europe into a desert,” writes Berlin, quoting Heine, “restrained neither by fear nor greed… like early Christians, whom neither physical torture nor physical pleasure could break.”

To be sure, the legacy of Romanticism was not as morbid among the English, French, Russians or Poles as it was among the Germans. However, in the case of the Poles, and perhaps Russians, Romanticism survived as the worship of poets as national bards, men who — because of later communist oppression – filled a political void. (Mickiewicz and Slowacki, for example, are buried alongside Polish kings at Wawel Castle in Krakow). Now that Poland is a free country, is there as much room for the adoration of poets as there was before?

Walenty Wańkowicz, “Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz,” ca. 1827-1828.

AW: Isaiah Berlin, as well as other well-known analysts of nationalism in English-speaking countries – Hans Kohn, Ernest Gelner, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman – built the following historical sequence: romanticism – nationalism – Hitler.

All these thinkers had roots in Central Europe and brought their trauma to Anglo-American sociology from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trauma of the persecution of Jews that ended in the Holocaust.

A similar interpretation was applied after World War II by the Communists in the German Democratic Republic. Because the roots of Nazism were said to be rooted in German Romanticism, in Jena, where the “Romantische Schule” was born, the Communists demolished part of the historic old town with the old buildings of the university and erected a gruesome modernist tower in its place, where they built a new communist university to break away from the traditions of Fichte and Novalis.

In reality, this was all much more complicated. In Poland, for example, there was a sharp conflict between the ideology of modern nationalism, represented by Roman Dmowski, and the Romantic tradition, which this nationalist and social Darwinist openly fought in his writings.

The Nazis, with whom, moreover, Polish nationalism had nothing in common, during the occupation fought fiercely against the memory of Polish culture, led by Chopin’s music and Mickiewicz’s poetry, whose monument in Krakow was demolished in August 1940. How do these facts reconcile with the theory of Romantic sources of nationalism and Nazism?

Nazis toppling monument of the Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in Krakow, August 17, 1940.

The claim that Romantic writers (but not only Romantic ones) contributed to the awakening of “nationalism,” or simply national consciousness among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, seems obviously true. Pushkin, who wrote anti-Polish poems after the Russians suppressed the November Uprising in 1831, could also be called a Russian nationalist. So what?

The obsessive tracking down of nationalism leads only to the belief that communism was better in Eastern Europe, “threatened by nationalism.”
However, it is also true that Polish literature of the 19th century, including Romantic literature in the first place, was the main bridge leading to the assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland.

The poetry of the Romantics, both great and smaller but equally popular, was something that could fascinate in Polish culture and which could be relatively easy to accept, along with language, regardless of any other differences. Therefore, educated Jews got Polonized in the nineteenth-century; and among writers and historians of Poland of the next century we have many of them.

ZJ: The post French Revolution world created two categories: Liberalism and Conservatism. In his essay on Alfred de Vigny, sometimes referred to as, “On Conservative and Liberal Poets” (1838), John Stuart Mill makes a list of characteristics of Conservative and Liberal literature. One of the functions of Liberal poets or writers is, as Mill states, “to lay open morbid anatomy of human nature,” which is “contrary to good taste always.”

In short, Liberalism created a new realm of literary possibilities, where vices can no longer be swept under the rug, treated as vices, but as ingredients of human nature, which should not shock us. In fact, we should find enjoyment in reading about characters who embody these vices.

What comes to mind as examples supporting Mill’s interpretation are writers such as, Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky; but above all Ibsen; his A Doll’s House, where “sweet hypocrisy” is exposed for what it is. Yet Nora, who breaks social and moral norms, is by far a more sympathetic character than her husband, and as much as we may not like her decision. But it is impossible to feel sympathy toward her husband. Anna Karenina is another great example. And, let’s remember, Tolstoy came to regret writing it.

If Mill is right with respect to what constitutes the elements of Conservative and Liberal literature, is the liberal imagination an indisputable winner in this literary contest? Good literature is no longer a teacher of virtues and vices, has no unambiguous moral message; it is not supposed to give us moral warnings.

AW: The moral message, apart from moving emotions and satisfying the taste, was mandatory for a classical poet, of the type that reigned in all our literatures, before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although he himself was not a poet and his La Nouvelle Heloise has a built-in moral core. Rousseau paved the way for “liberal poets,” because he recognized that it is not the individual who is morally responsible for evil. Rather, evil comes from a society corrupted by civilization. Byron’s heroes (and this is his influence), who commit crimes, are at the same time victims of the existing social order and the embodiment of interpersonal relations in this system.

Similarly, we can sympathize with Nora and Anna Karenina. It is Rousseau as a philosopher who is responsible for this, and since he is also one of the founders of liberalism, Mill’s opinion makes some sense. But literary currents are not simple equivalents of modern political ideologies. Dostoyevsky with his Demons is probably a conservative writer. But was Chateaubriand conservative or liberal? And Mickiewicz?

ZJ: Thanks to the works of Jacob Talmon (Romanticism and Revolt, 1967; Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, 1960), of Sir Kenneth Clark (The Romantic Rebellion, where he discusses art), and of later writers such as, Adam Zamoyski (Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871), we can form a general impression of how Romanticism influenced the way 19th century man thought. However, if you want to pinpoint what exactly Romanticism contributed to political thought, we are unlikely to have a clear answer.

However, Mill’s biographer, Nicholas Capaldi, suggested that the roots of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech can be traced to the Romantic concept of imagination, without which an argument such as this could hardly be made: why should I allow you to say something I disagree with, unless I believe that your soul, your self, can express a truth, something which reason alone – common to us and praised by Enlightenment thinkers – cannot.

Here is what Capaldi says:

“Mill will remind us that Coleridge is the English bearer of the continental tradition, and especially of German Romanticism… More specifically, Mill will argue that modern liberal culture, as best exemplified in England, cannot be adequately explained and defended except with the resources of Romantic continental thought… The French Revolution of 1789 had momentous symbolic significance for liberals everywhere. It became the symbol of the overthrow of feudalism and the dawn of a new day of freedom. Liberals as well as conservatives in Britain were later horrified by the excesses of the revolution, but the destruction of feudal privilege was looked upon as a necessary prerequisite for a truly free and responsible society.

“The stress on imagination, as opposed to intellect, is a familiar Romantic theme. It reflects the nineteenth-century rejection of the eighteenth-century’s narrow rationalism… The first consequence of this view of the primacy of imagination is the recognition that ultimate values are apprehended through imagination… One of the reasons Mill will be so adamant about opposing censorship and encouraging debate is that it is only in the imaginative re-creation, the rehashing, of the arguments that we come to understand truly the meaning of ultimate values and to make that meaning a vital part of who we are.”

Is there anything else in the realm of political ideas that belongs in the Romantic tool-box?

AW: Creative imagination as a tool for learning about the world is undoubtedly a hallmark of romantic trends all over Europe, but these trends were very diverse, and the ways of understanding them were different. If the German readings influenced Coleridge, as Professor Capaldi reminds us, it must be remembered that earlier German translations of Edmund Burke’s On the Revolution in France inspired the Schlegel brothers and their entire generation in Germany. Thus, the exchange between England and the Continent was mutual. Liberalism is older than the Romanticism, as is republicanism, which is important to Poles. So, there were liberal and conservative romantics, and the great Polish romantic, Juliusz Słowacki, described himself as “republican in spirit.”

Ivan Trush, “A Portrait of Juliusz Slowacki,” ca. 1880.

Hence Mill’s brilliant thought that the genesis of the idea of freedom of speech must be the Romantic idea of imagination, may be true in some cases, but historically speaking not at all. In short, the specific influence of Romanticism on the understanding of politics may consist in giving politics an eschatological dimension (messianism), in referring to pre-philosophical national traditions as an expression of the community spirit, in the observation that the poet has a special type of power – over the work he creates and over their recipients – and that authority should have such a character in general, and that the poets thus should be the charismatic leaders of the nation.

Let me add that in the 19th century the cult of poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) gained political significance in Poland; and in the 20th century, in popular culture, we are dealing with something analogous, when, for example, Bono from the band U2 speaks about politics, and all world agencies keep repeating what he utters.

Ary Scheffer, “Portrait of Zygmunt Krasiński,” 1850.

ZJ: Nihilism which we’ve mentioned was not the only social worry of the second half of the 20th century. One can argue that hedonism is as pernicious as nihilism. I would like to invoke another song by Queen, “I Want It All;”

I’m a man with a one track mind,
So much to do in one life time (people do you hear me)
Not a man for compromise and where’s and why’s and living lies
So I’m living it all, yes I’m living it all,
And I’m giving it all, and I’m giving it all,
It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth,
Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.

Each time I hear it, I think that this song is the utmost expression of hedonism, which is a product of an infantile mind. Only children want it all and want it now. It is their perception of time which makes them want to satisfy their wants and needs right away. They want immediate gratification. Adults know that you can’t have it now. But there are more serious problems that go beyond the song. First, immediate gratification of all desires would be deadly for moral discipline. Liberalism is the only political philosophy that tells us that we have a right to satisfy our wants.
Would you agree that this kind of thinking – nihilism mixed with hedonism – is what our world today is made up of.

