Back to the future

Let us take a brief moment to laugh, sarcastically, at the idea that freedom consists of obedience to the laws of supply & demand. John Lukacs quotes Wendell Berry: “Rodents & rats live with the laws of supply & demand. Human beings live with the laws of justice & mercy.”

Berry I may never mention again, but to Lukacs I keep returning. The quote is in a diary entry, within a footnote, within a chapter, within the latest but one, of the last books Lukacs has been writing — “waving adieu, adieu, adieu,” through the last quarter century. It is entitled, Last Rites. He is approaching ninety now, & one always fears that his last, last book may be his last. This happens with people: they come & they go.

It was my friend George Jonas who called my attention to Lukacs — “John, not György” — some years ago. Were it not for Jonas, I would hardly know about any Hungarians. Jonas is a “liberal,” but in a sense of that word that died in the 1960s, & is now incomprehensible to anyone not historically learned. We say “1950s liberal,” but that doesn’t really tell us much, beyond the chronological fact that the last throatsome & abdominal wharks of traditional liberalism were heard around 1956. Lukacs is a self-proclaimed “reactionary.” It is typical of an old-fashioned liberal to appreciate an old-fashioned reactionary; & vice versa. But this can hardly matter when we are both dead.

It is typical of contemporary liberals & conservatives to abominate one another. By Lukacs’ account, the Left is governed more by fear, the Right more by hatred, but there is fear in the hatred & hatred in the fear. They are the two faces of contemporary Populism, & may be found in every one of our contemporary democracies across America & Europe, although the flavour of the mutual antipathy varies from, say, USA to Hungary; & for historical reasons.

It is typical of Lukacs to have e.g. little patience for Ronald Reagan: to describe him as a divorced movie actor, who spent World War II in Hollywood, & was sentimental about the armed forces. It was Reagan who began the puerile practice of saluting to soldiers when not himself (thank God) in a military uniform; a practice copied by each subsequent President. This was, let gentle reader understand, an unconscious yet vile extension of the concept of “Commander-in-Chief,” mentioned in a list of presidential powers in Section 2 of Article II of the U.S. Constitution, but not there dwelt upon.

It is typical of Lukacs to mention that when a President now goes abroad, he takes a retinue that would dwarf that of Genghis Khan or Louis XIV. It would be typical of me to add, that the limit of American conservative ambition today is to find “another Reagan.”

And as a parenthesis to this, I have been coming to realize, especially in the time since wandering away from my last extended job as a newspaper pundit, that I made a terrible mistake in aligning myself with contemporary “conservatives” in order to avoid the even worse mistake of aligning with contemporary “liberals.” It was a vulgar error, requiring confession & shame. My apologies to the people of Afghanistan & Iraq. You had enough problems already.

Tocqueville noted that the character of a people is more important than their institutions. Lukacs’ writing on his adoptive America (three score years in one house in greater Philadelphia, outliving two American wives, now married to a third) has focused repeatedly on that character. I alluded to his masterpiece, A Thread of Years, when I last mentioned him (March 3rd). He mentions autobiographically the transformation of the township in which he has lived. Outwardly, it is hardly spectacular. Neither the housing stock, nor the demographic, is much changed. Inwardly, people who once knew each other by name have been replaced by people with no idea about, nor interest in their neighbours; people who will themselves most likely move on to a new location within four or five years.  Outwardly, the institutions have not much changed, either — except for the gradual disappearance of everything that corresponded to “civil society.” The character of the people has changed.

Kierkegaard: “People hardly ever make use of the freedom which they have, for instance, freedom of thought; instead they demand freedom of speech as compensation.”

In the time since he wrote that (1845?) we have considerably extended the domain of “freedom,” to the point where we can now put quotes around that word, too. So much of what Kierkegaard wrote is truer today; so much of the cheap Hegelianism he opposed is even more false, although triumphant. As Lukacs observes, women, blacks, homosexuals, abortionists, & pornographers have all been emancipated, but liberalism itself (in that fine old classical sense) is dead. This is hardly surprising, for as Lukacs also reminds, it is harder to be free than unfree.

