Modris Eksteins & Our Fragile Time

On the journey back to Vienna today from Krakow, I re-read one of my favorite books: Rites Of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, a highly acclaimed work by the Latvian Canadian historian Modris Eksteins. I revisited it not only because it’s a great book, but also because I was curious to know if Eksteins’ account of how World War I changed the West shed any light on the question of Western disenchantment. It did, but it gave me even more to think about regarding our own extreme decadence.

Here is Eksteins talking about the role of Serge Diaghilev, the great Russian ballet impresario of the early 20th century:

Diaghilev’s ballet enterprise was both a quest for totality and an instrument of liberation. Perhaps the most sensitive nerve it touched—and this was done deliberately—was that of sexual morality, which was so central a symbol of the established order, especially in the heart of political, economic, and imperial power, western Europe. Again, Diaghilev was simply an heir to a prominent, accumulating tradition. For many intellectuals of the nineteenth century, from Saint-Simon through Feuerbach to Freud, the real origin of “alienation,” estrangement from self, society, and the material world, was sexual. “Pleasure, joy, expands man,” wrote Feuerbach; “trouble suffering, contracts and concentrates him; in suffering man denies the reality of the world.”

The middle classes, in particular, of the Victorian age interpreted pleasure in primarily spiritual and moral rather than physical or sensual terms. Gratification of the senses was suspect, indeed sinful. Will, based on moral fervor, was the essence of successful human endeavor; pure passion, its opposite. That the issue of sexual morality should become vehicle of rebellion against bourgeois values for the modern movement was inevitable. In the art of Gustav Klimt, in the early operas of Richard Strauss, in the plays of Frank Wedekind, in the personal antics of Verlaine, Tchaikovsky, and Wilde, and even in the relaxed morality of the German youth movement, a motif of eroticism dominated the search for newness and change. In the United States Max Eastman shouted, “Lust is sacred!”

The sexual rebel, particularly the homosexual, became a central figure in the imagery of revolt, especially after the ignominious treatment Oscar Wilde received at the hands of the establishment. Of her Bloomsbury circle of gentle rebels Virginia Woolf said, “The word bugger was never far from our lips.” André Gide, after a long struggle with himself, denounced publicly le mensonge des moeurs, the moral lie, and admitted his own predilections. Passion and love, he had concluded, were mutually exclusive. And passion was much purer than love.

The Sexual Revolution actually started in the early 20th century — before the Great War, even. We are only now living through its full ripeness, as the triumph of transgenderism symbolizes the final victory of Luciferian rebellion over the Christian order. Luciferian, because it consciously places the sovereign Self and the Self’s desires over any other principle or person. With transgenderism, it even declares biology null and void when it violates the will of the one who wishes to be liberated from all that is given.

This is the kind of society and culture we now have:

And this, from Grace (Episcopal) Church School’s “Pride Chapel” this past spring in New York:

And you get a society whose authorities cannot bring themselves to speak and act honestly against the public health threat of monkeypox, in part because they don’t want to tell gay men that they cannot be allowed to have orgies. A kink festival went off today in San Francisco, despite that city having declared a public health emergency over monkeypox. Could there be any greater demonstration that the principle Lust Is Sacred has conquered us? That the sexual rebel is now the most sacred figure in the West? I was looking the other day at the major San Francisco sexual health websites, to see how they are advising gay men there to navigate monkeypox. That’s a rabbit hole that I regret going down. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation, for example, has a page dedicated to encouraging men to receive the fists and forearms of their sexual partners anally — and offers tips on how to deal with poop on your hands (if you don’t like that sort of thing, which you might, according to the site).

Fists up the butt. Love wins! You don’t hear about things like that in all the Pride propaganda we get in our media. To be fair, I doubt that any but a minority of gay men participate in that kind of perversion. The fact that this shameful and disgusting behavior is considered a normal enough part of gay male life that the SF AIDS Foundation offers advice and encouragement to engage in it says enough.

The West is lost. So says Viktor Orban, who is trying to keep this culture of death from overtaking his country. But we can’t listen to him, because he speaks incautiously about some things. Seriously, y’all know that I think the Hungarian PM ought not to have said what he did about that bad book Camp Of The Saints, and that he should have been more careful when discussing what he meant by “mixed race,” but the idea that this disqualifies him when he is one of the only Western leaders speaking and acting against this insane decadence that has been embraced by the Western ruling class is idiotic.