AW: I don’t know if this song is so clearly about a hedonistic attitude. Your question about modern hedonism is much more serious. Westerners, when they believed in God, wanted the salvation of their souls – eternal life beyond this world. Then, under the influence of humanism and the Enlightenment, happiness became their goal. Happiness on earth, not in the afterlife. But that happiness did not have to be immediate; it could be the achievement of some ambitious goal or perfection (per aspera ad astra), or the pursuit of perfection itself. In the end, happiness was equated with pleasure, which was independently invented by the Marquis de Sade and 19th-century Liberals. It appealed to simple people, because pleasure is not some abstract ideal, but something concrete, sensually experimental. And why shouldn’t we experience it too, here and now?

This ethical turn, which took place in the West in the 19th century, seems to be something permanently present in people’s attitudes to life today. In the second half of the 20th century, it coincided with the triumph of technology and capitalism, which turned out to be capable of producing an inexhaustible amount of consumer goods; that is, those that both satisfy our needs and provide us pleasure. Since constant enjoyment has become easy and readily available for all, a new hedonism has indeed spread in the society of “well-being.” It is based on the pursuit of immediate satisfaction of our whims. And after satisfying them, new needs appear, which are also immediately satisfied, and so on.

Mandeville noted, as early as the 18th century, that people who are accustomed to luxury buy more things that, objectively speaking, they could live without. In this way, which may not be beneficial to themselves in the long run, they nevertheless make money for the craftsmen and merchants, who supply them with these luxuries.

So, the need for pleasure drives the economy to work. The capitalism of our time creates these artificial needs in people in a systemic way, stimulating them through advertising, and by presenting the model of a human being present in pop culture, whose success lies in the fact that he has everything, here and now.

The contemporary ideal image, spread in commercials, in television series about the lives of millionaires, in photo essays about celebrities, is therefore the image of a hedonist – an ideal, i.e., the ever-insatiable consumer. So, hedonism drives sales – that is, the entire economy – and thus promotes it.

The problem is that all civilizations of the past that fell into this trap collapsed. While we can make our toys endlessly, we are not in danger of collapsing because of the wear and tear of our accumulated goods – waste was condemned by moralistic people since antiquity, but that doesn’t help.

The process of ceaselessly satisfying an appetite that is continuously, artificially stimulated, is destructive in itself. We need stronger and stronger stimuli, bigger and bigger doses of new stimulants. And in the end, they kill us – like the drugs that have killed a legion of stars of modern pop culture.

The biggest problem of any civilization, at some point, ceases to be the struggle with nature and hostile tribes, and it becomes the need to fight our own weaknesses, which come to us as a result of our own success. We are safe, rich; we have free time – and we don’t know what to do with all of this. This is when the self-destructive process begins. Giambattista Vico already knew that.

ZJ: Let me go back to what you said about the democratization of language, and that the success of Romanticism lies in using the language people use and emotions that they feel. As always, what at the beginning sounds like a well-intentioned idea, later can have unintended consequences. We talked about John Lennon and Queen, nihilism, and hedonism. One could still argue that they translated high-brow philosophical ideas into language that the ordinary people could understand as their own. Neither Lennon nor Queen are guilty; they just “expressed,” in the form of popular music, what philosophers said decades earlier.

Now, 50-60 years later, it is not Romanticism or Existentialism which stand behind the new trends in music. It is the naked, ugly reality of the street, to which once high-brow philosophy led society. In America it is called rap. Rap spread everywhere like a tsunami. It started as a form of expression of the feelings – or more likely resentment – of the destitute, undereducated Black segment of American population. However, because of its vulgarity and outright racism it is listened, for the most part, by Blacks, and it terrifies most of the Whites. Yet the liberal media bow to it.

One of the Founding Fathers of rap, JZ, is a musical icon, interviewed on National Public Radio and television in the US. University professors organize courses about JZ. When you listen to his public pronouncements you get the feeling that rap is not music but a form of mental imprisonment of someone who never grew up. Do you have an explanation as to what happened and why? Is rap the last phase of the Romantic rebellion led by adult children, like JZ?

AW: Paradoxically, I agree with this last sentence, at least to a certain extent. Yes, I can see that music videos of this type tend to be soft pornography and praise the lives of gangsters – obviously I’m not attracted to the stupidity of it all. There are also nobler forms of this music; but I do not follow or analyze them either. Both rap and hip-hop are artistic styles with their own rules and structure. I can imagine a masterpiece in this genre, although I cannot name it. Perhaps it is because of my own ignorance, or perhaps a rap-style masterpiece has never been created and will never be.

But since rap exists as a separate style – the existence of outstanding songs of this type is also possible and probable. In Poland, where all Anglo-American musical styles are imitated, the band Kaliber 44 enjoyed a short-lived fame some time ago, whose young soloist was considered a genius; but his life was short, because he killed himself jumping, out of a window under the influence of drugs.

This is hard to approve of in any way, but the interpretation you are proposing here also seems possible. Rap is a peculiar rhythm that is based on the intonation of individual sentences and crossed with relatively regular versification. The content of the rapper’s monologue is important; the music has a secondary role; it accompanies the recitation of the text and emphasizes its meaning. These are features that are well known from the folklore of bygone eras.

Thus, the romantic theory of nature poetry, which is born spontaneously among simple people, lacking knowledge of the conventions and rules of official art, fits it. Rap with its style and place of birth (in the dangerous neighborhoods of New York) fits well with this romantic theory.

Besides (probably) rap performers cannot be suspected of illustrating Sartre’s theses. So, maybe this is not a simplified adaptation of high culture, but a real inflow from below – the music of the roots? On the other hand, it is also not ordinary folklore, because in the process of producing recordings, the simplicity of style and the primitiveness of picture-suggestions are combined with technical and technological refinement.

ZJ: Going back to your remark about the use of ordinary language by the Romantics. Is this the beginning of the process which led to the birth of what we call “popular culture” – as opposed to High Culture? Today no one uses the distinction between High and Low/popular culture. The educational system in Western countries is structured in a way that what belonged to the Treasure of Western Culture or Kultur, is no longer taught. It is at best tolerated. The last attempt at defending High Culture was probably T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1959). Do you see where we are today as a result and the end of cultural mutation of Romanticism?

AW: I prefer to think of Romanticism and pop-culture, and, more precisely, of the specific elements of these different, certainly broad and difficult to define phenomena, not as mutations, but as cultural modalities. In similar cultural phenomena, the actualization of similar potentials, constantly inherent in human nature, takes place. Cultural updates are historical and the potentialities of nature’s people are unchanged.

ZJ: Thank you Professor Wasko for this wonderful interview.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Sielanka (An Idyll),” by Józef Chełmoński, painted in 1885.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Our Life In Pop Culture

A simple song, but it contains a good thought…
(Adam Mickiewicz, Dziady, Part IV)

I should warn my readers at the outset that the topic of this piece is not my area of expertise. I am not an avid fan of Queen, and my knowledge of rock and roll is no different from others of my generation and those who spent their youth enjoying this type of music. I also haven’t seen Brian Singer’s 2018 film Bohemian Rhapsody, and I am unlikely to have time to see it anytime soon.

Although it was never more than just fun for me, two friends whom I played football with after school in the 1970s later became well-known music journalists in Poland. My friends would meet in the evening at one of the student clubs in Krakow, and listen to records together. One of the two, who later became a music specialist, received these records from an uncle in London – they would come in packages that contained clothes for the family and other items that were hard to get in a socialist country. Sending such packages was also typical of post-war immigrants.

It so happens that I also had an uncle who helped us, and who invited me to Hanover in 1979. At that first trip out from behind the Iron Curtain, I brought back three CDs that were not available in our country. One of them was Queen’s double album, Queen Live Killers, with many hits that were hugely popular at the time. Over subsequent years, Polish Radio began to broadcast this type of music in programs for young listeners. These programs were highly popular. And, I can still remember the first appearance of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on Polish Radio and even the comment of the journalist who hosted the program, who said that the “new, little known” band Queen is “very skilled vocally.”

This truth was confirmed in the following years, when Freddie Mercury and his bandmates celebrated their greatest triumphs, and “Bohemian Rhapsody” won numerous accolades from listeners around the globe. This song, known to everyone, recently came back into my head again by accident. I was preparing a lecture on romantic ballads for my students at the Jagiellonian University, and it occurred to me that the words of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” especially the opening part of the song, correspond exactly to one of the most popular traditional folk ballad patterns. The hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” (Freddie Mercury) complains to his mother that he has shot someone, so if he’s “not home tomorrow,” she should “carry on.” His life “had just begun,” and now he’s gone and thrown it all away.” He then speaks of “shivers down my spine” and his “body aching all the time.” He says goodbye to his friends because he has to “face the truth,” alone. And although he “doesn’t want to die,” he sometimes wishes he’d “never been born at all.”

Even for the listener who knows that the subject of crime and punishment constantly appears in ballads of all eras and in all countries (from the Polish Romantic poems of Adam Mickiewicz to the songs of the American Johnny Cash), Freddie Mercury’s lamentation sticks in our heads, hitting us hard; the piano keyboard sounds surprisingly serious.

Even stranger thoughts come to mind, if you listen to the lyrics of the middle section of the song, a quartet sung by all the band members. This quartet breaks the continuity of the ballad story with a monumental scene of judgment over the hero’s soul in the afterlife. The operatic associations suggested appear not only in the musical layer, but also in the text, in which individual Italian words stand out (“Figaro,” “magnifico,” and others). But this is not just a reference to Italian as the language of opera. It is also a trace of Catholic religiosity. The “Galileo” that Freddie asks to “let him go” is not Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) the famous physicist persecuted by the Church and the hero of the progressive education we received in the 1970s. He is the “Galilean” – Jesus Christ, whom the hero asks for freedom from this monstrosity, accompanied by a choir asking angels for his release (“Let him go, let him go, let him go…”).

