Books in Little
Although much ink has been spilled analyzing the mundanity and pessimism of modernist literature, the broader ethical perspective of modernism’s conception of human nature is often overlooked. Oser’s erudite research examines “the modernist moral project,” which he defines as the “effort to transform human nature through the use of art.” Since for Yeats, Eliot, Joyce, Woolf, and Beckett “ethics is itself a form of aesthetics,” they create art to improve civilization itself through “the power of structuring emotion and disciplining mankind.”
For his critique of modernism, Oser adopts an Aristotelian view of human nature, which, in sharp contrast to the modernist emphasis on the mask, emphasizes the integration of the soul with the body and of the individual with his community. As a result he insightfully discerns, for example, Yeats’s inability to subordinate matter to the artistic mind; the frailty of the moral imagination that Joyce seeks to develop in Ulysses; and Eliot’s struggle to overcome his distinction between mind and body through religion in his later work. Ultimately, Beckett, late to arrive on the modernist scene, “turns the modernist moral project on its head” by his rejection of aesthetics.
Oser concludes by provocatively placing the modernist moral project in the broader context of the early twentieth century’s gravitation toward technology and eugenics. This project “fuses nature and art—ethics and aesthetics—into a technology of the void, a cosmic process that forgets humankind.” Today certain ethical and scientific theories, finding their origin in modernist literature and poetry, aim to reach this same goal through which “art revises the cosmic order, by usurping the function and authority of religion.” Readers interested in the philosophical and cultural impact of modernism will be captivated by Oser’s profound reading of these seminal writers.
Russell Kirk writes fondly in his memoirs of the House of Habsburg and its central European monarchy. In this intimate biography of Emperor Karl and Empress Zita, the Bogles sympathetically recount the beautiful yet afflicted lives of the final Habsburg rulers of Austria-Hungary while exceeding Kirk in their criticism of the Allies’ treatment of the Emperor both during and after the Great War.
The Bogles describe the early life of Karl, the grand-nephew of Emperor Franz Josef, and Zita, princess of the House of Bourbon-Parma, in the context of Old Europe and the lost world of European royalty. The two were raised in deeply religious households, from which they derived their devout Catholic piety and their intense duty to their subjects. When Karl assumed the crown in late 1916, he “saw the crown as an obligation and a solemn responsibility under God, rather than as a worldly opportunity.” Succeeding to the throne in the midst of Word War I, Karl immediately sought peace internationally while attempting to reconstitute his empire as a group of federated, self-governing states united under the crown. Although Karl earned the nickname of “Friedenskaiser,” “Peace Emperor,” for his magnanimous peace efforts, his generous concessions were rebuffed by his ally Kaiser Wilhelm and by the Entente powers. The Bogles excoriate the Entente leaders for their shortsightedness and ideological opposition to monarchy: this caused the needless slaughter of one million more soldiers in 1918 and prevented the reestablishment of Karl’s rule, the latter causing a “moral and political vacuum” to be filled first by Nazism and then by Communism.
In exile Karl and his family maintained their dignity and religious faith through his premature death in 1922. Although the conclusion is dated despite the recent reprinting, the Bogles compellingly illuminate the life of “a tragic figure overwhelmed by events.”
Dalrymple’s book creatively challenges the reigning orthodoxies of “keeping an open mind” and “deciding for oneself” when making decisions. Such Cartesian perspectives serve “to cast doubt on everything, and thereby increase the scope of personal license.” By destroying prejudice, particularly the prejudices toward authority and the wisdom of the past, one is then free “to become a fully autonomous moral agent.”
Dalrymple impugns this viewpoint through simple logic, witty analysis, and insights from his long career as a psychiatrist working with the poor and with prisoners. Prejudice results from the necessity of judgment between what is good and bad, beautiful and ugly. He argues that while some prejudices are harmful and have justified many horrible atrocities, it does not follow that all prejudices must be discarded. Reformers who seek to prevent future catastrophes by eliminating prejudice cannot succeed: “To overturn a prejudice is not to destroy prejudice as such. It is rather to inculcate another prejudice.” It is impossible, despite the claim of reformers, to “go out into the world each morning with a freshly minted mind, a tabula rasa, from which all previous knowledge and experience of people and things have been eliminated.”
Correct prejudices, often passed down from previous ages, guide human decisions from the youngest ages; for instance, it “is from social prejudice that one learns social virtue.” Dalrymple concludes that proper judgment discerns which prejudices should be maintained or abandoned: “Prejudices are like friendships: they should be kept in good repair.” Dalrymple’s stimulating approach to combating modern ideology provides the reader a unique perspective into a contemporary quandary.
This diagnostic book of essays and letters, born from coinciding lectures of the future pope and the former president of the Italian Senate, deeply probes Europe’s past and present to identify the roots of the Continent’s current malaise and suggests possibilities for saving it from self-inflicted perdition.
Pera, a secularist and atheist, asserts that “Christianity has been the greatest force in Western history,” but relativism and an extreme self-guilt have paralyzed the West. As a result Europe refuses to recognize the greatness of its own culture, a potentially fatal flaw as it confronts a renewed Islamic threat. Europe must realize “that a war has indeed been declared on the West” by Islamic terrorists, but to do so it first must rise from its “capitulation” that relativism has caused. Ratzinger, who traces the spiritual origins of Europe in his essay, arrives at an identical conclusion: “Europe seems hollow, as if it were internally paralyzed by a failure of its circulatory system that is endangering its life.” Adopting Toynbee’s view, Ratzinger argues that Christianity must be reintroduced as an antidote to secularism through the positive witness of Christian believers living as “creative minorities” within society.
These two essays are followed by personal letters between the two thinkers in which they speculate over Europe’s future. Pera asks Ratzinger how secularists can participate in a Christian society and whether a non-denominational civil Christian religion can exist in Catholic Europe. First, Ratzinger responds by calling for a new openness between secularists, whom he calls “seekers,” and believers, since both groups pursue the truth. Second, “a civil religion that truly has the moral force to sustain all people presupposes the existence of convinced minorities” who believe Christian truths and live them “in a manner that is also convincing to others.” Readers interested in Europe’s past, present, and future will profit immensely from the brilliant analyses and reasoned suggestions of these two profound thinkers.
—David G. Bonagura, Jr.
Posted: September 7, 2008
What We’re Reading (Summer 2015)