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    Wednesday
    Sep242014

    The Long View: Eclipse of the Sun

    John felt the number of Catholic apocalyptic novels in English was fewer than 10, if you counted Lord of the Rings. This is likely due to the dim view of St. Augustine towards millennial expectations, an idea repeated in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church. John felt this one was a little uncanny, perhaps because the characters and settings are so proasic.

    Eclipse of the Sun: A Novel
    by Michael O'Brien
    Ignatius Press, San Francisco
    856 Pages, $27.95 (US)
    ISBN: 0-89870-687-4(HB)

    Disallegiance before Doomsday

    "Ed, have you ever toyed with the idea that the lunatic fringe just might have got a few things right?"

    So asks an alcoholic foreign correspondent in this third of the five projected books of the "Children of the Last Days" series by Michael O'Brien. In many ways, this is a very disturbing book. For one thing, the author is a Canadian and the book is set in British Columbia; it was unwelcome news to me that apocalyptic novels in which sinister federal agencies play a large role are not confined to excitable southern countries. Even more disturbing is the fact the author writes as a Catholic, and the series is published by no less a citadel of orthodoxy than Ignatius Press of San Francisco. Though evangelical apocalyptic fiction has become a major publishing category, the treatment of this subject by Catholic popular writers has heretofore tended to wither under the antimillennial eye of St. Augustine. The most important issue raised by the book, however, is why so many otherwise extremely ordinary people (to either side of the border) are asking the question asked by the alcoholic reporter.

    Catholic novels with pronounced apocalyptic themes are rare enough that I can think of just five: Hugh Benson's "The Lord of the World" (1907), Walter Miller's "A Canticle for Liebowitz" (1960), R. A. Lafferty's "Past Master" (1968), Morris West's "The Clowns of God" (1981) and Walker Percy's "The Thanatos Syndrome" (1987). (This dearth of titles may be mitigated by the perennial popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" (1954) which in my opinion is also a Catholic apocalyptic novel.) The difficulty with writing Catholic apocalyptic fiction, as we have noted, is that the traditional Augustinian eschatology of the Church has long discountenanced identifying particular historical events as the unique fulfillment of scriptural prophecy. For that matter, millenarianism has even been defined as a heresy (The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 676). This will put a kink in anyone's creativity.

    In the Afterword to "Eclipse of the Sun," the author suggests a formula which may be the only orthodox approach possible: "It is important to remember that . . .a truly Catholic `end-times' novel does not so much predict the future as it strives to raise the essential questions that must be asked by every generation. Thus, it is not my intention to leave the reader with a neat package; it is rather my hope that the reader will take away from this book a heightened sense of awareness and a number of urgent questions. . . " The author follows his own advice, and the book is largely a set of tableaux depicting the cultural crisis of late modernity as it affects the family, the Church and the state. The result is not overwhelmingly didactic, and even the number of pages is in part attributable to Ignatius Press's dedication to readable layout. Still, the book does suffer from a degree of bloat reminiscent of some Stephen King novels, particularly in the numerous private revelations the characters experience.

    The vignettes that make up the bulk of the book are held together by a story about the attempts of an agency of the Canadian federal government to capture a little boy. Yes, there are black helicopters, and in O'Brien's Canada they are the creatures of an extraordinarily secret organization known as the Office of Internal Security (OIS). At the beginning of the story, they destroy the commune in rural British Columbia to which Arrow Delaney's mother had fled after her publisher-husband was killed. (His newspaper had been suppressed on the grounds that its opposition to abortion was a hate-crime.) Little Arrow is rescued from the assault by Fr. Andrei, an old immigrant priest with some experience of totalitarianism. When he flees with Arrow to the nearby convent where he serves as chaplain, however, he finds that the black helicopters are just leaving after having killed all the nuns.

    The point of all these atrocities was to provide incidents that could be blamed on criminals and religious fanatics, thus justifying yet more stringent restrictions on civil liberties. Since the priest and the boy saw who was really responsible, they cannot be permitted to live. They are chased about the province as the priest tries to get Arrow to a refuge in the far north. In the course of their travels, they are sheltered by various ordinary people, some of whom get in trouble as the OIS closes in. (One of the most interesting parts of the book, at least to an American, is the description of how a question is asked in the federal parliament, in this case about an evangelical woman who disappeared after letting Arrow use the national health card of one of her children.) The upshot is that Arrow does eventually reach "The Camp of the Saints," as the final chapter is entitled. Fr. Andrei, however, dies a martyr's death at the hands of a globalist bureaucrat, who beats him to death with a video-camera when he refuses to apostasize.

    We learn what the OIS is up to primarily from the journalist with whose question this review began. It seems that there is a long-running conspiracy to accomplish three things in sequence: to create a global economy, then to create a global government, then to create a world church. The number of primary conspirators is not enormous. The whole effort rests on the coordinated efforts of about 300 financiers and public officials. The conspiracy has an inner and an outer dimension.

    The inner members view the conspiracy as a religious enterprise. In the first novel in the series, "Father Elijah," we meet the Antichrist, or at least a candidate for the job. (We also meet the eschatological Elijah in the person of an Israeli general turned Carmelite monk.) The conspiracy's leaders are in contact with demons, whom they take to be "ascended masters." Indeed, they salve their consciences with the thought that the people they are killing will be happier on another plane of existence. The particular targets of their ire are Christians, and especially conservative Catholics. The conspiracy actually fosters liberal Catholic bishops and theologians hostile to Rome.

    On a more prosaic level, which is sometimes permitted to appear in public, the agenda of the conspiracy is largely ecological. Such is the strain that the human race places on the living system of the planet, say the shadowy elite, that world population must be reduced by at least 25%, and apparently not simply through attrition. The sinister term "culling" occurs on several occasions. In contrast, the good people in the book tend to be pro-natalist. In "Eclipse of the Sun," a family of six or seven kids is infallible evidence of sanctity, particularly if the kids are being home-schooled.