On reading his penultimate last, last book (which appeared in 2009: I’m running four years behind the publishing season) I feel able to correct my previous criticism that he is “too Anglophile, too Churchillian.” His successive writings on the duel that took place, between Churchill & Hitler about May 1940 — not the moment when World War II was won, but when, more importantly, it was not lost — makes more sense to me now. Indeed, Churchill makes more sense, in the latest light cast upon him by Lukacs.

We forget that Churchill’s sudden rise to power was almost anti-democratic; that he displaced Lord Halifax in something like a Parliamentary coup; that he was despised not only before, but after taking office. Without him, Britain would almost certainly have negotiated a peace that recognized Hitler’s conquest of Europe. The war was actually won by Roosevelt & Stalin, on the grand logistical principles of modern Total Warfare, requiring the sacrifice of millions. But it was not lost by Churchill, fighting essentially alone.

It was not lost, because the old, deceased, frankly aristocratic (or as Lukacs insists, bourgeois) notion of “character” prevailed, & could still be communicated. Yet it came down to one extraordinary, wilful person. And because it was not lost, by a man whose profoundest commitment was not to “democracy” but to Western Civilization, we are to this day living in circumstances that do not quite approximate to total savagery. To this day we have preserved a few precious options. We have lost, however, our gratitude for them.

Churchill himself was operating beyond the close of the Modern Age (it ended in 1914), but was still essentially of it. He was a man of the 19th century, somehow functioning in the 20th. His accomplishment was more astounding than we realize. Lukacs, ditto, is now functioning in the 21st.

At the front of Last Rites is a very useful demolition of the popular concepts of “subjectivity” & “objectivity.” They cannot be disentangled. No purely selfish nor unselfish position is possible to an inmate of our world. The only position possible is a “personal” one. Nor can “detachment” mean “separation.” There are no innocent bystanders on this planet. “Materialism” & “idealism” are among other false dualities mentioned, that offer some fleeting illusion; we must live with the real. The chapter is a manifesto on the conditions of historical knowledge, which are the conditions of human life. Our history is as imperfect as our own memories, but it is all we have to work with in an evanescent present, towards a future that cannot be conceived. The rest of the book is a good read, but this first chapter, entitled “A Bad Fifteen Minutes,” is the fist in this little comet. It requires very careful mining.

Curiously, it leads forward instead of back, to an even later last, last book that has yet to fall into my hands: The Future of History (2011). From reviews, I gather that Lukacs is directly addressing the collapse of his profession into a miasma of academic fads, relieved by popular escapist “infotainment.” The actual number of history graduates has fallen to less than a quarter of what it once was, & the standards continue to slide. (Yet as Lukacs also knows, there are very bright, self-educated students, who can still get the gist of the discipline, & are not so easily intimidated by “political correction” as the despairing might think.)

A hostile review by the current Regius Professor in the University of Cambridge shows what Lukacs is getting at. Vulgar & fatuous, the reviewer cannot engage with Lukacs except on the level of calling him “a blast from the past.” He proposes to correct the old guy by taking him out for a few beers, & perhaps bringing him up to speed on “gender studies” & the latest Google-search methodologies. We have, in what were the humanities departments of our universities, nearly complete moral & intellectual degeneration. And yet, to my mind, this is beside the point, for none of that can last much longer. Nothing of value is produced, & the fads themselves negate one another. The kids they graduate are totally unsuited to material survival, let alone cognition; & the subsidies are running out.

Lukacs will instead be useful to those trying to rebuild the study of history, as a serious & consequential enterprise. This will require restarting from scratch, in the circumstances created by the actual death of that “Western Civ” we were recalling above, or more precisely of its Modern Age: the one in which this “history” was invented. For as Lukacs understands, the end of it is not something we are living, but something that was lived & is over now.