On recession, regression and renaissance

They said it would take ten years. It did, just about that. I’m no measurer of economic development and progress but it does seem that the Great Recession is over and the waters of a kind of prosperity are lapping the shore once more. In Ireland we are more or less on out feet again, if some recent headlines are to be taken at face value.

“New property millionaires are being created at a rate of a dozen a week. There are now close to 4,000 homeowners in Ireland whose property is worth €1m or more”. Not to mention the spectacle of cranes flying over the City of Dublin. It is now ranked fifth in the world for prime retail rent growth.

That headline and those cranes might be a two-edged sword and doubtless will be causing some to cross their fingers in the hope that it is not a sign of a boom before the next bust.

File_007 (1)
A Dublin skyline

But what about the more crippling recession – or rather, regression? Any sign of remission there? It is a regression wider, deeper and ultimately more damaging than any in the material order and it is still draining the blood from the living tissue our civilization. We now live in nations where values have become so fragmented and have been so weakened by their fragmentation that they no longer seem up to the task of holding our societies and communities together.

However, there are voices calling us to our senses. Eugene Vodvolaskyn, Russian academic philologist and novelist is one. Joseph Ratzinger, emeritus Pope Benedict XVII, is another. Philosopher Roger Scruton is a third. There are more – but where are their disciples, without whom they will just be voices crying in the wilderness.

rian_01481857_vodolazkin_468
Eugene Vodvolaskyn

All three of these see a two-fold development in our culture which is near the heart of the disintegration which threatens us: excessive individualism and secularization. It is twofold because the one leads to the other. Indeed, like malign cells in the body, they complement each other and feed off all around them. Excessive individualism has no room for the Other – and certainly no room for God. Secularism, by eliminating God, has nowhere to lead us except to worship the Self.

Scruton in his book, On Human Nature, reminds us of how Milton conjured the truth of our condition from the raw materials of Genesis, and in doing so set a standard for art which was truly human. We might add Dante, Shakespeare and Cervantes, like Milton, inheritors of the treasures of the High Middle Ages who have never been surpassed in their vision of what is is to be human and divine. Modern man and much of his literature, his philosophy, his politics, in his flight from God is a wrecker.

“Take away religion, take away philosophy, take away the higher aims of art,” Scruton writes, “and you deprive ordinary people of the ways in which they can represent their apartness. Human nature, once something to live up to, becomes something to live down to instead. Biological reductionism nurtures this ‘living down,’ which is why people so readily fall for it. It makes cynicism respectable and degeneracy chic. It abolishes our kind — and with it our kindness” (P.49).

Pinpointing these two maladies as key issues to be faced if our civilization is to be rescued from this regression, Vodvolaskyn traces the degeneration in this way:

“In the modern age, the individual required recognition. Faith required lack of faith so that the believer would have a choice and so that faith wouldn’t be a mere everyday habit. This train gathered speed but didn’t stop. It kept moving even after reaching its station. It now seems to have gone pretty far beyond its destination. The cult of the individual now places us outside divine and human community. The harmony in which a person once found himself with God during the Middle Ages has been destroyed, and God no longer stands at the center of the human consciousness.”

Vodvolaskyn echoes the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his famous “Warning to the West“, given after his exile from Russia.  Humanism of the modern age, the former tells us, takes it that the human being is the measure of all things. While, he says, the same could be said of the Middle Ages, there is one vital qualification. “For medieval man there was one correction: The person is the measure of all things, if it is understood that the measure was given by God.”

Roger Scruton adds that thinkers in the eighteenth century compounded the degeneration. He rightly points out that our academic political philosophy has its roots in the Enlightenment, in the conception of Citiznship that emerged with the social contract. That contract replaced inherited authority with popular choice as the principle of political legitimacy. Not surprisingly, he says, it has had little time for piety, which—if acknowledged at all—is confined to the private sphere” (P 126).

The concept and definition of “person”, explored by Scruton in his book, is a key to the entire crisis. Our civilization has now such a garbled concept of the person, its nature and dignity, its unified essence as body and soul, that it has all but shipwrecked us on the rocks exposed by the receding waters.

