Nearly everyone cares—or says he cares—about art. After all, art ennobles the spirit, elevates the mind, and educates the emotions. Or does it? In fact, tremendous irony attends our culture’s continuing investment—emotional, financial, and social—in art. We behave as if art were something special, something important, something spiritually refreshing; but, when we canvas the roster of distinguished artists today, what we generally find is far from spiritual, and certainly far from refreshing.
It is a curious situation. Traditionally, the goal of fine art was to make beautiful objects. The idea of beauty came with a lot of Platonic and Christian metaphysical baggage, some of it indifferent or even hostile to art. But art without beauty was, if not exactly a contradiction in terms, at least a description of failed art.
Nevertheless, if large precincts of the art world have jettisoned the traditional link between art and beauty, they have done nothing to disown the social prerogatives of art. Indeed, we suffer today from a peculiar form of moral anesthesia—as if being art automatically rendered all moral considerations gratuitous. The list of atrocities is long, familiar, and laughable. In the end, though, the effect has been anything but amusing; it has been a cultural disaster. By universalizing the spirit of opposition, the avant-garde’s project has transformed the practice of art into a purely negative enterprise, in which art is either oppositional or it is nothing. Celebrity replaces aesthetic achievement as the goal of art.
The situation tempts one to sympathize with Leo Tolstoy. In a famous passage from What Is Art? Tolstoy wrote that “art, in our society, has been so perverted that not only has bad art come to be considered good, but even the very perception of what art really is has been lost.”
And that was in the 1890s. Just imagine Tolstoy strolling through New York’s Chelsea galleries or London’s Tate Modern. He would not, I suspect, have thought much of Andy Warhol as an artist, but he would have admired his candor and perception—for, as Warhol observed in 1987, “Art is what you can get away with.”
These days, the art world places a great premium on novelty. But here’s the irony: Almost everything championed as innovative in contemporary art is essentially a tired repetition of gestures inaugurated by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, creator of the first bottle-rack masterpiece and the first urinal fountain.
Of course, not all the news from the world of art is bad. There is plenty of vigorous, accomplished art being produced today, but it is rarely touted at the Chelsea galleries, celebrated in the New York Times, or featured in the trendier precincts of the art world. The serious art of today tends to be a quiet affair, off to the side and out of the limelight.
But this would have done nothing to cheer Tolstoy. Indeed, even though it is easy to concur with his judgment that art has been “perverted,” his own view of “what art really is” must give us pause. Tolstoy was very strict about the feelings he thought it proper for art to convey. In his view, the “upper classes” of his own society, “as a result of unbelief,” favored art that was “reduced to the conveying of the feelings of vanity, the tedium of living, and, above all, sexual lust.” Art for Tolstoy is “a spiritual organ of human life,” which sounds plenty reassuring. But his conception of what counts as legitimately spiritual is so narrow that it excludes not only the Damien Hirsts of the world but also most of the world’s great artists.
Of the literature of his own time, for example, he seems to have approved some simple folk tales and fables about peasants, but he approved little else. Anything that traded in mystery or symbolism he abominated. Baudelaire (“crude egotism erected into a theory”) does not pass muster, nor does Verlaine (“flabby licentiousness”) or Mallarmé (“devoid of meaning”). A Beethoven piano sonata is “only an unsuccessful attempt at art,” and the Ninth Symphony fails “without any doubt.” Kipling and even Dante fail to make the grade, and watching Hamlet makes Tolstoy shudder. Art, in his eyes, is either a handmaiden to a certain species of moral pedagogy or it is corrupt.
Tolstoy’s wary attitude is far from exceptional, for the traditional attitude toward art and beauty has been characterized as much by suspicion as by celebration. There has been a recurrent worry that the attractions of beauty will lead us to forsake the good for the sake of a good. “The eyes delight in beautiful shapes of different sorts and bright and attractive colors,” Augustine wrote, warning against the temptations of visual pleasure. “I would not have these things take possession of my soul. Let God possess it, he who made them all. He made them all very good,but it is he who is my Good, not they.”
The Platonic tradition in Christianity invests beauty with ontological significance, trusting it to reveal the unity and proportion of what really is. Our apprehension of beauty thus betokens a recognition of and submission to a reality that transcends us. And yet, if beauty can use art to express truth, art can also use beauty to create charming fabrications. As Jacques Maritain put it, art is capable of establishing “a world apart, closed, limited, absolute,” an autonomous world that, at least for a moment, relieves us of the “ennui of living and willing.” Instead of directing our attention beyond sensible beauty toward its supersensible source, art can fascinate us with beauty’s apparently self-sufficient presence; it can counterfeit being in lieu of revealing it.
Considered as an end in itself, apart from God or being, beauty becomes a usurper, furnishing not a foretaste of beatitude but a humanly contrived substitute. “Art is dangerous,” as Iris Murdoch once put it, “chiefly because it apes the spiritual and subtly disguises and trivializes it.”
This helps explain why Western thinking about art has tended to oscillate between adulation and deep suspicion. “Beauty is the battlefield where God and the devil war for the soul of man,” Dostoevsky had Mitya Karamazov declare, and the battle runs deep.
When deploring the terrible state of the art world today—Tolstoy’s word pervertedis not too strong—we often look back to the Renaissance as a golden age when art and religion were in harmony and all was right with the world. But for many traditional thinkers, the Renaissance was the start of the trouble. Thus Maritain charges that “the Renaissance was to drive the artist mad, and to make of him the most miserable of men . . . by revealing to him his own peculiar grandeur, and by letting loose on him the wild beast Beauty which Faith had kept enchanted and led after it, docile.”
Thus, along with the shattering of the medieval cosmos and the flowering of Renaissance humanism, “prodigal Art aspired to become the ultimate end of man, his Bread and Wine, the consubstantial mirror of beatific Beauty.” How seriously should we take this rhetoric that fuses the ambitions of art and religion? No doubt it is in part hyperbole. But, like most hyperbole, talk of the artist as a “second god” is exorbitant language striving to express an exorbitant claim—a claim about man’s burgeoning consciousness of himself as a free and creative being.
We have to wait for Romanticism and the flowering of the cult of genius for the completion of this discovery. But the apotheosis of artistic creativity began long before the nineteenth century. With the rise of fixed-point perspective, which Alberti’s fifteenth-century On Painting first systematized and made generally available, the artist had entered into a new consciousness of his freedom and creativity. As Erwin Panofsky pointed out, the achievement of fixed-point perspective marked not only the elevation of art to a science (a prospect that so enthused Renaissance artists) but also “an objectification of the subjective,” a subjection of the visible world to the rule of mathematics:
There was a curious inward correspondence between perspective and what may be called the general mental attitude of the Renaissance: the process of projecting an object on a plane in such a way that the resulting image is determined by the distance and location of a “point of view” symbolized, as it were, the Weltanschauung of a period which had inserted an historical distance—quite comparable to the perspective one—between itself and the classical past, and had assigned to the mind of man a place “in the center of the universe” just as perspective assigned to the eye a place in the center of its graphic representation.
In this sense, the perfection of one-point perspective betokened not only the mastery of a particular artistic technique but implied also a new attitude toward the world. Increasingly, nature was transformed from God’s book of human destiny to material for the play of the godlike artist.
The closer one moved toward the present time, the more blatant and unabashed became the association of the artist with God. Thus Alexander Baumgarten, writing in the mid-eighteenth century, compared the poet to a god and likened his creation to “a world”: “Hence by analogy whatever is evident to the philosophers regarding the real world, the same ought to be thought of a poem.” And Lord Shaftsbury, who exerted enormous influence on eighteenth-century aesthetics, asserted that, in the employment of his imagination, the artist becomes “a second god, a just Prometheus under Jove.” Of course, as Ernst Cassirer noted in his gloss on Shaftsbury, “the difference between man and God disappears when we consider man not simply with respect to his original immanent forming powers, not as something created, but as a creator. . . . Here man’s real Promethean nature comes to light.”
Man’s real Promethean nature: If the artist in the modern age emerges as a second god, his divinity tends to close itself off from reality in order to clear a space for art’s fabrications. As such, the artist tends to draw close to the demonic, which Søren Kierkegaard astutely defined as freedom “shutting itself up” apart from the good. (“Myself am Hell,” Milton’s Satan declares in a moment of startling self-insight.) If, as Paul Valéry put it, “the artist’s whole business is to make something out of nothing,” then, unable to meet this demand, he will find himself wandering alone among the shadows cast by the world he forsook in order to salvage his freedom and creativity. Divinization gives way to demonization. The impulse behind this development has its roots in the demand for freedom in a world where freedom is increasingly eclipsed.
There is, in all of this, an implicit analogy between beauty and beatitude. Understood as a foretaste of beatitude, beauty affirms its place in an integrated ontological order; as the radiance of being, beauty subordinates itself to what it reveals. But emancipated from that order, beauty threatens to displace the totality it once illumined, conjuring a rival order of its own.
We do not need Nietzsche to tell us that the disintegration of the Platonic-Christian worldview, already begun in the late Middle Ages, is today a cultural given. Nor is it news that the shape of modernity—born, in large part, from man’s faith in the power of human reason and technology to remake the world in his own image—has made it increasingly difficult to hold the traditional view that ties beauty to being and truth, investing it with ontological significance. Modernity, the beneficiary of Descartes’ relocation of truth to the subject ( Cogito, ergo sum), implies theautonomy of the aesthetic sphere and hence the isolation of beauty from being or truth. When human reason is made the measure of reality, beauty forfeits its ontological claim and becomes merely aesthetic—merely a matter of feeling.
At the end of his book Human Accomplishment (2004), Charles Murray argues that “religion is indispensable in igniting great accomplishment in the arts.” I have a good deal of sympathy with the intention behind Murray’s argument, but my first response to his claims for the indispensability of religion for art might be summed up by that Saul Steinberg cartoon in which a smallish yes is jetting along toward a large BUT. Murray has done a lot to insulate his argument: By religion, he doesn’t mean churchgoing or even theology, and thus he is right to say that classical Greece, though secular (one might even say pagan) in a certain sense, was nonetheless a religious powerhouse for the “mature contemplation” of “truth, beauty, and the good.”
I wonder. Is such contemplation necessarily religious in any but an honorific sense? Noting that our own culture is aggressively secular—the names Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Einstein stand as beacons in humanity’s progressive self-disillusionment—Murray suggests that our modern disillusionment is essentially ephemeral, merely a stage in mankind’s spiritual maturation. The period from the Enlightenment through the twentieth century, he suggests, may well “eventually be seen as a kind of adolescence of the species.” Who can say? Kant thought that maturity came with the Enlightenment: Enlightenment betokened man’s coming of age, his “leaving his self-caused immaturity,” where by “immaturity” Kant meant the “incapacity to use one’s intelligence without the guidance of another.” The primary lack that forestalled full enlightenment was therefore not intellectual but moral: It was, Kant thought, a lack of courage to face up to the way the world really is.
There is plenty to criticize about the Enlightenment (just as there is plenty to celebrate), but my point is merely to question whether the symbiotic relation between great art and religion is as close as Murray suggests. Fra Angelico, a deeply religious painter, was a great artist, but then so was Titian, a conspicuously worldly one. Bach was a pious soul and was possibly the greatest composer who ever lived, but what about Beethoven? If he was religious it was in a vastly different sense. Jane Austen was conventionally religious in her personal life, but her novels achieve greatness through their secular wit and wisdom. Art and religion are both eulogistic words: Calling something a work of art endows it with a nimbus of value; the same is true of religious. But is that the same sort of value?
The twentieth-century Welsh Catholic poet David Jones had it right when he suggested that “no integrated, widespread, religious art, properly so-called, can be looked for outside enormous changes in the character and orientation and nature of our civilization”—changes, I think, that would be deeply at odds with our commitment to liberal democracy. Jones agrees that it would be nice if “the best of man’s creative powers” were “at the direct service of the sanctuary.” But that can happen only “if the epoch itself is characterized by those qualities.” It is not, he goes on to note, a matter of will: What is possible to the artist in the way of creating religious art “has little or nothing to do with the will or wishes of this or that artist.” Be a painter ever so pious, he cannot “change himself into an artist of some other culture-sequence.” Some things were possible in the Middle Ages that are not possible today.
The real threat to the arts, Jones thought, was the modern world’s increasing submission to technocracy, to a thoroughly instrumental view of life that had no room for what Jones called the intransitive—for the freedom and disinterestedness traditionally thought the province of religious experience, on the one hand, and aesthetic experience, on the other.
The disjunction is crucial. The priest and the artist, he says, might both be consigned to the catacombs, but they are separate catacombs. Religion aims at the perfection of the soul; art aims at the perfection of a work. We have no specificallyCatholic art, Jones argued, any more than we have “a Catholic science of hydraulics, a Catholic vascular system, or a Catholic equilateral triangle.” W.H. Auden thought likewise: “There can no more be a ‘Christian’ art than there can be a Christian science or a Christian diet. There can only be a Christian spirit in which an artist, a scientist, works or does not work.”
We live at a time when art is enlisted in all manner of extra-artistic projects, from gender politics to the grim leftism of neo-Marxists, poststructuralists, and all the other exotic fauna who congregate around the art world and the academy. The subjugation of art—and of cultural life generally—to political ends has been one of the great spiritual tragedies of our age. Among much else, it makes it increasingly difficult to appreciate art on its own terms, as affording its own kinds of insights and satisfactions. Critics who care about art—even those who want to insist on art’s religious depth—are forced to champion art’s distinctively aesthetic qualities against attempts to reduce art to a species of propaganda.
At the same time we lose something important when our conception of art lacks a spiritual dimension. If this is what Murray meant when he suggested that religion, or at least serious attention to the ends of human life, is “indispensable in igniting great accomplishment in the arts,” we would have to agree. That is to say, if politicizing the aesthetic poses a serious threat to the integrity of art, the isolation of the aesthetic from other dimensions of life represents a different sort of threat. The principle of “art for art’s sake,” T.S. Eliot observed, is “still valid in so far as it can be taken as an exhortation to the artist to stick to his job; it never was and never can be valid for the spectator, reader, or auditor.”
By the nineteenth century, art had long been free from serving the ideological needs of religion, and yet the spiritual crisis of the age tended to invest art with ever-greater existential burdens—burdens that continue to be felt to this day. In Wallace Stevens’ words, “After one has abandoned a belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life’s redemption.”
The idea that art should serve as a source—perhaps the primary source—of spiritual sustenance in a secular age is a Romantic notion that continues to resonate powerfully. It helps to explain, for example, the special aura that attaches to art and artists, permitting such poseurs as Andres Serrano, Bruce Nauman, and Gilbert & George to be accounted artists by otherwise sane persons. This Romantic inheritance has also figured, with various permutations, in much avant-garde culture. We have come a long way since Dostoevsky could declare that, “incredible as it may seem, the day will come when man will quarrel more fiercely about art than about God.” Whether that trek has described a journey of progress is perhaps an open question. My own feeling is that Eliot was right when he disparaged the efforts of such moral aesthetes as Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater to find in art a substitute for religion, “to preserve emotions without the beliefs with which their history has been involved.”
This much, I think, is clear: Without an allegiance to beauty, art degenerates into a caricature of itself; it is beauty that animates aesthetic experience, making it so seductive; but aesthetic experience itself degenerates into a kind of fetish or idol if it is held up as an end in itself, untested by the rest of life.
It seems to me that there are as many opportunities for confusion as for enlightenment in linking the ambitions of art and religion. There is much to bemoan about the state of art and culture today. Above all, there is a lack of seriousness underwritten by a lack of traditional skill. But in this sense, the emancipation of art from religion is less an impediment than an opportunity. As Auden noted in his reflections on Christianity and art: “We cannot have any liberty without license to abuse it. The secularization of art enables the really gifted artist to develop his talents to the full; it also permits those with little or no talent to produce vast quantities of phony or vulgar trash.”
The triumph of the latter does nothing to impeach the promise and the achievements of the former. Man is the sort of creature whose nature is to delight in art and aesthetic experience; I believe that he is also, by nature, a religious animal—a creature who becomes who he really is only by acknowledging something that transcends him. These different aspects of humanity will often conspire, but we do both a disservice if we blur or elide their essential difference.
Liturgy and music have been closely related to one another from their earliest beginnings. Wherever man praises God, the word alone does not suffice. Conversation with God transcends the boundaries of human speech, and in all places, it has by its very nature called music to its aid, singing and the voices of creation in the harmony of instruments. More belongs to the praise of God than man alone, and liturgy means joining in that which all things bespeak.
But if liturgy and music are closely connected with one another by their very natures, their relation to one another has also been strained, especially at the turning points of history and culture. Therefore, it is no surprise that the question concerning the proper form of music in the liturgy has become controversial again. In the disputes of the Council and immediately thereafter, it seemed to be merely a question of difference between pastoral practitioners, on the one hand, and Church musicians, on the other. Church musicians did not wish to be subject to mere pastoral expediency but attempted to emphasize the inner dignity of music as a pastoral and liturgical norm in its own right.1 Thus, the controversy seemed to move essentially on the level of application only. In the meantime, however, the rift has grown deeper. The second wave of liturgical reform advances these questions to their very foundations. It has become a question of the essence of liturgical action as such, of its anthropological and theological foundations. The controversy about Church music is becoming symptomatic for the deeper question about what the liturgy is.
1. Surpassing the Council? A new conception of liturgy
The new phase of the will to liturgical reform no longer sees its foundation explicitly in the words of the Second Vatican Council but in its “spirit”. As a symptomatic text, I shall use here the learned and clearly drafted article on song and music in the Church in the Nouvo Dizionario di Liturgia. The high artistic rank of Gregorian Chant or of classical polyphony is in no way contested here. It is not even a question of playing off congregational activity against elitist art. Nor is the rejection of a historicist rigidification, which only copies the past and remains without a present and a future, the real point at issue. It is rather a question of a basically new understanding of liturgy which one wishes to use in order to surpass the Council whose Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy bears two souls within itself.2
Let us briefly attempt to familiarize ourselves with this conception in its fundamental characteristics. The liturgy takes its point of departure — we are told — from the gathering of two or three who have come together in the name of Christ.3 This reference to the Lord’s words of promise in Matthew 18:20 sounds harmless and traditional at first hearing. But it receives a revolutionary turn when one isolates this one biblical text and contrasts it with the whole liturgical tradition. For the two or three are now placed in opposition to an institution with its institutional roles, and to every “codified program”.
Thus this definition comes to mean: it is not the Church that precedes the group but the group that precedes the Church. It is not the Church as an integral entity that carries the liturgy of the individual group or community; rather the group is itself the specific place of the origin for the liturgy. Thus the liturgy does not grow out of a common given, a “rite” (which as a “codified program” now becomes a negative image of bondage); it arises on the spot from the creativity of those who are gathered.
In such a sociological language, the sacrament of orders presents itself as an institutional role which has created a monopoly for itself and dissolved the [Church’s] original unity and solidarity by means of the institution.4 Under these circumstances, we are told, music then became a language of the initiates just like Latin, “the language of the other Church, namely, of the institution and its clergy”.5
The isolation of Matthew 18:20 from the entire biblical and ecclesiastical tradition of the common prayer of the Church has far-reaching consequences here. The Lord’s promise to prayers of all places becomes the dogmatization of the autonomous group. The solidarity of prayer has escalated into an egalitarianism for which the unfolding of the ecclesiastical office means the emergence of another Church. In such a view, every given coming from the whole is a fetter one must resist for the sake of the freshness and freedom of the liturgical celebration. It is not obedience to the whole but the creativity of the moment that becomes the determining form.
It is obvious that with the adoption of a sociological language there comes an adoption of evaluations. The value structure that the sociological language has formed constructs a new view of history and the present, the one negative, the other positive. Thus, traditional (and also conciliar!) concepts such as the “the treasury of musica sacra”, the “organ as queen of the instruments”, and the “universality of Gregorian chant” now appear as “mystifications” for the purpose of “preserving a certain form of power”.6 A certain administration of power, we are told, feels threatened by processes of cultural transformation and reacts by masking its striving for self-preservation as love for the tradition. Gregorian chant and Palestrina are tutelary gods of a mythicized, ancient repertoire,7 elements of a Catholic counterculture that is based on remythicized and supersacralized archetypes,8 just as in the historical liturgy of the Church it has been more a question of a cultic bureaucracy than of the singing activity of the people.9
The content of Pius X’s motu proprio on sacred music [Tra le sollecitudini] is finally designated as a “culturally shortsighted and theologically empty ideology of sacred music”.10 Here, of course, it is not only sociologism that is at work but a total separation of the New Testament from the history of the Church, and this in turn is linked with a theory of decline, such as is characteristic for many Enlightenment situations: purity lies only in the original beginnings with Jesus. The entire further history appears as a “musical adventure with disoriented and abortive experiences” which one “must now bring to an end” in order finally to begin again with what is right.11
But what does the new and better look like? The leading concepts have already been indicated in previous allusions. We must now pay attention to their closer concretization. Two basic values are clearly formulated. The “primary value” of a renewed liturgy, we are told, is “the full and authentic action of all persons”.12 Accordingly, Church music means first and foremost that the “people of God” represents its identity in song. The second value decision operative here is likewise already addressed: music shows itself as the power that effects the coherence of the group. The familiar songs are, as it were, the identifying marks of a community.13 From this perspective, the main categories of the musical formation of the liturgy arise: the project, the program, the animation, the direction. The how, we are told, is more important than the what.14 The ability to celebrate is above all the “ability to do”. Music must above all be “done”.15
In order to be fair, I must add that understanding for different cultural situations is shown throughout and an open space for the adoption of historical material also remains. And above all, the paschal character of the Christian liturgy is underscored. Singing is not only meant to represent the identity of the people of God, but also to give an account of our hope and to proclaim the Father of Jesus Christ to all.16
Thus, elements of continuity do exist in this wide breach. These elements enable dialogue and give hope that unity in the fundamental understanding of the liturgy can be found again, which unity, however, threatens to disappear through the derivation of the liturgy from the group instead of from the Church — and not only theoretically, but also in concrete liturgical practice.
I should not speak in such detail of all this, if I thought that such ideas were to be ascribed only to isolated theoreticians. Although it is incontestable that they cannot be based on the text of the Second Vatican Council, the opinion that the spirit of the Council points in this direction won acceptance in so many liturgical offices and their agents. In what has just been described, an all too widespread opinion today holds that so-called creativity, the action of all present, and the relationship of group members who know and address one another are the genuine categories of the conciliar understanding of the liturgy. Not only chaplains, but sometimes even bishops, have the feeling that they have not remained true to the Council when they pray everything as it is written in the Missal; at least one “creative” formula must be inserted, however banal it may be. And the civil greeting of those present, with friendly wishes at the dismissal, has already become an obligatory ingredient of the sacred action which anyone would hardly dare to omit.
2. The philosophical ground of the program and its questionable points
With all this, however, the core of the change in values has not yet been touched. All that has been said until now follows from placing the group before the Church. But why do this? The reason lies in the fact that the Church is classified under the general concept of “institution” and that institution bears a negative quality in the type of sociology adopted here. It embodies power, and power is considered an antithesis to freedom. Since faith (the “imitation of Christ”) is apprehended as a positive value, it must stand on the side of freedom and thus also be anti-institutional in its essence. Accordingly, the liturgy may not be a support or ingredient of an institution either; but must form a counterforce that helps to cast down the mighty from their thrones. The Easter hope to which the liturgy is to bear witness can become quite earthly with such a point of departure. It becomes a hope for the overcoming of institutions, and it becomes itself a means in the struggle against power. Whoever reads only the texts of the “Missa Nicaraguensis” might gain the impression of this displacement of hope and of the new realism that liturgy becomes the instrument of a militant promise. One might also see the importance that does, in fact, accrue to music in the new conception. The stirring force of revolutionary songs communicates an enthusiasm and a conviction that cannot come from a merely spoken liturgy. Here there is no longer any opposition to liturgical music. It has received an irreplaceable role in awakening irrational forces and common energies at which the whole is aimed. It is, however, at the same time a formation of consciousness, since what is sung is little by little communicated to the spirit much more effectively than what is only spoken and thought. Moreover, the boundary of the locally gathered community is then passed with full intention by means of the group liturgy. Through the liturgical form and its music, a new solidarity is formed through which a new people is to arise which calls itself the “people of God”. But by “God” is meant only itself and the historical energies realized in it.
Let us return once again to the analysis of the values that have become decisive in the new liturgical consciousness. In the first place, there is the negative quality of the concept “institution” and the consideration of the Church exclusively under this sociological aspect, and furthermore, not only under the aspect of an empirical sociology but from a point of view that we owe to the so-called masters of suspicion. One sees that they have done their work thoroughly and attained a form of consciousness that is still effective as far as one is ignorant of its origin. But suspicion could not have such an incendiary power if it were not accompanied by a promise the fascination of which is inescapable: the idea of freedom as the authentic claim of human dignity. In this respect, the question about the correct concept of freedom must represent the core of the discussion. The controversy about the liturgy is thereby brought back from all superficial questions of artistic direction to its core, for in the liturgy it is in fact a question of the presence of redemption, of the access to true freedom. The positive element in this new dispute lies without a doubt in this disclosure of the core.
At the same time, that from which Catholic Christianity suffers today becomes visible. If the Church appears only as an institution, as a bearer of power and thus an opponent of freedom, or as a hindrance to redemption, faith is living in self-contradiction. For, on the one hand, faith cannot do without the Church; on the other hand, it is thoroughly against it. Therein lies also the truly tragic paradox of this trend of liturgical reform. For liturgy without the Church is a self-contradiction. Where all act so that they themselves may become the subject, the One who truly acts in the liturgy also disappears with the collective subject “Church”. For it is forgotten that the liturgy is to be the opus Dei in which God Himself acts first and we are redeemed precisely through the fact that He acts. The group celebrates itself and in doing so celebrates nothing at all. For it is no cause for celebration. That is why the general activity becomes boredom. Nothing happens when He whom the whole world awaits is absent. The transition to more concrete objectives, as reflected in the Missa Nicaraguensis, is thus only logical.
The proponents of this way of thinking must be asked directly: Is the Church really only an institution, a cultic bureaucracy, a power apparatus? Is the priestly office only the monopolization of sacral privileges? If we do not succeed in overcoming these notions effectively and do not succeed in seeing the Church differently again in our hearts, the liturgy will not be renewed, but the dead will bury the dead and call it reform. There is then, of course, no longer any Church music because the subject, the Church, has been lost. Indeed, one cannot even speak properly of the liturgy any more, for it presupposes the Church. What remains are group rituals that avail themselves of more or less skillful means of musical expression. If liturgy is to be renewed or even to survive, it is fundamental that the Church be rediscovered. I should add: if the alienation of man is to be overcome, if he is to find his identity again, it is indispensable that he find the Church again: a Church which is not an institution inimical to man, but one in which there is the new We in which the I can first win its foundation and its dwelling.
It would be beneficial in this connection to read once again and thoroughly that little book with which Romano Guardini completed his literary work in the last year of the Council.17 As he himself emphasizes, he wrote the book out of care and love for the Church whose humanity and endangeredness he knew very well. But he had learned to discover the scandal of the Incarnation of God in its humanity. He had learned to see in it the presence of the Lord who has made the Church His body. Only if that is so is there a simultaneity of Jesus Christ with us. And only if this exists is there real liturgy which is not a mere remembrance of the paschal mystery but its true presence. Once again, only if this is the case is liturgy a participation in the trinitarian dialogue between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only in this way is it not our “doing” but the opus Dei — God’s action in and with us. For that reason, Romano Guardini stressed emphatically that in the liturgy it is not a question of doing something but of being something. The idea that general activity is the most central value of the liturgy is the most radical antithesis imaginable to Guardini’s conception of the liturgy. In fact, the general activity of all is not only not the basic value of the liturgy, it is as such not a value at all.18
I shall forego dealing with these questions in further detail. We must concentrate on finding a point of departure and a criterion for the correct relation of liturgy and music. The realization that the genuine subject of the liturgy is the Church, that is the communio sanctorum of all places and all times, is from this point of view really of great importance. For as Guardini showed in detail in his early writing “Liturgische Bildung”, there follows from this realization a removal of the liturgy from the caprice of the group and individual (including clerics and specialists), a removal which he termed the objectivity and positivity of the liturgy.19 There also follows, and indeed above all, an awareness of the three ontological dimensions in which liturgy lives: cosmos, history, and mystery. The reference to history includes development, i.e., belonging to something living that has a beginning, continues in effect, remains present but is not yet finished, and lives only insofar as it is further developed. Many things die out, many things are forgotten and return later in a new way, but development always means participation in a beginning opened to what lies ahead. With that we have already touched on a second category that gains particular importance through its relation to the cosmos: liturgy, thus conceived, lives in the fundamental form of participation. No one is its one and only creator, for each one it is a participation in something greater, but each one is also an agent precisely because he is a recipient. Finally, the relation to mystery means that the beginning of the liturgical happening never lies in us. It is the response to an initiative from above, to a call and an act of love, which is mystery. Problems are there to be explained; mystery, however, discloses itself not in explanation but only in acceptance, in the “Yes” which today we may still call “obedience” after the Bible.
With that we have arrived at a point of great importance for the beginning of the artistic. For the group liturgy is not cosmic, it lives from the autonomy of the group. It has no history: it is precisely the emancipation from history and doing things oneself that are characteristic for it, even if one works with historical props. Moreover, it is ignorant of mystery because in it everything is and must be explained. For that reason, development and participation are just as foreign to it as obedience (to which a meaning is disclosed that is greater than the explicable).
Instead of all this, we have a creativity in which the autonomy of the emancipated seeks to confirm itself. Such creativity, which would like to be the functioning of autonomy and emancipation, is precisely for that reason strictly opposed to all participation. Its characteristics are caprice, as a necessary form of refusal of every pregiven form or norm; unrepeatability, since a dependency would already lie in the performance of the repetition; and artificiality, since it is necessarily a question of a pure creation of man.
It becomes clear, however, that a human creativity that does not will to be reception and participation is of its essence absurd and untrue, because man can only be himself through reception and participation. It is a flight from the conditio humana and thus untruth. This is the reason cultural decline sets in where, along with loss of faith in God, there is a protest against the pregiven ratio of being.
Let us summarize what we have found thus far in order to draw the consequences for the point of departure and the fundamental form of Church music. It has become clear that the primacy of the group comes from the understanding of the Church as institution which, in turn, is based on an idea of freedom that cannot be united with the idea and reality of the institutional and is unable to perceive the dimension of mystery in the reality of the Church. Freedom is understood in terms of the leading ideas “autonomy” and “emancipation”. It is concretized in the idea of creativity which against this background becomes a direct antithesis to the objectivity and positivity that belong to the essence of the Church’s liturgy. The group always has to fabricate itself anew, only then is it free. At the same time, we saw that any liturgy deserving of the name is radically opposed to this. It is against historical caprice which knows no development and thus gropes in the dark and against an unrepeatability which is also exclusivity and loss of communication over and above individual groupings. It is not against the technical, but it is against the artificial in which man creates a counterworld and loses sight of God’s creation in his heart. The oppositions are clear. It is also clear from the beginning that the inner foundation of the group mentality comes from an autonomously conceived idea of freedom. But we must now ask about the anthropological program on which the liturgy as understood by the Church’s faith rests.
3. The anthropological model of the Church’s liturgy
Two fundamental biblical words offer themselves as a key to answering our question. Paul coined the words logike latreia (Rom 12:1), which are difficult to translate into our modern languages because we lack a genuine equivalent to the concept of the Logos.
One could translate it by “Spirit-guided liturgy” and thereby refer to Jesus’ words on worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23) at the same time. But one could also translate it by “divine worship molded by the Word” and one would then have to add that “Word” in the biblical (and also in the Greek) sense is more than language or speech, namely, creative reality. It is, however, also more than mere thought and mere spirit. It is self-interpreting, self-communicating spirit. At all times, the word-relatedness, the rationality, the intelligibility, and the sobriety of the Christian liturgy have been derived from this and pregiven to liturgical music as its fundamental law.
It would be a narrow and false interpretation if by this one wished to understand that all liturgical music must be strictly related to a text and to declare that its general condition lies in serving the understanding of a text. For “Word” in the biblical sense is more than “text”. “Understanding” extends further than the banal intelligibility of that which is immediately evident to everyone and can be pressed into the most superficial rationality. It is correct, however, that music, which serves worship in spirit and truth, cannot be rhythmic ecstasy, sensuous suggestion or anesthetization, bliss of feeling, or superficial entertainment, but is subordinated to a message, a comprehensive spiritual and, in this sense, rational declaration. It is also correct, to express it otherwise, that it must correspond to this “word”, indeed serve it, in a comprehensive sense.20
With that we are automatically led to another truly fundamental text on the question of cult in which we are told more exactly what “Word” means and how it is related to us. I mean the sentence of the Johannine Prologue: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we have seen His glory” (John 1:14). The “Word” to which the Christian liturgy is related is not first of all a question of a text but of a living reality, of a God who is self-communicating meaning and who communicates Himself by becoming man. This Incarnation is now the sacred tent, the focal point of all cult, which gazes on God’s glory and gives Him honor. These declarations of the Johannine Prologue are, however, not yet the whole of the matter. One would misunderstand them if one did not read them together with the farewell discourse in which Jesus says to those who are His: “I am going now, but I shall return to you. It is by going that I return. It is good that I go, for only in this way can you receive the Holy Spirit” (John 14:2, 14:18, 16:5, and so on). The Incarnation is only the first part of the movement. It first becomes meaningful and definitive in the cross and resurrection: from the cross the Lord sees everything in itself and carries the flesh, i.e., man and the whole created world, into the eternity of God.
The liturgy is ordered to this line of movement, and this line of movement is, so to speak, the fundamental text to which all liturgical music is related. It must be measured by it from within. Liturgical music results from the claim and the dynamics of the Incarnation of the Word. For it means that also among us the Word cannot be mere talk. The sacramental signs are certainly the central way in which the Incarnation continues to work. But they become homeless if they are not immersed in a liturgy that as a whole follows this expansion of the Word into the realm of the bodily and all our senses. From this there comes, in opposition to the Jewish and Islamic types of cult, the right and even the necessity of images.21 From this there also comes the necessity of summoning up those deeper realms of understanding and response that disclose themselves in music.
The “musification” of faith is a part of the process of the Incarnation of the Word. But this musification is at the same time also ordered to that inner turn of the incarnational event which I tried to indicate before: in the cross and resurrection, the Incarnation of the Word becomes the “verbification” of the flesh. Each penetrates the other. The Incarnation is not taken back; it first becomes definitive at the moment in which the movement, so to speak, is reversed. The flesh itself is “logicized”, but precisely this verbification of the flesh effects a new unity of all reality, which was obviously so important to God that He let it cost Him His Son on the cross.
On the one hand, the musification of the Word is sensualization, Incarnation, attraction of pre-rational and transrational forces, attraction of the hidden sounds of creation, discovery of the song that lies at the bottom of things. But in this way, this musification is now itself also the turning point in the movement: it is not only Incarnation of the Word, but at the same time “spiritualization” of the flesh. Wood and metal become tone, the unconscious and the unreleased become ordered and meaningful sound. A corporealization takes place which is a spiritualization, and a spiritualization which is a corporealization. The Christian corporealization is always a spiritualization at the same time, and the Christian spiritualization is a corporealization into the body of the incarnate Logos.
4. The consequences for liturgical music
Insofar as this interpenetration of both movements takes place in music, the latter serves that inner exodus which the liturgy always wishes to be and to become in the highest measure and in an indispensable way. But that means that the appropriateness of liturgical music is measured according to its inner correspondence to this fundamental anthropological and theological form. Such a declaration seems at first to be very far removed from concrete musical reality. It becomes immediately concrete, however, when we pay attention to the opposing models of cultic music to which I briefly referred previously.
Let us think first of all, for example, of the Dionysian type of religion and music with which Plato grappled from the standpoint of his religious and philosophical view.22 In not a few forms of religion, music is ordered to intoxication and ecstasy. The freedom from the limitations of being human towards which the hunger for the infinite proper to man is directed is to be attained through holy madness, through the frenzy of the rhythm and of the instruments. Such music lowers the barriers of individuality and of personality. Man frees himself in it from the burden of consciousness. Music becomes ecstasy, liberation from the ego, and unification with the universe.
We experience the profane return of this type today in rock and pop music, the festivals of which are an anti-culture of the same orientation — the pleasure of destruction, the abolition of everyday barriers, and the illusion of liberation from the ego in the wild ecstasy of noise and masses. It is a question of redemptive practices whose form of redemption is related to drugs and thoroughly opposed to the Christian faith in redemption. The conflict that Plato argued out between Dionysian and Apollonian music is not ours, for Apollo is not Christ. But the question he posed concerns us in a most important way.
Music has become today the decisive vehicle of a counter-religion and thus the scene of the discernment of spirits in a form that we could not have suspected a generation ago. Because rock music seeks redemption by way of liberation from the personality and its responsibility, it takes, in one respect, a very precise position in the anarchical ideas of freedom which predominate today in a more unconcealed way in the West than in the East. But precisely for that reason, it is thoroughly opposed to the Christian notion of redemption and of freedom as its exact contradiction. Not for aesthetic reasons, not from reactionary obstinacy, not from historical immobility, but because of its very nature music of this type must be excluded from the Church.
We could concretize our question further, if we were to continue analyzing the anthropological ground of different types of music.
There is agitation music which animates man for different collective purposes. There is sensual music which leads man into the erotic or essentially aims in other ways at sensual feelings of pleasure. There is light music which does not wish to say anything but only to break up the burden of silence. There is rationalistic music in which the tones serve only rational constructions but in which no real penetration of spirit and sensibility results. One would have to include many sterile catechism songs and modern hymns constructed under commission here.
The music that corresponds to the liturgy of the incarnate Christ raised up on the cross lives from another, greater and broader synthesis of spirit, intuition, and sensuous sound. One can say that Western music, from Gregorian chant through the cathedral music and the great polyphony, through the renaissance and baroque music up until Bruckner and beyond, has come from the inner wealth of this synthesis and developed it in the fullness of its possibilities.
This greatness exists only here because it alone was able to grow out of this anthropological ground that joined the spiritual and the profane in an ultimate human unity. This unity is dissolved in the measure that this anthropology disappears. The greatness of this music is, for me, the most immediate and the most evident verification of the Christian image of man and of the Christian faith in redemption that history offers us. He who is touched by it knows somehow in his heart that the faith is true, even if he still has a long way to go to re-enact this insight with reason and will.
That means that the liturgical music of the Church must be ordered to that integration of human being that appears before us in faith in the Incarnation. Such a redemption is more laborious than that of intoxication. But this labor is the exertion of truth itself. In one respect, it must integrate the senses into the spirit; it must correspond to the impulse of the sursum corda [lift up your hearts]. However, it does not will a pure spiritualization but an integration of sensibility and spirit so that both become person in one another. It does not debase the spirit when it takes the senses up into itself, but first brings it the whole wealth of creation. And it does not make the senses less real when they are penetrated by the spirit, rather, in this way they first receive a share in its infinity. Every sensual pleasure is strictly circumscribed and is ultimately incapable of intensification because the sense act cannot exceed a certain measure. He who expects redemption from it will be disappointed, “frustrated” — as one would say today. But through integration into the spirit, the senses receive a new depth and reach into the infinity of the spiritual adventure. Only there do they come completely to themselves. But that presupposes that the spirit does not remain closed either.