I guess I’m worked up about this because I just spent a few days in Poland, in and around Krakow, and it was so great to see a healthy culture, one in which the Christian faith still palpably guided public life. I talked with some adults there who are readers of my book The Benedict Option, which was published a few years ago in Poland. They were telling me that they look with fear and disgust at what’s happening in the West, particularly regarding gender ideology and the colonization of children’s minds, and worry how they can keep it from coming to their country. What a bizarre thing, and even a painful thing, it is to be an American visiting a country that once suffered from Communist captivity, a country where the people under Soviet oppression looked to America as a beacon of hope and liberty, and to now see them afraid of us and what we represent. And they are right to be! I have always been proud of my country, despite its sins and failings. But look, you sit there with Polish parents and try to defend what America has become. If you are a conservative, you can’t.

Anyway, back to Eksteins.

Despite a fascination among the avant-garde with the lower classes, with social outcasts, prostitutes, criminals, and the insane, the interest usually did not stem from a practical concern with social welfare or with a restructuring of society, but from a desire simply to eliminate restrictions on the human personality. The interest in the lower orders was thus more symbolic than practical. The search was for a “morality without sanctions and obligations.”

… The ballet contains and illustrates many of the essential features of the modern revolt: the overt hostility to inherited form; the fascination with primitivism and indeed with anything that contradicts the notion of civilization; the emphasis on vitalism as opposed to rationalism; the perception of existence as continuous flux and a series of relations, not as constants and absolutes; the psychological introspection accompanying the rebellion against social convention.

Re: that first paragraph, this is consonant with what Hannah Arendt said about the origins of totalitarianism: it came in part from a cultural elite who did not care what pillars of civilization they had to knock down in order to affirm the outsiders. Eksteins’s spin is that they welcomed the outcasts precisely for the sake of destroying those pillars, and liberating them from convention. I would say that the convention they hated most of all was sexual restraint. Recall that Philip Rieff, in 1966, already noted that sexual liberation was at the core of the therapeutic revolution, a revolution he said was more consequential than the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 (a bold claim to make in the mid-1960s). Rieff, a secular Jew, said that Christians of his era were blind to the fact that they had already lost the culture, because of the Sexual Revolution. Rieff, a sociologist, said that sexual restraint was close to the center of the Christian cultural matrix; the new sexual culture of the West was a clear sign that Christianity had not held.

As I recall, he didn’t explain what he meant by that, but it’s not that hard to figure out, at least if you are a practicing Christian. Liberal Christians love to say that sexual restraint is only peripheral to the core of the Christian faith; when we say the Creed, for example, we don’t confess the obligation to keep our pants up. They are superficially correct, but no honest reading of the Bible can justify claiming that sexual behavior is peripheral to core Christian concerns. Why does it matter? Well, St. Paul tells us that the body is a “Temple of the Holy Spirit,” and should not be profaned. He tells us what constitutes profanation: sex outside of the Biblical model of marriage. There is no way around this. Plus, from a traditional Christian point of view, the point of the Christian life is not only to achieve salvation in the afterlife, but to bring the material world back into harmony with the cosmos (which is to say, the Logos). What we do with our bodies, and what we do with the material world, is not a matter of indifference to God. Matter matters! Christians who think they can jettison normative Christian sexual morality and still keep Christianity are deceiving themselves.

What is particularly interesting to me about reading Eksteins is that the Great War by itself did not demolish the moral authority of Christendom. That moral authority was already under intense attack. What the Great War did was to justify the critique that the pre-war avant garde was making about the moral bankruptcy of the old order. Eksteins writes at great length about the horrors of the trenches. It reminded me of a visit I made a few years ago to a French farm family living near the battlefields of the Somme. I heard a story about one French officer from their village who returned from combat and found nothing there. Nothing. Only rubble. He couldn’t even figure out where the house in which he had been raised, and still lived, was. Can you imagine going back to normal after that? That war came about under the leadership of men who represented the old order, the established order. To be clear, the war was quite popular among the masses at the beginning. The peoples of Europe did not have clean hands.