    The explanation of the non-occult element of the conspiracy slides out of the fictional world of the novel entirely. We get a list of people, mostly American legislators, who have sounded the alarm since the 1920s with regard to the power of the Federal Reserve or of the Foundations, only to be ignored or to die mysteriously. There is a brief introduction to the new science of Clintonology. There are also numerous examples of the media's ability to distort or bury stories that might give the general population a clue about what is really going on.

    One of the odd features of the book is the unexamined conviction that mass communication is becoming more and more monolithic with the passage of time. The Internet is mentioned only twice, though one of the sympathetic characters is actually a software entrepreneur who retired young. The pious remnant in "Eclipse of the Sun" seem to be the last conspiracy enthusiasts in the English-speaking world to depend on hardcopy publications for the real news.

    Even odder than how the cast of characters keep track of the conspiracy is the fact they would want to. They aren't gun-buffs or people looking for adventures; they are for the most part obscure parish priests and middle-aged folk with (large) families. (The least obscure character is the archbishop of Vancouver, who reads the modernists in his archdiocese the Riot Act in a fashion reminiscent of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Omaha, who did something similar in 1996.) They are busy people who really don't need extra worries. Though we should take everything we read in a novel with a grain of salt, and two grains with apocalyptic fiction, nevertheless we cannot doubt that the "remnant" in this book have real-world analogues. They may well be misconstruing what they read in the papers, but if they say there is something wrong with the way they are governed, they are most unlikely to be imagining it.

    The key to what has these good people agitated, as well as why the current fin de siecle has a nastier edge to it than the last time around, may perhaps be found be in Stephen L. Carter's Massey lectures of 1995, recently published in book form as "The Dissent of the Governed" (1998). The lectures were given in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. It is the best attempt I have seen to understand the cultural disorders that occasioned that terrible act, without in any way condoning what happened. Canadian patriots may go ballistic when they see how American is the model I am about to apply to a book set in British Columbia. They may have a point, but I would suggest that US and Canadian legal culture are increasingly convergent, particularly under the new constitution, and that the elite attitudes Carter discusses are no less common in Toronto than they are in the neighborhood of Boston.

    The starting point for Carter's analysis is a novel reading of the Declaration of Independence. What drove the colonists over the line from dissent to revolt was not the new imperial taxes or the high-handedness of unelected officials. Rather, in the words of the Declaration, it was that "Our repeated Petitions have been met only with repeated injuries." The King (and his ministers) not only gave his subjects no hearing, but responded to their complaints with outrages. This behavior, according to Carter, drove a critical mass of American colonials from protest about perceived injustices to "disallegiance" from a political structure that systematically excluded them and their concerns.

    Carter suggests that American constitutional law has been acting more and more like King George's government since at least the 1950s. Part of the problem was that the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. the Board of Education was not only right, it also made the Court wildly popular among the nation's elites, a somewhat novel situation. The judiciary began to believe that, quite literally, it could do no wrong. Having set itself to altering the nation's ingrained cultural patterns as they pertained to race, the Court became open to reforming other aspects of American culture. What later came to be called the "culture wars" may have been inevitable, but the mischief was greatly exacerbated by the fact that, from quite early on, the courts were pretty clearly on one side.

    Stephen Carter has discussed the hostility to religious arguments in the public square in his book, "The Culture of Disbelief." The question of the level of piety among the nation's elites, or indeed what an elite might be, is too large a subject to take on here. Still, he does have a point when he says that modern constitutional practice has succeeded in making a "forbidden ontology" of what is the most important thing in the world to a very large fraction of the people. The problem is no so much that religiously motivated persons do not get their way on issues like abortion, or prayer in public schools, or on the control of pornography. The problem is that, as religious people, their arguments cannot even be heard.

    Somewhat alarmingly, Carter goes so far as to suggest that the linkage of reformist liberalism with the extraordinary level of deference demanded by the modern judiciary is quite literally totalitarian. It criminalizes forms of dissent that in other contexts would enjoy a large degree of toleration. Indeed, it speaks to the people in a rhetoric of tolerance that in practice usually means legally mandated homogenization. Of course, even the most uppity federal judge does not have a fleet of black helicopters at his command. Still, if Carter is right, then in the fictional apocalypse of "Eclipse of the Sun," we see a popular intuition that is not without foundation.


    This review first appeared in the Summer 1998 issue of "Millennial Stew," the newsletter of the Center for Millennial Studies. For more information, please click here:
    Copyright © 1998 by John J. Reilly


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    Wednesday
    Sep242014

    CrossFit 2014-09-22

    Back squats

    Cash out

    • 20 barbell facing burpees
    • 20 thrusters [75#]
    • 20 barbell facing burpees
    Wednesday
    Sep242014

    CrossFit 2014-09-19

    The Good Life

    3 rounds

    • 500m row
    • 12 burpees
    • 21 box jumps [24"]

    Time 15:45 PR! [by one second]

    Last time 15:46 with a 20" box

    Tuesday
    Sep232014

    The Long View: The Flame is Green

    I've never tried to read anything by Lafferty, but I'm curious if he is anything like Tim Powers. From John's description, he sounds even crazier. When I started reading Tim Powers, I found it hard to appreciate everything he was trying to say. Last Call, in particular, got much, much better with subsequent readings. I guess I liked the book enough to persist.

    The Flame Is Green
    By R. A. Lafferty
    Walker Publishing Company, 1971
    245 Pages; Historical Price US$5.95
    ISBN: 0-8027-0346-1

     

    The works of R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002) are not too far out be reviewed by an ordinary human being. However, one must reach into an awkwardly positioned dimension to lay hold of them. So, I will not attempt much interpretation of this little novel. What I will do is display some representative chunks of it. I will also add some explanatory matter, for form's sake.