Without the correction supplied by medieval man, in Vodvolaskyn’s view, humanism becomes inhuman. With excessive individualism, the rights set down for the individual multiply. The Russian foresees a demand inevitably coming for a right to cross the street against a red light. Take that literally or metaphorically. Ultimately, he argues, because our concept of rights is anti-humane at its core, it activates the mechanism for self-destruction. “The right to suicide turns out to be our most exemplary liberty.”

Ireland, not too long ago was still a safe place to negotiate the world, to raise a family, to pursue the good life. It was holding on, albeit somewhat superficially, to the more metaphysical world view characteristic of the Middle Ages which Vodvolaskyn identifies. It is no longer so, at least in the urbanised and materialistic sectors of its population. While there are still many there who feel that true value and virtue have been swept away by fickle modernity, there are many others rejoicing and celebrating the change.

What has happened to Ireland is what is likely to happen to any cluster of humanity whose moral compass is put in the hands of entertainers, celebrities and a political class whose members care more about their media image and so-called legacy than about the true good of the people.

Ireland may be fast approaching a cultural condition illustrated by Vodvolaskyn in the following anecdote. He recounts an encounter, some 20 years ago, with a Dutch pastor, an advocate of The Netherland’s culture of tolerance, who took him on a tour of Amsterdam.

“The Dutch people are tolerant, he told me, and hence in Amsterdam, there are no ethnic or religious minorities, an achievement made possible by the fact that although a majority of residents are of Dutch descent, only around 25 percent call themselves Christian. His enumeration of the achievements of Dutch tolerance concluded with an account of the removal of a stanza about the help of God from the national anthem of the Netherlands. As you can understand, explained the pastor, various people have various gods, and they can be offended that the anthem names only the Christian God. This is a triumph for tolerance, isn’t it? Listening to him, I thought, if this is a triumph, what would catastrophe be like?”

That was before the spectre of jihad made its appearance on Dutch soil. One wonders what the pastor is thinking today.

Vodvolaskyn, in an essay entitled ‘The New Middle Age’, published in First Things over a year ago, as a philologist might be inclined to do, identified the world as a text.

“As in the Middle Ages, the world itself is becoming a text, though the texts vary in these two cases. The medieval world was a text written by God that excluded the ill-considered and the accidental. The Holy Scripture, which gave meaning to the signs that were generously scattered in daily life, was this world’s key. Now the world is a text that has any number of individual meanings that can be documented. Think of the blogger who describes, minute by minute, a day that has passed.”

But the modern age, with its false humanism, centered exclusively on man, repudiated the Christian vision. The progressivist delusion clouded the picture and abandoned the vision of a unified world where the past and the present were one force.

Vodvolaskyn, being Russian, looks at the modern world from that perspective. But he is also profoundly Christian and fully aware of the historic unity of spirit which Christianity brought to what we call the West. He is also deeply optimistic about the potential which this spirit still has to transform and renew the now decaying civilization in which we find ourselves.

Both Vodvolaskyn and Joseph Ratzinger – surely not only one of the greatest popes of the modern age but also one of its wisest political philosophers – see that the changes that have to come have to take place in our hearts as well as in our culture and in our reason-based political institutions. For both of them utopian dreams are paths to disaster for mankind – as they have shown themselves to be from Cromwell’s time up to the age of ISIS.

Ratzinger points out in Values In A Time of Upheaval:

“The enthusiastic messianism of an eschatological and revolutionary character is absolutely foreign to the New Testament. History is, so to speak, the kingdom where reason rules. Although politics does not bring about the kingdom of God, it must be concerned for the right kingdom of human beings, that is, it must create the preconditions for peace at home and abroad and for a rule of law that will permit everyone to ‘lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way’ (1 Tim. 2: 2). One could say that this also implies the demand of religious freedom. Similarly, the text is confident that reason can recognize the essential moral foundations of human existence and can implement these in the political domain.”

Scruton, for his part, warns us of the totalitarian traps which the modern philosophies of Peter Singer and Derek Parfit , both icons of progressivism, set for us with their consequentialist moral reasoning.