Similarly, the “mama” Freddie invokes when he cries out “Mama mia” – after the chorus of Hell spirits declare, “We will not let you go” — is also not the mother of the protagonist from the first part of the song, but the Mother of God, whom Freddie calls in his hour of death, as does every Catholic. Of course, with these terms (“Galileo,” “mama mia”), the entire religious morality play is camouflaged and parodied here. Freddie plays to his judges for pity, complaining that he is only a “poor boy” and the backing choir adds that he is “a poor boy from a poor family” – as if hoping that “Galileo” will give him credibility points for his humble origin. However, mixing seriousness with irony in this part does not change the essence of the outcome: the punishment of the hero is condemnation – “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me ….”

And at this point, in the transition to the third and final part, the ballad convention is finally broken. In ballads, crime is always accompanied by punishment. This “law” is accepted by everyone, including the punished hero, because these are the moral foundations of traditional society and ancient popular culture. Meanwhile, in its dynamic ending, “Bohemian Rhapsody” expresses a vehement rejection of this judgment. The soloist breaks the bonds that had bound him thus far (during the performance of the song, Freddie Mercury emphasized this with appropriate behavior on stage) and throws out – against God – rebellious, well-known Promethean accusations:

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye,
So you think you can love me and leave me to die.
Oh, baby, can’t do this to me, baby…

Addressing God as “baby” is a special idea. I don’t know (although perhaps it should be checked) if Shelley and Byron came up with something similar. So now by freeing himself from his guilt, from reproach, from the Last Judgment and by throwing his accusations back on his Judge, the hero of “Bohemian Rhapsody” becomes both the modern Prometheus and Don Juan. Since judgment no longer has any authority for him, the difference between good and evil ceases to matter. The phrase “nothing really matters” changes its traditional meaning, as expressed in the first part of the song. Now it means the state of ataraxia promoted by libertine philosophers: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters… to me.”

A strange song. Sweet and bitter; simple but full of hidden allusions, mixing buffoonery with seriousness, and seriousness with irony and mockery. Cheap? Pretentious? And is this important, since the song has conquered the world? The story told in “Bohemian Rhapsody” corresponds to that of Don Juan from Mozart’s opera. Only that Molière and Mozart showed in their works the horror of sin and the justice of the punishment that befell Don Juan. But the sinner condemned in our song, the self-pitying “poor boy” in the end becomes a rebel against harsh moral law. He declaims a manifesto of self-liberation from the shackles of religious morality and gives others a model to follow.

We couldn’t understand all of this as teenagers. We swayed to the beat of the song, glad that the words were sonorous and matched the music. Music that released our youthful emotions and provided a sweet purification from the fear of life awaiting us. Now that we have more experience, in the seemingly nonsensical flow of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” we find something from our later experiences and thoughts. Something that was already in the song from the beginning and which is probably not at odds with maturity. Undoubtedly, 40 years ago Freddie Mercury knew much more about serious matters than we could have imagined then as teenagers.

Today we are no longer “poor boys from poor families,” as we used to be. We may not be completely innocent either; but that doesn’t bother us too much, since we have rejected the religious superstition that Galileo will judge us someday for all that we have done. Anyway, even if he could judge us, he would have to show us that he has the right to do so. Isn’t that the moral history of the entire modern West, especially the West in the age of pop culture? It may not be that “nothing really matters” to us – but certainly nothing matters to us the way it used to. Unfortunately.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Dan Sproul, 2019.

The Painter And The Poet

Now that the disgraceful year 2020 is finally gone, with its endless stream of deaths and grievance, we can properly look at what it brought us (Covid, lockdown, unemployment, etc.) and also what it stole from us. I firmly believe that like health and food, culture too is an essential nourishment for our lives, and any time we are deprived of it, we feel miserable and sick.

In Italy two great cultural events had been set for 2020 that were either cancelled or went unnoticed: the 500th anniversary of the death of Raphael Sanzio, and the introduction of Dante Day (Dante Dì), the official day to celebrate the immortal creator of the Divine Comedy. Yes, you read that right – until last year, in Italy, there was no official day to celebrate Italy’s greatest poet, and arguably one the greatest poet of all time.

The official dates were the 6th of April to celebrate the anniversary of Raphael, and the 25th of March to remember Dante. Now, these dates were very interesting because both men, by a surprising coincidence, have a connection to Good Friday. According to Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, Raphael was born on the night of Good Friday March 28, 1483 and died on Good Friday April 6, 1520. What an amazing coincidence for a man whose family name was Santi (Saints), which was then latinized into Sancti, and from this to the current Sanzio. And of course, almost all scholars agree that Dante began his fictitious travel into the Three Realms on Good Friday March 25 of the jubilee year 1300. Luckily enough, the official Italian committee discarded the death date of the bard on September 14 because it did not fit properly into the school time calendar. Sometimes obtuse bureaucracy helps!

As for the Raphael celebration, the best painting exhibition ever, collecting the greatest works of the master from museums all over the world, was organized in Rome at the Quirinal Palace. But, alas, it opened just few days before the first Covid outburst and was then sadly shut down a couple of weeks later in the midst of the first terrible stint of the pandemic in Italy. There will not be a second chance for this gorgeous Raphael show.

For Dante Day plenty of cultural events were planned involving scholars, school students, TV actors and ordinary citizens. Readings from the Divine Comedy should have taken place in the most iconic Italian piazze, where schools were invited to feature exhibitions on Dante, and TV was expected to provide huge coverage of the widespread festivities.

All these events were simply obliterated by the surging of the pandemic. In the only event downsized permitted, single citizens were invited to recite, from their windows or balconies, a few tercets of “Paolo and Francesca,” all together at 6:00 PM on March 25. I did that, and posted the recording to social media – and found out that the anniversary was not that popular among my connections. Never mind, next year marks the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante and luckily enough Covid 19 will give us a break by September 14.

Dante in the savage wood (Inferno, Canto 1). Engraving by Gustave Doré, 1885.

But it is not only the sheer coincidence of calendar dates that links these two undisputed geniuses – men of different centuries, genuine children of their time and culture, with very different characters. But both also contributed immensely to elevate our poor humanity towards the perception and appreciation of divinity.

Raphael is unanimously considered the peak of Renaissance painting, capable of shifting Leonardo’s sfumato technique into astonishingly natural and beautiful reality. If ever the Italian Renaissance has meant grace, beauty, harmony, naturality, Raphael is the true and complete achievement of it. Just imagine, from the moment he died in 1520 until the Impressionist revolution in the mid-19th century, his work was the inspiration and touchstone for all painting academies in all countries of the western world. His cycle of Madonna and child Jesus simply set forever the iconographic standard for this holy representation, and you can find a copy of one of them in almost any Italian Christian home. But Raphael is also the creator of the Stanze di Raffaello (the Raphael Rooms), where he mastered his refined art into a theological and compositional complexity that attained unequalled heights in the history of art.

Raphael was a good Christian, and this must not be taken for grant, even in the pope-ruled Rome of the early 16th century. The story goes that on Good Friday 1520, sensing his end, Raphael asked that his last masterpiece, The Transfiguration, be brought into his room and hung on the wall in front of him. There is no doubt about the reason – looking at the beautiful radiant Christ, he was already savouring the glory of his encounter with Him. When you survey the entirety of western Christian figurative production, it is hard to find as glorious and serene an image of the defeat of death, of which The Transfiguration is both a pledge and promise.

I do not know Raphael’s biography so well as to appraise the depth of his religious feeling and belief. However, it is unquestionable that the Holy Spirit guided his hand and heart in the short span of his life.

Unveiling the presence of divinity in Dante is a much easier job, starting from the very title of his masterpiece The Comedy soon after labelled as Divine by his great contemporary, Giovanni Boccaccio, partially because of the theme of the composition but mostly for the unrivalled poetic heights the work accomplished. Some passages warmed our youthful reading (“Paolo and Francesca,” “the voyage of Ulysses,” “Count Ugolino,” and the “Hymn to the Virgin”), others led and transformed our mature-years through a more Christian and mediated reading of Purgatory and Paradise canticles.

And we really do not care if, in praising the institution of Dante Day, the complete host of Italian intelligentsia saluted “The Father of the Italian Language,” “The very first Italian,” and “The founder of European identity.” For us he will be forever the poet who amazingly translated the truths of our faith into exultations of the heart and tears of love: “l’amor che muove il sole e l’altre stelle.” The work of Dante is always so divinely inspired and filled with poetical miracles that he deserves to stay on the calendar regardless of a questionable civil beatification. In this terrible pandemic times we all, we believers first, should start back from where he commenced his journey: “Miserere di me”.

God is a loving Father and an excellent Teacher; He can use many different ways to show us the path to paradise. Among them all, the human longing for beauty sublimely initiates our earthly journey to the glory of celestial infinity. Bless Him for spreading our road with so many friendly and inspiring companions!

Maurizio Mandelli is a businessman by trade and enthusiastic amateur scholar of local history and the arts. He has published two books (War of the Spanish Succession in Lombardy and The Italian Campaign of Napoleon III). He is a regular contributor to local magazines on religion, ethics, society, history and the arts.