The music of faith seeks the integration of man in the sursum corda; man, however, does not find this integration in himself, but only in self-transcendence towards the incarnate word. Sacred music, which stands in the structure of this movement, thus becomes the purification and the ascent of man. But let us not forget: this music is not the work of a moment but participation in a history. It is not realized by an individual but only in community. Thus, it is precisely in it that the entrance of faith into history and the community of all members of the body of Christ expresses itself.
It permits joy again, a higher kind of ecstasy which does not extinguish the person but unites and thus liberates him. It lets us glimpse what a freedom is that does not destroy but gathers and purifies.
b) Remarks on the present situation
The question for the musician is, of course: How does one do that? At bottom, great works of Church music can only be bestowed because the transcendence of self, which is not achievable by man alone, is involved, whereas the frenzy of the senses is producible in accordance with the known mechanisms of intoxication. Production ends where the truly great begins. We must first of all see and recognize this limit. To this extent, reverence, receptivity, and the humility that is ready to serve by participating in the great works that have already issued forth necessarily stand at the beginning of great sacred music. Only he who lives from the inner structure of this image of man at least in its essentials can create the music pertaining to it.
The Church has set up two further road markers. In its inner character, liturgical music must correspond to the demands of the great liturgical texts — the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei. That does not mean, as I have already said, that it may be only text music. But it finds in the inner direction of these texts a pointer for its own message.
The second road marker is the reference to Gregorian chant and to Palestrina. Again, this reference does not mean that all Church music must be an imitation of this music. On this point, there were in fact many constrictions in the renewal of Church music in the last century and also in the papal documents based on it. Correctly understood, this simply says that norms are given here that provide an orientation. But what may arise through the creative appropriation of such an orientation is not to be established in advance.
The question remains: Humanly speaking, can one hope that new creative possibilities are still open? And how is that to happen? The first question is really quite easy to answer. For if this image of man is inexhaustible in opposition to the other one, then it also opens up ever new possibilities for the artistic message, and does so all the more, the more vividly it determines the spirit of an age. But here lies the difficulty for the second question.
In our times, faith has to a large extent stepped down as a publicly formative force. How is it to become creative? Has it not everywhere been repressed into a subculture? To this one could reply that we are apparently standing before a new blossoming of faith in Africa, Asia, and Latin America from which new cultural forms may sprout forth.
But even in the Western world the word “subculture” should not frighten us. In the cultural crisis we are experiencing, it is only from islands of spiritual composure that new cultural purification and unification can break forth. Where new outbursts of faith take place in living communities, one also sees how a new Christian culture is formed, how the community experience inspires and opens ways we could not see before. Furthermore, F. Doppelbauer has correctly pointed to the fact that liturgical music frequently and not coincidentally bears the character of a late work and presupposes a previously acquired maturity.23
Here it is important that there be the antechambers of popular piety and its music as well as spiritual music in the wider sense which should always stand in a fruitful exchange with liturgical music: they are fructified and purified by it on the one hand, but they also prepare new forms of liturgical music. From their freer forms there can then mature what can enter into the common possession of the universal liturgy of the Church. Here then is also the realm in which the group can try its creativity in the hope that something will grow out of it that one day may belong to the whole.24
Liturgy, music, and cosmos
I would like very much to place at the close of my reflections a beautiful saying of Mahatma Gandhi, which I recently found on a calendar. Gandhi refers to the three living spaces of the cosmos and to the way in which each of these living spaces has its own mode of being. Fish live in the sea, and they are silent. Animals on the earth cry. But the birds, whose living space is the heavens, sing. Silence is proper to the sea, crying to the earth, and singing to the heavens. Man, however, has a share in all three. He bears within himself the depths of the sea, the burden of the earth, and the heights of heaven, and for that reason all three properties belong to him: silence, crying, and singing. Today — I should like to add — we see how the cry is all that remains for the man without transcendence because he wills to be only earth and also attempts to make heaven and the depths of the sea into his earth. The right liturgy, the liturgy of the communion of saints, restores his totality to him. It teaches him silence and singing again by opening up the depths of the sea to him and by teaching him to fly like the angels. By lifting up his heart, it brings the song buried in him to sound again. Indeed, we can even say the reverse: one recognizes right liturgy in that it frees us from general activity and restores to us again the depths and the heights, quiet and song. One recognizes right liturgy in that it has a cosmic not a group character. It sings with the angels. It is silent with the waiting depths of the universe. And thus it redeems the earth.
Translated by Stephen Wentworth Arndt
1. Compare Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Das Fest des Glauben (Einsiedeln: Johannes VerIage, 1981), pp. 86-111.
2. See p. 211a: “The documents of Vatican II reveal the existence of two souls…”: and p. 212a: “This series of hints, derived more from the spirit than from the letter of Vatican II.” Rainoldi and E. Costa Jr., “Canto e musica”, in Nuovo diziollario di Liturgia, ed. Domenico Sartore and Achille M. Triacca (Rome: Ed. Paoline, 1984)
3. Ibid., p. 199a.
4. Ibid., p. 206b.
5. Ibid., p. 204a: “The celebration assumes the form of a splendid ‘opus’ for whose attendance and protagonists mysterious powers are recognized: the cultural difference thus begins to become a ‘sacral’ difference…. Music is on the way to becoming, like Latin, a learned language: the language of another Church, which is the institution and its clergy.”
6. “Think … of the repetition of thought forms and prefabricted judgments; of the fabling and concealment of facts in order to sustain a certain form of power and ideological vision. Think of common mystifying expressions such as ‘the great patrimony of sacred music,’ ‘the Church’s thought on chant,’ ‘the organ, queen of the instruments: ‘the universality of Gregorian chant’ …” (p. 200a). Cf. pp. 210b and 206b.
7. Ibid., p. 210b.
8. Ibid., p. 208a.
9. Ibid., p. 206a.
10. Ibid., p. 211a.
11. Ibid., p. 212a.
12. Ibid., p. 211b.
13. Ibid., p. 217b.
14. Ibid., p. 217b.
15. “The members of the believing assembly, and above all the animators of the rite … will know how to acquire that fundamental capacity that is a ‘knowing how to celebrate,’ in other words a knowing how to do…” (p. 218b).
16. Ibid., p. 212a.
17. R. Guardini, Die Kirche des Herrn: Meditationen (Wurzburg: Werkbund-Verlag ), trans. Stella Lange, The Church of the Lord… (Chicago: H. Regnery, 1967). Guardini takes a stand there on the “opening” that was underway, which he welcomes but to which he also sets an inner limit at the same time: “… may the happenings of the present not lead to a trivialization or a softening of the Church, but may it ever stand clearly in our consciousness that the Church is a ‘mystery’ and a ‘rock’” (p. 18). He comments briefly on both concepts and traces the concept “rock” to that of “truth” from whose claim it follows that the Church must stand “unshakably in the distinction of true and false in spite of all ties to the times”: “because only the truth and the demand for truth mean genuine respect, whereas compliancy and letting things go is a weakness that does not dare to demand of man the majesty of the self-revealing God; at bottom, it is a contempt of man…” One should also re-read in this connection the Meditation sur l’eglise by Henri de Lubac, 3d cd. (Paris: Aubier, ), trans. Michael Maron, The Splendor of the Church (Glen Park, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1963 [from 2d cd.]), which has just been republished in French.
18. I have attempted to say something more in detail on Guardini’s understanding of the liturgy in my contribution “Von der Liturgie zur Christologie”, in J. Ratzinger, ed., Wege zur Wahrheit: Die bleibende Bedeutung von R. Guardini (Dusseldorf, 1985), pp. 121-144.
19. R. Guardini, Liturgische Bildung, vol.1: Versuche, (Rotenfels: Deutsche Quickbornhaus, 1923); with a revised edition under the title Liturgie und liturgische Bildung (Wurzburg: Werkbund-Verlag, 1966).
20. For the correct understanding of the Pauline logike lateria, see especially Heinrich Schlier, Der Romerbrief (Freiburg: Herder, 1977), pp. 350-358, esp. 356ff.
21. Cf. See on this point the thorough work of Christian Schorn, Die Christus-Ikone (Schaffhausen, 1984).
22. Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, Das Fest des Glaubens, 2d ed. (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1981), pp. 86-111; A. Rivaud, “Platon et la musique”, Revue d’histoire de la philosophie (1929):1-30.
23. J. F. Doppelbauer, “Die geistliche Musik und die Kirche”, Communio (German edition) 5 (1984): 457-466.
24. Important for the theological and musical foundations of Church music, which are only indicated here, is J. Overath, “Kirchenmusik im Dienst des Kultes”, Communio (German edition) 4 (1984): 355-368. One finds a broad panorama of ideas in P. W. Scheele, “Die liturgische und apostolische Sendung der Musica sacra”, Musica sacra: Zeitschrift des allgemeinen Cacilienverbandes fur die Lander deutscher Sprache 105 (1985): 187-207.
What picture of American society is likely to be imprinted on the consciousness of average Europeans? Given what they read or hear every day from intellectuals and politicians, they can hardly have any choice in the unpleasant particulars, especially if they happen to be French. The picture repeatedly sketched for them is as follows:
American society is entirely ruled by money. No other value, whether familial, moral, religious, civic, cultural, professional, or ethical has any potency in itself. Everything in America is a commodity, regarded and used exclusively for its material value. A person is judged solely by the worth of his bank account. Every U.S. President has been in the pockets of the oil companies, the military-industrial complex, the agricultural lobby, or the financial manipulators of Wall Street. America is the “jungle” par excellence of out-of-control, “savage” capitalism, where the rich are always becoming richer and fewer, while the poor are becoming poorer and more numerous. Poverty is the dominant social reality in America. Hordes of famished indigents are everywhere, while luxurious chauffeured limousines with darkened windows glide through the urban wilderness.
Poverty and inequality like this should cause Europeans to cringe in horror, especially since (we have it on good authority) there is no safety net in America, no unemployment benefits, no retirement, no assistance for the destitute–not the slightest bit of social solidarity. In the U.S. “only the most fortunate have the right to medical care and to grow old with dignity,” as one writer recently put it in Libération. University courses are reserved only for those who can pay, which partly explains the “low level of education” in the benighted USA. Europeans firmly believe these sorts of caricatures–because they are repeated every day by the elites.
Another distinctive feature of the United States: the pandemic violence. Everywhere you go, violence reigns, with uniquely high levels of delinquency and criminality and a feverish state of near-open revolt in the ghettos. This last is the inevitable result of the deep-rooted racism of American society, which sets ethnic “communities” against one another, and ethnic minorities as a whole against the oppressive white majority. And the unpardonable cowardice and venality that has prevented American leaders from banning the sale of firearms results in regular bloodbaths in which teenagers mercilessly gun down their teachers and fellow students in the classroom. Criticisms of the U.S. system of law bounce back and forth between the idea that it is paralyzed by legalism and the claim that the nation is a lawless jungle.
Yet another universally held conviction is that these social ills are unlikely to ever be cured since Americans make it a point of honor to elect only mental defectives as Presidents. From the Missouri tie salesman Harry Truman to the Texas cretin George W. Bush, not to mention the peanut farmer Jimmy Carter and the B-movie actor Ronald Reagan, the White House offers us a gallery of nincompoops. Only John F. Kennedy, in the eyes of the French, rose a little above this undistinguished bunch, probably because he had the merit of having married someone of French extraction; naturally, this union could not fail to raise President Kennedy’s intelligence to at least average level–but doubtless still too high for his fellow citizens, who never forgave him and ended up assassinating him.
In any case, everyone knows that the USA is a democracy only in appearance: In the 1950s, the real face of the American political system was revealed during the McCarthy episode, which remains the truest revelation of the inner essence of the regime created by the Constitution of the United States. It is forgotten that the House Committee on Un-American Activities was originally created in 1937 to combat the Ku Klux Klan, which was considered an anti-American organization because it rejected the Constitutional contract that lies at the heart of the American system.
In 2002, France experienced the humiliation of seeing a demagogic populist of the extreme right take second place behind Jacques Chirac, thus going on to a runoff. What was the reaction from E.U. deputy and professor Olivier Duhamel, one of France’s leading commentators? “Now we are catching up with the degenerate democracies of the type of the United States.” Strangely, it is always America that is described as degenerate and “fascist,” while it is solely in Europe that actual dictatorships and totalitarian regimes spring up.
The verdict delivered in Europe against U.S. foreign policy (particularly by France, which wields the loudest bullhorn on this subject) is a curious one. It alternates between criticizing the Americans for being too aggressive (“unilateralism”) and being too withdrawn (“isolationism”). When former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine deplores America’s “unilateralism” for causing the U.S.–how dreadful!–to “base her decisions on her own worldview and on the defense of her own interests,” we should note that this is an excellent definition of the “independent” foreign policy so forcefully espoused by General de Gaulle, and adhered to by his French successors since then. Meanwhile, all across Europe, foreign policy intellectuals make ritual denunciations of American “arrogance.” The very wealth of the U.S., they insist, disqualifies her from speaking in the name of human rights.
Many Europeans sneer that America, a society still in a primitive state, ruled by violence and criminality, couldn’t possibly have a mature culture. American literature and cinema is said to be an arid desert, devoid of original talent or great creators. They apparently never heard of Poe, Melville, Hawthorne, Henry James, Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, or Scott Fitzgerald. Piercing analysts like Theodore
Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, John
Dos Passos, and Tom Wolfe are conveniently ignored. And never mind that American film and television are far more willing to confront sensitive social or political issues than are European productions.
On the whole, American society is sweepingly condemned as practically the worst association of human beings in history. Fresh evidence can do nothing to dispel such views, which, filled with distortion as they are, reflect little on the true strengths and failures of American society. But they tell us a great deal about the psychological problems of those Europeans who proffer the criticisms.
I watched the United States from France and Italy during the 1950s and ’60s, and formed my opinion about it through the filter of the European press–which means my opinion was unfavorable. Europeans at this time saw America as the land of McCarthyism and the execution of the Rosenbergs (who we then believed innocent), of racism and the Korean War, and a stranglehold on Europe itself. Then Vietnam became the principal reason to hate America. Even during this period when Europeans completely relied on the United States to protect them against Soviet imperialism, anti-Americanism was almost as virulent as it is today.
For European leftists and the majority of intellectuals–who were likely to adhere to communist ideas–anti-Americanism was rational. This crowd identified America with capitalism, and capitalism with evil. What was less rational was their wholesale swallowing of the most flagrant and stupid lies about American society and foreign policy, with a concomitant flight from accurate knowledge of the political systems that the U.S. was battling.
A third of a century later, we witnessed something similar. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the vast majority of French people expressed sympathy with the U.S. But there were plenty who didn’t. On September 16, delegates from the Confédération Générale du Travail, the communist trade union, booed a speaker who called for three minutes of silence in memory of the murdered Americans. Followers of Jean-Marie Le Pen on Europe’s extreme right celebrated with champagne in offices of the National Front as they watched televised images of the Twin Towers collapsing. So gathered together under the banner of anti-Americanism were all manner of ideological partisans.
A nadir of intellectual incoherence was achieved. After the first gushings of emotion and crocodile condolences, the murderous assaults were depicted as a justified retaliation for evil done by the United States. It’s not so surprising that this was a reaction in many Third World countries. Here we see the habitual escape hatch of societies suffering from chronic failure, societies that have completely messed up their evolution toward democracy and economic growth: Instead of looking to their own incompetence and corruption as the cause, they finger the West in general and the United States in particular. And, after a discreet pause of a few days, claims of American culpability also surfaced in Europe in the press, among intellectuals, and among politicians of the Left and the Right–in France above all.
Declarations multiplied demanding that the U.S. not launch a war against terrorism. A gang of suicidal fanatics, indoctrinated, trained, and financed by a powerful and rich multinational terrorist organization, had murdered more than 3,000 Americans, yet it was the victim who was almost immediately called the aggressor. Shouldn’t we ask about the “root causes” that had pushed the terrorists toward their destructive acts? Wasn’t the United States in part responsible for what had happened?
Obsessed by their hatred, and floundering in illogicality, Europe’s anti-American dupes completely forget that when the U.S. acts against terrorists in her own self-interest, she is also acting in the interest of Europeans, and in the interest of many other countries threatened, or already subverted, by terrorism.
Today’s anti-American disinformation is not the result of pardonable, correctable mistakes, but of a profound psychological need to make the U.S. the villain responsible for others’ failures.
Take crime, a subject Europeans love to whip the United States over, while closing their eyes to their own rapidly rising crime levels. The fact is that during the final 15 years of the twentieth century, crime diminished dramatically in the United States. In New York City, Rudolph Giuliani cut crime by half in five years. In Europe, disorder has skyrocketed. In France, crime and delinquency doubled between 1985 and 1998, and has galloped ahead even faster since then.
Giuliani was mocked in certain French newspapers as “Giussolini.” But after having refused for decades to even recognize the existence of a crime problem in their country, French Leftists have finally confessed their “naïve optimism” and leniency toward antisocial behavior. To finally acknowledge 20 years of error is impressive. Yet the minister of justice, Marylise Lebranchu, insisted on doing so with the haughty proclamation that, nonetheless, “The government has no desire to copy the American model.” One has one’s pride and one’s scruples, after all. Overwhelmed by their failure to combat the steadily climbing disorder, and unable to hide from the obvious forever, French authorities in 2001 were forced to sheepishly adopt many American methods of crime fighting. Here and elsewhere, anti-Americanism simply served to cover government incompetence, ideological backwardness, and social disorder.
For skeptics of democratic capitalism, the United States is, quite simply, the enemy. For many years, and still today, a principal function of anti-Americanism has been to discredit the nation that stands as the supreme alternative to socialism. More recently, Islamists, anti-modern Greens, and others have taken to pillorying the U.S. for the same reason. To travesty the United States as a repressive, unjust, racist society is a way of proclaiming: Look what happens when modern democratic capitalism is implemented!
This is the message of critics not only in Europe, but also in the United States itself, where anti-Americanism continues to prosper among university, journalistic, and literary elites. But in Europe, these ideological reasons for blaming America first are multiplied by simple jealousy of American power. The current American “hyperpower” is the direct consequence of European powerlessness, both past and present. The United States fills a void caused by our inadequacies in capability, thinking, and will to act.
Americans might ask themselves what interest the United States could have in plunging into the bloody quagmire of the Balkans, that centuries-old masterpiece of Europe’s matchless ingenuity. But Europe found herself incapable of bringing order by herself to this murderous chaos of her own making. So it devolved upon the United States to take charge of operations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia. The Europeans thanked the Americans afterwards by calling them imperialists–although they quake with fright and accuse the Americans of being cowardly isolationists the moment they make the slightest mention of bringing their soldiers home.
Certainly America, like all societies, has many defects and deserves criticism. But the intentional ignoring of facts begins with sociological preconceptions of the U.S.–the alleged absence of social protection, the notorious “poverty line,” the supposed unemployment level. The fact that unemployment in the U.S. fell to below 5 percent in the 1990s, whereas in France it shot up to 12 percent, implied nothing good about America according to our commentators, who reassured us with the myth of America’s omnipresent minimum-wage jobs!
At the advent of America’s 2001 economic slowdown, French newspapers ran gleeful headlines announcing “The End of Full Employment in the USA.” At the same time, the French government was frenetically heaping praise on itself for reducing unemployment levels to 8.7 percent–almost twice the American level (not counting the tens of thousands of the effectively unemployed who in France are artificially excluded from the statistics). By September 2001, unemployment in France had already climbed back to over 9 percent.
“The End of the American Economic Dream” was Le Monde‘s headline when there was a pause of the practically uninterrupted 17-year period of U.S. economic growth from 1983 to 2000. In truth, the U.S. has led a technological revolution without precedent, creating tens of millions of jobs while absorbing a tremendous population increase (from 248 million in 1990 to 281 million in 2000). All this was but a “dream”? Americans are regularly reproached for wanting to “impose their economic and social model” on others. But whenever there is an economic slowdown, other countries anxiously await an American-led “recovery.”
While the U.S. is vilified and blamed, its financial and military aid is universally desired. America is the sole power at once capable of saving Mexico from economic collapse (in 1995), dissuading communist China from attacking Taiwan (repeatedly), mediating between India and Pakistan in the matter of Kashmir, and working with some chance of success toward the reunification of the two Koreas under a democratic regime. When the European Union sent a delegation, headed by the Swedish prime minister, to Pyongyang in May 2001, the delegation could find nothing better to do than grovel before Kim Jong Il, the criminal chief of one of the last totalitarian jails on the planet.
The fundamental role of anti-Americanism in Europe in general, and particularly among those on the Left, is to absolve themselves of their own moral failings and intellectual errors by heaping them onto the monster scapegoat, the United States of America. For stupidity and bloodshed to vanish from Europe, the U.S. must be identified as the singular threat to democracy (contrary to every lesson of actual history). Thus, during the Cold War, it was dogma among Europeans from Sweden to Sicily, from Athens to Paris, that the “imperialistic” power was America, even though it was the USSR that annexed Eastern Europe, made satellites out of several African countries, and invaded Afghanistan, even though it was the People’s Republic of China that marched into Tibet, attacked South Korea, and subjugated three Indochinese countries. A similar dynamic applies today in the war on terror.
One example of how little credit the U.S. is allowed by the rest of the world is the way the belief spread, and was quickly accepted as fact, that the United States was bent on imposing censorship after September 11.
The Qatar-based television network Al-Jazeera, and subsequently CNN, had aired a statement by Osama bin Laden in which he gloated over the thousands killed and called for further massacres. According to both American and French terror experts, the tirade may have contained coded messages to “sleepers” in the United States or in Europe relating to projected terrorist attacks. It seemed prudent for the U.S. administration and Congress to appeal to television and radio managers not to broadcast such communiqués.
Such steps ought to have been understood as legitimate cautionary measures. Instead, a chorus of imprecations was raised around the world. America had imposed censorship, suppressed freedom of the press, violated the First Amendment. The feverish Le Monde headline “Propaganda Rages in the American Media” (October 3, 2001) was typical.
The legions of Muslims living in countries that have never known democracy or the slightest whiff of media freedom apparently felt well qualified to defend these liberties against the only country on the planet where they have never been suppressed. As for the French, they have evidently already forgotten how radio and television were subject to vigilant censorship by the state during the Algerian War, and that scarcely a week went by without a police raid on some newspaper office or other to seize printed material that might “undermine the army’s morale.”
Other measures adopted after September 11 to thwart terrorist attacks (similar to those taken in Europe, by the way) raised protests on both sides of the Atlantic. Surveillance of suspects, access to e-mail and bank accounts, giving police the right to open car trunks–were denounced as “totalitarian” by the French League of Human Rights, as well as American civil liberties organizations. Of course, the measures were designed precisely to protect democracy from its totalitarian enemies.
After the 1998 terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in Africa, Congress set up a National Commission on Terrorism (NCT) to redefine anti-terrorist policy. The commission’s report emphasized that “the threat of attacks causing massive loss of human life within our borders continues to grow.” On the report’s cover was a photo of the Twin Towers, as if by premonition. Predictably, a swarm of leagues, associations, and organizations leapt to block any countermeasures on the grounds that they would “mortally endanger” civil liberties. A group representing Arab-Americans bewailed a “return to the darkest days of McCarthyism.” The civil rights chief in the Clinton administration deplored that Americans of Arab origin were unjustly fingered by the commission–though there is not a single mention of Arab-Americans in the NCT report. The resistance was so noisy that the bill which would have mandated certain security measures was effectively buried, never to become law–with results we all know.
The fact that defenders of human rights and liberty wouldn’t take into account the right to national defense meant that sensible, foresighted warnings were dismissed as the racist ravings of hawkish fanatics. How did this ingenious propensity for suicide entitle Europeans to brandish slogans denouncing a supposed evaporation of American liberties? Why is the USA casually accused of “fascism,” when it is a land that has never known a dictator over the course of two centuries, while Europe has been busy making troops of them?
The American military operation in Afghanistan, the first major response to September 11, was derided as a specimen of aggressive unilateralism by global elites, as if no prior event could explain this “imperialistic” reflex. Europeans–governments and the public–had generally showed unqualified solidarity with the United States right after September 11. But important minorities–in the parties of the Left, the Greens in particular, the enemies of globalization, and a near majority among European intellectuals–were quick to exhibit their old fixations. Hostilities really began, they say, only with the American retaliation. The initial aggression was simply dismissed by large numbers of people.
A group of 113 French intellectuals launched an appeal against the “imperial crusade” in Afghanistan: “In the name of the law and morality of the jungle” (not because 3,000 people had been murdered), “the Western armada administers its divine justice.” Of course, if any parties in this entire affair believed themselves to be divine, it was the Islamists–the kind that murders thousands of innocent civilians in the name of Allah, or the kind that, in Nigeria and Sudan, massacres Christians for being unwilling to submit to sharia. In two months alone, several hundred Nigerian Christians were exterminated by Muslims. Our 113 intellectuals had nothing to say about it.
In the best cases, the Ameriphobes put the jihadists and those who would resist them on an equal plane, not pronouncing in favor of either. Hundreds of thousands of pacifists demonstrated on October 14, 2001 brandishing banners: “No to Terrorism. No to War.” Which is about as intelligent as: “No to Illness. No to Medicine.” We have seen this before. In 1939, when the Nazi armies were only months from occupying Paris, French communists, fixated on the alleged evils of capitalism, exhorted armaments workers to sabotage their factories and soldiers to desert their regiments.
Today’s unilateralist pacifists condemned the American counterattack against the Taliban in Afghanistan precisely because it was a counterattack. The United States, they said, had given in to base desires for revenge and launched an air assault that would lead inevitably to the deaths of Afghan civilians. What they should have done was negotiate a political solution. Well, of course! Democracies always refuse to negotiate; only sanguinary fanatics are eager to compromise.
The pacifists deliberately ignored that the purpose of the American reaction was not revenge but defense–the squelching of future terrorism. Was it the fault of the United States if Afghanistan was where the jihadists’ mastermind was hiding? The intervention in Afghanistan, despite all the precautions taken, could not be without danger to civilians; but when the conflict had first begun on 9/11, it was in New York, not Kabul, that thousands of civilian lives were lost. It seems that for some humanitarians, civilian casualties are indeed acceptable–if they are American.
To avoid being transformed into “aggressors,” the Americans would have had to abstain from any retaliation whatsoever against the international terror networks. It wasn’t the Afghan people who were targeted, but the Taliban’s military installations. Yet after a few days, all we heard was incessant talk of U.S. air attacks and Afghan civilian casualties. The statistics so loudly trumpeted by Europeans were provided by–the Taliban themselves.
And why wasn’t it made clear that the United States had been, from 1980 to 2001, the principal supplier of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and that 80 percent of the aid distributed by private charities within the framework of the World Food Program was paid for by Americans? Because to concede as much would have called for a modicum of intellectual integrity.
The real cause of September 11 unquestionably lies in the resentment against the United States, which grew apace after the collapse of the USSR, and America’s emergence as the “sole global superpower.” This resentment is particularly marked in the Islamic lands, where the existence of Israel, which is blamed on America, is an important motivator. But the resentment is also more quietly present over the entire planet. In some European capitals, the sense of grievance has been raised to the status of an idée fixe, virtually the guiding principle of foreign policy. Thus the
U.S. is charged with all the evils, real or imagined, that afflict humanity, from the falling price of beef in France to AIDS in Africa and global warming everywhere. The result is a widespread refusal to accept responsibility for one’s own actions.
As for the American “hyperpower” that causes Europeans so many sleepless nights, they should look to their own history and ask how far they themselves are responsible for that predominance. For it was they who made the twentieth century into the grimmest in history. It was they who brought about the two apocalypses of the World Wars and invented the two most absurd and criminal political regimes ever inflicted on the human race. If Western Europe in 1945 and Eastern Europe in 1990 were ruined, whose fault was it? American “unilateralism” is the consequence–not the cause–of the diminished power of the other nations. Yet it has become habitual to turn the situation around and constantly indict the United States. Is it surprising when such an atmosphere of accumulated hate ends in pushing fanatics to compensate for their failures by engaging in carnage?
The refrain of German Greens, French organizations like ATTAC, magazines like Politis, Latin American intellectuals, and African editorial writers is that anti-American terrorism can be explained–indeed justified–on the grounds of the “growing poverty” caused by global capitalism, whose forces are orchestrated by the United States. The radical Left in the United States has also made this its rallying cry. The Italian Nobel laureate and novelist Dario Fo, a literary non-entity, put it bluntly: “What are 20,000 deaths [sic] in New York compared with the millions caused every year by the big speculators?”
Of course, the Muslim world includes countries that are among the wealthiest on the planet (especially Saudi Arabia, which finances al-Qaeda and other Islamist organizations). Islamic terrorism is the offspring of religious fanaticism; it has nothing to do with poverty; and it cannot possibly lead to any improvement in the lot of backward societies. Islamists utterly reject all measures that might contribute to improvement: democracy, pluralism, intellectual freedom and critical thought, equality for women, and openness to other cultures.
In the two months after 9/11, the phobias and fallacies of traditional anti-Americanism massively intensified. The clumsiest of them was an attempt to justify Islamist terrorism by claiming that America has long been hostile to Islam. The United States’ actions historically have been far less damaging to Muslims than those of Britain, France, or Russia. These European powers have conquered Muslim countries, occupied and indeed oppressed them over decades and even centuries. Americans have never colonized a Muslim nation. Americans evince no hostility toward Islam as such today; on the contrary, their interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, as well as the pressure exerted on the Macedonian government, were designed to defend Muslim minorities. And the U.S.-led coalition that removed the Iraqi army from Kuwait during the first Gulf War acted to defend a small Muslim country against a secular dictator who had used chemical weapons against Muslim Shiites in the south and Muslim Kurds in the north.
Another myth strenuously maintained since 9/11 is that of a moderate and tolerant Islam. The dominant idea in the Muslims’ worldview, in truth, is that all humanity must obey the rules of their religion, whereas they owe no respect to the religions of others. Indeed, showing such respect would make them apostates meriting instant execution. Anxious to show tolerance, the Pope encouraged the erection of a mosque in Rome, the city where Saint Peter is buried. No Christian church could be built in Mecca, or anywhere in Saudi Arabia, for that would profane the land of Mohammed. There is no ambiguity about al-Qaeda-style intentions: It is quite simply to convert the whole of humanity to Islam by force. Murder and mayhem is justified in the eyes of the terrorists because it strikes at the infidels who refuse to embrace Islam. We deceive ourselves if we think we can negotiate with the al-Qaeda fanatics and their ilk.
The day after 9/11, Le Parisien-Aujourd’hui published an account of the jubilant atmosphere the previous evening in the eighteenth arrondissement of Paris, home to a large Muslim community. “Bin Laden will nail all of you!” was among the more moderate remarks hurled at passersby who didn’t appear to be North African. Or: “I’m going to celebrate big time tonight! Those guys were real heroes. That’ll teach those American bastards–and all you French are next!” Snippets of this sort were ignored by almost all media.
A spokesman for British Muslims named al-Misri likewise called the attacks on the World Trade Center acts of “legitimate self-defense.” Another spiritual authority, Omar Bakri Mohammed, launched a fatwa commanding the assassination of the president of Pakistan because the latter had sided with President Bush against bin Laden. “Islam will Dominate the World” was the slogan on signs held aloft by Islamist demonstrators of British nationality as they marched in October 2001 north of London. Meanwhile, there was not the slightest whisper of protest from all those “moderate” Muslims in Britain or France supposedly opposed to this sort of extremism. The notion that the “immense majority” of Muslims settled in Europe are peacefully inclined must be viewed for what it is: a mirage.
Western Europe’s antagonism was hardly limited to its Muslim communities. Stunned by the magnitude of the 9/11 crimes and reduced to silence by the wave of solidarity with the U.S., even most long-time America-haters were quiet for a few days. But for a few days only.
The day after 9/11, the editor of Le Monde, Jean-Marie Colombani, ran the famous “We Are All Americans” editorial. Hostile reactions to the piece and the headline were numerous and immediate, both among readers of Le Monde and on the editorial board. This stemmed from the Left’s disinclination, even right after the massacres in New York and Washington, to renounce its demonized image of the United States, an image that it needs all the more since socialism has ended in shipwreck.
Shortly after 9/11 a French spokesman for the activist group ATTAC quoted the adage: “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.” French prime minister Lionel Jospin seemed to be pointing in this direction when he asked, “What lesson are the Americans going to draw from what has happened?” The lesson, Jospin indicated, should be for the U.S. to moderate her unilateralism. For Cardinal Karl Lehmann, president of the German Bishops’ Conference, the lesson to be drawn from terrorism was that “the West must not seek to dominate the rest of the world.”
Soon, many European elites insinuated that the jihadist attacks had some moral justification. These anti-American views began to circulate well before the campaign to dislodge the Taliban kicked off on October 7. The bombing which became the most frequently invoked reason to take sides against the U.S. had not yet even begun.
One of the most dishonest objections raised against the campaign in Afghanistan was that Americans had made use of mujahedin during the Afghans’ war of resistance against the USSR. What was so reprehensible about Ronald Reagan accepting the services of all those willing to oppose the Soviet Union? Was it necessary to wait until all Afghans and Saudis had read Montesquieu and converted to Christianity? Imagine what it would have meant for India, Pakistan, and the Gulf countries–for all of us–if the Soviets had been able to achieve a permanent takeover of Afghanistan. There would have been no Gorbachev, no glasnost, and no perestroika. Coming from the Europeans, who at the time of the Soviet Afghan invasion quivered with cowardice and debated only if they should or shouldn’t participate in the Moscow Olympics, this critique has something, one might say, backward about it.
Tens of millions of immigrants have streamed into the United States. If the picture of America drawn by the European press is accurate, then those immigrants from all parts of the world were deluded fools. Why choose the American capitalist jungle with all its evils, rather than the lands of peace, plenty, and liberty they came from? Why didn’t they write their families and friends basking in the paradises of Ukraine, Calabria, and Greece warning them of the perils of poverty, precariousness, and oppression in America?
The success and originality of American integration stem precisely from the fact that immigrants’ descendants can perpetuate their ancestral cultures while thinking of themselves as Americans in the fullest sense, sharing basic ideals across racial and ethnic barriers. In France, the characteristic attitude of newcomers from North Africa, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa is predominantly one of alienation, confrontation, rejection, and hatred.
As immigration trends suggest, anti-Americanism is not deeply rooted as a popular prejudice. In Europe, anti-Americanism is much more a hobgoblin of the political, cultural, and religious elites. According to a SOFRES survey of May 2000, only 10 percent of French feel dislike for the U.S. After September 11, according to another poll, 52 percent of French people interviewed said they had always felt warmly toward the U.S., against 32 percent who said the opposite. Historian Michel Winock concludes that “anti-Americanism is not an attitude of the average French person; it is typical of a certain segment of the elites.”
The great irony of this anti-American obsession is that it aggravates the evil that it aims to extirpate, namely the go it-alone impulse famously ascribed to the U.S. By criticizing the Americans whatever they do, on every occasion–even when they are completely right–Europeans (we are not alone in this, but we lead the dance) compel Americans to disregard our objections–even when we are right. The American reflex, conditioned by the constant avalanche of anathemas coming at them, causes them to keep thinking: “They’re always blaming us, so why consult them at all? We already know they’ll vilify us.”
And so America’s enemies and allies alike, valuing animosity toward the U.S. over influence on her, condemn themselves to impotence. In the process they strengthen the American superpower.
Jean-Francois Revel, who lives in Paris, is author of How Democracies Perish, The Totalitarian Temptation, Without Marx or Jesus, and the new book Anti-Americanism, which will be released in an English translation in November by Encounter Books.
The View from Abroad, American Enterprise Institute, December 4, 2003
“Cultural diversity” has replaced “cultural exceptionalism” in the French-inspired, European rhetoric. But in actuality, the two terms cover the same kind of cultural protectionism. The idea that a culture can preserve its originality by barricading itself against foreign influences is an old illusion that has always produced the opposite of the desired result. Isolation breeds sterility. It is the free circulation of cultural products and talents that allows each society to perpetuate and renew itself.
The proof of this goes back to the old comparison between Athens and Sparta. It was Athens, the open city, that was the prolific fount of creation in letters and arts, philosophy and mathematics, political science, and history. Sparta, jealously guarding its “exceptionalism,” pulled off the tour de force of being the only Greek city not to have produced a single notable poet, orator, thinker, or architect; their achievement was “diversity” of a sort, but at the price of emptiness. Parallel phenomena of cultural vacuity are found again in contemporary totalitarian states. Fear of ideological contamination induced the Nazis, the Soviets, and the Maoists to take refuge in an “official” art and a pompously dogmatic literature, sheer insults to the heritage of the peoples on whom they were inflicted.
When, in December 2001, Jean-Marie Messier said that “French-style cultural exceptionalism is dead,” he aroused horrified protests, but he was not going nearly far enough. He could have added: in fact, French cultural exceptionalism has never existed, thank goodness. If it had, it would be French culture itself that would be extinct. Let’s suppose that the sixteenth-century kings of France, instead of inviting Italian artists to their courts, had said to themselves: “This predominance of Italian painting is insufferable. We’ll keep those painters and their pictures out of the country.” The result of this castrating démarche would have been to thwart a renewal of French art. Again: between 1880 and 1914 there were many more French Impressionist paintings in American museums and the homes of private collectors than there were in France, despite which-or because of which-American art was subsequently able to find its own wellsprings, and then influence French art in turn.
These cross-fertilizations are indifferent to political antagonisms. It was during the first half of the seventeenth century, when France and Spain were frequently at war, that the creative influence of Spanish literature on the French was particularly marked. The eighteenth century, which saw repeated conflict between France and England, was also the period when the most active and productive intellectual exchanges between the two countries occurred. And between 1870 and 1945, diplomatic relations between France and Germany were hardly idyllic, yet those were the years when German philosophers and historians had the most to teach the French. And wasn’t Nietzsche steeped in the ideas of the French moralists? It would be possible to extend indefinitely the list of examples illustrating this truth: cultural diversity arises from manifold exchanges. This applies just as well to gastronomy: only McDonald’s-hating lunatics are unaware of the obvious fact that there have never been so many restaurants offering foreign cuisines, in practically every country, as in our day. Far from imposing standardiza- tion, international exchange diversifies. Withdrawing behind a wall can only dry up inspiration.
In practice, Europeans-and chiefly the French-use the jargon phrases “cultural exceptionalism” and “cultural diversity” as code words for state aid and quotas. We keep hearing that, after all, “Cultural goods are not simple commodities.” But that is merely a platitude. Whoever pretended that they were? Still, neither are they purely the products of state financing; otherwise, Soviet painting would have been the finest in the world.