“Both philosophers overlook the actual record of consequentialist reasoning. Modern history presents case after case of inspired people led by visions of ‘the best,’ believing that all rational beings would adopt those visions if only they would think about them clearly. The Communist Manifesto is one such Vision. It gives a picture of ‘the best’ and argues that all would work for it, the bourgeoisie included, if only they understood the impeccable arguments for its implementation. Those who stand in the way of revolution are self-interested; but they are also irrational and would change sides if they thought seriously about principles that everyone could will to be laws. Since their interests prevent them from thinking in that way, violent revolution is both necessary and inevitable.”  (P97)

Vodvolaskyn argues for a conservative project and thinks that if the West is able to move beyond its geopolitical disagreements with Russia, it will see one possible future for our common European civilization. One of his fears, which he elaborates in another more recent essay, is that if Russia attempts this by means of a harsh dictatorship of the majority, then it will fail and destabilize society no less than, say, “the dictatorship of the minority that we can observe at times in the West.”

Today as ever, he holds,—contrary to progressive conceits—it is possible for a society to recognize a place for religion and uphold traditional notions of marriage and family. For Scruton it is not only possible. It is essential. In his book he subscribes to the “deep insight” shared by Burke, Maistre and Hegel, that the destiny of political order and the destiny of the family are connected. “Families, and the relationships embraced by them, are nonaccidental features of interpersonal life.”

Contemporary progressivism’s deconstruction of the family is at the heart of our society’s catastrophic regression.

But piling hope upon Vodvolaskyn’s hope, we look for a new Renaissance. But this renaissance will not be a rediscovery of the ancient world. It will be a rediscovery of the treasures of the Middle Ages, cast aside so dismissively by those who consider the word medieval just another expletive. Western Europe, Russia, and the United States, he maintains, represent various branches of a single tree. The basic systemic feature of this civilization is Christianity, both as a religious practice and as a specific kind of culture. If European civilization is fated to survive, it will require a rediscovery of Christianity. And that will, he says, take place both on the level of persons, of  nation-states and at a pan-European level.

Once more, we live in hope.

Cormac McCarthy – challenging us in our comfort zones

out15268763

You can read the novels of Cormac McCarthy and treat them like a bad dream. Or you can read them like a “Stephen King nightmare thriller with no cheap thrills” – as Kenneth Lincoln says in his study of McCarthy’s work. You can also treat his stories as you might treat those grotesque surrealistic narratives which sometimes invade our sleep and with which we then might entertain each other around the water-cooler. With some of them you would not even dare do that – lest your friends might call in the men in white coats.

Alternatively, you can take them seriously and come to the worrying conclusion that they are not just stories, but something akin to prophesies. As the five decades rolled by over which McCarthy worked on these fables – for two of those decades in relative obscurity – they became more and more like a mirror revealing to us the horrors lying beneath the facade of modernity. They tell us in the grimmest possible terms about the terrible things we have done to each other – and continue to do – and the terrible consequences of our failure to be what we really are and were meant to be.

Cormac McCarthy, although brought up a Catholic by his Irish-American family, does not avow any particular religion. But he is profoundly religious. The terrible contortions of humanity which we encounter in so many of his characters point to the same devastating end as do some of the lethally deranged characters which we find in the oeuvre of that profoundly Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. Those aberrations have all got the same gaping hole in their heart – the ignorance or wilful rejection of objective truth and a transcendental Creator.

In this, the second decade of the third millennium of the Christian era, the centre no longer seems to be holding. An apocalyptic vision of mankind’s fate, and the place to which our folly has brought this world, runs through every one of McCarthy’s ten novels. But he does not preach. He portrays the victims of our folly and the interplay of the forces of evil with our foolishness – and then implicitly leaves us with the simple exhortation, “he that has ears to hear, let him hear.”

He is not the only prophet of our time. Other Tiresian witnesses  “have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed; … have sat by Thebes below the wall and walked among the lowest of the dead.” Surveying the excesses of modernity over the last century they have pointed to the same end: Alasdair McIntyre spelled out the philosophical roots and practical consequences of our flight from virtue and reason into the quagmire of emotionalism where our private lives and public policies now wallow in disastrous self-indulgence;  Charles Taylor and Brad Gregory take the story through its sociological and historical ramifications, while Rod Dreher now looks in desperation towards a neo-monastic solution for it all.

McCarthy depicts a world which has come apart at the seams. He does not spell out the reasons why this has happened. He does not tell us how to redeem ourselves. But neither does he tell us that we are irredeemable – despite his going within a hair’s breath of this in some narratives, particularly in the earlier portrayals of our plumbing the depths of depravity. In the last  instalment of his ten-novel output, The Road, the hope which is the basis of mankind’s salvation is burning ever so fragilely on its final pages.

