“WIr sind doch nunmehr gantz / ja mehr alß gantz vertorben.
Der frechen Völcker schar / die rasende Posaun /
Daß vom Blutt feiste Schwerd / die donnernde Carthaun /
Hat alles diß hinweg / was mancher sawr erworben /
Die alte Redligkeit vnnd Tugend ist gestorben;
Die Kirchen sind verheert / die Starcken vmbgehawn /
Die Jungfrawn sind geschänd; vnd wo wir hin nur schawn /
Ist Fewr / Pest / Mord vnd Todt / hier zwischen Schantz vñ Korbẽ
Dort zwischen Mawr vñ Stad / rint allzeit frisches Blutt
Dreymal sind schon sechs Jahr als vnser Ströme Flutt
Von so viel Leichen schwer / sich langsam fortgedrungen.
Ich schweige noch von dehm / was stärcker als der Todt /
(Du Straßburg weist es wol) der grimmen Hungersnoth /
Vnd daß der Seelen=Schatz gar vielen abgezwungen.” — “Tränen des Vaterlandes”
It is the most logical thing in the world to yearn for the rigidity of the medieval cosmology, the moral landscape to which a stonemason, manuscript illuminator or painter could turn for artistic solace, and from whose ethereal, luminescent matter parabolic universes could take shape. This bedrock of the European imagination held fast even in its deepest moments of crisis, before its eventual exhaustion. The peculiarly medieval aura, which thrived on the starkest contrasts between light and dark, good and evil, changeability and eternity, could always create, as if from antediluvian clay, the antidote to its own blood curdling nightmares.
For every grisly, teeth-gnashing demon in the grottos and impenetrable abysses of Byzantine-Romanesque architecture, there stood in sublimely-opposed chiasma, up above the clerestory or enthroned in the tympanum, the shining redeemer, Christ Pantokrator. Hell could be rent asunder via ecclesiastical mosaic, the emaciated breast of Hades, Death itself, could be pierced in half by the cross on Golgotha. This certainty inhabits the Roman Catholic Memorare prayer, addressed by the supplicant to the Virgin Mary:
“MEMORARE, O piissima Virgo Maria,
a saeculo non esse auditum, quemquam ad tua currentem praesidia,
tua implorantem auxilia, tua petentem suffragia,
Ego tali animatus confidentia,
ad te, Virgo Virginum, Mater, curro,
ad te venio, coram te gemens peccator assisto.
Noli, Mater Verbi,
verba mea despicere;
sed audi propitia et exaudi.
“Remember, O most pious Virgin Mary,
that it is unheard of from any age for someone
hastening to you for aid,
imploring your assistance, beseeching your assent,
to be abandoned.
I, animated by such confidence,
hasten to you, Virgin of Virgins, Mother,
I come to you, I put myself face to face with you, a lamenting sinner.
Do not, Mother of the Word,
despise my words;
But listen and hearken to them favorably.
This is a reciprocal relationship. Nevertheless, this is not the pen-pusher’s Baedeker to approaching the divine; there is a state of dialogue existing between the two: one a corporeal human body, the other an invisible presence beyond all imagination, as unapproachable in life as the deepest oxygen vacuum of space. Yet still, the Catholic supplicant is bold enough to tinge his speech with the Latin imperative. It is not exaggeration to speak of the tangible, all-too-real workings that this unwavering coherence, in all spheres of life, could have on the tangible world.
It is in Farewell to European History, a lucid treatise on the future of Western civilization, that I find a further elucidation of this quandary, presented by Alfred Weber in an analysis of Shakespeare:
“His [Shakespeare’s] ’I’s’ and their destinies are rather, in all their unmistakable characterization, as Gundolf says ‘powers become Man, the incarnation of various elemental forces, tensions, colours, masses.’ And all of them are raised, by the might of his creativity, out of ‘the General Being which we humans by origin are,’ in order to ‘make this Being manifest in many figures by means of the mimic, corporeal world; to represent unity as a plurality of ‘I’s.’”
You, me, everything under the sun. The individual is thus constrained to pursue a destiny which, while simultaneously wholly his own, makes him essentially consubstantial with the rest of humanity. The same plasm underlies every nexus-forming moment of interpersonal action, and it is the role of the individual, in some cases the outstanding individual, to raise him- or herself up from that matter, and in so doing, as if he were pushing a pin through the canvas of time, dragging up multitudes in triumph or debasing them in the worst excesses. Good begets good, evil begets evil—a truth to which history, philosophy and religion all bear witness.
This is the conceptual framework in which one must approach the 20th century. To look back from our present standpoint in the 21st is as harrowing an historical experience as anything; often it becomes a thinly-veiled counting of the dead, or, as Paul Celan put it in his heart-wrenching chef-d’oeuvre “Todesfuge,” shoveling out graves for the cremated victims of the concentration camps in the sky. Theology, with its apophatic conundrums and insistence on the excruciating minutiae of liturgy (some would say pedantism), looks quaint vis-à-vis the mass-murder of entire civilizations and the prospect of ending human life with the twist of a nuclear key. Who cares about God? Why should we care about God when He so clearly does not care about us?