“Look at the Italian cinema industry,” people say. “Without government support, it has practically disappeared.” Yet in the years after the war, the brilliance of Italian film came not from subsidies, but from Rossellini and De Sica, Blasetti and Castellani, Visconti, and Fellini. Similarly, Spanish cinema owed its blossoming in the 1980s to the imagination of its creators and not to ministerial grants. And if the French film industry in 2001 has recaptured market leadership at home and found successes abroad, this is not because it is more subsidized than formerly, but because it has managed to produce a handful of films whose quality was appreciated not only by their auteurs, but by the public. A commercially successful French cinema, with international appeal, evidences a more authentic diversity than the kind preached by tedious diversity-mongers.
This revival must be placed in perspective, however. As Dominique Moïsi dared to write, “The irony of this debate is increased by the fact that last year, the symbol of France’s successful resistance to Hollywood’s hegemony was a pleasant but very superficial comedy, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (“Amélie”), a string of trendy clips in advertising style without any social or intellectual content whatsoever. By comparison, Ken Loach’s penetrating films, which owe nothing to cultural exceptionalism, reflect a stimulating, refreshing cultural diversity.”
You don’t have to be an Aristotle or a Leibniz to grasp that “universal exceptionalism” is a contradiction in terms on the most elementary level of logic. And it is not the only such contradiction in a confused quarrel that has more to do with strong emotions than rational analysis. So Denis Olivennes, who heads Canal +, a television network that plays a big role in the French film industry’s financing, argues that a linchpin of this financial support is a tax on all new releases. In this way, he writes, “American films, which represent about half of new releases, contribute half of the funding.” Here is impressive sleight of hand. For it’s obvious that American films would not provide the funds, but rather the French filmgoer. More generally, the opposition between the state and the market in relation to the arts, between public moneys and the money of the public, is a misleading one. Public funds have but one source: the public, which is taxed by one means or another, directly or indirectly. The question is what proportion of the public’s contribution is freely offered and what proportion is milked from it by government fiat, then spent according to the whims of a minority of political and administrative decision-makers and commissions whose members are appointed, not elected.
A culture becomes decadent when it takes to running down other cultures while heaping praises on itself. Thus the professionals of radio and television keep harping on the notion-which they end up seeming to believe and making their audiences believe-that American television movies, produced with the sole aim of making a profit, avoid all controversial social and political issues. But French series, we are told over and over again, draw from a tradition of publicly funded state television; even productions from our privatized networks follow the aesthetic canons of this tradition. So they escape the “tyranny of profit” and can risk upsetting some of their viewers by courageously airing serious, painful controversies.
But actually, the opposite is true. Michel Winkler has given ample proof of this in his book Les Miroirs de la vie, subtitled Histoire des séries américains. In an interview on Monde television, Winkler (who is a physician and a novelist, and author of the 1998 bestseller La Maladie de Sachs) said: “French television series are not designed to make you think. The three main networks have one and the same policy when it comes to TV drama: . catering to conformism. The viewers are treated like sheep.” Conversely, in the United States “television, with its social critiques, has taken over from the cinema of the years between 1930 and 1950.” Conventional French productions hold the public all the more captive in that only 15 percent of French people have access to cable or satellite television, compared with 80 percent in America.
Bringing grist to the mill, let me cite the episodic television drama about the Watergate affair that was filmed and broadcast in the United States very soon after Richard Nixon’s resignation in the mid- seventies. The actor who played the president was virtually his double, and all the others were easily identifiable as real characters. And of course this was not the only national scandal that furnished the plot for an American TV production or movie, or a scenario close to actual events. But I’m still waiting for French equivalents: exposés, perhaps, of the insider trading that led to Pechiney’s buy- out of Triangle-insiders, it seems, at the highest levels of government-and of the Crédit Lyonnais and Elf scandals. If they were to be comparable to American productions, they would have to be accurate renditions of these episodes, highly unflattering to France, with a cast closely modeled on the original. It’s likely that we’ll have to wait a long time for these programs.
Rehashing one of the stalest Marxist clichés, Catherine Tasca, the French minister of culture, confided to the Figaro magazine that “market laws are the totems of American power.” In fact, market laws are not so much totems as the explanation.
In the cultural as in other domains, the quarrel with globalization that flared up during the 1990s actually represents a resistance to Americanization. Here again, in our perception of America’s influence as a threat and a disease, we should distinguish between what is fantastical and what is justified. And we should ask ourselves if American culture might include achievements and ways of doing things that others would do well to look at and emulate.
The fear of seeing cultural identities drowned in a kind of planetary standardization, which today is thought to be overwhelmingly American in coloration but in former times showed other hues, has no basis in historical fact or impartial observation of today’s reality. The commingling of cultures, with predominance going first to one and then to another, has always led-in antiquity, in the medieval period, and in the modern world-not to uniformity, but to diversity. This is what is happening to- day, as the Swedish essayist Johan Norberg (among many others) has pointed out: “Many people are afraid that the world will become McDonaldized and homogenized: we will all end up wearing the same clothes, seeing the same films. But this is not a good description of the globalization process. Take a walk in Stockholm and look for yourself. Of course you’ll find burgers and Coca Cola, but you can also pick and choose from shish kebab, sushi, Tex-Mex, Peking duck, French cheeses, Thai soup.” And the author recalls what is frequently forgotten: that American culture is not just songs by Madonna and action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger; it includes 1,700 symphony orchestras, opera attended by 7.5 million people every year, and museums that are visited by 500 million annually. Almost all American museums, where entrance is quite often free, owe their existence and funding to private sponsors.
It is surprising that artists should have so little esteem for their art that they see its international dissemination as strictly dependent on the power of money and ad- vertising. Bertrand Tavernier, for example, whom I nevertheless knew to be a connoisseur of American cinema before he himself became a filmmaker, explained its success in these terms: “With the complicity of certain politicians and even newspapers . rely- ing on a bomb-proof distribution system, Americans impose their films on us.” Yet Tavernier ought to know that a work of literature or art, still less a work of entertainment, can never be imposed on the public by force or cajoling. All the coercive power of the Soviet Union never succeeded, however much the commissars might have wanted to, in “imposing” official literature on readers, who preferred the clandestinely circulated, mimeographed material famously known as “samizdat” (literally, “self-published”). When the authors or distributors of this literature were caught by the police, they were charged with “cosmopolitanism”-another name for globalism-and sent to prison camps or special psychiatric hospitals.
In January 2002, when Yves Saint Laurent unexpectedly announced his decision to retire, suddenly bringing his career as couturier to an end, reaction to the news was worldwide. And it was not only Saint Laurent’s talent that was influential everywhere, but also that of his predecessors, who for over a century had created and sustained French leadership in haute couture (which is not to diminish the excellence of other schools, notably the Italian). There was no suggestion in the foreign press that this traditional preeminence of French haute couture and Saint Laurent’s influence was attributable to a “bomb-proof distribution system” that, with the shady complicity of “politicians and newspapers,” had succeeded in “imposing” French styles on others. Anyone who said as much would have been ridiculed.
But the French make themselves liable to such ridicule when they assess the achievements of others. For instance, between 1948 and 1962, most of the of top prizes at the Venice Biennales were conferred on artists of the Paris school. But in 1964, when the first prize was awarded to Robert Rauschenberg, the newest leading light of a New York school that had been showing great vitality for twenty years, the French cried scandal, imperialism, and collusion with dealers.
Giancarlo Pajetta, an important Italian Communist leader, once said: “I have finally understood what pluralism is; it’s when lots of people share my point of view.” In that spirit, governments and elites almost everywhere have signed on to cultural globalism provided that their own countries are its source and model. In 1984, presenting a Projet culturel extérieur de la France, the French government said, with signal modesty, that this manifesto had “no parallel in other countries.” All cultures are of equal value, conceded the authors of this official document (a statement erring on the side of simplistic political correctness), but our culture is predestined to be a universal mediator, for it is “shared by people of every continent.” Touching optimism indeed, which naturally led up to the conclusion that “the future of the French language in the world can only be as a promoter of cultural progress and is closely linked to the future of people everywhere.” Global homogenization of culture, in the illusions of these authors, is fine-provided that it emanates from France.
And the homogenization in question, which today is perceived most often as Americanization, is (insofar as it exists) American only in its most superficial and least durable aspects. It is above all the vehicle for popular culture-the entertainment, clothing styles, and fast foods favored by the young, and popular music (but not all of it, by any means). Here the word “culture” is being used in the rather loose sense that has prevailed because it is the entertainment industry that leads the choir in lamenting American influence. This influence may present a problem, but to identify the whole of cultural life with entertainment is a travesty.
Contrary to what Jacques Chirac maintained, globalization is not a “cultural steamroller.” It is and always has been an engine of enrichment. Think, for example, how the French artistic sensibility was revitalized by the discovery-or rather fuller knowledge-of Japanese painting afforded at the end of the nineteenth century, or by the arrival in France of African art ten or twenty years later. There are plenty of similar cases. Unless one has been brainwashed by the brawlers of Seattle and Porto Alegre, the age-old lesson of the history of civilizations cannot be erased: barriers are what diminish and sterilize cultures; commingling is what fructifies and inspires them.
Science is a different matter. Research depends much more on financial support than other pursuits. This fact partly explains the current American dominance, but only partly. It stems also from the way that American universities manage to combine teaching and research much more closely than their European counterparts, excepting German and British institutions. This is one of the reasons why American universities attract so many foreign students and professors. In its report for 2002, the French revenue court criticized-yet again-the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) for its sclerosis, aging researchers, and absence of peer review. This pessimistic diagnosis is a refrain that has been periodically repeated over the last few decades, but, as is common in France in every domain, it has never led to the slightest reform. Despite these drawbacks, some Nobel Prizes have gone to French scientists in recent decades, as well as to scientists of other countries, although the United States has of course won by far the largest number. So geographical diversity still prevails in the sciences, even though the notion of “diversity” in science itself is relatively meaningless: scientific knowledge, in contrast to understanding of sculpture or music, is no different in Tokyo, Rome, or Bombay than it is in Massachusetts or California.
The equal-opportunity nature of scientific knowledge means that internationalism is a necessary condition for its most rapid progress. If Descartes, through philosophical dogmatism, had not rejected Galileo’s physics, perhaps it might have fallen to a French scientist to make the discoveries that Newton eventually made in England, where speculation was much less constrained by metaphysical presuppositions than it was in France. And if Islam had not rejected modern science, perhaps Islamic countries would not have suffered from the “cultural exceptionalism” that has been theirs, and not always helpful, for the last three centuries.
For a culture to be strong and internationally prominent depends on the scope and quality of education at home and within its domain of influence, and how it adapts to evolving knowledge. The deterioration of elementary and secondary teaching in France since about 1970 is an acknowledged catastrophe, abundantly doc- umented and discussed. But there is less agreement about the deficiencies of French higher education. At a time when a grow- ing portion of the population has access to higher education, the quality of university instruction is crucial for the health of a culture and its appeal to outside observers.
Why do students, teachers, and researchers from every country in the world swarm to American schools and not to ours? In an important study, L’Université française du XIXe au XXIe siècle, Jean-Claude Casa- nova ruthlessly exposes how French higher education has failed in comparison with what is available in the United States. One reason is simply lack of money. The author notes that the endowment of Harvard, certainly not the largest university in America, is close to $20 billion-more than twice the annual expenditure of France on its entire university system. A second cause of our weakness, since the beginning of the nineteenth century, has been the promotion of administrative centralization. For a long time we have spoken of “the French university” rather than “French universities.” By the late nineteenth century, in his book Les Origines de la France contemporaine, Hippolyte Taine was convincingly describing the cultural sclerosis engendered by this academic authoritarianism.
To this lack of autonomy in our universities was added the mistake of separating teaching from research. For fifty years the harmful consequences have been regularly denounced by prominent French scientists, above all those who have had experience with German, English, and American universities. In this area as elsewhere, French reluctance to take account of the most incontrovertible studies and to make reforms (except in rhetorical fashion) has perpetuated this absurd divorce. Finally, a third weakness, according to Casanova, is that “the French university system was slow to extend education to the masses, by contrast with American universities, the first in the world to get serious about this task from the middle of the twentieth century onwards.”
True culture always transcends national frontiers. Among all the contradictions of anti-Americanism, one of the oddest is that one finds condemnation of cultural internationalism even when roles are reversed- that is, when it is American culture or popular culture that is subject to foreign influence. Thus, a Québecois journalist blathers against “the cultural fast food of the hour . The Phantom of the Opera, a cultural equivalent of the Big Mac.” As it happens, the show that Mme. Vaillancourt is talking about was originally not an American but a British production, and journalists should know that it was developed from the renowned French novel that came out in
1910, Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which we owe to Gaston Leroux. We ought to be happy that a popular French book finds itself, by means of an American adaptation, also translated onto movie screens throughout the world. But in Mario Roy’s pertinent comment, “Facts have never been the point, of course.”
Hatred for America is sometimes pushed to the point where it transmutes into hatred for ourselves in France. This is what we saw when the Disneyland near Paris was opened in 1992. This event was denounced by our intellectuals as a “cultural Chernobyl.” But you will notice that a large part of Walt Disney’s themes, especially in his feature movies, are drawn from European sources. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Sleeping Beauty, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, the musical scores in Fantasia, the reconstruction of the pirate’s ship from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island-all are borrowings from, and homages to, European creativity. And Disney pays deference to other traditional masterpieces from various cultures-for example, The Thousand and One Nights.
That these popular stories, the fruit of the imagination of so many different peoples over so many centuries, orally transmitted from generation to generation, then fixed in written form by authors who collected them, should finally appear in a completely new medium thanks to the unique talent of a Californian artist-isn’t this an example of the unforeseeable paths and crossroads of cultures? Their dynamic motifs travel by varied transmission routes, ancient and modern, scornful of the prudish chauvinism of the narrow-minded protectionists.
These last will surely raise the objection that exploitation of these ancient Western and oriental legends by American show business can only betray their special qual- ities by deforming and commercializing them. Hollywood, as everyone knows, or ought to know, has never been anything but the capital of bad taste, vulgarity, and banality. American show business destroys other cultures more than it honors them. But at this point, we have left the sphere of reason to enclose ourselves in our own self-contradictory fantasies.
Shame at seeing the variety of cultures allegedly being effaced for the profit of America alone is reinforced by another factor, this one very real: the international spread of the English language. English is the mother tongue of approximately 380 million human beings. Almost an equal number use it as a second language, not counting the legions who know a few words and phrases, an indispensable minimum of the lingua franca for travel abroad, even in non-Anglophone countries. If this internationalization of English is largely the consequence of American superpower, does that mean it must lead to the cultural Americanization of the planet? Not at all. Obviously, to learn elementary English, enough for everyday needs-for commercial exchanges, financial transactions, even political and diplomatic business-doesn’t require even a superficial familiarity with Anglo-American culture and thought, much less the abandonment of one’s own culture. The utilitarian use of English by hundreds of millions of our contemporaries is clearly not incompatible with an abysmal ignorance of the great writers and thinkers as well as the historical, political, and religious events that have forged the British and American civilizations. Conversely, someone who knows scarcely a word of the Russian language can be imbued with the Russian sensibility thanks to assiduous reading of Russian classics in the often fine translations that have been made in so many languages.
And then, globalization is equally a factor in the learning of foreign languages other than English. As Mario Vargas Llosa writes, “How many millions of young people of both sexes, throughout the world, have undertaken, thanks to globalization, to learn Japanese, German, Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese, Arabic, Russian or French? Undoubtedly the number is very large, and this is a sign of our times; the trend, fortunately, will continue to grow in years to come.” So let’s not forget: globalization is really the facilitation of travel, both mentally and physically. The furthest destinations, once accessible only to the wealthy, are now within reach of a vast crowd of cosmopolitans, for a relatively modest sum.
One may justifiably object that the omnipresence of English could lead to the adulteration of other languages, not so much by borrowings that they make from English-this is a normal and universal linguistic phenomenon-as by the distortions in syntax and vocabulary that Anglicisms may impose. In France, Étiemble listed, from 1964, an inventory of such contaminations of the French language in its famous Parlez- vous franglais? If abusive or superfluous “Americanisms” do have a tendency to invade other languages, it should nevertheless be stressed that the decay of some “high culture” languages has mostly autonomous causes. There are two principal ones: the decline in educational levels in nations where they were previously high, and a spurious modernism that regards any concern to protect and develop the specific virtues of a language as backward-looking academic purism. The majority of semantic confusions, improprieties, and syntactical inconsistencies that pepper, for example, the French media language are of purely domestic origin. They owe nothing to contamination by English. Yet, it is true that the impoverishment of a language makes it more and more vulnerable to invasion by alien terms and structures-as happens today, in the majority of cases, from a bastardized English. Of course, every language must evolve, but it’s a mistake to forget that the evolution can be to good or ill effect. The bombing of a cathedral is certainly one form of architectural innovation, but does that make it desirable?
It remains a fact that in the domain of languages too, globalization leads to variety, not uniformity. The spread of English facilitates communication and mutual influence between cultures; it is hardly a trivial matter when, thanks to the lingua franca, Japan- ese, Germans, Filipinos, Italians, Russians, French, Brazilians, etc., can participate in the same colloquium, sharing information and ideas. Meanwhile, many more people than in the past speak or understand, in addition to their native language, one or two foreign languages other than English.
The real danger-conceivably a mortal one-for European culture is that anti-American and antiglobalist phobias might derail progress. Guy Sorman has shown the scientific and technological retreats this obscurantism has led to in his book Le Progrès et ses ennemis. And this isn’t some “right-wing” or “left-wing” thesis; it is a rational one. It is defended alike by the liberal-democrat Sorman and by the socialist Claude Allègre. The latter wages war against the idea that Europe should abandon nuclear energy, genetic engineering and research using embryonic cells. Should the pressure groups that agitate against progress win the day, in twenty years the European states will regress, he writes, “to the level of the underdeveloped countries, in a world that will be dominated by the United States and China” (L’Express, February 7, 2002.) The anti-American fanatics will then have succeeded in making Europe even more dependant on the United States than it is today.
Must one suppose, then, that our own French distribution system is susceptible to bombing?“Les Deux Frances,” Les Echos, January 14, 2002. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the French film industry’s two big hits in 2001–2002, Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain and Astérix et Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre, were shot in German and English studios. The reason for this is that the French government robs successful producers in order to subsidize hacks.
Must one suppose, then, that our own French distribution system is susceptible to bombing?
I develop this theme at greater length in an article that first appeared in Le Point in March 21, 1992 and was then reprinted in my collection Fin du siècle des ombres.
This essay is adapted from the book Anti-Americanism, published by Encounter Books in 2003
“. . . It’s a tricky business, integrating new politics with tried and true social motifs . . .”
At 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., somewhere along in there, on August 25, 1966, his 48th birthday, in fact, Leonard Bernstein woke up in the dark in a state of wild alarm. That had happened before. It was one of the forms his insomnia took. So he did the usual. He got up and walked around a bit. He felt groggy. Suddenly he had a vision, an inspiration. He could see himself, Leonard Bernstein, the egregio maestro, walking out on stage in white tie and tails in front of a full orchestra. On one side of the conductor’s podium is a piano. On the other is a chair with a guitar leaning against it. He sits in the chair and picks up the guitar. A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown! But there’s a reason. He has an anti-war message to deliver to this great starched white-throated audience in the symphony hall. He announces to them: “I love.” Just that. The effect is mortifying. All at once a Negro rises up from out of the curve of the grand piano and starts saying things like, “The audience is curiously embarrassed.” Lenny tries to start again, plays some quick numbers on the piano, says, “I love. Amo, ergo sum.” The Negro rises again and says, “The audience thinks he ought to get up and walk out. The audience thinks, ‘I am ashamed even to nudge my neighbor.’ ” Finally, Lenny gets off a heartfelt anti-war speech and exits.
For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart. Who the hell was this Negro rising up from the piano and informing the world what an ass Leonard Bernstein was making of himself? It didn’t make sense, this superego Negro by the concert grand.
Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels wrapped in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which are at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with hand-ironed white aprons . . . The butler will bring them their drinks . . . Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York. For example, does that huge Black Panther there in the hallway, the one shaking hands with Felicia Bernstein herself, the one with the black leather coat and the dark glasses and the absolutely unbelievable Afro, Fuzzy Wuzzy-scale in fact—is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice. . . .
Felicia is remarkable. She is beautiful, with that rare burnished beauty that lasts through the years. Her hair is pale blond and set just so. She has a voice that is “theatrical,” to use a term from her youth. She greets the Black Panthers with the same bend of the wrist, the same tilt of the head, the same perfect Mary Astor voice with which she greets people like Jason, D.D. Adolph, Betty, Gian Carlo, Schuyler, and Goddard, during those après-concert suppers she and Lenny are so famous for. What evenings! She lights the candles over the dining room table, and in the Gotham gloaming the little tremulous tips of flame are reflected in the mirrored surface of the table, a bottomless blackness with a thousand stars, and it is that moment that Lenny loves. There seem to be a thousand stars above and a thousand stars below, a room full of stars, a penthouse duplex full of stars, a Manhattan tower full of stars, with marvelous people drifting through the heavens, Jason Robards, John and D. D. Ryan, Gian Carlo Menotti, Schuyler Chapin, Goddard Lieberson, Mike Nichols, Lillian Hellman, Larry Rivers, Aaron Copland, Richard Avedon, Milton and Amy Greene, Lukas Foss, Jennie Tourel, Samuel Barber, Jerome Robbins, Steve Sondheim, Adolph and Phyllis Green, Betty Comden, and the Patrick O’Neals . . .
. . . and now, in the season of Radical Chic, the Black Panthers. That huge Panther there, the one Felicia is smiling her tango smile at, is Robert Bay, who just 41 hours ago was arrested in an altercation with the police, supposedly over a .38-caliber revolver that someone had, in a parked car in Queens at Northern Boulevard and 104th Street or some such unbelievable place, and taken to jail on a most unusual charge called “criminal facilitation.” And now he is out on bail and walking into Leonard and Felicia Bernstein’s 13-room penthouse duplex on Park Avenue. Harassment & Hassles, Guns & Pigs, Jail & Bail—they’re real, these Black Panthers. The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone. Everyone casts a glance, or stares, or tries a smile, and then sizes up the house for the somehow delicious counterpoint . . . Deny it if you want to! but one does end up making such sweet furtive comparisons in this season of Radical Chic . . . There’s Otto Preminger in the library and Jean vanden Heuvel in the hall, and Peter and Cheray Duchin in the living room, and Frank and Domna Stanton, Gail Lumet, Sheldon Harnick, Cynthia Phipps, Burton Lane, Mrs. August Heckscher, Roger Wilkins, Barbara Walters, Bob Silvers, Mrs. Richard Avedon, Mrs. Arthur Penn, Julie Belafonte, Harold Taylor, and scores more, including Charlotte Curtis, women’s news editor of the New York Times, America’s foremost chronicler of Society, a lean woman in black, with her notebook out, standing near Felicia and big Robert Bay, and talking to Cheray Duchin.
Cheray tells her: “I’ve never met a Panther—this is a first for me!” . . . never dreaming that within 48 hours her words will be on the desk of the President of the United States . . .
This is a first for me. But she is not alone in her thrill as the Black Panthers come trucking on in, into Lenny’s house, Robert Bay, Don Cox the Panthers’ Field Marshal from Oakland, Henry Miller the Harlem Panther defense captain, the Panther women—Christ, if the Panthers don’t know how to get it all together, as they say, the tight pants, the tight black turtlenecks, the leather coats, Cuban shades, Afros. But real Afros, not the ones that have been shaped and trimmed like a topiary hedge and sprayed until they have a sheen like acrylic wall-to-wall—but like funky, natural, scraggly . . . wild . . .
These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—
—no more interminable Urban League banquets in hotel ballrooms where they try to alternate the blacks and whites around the tables as if they were stringing Arapaho beads—
—these are real men!
Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong—somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade. The Panther women—there are three or four of them on hand, wives of the Panther 21 defendants, and they are so lean, so lithe, as they say, with tight pants and Yoruba-style headdresses, almost like turbans, as if they’d stepped out of the pages of Vogue, although no doubt Vogue got it from them. All at once every woman in the room knows exactly what Amanda Burden meant when she said she was now anti-fashion because “the sophistication of the baby blacks made me rethink my attitudes.” God knows the Panther women don’t spend 30 minutes in front of the mirror in the morning shoring up their eye holes with contact lenses, eyeliner, eye shadow, eyebrow pencil, occipital rim brush, false eyelashes, mascara, Shadow-Ban for undereye and Eterna Creme for the corners . . . And here they are, right in front of you, trucking on into the Bernsteins’ Chinese yellow duplex, amid the sconces, silver bowls full of white and lavender anemones, and uniformed servants serving drinks and Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts—
“. . . The very idea of them, revolutionaries who put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone . . .”
But it’s all right. They’re white servants, not Claude and Maude, but white South Americans. Lenny and Felicia are geniuses. After a while, it all comes down to servants. They are the cutting edge in Radical Chic. Obviously, if you are giving a party for the Black Panthers, as Lenny and Felicia are this evening, or as Sidney and Gail Lumet did last week, or as John Simon of Random House and Richard Baron, the publisher, did before that; or for the Chicago Eight, such as the party Jean vanden Heuvel gave; or for the grape workers or Bernadette Devlin, such as the parties Andrew Stein gave; or for the Young Lords, such as the party Ellie Guggenheimer is giving next week in her Park Avenue duplex; or for the Indians or the SDS or the G.I. Coffee Shops or even for the Friends of the Earth—well, then, obviously you can’t have a Negro butler and maid, Claude and Maude, in uniform, circulating through the living room, the library and the main hall serving drinks and canapés. Plenty of people have tried to think it out. They try to picture the Panthers or whoever walking in bristling with electric hair and Cuban shades and leather pieces and the rest of it, and they try to picture Claude and Maude with the black uniforms coming up and saying, “Would you care for a drink, sir?” They close their eyes and try to picture it some way, but there is no way. One simply cannot see that moment. So the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants. Carter and Amanda Burden have white servants. Sidney Lumet and his wife Gail, who is Lena Horne’s daughter, have three white servants, including a Scottish nurse. Everybody has white servants. And Lenny and Felicia—they had it worked out before Radical Chic even started. Felicia grew up in Chile. Her father, Roy Elwood Cohn, an engineer from San Francisco, worked for the American Smelting and Refining Co. in Santiago. As Felicia Montealegre (her mother’s maiden name), she became an actress in New York and won the Motion Picture Daily critics’ award as the best new television actress of 1949. Anyway, they have a house staff of three white South American servants, including a Chilean cook, plus Lenny’s English chauffeur and dresser, who is also white, of course. Can one comprehend how perfect that is, given . . . the times? Well, many of their friends can, and they ring up the Bernsteins and ask them to get South American servants for them, and the Bernsteins are so generous about it, so obliging, that people refer to them, good-naturedly and gratefully, as “the Spic and Span Employment Agency,” with an easygoing ethnic humor, of course.
The only other thing to do is what Ellie Guggenheimer is doing next week with her party for the Young Lords in her duplex on Park Avenue at 89th Street, just 10 blocks up from Lenny and Felicia. She is giving her party on a Sunday, which is the day off for the maid and the cleaning woman. “Two friends of mine”—she confides on the telephone—“two friends of mine who happen to be . . . not white—that’s what I hate about the times we live in, the terms—well, they’ve agreed to be butler and maid . . . and I’m going to be a maid myself!”
Just at this point some well-meaning soul is going to say, Why not do without servants altogether if the matter creates such unbearable tension and one truly believes in equality? Well, even to raise the question is to reveal the most fundamental ignorance of life in the great co-ops and townhouses of the East Side in the age of Radical Chic. Why, my God! servants are not a mere convenience, they’re an absolute psychological necessity. Once one is into that life, truly into it, with the morning workout on the velvet swings at Kounovsky’s and the late mornings on the telephone, and lunch at the Running Footman, which is now regarded as really better than La Grenouille, Lutèce, Lafayette, La Caravelle and the rest of the general Frog Pond, less ostentatious, more of the David Hicks feeling, less of the Parish-Hadley look, and then—well, then, the idea of not having servants is unthinkable. But even that does not say it all. It makes it sound like a matter of convenience, when actually it is a sheer and fundamental matter of—having servants. Does one comprehend?
God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. It is the matter of the marvelous contradictions on all sides. It is like the delicious shudder you get when you try to force the prongs of two horseshoe magnets together . . . them and us . . .
For example, one’s own servants, although white, are generally no problem. A discreet, euphemistic word about what sort of party it is going to be, and they will generally be models of correctness. The euphemisms are not always an easy matter, however. When talking to one’s white servants, one doesn’t really know whether to refer to blacks as blacks, Negroes, or colored people. When talking to other . . . well, cultivated persons, one says blacks, of course. It is the only word, currently, that implicitly shows one’s awareness of the dignity of the black race. But somehow when you start to say the word to your own white servants, you hesitate. You can’t get it out of your throat. Why? Counter-guilt! You realize that you are about to utter one of those touchstone words that divide the cultivated from the uncultivated, the attuned from the unattuned, the hip from the dreary. As soon as the word comes out of your mouth—you know it before the first vocable pops on your lips—your own servant is going to size you up as one of those limousine liberals, or whatever epithet they use, who are busy pouring white soul all over the black movement, and would you do as much for the white lower class, for the domestics of the East Side, for example, fat chance, sahib. Deny it if you want to! but such are the delicious little agonies of Radical Chic. So one settles for Negro, with the hope that the great god Culturatus has laid the ledger aside for the moment. . . . In any case, if one is able to make that small compromise, one’s own servants are no real problem. But the elevator man and the doorman—the death rays they begin projecting, the curt responses, as soon as they see it is going to be one of those parties! Of course, they’re all from Queens, and so forth, and one has to allow for that. For some reason the elevator men tend to be worse about it than the doormen, even; less sense of politesse, perhaps.
Or—what does one wear to these parties for the Panthers or the Young Lords or the grape workers? What does a woman wear? Obviously one does not want to wear something frivolously and pompously expensive, such as a Gerard Pipart party dress. On the other hand one does not want to arrive “poor-mouthing it” in some outrageous turtleneck and West Eighth Street bell-jean combination, as if one is “funky” and of “the people.” Frankly, Jean vanden Heuvel—that’s Jean there in the hallway giving everyone her famous smile, in which her eyes narrow down to f/16—frankly, Jean tends too much toward the funky fallacy. Jean, who is the daughter of Jules Stein, one of the wealthiest men in the country, is wearing some sort of rust-red snap-around suede skirt, the sort that English working girls pick up on Saturday afternoons in those absolutely berserk London boutiques like Bus Stop or Biba, where everything looks chic and yet skimpy and raw and vital. Felicia Bernstein seems to understand the whole thing better. Look at Felicia. She is wearing the simplest little black frock imaginable, with absolutely no ornamentation save for a plain gold necklace. It is perfect. It has dignity without any overt class symbolism.
Lenny? Lenny himself has been in the living room all this time, talking to old friends like the Duchins and the Stantons and the Lanes. Lenny is wearing a black turtleneck, navy blazer, Black Watch plaid trousers and a necklace with a pendant hanging down to his sternum. His tailor comes here to the apartment to take the measurements and do the fittings. Lenny is a short, trim man, and yet he always seems tall. It is his head. He has a noble head, with a face that is at once sensitive and rugged, and a full stand of iron-gray hair, with sideburns, all set off nicely by the Chinese yellow of the room. His success radiates from his eyes and his smile with a charm that illustrates Lord Jersey’s adage that “contrary to what the Methodists tell us, money and success are good for the soul.” Lenny may be 51, but he is still the Wunderkind of American music. Everyone says so. He is not only one of the world’s outstanding conductors, but a more than competent composer and pianist as well. He is the man who more than any other has broken down the wall between elite music and popular tastes, with West Side Story and his children’s concerts on television. How natural that he should stand here in his own home radiating the charm and grace that make him an easy host for leaders of the oppressed. How ironic that the next hour should prove so shattering for this egregio maestro! How curious that the Negro by the piano should emerge tonight!
A bell rang, a dinner table bell, by the sound of it, the sort one summons the maid out of the kitchen with, and the party shifted from out of the hall and into the living room. Felicia led the way, Felicia and a small gray man, with gray hair, a gray face, a gray suit, and a pair of Groovy but gray sideburns. A little gray man, in short, who would be popping up at key moments . . . to keep the freight train of history on the track, as it were . . .
Felicia was down at the far end of the living room trying to coax everybody in.
“Lenny!” she said. “Tell the fringes to come on in!” Lenny was still in the back of the living room, near the hall. “Fringes!” said Lenny. “Come on in!”
In the living room most of the furniture, the couches, easy chairs, side tables, side chairs, and so on, had been pushed toward the walls, and 30 or 40 folding chairs were set up in the middle of the floor. It was a big, wide room with Chinese yellow walls and white moldings, sconces, pier-glass mirrors, a portrait of Felicia reclining on a summer chaise, and at the far end, where Felicia was standing, a pair of grand pianos. A pair of them; the two pianos were standing back to back, with the tops down and their bellies swooping out. On top of both pianos was a regular flotilla of family photographs in silver frames, the kind of pictures that stand straight up thanks to little velvet- or moiré-covered buttresses in the back, the kind that decorators in New York recommend to give a living room a homelike, lived-in touch. “The million-dollar chatchka look,” they call it. In a way it was perfect for Radical Chic. The nice part was that with Lenny it was instinctive; with Felicia, too. The whole place looked as if the inspiration had been to spend a couple of hundred thousand on the interior without looking pretentious, although that is no great sum for a 13-room co-op, of course . . . Imagine explaining all that to the Black Panthers. It was another delicious thought . . . The sofas, for example, were covered in the fashionable splashy prints on a white background covering deep downy cushions, in the Billy Baldwin or Margaret Owen tradition — without it looking like Billy or Margaret had been in there fussing about with teapoys and japanned chairs. Gemütlich . . . Old Vienna when grandpa was alive . . . That was the ticket . . .
Once Lenny got “the fringes” moving in, the room filled up rapidly. It was jammed, in fact. People were sitting on sofas and easy chairs along the sides, as well as on the folding chairs, and were standing in the back, where Lenny was. Otto Preminger was sitting on a sofa down by the pianos, where the speakers were going to stand. The Panther wives were sitting in the first two rows with their Yoruba headdresses on, along with Henry Mitchell and Julie Belafonte, Harry Belafonte’s wife. Julie is white, but they all greeted her warmly as “Sister.” Behind her was sitting Barbara Walters, hostess of the Today Show on television, wearing a checked pants suit with a great fluffy fur collar on the coat. Harold Taylor, the former “Boy President” of Sarah Lawrence, now 55 and silver-haired, but still youthful looking, came walking down toward the front and gave a hug and a big social kiss to Gail Lumet. Robert Bay settled down in the middle of the folding chairs. Jean vanden Heuvel stood in the back and sought to focus . . . f/16 . . . on the pianos . . . Charlotte Curtis stood beside the door, taking notes. And then Felicia stood up beside the pianos and said:
“I want to thank you all very, very much for coming. I’m very, very glad to see so many of you here.” Everything was fine. Her voice was rich as a woodwind. She introduced a man named Leon Quat, one of the lawyers for the “Panther 21,” 21 Black Panthers who had been arrested on a charge of conspiring to blow up five New York department stores, New Haven Railroad facilities, a police station and the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
Leon Quat, oddly enough, had the general look of those 52-year-old men who run a combination law office, real estate and insurance operation on the second floor of a two-story taxpayer out on Queens Boulevard. And yet that wasn’t the kind of man Leon Quat really was. He had the sideburns. Quite a pair. They didn’t come down just to the incisura intertragica, which is that little notch in the lower rim of the ear, and which so many tentative Swingers aim their sideburns toward. No, on top of this complete Queens Boulevard insurance agent look, he had real sideburns, to the bottom of the lobe, virtual muttonchops, which somehow have become the mark of the Movement. Leon Quat rose up smiling:
“We are very grateful to Mrs. Bernstein”—only he pronounced it “steen.”
“STEIN!”—a great smoke-cured voice booming out from the rear of the room! It’s Lenny! Leon Quat and the Black Panthers will have a chance to hear from Lenny. That much is sure. He is on the case. Leon Quat must be the only man in the room who does not know about Lenny and the Mental Jotto at 3 a.m. . . . For years, 20 at the least, Lenny has insisted on –stein not –steen, as if to say, I am not one of those 1921 Jews who try to tone down their Jewishness by watering their names down with a bad soft English pronunciation. Lenny has made such a point of –stein not –steen, in fact, that some people in this room think at once of the story of how someone approached Larry Rivers, the artist, and said, “What’s this I hear about you and Leonard Bernstein”—steen, he pronounced it — “not speaking to each other anymore?”—to which Rivers said, “STEIN!”
“We are very grateful . . . for her marvelous hospitality,” says Quat, apparently not wanting to try the name again right away. Then he beams toward the crowd:
“I assume we are all just an effete clique of snobs and intellectuals in this room . . . I am referring to the words of Vice-President Agnew, of course, who can’t be with us today because he is in the South Pacific explaining the Nixon doctrine to the Australians. All vice-presidents suffer from the Avis complex—they’re second best, so they try harder, like General Ky or Hubert Humphrey . . .” He keeps waiting for the grins and chuckles after each of these mots, but all the celebrities and culturati are nonplussed. They give him a kind of dumb attention. They came here for the Panthers and Radical Chic, and here is Old Queens Boulevard Real Estate Man with sideburns on telling them Agnew jokes. But Quat is too deep into his weird hole to get out. “Whatever respect I have had for Lester Maddox, I lost it when I saw Humphrey put his arm around his shoulder . . .” and somehow Quat begins disappearing down a hole bunging Hubert Humphrey with lumps of old Shelley Berman material. Slowly he climbs back out. He starts telling about the oppression of the Panther 21. They have been in jail since February 2, 1969, awaiting trial on ludicrous charges such as conspiring to blow up the Bronx Botanical Gardens. Their bail has been a preposterous $100,000 per person, which has in effect denied them the right to bail. They have been kept split up and moved from jail to jail. For all intents and purposes they have been denied the right to confer with their lawyers to prepare a defense. They have been subjected to inhuman treatment in jail—such as the case of Lee Berry, an epileptic, who was snatched out of a hospital bed and thrown in jail and kept in solitary confinement with a light bulb burning over his head night and day. The Panthers who have not been thrown in jail or killed, like Fred Hampton, are being stalked and harassed everywhere they go. “One of the few higher officials who is still . . . in the clear”—Quat smiles—“is here today. Don Cox, Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party.”
“. . . Lenny stands here in his own home radiating the charm and grace that make him an easy host for leaders of the oppressed . . .”
“Right on,” a voice says to Leon Quat, rather softly. And a tall black man rises from behind one of Lenny’s grand pianos . . . The Negro by the piano . . .
The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollar chatchka flotilla of family photographs. In fact, there is a certain perfection as the first Black Panther rises within a Park Avenue living room to lay the Panthers’ 10-point program on New York Society in the age of Radical Chic. Cox is silhouetted—well, about 19 feet behind him is a white silk shade with an Empire scallop over one of the windows overlooking Park Avenue. Or maybe it isn’t silk, but a Jack Lenor Larsen mercerized cotton, something like that, lustrous but more subtle than silk. The whole image, the white shade and the Negro by the piano silhouetted against it, is framed by a pair of bottle-green velvet curtains, pulled back.