Still, the Christian order that supposedly stood for values absolutely inimical to the slaughter of 1914-18 did not prevent it. You’d have to be a knothead not to see how hard it is for ordinary people to hold on to their faith in the old ways after living through something like that. Eksteins:

The soldier had been sustained by social values in which he genuinely believed, but, as we shall see, those values had been subjected to such grievous attack in the course of the war that his attitudes toward society, civilization, and history were indeed irreparably altered.

Eksteins talks about the differences in European national cultures before the war, pointing out that Germany, because of its idealism, was the major spiritual power of the era:

Germany was the revolutionary power of Europe. Located in the center of the continent, she set out to become the leader of Europe, the heart of Europe, as she put it. Germany not only represented the idea of revolution in this war; she backed the forces of revolution everywhere, whatever their ultimate goals. She helped Roger Casement and the Irish nationalists in their struggle against Britain, and she shipped Lenin back to Russia from Switzerland to foment revolution in Petrograd. What was important above all for Germans was the overthrow of the old structures. That was the whole point of the war.

Germany lost the war, but won the culture war.

Here is Eksteins on the central role gay liberation played in the creation of the modern:

None of this is meant to suggest that Germans [of the pre-war, early 20th century] welcomed or were prepared collectively to tolerate homosexuality publicly—they were not—but the relative openness of the movement in Germany does indicate a measure of tolerance not known elsewhere. Moreover, homosexuality and tolerance of it are, as many have suggested, central to the disintegration of constants, to the emancipation of instinct, to the breakdown of “public man,” and indeed to the whole modern aesthetic.

Sexual liberation in fin-de-siècle Germany was not limited to homosexuals. There was a new emphasis in general on Leibeskultur, or body culture, on an appreciation of the human body devoid of social taboos and restrictions; on the liberation of the body from corsets, belts, and brassieres. The youth movement, which flourished after the turn of the century, reveled in a “return to nature” and celebrated a hardly licentious but certainly freer sexuality, which constituted part of its rebellion against an older generation thought to be caught up in repression and hypocrisy. In the 1890s Freikörperkultur, or free body culture—a euphemism for nudism— became part of a health-fad movement that promoted macrobiotic diets, home-grown vegetables, and nature cures. In the arts the rebellion against middle-class mores was even more dramatic: from Frank Wedekind’s Lulu plays, which celebrated the prostitute because she was a rebel, through Strauss’s Salome, who beheaded John the Baptist because he refused to satisfy her lust, to the repressed but obvious sexual undercurrent in Thomas Mann’s early stories, artists used sex to express their disillusionment with contemporary values and priorities and, even more, their belief in a vital and irrepressible energy.

You can see this having manifested itself again in our own time, from the early 1990s till now: the homosexual — and especially the transgender — is key to the final destruction of the old order, the liberation of corporeal instincts, and the total mastery of the desiring individual over all things, even his body. What do you do, though, when you have to rebel against an already-liberal sexual ethos? You ennoble and apotheosize transgenderism, pornography, and kinky sex. The raised fist, a symbol of radical rebellion, must be inserted into the anus.

I know, I know — nobody wants to talk about this, because it’s disgusting. But it’s important, because this is the part of the Narrative that nobody wants to talk about. You might tell yourself that you don’t care what dirty men get up to in dungeons, and I would sympathize with you. There will always be perverted people of all variations of sexual desire, doing disgusting things in private. My point is that this stuff is not only being brought out into public, but also valorized. The people who do these things are now being held up as ideals. We are being compelled to affirm and salute them. It takes visiting a place like Poland or Hungary, places that are a lot like us, but that haven’t yet fallen victim to the Pride cult, to recognize how far, and how fast, we have fallen in the US. I met three men while in Krakow, all Catholics who work for the Polish branch of Western multinationals, who told me that Pride is being pushed hard on Poles by woke corporations. If it weren’t for the fact that LGBTs are the Chosen People in the minds of Western liberals and elites, this would be seen as cultural imperialism. Instead, Westerners see it as part of their mission civilisatrice to educate the Polish barbarians out of their troglodytic Catholicism.

Like I said, just you try to be a conservative American Christian, spend time talking to believing Christians in the former Communist bloc countries of Europe, and attempt to emerge from it with your confidence and pride in your country intact.