     

    * * *

    "The Flame Is Green" is about the adventures of a young Irishman named Dana Coscuin, who sets out from Bantry Bay in 1845, just as the potato blight is settling onto Ireland and Europe is preparing for the Revolutions of 1848. He makes the tour of the greater and lesser scenes of unrest and pre-unrest, with special attention to Carlist Spain, Paris, and Krakow. The potato blight and the revolutions are not unrelated. On the prosaic level, the author reminds us that the potato harvests also failed in much of Europe in those years: not so disastrously as in Ireland, perhaps, but enough to help foment unrest. On the level of high symbol, however, we also are reminded that the blight caused a red mist of corruption to settle over the green fields. Coscuin and his friends are in the service of the Green Revolution, which at that point in history is largely coincident with the nationalist uprisings. Their task is to protect it from the Red Revolution, which did not yet have much to do with socialism, and which in any case is a primordial thing of no particular politics.

    "The Flame Is Green" was published over 30 years ago, the first book of a tetrology that also includes "Half a Sky," "Sardinian Summer," and "First and Last Island." I came across "The Flame Is Green" recently and by accident, not long after I finished Adam Zamoyski's Holy Madness, another book I had no business reading. That book is a sort of symphonic poem (to use John Lukacs's phrase) about the pre-Marxist revolutionary tradition, and its author imagined it to be the only treatment of its subject. Now I know better, though whether Lafferty knows better than Zamoyski remains to be seen.

    One does not read Lafferty books for quite the reasons one reads other fiction.

    Lafferty stories do have plots and characters. In this book, in addition to Dana, there is Elena Prado, the "Muerte de Boscaje," so-called because of her demonical proclivity for gingering up the Carlist guerrillas to attack main-force Spanish columns, thereby getting all the guerrillas killed. There is Ifreann Chortovitch, a son of the devil in a not particularly metaphorical sense, whom Dana almost certainly fails to kill at the end of the book. There is Catherine Dembinska, Dana's soon-lost Polish wife. The followers of the Green Revolution act at the behest of Count Cyril, sometimes called Charles, whom no one will ever admit to seeing, but whose agents are so ubiquitous that the Green Revolutionaries need only hold up the bill in a tavern for the Count to cover the expense.

    All the characters, male and female, Irish and Polish, human and otherwise, speak exactly the same way. This is typical of Lafferty books. So is the relaxed attitude toward time. The characters often allude to events that have not happened yet, and indeed sing about them. This temporal insouciance sometimes leaks out of the text. The Carlist chaplain and pillar of orthodoxy is a Polish priest known as "The Black Pope," this in a book published a mystical seven years before the election of John Paul II.

    None of these playful features hurt. Neither does the prescience, in small doses. However, a greater merit of Lafferty's books may be his easy way with philology, which dovetails nicely with a weirdly immediate sense of history. Consider this description of Dana's encounter with the first of Count Cyril's emissaries:

    "They hadn't any full language in common. They spoke in mixed scraps of Spanish and Irish and English and French. Spanish men and Irish men had always been able to understand each other on Bantry Bay, which was also called Spanish Bay. They had understood each other back when they spoke in scraps of Norman and Irish and Navarrone, back when they used Old Norse and Middle Irish and Dog Latin, back when they used Arabic and Gothic and Celtic, even back when they used Phoenician and Milesian."

    Let no one say that Lafferty is without ordinary narrative skills. His description of the overthrow of the Orleanist monarchy, for instance, is of a lucidity in every way superior to the events themselves. Much of the action takes place in the Paris of the Hundred Persons, the brief period in the 1840s when Paris was the fulcrum of world history, and the mission of the Green Revolutionaries was to influence the small group of people who really mattered. Still, though Lafferty can handle action, he is better at description. He is best of all at describing things that don't quite not exist. We see this in an encounter involving Dana, a friend from the Constituent Assembly, and one of Count Cyril's late ancestors:

    "That man talked to them a very long time, or so it seemed. Much of it went directly to the substrata of their mind and memories; only hazy bits of it remained on the surface. Brume and Dana both became very sleepy, not from lack of interest, from some humorous trick that the man was playing on them. It was as if there was something here too rich to be understood at one sitting. After a long while of it, there was something about the man rising to go (he had some signs of great age about him, the backs of his hands, the sunkenness of his cheeks; and some signs of quick youth, his full throat, his eyes, his easy movements); there was something about him saying that he would let himself out, that Brume and Dana could rest easy (they were not hosts, he was the host); there was something about the man being gone then."

    There are features of Lafferty stories that make them neither better nor worse; they are just always there. Among them are the snakes, anthropomorphic and otherwise, and this book is at least up to quota. Far more interesting to me, however, are this book's spiders, which Lafferty puts to better use. Consider, for instance, this memorable description of the untrustworthy Spanish queen, Isabella II:

    "Who will father the Queen's children? Nobody. She says that she will do it all by herself. Many insects do this, and Isabella is very like an insect in her waspishness, in her spiderishness, in her ever immaturity coming always mask-faced, cotton-faced, old-young out of the cocoon. And with such divergent and parthenogenetic insects the offspring is always female, so I see a long line of female children of the Queen."

    Among the most memorable spiders are the ones in a great room in the Italian villa of Ashley, the Un-Englishman. (Lafferty describes the fellow in a way that sheds new light on the garden landscapes of Fragonard, but let us not digress.) The spiders, which make their webs over a pit of rotting corpses, have all been named after famous people in the world. As Ashely explains, the weaving of their webs incorporates the future:

    "That is Chancellor Metternich of Austria who rehearses his fall from power again and again and again. He is in love with his own drama. He considers it from every possible aspect. He obliterates sections of it that do not satisfy him, and he substitutes other more dramatic scenes in the topography of his weaves. What is the present year? I myself become confused when I am among my spiders. Oh no, the fall of Metternich has not happened yet, but it will be done when he is done."