And does it begin now?—but this Cox is a cool number. He doesn’t come on with the street epithets and interjections and the rest of the rhetoric and red eyes used for mau-mauing the white liberals, as it is called.
“The Black Panther Party,” he starts off, “stands for a 10-point program that was handed down in October, 1966, by our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton . . .” and he starts going through the 10 points . . . “We want an educational system that expresses the true nature of this decadent society” . . . “We want all black men exempt from military service” . . . “We want all black men who are in jail to be set free. We want them to be set free because they have not had fair trials. We’ve been tried by predominantly middle-class, all-white juries” . . . “And most important of all, we want peace . . . see . . . We want peace, but there can be no peace as long as a society is racist and one part of society engages in systematic oppression of another” . . . “We want a plebiscite by the United Nations to be held in black communities, so that we can control our own destiny” . . .
Everyone in the room, of course, is drinking in his performance like tiger’s milk, for the . . . Soul, as it were. All love the tone of his voice, which is Confidential Hip. And yet his delivery falls into strangely formal patterns. What are these block phrases, such as “our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton”—
“Some people think that we are racist, because the news media find it useful to create that impression in order to support the power structure, which we have nothing to do with . . . see . . . They like for the Black Panther Party to be made to look like a racist organization, because that camouflages the true class nature of the struggle. But they find it harder and harder to keep up that camouflage and are driven to campaigns of harassment and violence to try to eliminate the Black Panther Party. Here in New York 21 members of the Black Panther Party were indicted last April on ridiculous charges of conspiring to blow up department stores and flower gardens. They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .”
—But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . . Without ever bringing it fully into consciousness everyone responds—communes over—the fact that he uses them not for emphasis, but for punctuation, metrically, much like the uhs favored by High Church Episcopal ministers, as in, “And bless, uh, these gifts, uh, to Thy use and us to, uh, Thy service”—
“. . . they’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . . and every time the judge has refused to lower the bail from $100,000 . . . Yet a group of whites accused of actually bombing buildings—they were able to get bail. So that clearly demonstrates the racist nature of the campaign against the Black Panther Party. We don’t say ‘bail’ anymore, we say ‘ransom,’ for such repressive bail can only be called ransom.
“The situation here in New York is very explosive, as you can see, with people stacked up on top of each other. They can hardly deal with them when they’re unorganized, so that when a group comes along like the Black Panthers, they want to eliminate that group by any means . . . see . . . and so that stand has been embraced by J. Edgar Hoover, who feels that we are the greatest threat to the power structure. They try to create the impression that we are engaged in criminal activities. What are these ‘criminal activities’? We have instituted a breakfast program, to address ourselves to the needs of the community. We feed hungry children every morning before they go to school. So far this program is on a small scale. We’re only feeding 50,000 children nationwide, but the only money we have for this program is donations from the merchants in the neighborhoods. We have a program to establish clinics in the black communities and in other ways also we are addressing ourselves to the needs of the community . . . see . . . So the people know the power structure is lying when they say we are engaged in criminal activities. So the pigs are driven to desperate acts, like the murder of our deputy chairman, Fred Hampton, in his bed . . . see . . . in his sleep . . . But when they got desperate and took off their camouflage and murdered Fred Hampton, in his bed, in his sleep, see, that kind of shook people up, because they saw the tactics of the power structure for what they were. . . .
“We relate to a phrase coined by Malcolm X: ‘By any means necessary’ . . . you see . . . ‘By any means necessary’ . . . and by that we mean that we recognize that if you’re attacked, you have the right to defend yourself. The pigs, they say the Black Panthers are armed, the Black Panthers have weapons . . . see . . . and therefore they have the right to break in and murder us in our beds. I don’t think there’s anybody in here who wouldn’t defend themselves if somebody came in and attacked them or their families . . . see . . . I don’t think there’s anybody in here who wouldn’t defend themselves . . .”
—and every woman in the room thinks of her husband . . . with his cocoa-butter jowls and Dior Men’s Boutique pajamas . . . ducking into the bathroom and locking the door and turning the shower on, so he can say later that he didn’t hear a thing—
“We call them pigs, and rightly so,” says Don Cox, “because they have the way of making the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal look like the victim. So every Panther must be ready to defend himself. That was handed down by our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton: Everybody who does not have the means to defend himself in his home, or if he does have the means and he does not defend himself—we expel that man . . . see . . . As our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton, says, ‘Any unarmed people are slaves, or are slaves in the real meaning of the word’ . . . We recognize that this country is the most oppressive country in the world, maybe in the history of the world. The pigs have the weapons and they are ready to use them on the people, and we recognize this as being very bad. They are ready to commit genocide against those who stand up against them, and we recognize this as being very bad.
“All we want is the good life, the same as you. To live in peace and lead the good life, that’s all we want . . . see . . . But right now there’s no way we can do that. I want to read something to you:
“‘When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and . . .” He reads straight through it, every word. “. . . and, accordingly, all experience hath shown, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.’
“You know what that’s from?”—and he looks out at everyone and hesitates before laying this gasper on them—“That’s from the Declaration of Independence, the American Declaration of Independence. And we will defend ourselves and do like it says . . . you know? . . . and that’s about it.”
The “that’s about it” part seems so casual, so funky, so right, after the rhetoric of what he has been saying. And then he sits down and sinks out of sight behind one of the grand pianos.
The thing is beginning to move. And—hell, yes, the Reichstag fire! Another man gets up, a white named Gerald Lefcourt, who is chief counsel for the Panther 21, a young man with thick black hair and the muttonchops of the Movement and that great motor inside of him that young courtroom lawyers ought to have. He lays the Reichstag fire on them. He reviews the Panther case and then he says:
“I believe that this odious situation could be compared to the Reichstag fire attempt”—he’s talking about the way the Nazis used the burning of the Reichstag as the pretext for first turning loose the Gestapo and exterminating all political opposition in Germany—“and I believe that this trial could also be compared to the Reichstag trial . . . in many ways . . . and that opened an era that this country could be heading for. That could be the outcome of this case, an era of the Right, and the only thing that can stop it is for people like ourselves to make a noise and make a noise now.”
. . . and not be Krupps, Junkers, or Good Germans . . .
“. . . We had an opportunity to question the Grand Jury, and we found out some interesting things. They all have net worths averaging $300,000, and they all come from this neighborhood,” says Lefcourt, nodding as if to take in the whole Upper East Side. And suddenly everyone feels, really feels, that there are two breeds of mankind in the great co-ops of Park Avenue, the blue-jowled rep-tied Brook Club Junker reactionaries in the surrounding buildings . . . and the few attuned souls here in Lenny’s penthouse. “. . . They all have annual incomes in the area of $35,000 . . . And you’re supposed to have a ‘jury of your peers’ . . . They were shocked at the questions we were asking them. They shouldn’t have to answer such questions, that was the idea. They all belong to the Grand Jury Association. They’re somewhat like a club. They have lunch together once in a while. A lot of them went to school together. They have no more understanding of the Black Panthers than President Nixon.”
The Junkers! Leon Quat says: “Fascism always begins by persecuting the least powerful and least popular movement. It will be the Panthers today, the students tomorrow—and then . . . the Jews and other troublesome minorities! . . . What price civil liberties! . . . Now let’s start this off with the gifts in four figures. Who is ready to make a contribution of a thousand dollars or more?”
All at once—nothing. But the little gray man sitting next to Felicia, the gray man with the sideburns, pops up and hands a piece of paper to Quat and says: “Mr. Clarence Jones asked me to say—he couldn’t be here, but he’s contributing $7,500 to the defense fund!”
“Oh! That’s marvelous!” says Felicia.
Then the voice of Lenny from the back of the room: “As a guest of my wife”—he smiles—“I’ll give my fee for the next performance of Cavalleria Rusticana.” Comradely laughter. Applause. “I hope that will be four figures!”
Things are moving again. Otto Preminger speaks up from the sofa down front:
“I geeve a t’ousand dollars!”
Right on. Quat says: “I can’t assure you that it’s tax deductible.” He smiles. “I wish I could, but I can’t.” Well, the man looks brighter and brighter every minute. He knows a Radical Chic audience when he sees one. Those words are magic in the age of Radical Chic: it’s not tax deductible.
The contributions start coming faster, only $250 or $300 at a clip, but faster . . . Sheldon Harnick . . . Bernie and Hilda Fishman . . . Judith Bernstein . . . Mr. and Mrs. Burton Lane . . .
“I know some of you are caught with your Dow-Jones averages down,” says Quat, “but come on—”
Quat says: “We have a $300 contribution from Harry Belafonte!”
“No, no,” says Julie Belafonte.
“I’m sorry,” says Quat, “it’s Julie’s private money! I apologize. After all, there’s a women’s liberation movement sweeping the country, and I want this marked down as a gift from Mrs. Belafonte!” Then he says: “I know you want to get to the question period, but I know there’s more gold in this mine. I think we’ve reached the point where we can pass out the blank checks.”
More contributions . . . $100 from Mrs. August Heckscher . . .
“We’ll take anything!” says Quat. “We’ll take it all!” . . . he’s high on the momentum of his fund-raiser voice . . . “You’ll leave here with nothing!”
But finally he wraps it up. A beautiful ash-blond girl with the most perfect Miss Porter’s face speaks up. She’s wearing a leather and tweed dress. She looks like a Junior Leaguer graduating to the Ungaro Boutique.
“I’d like to ask Mr. Cox a question,” she says. Cox is standing up again, by the grand piano. “Besides the breakfast program,” she says, “do you have any other community programs, and what are they like?”
“Everyone in the room is drinking in Cox’s performance like tiger’s milk, for the Soul”
Cox starts to tell about a Black Panther program to set up medical clinics in the ghettos, and so on, but soon he is talking about a Panther demand that police be required to live in the community they patrol. “If you police the community, you must live there . . . see . . . Because if he lives in the community, he’s going to think twice before he brutalizes us, because we can deal with him when he comes home at night . . . see . . . We are also working to start liberation schools for black children, and these liberation schools will actually teach them about their environment, because the way they are now taught, they are taught not to see their real environment . . . see . . . They get Donald Duck and Mother Goose and all that lame happy jive . . . you know . . . We’d like to take kids on tours of the white suburbs, like Scarsdale, and like that, and let them see how their oppressors live . . . you know . . . but so far we don’t have the money to carry out these programs to meet the real needs of the community. The only money we have is what we get from the merchants in the black community when we ask them for donations, which they should give, because they are the exploiters of the black community”—
—and shee-ut. What the hell is Cox getting into that for? Quat and the little gray man are ready to spring in at any lonesome split second. For God’s sake, Cox, don’t open that can of worms. Even in this bunch of upholstered skulls there are people who can figure out just who those merchants are, what group, and just how they are asked for donations, and we’ve been free of that little issue all evening, man—don’t bring out that ball-breaker—
But the moment is saved. Suddenly there is a much more urgent question from the rear:
“Who do you call to give a party? Who do you call to give a party?”
Every head spins around . . . Quite a sight . . . It’s a slender blond man who has pushed his way up to the front ranks of the standees. He’s wearing a tuxedo. He’s wearing black-frame glasses and his blond hair is combed back straight in the Eaton Square manner. He looks like the intense Yale man from out of one of those 1927 Frigidaire ads in the Saturday Evening Post, when the way to sell anything was to show Harry Yale in the background, in a tuxedo, with his pageboy-bobbed young lovely, heading off to dinner at the New Haven Lawn Club. The man still has his hand up in the air like the star student of the junior class.
“I won’t be able to stay for everything you have to say,” he says, “but who do you call to give a party?”
In fact, it is Richard Feigen, owner of the Feigen Gallery, 79th and Madison. He arrived on the art scene and the social scene from Chicago three years ago . . . He’s been moving up hand over hand ever since . . . like a champion . . . Tonight—the tuxedo—tonight there is a reception at the Museum of Modern Art . . . right on . . . a “contributing members’” reception, a private viewing not open to mere “members” . . . But before the museum reception itself, which is at 8:30, there are private dinners . . . right? . . . which are the real openings . . . in the homes of great collectors or great climbers or the old Protestant elite, marvelous dinner parties, the real thing, black tie, and these dinners are the only true certification of where one stands in this whole realm of Art & Society . . . The whole game depends on whose home one is invited to before the opening . . . And the game ends as the host gathers everyone up about 8:45 for the trek to the museum itself, and the guests say, almost ritually, “God! I wish we could see the show from here! It’s too delightful! I simply don’t want to move!!’ . . . And, of course, they mean it! Absolutely! For them, the opening is already over, the hand is played . . . And Richard Feigen, man of the hour, replica 1927 Yale man, black tie and Eaton Square hair, has dropped in, on the way, en passant, to the Bernsteins’, to take in the other end of the Culture tandem, Radical Chic . . . and the rightness of it, the exhilaration, seems to sweep through him, and he thrusts his hand into the air, and somehow Radical Chic reaches its highest, purest state in that moment . . . as Richard Feigen, in his tuxedo, breaks in to ask, from the bottom of his heart, “Who do you call to give a party?” There you had a trend, a fashion, in its moment of naked triumph. How extraordinary that just 30 minutes later Radical Chic would be—
But at that moment Radical Chic was the new wave supreme in New York Society. It had been building for more than six months. It had already reached the fashion pages of Vogue and was moving into the food column. Voguewas already preparing a column entitled “Soul Food.”
“The cult of Soul Food,” it began, “is a form of Black self-awareness and, to a lesser degree, of white sympathy for the Black drive to self-reliance. It is as if those who ate the beans and greens of necessity in the cabin doorways were brought into communion with those who, not having to, eat those foods voluntarily as a sacrament. The present struggle is emphasized in the act of breaking traditional bread . . .
SWEET POTATO PONE 3 cups finely grated raw sweet potatoes ½ cup sweet milk 2 tablespoons melted butter ½ teaspoon each: cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves, and nutmeg 2 eggs salt ½ cup brown sugar ½ cup molasses or honey Mix together potatoes, milk, melted butter, cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves, and nutmeg. Add a pinch of salt and the molasses or honey. (Molasses gives the authentic pone; honey a dandified version.)”
A little sacramental pone . . . as the young’uns skitter back in through the loblolly pine cabin doorway to help Mama put the cinnamon, ginger, powdered cloves and nutmeg back on the Leslie Foods “Spice Island” spice rack . . . and thereby finish up the communion with those who, not having to, eat those foods voluntarily as a sacrament.
Very nice! In fact, this sort of nostalgie de la boue, or romanticizing of primitive souls, was one of the things that brought Radical Chic to the fore in New York Society. Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means, literally, “nostalgia for the mud.” Within New York Society nostalgie de la boue was a great motif throughout the 1960s, from the moment two socialites, Susan Stein and Christina Paolozzi, discovered the Peppermint Lounge and the twist and two of the era’s first pet primitives, Joey Dee and Killer Joe Piro. Nostalgie de la bouetends to be a favorite motif whenever a great many new faces and a lot of new money enter Society. New arrivals have always had two ways of certifying their superiority over the hated “middle class.” They can take on the trappings of aristocracy, such as grand architecture, servants, parterre boxes and high protocol; and they can indulge in the gauche thrill of taking on certain styles of the lower orders. The two are by no means mutually exclusive; in fact, they are always used in combination. In England during the Regency period, a period much like our own—even to the point of the nation’s disastrous involvement in colonial wars during a period of mounting affluence—nostalgie de la boue was very much the rage. London socialites during the Regency adopted the flamboyant capes and wild driving styles of the coach drivers, the “bruiser” fashions and hair styles of the bare-knuckle prize fighters, the see-through, jutting-nipple fashions of the tavern girls, as well as a reckless new dance, the waltz. Such affectations were meant to convey the arrogant self-confidence of the aristocrat as opposed to the middle-class striver’s obsession with propriety and keeping up appearances. During the 1960s in New York nostalgie de la boue took the form of the vogue of rock music, the twist-frug genre of dances, Pop Art, Camp, the courting of pet primitives such as the Rolling Stones and José Torres, and innumerable dress fashions summed up in the recurrent image of the wealthy young man with his turtleneck jersey meeting his muttonchops at mid-jowl, à la the 1962 Sixth Avenue Automat bohemian, bidding good night to an aging doorman dressed in the mode of an 1870 Austrian army colonel.
At the same time Society in New York was going through another of those new-money upheavals that have made the social history of New York read like the political history of the Caribbean; which is to say, a revolution every 20 years, if not sooner. Aristocracies, in the European sense, are always based upon large hereditary landholdings. Early in the history of the United States, Jefferson’s crusade against primogeniture eliminated the possibility of a caste of hereditary land barons. The great landholders, such as the Carrolls, Livingstons and Schuylers, were soon upstaged by the federal bankers, such as the Biddles and Lenoxes. There followed wave after wave of new plutocrats with new sources of wealth: the international bankers, the real-estate speculators, the Civil War profiteers, railroad magnates, Wall Street operators, oil and steel trust manipulators, and so on. By the end of the Civil War, social life in New York was already The Great Barbecue, to borrow a term from Vernon L. Parrington, the literary historian. During the season of 1865-66 there were 600 Society balls given in New York, and a great wall of brownstone missions went up along Fifth Avenue.
In the early 1880s New York’s social parvenus—the people who were the Sculls, Paleys, Engelhards, Holzers, of their day—were the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Huntingtons and Goulds. They built the Metropolitan Opera House for the simple reason that New York’s prevailing temple of Culture, the Academy of Music, built just 29 years before at 14th Street and Irving Place, had only 18 fashionable proscenium boxes, and they were monopolized by families like the Lorillards, Traverses, Belmonts, Stebbinses, Gandys and Barlows. The status of the Goulds and Vanderbilts was revealed in the sort of press coverage the Met’s opening (October 22, 1883) received: “The Goulds and the Vanderbilts and people of that ilk perfumed the air with the odor of crisp greenbacks.” The Academy of Music is now a moviehouse showing double features, although it did enjoy one moment of eminence in 1964, when the Rolling Stones played there, live, with Murray the K as M.C.
By the 1960s yet another new industry had begun to dominate New York life, namely, communications—the media. At the same time the erstwhile “minorities” of the first quarter of the century had begun to come into their own. Jews, especially, but also many Catholics, were eminent in the media and in Culture. So, by 1965—as in 1935, as in 1926, as in 1883, as in 1866, as in 1820—New York had two Societies, “Old New York” and “New Society.” In every era, “Old New York” has taken a horrified look at “New Society” and expressed the devout conviction that a genuine aristocracy, good blood, good bone—themselves—was being defiled by a horde of rank climbers. This has been an all-time favorite number. In the 1960s this quaint belief was magnified by the fact that many members of “New Society,” for the first time, were not Protestant. The names and addresses of “Old New York” were to be found in the Social Register, which even 10 years ago was still confidently spoken of as the Stud Book and the Good Book. It was, and still is, almost exclusively a roster of Protestant families. Today, however, the Social Register’s annual shuffle, in which errant socialites, e.g., John Jacob Astor, are dropped from the Good Book, hardly even rates a yawn. The fact is that “Old New York”—except for those members who also figure in “New Society,” e.g., Nelson Rockefeller, John Hay Whitney, Mrs. Wyatt Cooper—is no longer good copy, and without publicity it has never been easy to rank as a fashionable person in New York City.
The press in New York has tended to favor New Society in every period, and to take it seriously, if only because it provides “news.” For example, the $400,000 Bradley Martin ball of 1897. The John Bradley Martins were latecomers from Troy, New York, who had inserted an invisible hyphen between the Bradley and the Martin and preferred to be known as the Bradley Martins, after the manner of the Gordon Walkers in England. For the record, the Bradley Martins staged their own ball in 1897 as “an impetus to trade” to alleviate the suffering of the poor. Inflamed by the grandeur of it all, the newspapers described the affair down to the last piece of Mechlin lace and the last drop of seed pearl. It was the greatest single one-shot social climb in New York history prior to Truman Capote’s masked ball in 1966.
“. . . Radical Chic was the new wave supreme in New York Society. Vogue was already preparing a food column entitled Soul Food . . .”
By the 1960s New York newspapers had an additional reason to favor New Society. The Seventh Avenue garment trade, the newspapers’ greatest source of advertising revenue, had begun recruiting New Society in droves to promote new fashions. It got to the point where for a matron to be photographed in the front row at the spring or fall showings of European copies at Ohrbach’s, by no means the most high-toned clothing store in the world, became a certification of “socialite” status second to none. But this was nothing new, either. Forty years ago firms flogging things like Hardman pianos, Ponds cold cream, Simmons metal beds and Camel cigarettes found that matrons in the clans Harriman, Longworth, Belmont, Fish, Lowell, Iselin and Carnegie were only too glad to switch to their products and be photographed with them in their homes, mainly for the sheer social glory of the publicity.
Another source of publicity was aid to the poor. New York’s new socialites, in whatever era, have always paid their dues to “the poor,” via charity, as a way of claiming the nobility inherent in noblesse oblige and of legitimizing their wealth. The Bradley Martin ball was a case in point. New money usually works harder in this direction than old. John D. Rockefeller, under the guidance of Ivy P. Lee, the original “public relations counsel,” managed to convert his reputation from that of robber baron and widow-fleecer to that of august old sage philanthropist so rapidly that small children cried when he died. His strategy was to set up several hundred million dollars’ worth of foundations for Culture and scientific research.
Among the new socialites of the 1960s, especially those from the one-time “minorities,” this old social urge to do well by doing good, as it says in the song, has taken a more specific political direction. This has often been true of Jewish socialites and culturati, although it has by no means been confined to them. Politically, Jews have been unique among the groups that came to New York in the great migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many such groups, of course, were Left or liberal during the first generation, but as families began to achieve wealth, success, or, simply, security, they tended to grow more and more conservative in philosophy. The Irish are a case in point. But forced by 20th as well as 19th century history to remain on guard against right-wing movements, even wealthy and successful Jewish families have tended to remain faithful to their original liberal-left worldview. In fact, according to Seymour Martin Lipset, Nathan Glazer, and Kenneth Keniston, an unusually high proportion of campus militants come from well-to-do Jewish families. They have developed the so-called “red diaper baby” theory to explain it. According to Lipset, many Jewish children have grown up in families which “around the breakfast table, day after day, in Scarsdale, Newton, Great Neck and Beverly Hills,” have discussed racist and reactionary tendencies in American society. Lipset speaks of the wealthy Jewish family with the “right-wing life style” (e.g. a majority of Americans outside of the South who have full-time servants are Jewish, according to a study by Lipset, Glazer and Herbert Hyman) and the “left-wing outlook.”
This phenomenon is rooted not only in Jewish experience in America, but in Europe as well. Anti-Semitism was an issue in the French Revolution; throughout Europe during the 19th century all sorts of legal and de facto restrictions against Jews were abolished. Yet Jews were still denied the social advantages that routinely accrued to Gentiles of comparable wealth and achievement. They were not accepted in Society, for example, and public opinion generally remained anti-Semitic. Not only out of resentment, but also for sheer self-defense, even wealthy Jews tended to support left-wing political parties. They had no choice. Most organizations on the Right had an anti-Semitic or, at the very least, an all-Christian, cast to them. Jews coming to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw little to choose from among the major political parties. As to which party seemed the more anti-Jewish, the Democratic or the Republican, it was a tossup. The Republicans had abolished slavery, but the party was full of Know-nothings and anti-immigrant nativists. Even the Populists were anti-Jewish. For example, Tom Watson, the famous Populist senator, denounced the oil cartels, fought against American involvement in World War I as a cynical capitalist adventure, defended Eugene Debs, demanded U.S. recognition of the Soviet Union shortly after the Revolution—and was openly anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic and was laid out in the shadow of an eight-foot-high cross of roses from the Ku Klux Klan at his funeral in 1922. As a result, many Jews, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, backed the socialist parties that thrived briefly during the 1920s. In many cases Jews were the main support. At the same time Jews continued to look for some wing of the major parties that they could live with, and finally found it in the New Deal.
For years many Jewish members of New Society have supported black organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League and CORE. And no doubt they have been sincere about it, because these organizations have never had much social cachet, i.e., they have had “middle class” written all over them. All one had to do was look at the “Negro leaders” involved. There they were, up on the dais at the big hotel banquet, wearing their white shirts, their Hart Schaffner & Marx suits three sizes too big, and their academic solemnity. By last year, however, the picture had changed. In 1965 two new political movements, the anti-war movement and black power, began to gain great backing among culturati in New York. By 1968 the two movements began to achieve social as well as cultural prestige with the Presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy; especially Kennedy’s. Kennedy was not merely an anti-war candidate; he also made a point of backing Caesar Chavez’ grape workers—“La Causa,” “La Huelga”—in California. On the face of it, La Causa was a labor union movement. But La Causa quickly came to symbolize the political ambitions of all lower-class Mexican-Americans—chicanos, “Brown Americans”—and, by extension, that of all colored Americans, including blacks.
The black movement itself, of course, had taken on a much more electric and romantic cast. What a relief it was—socially—in New York—when the leadership seemed to shift from middle class to . . . funky! From A. Philip Randolph, Dr. Martin Luther King and James Farmer . . . to Stokely, Rap, LeRoi and Eldridge! This meant that the tricky business of the fashionable new politics could now be integrated with a tried and true social motif: Nostalgie de la boue. The upshot was Radical Chic.
From the beginning it was pointless to argue about the sincerity of Radical Chic. Unquestionably the basic impulse, “red diaper” or otherwise, was sincere. But, as in most human endeavors focused upon an ideal, there seemed to be some double-track thinking going on. On the first track—well, one does have a sincere concern for the poor and the underprivileged and an honest outrage against discrimination. One’s heart does cry out—quite spontaneously!—upon hearing how the police have dealt with the Panthers, dragging an epileptic like Lee Berry out of his hospital bed and throwing him into the Tombs. When one thinks of Mitchell and Agnew and Nixon and all of their Captain Beef-heart Maggie & Jiggs New York Athletic Club troglodyte crypto-Horst Wessel Irish Oyster Bar Construction Worker followers, then one understands why poor blacks like the Panthers might feel driven to drastic solutions, and—well, anyway, one truly feelsfor them. One really does. On the other hand—on the second track in one’s mind, that is—one also has a sincere concern for maintaining a proper East Side lifestyle in New York Society. And this concern is just as sincere as the first, and just as deep. It really is. It really does become part of one’s psyche. For example, one must have a weekend place, in the country or by the shore, all year round preferably, but certainly from the middle of May to the middle of September. It is hard to get across to outsiders an understanding of how absolute such apparently trivial needs are. One feels them in his solar plexus. When one thinks of being trapped in New York Saturday after Saturday in July or August, doomed to be a part of those fantastically dowdy herds roaming past Bonwit’s and Tiffany’s at dead noon in the sandstone sun-broil, 92 degrees, daddies from Long Island in balloon-seat Bermuda shorts bought at the Times Square Store in Oceanside and fat mommies with white belled pants stretching over their lower bellies and crinkling up in the crotch like some kind of Dacron-polyester labia—well, anyway, then one truly feels the need to obey at least the minimal rules of New York Society. One really does.
“. . . The first big party in the era of Radical Chic, the epochal event, so to speak, was in Southampton for the grape workers . . .”
One rule is that nostalgie de la boue—i.e., the styles of romantic, raw-vital, Low Rent primitives—are good; and middle class, whether black or white, is bad. Therefore, Radical Chic invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and “of the soil,” but also Latin; the Panthers, with their leather pieces, Afros, shades, and shoot-outs; and the Red Indians, who, of course, had always seemed primitive, exotic and romantic. At the outset, at least, all three groups had something else to recommend them, as well: they were headquartered 3,000 miles away from the East Side of Manhattan, in places like Delano (the grape workers), Oakland (the Panthers) and Arizona and New Mexico (the Indians). They weren’t likely to become too much . . . underfoot, as it were. Exotic, Romantic, Far Off . . . as we shall soon see, other favorite creatures of Radical Chic had the same attractive qualities; namely, the ocelots, jaguars, cheetahs and Somali leopards.
Rule No. 2 was that no matter what, one should always maintain a proper address, a proper scale of interior decoration, and servants. Servants, especially, were one of the last absolute dividing lines between those truly “in Society,” New or Old, and the great scuffling mass of middle-class strivers paying up to $1,250-a-month rent or buying expensive co-ops all over the East Side. There are no two ways about it. One must have servants. Having servants becomes such a psychological necessity that there are many women in Society today who may be heard to complain in all honesty about how hard it is to find a nurse for the children to fill in on the regular nurse’s day off. There is the famous Mrs. C——–, one of New York’s richest widows, who has a 10-room duplex on Sutton Place, the good part of Sutton Place as opposed to the Miami Beach-looking part, one understands, but who is somehow absolute poison with servants and can’t keep anything but day help and is constantly heard to lament: “What good is all the money in the world if you can’t come home at night and know there will be someone there to take your coat and fix you a drink?” There is true anguish behind that remark!
In the era of Radical Chic, then, what a collision course was set between the absolute need for servants—and the fact that the servant was the absolute symbol of what the new movements, black or brown, were struggling against! How absolutely urgent, then, became the search for the only way out: white servants!
The first big Radical Chic party, the epochal event, so to speak, was the party that Assemblyman Andrew Stein gave for the grape workers on his father’s estate in Southampton on June 29, 1969. The grape workers had already been brought into New York social life. Carter and Amanda Burden, the “Moonflower Couple” of the 1960s, had given a party for them in their duplex in River House, on East 52nd Street overlooking the East River. Some of New York’s best graphic artists, such as Paul Davis, had done exquisite posters for “La Causa” and “La Huelga.”
The grape workers had begun a national campaign urging consumers to boycott California table grapes, and nowhere was the ban more strictly observed than in Radically Chic circles. Chavez became one of the few union leaders with a romantic image.
Andrew Stein’s party, then, was the epochal event, not so much because he was fashionable as because the grape-workers were. The list of guests and sponsors for the event was first-rate. Henry Ford II’s daughter Anne (Mrs. Giancarlo Uzielli) was chairman, and Ethel Kennedy was honorary chairman. Mrs. Kennedy was making her first public appearance since the assassination of her husband in 1968. Stein himself was the 24-year-old son of Jerry Finkelstein, who had made a small fortune in public relations and built it up into a firm called Struthers Wells. Finkelstein was also a power in the New York State Democratic party and, in fact, recently became the party’s New York City chairman. His son Andrew had shortened his name from Finkelstein to Stein and was noted not only for the impressive parties he gave but for his election to the State Assembly from Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The rumor was that his father had spent $500,000 on his campaign. No one who knew state politics believed that, however, since for half that sum he could have bought enough of Albany to have the boy declared king.
The party was held on the lawn outside Finkelstein’s huge cottage orné by the sea in Southampton. There were two signs by the main entrance to the estate. One said Finkelstein and the other said Stein. The guests came in saying the usual, which was, “you can’t take the Fink out of Finkelstein.” No one turned back, however. From the beginning the afternoon was full of the delicious status contradictions and incongruities that provide much of the electricity for Radical Chic. Chavez himself was not there, but a contingent of grape workers was on hand, including Chavez’ first lieutenant, Andrew Imutan, and Imutan’s wife and three sons. The grape workers were all in work clothes, Levis, chinos, Sears balloon-seat twills, K-Mart sports shirts, and so forth. The socialites, meanwhile, arrived at the height of the 1969 summer season of bell-bottom silk pants suits, Pucci clings, Dunhill blazers and Turnbull & Asser neckerchiefs. A mariachi band played for the guests as they arrived. Marvelous! Everyone’s status radar was now so sensitive that the mariachi band seemed like a faux pas. After all, mariachi bands, with those Visit Mexico costumes on and those sad trumpets that keep struggling up to the top of the note but always fall off and then try to struggle back up again, are the prime white-tourist Mexicans. At a party for La Causa, the grape workers, the fighting chicanos—this was a little like bringing Ma Goldberg in to entertain the Stern Gang. But somehow it was . . . delicious to experience such weird status thrills . . .
“. . .‘If we can only raise 20 per cent of the money that has gone into all the Puccis I see here today, we’ll be doing all right’. . .”
When the fund-raising began, Andrew Imutan took a microphone up on the terrace above the lawn and asked everybody to shut their eyes and pretend they were a farm worker’s wife in the dusty plains of Delano, California, eating baloney sandwiches for breakfast at 3 a.m. before heading out into the fields . . . So they all stood there in their Pucci dresses, Gucci shoes, Capucci scarves, either imagining they were grape workers’ wives or wondering if the goddamned wind would ever stop. The wind had come up off the ocean and it was wrecking everybody’s hair. People were standing there with their hands pressed against their heads as if the place had been struck by a brain-piercing ray from the Purple Dimension. Andrew Stein’s hair was long, full, and at the outset had been especially well coifed in the Roger’s 58th Street French manner, and now it was . . . a wreck. . . . He kept one hand on his head the whole time, like the boy at the dike . . . “eating baloney sandwiches for breakfast at 3 a.m. . . .”
Then Frank Mankiewicz, who had been Robert Kennedy’s press secretary, got up and said, “Well, all I know, if we can only raise 20 percent of the money that has gone into all the Puccis I see here today, we’ll be doing all right!” He waited for the laughter, and all he got was the ocean breeze in his face. By then everyone present was thinking approximately the same thing . . . and it was delicious in that weird way . . . but to just blurt it out was a strange sort of counter-gaffe.
Nevertheless, Radical Chic had arrived. The fall social season of 1969 was a big time for it. People like Jean vanden Heuvel gave parties for Ramparts magazine, which had by now become completely a magazine of the barricades, and for the Chicago Eight. Jules Feiffer gave a party for the G.I. coffee houses, at which Richard Avedon, America’s most famous fashion photographer, took portraits of everybody who made a $25 contribution to the cause. He had his camera and lights set up in the dining room. As a matter of fact, Avedon had become a kind of court photographer to the Movement. He was making his pentennial emergence to see where is was now at. Five years before he had emerged from his studio to take a look around and had photographed and edited an entire issue of Harper’s Bazaar to record his findings, which were of the Pop, Op, Rock, Andy, Rudi and Go-Go variety. Now Avedon was putting together a book about the Movement. He went to Chicago for the trial of The Eight and set up a studio in a hotel near the courthouse to do portraits of the celebrities and activists who testified at the trial or watched it or circled around it in one way or another.
Meanwhile, some of the most prestigious young matrons in San Francisco and New York were into an organization called Friends of the Earth. Friends of the Earth was devoted to the proposition that women should not buy coats or other apparel made from the hides of such dying species as leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, ocelots, tigers, Spanish lynx, Asiatic lions, red wolves, sea otter, giant otter, polar bear, mountain zebra, alligators, crocodiles, sea turtles, vicunas, timber wolves, wolverines, margays, kolinskies, martens, fishers, fitch, sables, servals and mountain lions. On the face of it, there was nothing very radical about this small gesture in the direction of conservation, or ecology, as it is now known. Yet Friends of the Earth was Radical Chic, all right. The radical part began with the simple fact that the movement was not tax deductible. Friends of the Earth is a subsidiary of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club’s pre-eminence in the conservation movement began at precisely the moment when the federal government declared it a political organization, chiefly due to its fight against proposed dam projects in the Grand Canyon. That meant that contributions to it were no longer tax deductible. One of the Sierras Club’s backstage masterminds, the late Howard Gossage, used to tell David Brower, the Sierra Club’s president: “That’s the grea-a-a-atest thing that ever happened to you. It removed all the guilt! Now the money’s just rolllllllling in.” Then he would go into his cosmic laugh. He had an incredible cosmic laugh, Gossage did. It started way back in his throat and came rolllling out, as if from Lane 27 of the Heavenly bowling alley.
No tax deduction! That became part of the canon of Radical Chic. Lay it on the line! Matrons soliciting funds for Friends of the Earth and other organizations took to making telephone calls that ended with: “All right, now, I’ll expect to see your check in the mail—and it’s not tax deductible.” That was a challenge, the unspoken part of which was: You can be a tax deductible Heart Funder, April in Paris Baller, Day Care Center-of-the-roader, if that’s all you want out of your jiveass life . . . As for themselves, the Friends of the Earth actually took to the streets, picketing stores and ragging women who walked down the street with their new Somali leopard coats on. A woman’s only acceptable defense was to say she had shot the animal and eaten it. The Friends of the Earth movement was not only a fight in behalf of the poor beasts but a fight against greed, against the spirit of capitalistic marauding, to call it by its right name . . . although the fight took some weird skews here and there, as Radical Chic is apt to do.
Those goddamned permutations in taste! In New York, for example, Freddy Plimpton had Jacques Kaplan, the number one Society furrier, make her a skirt of alley cat pelts (at least that was the way it first came out in the New York Times). Not for nothing is Jacques Kaplan the number one Society furrier. He must have seen Radical Chic coming a mile away. Early in the game he himself, a furrier, started pitching in for the embattled ocelots, margays, fitch and company like there was no tomorrow. Anyway, the Times ran a story saying he had made a skirt of alley cat hides for Freddy Plimpton. The idea was that alley cats, unlike ocelots and so on, are an absolute glut in the ecology and end up in the ASPCA gas chambers anyway. Supposedly it was logical to Kaplan and logical to Mrs. Plimpton—but to hundreds of little-old-lady cat lovers in Dickerson Archlock shoes, there was some kind of a weird class warp going on here . . . Slaughter the lowly alley cat to save the high-toned ocelot . . . That was the way it came out . . . and the less said about retrieving decorative hides from the gas chambers, the better . . . They were going to picket Jacques Kaplan and raise hell about the slaughter of the alley cats. The fact that the skirt was actually made of the hides of genets, a European nuisance animal like the ferret — as the Times noted in a correction two days later—this was not a distinction that cut much ice with the cat lovers by that time. Slaughter the lowly alley genet to save the high-toned ocelot . . .
Other charitable organizations began to steer in the direction of Radical Chic, even if they did not go all the way and give up their tax-deductible status. For example, the gala for the University of the Streets on January 22, 1970. The University of the Streets was dedicated to “educating the ‘uneducatables’ of the ghetto.” The gala was a dance with avant-garde music, light shows, movies, sculpture, and “multi-sensory environments.” The invitation said “Price: $125 Per Couple (Tax Deductible)” and “Dress: Beautiful.” This was nothing new. What was new was that the ball would not be within the grand coving-and-pilaster insulation of a midtown hotel but down on the Lower East Side, East Seventh Street and Avenue A, at Tompkins Square, in the heart of Radically Chic Puerto Rican & black & hippie territory. The invitations came in a clear plastic box with a lid, and each had the radiant eye of a real peacock feather inside; also a flower blossom, which arrived dried up and shriveled, and many wondered, wildly, if it was some exotic Southwestern psychedelic, to be smoked. One matron on the invitation list gave the peacock feather to her daughter to take to her school, one of the city’s most fashionable private grammar schools, for her class’ morning game of “Show and Tell,” in which some unusual object is presented, wondered over, and then explained. When she returned home, her mother asked her how the feather had gone down, whereupon the little girl burst into tears. Seven other children in her class had also brought the radiant eye of a peacock feather that morning for “Show and Tell.”