I don’t know about you, but I have always struggled to understand modern art. Some early 20th century modern art I like, but for the most part, it alienates me. Reading Eksteins, though, helps me understand why things changed so radically in the arts. For example:

Traditional language and vocabulary were grossly inadequate, it seemed, to describe the trench experience. Words like courage, let alone glory and heroism, with their classical and romantic connotations, simply had no place in any accounts of what made soldiers stay and function in the trenches. Even basic descriptive nouns, like attack, counterattack, sortie, wound, and shelling, had lost all power to capture reality. In October 1916 John Masefield illustrated the problem when, on a visit to the Somme, he sent home some of his impressions of the front. “To say that the ground is ‘ploughed up’ with shells is to talk like a child.” And about the mud—“to call it mud would be misleading.”

We like to think of Nazism as a barbaric phenomenon, which it certainly was. But it was also an advanced modern phenomenon. Eksteins:

National Socialism was yet another offspring of the hybrid that has been the modernist impulse: irrationalism crossed with technicism. Nazism was not just a political movement; it was a cultural eruption. It was not imposed by a few; it developed among many. National Socialism was the apotheosis of a secular idealism that, propelled by a dire sense of existential crisis, lost all trace of humility and modesty—indeed, of reality. Borders and limits became meaningless. In the end this idealism completed its circle, turned upon itself, and became anthropophagous. What began as idealism ended as nihilism. What began as celebration ended as scourge. What began as life ended as death.

Irrationalism crossed with technicism. Over the weekend, in conversation in Poland, I brought out this photo I took at Auschwitz in my 2019 visit there:

Just a boring brick building that looks like every other boring brick building at the death camp. But Block 11 was special. It was where the worst tortures were devised and applied, using advanced technology to make barbarism more efficient. It was the prison-within-the-prison. Next to it was Block 10, where Nazi medical experiments (Dr. Mengele oversaw these) took place. A friend this weekend saw that photo remarked, “There you see the banality of evil.” Yes, the banality of evil — Arendt’s famous phrase describes what we are doing to children in the West today, experimenting on their bodies with cross-sex hormones and surgical interventions. Future generations will look to Britain’s recently-closed Tavistock Clinic with a similar horror that we regard for Block 10 and 11 at Auschwitz. Note well in the United States, these medical interventions on the bodies of children are fully supported at every level of the US Government, by the medical establishment, by the media, and all other authorities. Remember that for the future. It cannot be allowed to go down the memory hole once our culture regains its sanity.

I bring that up to point out that irrationalism crossed with technicism is still alive and well and flourishing. We have progressive educators now colonizing the minds of little children in schools, training them to doubt their own bodies, and to deceive their parents — preparing these children to demand hormones and/or surgeries. Barbarism! Yet Joe Biden calls pushing this Mengelian madness “the civil rights issue of our time.” Know what else has gone down the memory hole? The popularity eugenics had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the most progressive forces in the West. It was only after the Nazis showed where this kind of thing leads that Western elites abandoned eugenics. As the PBS documentary on the American eugenics movement said, “At its peak in the 1920s, the movement was in every way mainstream, packaged as a progressive quest for ‘healthy babies.'”

Finally, I note with alarm this description of the modern sensibility taking hold in Germany:

Nevertheless, all sectors of German society were caught up in the momentum and the centrifugal tendencies of the age. Hence, ironically, as consolidation took place on one level—in the population, industry, and the state structure—disintegration characterized the social, political, and, perhaps most significantly, psychological realms. The upshot was a preoccupation with the administration of life, with technique, to the point where technique became a value and an aesthetic goal, not merely a means to an end.

This is us, is it not? As private life became more disintegrated (morally and psychologically), power became more consolidated in the state and in major institutions, which set out to regulate life. This is precisely the kind of totalitarianism that the contemporary American critic James Poulos foresees with his concept of the “Pink Police State”: a polity in which one is free to have whatever kind of sex, and do whatever kind of drugs, and pursue whatever kind of entertainment, one wants — but one has to surrender one’s political liberties to the state, and to other institutions, which administer life to protect the freedom to pursue individual private vices.

That’s why reading Eksteins in this current moment is so alarming. He’s writing about history, but he’s also writing about what’s happening right now, or so it seems to me. Nazism and Communism appealed to people who rebelled against the established order, and the religion on which it was based. (And please, spare me the whole “but lots of churches embraced Nazism” line; yes, it’s true — sadly and outrageously! — but these churches were no more authentically Christian in their so doing than are the churches today that embrace and celebrate LGBT culture. They stood not for the Christianization of Nazism, but for the Nazification of Christianity; similarly with the LGBT stuff today. No, I’m not saying LGBT ideology is the moral equivalent of Nazism. Only Communism reaches that level. I am rather saying that both are modernist ideologies alien to Christianity, that conquered large sections of Christianity.)

