Saturday, October 21, 2006

Distant Mirrors

For obvious reasons, Virgil’s Aeneid is especially revered in Rome, for it is the story of the Trojan warrior who fled the burning citadel of Troy and, after many wanderings and arduous struggles, finally established the Italian foundations for what was to become the Roman civilization which Virgil had been commissioned to celebrate. There are many artistic depictions of one of the poem’s most riveting scenes: Aeneas, his small son Ascanius at his side, emerging from the flames of Troy carrying his father Anchises on his back, the old man clutching the household gods on whose protection he relies. In the pandemonium, Aeneas has been separated from his wife Creusa, who died in the Trojan conflagration.

Surely the most famous rendition of this poignant scene is the magnificent sculpture by Bernini, who captured the impact of the Trojan catastrophe at both the personal and cultural level. “Pious Aeneas” struggles to protect those he loves and to salvage what he can of a culture now overrun by its exultant conquerors, drunk with their victory.

As Liz and I stood before this exquisite masterpiece in the Borghese Gallery, it was difficult not to muse on its contemporary relevance. Ours is an age of refugees, many driven from their homes by violence and deprivation. But of course Aeneas was not a helpless peasant; he was a Trojan prince and warrior. Like so many people in history, he never imagined that his great culture could succumb to its enemies.

Whenever one comes upon an artistic representation of Aeneas’ flight from Troy in a European gallery, one is very likely only a few steps away from another familiar artistic subject: a painting, sculpture, or bas relief of some famous battle at which Christian Europe has repelled an invading Islamic army or navy, narrowly avoiding Aeneas’ fate. The sheer number of such paintings is especially striking to an American tourist. The battles they depict began within just a few decades of the founding of Islam. Muhammad’s farewell address had commanded: “fight all men until they say, ‘There is no god but Allah,’” and his followers lost little time in carrying out his command.

After the early 8th century Moorish victories on the Iberian peninsula, resulting in a 700 year Islamic domination, Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees only to be repelled at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 by Charles Martel, a victory which some historians regard as the single most important event in European history. (The single most important event in European history, of course, didn’t happen in Europe; it happened outside the walls of Jerusalem circa 30-40 A.D., but leaving that aside for the moment, the Battle of Poitiers looms large indeed in European history.) Had the battle gone the other way, Europe would almost certainly have become an Muslim society, and very likely remained so. Below is Charles de Steuben’s rendition of the battle that prevented this from happening.

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And then there is the Battle of Ostia, a naval battle fought in 849, depicted on a fresco by Raphael in the Vatican’s Stanza dell'incendio del Borgo.

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And then there is the Siege of Vienna in 1529, here in a painting by Pieter Snayers the 17th century Flemish painter.

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And then, of course, there is the famous naval Battle of Lepanto, in 1571, celebrated as the miraculous deliverance of Europe from what many feared would be the decisive Islamic invasion, rendered here by an unknown artist.

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The victory at Lepanto was accompanied by the liberation of the Christian slaves who were chained to their oars in the galleys of the Turkish fleet.
G. K. Chesterton alluded to this liberation of Christian slaves in his famous poem Lepanto. Here are a few relevant lines:
And above the ships are palaces of brown, black-bearded chiefs,
And below the ships are prisons, where with multitudinous griefs,
Christian captives sick and sunless, all a labouring race repines
Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.
Ten years ago, one would have concluded this chronicle of Islamic incursions into Christian Europe by drawing a line under it and saying something like: “And finally there was the decisive Battle of Vienna, September 11, 1683 (below), at which the Polish cavalry under Jan Sobieski defeated the Turks at the gates of Vienna.” The collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War would have been further evidence that this centuries-old threat to Europe and the “West” had been superseded by perils more recognizable to those trained in the presuppositions of the European Enlightenment.

But, alas, the word “finally” may no longer be apt. On the 318th anniversary of the day the Battle of Vienna began the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were destroyed in what may well appear in historical hindsight as the beginning of a new Islamic offensive, one that the West cannot fathom because it is not animated by the materialist motives secular Westerners have come to believe drive history.