The image shows, “The Transfiguration,” by Raphael, painted ca. 1518-1520.

Christmas Blues

No Eric Morecambe to watch on the box,
No muscatels and no liqueur chocs,
No brandy butter (it makes me feel ill)
No chirping robin on my window sill.
No invitations to go out for sherry,
No inclinations to feel at all merry,
No need to dress up, got nowhere to go,
No-one to kiss me, got no mistletoe.
No goodwill or cheer will I share with the poor
And no pesky carols are sung at my door.
No shepherds, no mangers, no angels that sing,
No Baby Jesus, no Elvis, nor Bing.
Too numb to snarl at Her Majesty’s smile,
Too dumb to polish one’s literary style.

The image shows, “Mechanical Aid for Christmas,” by William Heath Robinson.

Victorian Values

Martin Farquhar Tupper (1810-89) was a once eminent but now unfairly forgotten Victorian. He had many virtues – a major figure in the Student Volunteer Movement, a pioneer in the study of African literature and the object of Karl Marx’s hearty dislike.

If remembered, it is for his didactic moralising, his prose taking the form of blank verse, which culminates in his classic epic, Proverbial Philosophy. Each Tupper line, truth be told, contains its own little piece of wisdom.

In an age of vacuous and godless relativism, his sonorous proselytising is a veritable breath of fresh air. At least twice, I have read out many lines of Tupper at wedding receptions, counselling the radiant bride and randy groom as to how they might best comport themselves in later married life, and have been deemed a jolly fine fellow for so doing. Whether you are happily married, eager to marry, or merely intellectually curious, I entreat you to share these fine Tupper lines with me. First though, here’s a joke. What did the servants of Mr and Mrs Martin Tupper call their food storage containers? Tupperware™

Excerpt from Martin Tupper, Proverbial Philosophy, ‘On Marriage’

Mark the converse of one thou lovest, that it be simple and sincere;
For an artful or false woman shall set thy pillow with thorns.
Observe her deportment with others, when she thinketh not that thou art nigh,
For with thee will the blushes of love conceal the true colour of her mind.
Hath she learning? it is good, so that modesty go with it:
Hath she wisdom? it is precious, but beware that thou exceed;
For woman must be subject, and the true mastery is of the mind.
Be joined to thine equal in rank, or the foot of pride will kick at thee;
And look not only for riches, lest thou be mated with misery:
Marry not without means; for so shouldst thou tempt Providence;
But wait not for more than enough; for Marriage is the DUTY of most men:
Grievous indeed must be the burden that shall outweigh innocence and health,
And a well-assorted marriage hath not many cares.
In the day of thy joy consider the poor; thou shall reap a rich harvest of blessing;
For these be the pensioners of One who filleth thy cup with pleasures:
In the day of thy joy be thankful: He hath well deserved thy praise:
Mean and selfish is the heart that seeketh Him only in sorrow.
For her sake who leaneth on thine arm, court not the notice of the world,
And remember that sober privacy is comelier than public display.
If thou marriest, thou art allied unto strangers; see they be not such as shame thee:
If thou marriest, thou leavest thine own; see that it be not done in anger.

Dr Mark Stocker is a former academic and art curator who lives in New Zealand. Besides his jokes, he has 230 marginally more serious publications, many of which are on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art. His book When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971 will be published by the Royal Mint in 2021.

The image shows, “The Wedding Register,” by Edmund Blair Leighton, painted 1920.

This Be Perverse

Cars Longa, Vita Brevis

The varnished dashboard long ago was chipped,
The tarnished mascot wobbles in the wind,
The leather seats irreparably cracked,
The sports saloon slides slowly to its end.

Driven by a smelly, surly youth,
Whose cigarette dangles from his mouth,
Rainfall leaks in through the sunshine roof:
Need approaching death be so uncouth?

The wireless, a tactless new accretion,
Blaring raucous sounds of roll and rock.
Could not the youth have exercised discretion
Before he plonked that liquid diode clock
On the dashboard with veneereal disease?

As for the sunstrip, may I ask you please
Avert your eyes? Predictably inane,
It implies that Kevin loves Elaine.

Fine-Chassied Dawne with Poet

****

BROWN STUDY

From some way off, I saw the paving stone;
Unlike the others (uniformly grey),
It was flecked, no, splodged a lurid brown.
An artist had been working there that day.

A pavement artist – but not those prostitutes
Who daub with sickly pinky pastel layers
Twee girls in tears, or laughing cavaliers,
The sort of thing that sells quite well at Boots.

No, someone closer to the mother terre,
A mongrel or perhaps une chienne bergère;
From the stool, I ought to know the school.
Sienna coloured, Sienese in feel,
The voided solids ooze tactile appeal.
Organic forms like this sweet, steaming sculpture,
Reflections of our vibrant, cross-bred culture.

Andrea Cecioni “Cane che defeca” – 1880.

****

Tesco Blues, Or The Failure Of Fabian Socialism

Muesli, Perrier, high-fibre bread,
Rocket lettuce, beanshoots… chocolate spread!
A member of the mixed up bourgeoisie,
My check-out bag reveals the inner me.
Guiltily, I move towards the till,
Wondering which one of them will
Have the shortest queue – this one will do…

Bloody hell, as usual I am wrong,
The queue that seemed the shortest turns out long
Because that wretch’s cheque must be endorsed.
And so, against our wills, we all are forced
To wait politely (with concealed oaths).
The check-out queue’s the worst thing since sliced loaves!

How to while away my wasted time,
Without committing some appalling crime?
I lay down my telescopic brolly,
Then gaze upon my neighbours’ sordid trolley:

Eggs (two dozen)
Chicken (ready frozen)
Sliced ‘Mother’s Pride’
Bold – washes white!
Six instant whips
Large potato chips
Coke for the kids…

I musn’t lecture them, I must behave;
Be English! Then occurs to me the thought
Had they just seen what those oiks have bought,
Sidney and Beatrice would turn in their graves.
Lucky things! They didn’t need to know.
Lucky things! They checked out years ago.

****

Our Daily Bread

O Vogel, you deeply move me
More than mere words can convey.
You arouse profoundest emotions
Twice – nay thrice – every day.
Till I met you, and ate you, I wasted
My fatuous, uncouth youth
But thanks to you, sweetest Vogel,
I’m a virile Kiwi, forsooth!
My love-bites they quickly consume you
O Vogel, you sensuous bread.
My love, my life, my loaf, my knife…
Allow me to eat you in bed!

When not busy napping on Parnassus, Dr. Stocker writes books and articles on Victorian public monuments, numismatics and New Zealand art.

The image shows, Mixed Flowers in an Urn,” by Terence Loudon, ca. 1940.

Ode On The Re-Installation Of The Statue Of Henry IV

[This Ode was written by Victor Hugo when he was seventeen years of age, in 1819. It won the Golden Lily award from the Academy of Toulouse. It is a youthful work, but which nevertheless shows the literary direction of his mature years – history, and political and social commentary, as seen in such novels as The Notre Dame of Paris, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Les Misérables, and The Man Who Laughs. Hugo is not known for his poetry in the English-speaking world, but in France he is held to be a better poet than novelist. The subject of this Ode is the installation of a new statue of Henry IV on the Pont Neuf, in Paris, in 1818. The original statue, which had stood there since 1614, was toppled and completely destroyed by revolutionary mobs in 1792].

Awarded the Prize of the Golden Lily,
offered by the Academy, to Victor-Marie Hugo.

Ode on the Re-Installation of the Statue of Henry IV

Accingunt omnes operi, pedibusque rotarum
Subjiciunt lapsus, et stuppea vincula collo
Intendunt… Pueri innuptæque puellæ
Sacra canunt, funemque manu contingere gaudent.

(Then they all girded themselves for the work; and so, to its feet
They fixed rolling wheels, and around its neck coarse flaxen lashings
They tied… Young lads and also unwedded maidens
Sang sacred songs, and gladly then their hands seized up the ropes).
[Virgil, Aeneid, II. 235-237a; 238b-239].

I.

I saw rising, in the far distance of ages,
Great monuments – hope of a hundred gloried kings;
Then I saw crumble, the fragile images
Of all those fragile half-god kings.
Alexander, a fisher by Piraeus’ shore
Tramps upon your statue, ignored
On cobbles of the Parthenon;
And the very first rays of the nascent dayspring
In vain, in the desert, continue questioning
The mute, hushed debris of Memnon.

Did they imagine, in their minds superb and shrewd
That inanimate bronze would make them immortal?
Perchance tomorrow time will have hid ‘neath the sward
Their high altars all notional.
The outcast behindhand may replace the idol;
Pedestals of the Capitol,
Sylla dethroning Marius.
The ravages of fate to those who oppose this!
The sage, whose gaze made tremble Theodosius,
Smiles along with Demetrius.

And yet, a hero’s image, august and dear,
Derives respect which is given for his virtues;
Trajan yet dominates the fields by the Tiber
That now cover fallen temples.
And when oft in horror of civil disorder
Over the cities hung terror,
Midst cries of people rebellious,
A hero, in mute marble, who was yet breathing,
Suddenly halted, with a gaze that was calming,
The enraged, frightened and factious.

II.