    Not unusually for a Lafferty novel, "The Flame Is Green" sets out a model of history. One might find sources for it, from Augustine to Newman to Isaac Asimov (even Nietzsche, if you look at the second paragraph below). In any case, several characters give voice to it (as I said, all the characters talk the same, so it makes little difference who said what):

    "Beware of those who manufacture final answers as they go along, of those who will catch you on their catch-phrases and let you perish in the traps. All the final answers were given in the beginning. They stand shining, above and beyond us, but they are always there to be seen. They may be too bright for us, they may be too clear for us. Well then, we must clarify our own eyes. Our task is to grow out until we reach them.

    "We ourselves become the bridges out over the interval that is the world and time. It is a daring thing to fling ourselves out over that void that is black and scarlet below and green and gold above. A bridge does not abandon its first shore when it grows out in spans towards the further one"

    "In this growing there are no really new things or new situation. There are only things growing out right, or things growing out deformed or shriveled. There is nothing new about railways or foundries or lathes or steel furnaces. They also are green-growing things. There is nothing new about organizations of men or of money. All these growing things are good, if they grow towards the final answers that were given in the beginning."

     

    What we have here is an assertion of the compatibility of political and technological progress with tradition, especially tradition in its Roman Catholic manifestation. This kind of progress, however, is teleological; historical change is going somewhere, and so is not open-ended. Lafferty was outraged during the second half of his long life by the use of the principle of "development of doctrine" to discard the substance of the faith and replace it with contemporary fashions. The internal problems of the Church during his lifetime, however, simply mirrored a general feature of history:

    "Or let us say that we have a green thing growing forever. Everything that is done is done by it. And on it we also have the red parasite crunching forever: and everything that is undone is undone by that. The parasite will present itself as a modern thing. It will call itself the Great Change. Less often, and warily, it will call itself the Great Renewal. But it can never be another thing than the Red Failure returned. It is a disease, it is a scarlet fever, a typhoid, a diphtheria; it is the Africa disease, it is the red leprosy, it is the crab-cancer. It is the death of the individual and of the corporate soul. And incidentally, but very often, it is also the death of the individual and of the corporate body. We are asked to swear fealty to the parasite disease which the enemy sowed from the beginning. I will not do it, and I hope that you will not."

    Though the Red Disease is a chronic phenomenon, it becomes acute only to prevent or distort the advent of some great good. Lafferty obviously thought that the romantic, democratic nationalism of the 19th century was, on the whole, just such a good thing (though Pius IX might have thought otherwise):

    "[T]he devils stroll the earth again and infect with the red sickness. They must, at all cost to themselves, destroy the growing tendrils before such can touch the other side. For, whenever one least growing creeper touches across the interval, that means the extinction of a devil. It is a thing to be tested. Notice it that whenever there is the special shrilling, when there is the wild flinging out of catchwords to catch you in, when there are the weird exceptions and inclusions, when there are specious arguments and the murderous defamations, when all the volubility of the voltairians and the cuteness of the queers has been assembled to confound you, then one green growth has almost reached across to the other side, one devil is in danger of extinction. Oh, they will defend against that!"

    One might conclude from this that the later revolutionary tradition was just the devil's way of frustrating the good work of Whiggish, democratic liberalism. This leaves us to speculate about the origins of postmodernism, which sprouted in the West just as the Whig Tradition was about to defeat its Marxist rival.

     

    * * *

    As is the way of curmudgeons, Lafferty had a disdain, rising to the point of affectation, for conventional political categories:

    "[T]he opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive."

    Predictably, his books provide little specific guidance for those sympathetic to his views. Lafferty's program for the Paris of a Hundred Persons sounds threatening, even when it is actually irenic:

    "Listen now to a series of sayings that always come hard to brave people. Our task is to extirpate by prevention. Our own great movement will grow with its own impetus wherever it is not blighted. We will break up persons of blight and centers of blight. But often, and this will be the hard part for all of you to understand, we will warn and advise before we kill. And quite often we will not kill at all. Try to understand this."

    If you remove the implicit threat of mayhem, that's still sound advice.

     


     

     

     

    Since this book is long out of print,
    you might want to buy another book:

     

    Your reviewer would be gratified, however,
    if you gave special consideration to these books.


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    Who was John J. Reilly?

    All of John's posts here

    An archive of John's site

    Monday
    Sep222014

    The Long View 2002-04-23: The Really Angry People

    John suspected that nationalist politics in Europe would grow because the EU has often been so feckless about representing the actual interests of Europeans. This seems to have been largely borne out. Right and center-right nationalist parties all seem to get tarred with the same brush in the press, but the actual amount of racism and anti-semitism varies among them. Le Pen's National Front really does seem to a hotbed of neo-Nazi sentiment, while the United Kingdom Independence Party does not.

    American politics have a seemingly indestructible populist bent, that continues to vex our betters to this day. By way of example, Bryan Caplan is a well-known economist, who while less dyspeptic than Paul Krugman, advocates for similarly extreme views. Caplan does at least notice that most people disagree with him, but seems perplexed why.

     

    The Really Angry People

     

    Paul Krugman is the most reliably inane columnist writing for the New York Times. (This is no small distinction at a paper that also employs Maureen Dowd.) His column today, entitled "The Angry People," finishes his analysis of the French presidential election like this:

     

    "What France's election revealed is that we and the French have more in common than either country would like to admit. There as here, there turns out to be a lot of irrational anger lurking just below the surface of politics as usual. The difference is that here the angry people are already running the country."