This, oddly, brings us back to the Bernini marble and the destruction of Troy. For, in Shakespeare’s rendition at least, the fall of Troy was due as much to the reckless self-indulgence of the Trojan princes and the feckless folly of the Trojan elders as to the ferocity and cunning of the conquering Greeks. The Trojan catastrophe that ended with the Greek warriors spilling out of the Trojan horse to destroy Troy from within began with lust born of a vulgar mimetic triangle: Paris, Menelaus, and Helen.

As he did in so many of his later plays, Shakespeare, in his The Rape of Lucrece, saw the looming Trojan conflagration in the little spark of mimetically enkindled lust that ignited it:
Thy heat of lust, fond Paris, did incur
This load of wrath that burning Troy doth bear:
Thy eye kindled the fire that burneth here;
And here in Troy, for trespass of thine eye,
The sire, the son, the dame, and daughter die . . .
. . . one man’s lust these many lives confounds:
Had doting Priam check’d his son’s desire,
Troy had been bright with fame and not with fire.
Might the link between the mimetic crisis exemplified by Paris’ lust and the Trojans shock at finding their bitterest enemies armed and raging in their midst have a contemporary analogue?

We live in the waning days of the revolutions of 1968, when a disenchanted Marxism and an exhausted Freudianism fell into a carnal embrace, giving birth to a libertine Left as philosophically vacuous as it was politically reckless, unified only by its aversion to social conventions and the Judeo-Christian tradition that helped form them. Doting Priam did virtually nothing, as the children of this coupling, myself among them, stumbled into an anthropological experiment, the failures of which were thought to be due to the insufficient application of the ideological zeal that caused them. Slowly but surely, as the class of 1968 (so to speak) took control of one after another of the most important cultural institutions – the university, the churches, the media – the moral imagination of whole generations of the young began to be shaped by a naïve nihilism, most of whose proponents were too naïve even to realize how nihilistic their project was. (A glance at primetime television is proof enough.)

By the time its ideological pedigree had lost all its luster, the project had morphed into a moral relativism expressed in the comforting vocabulary of inclusion and multicultural sensitivity. In Europe especially, but on this side of the Atlantic as well, single-minded radical Islam has been able to cut through this moral muddle like a hot knife through butter – playing along with it when it’s convenient and mocking it when it isn’t. As Bruce Thorton put it, Europeans “through a neurotic nexus of spiritual exhaustion, colonial guilt, and multicultural sentimentalism, allowed Muslim immigrants to preach a virulent hatred of the West in schools and mosques frequently subsidized by state welfare payments.” This is today’s Trojan Horse, just as the feral, libertine politics of the secular Left is the analogue for the dalliances of Paris and Helen and the doting of old king Priam.

European society, having chosen a few decades ago to forgo the inconveniences and expense of childbearing and the family-fostering social commitments once considered culturally indispensable in favor of a reckless experiment in sexual normlessness, suddenly awoke to the fact that it takes 25 years to produce a generation of 25-year-olds, without whose participation in the labor force and tax base the social welfare programs to which most Europeans feel entitled would vanish. Under the circumstances, the aging European population turned to immigrants from largely Muslim societies. Both because beggars can’t be choosers and because it flattered the European self-estimation as broadminded multiculturalists, the newcomers were in no way encouraged to adopt and adapt to their host culture. On the contrary, a strong current of multicultural sentiment among the European elite regards the history of the West as something for which nothing but apologies are in order. Not surprisingly, sharing this Western self-loathing with the new arrivals from Muslim lands only reinforced what they had been taught in their Wahhabi schools, further convincing them of the validity of the other elements of the Wahhabi worldview.

How fitting an epitaph might those two lines of Shakespeare’s poem one day be for the cultural dissolution over which Europe’s 1968 generation (my generation) has presided:
Had doting Priam check’d his son’s desire,
Troy had been bright with fame and not with fire.
Theodore Dalrymple is a physician who worked for many years in British prisons and among the most unfortunate in British society. He now lives in France. Here’s how he described the European situation in a recent article in the Claremont Review:
They have either forgotten what it is to believe in anything, to such an extent that they cannot really believe that anyone else believes in anything, either; or their memories of belief are of belief in something so horrible -- Communism, for example, or Nazism -- that they no longer believe that they have the right to pass judgment on anything. This is not a strong position from which to fight people who, by their own admission, hate you and are bent upon your destruction ...
Many of today’s clear-headed observers have begun to break the silence and suggest that Europe -- led by the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, England and France -- is drifting toward the stark choice between slow Islamization and civil war, or perhaps some very unpleasant combination of the two. One would very much like to believe that this is not the case, but events in Europe are far from reassuring, most distressing among them: the revival of forms of anti-Semitism to which both ends of the political spectrum have been willing to accommodate, and which is the mother's milk of jihadist Islam.