Are they so far gone, days of our history,
That Paris, on its prince, would dare to raise its hand?
That Henry’s visage, his virtues, his memory,
Could not the ungrateful disband?
What can I say? They destroyed his statue adored.
Alas! That lost and wild-eyed horde
Mutilated the fallen brass;
And more, defiling the holy shrine to the dead,
For clay, their sacrilegious hands then demanded,
To smear his forehead, cold as ice!

Did they just want to have a portrait more faithful
Of the hero, to whom their hatred gave avail?
Did they want, heedless of fury most criminal,
Just to make it more genial?
No, for it was not enough to break his image;
They came again, in their rage,
To splinter his casket defiled.
Just as, with a grim roar that vexes the wasteland,
The tiger, in sport, seeks to gulp down the shadow
Of the cadaver he just gnawed.

Sitting then by the Seine, in my bitter anguish,
I said to myself: “The Seine yet waters Ivry,
And, as in our fathers’ day, its waves still gush
Whence was cast the face of Henry.
Never again shall we see the image revered
Of a king who to France aggrieved
Brought succor at once, from demise;
Ne’er saluting Henry, to battles we will go,
And the stranger who comes to our walls arow
Shall have no hero greet his eyes.”

III.

Where do you run? What noise wakens, rises, resounds?
Who carries these flags, of our kings, an emblem glad?
God! In the distance, what great multitude abounds,
Crushing the earth under its load?
Speak, Heaven! It’s he! I see his face, the noblest.
The people, proud of his conquest,
Chant, in chorus, his name most sweet.
O my lyre, be still amidst public ardor;
What can your melodies be next to such rapture
Of France below at Henry’s feet?

Dragged by a thousand arms, rolls the colossus stout.
Ah! Let us fly, let us join this pious effort.
What matter if my arm be lost in the turnout!
Henry sees me from Heaven’s court.
People, as one, give this bronze in your memory;
O horseman, rival in glory
To Bayard and to Duguesclin!
Of love by the French take this noble proof aright.
For we do owe your statue to the widow’s mite,
And to the orphan’s obol-coin.

Doubt not! The appearance of this image august
Will make sweet our happiness and lessen our gall;
Frenchmen, praise God! Behold the king, righteous and just,
A Frenchman among you withal.
Henceforth, beneath his gaze, leaping forth to glory,
We may come close to victory;
Henry shall have our troth true;
And when we shall speak of his virtues most worthy,
Our children shan’t go to our fathers to query
How well the good king smiled anew!

IV.

Young friends, dance now around this girdling enclosure;
Mingle your joyous steps, mingle your cantillation.
Henry, for his face shows his weal and demeanor,
Blesses your touching elation;
Close by the vain monuments by tyrants upraised,
After long centuries is blazed
The works of a people oppressed.
How comely this brass of a tutelary king,
That France likes to view and is a popular thing,
To whose gaze all are accustomed.

That debased Persia’s conqueror proud and mighty,
Wearied of leaving his features on frail metals,
Threatens, in the grip of his enormous folly,
To impose his form on Athos;
That a cruel Pharaoh, in his lustrous frenzy
Palls with an obelisk hefty
The great nothingness of his grave;
His name dies; and soon the shade of the Pyramid,
For the stranger, lost in those plains vast and arid,
Is sole favor Pharoah’s pride gave.

One day (but let us spurn such dire omens all),
If years or the blows of fate may conquer again
And this modest monument of our love fall,
Henry, in our hearts you’ll reign;
While the towering, lofty mountains of the Nile,
So much dust of great kings ensile,
A burden useless to the world,
But sure testimony to time’s and death’s passage,
And of those no more; thus, the calm gaze of the sage
Sees a tomb into ruin hurled.

February 1819.

The image shows the statue for which this Ode was written.

I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine: A Consideration Of Youth At The Turning Of An Era

That we are at the end of an age is clear. It remains to be seen what exactly are the opportunities and difficulties, the tragedies and hopes, of this moment. A taller order still is playing out the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 disruptions through society. Via the Corona disease the long-downtrodden West, indeed the world, may be experiencing a transition as regular – though seismic – as a “Fourth Turning” moment; or we may be witnessing birth pangs as profound and far-reaching as Rome’s Fall in Western Europe. My pet analogy for this moment is somewhere in between the mundane and the dramatic: The Sixteenth Century transition from the Medieval to the Modern eras. Now, as then, the economic, political, social, and religious mind of one age is being shelved and another adopted. Pick your poison, pick your precedent, times they are a-changin’.

The order heretofore is dead. It has been dead for a stretch already. Perhaps the “postmodern” moniker is appropriate to describe what I mean. The Modern world, stretching from the Enlightenment through the end of the Second World War, had run its course. Yet whilst technology developed far apace of everything else, postwar social structures plodded along into the 21st-century largely untouched. What changes there were, were cosmetic. Then came COVID.

A tree is known by its fruit, and this late order of ours has strewn a lot of rotten fruit about. We hear this rottenness, this tiredness, this deadness in milquetoast sermons, we eat it in nutrition-starved foods, we live it in deracinated families, so on and so on in secula seculorum. There’s no end to mediocre examples of this order.

Through its postwar, postmodern facelift we kept the Modern structures going because the mass of us are followers. If we weren’t sheep by nature, then many thousands of hours of industrial education made us sheep. And besides, as Mr. Jefferson reminds us in the Declaration, men are fonder of tolerating evils than of changing them.

Whatever uneasy assurances we told ourselves about this society, we knew they were not true assurances. Admidst the despair and hollowness and commerce of modern life, the better among us did the sensible thing: We became addicts these last 20 and 30 years. It’s only a marvel that more of us haven’t gone in for poisons of whatever sort. When faced with a culture as vapid as the DMV, and Walmart, and the iPhone, one is tempted to grimly conclude with the ancient Greeks that the luckiest man is he who dies in the womb. Who’s the second luckiest man? The one who dies in childhood. And so forth. You get the point.

After a stint in rehab the ones who sober up return to a hell less Dantean and more Quranic, less flashy and more monotonous. Men who’ve come down from their highs this last decade see before them an endless liturgy of bi-weekly pay and once-monthly rent, regular taxes and pointless holidays, forever statues and forever entertainment (always statues and entertainment, always). Nothing of the soul, nothing of the numinous, nothing of life. Indeed nothing but the inane which drove people to the bottle or the needle or the pill or the porn in the first place.

There is no chemical solution to a spiritual problem, so goes an AA maxim. Ah, but musha, the spiritual sorts haven’t been much help. Beyond some local examples of heroism – a religious congregation here, a helpful priest there – the institutional Church has been altogether useless through the late addiction crisis. Nothing so deftly paints the sorry portrait of modern Christianity as the contrast between the long parade of buggery, litigation, and sectarianism of your holy rollers on the one hand, and the robust monthly heroine casualties on the other.

Everything is tired. The Church, the state, art, commerce, you, me.

Yet as we shuffled along intoxicated, or stultified by the mantra, “This is the way the world works,” the center could not hold. Along came COVID-19. Where it came from, how dangerous it is, nor how effective are masks I care not. For the first time in our lives social structures which seemed adamantine have become mice. With Isaiah we ponder, “Are you the ones who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble?” The entire order which swindled and dispirited and addicted us was put on hold this spring. Soon it will be through.

Yet I’m no Pollyanna. Yes, the order was dead before Corona came. Yes, now it is evaporating or soon will be. But a darker timbre is in the offing as the old order, manned by generations of intoxicated or indifferent slaves, continuing only with the force of inertia, crumbles. The powers that be are not as apathetic as they’ve made their servants. They work and they work hard. If things keep apace then surely a technocratic control system of greater personal isolation and crueler economic and legal slavery is in the offing. No man who follows the news is blind to this. A rising secularism, as vicious as it is determined, now verges on leading the mass of Karens and Kevins into a captivity heavier than the one known heretofore.

At this heady moment, at this turning of an age, let us consider youth. It is in the virtues of those years that we may snatch the brand from the fire. Renewed in our minds, we may yet forge a happier epoch.

***

From the word go we note what the remainder of this article is not. This is not the tedious celebration of the vapid qualities of early adulthood which so haunts pop culture. That nostalgia, captured in Bryan Adams’ song “Summer of ‘69” by the refrain, “Those were the best days of my life,” is not what we’re on about here.

There’s a certain fetching style of writing in Church documents which is well worth exploring. You’d not call ecclesial writings beach reading, but they’re not canned either. In a tired Church, “tired” in a way Benedict and Francis and Dante and Chesterton could perceive, one gets the impression that a crew of Lit-majors at some unknown point last century managed to infiltrate Rome. Like a special forces team, I imagine them holding a building, or a floor, maybe just a lonesome closet, of the Vatican complex. There they write their handsome prose.

Communio et Progressio, the 1971 elaboration of the Second Vatican Council’s Inter Mirifica on social communications, recalls some of the beneficial qualities of youth. It says, “Generosity and idealism are admirable qualities in young people, and so are their frankness and sincerity” (67). These are fine sentiments to describe the best qualities of the young. Let’s chew over them, for they are dearly needed in this grey, cant-ridden world.

The opening years of life, years of generosity and idealism and frankness and sincerity, are a chapter of existence which the liturgy especially lauds during the sunny days of summer.

The merry month of June opens with the memory of the Ugandan Martyrs (June 3), and it continues with Anthony of Padua (June 13).