    What got his knickers all in a bundle, of course, was the good showing by Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front in the first round of presidential voting on April 21. With all of 17% of the vote, the results mean that Le Pen, rather than the socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, gets to be beaten by the conservative president, Jacques Chirac, in the final round of voting on May 5. For the National Front to be a serious contender for power really is not a good sign. The word is that, although they keep blatantly fascist sentiments out of their national propaganda, nonetheless their informal gatherings can be a good market for Nazi memorabilia. It is thus all the more remarkable that Mr. Krugman used his column to compare the Republican Party to the National Front. Both, he says, are parties of "angry people," who win elections only through accident and fraud.

    The tragic thing about this is that people like Jean-Marie Le Pen, and David Duke in the United States (who came close to winning the governorship of Louisiana), are in large part the product of just that kind of leftist bigotry. There is a kind of liberalism that, as Stephen Carter points out in The Dissent of the Governed, is genuinely totalitarian. It does not hear and reject arguments against its favored policies. Rather, it brands opposition as irrational and pathological. Where possible, it criminalizes organized protest. Everywhere it seeks to put opposition beyond the pale of decency. The result, however, is not to surpress opposition, but to ensure that the opposition will be indecent.

    To some extent, this seems to be what happened in France. There is a great deal to be said on both sides of the immigration question, but the fear that one's country might disappear in a flood of culturally alien foreigners is not irrational. Neither is the fear of rising crime. The French political establishment, however, tried to dismiss such concerns as prejudices. The issues were, predictably, taken up by irresponsible outsiders.

    As Robert Eatwell explains in his history of Fascism, the radical right succeeded in Italy and Germany between the world wars because, in those countries, the respectable parties of the right lost influence after 1918. When law and order became the only issues, only demagogues offered to do something about them. As always, the left was flabbergasted to learn that, by discrediting their electoral opponents, they had also discredited democracy.

    France is not in such desperate straits today. The establishment seems to have taken these recent election results as a heads-up, and will no doubt start to deal with matters that the French are really worried about. The same is increasingly true all over Europe. This is a good thing, with a single exception. This is very bad news for the European Union, which has become totalitarian liberalism incarnate. It did not have to be this way. The EU might have been the framework for a resurgent Christendom. As it is, the impulse toward self-preservation in Europe is taking a nationalist turn.

    Meanwhile, in the United States, the political system continues to express populist sentiment. Sometimes the expression is cynically symbolic, sometimes there are genuine changes in policy, and sometimes the answer to popular enthusiasms is, correctly, "No." The only really angry people are the would-be totalitarians, mostly on the left. They beat their tiny fists against the walls of their editorial terrariums, proclaiming all the while the insignificance of that large swatch of their countrymen who disagree with them. Happily, they can do little harm.


    Why post old articles?

    Who was John J. Reilly?

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    Thursday
    Sep182014

    The Long View: Holy Madness

    The 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were the ages of revolution: The American Revolution, the French Revolution, the collapse of the vice-royalties of Spain and Portugual in the Americas, the Springtime of Peoples, the Russian Revolution. There were so many revolutions in part because there were so many revolutionaries; failed revolutionaries floated around the world after their exile, pitching in wherever they could. Which produced more revolutions, and so on.

    In this age of total war, it is easy to forget that war was less brutal in the Napoleonic era. A successful uprising might produce casualties in the hundreds rather than the thousands. War really was romantic and fun for a while. The Great War was the Great War precisely because it shattered that comfortable illusion. It was the very success of nationalism that transformed war from a game between kings to a clash between peoples.

    Often, the revolutions were the result of an upswing of nationalist feeling among the educated classes. However, the tide of nationalism was so strong that even reactionary backlashes tended to be nationalist too. After all, it was Napoleon who welded the Scots and English together into a nation 100 years after the Acts of Union.

    Holy Madness:
    Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871
    By Adam Zamoyski
    Viking, 2000
    498 Pages, $34.95
    ISBN 0-670-89271-8

     

    In the 18th century, Western civilization began to shift from its traditional religious foundation to a new platform, compounded of personal emotional experience and what were believed to be the dictates of reason. Nations, nationalism, revolution, and mass warfare appeared during the long transition. So did new arts, mass literacy and, almost as an afterthought, an unprecedented increase in general well-being. This period is the subject of "Holy Madness." As the author points out in the Preface (the author is Adam Zamoyski: born in New York, settled in London, with several titles on Polish history to his credit), it really does not constitute a "subject" at all. Nonetheless, it seems to me that readers of Paul Johnson's "Modern Times" will find the genre familiar. The book is a sprawling, moralizing, cultural and political history with a conservative subtext. If you like this kind of thing, you will find few better examples.

    "Holy Madness" is arranged more or less chronologically around the key dates of the history of the revolutionary tradition: The American Revolution of 1776; the French Revolution of 1789; the final fall of Napoleon in 1815; the Liberal Revolution of 1830; the "Springtime of Peoples" of 1848; and, finally, the Paris Commune of 1871. However, the story spreads far beyond the particular events that put those dates in the history books. We get synopses of the revolutionary histories of Latin America, Ireland, Spain, Italy, and, especially, of Poland.

    Reading this book gives the impression that the Confederation of Bar of 1768 and its subsequent suppression were among the key events of modern history, because they began the long-running Polish diaspora of revolutionary patriots. The Poles were just an extreme case, however. The Western world soon hosted a floating population of freelance patriots like Kosciuszko, Byron, Kossuth, Bakunin, Garibaldi, and Alexander Dumas. These exiles by necessity or caprice might command a fleet off newly independent Peru in one decade and help drive the Bourbon dynasty from southern Italy in another. Nonetheless, in the years of reaction following the Congress of Vienna, "Polonism" was Metternich's term "for the whole internationale of bards and braves threatening his pan-European monarchical order with the promise of universal redemption through the apotheosis of the nations."