Soon—just a few weeks after his first big Radical Chic party—Andrew Stein was throwing another one, this time for Bernadette Devlin, the Irish Joan of Arc. Not to be outdone, Carter Burden, his chief rival, developed what can only be termed the first Total Radical Chic lifestyle. In 1965 Burden, then 23, and his wife Amanda, then 20, had been singled out by Vogue as New York’s perfect young married couple. They had moved into an ample co-op in the Dakota and had coated and encrusted it with a layer of antiques that was like the final triumph of a dowager duchess in an Angela Thirkell novel. They were described as possessing not merely wealth, however, but also “enquiring minds.” To clinch the point, Vogue pointed out that “Mrs. Burden, with the help of a maid, is learning how to keep house.” Just a year after their Dakota triumph, the Burdens moved to River House, flagship of the East River co-op gold coast from Beekman Place to Sutton Place. They set up house in a duplex and hired Parish Hadley, interior decorators to Jacqueline Kennedy, Jay and Sharon Rockefeller, the Paleys, the Wrightsmans and the Engelhards. “Gossip has it,” said Town & Country, “that a cool million was invested in Carter and Amanda Burden’s River House apartment alone, just for backgrounds. Most of the art and furniture were already there.” But in a couple of years the Burdens went Radical Chic. True, they did not give up their River House showplace. In fact, they did not disturb or deplete its treasures in the slightest. But they did set up another apartment on Fifth Avenue at 100th Street. This established residence for Burden in the Fourth Councilmanic District and qualified him to run for the New York City Council; successfully, as it turned out. It also gave him the most exquisitely poised Total Radical Chic apartment in New York.
There was genius to the way the Burdens gave visual expression to the double-track mental atmosphere of Radical Chic. The building is perhaps the scruffiest co-op building on Upper Fifth Avenue. The paint job in the lobby and hallways looks like a 1947 destroyer’s. There is a doorman but no elevator man; one has to take himself up in an old West Side-style Serge Automatic elevator. But . . . it is a co-op and it is on Upper Fifth Avenue. The apartment itself has low ceilings, a small living room and only five rooms in all. But it does overlook Central Park. It is furnished almost entirely in the sort of whimsical horrors—japanned chairs, brass beds, and so on—that end up in the attic in the country, the sort of legacies from God knows where that one never gets around to throwing away . . . And yet they are . . . amusing. The walls are covered in end-of-the-bolt paintings by fashionable artists of the decorative mode, such as Stella and Lichtenstein . . . the sort of mistakes every collector makes and wonders where he will ever hang . . . and yet they are Stellas and Lichtensteins . . . somehow Burden even managed to transform himself from the Deke House chubbiness of his Early Vogue Period to the look known as Starved to Near Perfection. It is within this artfully balanced style of life that the Burdens have been able to groove, as they say, with the Young Lords and other pet primitives from Harlem and Spanish Harlem and at the same time fit into all the old mainline events such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 100th anniversary gala and be photographed doing the new boogaloo.
So . . . Radical Chic was already in full swing by the time the Black Panther party began a national fund-raising campaign late in 1969. The Panthers’ organizers, like the grape workers’, counted on the “cause party”—to use a term for it that was current 35 years ago—not merely in order to raise money. The Panthers’ status was quite confused in the minds of many liberals, and to have the Panthers feted in the homes of a series of social and cultural leaders could make an important difference. Ideally, it would work out well for the socialites and culturati, too, for if there was ever a group that embodied the romance and excitement of which Radical Chic is made, it was the Panthers.
Even before the Bernsteins’ party for the Panthers, there had been at least three others, at the homes of John Simon of Random House, on Hudson Street, Richard Baron, the publisher, in Chappaqua, and Sidney and Gail Lumet, in their townhouse at Lexington Avenue and 91st Street. It was the Lumets’ party that led directly to the Bernsteins’. A veteran cause organizer named Hannah Weinstein had called up Gail Lumet. She said that Murray Kempton had asked her to try to organize a party for the Black Panthers to raise money for the defense of the Panther 21.
The party was a curious one, even by the standards of Radical Chic. Many of the guests appeared not to be particularly “social” . . . more like Mr. and Mrs. Wealthy Dentist from New Rochelle. Yet there was a certain social wattage in the presence of people like Murray Kempton, Peter Stone, writer of 1776, the Lumets themselves, and several Park Avenue matrons, the most notable being Leonard Bernstein’s wife, Felicia.
Anyway, the white guests and a few academic-looking blacks were packed, sitting and standing, into the living room. Then a contingent of 12 or 13 Black Panthers arrived. The Panthers had no choice but to assemble in the dining room and stand up—in their leather pieces, Afros and shades—facing the whites in the living room. As a result, whenever anyone got up in the living room to speak, the audience was looking not only at the speaker but into the faces of a hard front line of Black Panthers in the dining room. Quite a tableau it was. It was at this point that a Park Avenue matron first articulated the great recurrent emotion of Radical Chic: “These are no civil-rights Negroes wearing gray suits three sizes too big—these are real men!”
The first half of the session generated the Radical Chic emotion in its purest and most penetrating form. Not only was there the electrifying spectacle of the massed Panthers, but Mrs. Lee Berry rose and delivered a moving account of how her husband had been seized by police in his hospital room and removed summarily to jail. To tell the truth, some of the matrons were disappointed when she first opened her mouth. She had such a small, quiet voice. “I am a Panther wife,” she said. I am a Panther wife? But her story was moving. Felicia Bernstein had been present up to this point and, as a longtime supporter of civil liberties, had been quite upset by what she had heard. But she had had to leave before the session was over. Each guest, as he left, was presented with a sheet of paper and asked to do one of three things: pledge a contribution to the defense fund, lend his name to an advertisement that was to appear in the New York Times, or to make his home available for another party and fund-raising event. By the time she left, Felicia was quite ready to open her doors.
The emotional momentum was building rapidly when Ray “Masai” Hewitt, the Panthers’ Minister of Education and member of the Central Committee, rose to speak. Hewitt was an intense, powerful young man and in no mood to play the diplomacy game. Some of you here, he said, may have some feelings left for the establishment, but we don’t. We want to see it die. We’re Maoist revolutionaries, and we have no choice but to fight to the finish. For about 30 minutes Masai Hewitt laid it on the line. He referred now and again to “that M —– F —– Nixon” and to how the struggle would not be easy, and that if buildings were burned and other violence ensued, that was only part of the struggle that the power structure had forced the oppressed minorities into. Hewitt’s words tended to provoke an all-or-nothing reaction. A few who remembered the struggles of the Depression were profoundly moved, fired up with a kind of nostalgie de that old-time religion. But more than one Park Avenue matron was thrown into a Radical Chic confusion. The most memorable quote was: “He’s a magnificent man, but suppose some simple-minded schmucks take all that business about burning down buildings seriously?”
Murray Kempton cooled things down a bit. He stood up and, in his professorial way, in the tweedy tones of the lecturer who clicks his pipe against his teeth like a mental metronome, he summed up the matter. Dependable old Murray put it all in the more comfortable terms of Reason Devout, after the manner of a lead piece in the periodicals he worshipped, The New Statesman and The Spectator. Murray, it turned out, was writing a book on the Panthers and otherwise doing his best for the cause. Yes, Masai Hewitt may have set the message down too hard, but that was of little consequence. In no time at all another party for the Panthers had been arranged. And this time in the home of one of the most famous men in the United States, Leonard Bernstein.
“Who do you call to give a party!” says Richard Feigen. “Who do you call to give a party!”
And all at once the candid voice of Radical Chic, just ringing out like that, seems about to drop Don Cox, Field Marshal of the Black Panthers, in his tracks, by Lenny’s grand piano. He just stares at Feigen . . . this Yale-style blond in a tuxedo . . . And from that moment on, the evening begins to take on a weird reversal. Rather than Cox being in the role of the black militant mau-mauing the rich white liberals, he is slowly backed into a weird corner. Afro, goatee, turtleneck and all, he has to be the diplomat . . . He has to play that all-time-loser role of the house guest trying to deal with a bunch of leaping, prancing, palsied happy-slobber Saint Bernards . . . It’s a ball-breaker . . . And no wonder! For what man in all history, has ever before come face to face with naked white Radical Chic running ecstatically through a Park Avenue duplex and letting it all hang out.
One of the members of the Panther defense committee, a white, manages to come up with a phone number, “691-8787,” but Feigen is already pressing on:
“There is one candidate for governor,” he says—quite an impressive voice—“who feels very deeply about what is going on here. He had hoped to be here tonight, but unfortunately he was detained upstate. And that’s Howard Samuels. Now, what I want to know is, if he were willing to come before you and present his program, would you be willing to consider supporting it? In other words, are the Black Panthers interested in getting any political leverage within the System?”
Cox stares at him again. “Well,” he says—and it is the first time he falls into that old hesitant thing of beginning a sentence with well—“any politician who is willing to relate to our 10-point program, we will support him actively, but we have no use for the traditional political—”
“But would you be willing to listen to such a candidate?” says Feigen.
“. . .‘Every time there is violence, it’s used as an indictment of the Black Panthers,’ says Lefcourt. ‘I’m hip,’ says Lenny . . .”
“—the traditional political arena, because if you try to oppose the system from within the traditional political arena, you’re wasting your time. Look at Powell. As soon as he began to speak for the people, they threw him out. We have no power within the system, and we will never have any power within the system. The only power we have is the power to destroy, the power to disrupt. If black people are armed with knowledge—”
“But would you be willing to listen to such a candidate?” says Feigen.
“Well,” says Cox, a bit wearily, “we would refer him to our Central Committee, and if he was willing to support our 10-point program, then we would support that man.”
Feigen muses sagely inside of his tuxedo. Dapper. A dapper dude in pinstripe suit and pencil moustache in the rear of the room, a black named Rick Haynes, president of Management Formation Inc., an organization promoting black capitalism, asks about the arrest the other night of Robert Bay and another Panther named Jolly.
“Right on,” says Cox, softly, raising his left fist a bit, but only as a fraternal gesture—and through every white cortex rushes the flash about how the world here is divided between those who rate that acknowledgement—right on—and those who don’t . . . Right on . . . Cox asks Robert Bay to stand, and his powerful form and his ferocious Afro rise from out of the midst of the people in the rows of chairs in the center of the room, he nods briefly towards Haynes and smiles and says “Right on”—there it is—and then he sits down. And Cox tells how the three detectives rousted and hassled Bay and Jolly and another man, and then the detectives went on radio station WINS and “lied about it all day.” And Lefcourt gets up and tells how this has become a pattern, the cops incessantly harassing the Panthers, wherever they may be, everything from stopping them for doing 52 in a 50-mile-an-hour zone to killing Fred Hampton in his bed.
The beautiful ash-blond girl speaks up: “People like myself who feel that up to now the Panthers have been very badly treated—we don’t know what to do. I mean, if you don’t have money and you don’t have influence, what can you do? What other community programs are there? We want to do something, but what can we do? Is there some kind of committee, or some kind of . . . I don’t know . . .”
Well baby, if you really—but Cox tells her that one of the big problems is finding churches in the black community that will help the Panthers in their breakfast program for ghetto children, and maybe people like her could help the Panthers approach the churches. “It’s basically the churches who have the large kitchens that we need,” he says, “but when we come to them to use their kitchens, to feed hot breakfasts to hungry children, they close the door in our faces. That’s where the churches in the black community are at.”
“Tell why!” says Leonard Bernstein. Hardly anybody has noticed it up to now, but Leonard Bernstein has moved from the back of the room to an easy chair up front. He’s only a couple of feet from Cox. But Cox is standing up, by the piano, and Lenny is sunk down to his hip sockets in the easy chair . . . They really don’t know what they’re in for. Lenny is on the move. As more than one person in this room knows, Lenny treasures “the art of conversation.” He treasures it, monopolizes it, conglomerates it, like a Jay Gould, an Onassis, a Cornfeld of Conversation. Anyone who has spent a three-day weekend with Lenny in the country, by the shore, or captive on some lonesome cay in the Windward Islands, knows that feeling—the alternating spells of adrenal stimulation and insulin coma as the Great Interrupter, the Village Explainer, the champion of Mental Jotto, the Free Analyst, Mr. Let’s Find Out, leads the troops on a 72-hour forced march through the lateral geniculate and the pyramids of Betz, no breathers allowed, until every human brain is reduced finally to a clump of dried seaweed inside a burnt-out husk and collapses, implodes, in one last crunch of terminal boredom. Mr. Pull! Mr. Push! Mr. Auricularis! . . . But how could the Black Panther Party of America know that? Just now Lenny looks so sunk-down-low in the easy chair. Almost at Don Cox’s feet he is, way down in an easy chair with his turtleneck and blazer on, and his neckpiece. Also right down front, on the couch next to the wall, is Otto Preminger, no piece of wallpaper himself, with his great head and neck rising up like a howitzer shell from out of his six-button doublebreasted, after the manner of the eternal Occupation Zone commandant.
“Tell why,” says Lenny.
“Well,” says Cox, “that gets into the whole history of the church in the black community. It’s a long story.”
“Go ahead and tell it,” says Lenny.
“Well,” says Cox, “when the slaves were brought to America, they were always met at the boat by the cat with the whip and the gun . . . see . . . and along with him was the black preacher, who said, Everything’s gonna be all right, as long as you’re right with Jesus. It’s like, the normal thing in the black community. The preacher was always the go-between the slavemasters and the slave, and the preacher would get a little extra crumb off the table for performing this service . . . you know . . . It’s the same situation in the black community today. The preacher is riding around in a gold Cadillac, but it’s the same thing. If you ask a lot of these churches to start working for the people instead of for The Man, they start worrying about that crumb . . . see . . . Because if the preacher starts working for the people, then the power structure starts harassing him. Like we found this one minister who was willing for us to use his church for the breakfast program. So okay, and then one day he comes in, and he’s terrified . . . see . . . and he says we have to leave, that’s all there is to it. The cat’s terrified . . . So we say, okay, we’ll leave, but just tell us what they said to you. Tell us what they did to intimidate you. But he won’t even talk about it, he just says, Leave. He’s too terrified to even talk about it.”
Bernstein says, “Don, what’s really worrying a lot of us here is the friction between groups like the Black Panthers and the established black community.”
No problem. Cox says, “We recognize that there is not only a racial struggle going on in this country, but a class struggle. The class structure doesn’t exist in the same way in the black community, but what we have are very bourgeois-minded people”—he uses the standard New Left pronunciation, which is “boooooooozh-wah”—“petty bourgeois-minded people . . . you see . . . and they have the same mentality as bourgeois-minded people in the white power structure.”
“Yes,” says Bernstein, “but a lot of us here are worried about things like threats against the lives of leaders of the established black community—”
Suddenly Rick Haynes speaks out from the back of the room: “This thing about ‘the black community’ galls me!” He’s really put out, but it’s hard to tell what over, because what he does is look down at the Ash-Blond Beauty, who is only about 10 feet away: “This lovely young lady here was asking about what she could do . . .” What a look . . . if sarcasm could reach 550 degrees, she would shrivel up like a slice of Oscar Mayer bacon. “Well, I suggest that she forget about going into the black community. I suggest that she think about the white community. Like the Wall Street Journal—the Wall Street Journal just printed an article about the Black Panthers, and they came to the shocking conclusion—for them—that a majority of the black community supports the Black Panthers. Well, I suggest that this lovely young lady get somebody like her daddy, who just might have a little more pull than she does, to call up the Wall Street Journal and congratulate them when they write it straight like that. Just call up and say, We like that. The name of the game is to use the media, because the media have been using us.”
“Right on,” says Don Cox.
Curiously, Ash Blonde doesn’t seem particularly taken aback by all this. If this dude in a pin-stripe suit thinks he’s going to keep her off The All-Weather Panther Committee, he’s bananas . . .
And if they think this is going to deflect Leonard Bernstein, they’re all out to lunch. About five people are talking at once—Quat—Lefcourt—Lenny—Cox—Barbara Walters is on the edge of her chair, bursting to ask a question— but it is the Pastmaster who cuts through:
“I want to know what the Panthers’ attitude is toward the threats against these black leaders!” says Lenny.
Lefcourt the lawyer jumps up: “Mr. Bernsteen—”
“STEIN!” roars Lenny. He’s become a veritable tiger, except that he is sunk down so low into the Margaret Owen billows of the easy chair, with his eyes peering up from way down in the downy hollow, that everything he says seems to be delivered into the left knee of Don Cox.
“Mr. Bernstein,” says Lefcourt, “every time there are threats, every time there is violence, it’s used as an indictment of the Black Panthers, even if they had nothing whatsoever to do with it.”
“I’m hip,” says Lenny. “That’s what I’m trying to establish. I just want to get an answer to the question.”
Lefcourt, Quat, half a dozen people it seems like, are talking, telling Lenny how the threats he is talking about, against Whitney Young and Roy Wilkins, were in 1967, before the Panthers were even in existence in New York, and the people arrested in the so-called conspiracy allegedly belonged to an organization called Revolutionary Action Movement, and how the cops, the newspapers, TV, like to aim everything at the Panthers.
“I think everybody in this room buys that,” says Bernstein, “and everybody buys the distinction between what the media, what the newspapers and television say about the Panthers and what they really are. But this thing of the threats is in our collective memory. Bayard Rustin was supposed to be here tonight, but he isn’t here, and for an important reason. The reason he isn’t here tonight is that he was warned that his life would be in danger, and that’s what I want to know about.”
It’s a gasper, this remark. Lefcourt and Quat start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . .
Finally Cox comes around. “We don’t know anything about that,” he says. “We don’t threaten anybody. Like, we only advocate violence in self-defense, because we are a colonial people in a capitalist country . . . you know? . . . and the only thing we can do is defend ourselves against oppression.”
Quat is trying to steer the whole thing away—but suddenly Otto Preminger speaks up from the sofa where he’s sitting, also just a couple of feet from Cox:
“He used von important vord”—then he looks at Cox—“you said zis is de most repressive country in de vorld. I dun’t beleef zat.”
Cox says, “Let me answer the question—”
Lenny breaks in: “When you say ‘capitalist’ in that pejorative tone, it reminds me of Stokely. When you read Stokely’s statement in The New York Review of Books,there’s only one place where he says what he really means, and that’s way down in paragraph 28 or something, and you realize he is talking about setting up a socialist government—”
Preminger is still talking to Cox: “Do you mean dat zis government is more repressive zan de government of Nigeria?”
“I don’t know anything about the government of Nigeria,” says Cox. “Let me answer the question—”
“You dun’t eefen listen to de kvestion,” says Preminger. “How can you answer de kvestion?”
“Let me answer the question,” Cox says, and he says to Lenny: “We believe that the government is obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income . . . see . . . but if the white businessman will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community, with the people.”
Lenny says: “How? I dig it! But how?”
“Right on!” Someone in the back digs it, too.
Julie Belafonte pipes up: “That’s a very difficult question!”
“You can’t blueprint the future,” says Cox.
“You mean you’re just going to wing it?” says Lenny.
“Like . . . this is what we want, man,” says Cox, “we want the same thing as you, we want peace. We want to come home at night and be with the family . . . and turn on the TV . . . and smoke a little weed . . . you know? . . . and get a little high . . . you dig? . . . and we’d like to get into that bag, like anybody else. But we can’t do that . . . see . . . because if they send in the pigs to rip us off and brutalize our families, then we have to fight.”
“I couldn’t agree with you more!” says Lenny. “But what do you do—”
Cox says: “We think that this country is going more and more toward fascism to oppress those people who have the will to fight back—”
“I agree with you one hundred percent!” says Lenny. “But you’re putting it in defensive terms, and don’t you really mean it in offensive terms—”
“That’s the language of the oppressor,” says Cox. “As soon as—”
“Dat’s not—” says Preminger.
“Let me finish!” says Cox. “As a Black Panther, you get used to—”
“Let me finish! As a Black Panther, you learn that language is used as an instrument of control, and—”
“He doesn’t mean dat!”
“Let me finish!”
Cox to Preminger to Bernstein to . . . they’re wrestling for the Big Ear . . . quite a struggle . . . Cox standing up by the piano covered in the million-dollar chatchkas . . . Lenny sunk down into the Margaret Owen easy chair . . . Preminger, the irresistible commandant of the sofa . . . they’re pulling and tugging—
—whereupon the little gray man, the servant of history, pops up from beside the other piano and says:
“Mr. Bernstein, will you yield the floor to Mrs. Bernstein?”
And suddenly Felicia, serene and flawless as Mary Astor, is on her feet: “I would just like to quote this passage from Richard Harris, in The New Yorker,” and she is standing up beside the other piano with a copy of The New Yorker in her hand, reading from an article by Richard Harris on the Justice Department.
“This is a letter from Roger Wilkins to Secretary Finch,” says Felicia. This is Roy Wilkins’ nephew, Roger Wilkins, former head of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, and now with the Ford Foundation. “‘A year ago of the question, because black leaders—even the most militant of them—knew that all they would accomplish was to get themselves and their followers killed.’” Felicia looks up at the audience, as during any first-class reading, and her voice begins to take on more and more theatrical lift. “But I think that the despair is far deeper now. You just can’t go on seeing how white men live, the opportunity they have, listening to all the promises they make and realizing how little they have delivered, without having to fight an almost ungovernable rage within yourself.” Felicia’s voice has taken on the very vibrato of emotion. And in the back room, standing close to Gail Lumet, is Roger Wilkins himself. “‘Some black children in this country,’” recites Felicia, “‘have to eat dog food or go hungry. No man can go on watching his children grow up in hunger and misery like that with wealth and comfort on every side of him, and continue to regard himself as a man. I think that there are black men who have enough pride now so that they would rather die than go on living the way they have to live. And I think that most of us moderates would have difficulty arguing with them. The other day, an old friend of mine, a black man who has spent his life trying to work things out for his people within the system, said to me’”—Felicia looks at the audience and sets up the clincher—“‘“Roger, I’m going to get a gun. I can’t help it”’.”
“That’s marrrrrrr-velous!” says Lenny. He says it with profound emotion . . . He sighs . . . He sinks back into the easy chair . . . Richard Harris . . . Ahura Mazda with the original flaming revelation . . .
Cox seizes the moment: “Our Minister of Defense, Huey P. Newton, has said if we can’t find a meaningful life . . . you know . . . maybe we can have a meaningful death . . . and one reason the power structure fears the Black Panthers is that they know the Black Panthers are ready to die for what they believe in, and a lot of us have already died.”
“. . .‘When you walk into this house, into this building’—Lenny gestures as if to take it all in—‘you must feel infuriated.’. . .”
Lenny seems like a changed man. He looks up at Cox and says, “When you walk into this house, into this building”—and he gestures vaguely as if to take it all in, the moldings, the sconces, the Roquefort morsels rolled in crushed nuts, the servants, the elevator attendant and the doorman downstairs in their white dickeys, the marble lobby, the brass struts on the marquee out front —“when you walk into this house, you must feel infuriated!”
Cox looks embarrassed. “No, man . . . I manage to overcome that . . . That’s a personal thing . . . I used to get very uptight about things like that, but—”
“Don’t you get bitter? Doesn’t that make you mad?”
“Noooo, man . . . That’s a personal thing . . . see . . . and I don’t get mad about that personally. I’m over that.”
“Well,” says Lenny,” it makes me mad!”
And Cox stares at him, and the Plexiglas lowers over his eyes once more . . . These cats—if I wasn’t here to see it—
“This is a very paradoxical situation,” says Lenny. “Having this apartment makes this meeting possible, and if this apartment didn’t exist, you wouldn’t have it. And yet—well, it’s a very paradoxical situation.”
“I don’t get uptight about all that,” says Cox. “I’ve been through all that. I grew up in the country, in a farming community, and I finally became a ‘respectable Negro’ . . . you know . . . I did all the right things. I got a job and a car, and I was wearing a suit and getting good pay, and as long as I didn’t break any rules I could go to work and wear my suit and get paid. But then one day it dawned on me that I was only kidding myself, because that wasn’t where it was at. In a society like ours I might as well have had my hair-guard on and my purple pants, because when I walked down the street I was just another nigger . . . see . . . just another nigger . . . But I don’t have that hate thing going. Like, I mean, I can feel it, I can getuptight. Like the other day I was coming out of the courthouse in Queens and there was this off-duty pig going by . . . see . . . and he gives me the finger. That’s the pig’s way of letting you know he’s got his eye on you. He gives me the finger . . . and for some reason or other, this kind of got the old anger boiling . . . you know?”
“God,” says Lenny, and he swings his head around toward the rest of the room, “most of the people in this room have had a problem about being unwanted!”
Most of the people in this room have had a problem about being unwanted.There it is. It’s an odd feeling. Most-of-the-people-in-this-room’s . . . heads have just spun out over this one. Lenny is unbeatable. Mental Jotto at 3 a.m. He has done it. He has just steered the Black Panther movement into a 1955 Jules Feiffer cartoon. Rejection, Security, Anxiety, Oedipus, Electra, Neurosis, Transference, Id, Superego, Archetype and Field of Perception, that wonderful 1950s game, beloved by all educated young men and women in the East who grew up in the era of the great cresting tide of Freud, Jung, Adler, Reik & Reich, when everyone either had an analyst or quoted Ernest Dichter telling Maytag that dishwashing machines were bought by women with anal compulsions. And in the gathering insulin coma Lenny has the Panthers and 75 assorted celebrities and culturati heading off on the long march into the neural jungle, 1955 Forever. One way or another we all feel insecure—right? And so long as we repress our—it’s marvelous! Mr. Auricularis! The Village Explainer! Most of the people in this room have had a problem about being unwanted—
Cox looks at him, with the Plexiglas lowering . . . But the little gray man, the servant of history, jumps in once more. He sends a lovely young thing, one of the blondes in the room, over to whisper something in Lenny’s ear. “Livingston Wingate is here,” she tells him.
No slouch in such situations, Lenny immediately seems to dope this out as just an interruption to shut him up.
“Oh, why don’t I just leave!” he says. He makes a mock move as if to get up from the chair and leave the room. “Noooo! Noooo!” everybody says. Everybody is talking at once, but then Barbara Walters, who has had this certain thing building up inside of her, springs it loose. Everybody knows that voice, Barbara Walters of the Today Show, televised coast to coast every morning, a mid-Atlantic voice, several miles east of Newfoundland and heading for Blackpool, and she leans forward, sitting in the third row in her checked pantsuit with the great fur collar:
“I’m a member of the news media, but I’m here as an individual, because I’m concerned about the questions raised here, and there has been a lot of talk about the media. Last year we interviewed Mrs. Eldridge Cleaver, Kathleen Cleaver, and it was not an edited report or anything of that sort. She had a chance to say whatever she wanted, and this is a very knowledgeable, very brilliant, very articulate woman . . . And I asked her, I said, ‘I have a child, and you have a child,’ and I said, ‘Do you see any possibility that our children will be able to grow up and live side by side in peace and harmony?’ and she said, ‘not with the conditions that prevail in this society today, not without the overthrow of the system.’ So I asked her, ‘How do you feel, as a mother, about the prospect of your child being in that kind of confrontation, a nation in flames?’ and she said, ‘Let it burn!’ And I said, ‘What about your own child?’ and she said, ‘May he light the first match!’ And that’s what I want to ask you about. I’m still here as a concerned person, not as a reporter, but what I’m talking about, and what Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Preminger are talking about, when they ask you about the way you refer to capitalism, is whether you see any chance at all for a peaceful solution to these problems, some way out without violence.”
Cox says, “Not with the present system. I can’t see that. Like, what can change? There’s 750 families that own all the wealth of this country—”
“Dat’s not tdrue!” says Preminger. “Dere are many people vid vealth all over—”
“Let me finish!—and these families are the most reactionary elements in the country. A man like H. L. Hunt wouldn’t let me in his house.”
Barbara Walters says: “I’m not talking about—”
“I wouldn’t go to his house eef he asked me,” says Preminger.
“Well I almost—”
“Vot about Ross Perot? He’s a Texan, too, and is spending millions of dollars trying to get de vives of prisoners of war in touch with the government of North Vietnam—”
Cox says: “I would respect him more if he was giving his money to hungry children.”
“He is!” says Preminger. “He is! You dun’t read anyt’ing! Dat’s your tdrouble!”
“I’m not talking about that,” Barbara Walters says to Cox. “I’m talking about what’s supposed to happen to other people if you achieve your goals.”
“You can’t just put it like that!” says Julie Belafonte. “That needs clarification.”
Barbara Walters says: “I’m talking as a white woman who has a white husband, who is a capitalist, or an agent of capitalists, and I am, too, and I want to know if you are to have your freedom, does that mean we have to go!”
Barbara Walters and her husband, Lee Guber, a producer, up against the wall in the cellar in Ekaterinburg.
Cox says, “For one person to be free, everybody must be free. As long as one whole class is oppressed, there is no freedom in a society. A lot of young white people are beginning to—”
“Dat eesn’t vat she’s asking—”
“Let me finish—let me answer the question—”
“You dun’t even listen to de kvestion—”
“Let me finish—A lot of young white people are beginning to understand about oppression. They’re part of the petty bourgeoisie. It’s a different class from the black community, but there’s a common oppressor. They’re protesting about individual freedoms, to have their music and smoke weed and have sex. These are individual freedoms but they are beginning to understand—”
“If you’re for freedom,” says Preminger, “tell me dis: Is it all right for a Jew to leave Russia and settle in Israel?”
“Let me finish—”
“Is it all right for a Jew to leave Russia and settle in Israel?”
Most people in the room don’t know what the hell Preminger is driving at, but Leon Quat and the little gray man know right away. They’re trying to wedge into the argument. The hell with that little number, that Israel and Al Fatah and U.A.R. and MIGS and USSR and Zionist imperialist number—not in this room you don’t—
Quat stands up with a terrific one-big-happy-family smile on and says: “I think we’re all ready to agree that the crisis in this country today comes not from the Black Panthers but from the war in Vietnam, and—”
But there is a commotion right down front. Barbara Walters is saying something to one of the Panther wives, Mrs. Lee Berry, in the front row.
“What did she say to you?” says Lenny.
“I was talking to this very nice lady,” says Barbara Walters, “and she said, ‘You sound like you’re afraid.’”
Mrs. Berry laughs softly and shakes her head.
“I’m not afraid of you,” Barbara Walters says to her, “but maybe I am about the idea of the death of my children!”
“Please!” says Quat.
“All I’m asking is if we can work together to create justice without violence and destruction!”
“Please!” says Quat.
“He never answered her kvestion!” says Preminger.
“I can answer the question—”
“You dun’t eefen listen—”
“Let me answer the question! I can deal with that. We don’t believe that it will happen within the present system, but—”
Lenny says: “So you’re going to start a revolution from a Park Avenue apartment!”
Quat sings out desperately: “Livingston Wingate is here! Can we please have a word from Mr. Livingston Wingate of the Urban League?” Christ, yes, bring in Livingston Wingate.
So Livingston Wingate, executive director of the New York Urban League, starts threading his way down to the front. He hasn’t got the vaguest notion of what has been going on, except that this is Panther night at the Bernsteins’. He apparently thinks he is called upon to wax forensic, because he starts into a long disquisition on the changing mood of black youth.
“I was on television this morning with a leader of the Panther movement, he says, “and—”
“That was me”—Cox from his chair beside the piano.
Wingate wheels around. “Oh, yes . . .” He does a double take. “I didn’t see you here . . . That was you . . . Hah . . .” And then he continues, excoriating himself and his generation of black leaders for their failures, because non-violence didn’t work, and he can no longer tell the black youth not to throw that rock—
In the corner, meanwhile, by the piano, Preminger has reached out and grabbed Cox by the forearm in some kind of grip of goodwill and brotherhood and is beaming as if to say, I didn’t mean anything by it, and Cox is trying to grab his hand and shake hands and say that’s O.K., and Preminger keeps going for the forearm, and Cox keeps going for the hand, and they’re lost there in a weird eccentric tangle of fingers and wrist bones between the sofa and the grand piano, groping and tugging—
—because, says Livingston Wingate, he cannot prove to the ghetto youth that anything else will work, and so forth and so on, “and they are firmly convinced that there can be no change unless the system is changed.”
“Less than 5 per cent of the people of this country have 90 per cent of the wealth,” says Lefcourt the lawyer, “and 10 per cent of them have most of the 90 per cent. The mass of the people by following the system can never make changes, and there is no use continuing to tell people about constitutional guarantees, either. Leon and I could draw up a constitution that would give us all the power, and we could make it so deep and legitimate that you would have to kill us to change it!”
Julie Belafonte rises up in front and says: “Then we’ll kill you!”
“Power to the people!” says Leon Quat . . . and all rise to their feet . . . and Charlotte Curtis puts the finishing touches in her notebook . . . and the white servants wait patiently in the wings to wipe the drink rings off the Amboina tables . . .
Still wound up with the excitement of the mental Jotto they had all just been through, Lenny, Felicia and Don Cox kept on talking there in the duplex, long after most guests had gone, up to about 10 p.m., in fact. Lenny and Felicia knew they had been through a unique experience, but they had no idea of the furor that was going to break the next day when Charlotte Curtis’ account of the party would appear in the New York Times.
The story appeared in two forms—a preliminary report rushed through for the first edition, which reaches the streets about 10:30 p.m., and a much fuller one for the late city edition, the one most New Yorkers see in the morning. Neither account was in any way critical of what had gone on. Even after reading them, Lenny and Felicia probably had little inkling of what was going to happen next. The early version began:
“Mrs. Leonard Bernstein, who has raised money for such diverse causes as indigent Chileans, the New York Philharmonic, Church World Service, Israeli student scholarships, emotionally disturbed children, the New York Civil Liberties Union, A Greek boys’ school and Another Mother for Peace, was into what she herself admitted yesterday was a whole new thing. She gave a cocktail party for the Black Panthers. ‘Not a frivolous party,’ she explained before perhaps 30 guests arrived, ‘but a chance for all of us to hear what’s happening to them. They’ve really been treated very inhumanely.’”
Felicia herself couldn’t have asked for it to be put any better. In the later edition it began: “Leonard Bernstein and a Black Panther leader argued the merits of the Black Panther party’s philosophy before nearly 90 guests last night in the Bernsteins’ elegant Park Avenue duplex”—and went on to give some of the dialogue of Lenny’s, Cox’s and Preminger’s argument over Panther tactics and Lenny’s refrain of “I dig it.” There was also a picture of Cox standing beside the piano and talking to the group, with Felicia in the background. No one in the season of Radical Chic could have asked for better coverage. It took up a whole page in the fashion section, along with ads for B. Altman’s, Edith Imre wigs, fur coats, the Sherry-Netherland Hotel, and The Sun and Surf (Palm Beach).
What the Bernsteins probably did not realize at first was that the story was going out on the New York Times News Service wires. In other cities throughout the United States and Europe it was played on page one, typically, to an international chorus of horse laughs or nausea, depending on one’s Weltanschauung. The English, particularly, milked the story for all it was worth and seemed to derive one of the great cackles of the year from it.
By the second day, however—Friday—the Bernsteins certainly knew they were in for it. The Times ran an editorial! on the party. It was headed “False Note on Black Panthers”:
“Emergence of the Black Panthers as the romanticized darlings of the politico-cultural jet set is an affront to the majority of black Americans. This so-called party, with its confusion of Mao-Marxist ideology and Fascist paramilitarism, is fully entitled to protection of its members’ constitutional rights. It was to make sure that those rights are not abridged by persecution masquerading as law-enforcement that a committee of distinguished citizens has recently been formed [a group headed by Arthur Goldberg that sought to investigate the killing of Fred Hampton by Chicago police].
“. . . The so-called ‘party’ for the Panthers had not been a party at all. It had been a meeting. Nothing social about it . . .”
“In contrast, the group therapy plus fund-raising soiree at the home of Leonard Bernstein, as reported in this newspaper yesterday, represents the sort of elegant slumming that degrades patrons and patronized alike. It might be dismissed as guilt-relieving fun spiked with social consciousness, except for its impact on those blacks and whites seriously working for complete equality and social justice. It mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was solemnly observed throughout the nation yesterday.
“Black Panthers on a Park Avenue pedestal create one more distortion of the Negro image. Responsible black leadership is not likely to cheer as the Beautiful People create a new myth that Black Panther is beautiful.”
Elegant slumming . . . mocked the memory of Martin Luther King . . . Black Panthers on a Park Avenue pedestal . . . the Beautiful People . . . it was a stunner. And this was not the voice of some right-wing columnist like William Buckley (although he would be heard from)—this was an editorial, on the editorial page, underneath the eagle medallion with “All the News That’s Fit To Print” and “Established 1851” on it . . . in the very New York Times itself.
Felicia spoke to Charlotte Curtis, and Charlotte Curtis agreed with her that the Times was wrong to characterize the party as “elegant slumming.” The following week she wrote a story testifying to the sincerity of many Society figures, including Felicia, who had worked diligently for the less fortunate. But she stood by her original story down to the last detail. Felicia seemed to accept this in good grace. But Lenny was not so sure. The whole thing sounded like a put-up job. Look at it this way: they held a meeting—not a party, but a meeting—in his home on one of the most important issues of the day, and the Times chose to run a story not by Homer Bigart or Harrison Salisbury, but by a Society writer who puts in a lot of “hairbrained” details about his Black Watch pants and a lot of sappy quotes he never uttered—right? This sets him up like a dummy for a roundhouse right from the cheap seats—the editorial about “elegant slumming” and the mockery of the memory of Martin Luther King. Not only that, he himself was already beginning to be mocked in New York in the old word-of-mouth carnival. It was unbelievable. Cultivated people, intellectuals, were characterizing him as “a masochist” and—and this was the really cruel part—as “the David Susskind of American Music.”
Felicia sat down that very day, Friday, and wrote an aggrieved but calmly worded letter to the Times:
“As a civil libertarian, I asked a number of people to my house on Jan. 14 in order to hear the lawyer and others involved with the Panther 21 discuss the problem of civil liberties as applicable to the men now waiting trial, and to help raise funds for their legal expenses.
“Those attending included responsible members of the black leadership as well as distinguished citizens from a variety of walks of life, all of whom share common concern on the subject of civil liberties and equal justice under our laws.
“The outcome of the Panther 21 trial will be determined by the judge and jury. That was not our concern. But the ability of the defendants to prepare a proper defense will depend on the help given prior to the trial, and this help must not be denied because of lack of funds.
“It was for this deeply serious purpose that our meeting was called. The frivolous way in which it was reported as a ‘fashionable’ event is unworthy of the Times, and offensive to all people who are committed to humanitarian principles of justice.”
Felicia delivered the letter in person to the Times that afternoon. The Bernsteins picked up Saturday’s paper—and no letter. In fact, it did not appear until Wednesday, after the publication of a letter from someone named Porter saying things like “we shall soon witness the birth of local Rent-a-Panther organizations.” This fed the conspiracy theory, at least in the Bernstein household. By now columnists all over the place were taking their whack at the affair. Buckley, for example, cited it as an object lesson in the weird masochism of the white liberal who bids the Panther come devour him in his “luxurious lair.”