“SPE SALVI facti sumus”—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. (Pope Benedict XVI, encyclical, Spe Salvi, 1)

I am not suggesting any kind of link of mutual influence to be found between the author of The Road and the author of Spe Salvi, but in both we do find a signpost to the same truth. Hope is a sine qua non for our survival as it is for our salvation. The road travelled by the man and the boy in McCarthy’s novel is symbolic of our own journey. The devastated landscape through which they travel is akin to the desert  brought about by the scourge of relativism of which Pope Benedict frequently spoke. The total breakdown of law and order which constantly threatens their lives is the consequence of the same scourge which has destroyed the foundation of all morality.

“The  man” in The Road lives out the last years, months and days of his life on this earth because, he says, God has entrusted him with the life of “the boy”, his son. Hope is fragile in the world of The Road, a sunless world of grey ash which has been devastated by some cataclysmic disaster – man-made, we assume. But it is still there in the boy’s heart. After they find a well-stocked larder in an underground shelter the boy says a prayer for those who left it behind: “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff…and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”

The man perseveres in the struggle to stay alive and protect the boy from the pursuing cannibals and other desperate human predators, the “bad guys” in the child’s language, for as long as he can. Dimly, he sees he has to, for the boy is humanity’s last hope. As he dies, that hope is still alive and with his last breath he tells the boy that goodness will find him, “It always has. It will again.” As the boy cries beside the body of his father, other fugitives, families, parents and children, find him.  They have been following them and now adopt the boy as their own. A woman tells him that God’s breath is his “yet though it pass from man to man through all time.”

All great novels probably constitute a kind of biography of their writers and tell us something of the story of their souls. The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken in sequence, tell a sad story of a young man’s struggle with the temptations of a degenerate age and his tragic surrender to vanity, ambition, infatuation and self-indulgence. McCarthy’s novels seem to tell a better story. It seems to be a story of a man’s struggle with the temptation to pessimism and despair about our flawed human condition and the state in which we have left the world. It might be too much to say that McCarthy has reached the point at which T.S. Eliot felt able to conclude The Waste Land with the three words “shantih, shantih, shantih”, the “peace which surpasseth human understanding”. But  the evolution of his soul as evidenced by the sequence of his novels suggests something like it.

In all McCarthy’s novels the element of evil is palpably present. In some it is the only element, in the same way in which it is the only element in the hell-centred books of Milton’s Paradise Lost when we are in the company of Satan and his diabolical legions plotting their revenge on the Creator. In two of the novels Satan himself is incarnate: in “The Judge” in Blood Meridian and in Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.

But the apparently unredeemable grimness of the early novels now has a counter-balance of goodness in the wings – without any loss of the power of the warning about what lies in store for mankind when truth is denied. Placed before us is the horror of a world laid waste when men and women, in wilful blindness or malice, exercise their choices in favour of things evil. McCarthy’s questions, stated or implied, are begging to be answered. Where do the “bad guys” come from? Where do the “good guys” come from? What drives the one, what drives the other? What he shows us is the lethal conflict in the heart of men and among men which follows from evil choices – untold suffering for the innocent and the guilty alike.

McCarthy’s fiction is much more than fiction. It is fiction which has a frightening truth at its heart  – the truth which tells us that by denying the essence of our humanity we are capable of destroying everything that mankind has achieved since the moment of his creation.

The words of Rod Dreher’s friend, a monk in the Benedictine Monastery of Norcia, imply the critical choice before mankind today when he says “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.” That’s not fiction. It’s time to identify with the boy of McCarthy’s fiction, “the one”.

Kenneth Lincoln describes the boy’s final acceptance of his destiny like this:

The boy speaks guileless truth and still brushes his teeth in the morning. He knows there are not many good people left, if any, and the odds are against them, so he comes to the point for his father. “I don’t know what we’re doing, he said.” And still they do what they’re doing, leaving a thief naked in the road to die, the boy sobbing to help him. His father says that the boy is not the one who must worry about everything, and the boy mumbles something. “He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.”

Comments on this post can be read on its MercatorNet posting here