    "Holy Madness" is chiefly concerned with a few key themes, the most important of which is that romantic nationalism retained the shape of the Christianity it so often sought to replace:

    "[T]he national instinct is a natural one where religious belief-systems have failed...[I]t inherits from these not only crude fanaticism, but also a spark of divinity, for it is, ultimately, a kind of mission...However different the brutal gunmen of today may be from the noble Marquis de Lafayette, all who rally to the cause of some real or invented nation carry within themselves an instinctual religious germ; [they] see themselves as valorous knights defending their world against monsters, dragons and giants."

    This was not quite what the philosophers of the French Enlightenment had in mind. Zamoyski makes Rousseau the chief theoretician of nationalism. Rousseau, whom Kant called "the Newton of ethics," tried to replace the transcendent with the national community as the basis of morality. It was Rousseau who popularized the idea that nations are created through suffering, and that the highest good is to die in the national defense. These notions simply relocate Christian ideals of sacrifice and atonement. The new nationalism even held out the hope of immortality, in the form of lasting renown in the national history.

    Stated baldly, such propositions sound repulsive even today, but they have nonetheless shaped our language and thought. The expression "baptism of fire," for instance, was a neologism of the wars of the French Revolution. Having rejected or lost interest in the traditional sacraments, French revolutionaries instinctively tried to turn war and revolution into sacraments of a new order.

    In its early phases, the revolutionary tradition managed to combine hopes for universal liberation with parochial nationalism. Thus began the long string of claims by national communities, most of them new and some of them largely imaginary, to be the "redeemer nation" of the current historical epoch. The first of these, in arrogance as well as time, was France itself, whose cynosure became Napoleon. Napoleon occasioned a type and degree of popular adulation that can be called cultic in a quite unmetaphorical sense, and not only in France. Alexander the Great, whose role in classical history has often been compared to Napoleon's place in the modern world, was frankly worshipped as a god after his death. Early modern Europeans came as close to doing the same to the French hero as their culture permitted. In some regions, the defeated emperor became the "once and future king," who had brought justice in the past and would someday return to re-impose it.

    Zamoyski highlights the fact that the Enlightenment took different forms in different places, or even that there was more than one Enlightenment. French enthusiasts for the American Revolution never quite took on board the fact that, while they used millenarian rhetoric, American revolutionaries were often literal millenarians. The German Enlightenment, like German Romanticism, was always more frankly mystical than its French counterpart. In fact, gallophobia was an early component of German nationalism, which would have nasty consequences after a century or so. There were other continuities. The Burschenschaften ("fellowships," or perhaps "guy-ships") of post-Napoleonic Germany bear comparison with the "Wandervögel" of the pre-World War I era. Like that later generation, the student members of the Burschenschaften seemed to be simply waiting for some cause hopeless enough to call forth their suicidal devotion. I might note that in this they differed from the still later babyboom generation in America: the "Counterculture" of the 1960s was also a movement of rumpled young people who were credulous of wonders, but those young people, especially the men, had a keener eye for their personal safety than did their 19th century predecessors.

    The revolution in Latin America was not simply an artifact of the Enlightenment. There was also a lively tradition of military insubordination that went back to Cortez and Pizzaro. However, until the late 18th century, this had not greatly interfered with social order. The author is at pains to emphasize the prosperity and general tidiness of the Spanish viceroyalties. (La Plata, with its frontier economy and precocious proletariat in Buenos Aires, was something of an exception to the norm of civil order.) What really shook Spanish Latin America free of Spain was the eclipse of the monarchy by the Napoleonic occupation of the metropolitan country. The separation was sealed by the collapse of the Spanish revolution in the 1820s, which left a metropolitan authority too weak and too unattractive to reassert control. In Brazil, monarchy lasted longer because the royal family decamped from Portugal to Brazil during the Napoleonic emergency, but the link to Portugal itself dissolved in any case.

    Great Britain, in the author's estimation, is almost as much a product of the era of revolutions as is the United States. The monarchy and the army had been held in light regard in the British Isles for generations. Then the existential crisis of the Revolution and Napoleon served to weld the kingdoms together, with the king and the army becoming popular symbols of a new national identity. Zamoyski suggests that the French Revolution may have prevented revolution from breaking out in Britain. There was at least as much elite sentiment in Britain as in pre-revolutionary France for radical change, and probably more popular discontent.

    Here is a bit of alternative history for you: suppose that the American Revolution had failed, thereby depriving French radicals of a template. The French monarchy might then have survived the fiscal crisis of the 1780s. In that case, however, radicals in Britain would have had no example of French excess to restrain them. They would probably have had the added grievance of a reactionary (and expensive) policy of pacification in North America. The result might have been a British Revolution. Had that happened, the North American colonies would likely have drifted away in a fashion comparable to the disengagement of the viceroyalties from Spain. The interesting difference would have been that the United States (or whatever the successor entities were called) would have come into being on the other side of the modern watershed. Instead of looking back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, America, like Revolutionary France, would have been founded on the slippery slope that led to the Finland Station. That would not necessarily have meant a better world.

    What was the motivation of those bards and braves who kept Metternich's numberless spies employed? Though they justified themselves in terms of devotion to the public good, one cannot escape the impression that, as with anarchists today, the whole exercise was oddly self-referential:

    "The generation brought up on the literature of the Romantics abhorred inactivity and routine; they demanded bursts of action and craved danger, they relished the mysterious, the hidden, the forbidden. Action in this sense was a sublimation of love, and was indulged in with the requisite passion and the same sense of relish for the hopeless, the unrequited and the fatal, which translated into a politics as a capacity to luxuriate in the poignances of failure and defeat."