But if the Bernsteins thought their main problem at this point was a bad press, they were wrong. A controversy they were apparently oblivious of suddenly erupted around them. Namely, the bitterness between Jews and blacks over an issue that had been building for three years, ever since Black Power became important. The first inkling the Bernsteins had was when they started getting hate mail, some of it apparently from Jews of the Queens-Brooklyn Jewish Defense League variety. Then the League’s national chairman, Rabbi Meir Kahane, blasted Lenny publicly for joining a “trend in liberal and intellectual circles to lionize the Black Panthers . . . We defend the right of blacks to form defense groups, but they’ve gone beyond this to a group which hates other people. That’s not nationalism, that’s Naziism. And if Bernstein and other such intellectuals do not know this, they know nothing.”
The Jewish Defense League had been formed in 1968 for the specific purpose of defending Jews in low-rent neighborhoods, many of which are black. But even many wealthier and more cultivated Jews, who look at the Defense League as somewhat extremist, Low Rent and gauche, agreed essentially with the point Kahane was making. One of the ironies of the history of the Jews in America was that their long championship of black civil liberties had begun to backfire so badly in the late 1960s. As Seymour Lipset has put it, “The integrationist movement was largely an alliance between Negroes and Jews (who, to a considerable extent, actually dominated it). Many of the interracial civil-rights organizations have been led and financed by whites, and the majority of their white members have been Jews. Insofar as a Negro effort emerged to break loose from involvement with whites, from domination of the civil-rights struggle by white liberals, it meant concretely a break with Jews, for they were the whites who were active in these movements. The Black Nationalist leadership had to push whites (Jews) ‘out of the way,’ and to stop white (Jewish) ‘interference’ in order to get whites (Jews) ‘off their backs.’”
“. . .‘If you’re for freedom,’ says Otto Preminger, ‘tell me dis: Is it all right for a Jew to leave Russia and settle in Israel?’. . .”
Meanwhile, Black Power groups such as SNCC and the Black Panthers were voicing support for the Arabs against Israel. This sometimes looked like a mere matter of black nationalism; after all, Egypt was a part of Africa, and black nationalist literature sometimes seemed to identify the Arabs as blacks fighting the white Israelis. Or else it looked like merely a commitment to world socialism; the Soviet Union and China supported the Arabs against the imperialist tools, the Israelis. But many Jewish leaders regarded the anti-Zionist stances of groups like the Panthers as a veiled American-brand anti-Semitism, tied up with such less theoretical matters as extortion, robbery and mayhem by blacks against Jews in ghetto areas. They cited things like the August 30, 1969, issue of Black Panther, which carried an article entitled “Zionism (Kosher Nationalism) + Imperialism = Fascism” and spoke of “the fascist pigs.” The June, 1967, issue of another Panther publication, Black Power, had carried a poem entitled “Jew-Land,” which said:
Jew-Land, On a summer afternoon, Really, Couldn’t kill the Jews too soon, Now dig. The Jews have stolen our bread Their filthy women tricked our men into bed So I won’t rest until the Jews are dead . . . In Jew-Land, Don’t be a Tom on Israel’s side Really, Cause that’s where Christ was crucified.
But in the most literate circles of the New Left—well, the Panthers’ pronouncements on foreign affairs couldn’t be taken too seriously. Ideologically, they were still feeling their way around. To be a UJA Zionist about the whole thing was to be old-fashioned, middle-class middle-aged, suburban, Oceanside-Cedarhurstian, in an age when the youth of the New Left had re-programmed the whole circuitry of Left opposition to oppression. The main thing was that the Panthers were the legitimate vanguard of the black struggle for liberation—among the culturati whom Leonard Bernstein could be expected to know and respect, this was not a point of debate, it was an axiom. The chief theoretical organ of Radical Chic, The New York Review of Books, regularly cast Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver as the Simón Bolívar and José Martí of the black ghettos. On August 24, 1967, The New York Review of Books paid homage to the summer urban riot season by printing a diagram for the making of a Molotov cocktail on its front page. In fact, the journal was sometimes referred to good-naturedly as The Parlour Panther, with the –our spelling of Parlour being an allusion to its concurrent motif of anglophilia. The Review’s embracing of such apparently contradictory attitudes—the nitty-gritty of the ghetto warriors and the preciosity of traditional English Leavis & Loomis intellectualism—was really no contradiction at all, of course. It was merely the essential double-track mentality of Radical Chic—nostagie de la boue and high protocol—in its literary form. In any case, given all this, people like Lenny and Felicia could hardly have been expected to comprehend a complex matter like the latter-day friction between blacks and Jews.
To other people involved in Radical Chic, however, the picture was now becoming clear as day. This was no time for Custer’s last stand. This was time . . . to panic. Two more couples had already agreed to give parties for the Panthers: Peter and Cheray Duchin and Frank and Domna Stanton. The Duchins had already gotten some of the static themselves. Peter had gone to Columbus, Ohio, with his orchestra . . . and the way some of the locals let him have it! All because Charlotte Curtis’ article had quoted Cheray saying how thrilled she was at the prospect of meeting her first Black Panther at Felicia’s. Columbus freaking Ohio, yet. Nor did it take the Stantons long to put two and two together. Frank Stanton, the entrepreneur, not the broadcaster, had a duplex co-op that made Lenny’s look like a fourth-floor walkup. It had marble floors, apricot velvet walls, trompel’oeil murals in the dining room, the works. A few photos of the Panthers against this little backdrop—well, you could write the story yourself.
On Saturday evening, the 24th, the Duchins, the Stantons, Sidney and Gail Lumet, and Lenny and Felicia met at the Bernsteins’ to try to think out the whole situation. Sidney Lumet was convinced that a new era of “McCarthyism” had begun. It was a little hard to picture the editorial and women’s page staffs of the Times as the new Joe McCarthy—but damn it . . . The Times was pushing its own pet organizations, the NAACP, the Urban League, the Urban Coalition, and so on. Why did it look like the Times always tried to punish prominent Jews who refused to lie down and play good solid burghers? Who was it who said the Times was a Catholic newspaper run by Jews to fool the Protestants? Some professor at Columbia . . . In any case, they were now all “too exposed” to do the Panthers any good by giving parties for the Panthers in their homes. They would do better to work through organizations like the NAACP legal defense fund.
Lenny couldn’t get over the whole affair. Earlier in the evening he had talked to a reporter and told him it was “nauseating.” The so-called “party” for the Panthers had not been a party at all. It had been a meeting. There was nothing social about it. As to whether he thought because parties were held in the homes of socially prominent people simply because the living rooms were large and the acoustics were good, he didn’t say. In any case, he and Felicia didn’t give parties, and they didn’t go to parties, and they were certainly not in anybody’s “jet set.” And they were not “masochists,” either.
So four nights later Lenny, in a tuxedo, and Felicia, in a black dress, walked into a party in the triplex of one of New York’s great hostesses, overlooking the East River, on the street of social dreams, East 52nd, and right off the bat some woman walks right up to him and says, “Lenny, I just think you’re a masochist.” It was unbelievable.
The panic turned out to be good for The Friends of the Earth, somewhat the way the recession has been bad for the Four Seasons but good for Riker’s. Many matrons, such as Cheray Duchin, turned their attention toward the sables, cheetahs and leopards, once the Panthers became radioactive. The Stantons, meanwhile, dropped their plans for a Panther party and had one instead for the Buddhists, and Richard Feigen dropped his plans for a party because of the Panthers’ support for Al Fatah. Leonard Bernstein went off to England to rehearse with the London Symphony Orchestra for an already scheduled performance in the Royal Albert Hall. He couldn’t have been very sorry about the trip. Unbelievable hostility was still bubbling around him. In Miami, Jewish pickets forced a moviehouse to withdraw a film of Lenny conducting the Israel Philharmonic on Mount Scopus in celebration of Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.
In general, the Radically Chic made a strategic withdrawal, denouncing the “witchhunt” of the press as they went. There was brief talk of a whole series of parties for the Panthers in and around New York, by way of showing the world that socialites and culturati were ready to stand up and be counted in defense of what the Panthers, and, for that matter, the Bernsteins, stood for. But it never happened. In fact, if the socialites already in line for Panther parties had gone ahead and given them in clear defiance of the opening round of attacks on the Panthers and the Bernsteins, they might well have struck an extraordinary counterblow in behalf of the Movement. This is, after all, a period of great confusion among culturati and liberal intellectuals generally, and one in which a decisive display of conviction and self-confidence can be overwhelming. But for the Radically Chic to have fought back in this way would have been a violation of their own innermost convictions. Radical Chic, after all, is only radical in style; in its heart it is part of Society and its traditions. Politics, like Rock, Pop and Camp, has its uses; but to put one’s whole status on the line for nostalgie de la boue in any of its forms would be unprincipled.
Meanwhile, the damnable press dogged Lenny even in London. A United Press International reporter interviewed him there and sent out a story in which Lenny said: “They”—the Panthers—”are a bad lot. They have behaved very badly. They have laid their own graves. It was the Panthers themselves who spoiled the deal, they won’t be rational.” The next day Lenny told a New York Times reporter that the UPI story was “nonsense.” He didn’t remember what he had said, but he hadn’t said anything like that. At the same time he released a statement that he had actually drawn up in New York before he left. It said that there had been no “party” for the Panthers in his home in the first place; it had been a meeting, and “the only concern at our meeting was civil liberties.” “If we deny these Black Panthers their democratic rights because their philosophy is unacceptable to us, then we are denying our own democracy.” He now made it clear that he was opposed to their philosophy, however. “It is not easy to discern a consistent political philosophy among the Black Panthers, but it is reasonably clear that they are advocating violence against their fellow citizens, the downfall of Israel, the support of Al Fatah and other similarly dangerous and ill-conceived pursuits. To all of these concepts I am vigorously opposed and will fight against them as hard as I can.”
And still this damned nauseating furor would not lie down and die. Wouldn’t you know it—two days after the, well, meeting, on the very day he and Felicia were reeling from the Times editorial, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that renegade, had been down in Washington writing his famous “benign neglect” memo to Nixon. In it Moynihan had presented him and Felicia and their “party” as Exhibit A of the way black revolutionaries like the Panthers had become the “culture heroes” of the Beautiful People. Couldn’t you just see Nixon sitting in the Oval Room and clucking and fuming and muttering things like “rich snob bums” as he read: “You perhaps did not note on the society page of yesterday’s Times that Mrs. Leonard Bernstein gave a cocktail party on Wednesday to raise money for the Panthers. Mrs. W. Vincent Astor was among the guests. Mrs. Peter Duchin, ‘the rich blonde wife of the orchestra leader,’ was thrilled. ‘I’ve never met a Panther,’ she said. ‘This is a first for me.’”
On February 29 someone leaked the damned memo to the damned New York Times, and that did it. Now he was invested, installed, inaugurated, instituted, transmogrified as Mr. Parlour Panther for all time. The part about their “cocktail party” was right in the same paragraph with the phrase “benign neglect.” And it didn’t particularly help the situation that Mrs. Astor got off a rapid letter to the Times informing them that she was not at the “party.” She received an invitation, like all sorts of other people, she supposed, but, in fact, she had not gone. Thanks a lot, Brooke Astor.
Fools, boors, philistines, Birchers, B’nai B’rithees, Defense Leaguers, Hadassah theatre party pirhanas, UJAviators, concert hall Irishmen, WASP ignorati, toads, newspaper readers—they were booing him, Leonard Bernstein, the egregio maestro . . . Boooooo. No two ways about it. They weren’t clearing their throats. They were squeezed into their $14.50 bequested seats, bringing up from out of the false bottoms of their bellies the old Low Rent raspberry boos of days gone by. Boooooo. Newspaper readers! That harebrained story in the Times had told how he and Felicia had given a party for the Black Panthers and how he had pledged a conducting fee to their defense fund, and now, stretching out before him in New York, was a great starched white-throated audience of secret candystore bigots, greengrocer Moshe Dayans with patches over both eyes . . .
. . . once, after a concert in Italy, an old Italian, one of those glorious old Italians in an iron worsted black suit and a high collar with veritable embroideries of white thread mending the cracks where the collar folds over, one of those old Europeans who seem to have been steeped, aged, marinated, in centuries of true Culture in a land where people understood the art of living and the art of feeling and were not ashamed to express what was in their hearts—this old man had come up to him with his eyes brimming and his honest gnarled hands making imaginary snowballs and had said: “Egregio maestro! Egreggggggggggio maestro!” The way he said it, combining the egregio, meaning “distinguished” with the maestro, meaning “master” . . . well, the way he said it meant a conductor so great, so brilliant, so dazzling, so transported, so transcendental, so—yes!—immortal . . . well, there is no word in the whole lame dumb English language to describe it. And in that moment Leonard Bernstein knew that he had reached . . .
Boooooooo! Booooooooo! It was unbelievable. But it was real. These greengrocers—he was their whipping boy, and a bunch of $14.50 white-throated cretins were booing him, and it was no insomniac hallucination in the loneliness of 3 a.m.
Would that black apparition, that damnable Negro by the piano, be rising up from the belly of a concert grand for the rest of his natural life?
I remember a time when some of my friends and acquaintances used to go out of their way to avoid meeting me in the street. Though I certainly did not intend it to be so, they saw me, in a way, as a voice of their conscience. They knew that if they stopped and talked with me, they would feel compelled to apologize for not openly defying the regime too, or to explain to me why they could not do it, or to defend themselves by claiming that dissent was pointless anyway. Conversations like this were usually quite an ordeal for both sides, and thus it was better to stay away from them altogether.
Another reason for their behaviour was the fear that the police were following me, and that merely talking to me would cause them complications. It was easier not to go near me, for thus they would avoid both an unpleasant conversation and the potential persecution that could follow. In short, I was, for those friends, an inconvenience. And inconveniences are best avoided.
For long decades, the chief nightmare of the democratic world was communism. Today three years after it began to collapse like an avalanche it would seem as though another nightmare has replaced it: post-communism. There were many, not just in the West, but in the East as well, who had been looking forward to the fall of communism for years, and who had hoped that its collapse would mean that history had at last come to its senses. Today, these same people are seriously worried about the consequences of that fall. Some of them may even feel a little nostalgic for a world that was, after all, slightly more transparent and understandable than the present one.
I do not share sentiments of that kind. I think we must not understand post-communism merely as something that makes life difficult for the rest of the world. I certainly did not understand communism that way. I saw it chiefly as a challenge, a challenge to think and to act. To an even greater extent, post-communism represents just that kind of challenge.
Anyone who understands a given historical phenomenon merely as an inconvenience will ultimately see many other things the same way: the warnings of ecologists, public opinion, the vagaries of voters, public morality. It is an easy and therefore seductive way of seeing the world and history. But it is extremely dangerous because we tend to remain aloof from things that inconvenience us and get in our way, just as some of my acquaintances avoided me during the Communist era. Any position based on the feeling that the world, or history, is merely an accumulation of inconveniences inevitably leads to a turning away from reality, and ultimately, to resigning oneself to it. It leads to appeasement, even to collaboration. The consequences of such a position may even be suicidal.
What in fact do we mean by post-communism? Essentially, it is a term for the state of affairs in all the countries that have rid themselves of communism. But it is a dangerous simplification to put all these countries in one basket. While it is true that they are all faced with essentially the same task that is, to rid themselves of the disastrous legacy of communism, to repair the damage it caused, and to create, or renew, democracy at the same time, and for many reasons, there are great differences between them.
I will not go into all the problems encountered by post-communist countries; experts are no doubt already writing books on the subject. I will mention only some of the root causes of the phenomena that arouse the greatest concern in the democratic West, phenomena such as nationalism, xenophobia, and the poor moral and intellectual climate which, to a greater or lesser extent, accompany the creation of the new political and economic system.
The first of these causes I see in the fact that communism was far from being simply the dictatorship of one group of people over another. It was a genuinely totalitarian system, that is, it penetrated every aspect of life and deformed everything it touched, including all the natural ways people had developed of living together. It profoundly affected all forms of human behaviour. For years, a specific structure of values and models of behaviour was deliberately created in the consciousness of society. It was a perverted structure, one that went against all the natural tendencies of life, but society nevertheless internalized it, or rather was compelled to internalize it.
When Communist power and its ideology collapsed, this structure collapsed along with it. But people could not simply absorb and internalize a new structure immediately one corresponding to the elementary principles of civil society and democracy. The human mind and human habits cannot be transformed overnight; to build a new system of living values and to learn to identify with them takes time.
In a situation where one thing has collapsed and something new does not yet exist, many people feel hollow and frustrated. This state is fertile ground for phenomena such as the hunt for scapegoats, for radicalism of all kinds, and for the need to hide behind the anonymity of a group, be it socially or ethnically based. It encourages hatred of the world, self-affirmation at all costs, the feeling that everything is now permitted, and the unparalleled flourishing of selfishness that goes along with it. It gives rise to the search for a common and easily identifiable enemy, to political extremism, to the most primitive cult of consumerism, to a carpetbagging morality, stimulated by the historically unprecedented restructuring of property relations, and so on and so on.
Thanks to its former democratic traditions and to its unique intellectual and spiritual climate, the Czech Republic, the westernmost of the post-communist countries, is relatively well-off in this regard, compared with some of the other countries in the region. Nevertheless, we too are going through the same great transformation that all the post-communist countries are, and we can therefore talk about it on the basis of inside knowledge.
Another factor that must be considered in any analysis of post-communist phenomena is the intrinsic tendency of communism to make everything the same. The greatest enemy of communism was always individuality, variety, difference -in a word, freedom. From Berlin to Vladivostok, the streets and buildings were decorated with the same red stars. Everywhere the same kind of celebratory parades were staged. Analogical state administrations were set up, along with a whole system of central direction of social and economic life. This great shroud of uniformity, suffocating all national, intellectual, spiritual, social, cultural or religious variety, covered over any differences and created the monstrous illusion that we were all the same.
The fall of communism destroyed this shroud of sameness, and the world was caught napping by an outburst of the many unanticipated differences concealed beneath it, each of which -after such a long time in the shadows -felt a natural need to draw attention to itself, to emphasize its uniqueness and its difference from others. This is the reason for the eruption of so many different kinds of old-fashioned patriotism, revivalist messianism, conservatism, and expressions of hatred toward all those who appeared to be betraying their roots or identifying with different ones.
The desire to renew and emphasize one’s identity, one’s uniqueness, is also behind the emergence of many new states. Nations that have never had countries of their own feel an understandable need to experience independence. It is no fault of theirs that the opportunity has come up decades or even centuries after it came to other nations.
This is related to yet another matter. For a long time, communism brought history, and with it all natural development, to a halt. While the Western democracies have had decades to create a civil society, to build internationally integrated structures, and to learn the arts of peaceful international co-existence and cooperation, the countries ruled by communism could not go through this creative process. National and cultural differences were driven into the subterranean areas of social life, where they were kept on ice and thus prevented from developing freely, from taking on modern forms in the fresh air, from creating, over time, the free space of unity in variety.
At the same time, many of the nations suppressed by communism had not enjoyed freedom even before its advent, and thus had not had a chance to resolve many of the basic questions of their existence as countries. Consequently, thousands of unsolved problems have suddenly burst forth into the light of day, problems left unsolved by history, problems we had wrongly supposed were long forgotten. It is truly astonishing to discover how, after decades of falsified history and ideological manipulation and massaging, nothing has been forgotten. Nations are now remembering their ancient achievements and their ancient suffering, their ancient suppressors and their allies, their ancient statehood, and their former borders, their traditional animosities and affinities -in short, they are suddenly recalling a history that, until recently, had been carefully concealed or misrepresented.
Thus in many parts of the so-called post-communist world, it is not just the regional order (sometimes referred to as the Yalta order) that is being corrected. There are also attempts to correct certain shortcomings in the Versailles order, and even to go farther back into history and exploit the greatest freedom some of them have ever had to make complete amends. It is an impossible desire, of course, but understandable nevertheless.
If we wish to understand the problems of the post-communist world, or some of them at least, then we must continually remind ourselves of something else. It is easy to deny the latent problems, ambitions, and particularities of nations. It is easy to make everything the same by force, to destroy the complex and fragile social, cultural and economic relationships and institutions built up over centuries, and to enforce a single, primitive model of central control in the spirit of a proud utopianism. It is as easy to do that as it is to smash a piece of antique, inlaid furniture with a single blow from a hammer. But it is infinitely more difficult to restore it, or to create it directly.
The fall of the Communist empire is an event on the same scale of historical importance as the fall of the Roman Empire. And it has similar consequences, both good and extremely disturbing. It means a significant change in the countenance of today’s world. The change is painful and will take a long time. To build a new world on the ruins of communism might be as long and complex a task as the creation of a Christian Europe -after the great migrations once was.
What are we to do if we do not wish to understand post-communism simply as a new inconvenience that would be better avoided by sticking our heads in the sand and minding our own business?
I think the most important thing is not just to take account of external and more or less measurable phenomena like the gross national product, the progress of privatization, the stability of the political system and the measurable degree to which human rights are observed. All of these things are important, of course, but something more is necessary. There must be an effort to understand the deep events taking place in the womb of post-communist societies, to take note of their historical meaning and think about their global implications.
It must be understood that these are not the curious woes of a distant and circumscribed part of the world, but events that concern everyone, and all of our present-day civilization. The temptation must be resisted to adopt a disparaging and slightly puzzled attitude, one based on a subconscious feeling of superiority on the part of observers who are better off. Just as Czechs should not sneer at the problems of Tadzhikistan, so no one should sneer at the problems of the Czech Republic. Any point of departure, therefore, should involve deep insight and a deep sense of co-responsibility. It is only against this background of understanding that meaningful ways of assistance can be sought.
It seems to me that the challenge offered by the post-communist world is merely the current form of a broader and more profound challenge to discover a new type of self-understanding for man, and a new type of politics that should flow from that understanding. As we all know, today’s planetary civilization is in serious danger. Modern man thinks of himself as the lord of creation and not just a part of it, and his vanity is rapidly destroying his hope of survival. Because he is not grounded in a humble respect for the order of Being, modern man allows himself to be driven by his particular interests. He is no longer capable of governing his behaviour in a way that takes account of the general interest.
We are rationally capable of describing, in vivid detail, all the dangers that threaten the world: the deepening gulf between the rich and the poor parts of the world, the population explosion, the potential for dramatic confrontations between different racial and cultural groups the arming of whom no one seems able to stop the nuclear threat, the plundering of natural resources, the destruction of the natural variety of species, the creation of holes in the ozone layer, and the unstoppable global warming. What is unsettling is that the more we know about such dangers, the less we seem able to deal with them.
I see only one way out of this crisis. We must come to a new understanding of ourselves, our limitations, and our place in the world. We should grasp our responsibility in a new way, and reestablish a relationship with the things that transcend us. We must rehabilitate our human subjecthood, and liberate ourselves from the captivity of a purely rational perception of the world. Through this subjecthood and the individual conscience that goes with it, we must discover a new relationship to our neighbours, and to the universe and its metaphysical order, which is the source of the moral order.
We live in a world in which our destinies are tied to one another more closely than ever before. It is a world with a single planetary civilization, yet it contains many cultures that, with increasing vigour and singlemindedness, resist cultural unification, reject mutual understanding, and exist in what amounts to latent confrontation. It is a deeply dangerous state of affairs, and it must be changed.
The first step in this direction can be nothing less than a broad-based attempt by these cultures to understand one another, and to understand one another’s right to existence. Only then can a kind of worldwide pluralistic metaculture, a self-preservational minimum on which everyone can agree, begin to form. It is only in the context of such a metaculture that a new sense of political responsibility – global responsibility -can come into being. And it is only with this newly born sense of responsibility that the instruments can be created which will allow humanity to deal with all the dangers it has created for itself.
The new political self-understanding I am talking about clearly means a definitive departure from the understanding of the world that considers history, foreign cultures, foreign nations, and ultimately all those warnings about our future as a mere agglomeration of annoying inconveniences that disturb our tranquillity.
A quiet life on the peak of a volcano is just as illusory as the notion I talked about at the beginning: that by avoiding an encounter with a dissident in the street, we can avoid the problem of communism and the question of how to deal with it.
Ultimately, I understand post-communism as one of many challenges to contemporary man -regardless of what part of the world he lives in -to awaken to his global responsibilities, and to awaken to them before it is too late.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This morning I had the honour of taking part in the opening of the Museum of the Holocaust.
On this occasion, as I have so often before, I asked myself how could this have happened? How could people in the 20th century, aware of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, who have penetrated to the heart of the atom and are exploring the reaches of outer space, have committed acts of horror so awful that to call them bestial would be to do an incredible disservice to all those creatures who happen not to be human. How could they have permitted it to happen?
In the context of what I have been talking about here, one aspect of a possible answer occurs to me. It was a failure of democracy, the politics of appeasement, giving way to evil: what in my country we call the spirit of Munich. The inability of Europe and the world to recognize the emerging evil in time and stop it from growing to such monstrous proportions is merely another form of what I have called here an understanding of the world as an agglomeration of inconvenience. The issue here is the absence of a wider sense of responsibility for the world.
Czechs remember well a statement made by a democratic statesman shortly before he signed the Munich Agreement, the real beginning of all the horrors of the Second World War. He was appalled, he said then, that his country was digging trenches and trying on gas masks “because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” It is a classic example of how suicidal it is to try to avoid difficulties. This politician regarded Nazism as a problem that would go away if he stuck his head in the sand, or as it were crossed over to the other side of the street.
And so the Chosen People were chosen by history to bear the brunt for us all. The meaning of their sacrifice is to warn us against indifference to things we foolishly believe do not concern us.
In today’s world, everything concerns everyone. Communism also concerned everyone. And it is also a matter of concern to everyone whether or not, and in what way, we manage to build a new zone of democracy, freedom, and prosperity on its ruins.
Every intellectual and material investment in the post-communist world that is not haphazard but based on a deep understanding of what is happening here will repay the whole world many times over.
More than that, it will also be one more step on the thorny path the human race is taking toward a new understanding of its responsibility for its own destiny.
Translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson
President Havel gave the this speech on April 22, at George Washington University in Washington, DC, at a convocation honoring him with a presidential medal.
I’ve decided to write this letter to you because we have something in common: we both are writers. In this line of work, one weighs words more carefully, I believe, than elsewhere before committing them to paper or, for that matter, to the microphone. Even when one finds oneself engaged in a public affair, one tries to do one’s best to avoid catchwords, Latinate expressions, all manner of jargon. In a dialogue, of course, or with two or more interlocutors around, that’s difficult, and may even strike them as pretentiousness. But in a soliloquy or in a monologue it is, I think, attainable, though of course one always tailors one’s diction to one’s audience.
We have something else in common, Mr. President, and that is our past in our respective police states. To put it less grandly: our prisons, that shortage of space amply made up for by an abundance of time, which, sooner or later, renders one, regardless of one’s temperament, rather contemplative. You spent more time in yours, of course, than I in mine, though I started in mine long before the Prague Spring. Yet in spite of my nearly patriotic belief that the hopelessness of some urine-reeking cement hole in the bowels of Russia awakens one to the arbitrariness of existence faster than what I once pictured as a clean, stuccoed solitary in civilized Prague, as contemplative beings, I think, we might be quite even.
In short, we were pen pals long before I conceived of this letter. But I conceived of it not because of the literalness of my mind, or because our present circumstances are quite different from those of the past (nothing can be more natural than that, and one is not obliged to remain a writer forever: not any more so than to stay a prisoner). I’ve decided to write this letter because a while ago I read the text of one of your most recent speeches, whose conclusions about the past, the present, and the future were so different from mine that I thought, One of us must be wrong. And it is precisely because the present and the future—and not just your own or your country’s but the global one—were involved that I decided to make this an open letter to you. Had the issue been only the past, I wouldn’t have written you this letter at all, or if I had, I’d have marked it “personal.”
The speech of yours that I read was printed in The New York Review of Books and its title was “The Post-Communist Nightmare.”* You begin by reminiscing about a time when you would be avoided in the street by your friends and acquaintances, since in those days you were on dangerous terms with the state and under police surveillance. You proceed to explain the reasons for their avoiding you and suggest, in the usual, grudge-free manner for which you are justly famous, that to those friends and acquaintances you constituted an inconvenience; and “inconveniences”—you cite the conventional wisdom—“are best avoided.” Then for most of your speech you describe the post-Communist reality (in Eastern Europe and by implication in the Balkans) and equate the deportment of the democratic world vis-à-vis that reality to avoiding an inconvenience.
It is a wonderful speech, with a great many wonderful insights and a convincing conclusion; but let me go to your starting point. It occurs to me, Mr. President, that your famous civility benefited your hindsight here rather poorly. Are you so sure you were avoided by those people then and there for reasons of embarrassment and fear of “potential persecution” only, and not because you were, given the seeming stability of the system, written off by them? Are you sure that at least some of them didn’t simply regard you as a marked, doomed man, on whom it would be foolish to waste much time? Don’t you think that instead of, or as well as, being inconvenient (as you insist) you were also a convenient example of the wrong deportment and thus a source of considerable moral comfort, the way the sick are for the healthy majority? Haven’t you imagined them saying to their wives in the evening, “I saw Havel today in the street. He’s had it.” Or do I misjudge the Czech character?
That they were proven wrong and you right matters little. They wrote you off in the first place because even by the standards of our half of the century you were not a martyr. Besides, don’t we all harbor a certain measure of guilt, totally unrelated to the state, of course, but nonetheless palpable? So whenever the arm of the state reaches us, we regard it vaguely as our comeuppance, as a touch of the blunt but nevertheless expected tool of providence. That’s, frankly, the main raison d’être behind the institution of police, plainclothed or uniformed, or at least behind our general inability to resist an arrest. One may be perfectly convinced that the state is wrong, but one is seldom confident of one’s own virtue. Not to mention that it is the same arm that locks one up and sets one free. That’s why one is seldom surprised at being avoided when one gets released, and doesn’t expect a universal embrace.
Such expectations, under such circumstances, would be disappointed because nobody wants to be reminded of the murky complexity of the relations between guilt and getting one’s comeuppance, and in a police state providing such a reminder is what heroic deportment is largely about. It alienates one from others, as any emphasis on virtue does; not to mention that a hero is always best observed from a distance. In no small measure, Mr. President, you were avoided by the people you’ve mentioned precisely because for them you were a sort of test tube of virtue confronting evil, and those people didn’t interfere with the experiment since they had their doubts about both. As such, you again were a convenience, because in the police state absolutes compromise each other since they engender each other. Haven’t you imagined those prudent people saying to their wives in the evening: “I saw Havel today in the street. He’s too good to be true.” Or do I misjudge the Czech character again?
That they were proven wrong and you right, I repeat, matters little. They wrote you off at the time because they were guided by the same relativism and self-interest that I suppose helps them to make a go of it now, under the new dispensation. And as a healthy majority, they no doubt had a significant part in your velvet revolution, which, after all, asserts, the way democracy always does, precisely self-interest. If such is the case, and I’m afraid it is, they’ve paid you back for their excessive prudence, and you preside now over a society which is more theirs than yours.
There is nothing wrong with that. Besides, things might easily have gone the other way: for you, that is; not for them (the revolution was so velvet because the tyranny itself by that time was more woolen than ironclad—otherwise I wouldn’t have this privilege of commenting upon your speech). So all I’m trying to suggest is that by introducing the notion of inconvenience you quite possibly misspoke, for self-interest is always exercised at the expense of others, whether it’s done by individuals or by nations. A better notion would be the vulgarity of the human heart, Mr. President; but then you wouldn’t be able to bring your speech to a ringing conclusion. Certain things come with a pulpit, though one should resist them, writer or no writer. As I am not faced with your task, I’d like to take your argument now where, I think, it could perhaps have gone. I wonder if you’ll disagree with the result.
“For long decades,” your next paragraph begins, “the chief nightmare of the democratic world was communism. Today—three years after it began to collapse like an avalanche—it would seem as though another nightmare has replaced it: postcommunism.” Then you describe in considerable detail the existing modes of the democratic world’s response to the ecological, economic, political, and social catastrophes unraveling where previously one perceived a smooth cloth. You liken these responses to those toward your “inconvenience” and suggest that such a position leads “to a turning away from reality, and ultimately, to resigning oneself to it. It leads to appeasement, even to collaboration. The consequences of such a position may even be suicidal.”
It is here, Mr. President, that I think your metaphor fails you. For neither the Communist nor the post-Communist nightmare amounts to an inconvenience, since it helped, helps, and will for quite some time help the democratic world to externalize evil. And not the democratic world only. To quite a few of us who lived in that nightmare, and especially those who fought it, its presence was a source of considerable moral comfort. For one who fights or resists evil almost automatically perceives oneself as good and skips self-analysis. So perhaps it’s time—for us and for the world at large, democratic or not—to scrub the term communism from the human reality of Eastern Europe so one can recognize that reality for what it was and is: a mirror.
For that is what human evil always is. Geographic names or political terminology provide not a telescope or a window but the reflection of ourselves: of human negative potential. The magnitude of what took place in our parts of the world, and over two thirds of a century, cannot be reduced to “communism.” Catchwords, on the whole, lose more than they retain, and in the case of tens of millions killed and the lives of entire nations subverted, a catchword simply won’t do. Although the ratio of executioners to victims favors the latter, the scale of what happened in our realm suggests, given its technological backwardness at the time, that the former, too, run in the millions, not to mention the complicity of millions more.
Homilies are not my forte, Mr. President; besides, you are a convert. It’s not for me to tell you that what you call “communism” was a breakdown of humanity, and not a political problem. It was a human problem, a problem of our species, and thus of a lingering nature. Neither as a writer nor, moreover, as a leader of a nation should you use terminology that obscures the reality of human evil—terminology, I should add, invented by evil to obscure its own reality. Nor should one refer to it as a nightmare, since that breakdown of humanity wasn’t a nocturnal affair, not in our hemisphere, to say the least.
To this day, the word “communism” remains a convenience, for an -ism suggests a fait accompli. In Slavic languages especially, an -ism, as you know, suggests the foreignness of a phenomenon, and when a word containing an -ism denotes a political system, the system is perceived as an imposition. True, our particular -ism wasn’t conceived on the banks of the Volga or the Vltava, and the fact that it blossomed there with a unique vigor doesn’t bespeak our soil’s exceptional fertility, for it blossomed in different latitudes and extremely diverse cultural zones with equal intensity. This suggests not so much an imposition as our -ism’s rather organic, not to say universal, origins. One should think, therefore, that a bit of self-examination—on the part of the democratic world as well as our own—is in order, rather than ringing calls for mutual “understanding.” (What does this word mean, anyway? What procedure do you propose for this understanding? Under the auspices of the UN, perhaps?)
And if self-examination is unlikely (why should what’s been avoided under duress be done at leisure?), then at least the myth of imposition should be dispelled, since, for one thing, tank crews and fifth columns are biologically indistinguishable. Why don’t we simply start by admitting that an extraordinary anthropological backslide has taken place in our world in this century, regardless of who or what triggered it? That it involved masses acting in their self-interest and, in the process of doing so, reducing their common denominator to the moral minimum? And that the masses’ self-interest—stability of life and its standards, similarly reduced—has been attained at the expense of other masses, albeit numerically inferior? Hence the number of the dead.
It is convenient to treat these matters as an error, as a horrendous political aberration, perhaps imposed upon human beings from an anonymous elsewhere. It is even more convenient if that elsewhere bears a proper geographical or foreign-sounding name, whose spelling obscures its utterly human nature. It was convenient to build navies and defenses against that aberration—as it is convenient to dismantle those defenses and those navies now. It is convenient, I must add, to refer to these matters in a civil manner, Mr. President, from a pulpit today, although I don’t question for a minute the authenticity of your civility, which, I believe, is your very nature. It was convenient to have around this living example of how not to run things in this world and supply this example with an -ism, as it is convenient to supply it nowadays with “know-how” and a “post-.” (And one easily envisions our -ism, embellished with its post-, conveniently sailing on the lips of dimwits into the future.)
For it would be truly inconvenient—for the cowboys of the Western industrial democracies specifically—to recognize the catastrophe that occurred in our part of the world as the first cry of mass society: a cry as it were from the world’s future, and to recognize it not as an -ism but a chasm suddenly gaping in the human heart to swallow up honesty, compassion, civility, justice, and, thus satiated, presenting to the still democratic outside a reasonably perfect, monotonous surface.
Cowboys, however, loathe mirrors—if only because there they may recognize the backward Indians more readily than they would in the open. So they prefer to mount their high horses, scan the Indian-free horizons, deride the Indians’ backwardness, and derive enormous moral comfort from being regarded as cowboys—first of all, by the Indians.
As one who has been likened often to a philosopher king, you can, Mr. President, appreciate better than many how much all of that happened to our “Indian nation” harks back to the Enlightenment, with its idea (from the Age of Discovery, actually), of a noble savage, of man being inherently good but habitually ruined by bad institutions; with its belief that improvement of those institutions will restore man to his initial goodness. So to the admission previously made or hoped for, one should add, I suppose, that it’s precisely the accomplishment of the “Indian” in perfecting those institutions that brought them to that project’s logical end: the police state. Perhaps the manifest bestiality of this achievement should suggest to the “Indians” that they must retreat some way into the interior, that they should render their institutions a bit less perfect. Otherwise they may not get the “cowboys’ ” subsidies for their reservations. And perhaps there is indeed a ratio between man’s goodness and the badness of institutions. If there isn’t, maybe somebody should admit that man isn’t that good.
Isn’t this the juncture at which we find ourselves, Mr. President—or at least you do? Should “Indians” embark on imitating “cowboys,” or should they consult the spirits about other options? May it be that the magnitude of the tragedy that befell them is, in itself, a guarantee that it won’t happen again? May their grief and their memory of what happened in their parts create a greater egalitarian bond than free enterprise and a bicameral legislature? And if they should draft a constitution anyway, maybe they should start by recognizing themselves and their history for the better part of this century as a reminder of Original Sin.
It’s not such a heady concept, as you know. Translated into common parlance, it means that man is dangerous. Apart from being a footnote to our beloved Jean-Jacques, this principle may allow us to build—if not elsewhere, then at least in our realm, so steeped in Fourier, Proudhon, and Blanc at the expense of Burke and Tocqueville—a social order resting on a less self-flattering basis than was our habit, and perhaps with less disastrous consequences. This also may qualify as man’s “new understanding of himself, of his limitations and his place in the world” you call for in your speech.
“We must discover a new relationship to our neighbors, and to the universe,” you say toward the end of your speech, “and its metaphysical order, which is the source of the moral order.” The metaphysical order, Mr. President, should it really exist, is pretty dark, and its structural idiom is its parts’ mutual indifference. The notion that man is dangerous runs, therefore, closest to that order’s implications for human morality. Every writer is a reader, and if you scan your library’s shelves, you must realize that most of the books you’ve got there are either about betrayal or murder. At any rate, it seems more prudent to build society on the premise that man is evil rather than the premise of his goodness. This way at least there is the possibility of making it safe psychologically, if not physically (but perhaps that as well), for most of its members, not to mention that its surprises, which are inevitable, might be of a more pleasant nature.
Maybe the real civility, Mr. President, is not to create illusions. “New understanding,” “global responsibilities,” “pluralistic metaculture” are not much better at the core than the retrospective utopias of the latter-day nationalists or the entrepreneurial fantasies of the nouveaux riches. This sort of stuff is still predicated on the promise, however qualified, of man’s goodness, of his notion of himself as either a fallen or a possible angel. This sort of diction befits, perhaps, the innocents, or demagogues, running the affairs of industrial democracies, but not you, who ought to know the truth about the condition of the human heart.