The technical term in socio-cultural parlance is Entzauberung, a German term which may be translated neatly as “disenchantment,” but which, when split up sequentially, transmits a fuller sense: Ent-, the private prefix often a removal; –zauber-, literally, magic; and -ung, denoting a process. The magic has been threshed out of our frame of mind, shattered into little pellets, dying embers too remote from one another to ever kindle. One thus steals away the nourishment of the soul at one’s own gravest peril: so deprived, it will guzzle whatever its parched lips latch onto, even poison.
And poison there has been, in rivulets, then brooks, then all-consuming, vengeful deluges, like the river god fought by Achilles. After choking the life out of a universe of sights, and colors, and beneficent saintly interceders, and seraphim burning in winged multiplexes, have we now a dry-heaving, deformed mess of -isms, a utilitarian impulse infused with the meanest, grubbiest streak of greed. Therein are race-mania, glorification of violence, slaughter as a sensual, self-pleasing imperative, but above all, turning away from anything beyond his own miserable, shuttered plane of existence. A great “No” to life itself has been uttered, and so life, infinitely malleable, springs that “No” back upon our ungrateful heads, because we have had the gall to create new gods.
The opinion of Hitler is relevant to my purposes:
“Wenn sie in der Welt unserer heutigen parlamentarischen Korruption sich immer mehr auf das tiefste Wesen ihres Kampfes besinnt und als reine Verkörperung des Wertes von Rasse und Person sich fühlt und demgemäß ordnet, wird sie auf Grund einer fast mathematischen Gesetzmäßigkeit dereinst in ihrem Kampfe den Sieg davontragen… Ein Staat, der im Zeitalter der Rassenvergiftung sich der Pflege seiner besten rassischen Elemente widmet, muß eines Tages zum Herrn der Erde werden.”
“When it [the National Socialist movement] in the world of our present parliamentary corruption bethinks itself ever more of the deepest essence of its struggle and perceives itself as the pure embodiment of the value of race and character and accordingly marshals itself, it will, by virtue of a nearly mathematical regularity someday carry off triumph in its struggle.. A state, which in the age of race poisoning devotes itself to the maintenance of its best racial elements, must someday become the master of the world.” — Schlußwort to Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, in personal translation.
Add to that the opinion of Friedrich Nietzsche:
“…so ist der Übergang aus Religion in wissenschaftliche Betrachtung ein gewaltsamer, gefährlicher Sprung, Etwas, das zu widerraten ist. Insofern hat man mit jener Anempfehlung recht. Aber endlich sollte man doch auch lernen, daß die Bedürfnisse, welche die Religion befriedigt hat und nun die Philosophie befriedigen soll, nicht unwandelbar sind; diese selbst kann man schwächen und ausrotten. Man denke zum Beispiel an die christliche Seelennot, das Seufzen über die innere Verderbtheit, die Sorge um das Heil – alles Vorstellungen, welche nur aus Irrtümern der Vernunft herrühren und gar keine Befriedigung, sondern Vernichtung verdienen.”
“…and thus the transition out of religion into scientific consideration is a violent, dangerous leap, something to be advised against. Insofar as this, one is correct in this recommendation. Yet in the end one should also learn that the necessities which religion has satisfied and which now philosophy is to satisfy are not immutable; even these can be weakened and exterminated. One may think for example on the distress of the Christian soul, that sighing over inner polluted-ness, the worry over salvation – all of them notions which stem only from idiocies of reason and scarcely serve as any satisfaction, but rather annihilation.” — Menschliches, Allzumenschliches
One may throw accusations of intellectual boorishness for juxtaposing Hitler and Nietzsche in so slapdash a manner, but the endgame of their hammerblow-statements is essentially the same: sweeping away the old certainties, the trusted pillars on which the world-sick could find a foundation, and replacing them with artificial idols. This drive towards destruction, l’eterna velocità onnipresente of Italian Futurism, has given us the most spiritually bankrupt generation the world has yet seen.
Precisely because the Shakespearean cosmology hinted at by Weber holds true, the words of Emil Cioran in Le Crépuscule des Pensées find a chilling resonance: “Dieu a tout intérêt à protéger ses vérités. Un simple haussement d’épaules, parfois, les démolit toutes,” that is, “God has every interest in protecting His truths. A simple shrug of the shoulders, sometimes, destroys them all.” The voice of a Hitler is the the great desacralizer, the one dissonant voice in a liturgical choir which spoils the conjuring of Heaven in the space of a church. Who can believe in the kindness of God now, after Auschwitz?
Asking that question is in and of itself foolish, because it conflates man with God. Why did God drive my house into the ground? Why has God killed my son? Why has God made me an orphan? Every person that suffers is a terrible defeat for all of humanity, but our suffering is suffering inflicted by our own hopelessly flawed hands. It is foolish in and of itself to conflate our actions with anything remotely approaching “God,” or else we really truly are that arrogant. The divine has not abandoned us, we have abandoned It, and in abandoning the divine, we abandon ourselves.
“If the deaf agitation which inhabits me were to express itself aloud, every gesture would be a genuflection before a wall of lamentations. From birth, I carry a grief—the grief of this world.” — Emil Cioran, in personal translation.
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