    One of the drawbacks to politics as a hallucinogen is that it discourages its practitioners from excessive concern with mere facts. Quite early on, the revolutionary tradition embraced the practice of pious falsehood. Zamoyski's account of the American Revolution is perhaps unnecessarily jaundiced, giving excessive attention to the persecution of loyalists, as well as to George Washington's interest in acquiring land that the British government wanted to reserve for the Indians. On the other hand, he is onto something when he implies a parallel between the French fantasy-literature about the new United States with what progressives in the 1930s told themselves about the Soviet Union. The fraud was even worse about Greece, where the ultimately successful uprising of the 1820s against the Turks was marked by "cowardice, cunning and cruelty." Nonetheless, Romantic revolutionaries flocked to the region from all over Europe. Under the gross misapprehension that they were assisting in the resurrection of the Hellas of Pericles, they were often robbed by the very people they had come to help.

    On the subject of fraternal societies, it would not be possible to write a history of the revolutionary era without reference to the role of the Masons, whose lodges could be found in every part of the West. However, Masonry itself seems to have been not so much an actor as a utility, a means of communication but not a single ideology. Adam Weishaupt's Illuminati do put in an appearance in the book, but the author believes that most of the activities attributed to them were fantasies of the police. Zamoyski places the real origin of the tradition of revolutionary conspiracy with Buonarotti. It was he (working with Babeuf) who adumbrated the underground armentaria of centralization and dissimulation. It was several generations before revolutionary strategy achieved the clarity of Lenin's time, however. Until then, insurgents generally employed many Gothic properties. During improvised faux-Masonic ceremonies, terrible oaths were exchanged in cellars and darkened rooms from Bogotá to Belfast to Krakow:

    "These rituals [of the Carbonari], as well as the patents, membership certificates and other material that has come down to us &emdash; all decorated with variable combinations of the cross, the crown of thorns, the sun, the moon, the cock, the fasces, the ladder, St. Theobald, skulls, crossed bones, geometrical dividers, pentangles, triangles, and the odd papal tiara being struck by lightening &emdash; suggest organized religion had somehow let these people down."

    One might note that it was possible for Poles and Italians, and even some Germans, to have fond memories of the Napoleonic era because the wars of that time lacked the savagery of the Thirty Years' War, or of the 20th-century World Wars. Popular uprisings, even a successful campaign like Garibaldi's liberation of the Two Sicilies in 1861, might produce casualties in the hundreds rather than thousands.

    In the days of reaction after the Congress of Vienna, revolution became a matter of grand opera. In fact, quite a lot of good grand opera was written with implicitly revolutionary themes, as well as literature extolling Romantic nationalism. (This book reminded me of Mark Twain's surmise that Walter Scott's novels caused the Civil War.) Following the precedent of the fraudulent works of Ossian, ancient national epics were discovered or forged in central and eastern Europe. Aristocrats who spoke French socially and conducted government business in Latin made an effort to learn the language of the colorful peasants. By 1830, some of these operas succeeded in bringing down the house. To everyone's surprise, another French Revolution succeeded. New "nations" appeared in Belgium and Greece. There was a flurry of unrest everywhere.

    In 1848, half of Europe rose in revolt. At any rate, half of Europe's students, lawyers, and newspaper editors held noisy rallies and stormed city halls. The continent was briefly covered with constitutional conventions and new flags. When even this outburst of enthusiasm was suppressed, or simply subsumed by ordinary politics, a terrible truth began to dawn on the Romantic internationale:

    "The urge for national liberation, so long assumed to be a natural instinct, intimately bound up with personal liberation and empowerment, appeared not to have fired the masses at all. Earlier [pre-1848] failures had been put down to lack of education among the people and to their indoctrination by the civil and religious agencies of the ancien regime. But this argument was wearing thin. If anything, they had rallied against the revolution with some spontaneity."

    This was not a new phenomenon. When the French Revolution came to Haiti, it was the slaves who rose in support of the king, while their masters sported tricolor cockades. In the Polish territories of the Habsburg lands, the peasants were quite willing to hunt down the educated city-people who marched through the countryside in yet another attempt to restore national independence. The rural masses sided with "the good emperor," partly because his government was familiar and not altogether unjust, but also because the would-be revolutionaries were often so obviously self-interested. This was particularly the case in the Kingdom of Hungary, only 40% of whose people were Hungarian. The rest, Slavs and Romanians and Saxons, knew that their own hope of retaining their communal identity lay in keeping the kingdom part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

    There were exceptions to the rule that revolutions tended to have a rather restricted audience. The Russians really did succeed in provoking the Polish peasants to rise on occasion. Garibaldi, who was as responsible as anyone for creating the Kingdom of Italy, did become a national legend in his own time. Even in his case, though, "popular support" usually meant the kind of support that people give their favorite sport teams.

    The deeper problem with the Risorgimento was that, as Zamoyski puts it: "a handful of patriots had been manipulated by a jackal monarchy and its pragmatic ministers." The people of Sicily did not even speak a language comprehensible by northern Italians. (Garibaldi's own first language was Ligurian). When the nationalists delivered control of Italy to the rulers of the Piedmont, they were in effect handing over colonies.

    Because of this futility even in success, the revolutionary impulse darkened. By the 1860s, the "new men" had already begun to appear. These forerunners of today's terrorists despised liberal democracy, as well as the Romantic view of politics as a spiritual exercise. For them, liberation was a kind of surgery: scientific, focused, and without anesthetic.

    Poetic nationalism helped create actual nations, but these entities evolved on a trajectory of their own. The ideals of 1789 were drowned by both materialist socialism and by nationalism reconceived as a Darwinian struggle. The nationalism of real nations transformed war from a conflict between sovereigns to a conflict between peoples. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was the logical conclusion to this process. In Zamoyski's estimation, the Commune of 1871 should not be seen as the forerunner of the following century of socialist politics. Rather, it was a nostalgic reenactment of the first French Revolution by the last adherents of the politics of the Lost Cause.