Meanwhile, perhaps the single greatest cause for hope in Europe today is something that occurred on April 19, 2005 when Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, newly elected pope, chose St. Benedict as his pontifical patron. Benedict is the patron saint of Europe, the founder of the monastic order that preserved faith and learning through what is often called the Dark Ages. In choosing the name Benedict, the new pope signaled the priority the Church under his leadership would give to the European crisis. Determined not to forsake the continent in its hour of need, it is clear that Benedict will lead an effort to reawaken the Christian faith that made Europe what it once was and thereby to slowly revive its cultural self-confidence and historical hope.

Pope Benedict’s Regensburg University lecture, which has become so pivotal, was delivered on September 12th, the 318th anniversary of the day the day the Turks were turned back from the gates of Vienna. With consummate timing, impeccable scholarly finesse, and more charity than those who failed to read his lecture imagined, the pope that day broke the silence with a word of truth and candor, sending a message to both his interreligious dialogue partners and his fellow heirs of Western culture that the future of Europe and the West depends first and foremost on its commitment to truth and the courage of those willing to speak it.

My father, who was killed fighting the last great outbreak of anti-semitic barbarism, was born on this day in 1913. May he rest in peace.


Athos said...

Gil, I, too, puzzle over why forlorn old Christendom has chosen to cut off its Christian faith to spite its face when it only has to look in the mirror to see its ancestry. But, alarmingly, it also seems content to shorn itself of progeny, assuring cultural suicide as you, Mark Steyn and others continue to warn. If it weren't for immigrants, the United States would be heading in a similar demographic direction.

Can mimetic theory and/or that superb sociological gift, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, give us insight and motivation to avoid the utter diminution of a culture based on the faith of fishermen? Or can these vital intepretive instruments even be heard in the din of diversions, entertainment and trips to the mall?

R. V. Young points out something worthy of note in the most recent St. Austin Review:

"Pride [superbia], according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the gravest of sins 'because in other sins a man turns away from God either on account of ignorance or weakness or a desire for some other good thing, but pride holds an aversion to God as such insofar as it does not wish to be subject to God or to his rule'."

Young recounts the constant reminders of our western ancestors of the realities of life and death: infant mortality, maternal mortality, lack of ways of staving off infection if serious hurt; in short, what was called "the imbecility of our [human] nature."

Today, however, Young says, "we smell so fine, and have such white teeth -- how can we be foul sinners in constant need of grace?"

You said somewhere, if we refuse to be creatures, we will try to be the creator usually with a pagan deity's attributes: eternal youth, immortality, and all the rest.

Having (and raising) children, like faith in the God revealed by Jesus, is a reminder of my mortality and creatureliness. Children limit my freedom and "individuality". Children crimp my style.

In short, the fall of the West is as ancient wisdom has long noted, preceded by pride.

Just a thought.

rich said...

Great insight. Oh how I wish leadership in the West had wisdom and courage sufficient to their great and historic task.


Mark Gordon said...

One of the reasons that I've been so committed to the success of the Gil's work is that it "emphasizes the anthropological uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the unparalleled historical significance of the Christian Gospel." Once that uniqueness is made plain, the realization of its profound truth follows ineluctably. This truth becomes transformative by first permeating the personal and psychological condition of the hearer; providing, in short, a powerful key to understanding one's own sinful desires and motives. But it soon moves on to recreate one's perception of all things, including the meta-dimension of human experience we call "history."

In my opinion, the only thing capable of blunting the "hot knife" of radical Islam is a renewal of the Faith and the Church that bears it through history. And, it seems to me, athe Anthropology of the Cross is the key to that renewal. The dimensions of this project - and the implications of its failure - are enormous.