Today, we are even more unmoored than the masses were back then: unmoored from each other, from binding sources of authority outside the Self, from religion, from anything that would restrain us from instinct — except indulging sexual instinct. See, the people who lived under Communism who now, in the West, sense the rise of a new and different form of totalitarianism, are the ones who feel in their bones what we are building. A Polish man I spoke to this weekend said, “It is a soft totalitarianism.” Exactly! I told him, and urged him to pick up a Polish copy of Live Not By Lies.

In that same conversation, the group I was part of talked about how society in both the US and in Poland has changed, moving from one in which social contact was more normal to one in which it seems harder to have the kind of social interaction that previous generations took for normal. Having read Eksteins yesterday, and having read last week the clinical psychologist Matias Desmet’s new book The Psychology of Totalitarianism, about which I’ll do a separate post later today, I am even more anxious about what we are laying the groundwork for. A taste of Desmet:

Social connections were also transformed beyond recognition. The invention of radio and television led to the rise of the mass media and a corresponding decline in direct human interactions with a merely social function. Evening meetings between neighbors, pub gatherings, harvest festivals, rituals, and celebrations—they were progressively replaced by consumption of what the media presented. This seduced us into certain social laziness. It was no longer necessary to make the effort that is required for interaction with fellow human beings.

Yes, exactly. I’m guilty of it too. We have to recognize, though, that it is precisely this kind of alienation from our neighbors that is a prime building block of totalitarianism. If you read The Benedict Option, you will remember that the Czech dissident Vaclav Benda fought totalitarianism in part by gathering neighbors for things like picnics, just to remind them that they were, in fact, neighbors, part of a community, and not mere individual cogs in a machine tended by the state.

Here is Desmet, from a passage about how the Industrial Revolution destroyed traditional social structures:

Although these structures curbed man’s freedom for centuries, or even radically suppressed it, they also offered him a psychological basis and frame of reference. They gave him rules and laws, commandments and prohibitions, boundaries to his lusts and urges, well-defined objects of anxiety, frustration, and anger. Their disappearance left man confused, in the darkness of his own existence; haunted by existential anxiety and unease that could not be identified. As we will see in chapter 6, this unfettered anxiety plays a crucial role in mass formation and totalitarianism.

Yep, this is us today, too. You alienate a young person from his body, from his family, from his religion, from traditions, and from his community, and make him dependent on pharmaceutical companies and the constant supervision by the state, you have created a perfect totalitarian subject. More on this later.

I began this post with Serge Diaghilev, and have illustrated it with a painted image of him. Diaghilev really was a genius. But here, in this passage from Live Not By Lies, I quote him as a foolish progressive. He sounds very, very of the current moment, does he not?

In 1905, Moscow high society gave a banquet in honor of the Russian arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow. Diaghilev had recently curated an epic Saint Petersburg exhibition of portraits he had selected on an exhaustive tour of private homes of the wealthy. The dinner was to celebrate his success. Diaghilev knew that Russia was on the precipice of something big. He rose and delivered this toast:

We are witnesses of the greatest moment of summing-up in history, in the name of a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us, and which will also sweep us away. That is why, without fear or misgiving, I raise my glass to the ruined walls of the beautiful palaces, as well as to the new commandments of a new aesthetic. The only wish that I, an incorrigible sensualist, can express, is that the forthcoming struggle should not damage the amenities of life, and that the death should be as beautiful and as illuminating as the resurrection.

What Russia’s young artists, intellectuals, and cultural elite hoped for and expected was the end of autocracy, class division, and religion, and the advent of a world of liberalism, equality, and secularism. What they got instead was dictatorship, gulags, and the extermination of free speech and expression.

Within a decade, the war that all but destroyed Western civilization was underway. Thirteen years after Diaghilev spoke those words, came the revolution that prevented him from returning to Russia (he died in European exile). A generation past that Moscow banquet, Nazism and Stalinism arose out of modernity. The “new and unknown culture” did sweep away much. So too will what is coming to us, and for which we are clearing the path.

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