Midsummer itself is crowned with the energy and selflessness of Aloysius Gonzaga (June 21). What’s true for saints’ days in general is especially poignant here. The abstract meets the concrete. Virtue meets flesh. On a day neo-pagans have brought into prominence for the beauty of midsummer’s solar splendor, St. Aloysius’ placement is an annual reminder of Christianity’s sublimation of natural truths. In the youthful Italian’s placement the best of the Classical world and its appreciation for natural beauty meets the Incarnational reality. Pagans are right for celebrating the light of midsummer. In a world of halogen bulbs any nod to the diurnal cycle is welcome. But June 21st is sunnier yet for the memory and intercession of this selfless religious.

Continuing, we see John the Baptist has two summertime days: a bonfire-filled June 24 for his birth, and August 29 for his death. Youth have long involved themselves in protest, and John was given to that type of fire. How fitting, with all the earnestness of a Mario Savio or a Rachel Corrie or a Mohammed Bouazizi, that this cousin of Christ’s would die at the hands of lumpy Herod, a man who’d fallen into the most unappealing of middle-aged habits: the chasing of feckless young women. Enthusiastic Clare, shorn of her teenage locks, graces August 11.

An astute participant in the liturgy will be aware of a small annual drama which unfolds through August’s dog days. Turning our attention to pre-Constantinian Rome, our scene starts with St. Sixtus and his companions (Aug. 7), a crew who’d made the Roman Church famous for its material aid to the indigent. This drama climaxes with martyrdom of Sixtus’ deacon, the earnest and good-natured Lawrence (Aug. 10). In a type of flashback to a generation earlier, our vignette fades out on Aug. 13 with Sts. Pontian and Hippolytus’ sweet after-feast of reconciliation and sacrifice. At the close of their Vespers we turn away from the young Roman Church and we get back on with the regular rhythm and medley of saints’ days.

Things reach a crescendo of sorts with St. Augustine’s Memorial on August 28. Like Clare, who lived a full life, even a long life by Medieval standards, Augustine survived to hoary old age. However, like Clare, it is the saint’s youthful episodes which so endear him in the common imagination.
Let us idle our engines a moment with this beloved North African saint. I will not relate the well-known saga of Augustine’s opening years, nor will I enter into a critique of popular memory’s recollection of the man, a figure whose exaggerated fleshly vices get more play than they deserve. His very real intellectual difficulties are less spicy.

The ability of a subject to inspire art is a sign towards its truth. The beauty argument doesn’t win the day in se. I can think of a young New York artist, for example, who regularly lends her considerable talents to Planned Parenthood sorts. Foul things can be dressed up beautifully. Sed nihilominus, as a general rule on an average day, the statement stands: Beauty points towards truth. Thus I adduce Bob Dylan’s I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine as a concluding aid in our meditation on the virtues of youth. It begins,

I dreamed I saw St. Augustine
Alive as you or me
Tearing through these quarters
In the utmost misery.

The tune of this song follows an old I.W.W. ballad about labor organizer Joe Hill. The martyred Wobbly left a large corpus of music. Its poetic quality is impressive for someone who learned English as an adult. Like Hill’s postmortem legacy, Augustine’s personality transcends time and translation.

In books like The Confessions his moral and mental struggles are ours. Augustine’s Civitas Dei confronts questions of political philosophy which press upon the latest headlines. Tearing through these quarters indeed! And whilst contemporary patois limits “angst” to teens at Hot Topic, Dylan’s imagery of a vital, confused Augustine running through our song is excellent for its relatability.

With a blanket underneath his arm
And a coat of solid gold
Searching for the very souls
Who already have been sold.

The already sold souls is as true a line as anything ever written. By war and pharmaceuticals and jobberism, by a thousand stratagems, the tired world plots to turn the rising generation into itself. Very often it works towards this end unbeknownst to itself. And in this we get a whiff of the magnitude of Original Sin.

Those already sold souls weigh heavily for Americans. Twice now gombeen-men have wrecked the careers and savings of Generation X with their recessions. The flashy endless wars which opened the century have morphed into a regular simmer of unreported conflicts. But flashy or quiet, here in holy Connecticut I oft’ come across scarred young men of a certain age. That betrayal of youth is more visible and sympathetic than the debt slave graduate who embraces a future equally as indefinite as our wounded soldier. Sold all, they are.

Perhaps Augustine’s blanket in the above stanza is a nod to the popular overplay of his lust. If so, we hear our young genius rushing out of his girlfriend’s pad shouting,

Arise, arise, he cried so loud
In a voice without restraint
Come out, ye gifted kings and queens
And hear my sad complaint.

A certain aspect of my educational work rings especially clear in this verse. Regularly I have the opportunity to interact with young men and women lately through with college. As it happens, usually because I’m trying to lasso them for a speaking gig or to teach a class; they have a humanities background. There’s something especially forlorn about this condition. Being in your twenties, having come to the end of the education-conveyor-belt, and being adrift in a STEM-world with a liberal education. The general adriftness of that hour of life is compounded by suddenly going from a world of letters and ideas to a society illiterate and apathetic. In this tribulation some encouragement is always welcome, you gifted kings and queens.

As the stanza ends, we wonder what complaint St. Augustine has? We find out:

No martyr is among ye now
Whom you can call your own
So go on your way accordingly
But know you’re not alone.

“No martyr is among you now.” Who knows how much Bob Dylan studies the Church Fathers? Whatever the case may be, this verse captures an anxiety Bishop Augustine explicitly commented on in his day. Living in a time and place when Christianity was going from being on the margins of society to being socially acceptable, including a cessation of state-sponsored persecutions, there in fact was a belief that the days of martyrs were through. In the Office of Readings on Laurence’s day (Aug. 11) Augustine preaches the second lesson, saying, “It is not true that the bridge was broken after the martyrs crossed; nor is it true that after they had drunk from it, the fountain of eternal life dried up.”

Dylan’s Augustine expresses how we can often feel. In a half-hearted world it seems there are no martyrs anymore, no one who’s so committed to an idea they’d die for. “Where is our James Connelly?” another Wobbly writer once asked. Yes, but where are our martyrs? They’re out there. Like the previous sections, this one closes with encouragement.

***

What agendas are moving now and where they are going is stuff for another article. Those with eyes to see know what’s up. Still and all, before we fill up those seeing eyes of ours with intimidating thoughts of this rising order, let us remember youth and the saints who embody those qualities of generosity and frankness and idealism and sincerity.

In the best tradition of Christianity, we also remember that just as Israel and Edom are ultimately spiritual realities, so is age and youth. Brigitta in Graham Greene’s Power and the Glory is used as a negative reminder of this. Kids can be washed-out cynics as soon as anyone else. On the positive end, though, even wrinkly old priests can say with all the newness grace brings, “I will go to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth.”

John Coleman co-hosts Christian History & Ideas, and is the founder of Apocatastasis: An Institute for the Humanities, an alternative college and high school in New Milford, Connecticut (USA). Apocatastasis is a school focused on studying the Western humanities in an integrated fashion, while at the same time adjusting to the changing educational field. Information about the college can be found at their website.

The image shows, “the Conversion of Saint Augustine,” by Fra Abgelico, painted ca. 1430-1435.

Why Study The Classics?

The Greek and Latin classics have managed to survive up to the present day because they make it possible to grasp some fundamental truths about the nature of human existence. Ancient writers understood that these truths could most effectively be conveyed through stories. In ancient narratives of the myths, mortals come to realize the full extent of their own ignorance. To take just one example: in his drama Antigone Sophocles shows how people remain confident, that they know what they are doing until (as he puts it) they burn their feet in the fire. That “famous saying” to Antigone, who brought about her own death by burying her brother against her uncle Creon’s orders. That saying soon applies also to Creon, whose son kills himself because Antigone is dead. It also applies to everyone who watches or reads the play, because it is human nature to rely on incomplete knowledge when we make major decisions, especially in political situations that later prove to be complex and dangerous.

Even today everyone knows about the disastrous decision made by the Trojans, to bring in the wooden horse left outside their city wall as a “gift” from their enemies, the Greeks. Why did the Trojans make the choice that brought their own destruction, when they could have so easily saved themselves? All they had to do was leave the horse where they found it, outside the city walls – or better still, set it on fire. But instead they decided to bring the horse in, drag it up to their city’s acropolis, and then sit down around it.

They did so (as the Roman poet Virgil tells the story) because almost everyone (including their king Priam) was prepared to believe an attractive story told to them by Sinon, a young man captured by Trojan shepherds. He said that they had left the large wooden horse as an offering to the goddess Minerva (the Greek Athena), and that they had made the horse so large in order to prevent the Trojans from dragging it into their city, and thus to keep the goddess from supporting the Trojans if, in the future, they sought to invade and conquer Greece.

Anyone who had doubts about that story was soon persuaded of its truth by another event. The priest Laocoon (who had advised them not to take any gifts from the Greeks) had been near the seashore, sacrificing a bull to the god Neptune, when suddenly two huge serpents came out of the water, ate both his sons, and crushed him to death. The serpents then went to the temple of Minerva and took shelter around the feet and behind the shield of her statue. Hearing this, the Trojans immediately assumed that Minerva had punished Laocoön.

They opened the gates of their city and tore down part of their walls so they could bring the horse to the goddess’s temple, hoping to win her favor. That night, there were celebrations. After the Trojans had gone to sleep, the Greeks (who had been just out of sight in their ships behind the nearby island of Tenedos) sailed back to Troy. Sinon then opened the door of the horse and let out the Greek soldiers hiding inside, as the Greek army rushed in through the city’s open gates.