And you are, one would imagine, in a good position not only to convey your knowledge to people, but also to cure that heart condition somewhat: to help them to become like yourself. Since what made you the way you are was not your penal experience but the books you’ve read, I’d suggest, for starters, serialization of some of those books in the country’s major dailies. Given the population figure of Czechia, this can be done, even by decree, although I don’t think your parliament would object. By giving your people Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, Platonov, Camus, or Joyce, you may turn at least one nation in the heart of Europe into a civilized people.
That may do more good for the future of the world than emulating cowboys. Also, it would be a real postcommunism, not the doctrine’s meltdown, with the attendant “hatred of the world, self-affirmation at all costs, and the unparalleled flourishing of selfishness” that dog you now. For there is no other antidote to the vulgarity of the human heart than doubt and good taste, which one finds fused in works of great literature, as well as your own. If man’s negative potential is best manifested by murder, his positive potential is best manifested by art.
Why, you may ask, don’t I make a similar crackpot suggestion to the President of the country of which I am a citizen? Because he is not a writer; and when he is a reader, he often reads trash. Because cowboys believe in law, and reduce democracy to people’s equality before it: i.e., to the well-policed prairie. Whereas what I suggest to you is equality before culture. You should decide which deal is better for your people, which book it is better to throw at them. If I were you, though, I’d start with your own library, because apparently you did not learn about moral imperatives in a law school.
Yours sincerely, Joseph Brodsky
I am honored that you chose to reply to the speech I delivered at the George Washington University, later published in the New York Review of Books as “The Post-Communist Nightmare.”
You go into so many serious and distressing matters concerning not just the recent past in Eastern and Central Europe, but the present and future of the whole world, that to give you an adequate response I would have to write an essay at least as long and detailed as yours. At the moment, though, this doesn’t seem productive, for two reasons. In the first place, however tempting it may be to discuss such matters now, it would be irresponsible without first undertaking a closer and more comprehensive study of the issues. In the second place, the world is changing from hour to hour, compelling us constantly to reassess our views. Look at the Middle East, or the former Yugoslavia, or many places in the old Soviet Union, or South Africa, or even relatively peaceful Central Europe.
But my main reason for suggesting that we postpone a more thorough discussion of these matters until sometime in the near future is this: our minds appear to be working on the same problem, but using a different set of facts. As you point out, our views are shaped by experiences that coincide on some points, and differ significantly in others. We each lived under totalitarianism, but in different surroundings, and we lived that reality through feelings, thoughts, and instincts that were of a different nature.
The strongest impression I have from your letter is that a misunderstanding has occurred between two people who essentially understand each other. To put it another way: we don’t really disagree at all, we merely have a different way of thinking about commensurate experiences that vary in their details.
I will mention only one example. You say that under the totalitarian regime, I was not so much an “inconvenience” for my friends and acquaintances as “a source of…moral comfort, the way the sick are for the healthy majority.” This observation is clearly based on your experience with totalitarianism in Soviet Russia. The Czech experience was somewhat different.
Though we were subjected to varying types and degrees of totalitarianism over a long period of time, it was not long enough for this experience to sink as deeply into the consciousness of several generations as it did in Russia, and other parts of the Soviet Union.
Some members of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, at least from Stalin’s death onward, silently ran their lives with a mixture of personal pragmatism and opportunism. Even some who were not Party members managed to maintain relatively well-paying careers as long as it didn’t come out that, privately, they told too many jokes at the expense of the Party leaders or that they were sometimes highly critical of the system.
By the late Seventies, this phenomenon had existed for a long time, and it was only at the end of the decade that we coined an expression—“the gray zone”—to describe it. The term applied mainly to a stratum of educated people—some Party members, some not—who were aware that the system, should it continue, would eventually destroy us, both morally as individuals and professionally as artists, scholars, and intellectuals. At the same time, these people felt that the right thing to do under the circumstances was to continue working in their laboratories, publishing houses, research institutes, and so on, so that they themselves would not forget their subjects, and so that their professions and areas of expertise would not atrophy.
But what could historians, poets, or writers do? Such a compromise was not open to them. They couldn’t publish and earn a living in their field without going against their consciences and denying their own understanding of reality. They chose instead, therefore, to wash windows, to work as night-watchmen on construction sites, or as stokers in heating plants, or as technicians measuring water flow in remote parts of the country.
These people formed the core of those who signed the human rights initiative, Charter 77. They were not, just as I was not, a “comfort” to those secret critics of the regime in the “gray zone,” but were indeed an inconvenience, a living reproach. Their very existence prompted those in the gray zone to ask if there wasn’t more they ought to be doing to hasten the regime’s demise than simply complaining about it in secret.
In Soviet Russia, opposing both the brutal power of the state and the ingrained beliefs of most citizens must have required great moral power, a brave intellect, and special talents. I can imagine, for instance, that after you were sent to prison many people expressed their relief in a way you suggest some Czechs might have done in my case, by dismissing you and your cause as lost: “He’s had it!”
But there is a difference. For ordinary people in your country of birth, any change aiming at a freer system, at freedom of thought and action, was a step into the unknown. Thanks to your moral strength and talent, you and a relatively small number of other authors continued the work of the great Russian poets, novelists, and essayists of the nineteenth century, and of that handful of irrepressible artists with names like Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Babel, Zoshchenko, and even Pasternak and others.
You longed for freedom, and you won it. When your friends, both intimate and distant, saw you go off to prison to pay for that victory, they might well have said that they were in no danger of experiencing the inconvenience of freedom. Perhaps they gained some dark satisfaction from that.
By contrast, Czechs and Slovaks enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom and democracy in the late nineteenth century under the Austro-Hungarian constitutional monarchy, and even more during Czechoslovakia’s First Republic. The traditions of those times live on in family life and in books. Thus, though the renewal of freedom is difficult and inconvenient in our country too, freedom was never a completely unknown aspect of time, space, and thought. Several generations of people here know it as a living and inspiring experience. That is what made our struggle so different from your practically private—and pioneering—struggle to win freedom of thought and action.
I repeat: I am heartened by your response. But it seems to me that the special circumstances of this discussion—the fact that despite the similarity of the language we use, we are not really talking about the same thing at all—can only be resolved in direct personal conversation.
Let’s set a date to meet sometime in the near future to try to understand better why thoughts as parallel as those expressed in your open letter and my speech have caused a disagreement which may be no more than a misunderstanding.
The unique character of Roman law has been treated for centuries; hymns enough have been sung. My purpose is different: I restrict the problem to Roman classical law and therefore have intentionally added this adjective to the title. Roman private law and I have only private law to consider here – is not the same throughout the thousand years of its history. Modern research distinguishes in the legislation of Justinian what belongs to the Byzantine epoch from what is genuinely classical. Secondly, we now know more about pre-classical law so that we are better able to contrast classical with archaic law. A third reason for a revision of our view is the developed study of the oriental, the cuneiform, law, and some new research in Greek law. Owing to this threefold progress we can try to sketch the unique character of Roman classical law in comparison with other laws. I discern three periods of Roman law: archaic (or pre-classical) up to 150 B.C., classical from
150 B.C. to A.D. 300, Byzantine (or post-classical) from A.D. 300 to 565. These are the usual periods, except that I carry back the classical period to 150 B.C. I know that there are transitions; but if we take the years 150 B.C. and A.D. 300, we shall roughly mark the turning points and have before us three distinct periods of Roman law.
My thesis is – with a dangerous, but necessary simplification – that it is the classical law which is specifically Roman, and that we have therefore to compare this classical law on the one hand with all other systems, including archaic and Byzantine Roman law on the other. All these other laws, Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Greek and Germanic law, Muslim and Jewish law, form a single mass -so to speak – of vulgar, common, popular systems with simple and unscientific conceptions. To this class belong archaic and Byzantine Roman law. Roman classical law rises like a mountain above the common level of the others and it slopes down again to the previous level in the Byzantine period.
Before I can begin my comparison I must explain what is meant by classical law. I would emphasise that Roman classical law is more juristic, more scientific, than any other law. It was created by the lawyers who guided practice, almost without any interference from legislation. Jurisprudence attracted the best brains of this age. Their creative ability formed classical law. Although this line is crossed by others, simplicity is the striking feature of classical law. It was reached by abstraction. Analysis of the complex phenomena of life, recognition of the elements of which these are composed, isolation of the legally important facts: all these operations helped to create and develop legal science. The game was played within a limited number of definite juristic conceptions. Economy is one of the principles of this art. Everything seems simple and elegant. The dangers inevitably connected with such a highly developed art (well known to the Continental lawyer of to-day) were avoided by the instinct for a balance between theory and practice. The classical lawyers created notions which now are taken for granted. Therefore, it is difficult for us to imagine what it meant to find, to invent, as it were, such conceptions. Only the comparison with other laws can give a true impression of the surprising novelty and uniqueness of this creative process. With the end of jurisprudence classical law ended. After A.D. 300 no legal books were written. The development stopped, Roman law grew rigid, and new influences led to the complex character of Byzantine law. Some failures of Roman law, as we know it, have to be explained by this sudden freezing. Compared with the slowness of historic development in other private laws much was done in the short time in which legal thinking was creative and alive.
Beforegiving some selected examples I must make a few reservations. For my purpose it is necessary to draw sharp lines without noticing the deviations. But I expressly emphasize that there are other lines. Already in the archaic period there existed very Roman rules which were only developed in the classical age. On the other hand the Byzantine epoch did not always go back to older and simpler conceptions; often it continued along classical lines. Finally, I have to neglect elementary jurisprudence, fully aware that there exists something like a scientific jurisprudence in Jewish and Muslim law.
I begin by illustrating the uniqueness of classical procedure and classical jurisprudence. The classical civil procedure was that of the written formula, the peculiarity of which was the division of functions between the magistrate (praetor) and the judge (iudex). The first had to help the parties to formulate the dispute and was free to give or decline an action: the judge, like an arbitrator, had to hear evidence and to decide the case, answering the question put before him by the parties. Both were assisted by advisers, by a consilium of jurists. The formulae, published as models in each praetor’s yearly edict, announcing that in such and such cases he would grant an action, were set up in the Forum, before everybody’s eyes, exposed to everybody’s criticism. The fact that the magistrate had to formulate beforehand the patterns in an abstract way, to present them in a clear, a comprehensive, and above all in a concise form, and that the parties had to adapt their dispute to such a formula, was one of the reasons why classical Roman law was able to isolate the facts and to find out which was the decisive question. The formula was an instrument at the same time flexible and precise. The judge on the other hand had not only to hear and weigh evidence, but to interpret the question put before him, a question often leaving to him a large measure of discretion. His judgment was final; no appeal was possible.
In the archaic procedure we find instead of the written formula a set form of words to be used by both parties. A claim had to follow exactly the wording of the old law: a failure by the plaintiff to use the right word was fatal to his claim. In these legis actiones there was not the same freedom for the judge, and the judgment only declared which sacramentum (a sum of money deposited by each party as a sort of stake, and forfeited to the State by the losing party) was justified. In the Byzantine period the classical procedure disappeared; the division of the functions no longer existed. Justice was now imposed from above, the judge being an official of a bureaucratic government and the master of the parties. Appeal could be made from each judgment.
The characteristics of the classical procedure do not occur in any ancient or modern law. Greek law, for example, did not know the division into two parts. Nothing like the edict existed, and the Greek juries of the democratic age cannot be compared with the unus iudex of Rome. With all its mobility and elasticity the Greek genius was unable to confine itself within the strait waistcoat of a legal formula. The similarity between the classical procedure and that of England in the early Middle Ages is patent. But as soon as we begin to penetrate below the surface the differences between the two systems are at least as remarkable as the resemblances. The best English authority, after having shown the distinction between praetor and chancellor, comparing the iudex with the English jury, speaks of an unfathomable gulf which lies between them.
In connection with classical procedure there arose jurisprudence and scientific literature. It was for the jurists to collaborate with the praetor and the iudex and to develop the law in a continuous evolution in such wise that the new had always arrived before the old departed. As Theodor Mommsen expressed it: ‘The whole wisdom of the Roman creation of law consisted in allowing the jurists themselves to make and change the law’ [Gesammelte Schriften 7, 212]. Their predilection for simplification corresponds with their aversion to mixed forms, to hybrid legal configurations. And this whole tendency is expressed by the language of the literature: this scientific language, with a peculiar vocabulary, is extremely simple, plain and uniform. Here, too, economy is one of the main features.
In contrast with all this, early Roman law did not know the separation of the law from extra-legal life. No distinction was then drawn between sacred and secular law, between public and private law, between contract and tort. Circumstantial phrasing marks the language of the early statutes. Only the beginnings of jurisprudence are perceptible; no literature exists. If we look at late Roman law, we find a number of mixed forms; postclassical are the actiones mixtae, the interdicta mixta, the actio in rem scripta as a mixture between an actio in rem and an actio in personam. Sacred law (now Christian rules and conceptions) began again to play its part, if only in a modest way. Tort intruded into the law of contract. Extra-legal considerations, sentimental arguments, rhetorical distinctions were frequent. Notions without clearness, some of them used in a new sense (aequitas, humanitas, benignitas) served to infuse the law with a new spirit. Instead of casuistic jurisprudence we find now a tendency to generalisation. The language is either vulgar, no longer technical (in the west), or (in the east) Byzantine, that is to say bombastic, complicated and circumstantial.
Compared with Roman classical law all other laws were unscientific; everywhere extra-legal arguments played their part; no jurisprudence existed; primitive conceptions prevailed in spite of a sometimes highly civilised world. This is especially true of Greek law. No single book on private law written by a Greek lawyer has survived. The practice of the courts did not interest the best brains. Pleading before the Athenian courts was not so much meant to bring legal argument as to win the sympathy of the numerous judges. The instrument for such a purpose was not jurisprudence, but rhetoric. Compared with the Romans the Greek lacked legal technique. Their intelligence was used not to simplify the facts, to create precise legal notions, but to see the whole complexity of life and to master this variety with old and sometimes primitive instruments. No Greek tribunal was free from confusion of law and fact. Babylonian and Assyrian or, more generally, cuneiform law, had no jurisprudence. In spite of our ever-growing knowledge of these systems, we cannot find the same sort of historic development as in Roman law. In the law of contracts, for example, the old forms of a very early period lasted for thousands of years without any alteration. This astonishing stability of the fundamental conceptions shows not only their adaptability to changing conditions, but also some absence of legal thinking. Nothing in modern law is equal to Roman classical jurisprudence. Continental law has been inclined to follow the Byzantine line: it has developed much abstraction. In spite of great progress, it cannot hold a true balance between theory and practice. English law is nearer to the classical casuistic spirit and its aversion to excessive abstraction. But it has not quite the same scientific character, and the literature does not play the same important part.
Three special examples may illustrate more clearly what I mean.
Ownership is a specifically Roman classical institution. Dominium endowed its holder with the greatest legal power. All other rights were sharply separated from ownership. Their number was restricted, their contents definite. Never were they permitted to over power dominium. The vindicatio, the action for the recovery of property, could be used even against a person who had acquired possession in good faith. The character of ownership was the same for land and moveables. Possession, on the other hand, the actual enjoyment, the fact of having a thing, had nothing to do with dominium. It had its own possessory remedies, but right was immaterial for its defence. All other laws know a scale of rights with different legal powers. For them, ownership does not convey an absolute right. Only relative rights exist, some stronger, others weaker. Ownership is only one of them. Possession on the other hand is not differentiated from ownership. Fact and right interflow. No past or present law knows the precision of the classical conception unless it has been influenced by Roman law. It did not exist in archaic Roman law, and it did not survive the end of the classical epoch. In archaic procedure not only the plaintiff asserted that the thing in action was his, but the defendant made the same assertion. It is evident that the question was one of the stronger right, not one of right against fact as in the classical action. Family property, divided ownership, co-ownership with integral ownership for each owner, all these conceptions existed in the pre-classical period, before the classical unrestricted and absolute character of the dominium was formed. Even the denomination dominium does not occur before the first century B.C. Before that time the Romans spoke of uti, frui, habere, possidere, or, summarising these, of possessio. The single powers later contained in dominium had to be summed up to express ownership. Byzantine law filled the gap between dominium and other rights. It created new rights which were so strong that they came very near to ownership. It abandoned the classical rule that there is only one owner of one thing. Two persons can now exercise the right of recovering a thing: the legal owner and the equitable owner. Two ownerships of different weight in the same object: a notion contradictory to classical strictness. In cuneiform law no clear distinction existed between ownership and other rights, and between ownership and possession. It is to-day the common opinion that Greek law had no clear conception of ownership and did not separate sharply possession from ownership. I have some doubts whether this opinion is not an exaggeration: probably ownership existed, although it was not quite the same as Roman dominium. Muslim law knows good and bad ownership; an imperfect sale gives only bad ownership. As the notion of ownership was not present in Germanic law, English Common law does not sharply distinguish between ownership and possession. There is a hierarchy of rights, a sort of descending scale from the purely proprietary to the purely possessory. The old principle of the better right is still in full operation. No vindicatio, no special claim for the recovery of property exists. An action in tort or contract, or an action based upon right of possession fills the gap incompletely.
My second example is the consensual contract. In the classical period of Roman law several classes of contracts-the most important being sale and hire-became binding by mere consent, without any form. The consensus, the agreement, no matter how expressed, was sufficient to create legal obligations. A very simple and natural conception, so it seems to us nowadays. But it is not universal, and nobody knows how the Romans reached it, although they say that they took it from the ius gentium, an explanation-as we shall see obscuring rather than revealing the real historical process. Archaic Roman law had only a few formal contracts. Some of the classical contracts, for example sale, did not exist at all. The mancipatio of the pre-classical law was a sale for ready money, not a contract; there was no place for obligations. Other contracts were based at first on tort, all of them still in their infancy. The Byzantine age returned to the formal contract and destroyed the classical notion. A new form, the written document, mo.re and more took the place of the consensual contract. Consensus, the real expression of a real agreement, was no longer necessary; the Byzantine animus (or intention), put on record in the document, was sufficient. In Babylonian law a severe formalism is characteristic for a period of two thousand years. The old view that Greek law began with consensual contracts must be revised; it seems improbable that Greek law at any time reached the conception of legally binding consensual contracts. In our own time English law requires for a valid contract either that the agreement be embodied in a formal deed under seal or the presence of consideration. Looking back from this to the short period in which Roman law created and preserved consensual contracts one can get an impression of what is meant by the uniqueness of classical law.
As a third and last example I would take engagement or betrothal. Characteristic of classical Roman law is the careful avoidance of any interference with matters not primarily concerning the law, the aversion to subjugating things of life and freedom to legal rules. So marriage and betrothal were free; no binding or penal stipulation was possible. But in the archaic period there existed stipulations between the father and the bridegroom. The giving of a ring is a survival of the old price for the bride: the primitive conception of marriage as something like a sale is still alive. This conception comes back in the Byzantine age. The earnest money for the betrothal, sometimes a ring, confirms the promise. Breach of promise by the bride gives an action for damages to the bridegroom. Breach of promise by the bridegroom results in the loss of the earnest money. Babylonian and Mosaic law had the sale-marriage and, corresponding to it, the formal and binding betrothal – Babylonian law with the earnest money and its consequences for a breach of contract. As in Germanic law, the early English betrothal was a formal contract. If the bridegroom refused to perform it, he lost the bride-price; if the bride refused, she had to pay back the price augmented by one-third. And even to-day by a breach of promise the other party is entitled to claim not only actual, but also exemplary, or vindictive, damages, so that the defendant is punished for his injury. Roman law early overcame the primitive conception of marriage as a sale. In consequence of this, not only marriage was free and informal, but also engagement. In the East the old principle survived. It returned to Rome when the classical period ended. In the Byzantine epoch conceptions long since abandoned penetrated Roman law again. They were primitive, and, as such, common to archaic Roman law, to all other laws, and to Byzantine Roman law.
Everything in such a survey is hypothetical. But I hope to have shown that the results of modern investigations require a revision of our picture of Roman law. General observations about procedure and jurisprudence and the special examples given – ownership, consensual contracts, betrothal – demonstrate that for a comparison of Roman law with other laws it is indispensable to distinguish between classical law on the one hand and archaic and Byzantine law on the other. Only so can the unique character of Roman classical law be displayed. This character consists mainly in the application of scientific thinking to legal life. Superiority of jurisprudence does not mean in itself realisation of justice. Therefore, our comparison in no way intimates that less scientific laws are inferior in this respect.
Not only is the character of classical Roman law unique: its history is too. Created in the period from 150 B.C. to A.D. 300 it was revived after an interval of about 300 years by Justinian. But after him the Byzantine Empire shrank, and law declined in its now limited province. For five centuries the treasure lay hidden in Justinian’s Digest. It was only when, about 1050, an old manuscript of the Digest was discovered and interpreted in Italy that classical law awakened and began to speak again. And this voice was heard all over Europe. No learned tradition connected this new study with its predecessor. This time the classical law was reborn, not by the order of an absolute emperor, but from the parchment of a single manuscript. It seems as though some secret power had enabled it to survive. This unique history is only to be explained by the unique character of classical Roman law.
A paper read on 2nd September, 1942, to the Joint Meeting of the Hellenic and Roman Societies in Oxford. Published in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 34, Parts I and 2 (1944), pp. 60-64
The death of Churchill is a healthy reminder to students of political science of their limitations, the limitations of their craft.
The tyrant stood at the pinnacle of his power. The contrast between the indomitable and magnanimous statesman and the insane tyrant — this spectacle in its clear simplicity was one of the greatest lessons which men can learn, at any time.
No less enlightening is the lesson conveyed by Churchill’s failure, which is too great to be called tragedy. I mean the fact that Churchill’s heroic action on behalf of human freedom against Hitler only contributed, through no fault of Churchill’s, to increase the threat to freedom which is posed by Stalin or his successors. Churchill did the utmost that a man could do to counter that threat — publicly and most visibly in Greece and in Fulton, Missouri.
Not a whit less important than his deeds and speeches are his writings, above all his Marlborough — the greatest historical work written in our century, an inexhaustible mine of political wisdom and understanding, which should be required reading for every student of political science.
The death of Churchill reminds us of the limitations of our craft, and therewith of our duty. We have no higher duty, and no more pressing duty, than to remind ourselves and our students, of political greatness, human greatness, of the peaks of human excellence. For we are supposed to train ourselves and others in seeing things as they are, and this means above all in seeing their greatness and their misery, their excellence and their vileness, their nobility and their triumphs, and therefore never to mistake mediocrity, however brilliant, for true greatness.
Talking to his class at the University of Chicago on January 25, 1965, the day after Churchill’s death
In the early 1990s, teaching a course on the philosophy of music at Boston University, I would make a point of listening to my students’ music, remembering how important it had been for me to put Muddy Waters side by side with Schubert and to take the needle off Ray Charles in order to put it down on Bach. There is no art without judgement, I insisted, and if the stuff that they brought to the classroom could not be listened to, but only heard, then this was one sign that it was merely pretending to be music. Eric Clapton – who had already rescued himself from the heavy metal idiom of Cream and set out to rediscover music – offered the first step on the gradus ad parnassum that led, if I was lucky, to Mendelssohn or Bach. Many songs from my students’ high school days were discarded as they climbed the steps: but one song had a particular meaning for them, and would retain its place in their affections to the very end of the course. It was called ‘Losing my Religion’, and was sung by Michael Stipe, leader of the group REM. Its confused but poignant words engaged with sentiments that were all but universal in adolescents who had come from small-town America to their cynical classes in sin. For this song was the record of a personal loss, although a loss emptied of its tragic overtones. The bottom had not, after all, fallen out of their world, since what they had taken for the bottom was merely a stage phantom, projected by strobe lights on the void. Worlds, the luciferian pop-star says, are bottomless: you are always falling but falling forever. In which case you don’t really fall.
Of course the situation of my students was nothing new. Losing religion has been a regular adventure of the Western mind, since the Enlightenment first announced the need for it. Wave after wave of Romantic and post-Romantic thinkers have looked on the world of faith from a point of view outside it, and listened, with Matthew Arnold, to that
melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Arnold wrote ‘Dover Beach’ in 1867, and his reflections on the dwindling of the Christian faith are marked by a very English melancholy, a not-quite-resigned attempt to fit the world of unbelief and scientific scepticism into the Gothic frame of Anglican culture. Twenty years later Nietzsche, in Human, All-too-human, while ostensibly throwing in his lot with the scientific atheists, espousing exhilarating and debunking explanations of the religious way of life, recognizes the enormous moral trauma that our civilization must undergo, as the Christian faith recedes. Faith is not simply an addition to our repertoire of ordinary opinions. It is a transforming state of mind, a stance towards the world, rooted in our social nature and altering all our perceptions, emotions and beliefs.
The distinction between Arnold and Nietzsche is the distinction between two kinds of loss. Arnold’s loss of faith occurs in a world made by faith, in which all the outer trappings of a religious community remain in place, like the outward signs of holiness in a Gothic Revival church. Nietzsche’s loss of faith is an absolute loss, a loss not only of inward conviction but of the outward symbols that make it possible. Nietzsche is foreseeing a new world, in which human institutions will no longer be shored up by pious habits and holy doctrines, but rebuilt from the raw, untempered fabric of the will to power. Loss of faith for Arnold is a personal tragedy, to be mourned but concealed. Loss of faith for Nietzsche is an existential transfiguration, to be accepted and affirmed, since the world no longer permits an alternative. The contrast between these two attitudes can be witnessed today, with the scientific optimists joining Nietzsche in welcoming our liberation from the chains of faith, and the cultural pessimists joining Arnold in his subdued lamentation.
Whatever our own position, we should acknowledge Arnold’s foresight in predicting something that Nietzsche hid from himself, namely:
a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
That is surely an accurate prophecy of the godless century that was to follow. Nietzsche wrote at a time when doubt and scepticism were still a kind of luxury, and when the rot of unbelief had not spread far beyond the head. In retrospect his adulation of the ‘free spirit’, the Übermensch and the will to power show a blindness to what might happen, should these things begin to attract a politically organized following.
What exactly do we Europeans lose, as the Christian faith recedes from us? Is there any discipline that will compensate for that loss, and grant us consolation in the face of it? This question is not addressed to society as a whole, but to each of us individually. And the fact that the mass of mankind may be unable to live without religion, or may be liable, in the absence of religion, to stray into the terrible nihilism that has twice swept across our continent, is no proof that the loss that we have suffered is for each of us either unbearable or final, or that the loss is not offset by gains. In recent years I have constantly asked myself what I have lost, and whether the loss is irreparable. And by pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion, endorsing it – but with its own reflected light.
Religion, as Durkheim pointed out in his great study of its elementary forms, is a social fact. A religion is not something that occurs to you; nor does it emerge as the conclusion of an empirical investigation or an intellectual argument. It is something that you join, to which you are converted, or into which you are born. Losing the Christian faith is not merely a matter of doubting the existence of God, or the incarnation, or the redemption purchased on the Cross. It involves falling out of communion, ceasing to be ‘members in Christ’, losing a primary experience of home. All religions are alike in this, and it is why they are so harsh on heretics and unbelievers: for heretics and unbelievers pretend to the benefits of membership, while belonging to other communities in other ways.
This is not to say that there is nothing more to religion than the bond of membership. There is also doctrine, ritual, worship and prayer. There is the vision of God the creator, and the search for signs and revelations of the transcendental. There is the sense of the sacred, the sacrosanct, the sacramental and the sacrilegious. All those grow from the experience of social membership and also amend it, so that a religious community furnishes itself with an all-embracing Weltanschauung, together with rituals and ceremonies that affirm its existence as a social organism, and lay claim to its place in the world.
Faith is not therefore content with the cosy customs and necromantic rites of the household gods. It strides out towards a cosmic explanation and a final theodicy. In consequence it suffers challenge from the rival advance of science. Scientific thinking brought Christian doctrine to a sudden check. Although religion is a social fact, therefore, it is exposed to a purely intellectual refutation. And the defeat of the Church’s intellectual claims began the process of secularization, which was to end in the defeat of the Christian community – the final loss of that root experience of membership, which had shaped European civilization for two millennia, and which had caused it to be what it is.
The loss of faith may begin as an intellectual loss. But it does not end there. It is a loss of comfort, membership and home: it involves exile from the community that formed you, and for which you may always secretly yearn. Reading the great Victorian doubters – Matthew Arnold being pre-eminent among them – I am persuaded that they were not ready for this experience. Hence they attempted to patch up the social world while leaving the ecclesiastical crenellations intact on top of it. And the remarkable fact is that they were successful. Their loss of faith occurred against the background of a still perceivable religious community, whose customs they did nothing to disturb. They inhabited the same Lebenswelt as the believer, and saw the world as marked out by institutions and expectations that are the legacy of religion.
We witness this in the writings of nineteenth-century secularists such as John Stuart Mill, Jules Michelet or Henry Thoreau. Their world bears the stamp of a shared religion; the human form for them is still divine; the free individual still shines in their world with a more than earthly illumination, and the hidden goal of all their writings is to ennoble the human condition. Such writers did not experience their loss of faith as a loss, since in a very real sense they hadn’t lost religion. They had rejected various metaphysical ideas and doctrines, but still inhabited the world that faith had made – the world of secure commitments, of marriages, obsequies and christenings, of real presences in ordinary lives and exalted visions in art. Their world was a world where the concepts of the sacred, the sacrilegious and the sacramental were widely recognized and socially endorsed.
This condition found idealized expression in the Gothic Revival, and in the writings of its principal high Victorian advocate, John Ruskin. Nobody knows whether Ruskin was a vestigial Christian believer, a fellow-traveller or an atheist profoundly attached to the medieval vision of a society ordered by faith. His exhortations, however, are phrased in the diction of the Book of Common Prayer; his response to the science and art of his day is penetrated by the spirit of religious inquisition, and his recommendations to the architect are for the building of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The Gothic style, as he described and commended it, was to recapture the sacred for a secular age. It was to offer visions of sacrifice and consecrated labour, and so counter the dispiriting products of the industrial machine. The Gothic would be, in the midst of our utilitarian madness, a window on to the transcendental, where once again we could pause and wonder, and where our souls would be filled with the light of another world. The Gothic Revival – both for Ruskin and for the atheist William Morris – was an attempt to reconsecrate the city as an earthly community united by real presences in sacred precincts.
Loss of faith involves a radical change to the Lebenswelt, as Husserl called it. The most ordinary things take on a new aspect, and concepts that inhabit the soul of believers and shape their most intimate experiences – concepts of the sacred and profane, of the forbidden, the sacramental and the holy – seem to make no contact with the world as it appears to the person who has lost hold of the transcendental. In response to this we might strive as the Victorians did to maintain and repair the faith community, to hope that the process of re-consecration would continue, refurbishing the image of humanity as god-like and redeemed. In short, we could go on stealing from churches. But it doesn’t work – not now. More appropriate to our time is the response of Rilke and Eliot, the two poets over whom I stumbled when first I discovered books. They did not hope for that enduring simulacrum of a religious community, but instead wished to rediscover the real thing, only lying dormant within us. Among the greatest religious poems of the twentieth century we must surely count the Duino Elegies of Rilke, and the Four Quartets of T. S. Eliot. In the first a private religion is created from the fragmentary offerings of intensely subjective experiences, which are gradually elaborated until they seem to contain the intimation of a personal redemption. In the second the poet is living in a world that refuses his religious yearning; he rediscovers, through a lost but imagined religious community, the experience of the sacramental from which he had been cut off. Both poets are restored in imagination to what they had lost in fact. There is a kind of belief there, but it is a belief that recreates the religious community out of memories, intimations and signs.
In the Duino Elegies the idea of the transcendental is embodied in the figure of the Angel, summoned into existence by the poet’s need, and representing the triumph of consciousness over the world of fact. In all of us, Rilke believes, there is the deep need to transform fact into thought, object into subject, Earth into the idea of Earth: the Angel is the being in whom this transubstantiation is complete. He is like the soul released into Brahma, who has translated matter to spirit so as to be co-terminous with his world. We emulate this process of translation, but we must begin from the fragments of our earthly experience where the sacred can take root – the places of love, heroism, death and memory, in which Earth beseeches us to take conscious note of her, to ingest her into our own transcendental presence, which is also an absence. For Rilke the experience of the sacred is saturated with the image of community, with the full, conscious rejoicing of the tribe, now dormant in all of us, and resurrected in imagination in the tenderness of sexual love:
Look, we don’t love as flowers love, out of
a single year; there rises in us, when we love,
immemorial sap in the arms. O girl,
This – that we loved in ourselves, not one yet to be, but
the innumerable ferment; not a single child
but the fathers resting like ruined mountains
in our depths –; but the dry river-bed
of former mothers –; but the whole
soundless landscape under its clear
or cloudy destiny –, this, girl, came before you.
In that passage Rilke finds in the intense longing of erotic love the intimations of a religious community – one dedicated to its own reproduction. The transcendental is contained in the moment – the moment of desire that summons past and future generations as witnesses to the present passion. Angels live like this always; we only sometimes, in those moments when we recognize our own mortality and embrace it.
Eliot had another vision, one nearer to that of the Gothic Revival – though his is a Gothic Revival of the imagination, in which the effort of renewal takes place inwardly, in the subjective experience of the suffering poet. His pilgrimage to Little Gidding, once the home of an Anglican community dedicated to the life of prayer, leads him to the following thought:
If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
This is a very different vision from Rilke’s, of course. Not for Eliot that unvordenklicher Saft in die Arme: the erotic has been banished from his world; or rather, it never intruded there. Instead we have a search for the ‘timeless moment’ – and, stated thus briefly, it sounds like a chocolate-box platitude. But the context clarifies the thought. Eliot has found his way to a sacred place, and imagined himself into the community that made it holy. He is in communion with the dead, has passed over to them from the empirical world, and is kneeling beside them in that transcendental region. He has rediscovered the sacred, in a world that seemed to exclude it from view.
Eliot’s redemption at Little Gidding involves the imagined recovery of the old Christian community. Rilke’s self-made redemption through the society of Angels involves the invention of a community that is not of this world. Both are quintessentially modern responses to the loss of religion – attempts to recuperate the transcendental and the sacred from the raw experience of the solitary self. But they cannot compensate for that other and greater loss, which is that of the religious community itself. For that community contained a vital store of moral knowledge – knowledge collectively generated and collectively deployed.
The moral knowledge that I have in mind is manifest in our response to other people, in our social projects and in our sense of ourselves. It is also manifest in our ability spontaneously to understand and to act upon human realities. Moral knowledge is a practical, not a theoretical acquisition. It does not consist in the knowledge of truths. Nevertheless it may open the way to such knowledge. For there are certain truths about the human condition that are hard to formulate and hard to live up to, and which we therefore have a motive to deny. It may require moral discipline if we are to accept these truths and also to live by them.
For instance, there is the truth that we are self-conscious beings, and that this distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom. There is the truth that we are free, accountable and objects of judgement in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. There is the truth that we are motivated not only by desire and appetite, but by a conception of the good. There is the truth that we are not just objects in the world of objects, but also subjects, who relate to each other reciprocally. There are all the other vital truths that I have discovered through growing up with Sam. To the person with religious belief – whether Christian or Muslim, whether monotheist or polytheist, whether a believer in the afterlife or not – those truths are obvious, and their consequences immediately apparent. Religious people may not express the truths as I have done, since I am adopting a secular idiom. Nor will they normally be aware of the philosophical reasoning that would defend those truths against modernist and postmodernist doubt. Nevertheless that is how they see the world. For them the ‘human form divine’, as Blake described it, is set apart from the rest of nature. Our form bears, for them, the marks of its peculiar destiny; it is capable of sanctity and liable to desecration, and in everything it is judged from a perspective that is not of this world. That way of seeing people enshrines the fundamental truth of our condition, as creatures suspended between the empirical and the transcendental, between being and judgement. But it deploys concepts that are given to us through religion, and to be obtained only with the greatest effort without it.
If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of a world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ. The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss – a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.
Loss is fundamental to the human condition. But civilizations differ in their way of accommodating it. The Upanishads exhort us to free ourselves of all attachments, to rise to that blissful state in which we can lose nothing because we possess nothing. And flowing from that exhortation is an art and a philosophy that make light of human suffering, and scorn the losses that oppress us in this world.
By contrast, Western civilization has dwelt upon loss and made it the principal theme of its art and literature. Scenes of mourning and sorrow abound in medieval painting and sculpture; our drama is rooted in tragedy and our lyric poetry takes the loss of love and the vanishing of its object as its principal theme. It is not Christianity that gave us this outlook. Virgil’s Aeneid, ostensibly an expression of Aeneas’s hope as he is god-guided to his great and world-transforming goal in Italy, is composed of losses. The terrible sack of Troy, the loss of his wife, the awful tale of Dido, the death of Anchises, the visit to the underworld, the ruinous conflict with Turnus – all these explore the parameters of loss, and show us that our highest hopes and loyalties lead of their own accord to tragedy.
For all that, the Aeneid is just as much a religious text as the Upanishads. The world of Aeneas is a world of rites and rituals, of sacred places and holy times. And Aeneas is judged by the gods, sometimes hounded by them, sometimes sustained, but at every moment accountable to them and aware of their real presence in the empirical world. It is for this reason that Aeneas can look his many losses in the face and also set them at the distance that enables him to gain from them. They come to him not as inexplicable accidents but as trials, ordeals and judgements. He wrestles with them and overcomes them as you might overcome an opponent. And each loss adds to his inner strength, without hardening his heart.
At the risk of sounding somewhat Spenglerian, I would suggest that the questing and self-critical spirit of Western civilization distinguishes it among civilizations and informs both the style of its losses and its way of coping with them. The Western response to loss is not to remove yourself from the world. It is to bear it as a loss, to mourn it, and to strive to overcome it by seeing it as a form of consecrated suffering. Religion lies at the root of that attitude. Religion enables us to bear our losses, not primarily because it promises to offset them with some compensating gain, but because it sees them from a transcendental perspective. Judged from that perspective they appear not as meaningless afflictions but as sacrifices. Loss, conceived as sacrifice, becomes consecrated to something higher than itself: and in this it follows a pattern explored by René Girard in his bold theory of the violent origins of the human disposition to recognize sacred things.  I think that is how people can cope with the loss of children – to recognize in this loss a supreme example of the transition to another realm. Your dead child was a sacrificial offering, and is now an angel beckoning from that other sphere, sanctifying the life that you still lead in the material world. This thought is of course very crudely captured by my words. Fortunately, however, three great works of art exist that convey it completely – the medieval poem The Pearl from the Gawain manuscript, Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, and Britten’s church parable Curlew River.
In our civilization, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. They do not do this in the way of the Upanishads, which exhort us to an immense spiritual labour, whereby we free ourselves from the weight of Dharma and slowly ascend to the blessed state of Brahma. The path of renunciation presupposes, after all, that there is something to renounce. Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness – only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss.