    This book does not touch on the later expressions of Romantic nationalism. I might mention in particular the Celtic Renaissance and Easter Uprising in Ireland, which together achieved something close to the Platonic ideal of thuggish political mysticism. The true "Springtime of the Peoples" came only with the Versailles Conference: nationalism's greatest practical proponent was not Rousseau, but Woodrow Wilson. Then there was the history of decolonization and Third Worldism. Nonetheless, Zamoyski may be right in ending the story in 1871. After that point, there were few novelties in the ways that nations came into being and expressed themselves. The Holy Madness of nationhood had become a commodity.


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    Thursday
    Sep182014

    CrossFit 2014-09-17

    American Dream

    AMRAP 20 minutes up ladder [1 rep first round, 2 reps second round...]

    • Power clean [123#]
    • Muscle up band-assisted transitions

    Rounds 7 + 5 reps

    Thursday
    Sep182014

    CrossFit 2014-09-15

    Sugar Daddy

    21-15-9

    • Deadlift [165#]
    • 400m run

    Time 11:10

    Last time 9:21 @ 155#

    Thursday
    Sep182014

    CrossFit 2014-09-11

    Sumo deadlift

    EMOTM 15 minutes

    • 6 sumo deadlifts [175#]
    • 40 seconds hollow rock
    • 5 strict toes to bar
    Wednesday
    Sep172014

    Antichrist: Islam's Awaited Messiah

    And a third book review. This set formed a kind of trilogy. This final volume combined my interest in learning more about Islam with my existing interest in millennialism. I wrote this review in 2009. If anything, I think it has only gotten more topical.


    Mohammed Abdullah HassanI was lent this book by the same person who lent me Islam and the Jews: The Unfinished Battle and Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics. Since I have an interest in millennialism generally, I dived straight in. Richardson's work is a prime example of what John Reilly called the 'Standard Model' of Christian millennialism. This is the common-sense, popular, literal model based on direct identification of particular events with the prophecies contained with the Apocalypse of St. John. This model has taken different forms at different times, but in twenty first century America it takes the form of premillennial dispensationalism. This is the frame of reference of the author, who then sets out a detailed comparison between al-Mahdi and Isa bin Maryam and the Antichrist and the False Prophet depicted in the book of Revelations.

    The author wrote this book under a pseudonym, out of a rightful fear of retribution. At least in the United States, such things are not yet commonplace, but in Europe, violence or threats of violence against those critical of Islam is commonplace. For example, the makers of the game Little Big Planet recalled the game after it came to light that one of the songs in the game featured verses from the Koran. Given the location of the developer in London, actual violence was a possibility. However, the author is at pains to emphasize that he means no ill will, but simply wishes to tell the truth as best he understands it.

    Richardson's account is based largely on the hadith and the commentaries thereon that have been translated into English. This is not a complaint, since this is an admirable amateur effort. Acquiring sufficient linguistic expertise to read Islamic commentaries on the hadith in Arabic is the province of the ivory tower, and such a work would likely have been stillborn within the academic world. That being said, there are strange gaps in Richardson's knowledge that are the likely result of autodidactism. When self-taught, one does not know what one does not know. For example, Richardson seems wholly innocent of Islamic tradition with regards to the people of the book, as opposed to other faiths.

    "Interestingly enough, Islamic tradition speaks much of the Mahdi's special calling to convert Christians and Jews to Islam, yet speaks very little specifically of conversions from other faiths. It seems as though converting Christians and Jews to Islam will be the primary evangelistic thrust of the Mahdi." -pg 61

    Indeed. Given that the Mahdi's job is to conquer the entire world, there will not be believers of any other faiths except Christians and Jews. Christians and Jews, being people of the Book, get special treatment. One may convert, or one may remain a Christian or Jew and pay the Jizyah. Neglected people of the Book include the Sabians*, who lived in Baghdad and were eventually massacred en toto in the twelfth century. Other faiths only have the option of conversion or death. Thus, by the time the Mahdi has done his work, there will be no Hindus or Buddhists or what-have-you left. Ask the Zoroastrians how that works out.

    This book is really good for a ground-eye view of a living millennial belief, worked out in light of objections and the shifting situations in the world. If you want to learn about the terms used in premillennial circles, this book is quite good. This work also has generally good basic info about Islamic millennialism, including the fact that al-Mahdi is not exclusively a Shia figure. However, it would be wise to cross-check the meanings of Arabic words and the preeminence of interpretations with more scholarly works.

    I admire the author for including a chapter of likely rebuttals to his work. Chief among these is the popular model has been identifying Antichrists without notable success for two millennia. He is bound and determined to move forward however, because he believes that he sees real parallels. This is actually what is most interesting about the book. Richardson is on the very edges of the premillennial model, and has included material in his book that actually points away from his thesis considered literally. Simply stated, millennial expectations are a completely normal aspect of all human cultures, so we cannot be all that surprised by similarities between different accounts. But there is more to it than that. As St. Augustine put it in Book XX of the City of God, each age is equally close to the Millennium, because each age instantiates the elements of the Last Days. Thus the parallels that Richardson sees are real, but that does not necessarily mean that the events he foresees will therefore be the unique, final end that St. Augustine also believed in. Biblical prophecy exhibits properties analogous to quantum indeterminacy. The more one knows about what is going to happen specifically, the less one knows about when exactly this will take place. (Mark 13) Whereas, the less one tries to apply prophecy to particular events, the more certain you can become that will occur eventually.

    A worthy book, and an act of personal bravery on the part of the author. Worth a read if you are interested in millennialism of either Christian or Muslim varieties. Most flaws are probably due to to a lack of editing in volumes of this type.

    *In the original version, I had this as Sabbateans rather than Sabians. This was a typo. The Sabbateans are Crypto-Jews in Turkey, also known as the Dönme. That is a whole 'nother subject.