Virgil makes it clear that the disaster might have been prevented by asking questions and finding the answers, all of which were readily available. Why accept Sinon’s explanation for the size of the wooden horse? Why didn’t the Trojans bore a hole into the side of the horse to see if anything was inside—Laocoön had already shown them that it was hollow.

Why didn’t the Trojans also make sure that the Greeks really had gone away and were not lying in wait? The Trojans also might have asked themselves if there was another reason why the serpents attacked Laocoön and his sons. Did Minerva and the other gods want to get Laocoön out of the way so that he couldn’t stop the Trojans from bringing the horse into the city? Instead of asking any of these questions, the Trojans were eager to believe that the Greeks had given up the war and gone home.

As Virgil relates it, the tale of the Trojan horse is par excellence about the state of mind that leads to self-delusion. It isn’t just that the Trojans ignored Laocoön’s sensible advice to look inside the horse before they dragged it into the city. Why didn’t they didn’t interrogate Sinon to make sure that his story was true. Why were they prepared to trust their king Priam’s judgment, when they all had every reason not to? They knew that Priam had been warned that a male child born on a certain day would cause Troy to be destroyed, and his wife, Hecuba, had herself dreamed that she was about to give birth to a firebrand. The Trojans would never have become involved in a war with the Greeks if Paris had not been allowed to live.

Paris’s judgment was no better than his parents’: a selfish decision that he had made was the direct cause of the Trojan War. When as a young man Paris was shepherding his flocks on Mount Ida, the god Mercury (Hermes) asked him to pick which of three goddesses was the most beautiful. Each of the goddesses – Minerva, Juno, and Venus – offered Paris a gift. Minerva offered him wisdom and victory in battle, and Juno (Hera) offered him rule over all of Asia. But Venus (Aphrodite) offered him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta, the daughter of Jupiter (Zeus). Paris was bound to get into trouble whichever of the three goddesses he chose because he would anger the two goddesses whose gifts he had declined.

In such circumstances, the most sensible course would have been for Paris to refuse to make the decision – or at least to pick the most powerful goddess, the one who could best protect him against the other two. That goddess was Minerva. Instead Paris chose Venus, the weakest of the three goddesses, who gave him Helen as his reward, even though Helen was already married to Menelaus, the king of Sparta, who then came to Troy with his brother Agamemnon and an army to bring her back. So it was not coincidental that after all those years of fighting, the Greeks won the Trojan war by deception rather than by sheer force.

It seems that people will ignore well-informed and well-intentioned advice if it goes against their own desires. When a person holds two conflicting beliefs or ideas, people tend to pick the belief or idea that pleases them more, even when it does not comport with reality. Priam and the Trojans wanted to believe that the Greeks had given up their siege and gone home. They liked the idea of bringing the horse into the city because that was precisely what the Greeks supposedly did not want them to do.

The American historian Barbara Tuchman chose to use the story of the Trojan horse as the first chapter of The March of Folly, From Troy to Vietnam (1984). In that book she explores the failures of leadership over the centuries. But leaders cannot succeed without cooperation from their citizens. In Tiepolo’s painting “The Procession of the Trojan Horse into Troy” shows the Trojans struggling to push and drag the horse into their city. The people of Troy shared the blame for the disaster because in their ignorance they wanted to believe that what their leaders had told them was true. History would have looked more favorably on the Trojans if they had tried to circumvent their leaders’ commands, and if by causing delays they had managed to save themselves and their country.

Mary Lefkowitz is professor emerita of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.

The image shows, “The Consul Louis Fauvel at his Easel in Athens,” by Louis Dupré, painted in 1819.

Who Killed the Classics? Or, How to Ennoble Democracy

“Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go …” (Jessi Jackson, Stanford University, January 15, 1987).

Defending Classical education, or the Classics, is not easy. Many attempts have been made, but they were rather unsuccessful. Even the best arguments of distinguished classicists and scholars of Antiquity sound like desperate plea for survival. One can also wonder why it is only the classicists who defend their discipline. One does not hear, for example, the Medieval or Renaissance scholars weeping over lack of interest in their periods, and low enrollment in their courses.

One explanation is that they know that as important as the knowledge of their historical period is, their epoch is a closed chapter, and the ideas those periods generated have little significance for our lives. This does not seem to be the case with the Classics, particularly the Greeks. Their world is, or that is what the Classicists believe, as important today as it was over two thousand years ago.

Before I explain why Classical education is important and why it died, or is dying, let me briefly recount a few historical facts. If one looks at the history of roughly six centuries in the West, the Classics had many moments of good fortune.

The first was the Renaissance, the epoch which resurrected Classical or Greco-Roman antiquity, and whose literal definition is “Rebirth.” It was a rebirth of the Greco-Roman world, the world whose institutional structures collapsed in 476 AD. However, the Renaissance was not only a rebirth. It was also the time in Western history when, after almost a thousand years, Europe achieved a comparable level of cultural development which we find in the late Roman Empire.

The 17th-century was by no means a continuation of the Renaissance. Despite the fact that 17th-century thinkers attacked the ancients, 17th century was a classical age par excellence. It was an “age of eloquence”; an age of French theatre, of Corneille and Racine, who applied strict classical rules in their plays and rhetoric. Were it not for the genius of Shakespeare, who broke those rules, the ancients would have been indisputable winners in this contest. Painters (Paul Rubens, Nicholas Poussin, Claude Lorraine, and many others) made Greece and Rome the subject of their many works.

The 18th-century was different, but equally lucky. Rome seized the imagination of the artists, major and minor. One can easily discern Classical motives in Baroque and Rococo ornaments. Giuseppe Vasi was obsessed with antiquity, just like his student, Giovani Baptista Piranesi. He was particularly taken by Rome; so were his successors Luigi Rossini and Gabriele Ricciardelli. Those who are lovers of Roman antiquity cannot free themselves from the memory of the dark ink dripping from Piranesi and Rossini’s engravings.

Late 18th-century “inventory” of antiquity, initiated by German historian and archeologist, Johann Joachim Winkelmann, was at the root of the West’s second love affair with the world of Greece and Rome. Prints with details and measurements of ancient temples and sculptures became a commonplace at the end of the 18th century. Their cheaper, less illustrious versions flooded the printing and book market in the first half of the 19th-century.

“Greeks are Us,” was the motto of all European Romantics, from Goethe to Byron, to Keats and Shelley, to Chateaubriand and Valéry, to Adam Mickiewicz and Juliusz Słowacki. Some of them could even compose their poems in Latin. In contrast to copper plates, which were used in the 17th- and 18th-centuries, the invention of steel-plates in the 19th century made it possible for thousands of ordinary readers of weekly magazines to familiarize themselves with the images of Greek and Roman architecture.

Albums with steel plates illustrations were printed in countless editions, and their prices were sufficiently low for anyone interested in antiquity to purchase them. The last act in the Greco-Roman tragedy of decline was the rise of the school of Neo-Classicism in painting and architecture. At the beginning of the 20th-century, the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans came to an end.

Paradoxically, this happened when Classical scholarship was at its peak, when complete critical editions of the ancient authors had been published. Individual editions were widely available, and Classical scholars could start working on their meticulous interpretations of each and every individual work that survived.

Proceeding roughly from the end of WWII, the number of hours devoted to studying Greek, Latin and the ancient authors would decline decade after decade. Today, learning Classics in most Western countries is not even required.

There are reasons why we find ourselves where we are and why the Classics have been demoted. The reading of Henry Nettleship’sClassical Education in the Past and at Present” (1890) and John Stuart Mill’s “Inaugural Address to the University of Saint Andrew’s in Scotland” (1867), makes today’s reader aware that the mid-19th-century mind was already aware of the necessity of making room for science. The number of hours devoted to the study of different branches of science had to increase, but it was not the reason why the teaching of Greek and Latin started declining. The decline had roots in the rise of democratic mentality.

In 1816, in his speech “On the Liberty of the Ancients and the Moderns,” occasioned by Napoleon’s imperial adventures, rebuilding an empire, Benjamin Constant made an important observation: Napoleon was a ghost from the past, the man who tried to revive the ancient world, incompatible with the spirit of modern times.

Modern times, modern liberties, Constant argued, are incompatible with the bellicose and aristocratic spirit of ancient republics; modern life is based on commercial transactions, the desire to cultivate the private realm, independent of the collective, characteristic of the ancient Greek polis. The famous painting by Jacques-Louis David of Napoleon standing by a desk, under which there are two massive tomes of Plutarch’s Lives, is an allusion to where the spirit of the Empire comes from: The Greeks and the Romans.

In 1864, the French scholar Fustel de Coulanges published an influential book, La cité antique (The Ancient City). In it, he argued, that the state and religion in ancient Greece dominated every aspect of individual existence. Ancient democracy meant collective sovereignty; not individual independence protected by individual rights. Imitation of ancient republics would mean, as it did during Napoleon’s reign, giving up individual freedoms for the sake of ancient virtues.

The insights we find in Constant and de Coulanges do not make a case against Classical education, but they do point to the differences between the Greek and Roman world and Modern commercial democracies. The message was rather clear: modern man’s commercial spirit, need for privacy, and independence are incompatible with the ancient way of life. If so, it appeared more and more clear, classical education was unnecessary, or even useless.