Except that the loss need not occur. This is the lesson that I draw from my own experience, and that has caused me to revisit the Christianity of my youth. I was brought up in the England of the fifties, in which it was generally assumed that, with the exception of the Jewish minority, you were either Nonconformist or Church of England. On official documents that required you to state your religion you wrote ‘C of E’ regardless. And you could be confident that God was an Englishman, who had a quiet, dignified, low-key way of visiting the country each weekend while being careful never to outstay his welcome. When Eliot addressed that God – the very God of the Anglican communion – with the cri de coeur of Ash Wednesday and the solemn psalmody of Four Quartets, we were shocked and also moved. Maybe, beneath those formal robes, there beat a real and living heart and one that cared for us! This possibility had not occurred to us before.
In the England of today God is a foreigner, an illegal immigrant, with aggressive manners and a violent way of intruding into every gathering, even in the middle of the working week. The Muslims in our midst do not share our impious attitude to absent generations. They come to us from the demographic infernos of North Africa and Pakistan, like Aeneas from the burning ruins of Troy, each with an old man on his shoulders, a child at his feet and his hands full of strange gods. They are manifestly in the business of social, as well as biological, reproduction. They show us what we really stand to lose, if we hold nothing sacred: namely, the future. In the presence of this new religious spirit the voice of the English churches becomes ever weaker, ever more shy of doctrine, ever more conciliatory and ill at ease. The idea that the British should be re-evangelized would be dismissed by most of the official clergy as an act of aggression, even a racist affront to our Muslim minorities. The Church is not there to propagate the Christian faith, but to forgive those who reject it.
Now of course it is one of the great strengths of Christianity that it makes forgiveness a duty and freedom of conscience a religious ideal. But Christians recognize the duty of forgiveness because they seek forgiveness too. Those brought up in our post-religious society do not seek forgiveness, since they are by and large free from the belief that they need it. This does not mean they are happy. But it does mean that they put pleasure before commitment, and can neglect their duties without being crippled by guilt. Since religion is the balm for guilt, those brought up without religion seem, on the surface, to lose the need for it.
But only on the surface. You don’t have to be a believer to be conscious of a great religious deficit in our society. We saw its effect during the strange canonization of Princess Diana, when vast crowds of people congregated in places vaguely associated with the Princess’s name, to deposit wreaths, messages and teddy bears. The very same people whose pitiless prurience had caused Diana’s death now sought absolution from her ghost. Here was beauty, royalty, distinction punished for its fault, to become a sacrificial offering and therefore a saintly intercessor before the mysteries that govern the world. Forget the gruesome kitsch and liturgical vagueness – necessary results, in any case, of the decline of organized religion. We were in the presence of a primordial yearning for the sacred, one reaching back to the very earliest dream-pictures of mankind and recorded in a thousand myths and rituals.
Many religions focus on such episodes of sacrificial offering, often, as in Christianity and Shi’ism, through a re-enacted martyrdom, in a collective ritual that purges the believer of his sins. So widespread is the phenomenon that René Girard has seen it as the fundamental secret of religion. In Girard’s view, the suffering of a victim is necessary if the accumulated violence of society is to be released and abjured. That is why we are moved by the story of Christ’s Passion. It is we ourselves who nailed this man to the Cross, and the compassion that we feel for him is also a purging of our guilt. This guilt arises from the experience of society; it is the residue of the aggressions through which we compete for our thrills. In our post-religious society these aggressions are no longer sublimated through acts of humility and worship. Hence the sadistic forms of entertainment that dominate our media in Europe. But, if we accept Girard’s view – and there is surely a lot to be said for it – we must also accept that Generation X is just as subject to the burden of religious guilt as the rest of us.
And indeed, as soon as we look at religion in that detached, anthropological way, we begin to discern its subterranean presence in European society. Although doctrine has no place in our public life, a fear of heresy is beginning to grip the countries of Europe – not heresy as defined by the Christian churches, but heresy as defined by a form of post-Christian political correctness. A remarkable system of semi-official labels has emerged to prevent the expression of dangerous points of view. And a point of view is identified as dangerous if it belongs to the old Judaeo-Christian culture, thereby reminding us of what we were when we actually believed something. Those who confess to their Christianity are ‘Christian fundamentalists’ or even part of the ‘Christian fundamentalist right’, and therefore a recognized threat to free opinion; those who express concern over national identity are ‘far-right extremists’ – a label attached to Holland’s Pirn Fortuyn, despite his impeccable left-wing credentials; those who question whether it is right to advocate homosexuality to schoolchildren are ‘homophobic’; defenders of the family are ‘right-wing authoritarians’, while a teacher who defends chastity rather than free contraception as the best response to teenage pregnancy, is not just ‘out of touch’ but ‘offensive’ to his pupils. To criticize popular culture, television or contemporary rock music, even to press for the teaching of grammatical English in English schools – all these are proofs of ‘elitism’, whereby a person disqualifies himself from the right to speak. It is as though our society is seeking to define itself as a religious community, whose very lack of faith has become a kind of orthodoxy.
There is nothing new in this. Jacobinism and Communism both began life as anti-religious movements, and both bear the marks of the Enlightenment. But they recruited people in just the way that religions recruit them, offering inviolable orthodoxies, mysterious rituals, witch-hunts and persecutions. And that is why they were successful. Living as we do in an age without certainties, we like to believe that we can finally dispense with the religious instinct and coexist in open dialogue with people who dissent from the premises on which we build our lives. But we too need orthodoxies, we too hunger for rituals, and we too are apt to confront the critic and the dissenter with persecution rather than argument.
We even have gods of a kind, flitting below the surface of our passions. You can glimpse Gaia, the earth goddess, in the crazier rhetoric of the environmentalists; Fox and Deer are totemic spirits for the defenders of animal rights, whose religion was shaped by the kitsch of Walt Disney; the human genome has a mystical standing in the eyes of many medical scientists. We have cults like football, sacrificial offerings like Princess Diana and improvised saints like Linda McCartney.
On the other hand, we have abandoned those aspects of religion that provide genuine guidance in a time of spiritual need. The instinctive awe and respect towards our own being that the Romans called pietas has more or less vanished from the public life of Europe. And nowhere is this more clearly noticeable than in the officially Roman Catholic countries of France and Italy. Now that the Church has ceased to be a public voice in those countries, the culture is being colonized by secular ways of thinking. Discussions of embryo research, cloning, abortion and euthanasia – subjects that go to the heart of the religious conception of our destiny – proceed in once-Catholic Europe as though nothing were at stake beyond the expansion of human choices. Little now remains of the old Christian idea that life, its genesis and its terminus are sacred things, to be meddled with at our peril. The piety and humility that it was once natural to feel before the fact of creation have given way to a pleasure-seeking disregard for absent generations. The people of Europe are living as though the dead and the unborn had no say in their decisions.
The Romans warned against impiety not only because it would bring down judgement from heaven but because it was a repudiation of a fundamental human duty – the duty to ancestors and progeny. The ills of modern civilization have their origins in the loss of piety, and we should take a lesson from the Romans, who had such a clear perception of why piety matters. The important thing, in the ancient world, was not theological belief, which was hidden behind the plethora of gods, but the cult. Religion was first of all a practice, a habit of worship, a humble setting aside of self and a deep genuflection in the presence of the divine – as Apuleius, in The Golden Ass, finally bows down before Isis, and is reborn to the world. Faith may or may not step into the ensuing silence. But it is the silence itself that matters: the silence of the penitent soul. Regaining religion is a matter of preparation, a quiet waiting for grace.
Moving to the country ten years ago I went out of curiosity to our local church, no longer as a thief but as a penitent. And because the little church announced the use of the Book of Common Prayer – in whose idiom my prayers are invariably expressed – I joined the congregation, and volunteered to play the organ. The truth contained in the words of Morning Prayer and Holy Communion is not directly there on the page, but revealed in the silence of the soul that comes from speaking them. It is a truth that reaches beyond words, to the inexpressible end of things.
Perhaps there is no more direct challenge to secular ways of thinking than the famous Hundredth Psalm, the Jubilate Deo, as translated in the Book of Common Prayer. It was by reflecting on this psalm that I came to see how its pure and unsullied idiom contains the answer to the lamentations of Michael Stipe. The psalmist enjoins us to be joyful in the Lord, to serve the Lord with gladness and to come before his presence with a song. It is a notable fact of our modern civilization, in which duties to God are ignored or forgotten, that there is very little gladness and still less singing. ‘Losing my Religion’ is a moan, not a song, and the idiom of heavy metal expressly forbids its followers to ‘join in’ when the music starts.
Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh. The triumphs of science and technology, the vanquishing of disease and the mastery over nature – these things coincide with a general moroseness, the origin of which, I believe, is religious. Someone who turns his back on God cannot receive his gifts with gratitude, but only with a grudging resentment at their insufficiency. No scientific advance will bestow eternal youth, eternal happiness, eternal love or loveliness. Hence no scientific advance can answer to our underlying religious need. Having put our trust in science we can expect only disappointment. And seeing, in the mirror raised by science, our own aggrieved and sullen faces, we are turned to disaffection with our kind. That is why the singing stops.
The psalmist goes on to remind us of the remedy: ‘Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.’ This sentence contains all of theology. It is reminding us first that our knowledge of God is a kind of personal acquaintance, summarized in a statement of identity. We know God by knowing that God is the Lord and the Lord is God. Christians believe that they have three ways of knowing God: as God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. But they also believe that our knowledge of God is a matter of personal acquaintance, which cannot be conveyed in the language of science.
The psalmist is also reminding us that we did not create ourselves, nor did we create the world in which we live. Such is the presumption of modern science that it strives to deny even this evident truth. Scientists are endeavouring to unravel the secret of creation, so as to take charge of it and to turn it in some new direction. This project – hailed by all forward-looking people as promising the final victory over disease, suffering and even death itself – was foretold and rejected by Aldous Huxley, in his novel Brave New World. Huxley’s message was really a religious one. If human beings ever unlock their own genetic code, he foretold, they will use this knowledge to escape the chains of nature. But having done so, they will bind themselves in chains of their own.
The chains of nature are those that God created. They are called reason, freedom, morality and choice. The human chains foretold by Huxley are of a quite different composition: they are made entirely of flesh and the pleasures of the flesh. They bind so tightly that reason, choice and moral judgement can find no chink in which to grow and corrode them. So completely do they encircle the human soul that it shrinks to a tiny dot within the organism. There is no suffering in the Brave New World; no pain or doubt or terror. Nor is there happiness. It is a world of reliable and undemanding pleasures, from which the causes of suffering have been banished, and with them all striving, all hope, and all joy.
But love is a cause of suffering; so too are freedom, judgement and choice. Hence these things too will disappear from the Brave New World. As a result, confronted with the inhabitants of this world, we do not recognize ourselves. We instinctively reject this new form of life as monstrous, inhuman, meaningless. And that is because we seek in vain for God’s image, in a world where man has presumed to be in charge.
Finally, the psalmist says that God created us. For many people this proposition is the sticking point. They can accept that, if there is knowledge of God, then it is a kind of personal knowledge; they can accept that we did not create ourselves and even that the attempt to put ourselves in the position of self-creators is dangerous presumption. But they cannot accept that God created us. They have a better explanation, and that is Darwin’s.
Thanks to the work of scientific popularizers like Richard Dawkins the debate between evolutionism and creationism, which once rocked the schools of theology, is now rocking the world. If we evolved from apes, and if the whole process of evolution is merely an outgrowth of the chemistry of carbon, what place is there for God? Can we not explain everything without that old and stale hypothesis? Such are the questions that animate contemporary discussions; and people seem eager to be taken in by them.
From a philosophical perspective, however, it is very strange that people should think that the psalmist and the scientist are mutually opposed. We are natural beings, part of the biological order. Natural beings exist in time and therefore change over time. That we should evolve is inevitable. If we ask the question how we humans came to be as we are, then any conceivable answer will refer to the unfolding of a process – and processes take time. The surprising fact is not that we should have evolved from the humble chemistry of the oceans but that it should have taken so long to discover this. 
Of course, one thing that prevented the discovery was the story of Eden, understood not as a parable but as a literal truth about creation. But the proposition that God created the world and the proposition that we evolved over time are not merely compatible; they arise in response to quite different questions. Evolution tells us how the world is spread out in time, the story of creation tells us why. The best that science can offer is a theory of the how of things; but it is silent about the why. When we ask for the why of the world we are seeking a point of view outside all time and change, from which we can view the world as a whole. Only God can obtain that point of view. Hence it is to him that we must look for an answer. That, surely, is what the psalmist meant when he said that it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves.
What follows from this truth, however, and how does it affect our lives? The psalmist goes on at once to tell us, in a beautiful phrase: ‘we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’. God watches over us, as a shepherd watches over his sheep. And the world in which we live is a pasture. It was natural for the poet, living in a pastoral community, to use this imagery. And it is all the more emotive for us, in that we are conscious of the history that has severed us from the green pastures of our ancestors. We long, in our hearts, to return to a simpler and more pastoral way of life, just as we long to be united with God. Hence the psalmist’s words have a dual function. They remind us that we depend on God’s mercy and power. And they remind us of our fallen state, of our need for safety, and of the long history of human pride and arrogance that has sundered us from nature. Our world was intended as a pasture, and we have turned it into a junkyard.
The psalmist is reminding us, too, of other things. Like sheep we go astray; and like sheep we stray as a crowd. Moreover, sheep that stray from their pasture are making a huge mistake: they are venturing into territory where they are no longer protected. We, who have damaged the natural order, are in a like condition. We have emerged into a world much of the fabric of which has been deflected from its natural condition, so as to depend upon us for its survival. And yet we haven’t the faintest idea how to ensure that this world survives. We improvise from day to day, and each day we become more deeply mired in error.
And the process seems to obey a terrible and inexorable logic. We overcome the danger presented by cars by building better roads, which make the cars go faster, so increasing the danger. We try to rescue our towns from the frenzy with bypasses, and within a year or two they are twice as dangerous, since the bypasses have brought more traffic to the towns. We think we can make the streets safer with street lights, only to discover that we pollute the night sky and shut out the stars, so causing us to lie half-awake at night under a searing light that troubles our body rhythms. Every attempt to correct our mistakes seems merely to add to them. And those who tell us this are greeted with anger and vilification, since the one thing that people wedded to error cannot bear is the truth. Men who tell the truth are dangerous. They should be crucified.
To return, however, to the Hundredth Psalm. The right course for those sheep who have strayed into unknown territory is to go back through the hole in the hedge. This is the essence of the religious life: not progress and experiment, but the journey back to the place that protects us. It is a mark of our sinful nature that those who advocate this course are so often sneered at. Yet there is a way back to those cooling streams, which can be rediscovered at any time.
I don’t mean to imply that the conservation of nature is the answer to original sin. But I do mean to suggest that the truth that is being brought home to us in the sphere of ecology applies equally to the rest of human life. The General Confession tells us that ‘we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep’, and thereby implies that the ways to which we are called are part of our nature and our destiny, and not to be improved upon. If you ponder the many ways in which people have recently tried to improve on the human condition – from sexual liberation to modernist architecture, and from television to junk food – you will surely come to see how true is that ancient vision of the sheep-like nature of humanity.
We have made an idol of progress. But ‘progress’ is simply another name for human dreams, human ambitions, human fantasies. By worshipping progress we bow before an altar on which our own sins are exhibited. We kill in ourselves both piety and gratitude, believing that we owe the world nothing, and that the world owes everything to us. That is the real meaning, it seems to me, of the new secular religion of human rights. I call it a religion because it seems to occupy the place vacated by faith. It tells us that we are the centre of the universe, that we are under no call to obedience, but that the world is ordered in accordance with our rights.
The result of this religion of rights is that people feel unendingly hard done by. Every disappointment is met with a lawsuit, in the hope of turning material loss to material gain. And whatever happens to us, we ourselves are never at fault. The triumph of sin thereby comes with our failure to perceive it.
But this world of rights and claims and litigation is a profoundly unhappy one, since it is a world in which no one accepts misfortune, and every reversal is a cause of bitterness, anger and blame. Misfortune becomes an injustice, and a ground for compensation. Hence our world is full of hatred – hatred for the other, who has got what is mine. Look at contemporary art, literature and music and you will find in much of it a singular joylessness, a revulsion towards human life. This revulsion is the inevitable reward of those who think only of what is owed to them, and not of what they owe.
That is why the psalmist enjoins us to direct our thoughts outwards, in praise and gratitude. ‘O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.’ Once we have made the decision to turn back to the ways of duty, gratitude will flow naturally into us, and – so the psalmist reminds us – gratitude is the precondition of joy. Only those who give thanks are able to rejoice, for only they are conscious that life, freedom and well-being are not rights but gifts.
A gift is a reminder that others care for us. The doctrine of human rights is prompting us to forget that truth. And that is why it is leading to a world without joy. For if the good things of life are mine by right, why should I be grateful for receiving them?
Where there is no gratitude there is no love. Conversely, a world in which there is love is a world in which the good things of life are seen as privileges, not rights. It is a world where you are aware of the good will of others, and where you respond to that good will with a reciprocal bounty, giving what is in your power to give, even if it is only praise.
That is why we should say, even in the midst of suffering, that the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting. After all, we might not have existed; precisely because we are finite, created beings, we endure from moment to moment by God’s grace. It is not through our own efforts that we attain peace but through the great endowment of good will, which lays down for us commands that only a free being can obey. That is what is meant by ‘everlasting mercy’: not the constant forgiveness of sins, but the maintenance of an order in which free choice can guide our conduct, even through suffering and hardship.
However much we study the evolution of the human species, however much we meddle with nature’s secrets, we will not discover the way of freedom, since this is not the way of the flesh. Freedom, love and duty come to us as a vision of eternity, and to know them is to know God. This knowledge breaks through the barrier of time, and places us in contact with the eternal. Hence the psalmist concludes by telling us of God that ‘his truth endureth from generation to generation’.
Discovering this truth, we encounter what is permanent – or rather what is beyond time and change, the eternal peace that serves as the divine template, so to speak, for our brief homecomings here on earth. When we take those tentative backward steps that I mentioned earlier, trying to restore this or that little precinct of our mutilated Eden, we are creating icons of another pasture, outside time and space, where God and the soul exist in dialogue. We are prefiguring our eternal home.
If, therefore, I am called upon to express my much-amended but nevertheless regained religion, it would not be in the penitential words of Little Gidding, nor in the self-centred cries of Rilke to his Angel, but in the tranquil words of the Jubilate Deo:
O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands: serve the Lord with gladness, and come before his presence with a song.
Be ye sure that the Lord he is God: it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
O go your way into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and speak good of his Name.
For the Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting: and his truth endureth from generation to generation.
 René Girard, La violence et le sacré, Paris, 1972
 Though there are hints of Darwinian thinking among the Greeks, especially Anaximander.
An important part of every writer’s task is to use proper names judiciously. Shakespeare’s names – Ophelia, Prospero, Caliban, Portia, Bottom, Titania, Malvolio – summon character and plot, and also seem to light up regions of the human psyche, so that we can say, knowing what we mean and without other words to express it, ‘I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’. And what poem makes greater use of a name than the one from which I have just quoted? ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’: all the existential hesitation of the protagonist is foreshadowed in the title, which illustrates the deep-down impossibility of anyone called J. Alfred Prufrock uttering a plausible love song. Christopher Ricks shows this with characteristic élan in T. S. Eliot and Prejudice: ‘“I’m in love.” “Who’s the lucky man?” “J. Alfred Prufrock” – impossible.’
Shakespeare’s genius is revealed not only in his choice of names, but in his ability to take the names prescribed by his sources, and make them become the characters who wear them: Antony and Cleopatra, for example, both so swelled with erotic recklessness by Shakespeare that it is not surprising that Dryden called his version of the story All for Love, and allowed the names to creep in later. With what fine sense of drama does the poet display the dying Antony through his name, while Cleopatra is eclipsed by a title:
Not Caesar’s valour hath o’erthrown Antony,
But Antony’s hath triumph’d on itself.
So it should be, that none but Antony
Should conquer Antony, but woe ‘tis so!
I am dying, Egypt, dying …
When treating of erotic love Shakespeare makes play with the very act of naming, reminding us that the arbitrariness of names stems from the attempt to record what is not arbitrary at all but unique and therefore inexpressible. Juliet, having learned that Romeo bears the hated name of Montague, attempts to separate him in thought from his name:
What’s in a name? That which we call a Rose,
By any other word would smell as sweete,
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retaine that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doffe thy name,
And for thy name which is no part of thee,
Take all my selfe.
As the tragedy shows, it is precisely this that Romeo cannot do. To doff his name is to doff his destiny as the child of his parents and the heir to their burden of revenge. As the two lovers are entangled in the web of disaster, their names gather the resonance of their passion, and that which they at first strive to doff is at last engraved in marble on their common tomb. Thus, before the end of the scene Juliet is already saying:
Bondage is hoarse, and may not speake aloud,
Else would I teare the Cave where Echo lies,
And make her airie tongue more hoarse than myne,
With repetition of my Romeo.
Romeo’s rejection of the claims of Rosaline is expressed in his forgetting her name, and when Romeo later rages against his name –
O tell me, friar, tell me
In what vile part of this Anatomie
Doth my name lodge? Tell me that I may sack
The hateful mansion
– his words show the futility of his effort to excise this thing, which is the focal point of Juliet’s passion. ‘In the name,’ wrote Hegel, ‘the individual as pure individual is “weighed”, not only in “his” consciousness, but in the consciousness of all.’ (Phenomenology of Spirit)
Shakespeare’s plays are works of philosophy – philosophy not argued but shown. Other writers, less concerned with the finer points of metaphysics, have nevertheless busied themselves with the impossible task of presenting an individual essence in a name. Dickens is a master of this, so too is Henry James. In Dickens the effect is mostly comic: in James it is often turned to tragic purpose, as when American innocence, encapsulated in a bright-eyed, honest name like Milly Theale or Daisy Miller, is turned inwards and destroyed by old-world moral artifice. A writer’s heraldic talent may be revealed in plain syllables – Tom Jones, Moll Flanders – or in a label that invites social and linguistic diagnosis: Rougon-Macquart, Buddenbrooks or Proust’s tantalizing Charlus, revealed after many hundreds of pages to be only the least and most obscure of the Baron’s titles. A name acquired by marriage is particularly significant, since it resounds with the choice that introduced it. Flaubert begins his great novel in the first person plural, placing Charles Bovary both inside the mind and outside the story, observed like a curious insect under the microscope, so that his surname fills with honest clumsiness and well-meant social failure. And then suddenly the writer withdraws, the ‘we’ evaporates, and this yoke is clamped around the neck of Emma.
Writers are connoisseurs of names. They jot them down from noticeboards and newspapers, from small ads and telephone directories. And to each they try to affix an image or a story; the name in the phonebook is a glimpse through curtains of a private space as yet unentered by the narrator. But what about the writer’s own name? A nom de plume is a mask, like Stendhal, and it is chosen as a writer’s name, the name of that all-seeing eye on the edge of things, the consciousness that observes but is no part of the action. To live with such a name is not to gain a personality but to renounce it, to become the narrator of a supreme fiction, and so to fictionalize oneself. The nom de plume conceals the other name, the unchosen patronymic in which lives the real human essence – the Henri Beyle or Eric Blair who is not Prince Hamlet nor was meant to be.
Even without the device of a nom de plume, there is room for the literary imagination. You can address your readers from the formal posture of a surname, or you can offer a glimpse of your intimate self, the self that is known to those who truly live with it. Suppose T. S. Eliot had written Tom Eliot on his title pages – like Thorn Gunn or Ted Hughes. Would his poetry still retain the hieratic, suffering detachment that is so important to its sense? Or suppose, conversely, that Ariel had been the work of one S. Plath. How then could we take seriously the knife-like accusations, the sense of intimacy as horrible as the hands of the Inca priest seizing the heart of a living victim?
Daddy, I have had to kill you …
Not, surely, the words of S. Plath, but a cry from the depths of Sylvia. Who is Sylvia, what is she, That all our swains commend/condemn her? The answer is there on the page.
Spelling, too, matters. Thorn Gunn is decidedly not Tom Gunn. The inaudible ‘h’ suggests a softness, a sensibility, to which only those who relish the written word are fully attuned. ‘H’ is for ‘homosexual’: it reveals to the eye, while hiding from the ear, the flesh beneath the biker’s jacket.
Initials used by a woman writer are like the George Eliot of our greatest philosophical novelist – a masculine disguise, calculated both to exploit and to challenge the supposed ascendancy of men. (I say ‘supposed’, but of course if enough people suppose that it is so, then it is so.) And if such a writer reveals in every line and every word that she is first of all a woman, and only by default and in unguarded moments a dispassionate narrator (dispassionate narrators being mostly of the masculine gender, if not of the male sex), the result is unsettling and even incongruous. It was a relief to discover that A. L. Kennedy is called Alison. If someone asked me who wrote So I am Glad, I would now without thinking say Alison Kennedy, the very same Alison Kennedy who wrote On Bullfighting. But no such writer appears in the library catalogues.
The use of initials is to some extent a matter of fashion. Maybe it is no accident that T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, W. B. Yeats and D. H. Lawrence were of the same period and the same cultural milieu, or that they all made such an impression on F. R. Leavis who, with his wife Q. D., felt called upon to judge them. But that is not the whole story. In an age of first names initials remain a useful tool: they suggest coolness and objectivity. Novelists who see through their characters, as A. N. Wilson does, are well advised to keep their first names to themselves; a poet like C. H. Sisson, for whom the human world is only a point of departure for the empty courtroom where God once sat in judgement, ought to be wary of letting us call him Charles. And, while on the subject of religious poetry, how wrong it would be to call Gerard Manley Hopkins G. M. – for here is a poet whose religion consists in letting his heart flow out, rather than in fastidiously withdrawing it.
But what about the names themselves – not first names only, but surnames too? For those addicted to words, the surnames of writers take on the sense of their writings. Wittgenstein, for me, has the sound of a frozen mountaineer, poised on the apex of an argument and remaining there, aloof, uncomforted and alone. Dickens – whose name is proverbial in English – has the sound of an old-fashioned haberdashery: an accumulation of oddments, some still useful, others left behind by fashion or piled in a heap of unvisited history, like the objects in Mrs Jellaby’s cupboard. Lawrence roars like a lion, and yawns like one too; while Melville is not the noise of Captain Ahab stomping his wooden peg on the deck above, but the melancholy sound of a quiet harbour, where the sheets smack in the breeze and a clerk sucks his pen at a counting desk above the quay.
As for the first names of writers, they matter in another way: for they are the private aspect of a name that has chosen to go public. Acquiring the right surname is hard; but at least people don’t blame you for it. Acquiring the right first name is easier, since your parents often give you a choice, and there are nicknames galore to replace them. But for this very reason you stand accused of your first name. It is your fault that you are Agatha, Gramophone or Quin.
Names have fatally affected my literary career. My mother was born and bred in the genteel suburbs of London, cherishing an ideal of gentlemanly conduct and social distinction that my father set out with considerable relish to destroy. She saw in me her great hope of rescue from the Lawrentian wildness of Jack Scruton, and of a return to the quiet tea-parties and box-lined gardens of Upper Norwood. She therefore decided that I should be called Vernon, after a distant cousin who looked sweet and poetic in photographs, but whose greatest merit was that he had emigrated to Canada before he could reveal how few real merits he had.
My father, who perhaps saw in this name a fitting revenge for my existence, acquiesced in his wife’s desire. However, a residual tenderness towards his son reminded him of the misery that would be faced by a boy with a cissy name, if he could not fight his way to another one. He therefore insisted also on Roger, after Sir Roger de Buslingthorpe, who lay in effigy in the church next to the farm where I was born. Furthermore it was mercifully agreed between my parents that, while I was to be called Vernon by all my relations, Roger would be the first name on my birth certificate and, as it were, the official title that I would one day win through my deeds.
I was a timid child, who keenly felt the double injury of red hair and a cissy name. The critical moment came aged ten, during last year at primary school. A large boy called Herman, whose misfortune was also contained in a name, and who therefore became the school bully by way of compelling us to respect him, kicked me as I sat down for morning assembly, launching into a diatribe against red hair with every word of which I fully concurred. I gave him to understand that, had it been possible to vote for the abolition of red hair, I would have been first to raise my hand. To my dismay, however, Herman was not satisfied with this general apology for my condition, and indicated that I must meet him in the playground during break, so that my head could be bashed in and the problem of red hair solved for good and all.
‘There’s no helping it,’ said my friend Brian (the only one in the playground who was more timid than I). ‘He’s after you. If not today then tomorrow. Best to get it over with.’ News of the impending fight spread rapidly through the school and at the appointed hour the spectators gathered into a ring. Brian pushed me forward and my antagonist strode out from the crowd with flaring nostrils, fists up and big lips parted in a sneer. I closed my eyes, shielded my face with my left hand, and stretched my right arm out to protect myself. Herman came forward at a run, with blood-curdling shrieks and flailing arms. I stood rooted to the spot, the sounds of Herman’s war-dance filling my ears, my outstretched fist trembling in the air before me. After what seemed like an age, there was a staggering blow to my knuckles. I opened my eyes to discover Herman recoiling backwards, lips split open and blood pouring over his chin. With a howl of dismay he pirouetted through the crowd, and fled to the headmaster’s office to report my crime.
It seemed unjust at the time that I should be caned and Herman comforted. But it added to a reputation that had already spread through the school as quickly as the newest cigarette card, and I resolved at once to exploit my eminence as the conqueror of Herman. I went from gang to gang in the playground, escorted by Brian (now promoted to first lieutenant), and informing my respectful listeners that henceforth I was not Vernon but Roger, that all uses of my former name, which had been no more than a disguise adopted for secret service reasons, would be as severely punished as remarks about red hair. Obedience was immediate and universal, and henceforth I was Roger to everyone, including my family, who were told that the choice was simple: either they ceased to call me Vernon, or I went to live with the gypsies.
Inside, however, just behind the egg-shell armour of Roger’s belligerence, Vernon peered out at the world. His name had been excised from the public record – even his initial was no longer used – and his perfunctory funeral had been announced and completed. But he remained, a quiet, timorous creature who still suffered from the fact of having red hair. Roger went to the local grammar school keen to prove his reality, and promptly made a reputation for himself as a rebel, with a talent for home-made bombs. But with the onset of puberty, and the discovery of books, Vernon saw his chance. He was not allowed to use his name, of course, since that would have undermined five years of patient labour. But he was allowed to whisper his literary ambitions, since Roger had fallen into the trap of sharing them. We looked around for precedents, and could find no Roger among the novelists and poets. Indeed the only Roger in the whole of literature seemed to be Sir Roger de Coverley, the ineffectual squire of Addison and Steele. Nor did we at first find any Vernons.
Then one day an anthology of modern verse came into our hands. There, right up among the gods, next to Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, was someone called Vernon Scannell. We were not to know that this Vernon had begun life as a professional boxer, no doubt in an attempt to erase the stigma of his name. All that we understood was the irrebuttable proof that writers could be called Vernon. Even if he published under the name Roger Scruton, therefore, it was agreed that Vernon would be the real author of our words. Everything that I have written that has come from the heart rather than the head has been the work of someone officially dead aged ten.
Not that the relation between Roger and Vernon has been an antagonistic one. Labouring under shared disadvantages, and joined inseparably by fate, they have had to get on. Vernon, they knew, was an impossible name, like St Evremond or J. Alfred Prufrock. They knew too that no writer could make a convincing show of Roger, and despite these facts they were determined to be a writer.
To those difficulties must be added the even more crushing disadvantage of their surname. There are surnames designed for a literary career: Wordsworth, for example, Metastasio or Hölderlin. But most writers have to make do with the same accidental surnames as the rest of us. These, roughly speaking, are of two kinds: names that denote a trade; and names that denote a place. The first can generally be relied upon, since the natural flow of human life has made them smooth with use and versatile. Smith, Baker, Thatcher, Porter: all such names trip off the tongue, their menial meaning forgotten, eagerly presenting themselves for more interesting work. Place names are more tricky. If too well known – like Liverpool, Somerset or Shrewsbury – they sound like aristocratic titles. If too rustic – like Lobthorpe, Ordsall or Dowdeswell – they suggest characters out of Thomas Hardy, or the nom de plume of someone who would like to have been Hardy but lacks his talent.
Many French place names owe their magical and euphonious character to the fact that they are the linguistic relics of Latin saints. Thus the steady flow of piety and dialect has turned Sanctus Sidonius into Saint-Saëns, itself the ideal name for a conservative composer. From the earthy St Gengoux to the seraphic St Exupéry, whose remains now lie in ocean’s depths, these names express the archaeological reality of a nation rooted in a place, a faith and a tongue.
Our place names are equally historic, but fatally distorted by their heathen roots. One such name is Scruton – Scrofa’s Tun – named from a Viking chieftain whose distinguishing feature was not red hair but dandruff. The sound can be rectified by no efforts of elocution. In whatever tone of voice Scruton sounds mean and censorious. Scourge, Scrooge, Scrotum and Scrutiny all tumble like black scarabs from the mouth that utters it. I am convinced that the hostile reception encountered by even my most forgiving works has been due, not to the conservative voice that speaks through them (which is Vernon’s voice, not Roger’s), but to the scraping steel of this scalpel-like surname. I was not surprised to find Sue Townsend using it for her nasty headmaster in the Adrian Mole stories. And I am sure that its subliminal effect is one cause of the enormous surprise that people feel, on meeting me, to discover that I am approximately human.
Maybe I should have adopted a nom de plume like Stendhal, or even let it be known that Scruton is a nom de plume, the deliberately forbidding mask adopted by a mild-mannered humanist who regrets the words that truth compels from him. For good or ill, however, I stuck with my family name, took comfort from the fact that others had learned to live with it – the photographer Roger Scruton, for example – and reminded myself that it had the merit, like Dracula, Heliogabalus and Rasputin, of being unforgettable.
This problematic surname, which I could by then neither discard nor amend, was much on my mind during the eighties, when my writings were routinely greeted with anger or ridicule. One summer day I stepped from an aeroplane in Adelaide, where I was due to give a lecture to a small gathering of local conservatives. I was depressed by the reception of my latest book, Sexual Desire, and depressed too that I had had to fly all the way to Australia to find an audience. It was quite clear to me that I had made a mistake in pursuing Vernon’s literary ambition, while choosing Roger’s method of advancing it.
The first thing I saw on emerging into the Arrivals Hall was a placard on which SCRUTON had been written in bold gothic letters. I had to fight the urge to apologize for this name, which had begun to sound in my ears like the growls of a bogeyman. To my surprise, however, a middle-aged man emerged from behind the placard and apologized for nobbling me. He wore blue plastic sandals, khaki shorts and a hideous orange shirt, above the open collar of which his leathery neck stretched and gobbled impatiently. On top was a large Anglo-Saxon head, precariously balanced, in which the pink-veined blueish eyes stared fixedly like headlights.
‘Mr Scruton,’ he cried as he shook my hand. ‘Welcome to Adelaide. I just had to come to meet you. I am a Scruton aficionado, a Scruton fanatic. I collect everything to do with Scruton – everything!’
Taken aback, I stuttered out my gratitude. Maybe Scruton wasn’t such a hideous name after all. Maybe it was the kind of name a writer could justify, a name with a genuine appeal for a narrow range of discriminating readers. Maybe Scruton would earn its place in the cannon along with other names beginning in ‘Sc’, for example … well, for example, Scannell. I shook the proffered hand warmly and asked him which of my books he enjoyed.
‘See here,’ he said, ignoring me, ‘I brought you the Scruton catalogue. I’ve got another copy. This one’s yours.’
He reached into a grubby satchel that swung from his left arm, took out a large green folio and thrust it towards me with a comradely smile. On the woven paper cover was written:
The Scruton Estate
Northallerton and Bedale
and close to
Inside, it announced that by order of the Executors of Mrs M. E. J. A. Coore, deceased, the Scruton Estate, comprising Scruton Hall, five farms, innumerable cottages, smallholdings, woodland, and 1,111 acres – in short, the whole village of Scruton – was to be auctioned in 38 lots at the Golden Lion Hotel, Northallerton, on Wednesday 15 July 1953. There was a photograph of the magnificent Queen Anne Hall, and an emotionless Pevsner-like description of its state-rooms and corridors, patrolled only by ghosts, some of them perhaps my ancestors, and one, Mrs Coore, the bearer of four inscrutable initials. Each cottage and farm and field was described in the same archaeological tone: it was as though the Germans had won the war, and a dutiful officer were sending an inventory to his distant commander-in-chief. To an Englishman attuned to recent history it was a funeral oration, a lament in auctioneer’s jargon for our destroyed spiritual home.
We stood in the searing light of the Arrivals Hall, my official hosts now striding towards me with relieved and eager gestures. I turned the pages of the auctioneer’s text while my companion gave a running commentary. He had many photographs of the village as it was, of the cottages and farms, of people who had lived there. He had collected memorabilia: maps, church guidebooks, local histories. The hall had been bought by an American and taken brick by brick to Virginia. But my companion had rescued some of it – two bricks and a door handle. Yes, he had been there, before the village had been torn down, purchased some bits and pieces from one of the cottages. Nothing amazing, only a few mugs and plates and an old picture. Also the bricks left lying where the Hall had stood. He had letters written to his own great-great-grandfather from the people back home, describing life in the village. Yes, he could claim a distant connection. In so far as he came from anywhere – and the point of Australia is that you come from nowhere – he was a Scrutonian.
‘But of course,’ he added, ‘that’s not what makes you an addict. As you know.’
I didn’t know.
‘You mean that it was a kind of symbol of the old country – England as it was – until the modern world caught up with it?’
‘Naaa!’ he said. ‘Villages like that are two a penny. It’s the name – your name.’
The official welcome party now surrounded me, and it turned out that my companion was a part of it. As we left the airport he walked with us in silence, sometimes smiling at me, as though to remind me of a shared and secret passion.
Returning to England I decided to investigate my right to the Scruton name. I discovered that my grandfather was described on his birth certificate as Lowe, which was his mother’s unmarried name. She had called her illegitimate child Scruton for reasons that she never imparted, being permanently drunk by the time anyone thought to inquire of her. I made up a story that would connect me to that precious document in which an English village – my village – was offered for sale. My grandfather, I put it out, had been conceived in Scruton when my great-grandmother had been in service there. She had drifted to Manchester, pregnant and rejected, in search of support.
This story gave me the kudos of bastardy, the glamour of poverty and a wonderfully succinct family tree. And I discovered another curious fact. The journalist George Gale, who as a young man had looked just like me, with the same crowning disability of bright red hair, revealed that the squires of Scruton Hall, before Mrs M. E. J. A. Coore acquired the right to it, were the Gales, his ancestors: good-for-nothing drunks and womanizers, whose features were replicated all over the Yorkshire dales.
Often, when appalled by the sound of Scruton and tempted by Lowe, I pick up the green auctioneer’s catalogue and turn the pages. And there I read the name Scruton, attached not to a person but to a house, a village and a farm, to cottages and fields and woodlands, to those ancient demesnes where Scrofa shook out his dandruff, and where his descendants ploughed the fields. Scruton becomes united in my imagination to the real, historical England; it seems right then to call myself Scruton, and to be repossessed by my name.
And suppose that I am really Lowe, or rather, to resurrect what I assume to be the original spelling, Löwe. What better nom de plume for a writer of German-Jewish ancestry, whose theme is England, than the name of an old Yorkshire village that has now been razed to the ground?