Modern life and modern democracy called for a new, practical, form of education. Education meant no longer education to virtue – this being different in men and women – but education to democratic citizenship. The works by Rousseau (Emile and La nouvelle Heloise), or Laclos (On the Education of Women) looked out-of-date in the new world, just like reading Homer and Plutarch. Enough to contrast 20th-century books for children with their 19th-century counterparts, which were still heavily influenced by the Classics and told children stories about virtuous Greeks and Romans, to see the difference. Contrasting them with today’s children’s books, one gets the full picture. The characters are ordinary “kids,” living ordinary life, having ordinary problems. Hardly if ever they are inspired by a sense of greatness or excellence that the classics taught.

John Stuart Mill who since childhood was steeped in Classical education was reconciled to the advent of democracy, but saw it as fundamentally lacking in excellence. In his analysis of the differences between the ancient and modern mind, he finds the modern mind to be superior only in one respect.

Modern poetry, Mill writes, “is superior to the ancient, in the same manner, though in a less degree, as modern science: It enters deeper into nature. The feelings of the modern mind are more various, more complex and manifold, than those of the ancients ever were. The modern mind is, what ancient mind was not, brooding and self-conscious; and its meditative self-consciousness has discovered depths in the human soul which the Greeks and Romans did not dream of, and would not have understood.”

This is certainly true, and in this regard, the Moderns, who invented the novel – a form of writing unknown to the ancients – could indeed claim superiority. However, Mill also notices that in the manner of expression, the ancients were superior.

Their superiority stemmed from the fact that they addressed their writings to a small leisure class: “To us who write in a hurry for people who read in a hurry, the attempt to give an equal degree of finish would be loss of time. But to be familiar with perfect model is not the less important to us because the element in which we work precludes even the effort to equal them. The shew us at least what excellence is, and makes us desire it, and strive to get as near to it as is within our reach.”

Mill was not isolated in his observation, and most likely borrowed it from the French aristocrat, Alexis de Tocqueville, who, during his visit to America, observed a degenerative tendency of literary style in democratic societies. The claim of the superiority of the ancients in the realm of style, eloquence and historical analysis, to which Mill refers, invoking Thucydides, Quintilian, Cicero, Demosthenes, could, it would seem, serve as a strong argument for the mandatory teaching of the Classics in a democratic society: If the modern democratic mind cannot achieve the same level of excellence on its own, then, it follows logically, it should and ought to learn from the voices of their ancient predecessors.

This is what the American writer Henry David Thoreau postulated in the chapter on “Reading” in his Walden (1854). “For what are the classics but the noblest recorded thoughts of man? They are the only oracles which are not decayed, and there are such answers to the most modern inquiry in them as Delphi and Dodona never gave… Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind… No wonder that Alexander [the Great] carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.”

Thoreau’s use of the word “aristocracy” reveals the essential point in the discussion over the problem of classical education in a democracy. When, in 1987, Allan Bloom, The University of Chicago professor and a lover of Plato, published The Closing of the American Mind, he was viciously attacked. His book sold over a million copies. Bloom, the critics claimed, was an “elitist,” which was another way of saying, Bloom supports hierarchy!

But Bloom’s “elitism” was of a strange kind. Bloom encouraged students to read the Classics to understand what virtuous life is. He understood that the Greek and Roman Classics contain a world’s greatest treasure which cannot be found anywhere else. Ancient Greece, and Rome which perpetuated and spread the Greek intellectual heritage, was not one of many civilizations. It was the civilization par excellence, a yardstick against which we measure every other civilization.

The college curriculum given predominance to the Classics, in the language of his critics, was “discriminating” and based on “exclusion” of other cultures. And they were right! What is an elite, if not an aristocracy, and a class? But this strange class was not, like in the past, a class with hereditary privileges, but a class of readers – readers of the Classics. Bloom’s American “aristocracy” was not an aristocracy of color, ethnicity, hereditary privilege. It consisted of several thousand diverse students each year who read Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Cicero and others.

Instead of imposing “the elitist” curriculum on all, turning the American youth into the “elite,” the partisans of change – with Rev. Jessi Jackson, a loud proponent of educational destruction — did the opposite: They decided to close students’ access to the Greek playwrights, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Plutarch, and others by doing away with Western Civilization courses.

Why did they do it? They did in the name of multiculturalism, which is nothing other than intellectual egalitarianism. It claims all cultures are equal and none should be privileged. Therefore, the authors from other cultures are as good as the Greeks and Romans. They perceived the existence of Great Books programs, as we call the Classics in America, to be a mechanism of perpetuating educational—and thus social and political—inequality. Paradoxically, in doing destroying the traditional curriculum, they did what the Founding Fathers feared.

Thomas Jefferson – the man whose obsession with equality and hatred of hereditary aristocracy finds no equal in modern times – thought of natural aristocracy as a pillar of the democratic system of government, one without which democracy is bound to degenerate.

In his letter to John Adams (October 28, 1813), he wrote “For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents… The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of nature for the instruction, the trust, and government of society. And indeed it would have been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectual for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the office of government.”

A similar sentiment can be found in the English poet and a great literary critic Matthew Arnold: “We in England have had,” he writes in The Popular Education of France (1861; later published under the title, Democracy (1879): “in our great aristocratical and ecclesiastical institutions, a principle of cohesion and unity which the Americans had not; they gave the tone to the nation, and the nation took it from them… Our society is probably destined to become much more democratic: who will give tone to the nation then? That is the question. The greatest men of America, her Washingtons, Hamiltons, Madisons, well understanding that aristocratical institutions are not in all times and places possible; well perceiving that in their Republic there was no place for these; comprehending, therefore, that from these that security for national unity and greatness, an ideal was indispensable, would have been rejoiced to found a substitute for it in the dignity of and authority of the State.”

In contrast to Jefferson, who cherished the hope that we might find a mechanism to determine and select natural aristoi, Arnold understood that hierarchy is an indispensable component of every healthy society. Abolishing institutional hierarchy – written into the very fabric of society, either ecclesiastical or aristocratical – would mean to find an alternative mechanism that would make the wise govern. Reading Jefferson’s letter to Adams reveals that he had no clear idea how to solve the technical difficulty of finding democratic philosopher kings, without which – he, Hamilton, and Franklin thought — democracy could not last.

This asymmetry between democracy, understood as a universal right to vote, and the selection of the best (aristoi) from among the mass of enfranchised masses, has been resolved by neither Jefferson nor Mil. Retrospectively speaking, Arnold turned out to be more perceptive than Mill and Jefferson. He understood that aristocracy is not just a class of privileged people, but an idea, an idea inducing a sense of higher aspiration in ordinary people to ascend “higher” than where they actually are.

Such aspiration can be propelled only by the sense of greatness which the Classics teach us. When this sense of spiritual aspiration is no longer part of social and individual existence, a society is bound to lose the sense of cohesion and aspiration, and will slide into a moral abyss and lawlessness. And when it does, we will be forced to vest in the state power it should never have.

When undereducated, ignorant and vulgar citizenry lays claim to politics, one should not expect politicians to be anything other than demagogues. The annals of Greek political history are full of examples of demagogues, like the despicable Cleon. His power and influence were due, as we learn from Thucydides, to his understanding how weak depraved masses are and how to manipulate them. Anyone who happens to wonder why modern democracies display cultural malaise and galloping vulgarity in public and political realm should realize that there is a natural connection between virtue of citizens and the quality of public and political life.

In his quest for natural aristocracy in democracy, Thomas Jefferson reminds us of the Athenian philosopher Diogenes with a lantern in day-light. The latter was looking for an honest man; the former was looking for nobility in democracy. Their respective quests seem futile. After over two hundred years of modern democracy, one can say with certainty that we are unlikely to find nobility in democracy.

The only way to ennoble democracy is to teach young people the Classics. As Henry Nettleship wrote in his Classical Education in the Past and at Present (1890): “It must be remembered that the classics have still more than a merely literary function to perform. Greece was the mother not only of poetry and oratory, but—at least for the European world—of philosophy. And by philosophy I do not mean merely a succession of metaphysical and ethical systems, but the active love of knowledge, the search for truth. Will it be said that this spirit is not now as necessary as element in civilized human life as it ever was? In the long run it would almost appear as if it were mainly this which saves society from degeneracy and decay. The charitable instincts die out in an atmosphere of ignorance, for ignorance is the mother of terror and hatred…This is an inheritance as precious as Greek art and literary form; nay, if the continuous life of the nations be regarded, an inheritance even more precious.”

As a society, we have a choice between voluntary obedience to moral precepts we find in the Classical texts, or being forced to follow rules and regulations imposed on us by the State. Classics are not just about reading outdated works written by Dead White European Males. They also teach us virtuous behavior.

Zbigniew Janowski is the author of Cartesian Theodicy: Descartes’ Quest for Certitude, Index Augustino-Cartesian, Agamemnon’s Tomb: Polish Oresteia (with Catherine O’Neil), How To Read Descartes’ Meditations. He also is the editor of Leszek Kolakowski’s My Correct Views on Everything, The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers, John Stuart Mill: On Democracy, Freedom and Government & Other Selected Writings. He is currently working on a collection of articles: Homo Americanus: Rise of Democratic Totalitarianism in America.

The image shows, “The Sack of Rome by the Vandals in 410,” by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, painted in 1890.