An Eastern Perspective on the Western Renaissance

In the nineteenth century, the cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt famously characterized the Renaissance as a revival, after a full millennium, of the non-Christian values held by the ancient Greeks and Romans. This was not new, as contemporaries of the Renaissance such as Giorgio Vasari had themselves used “rebirth” as the metaphor of the culture of their time. Vasari (d. 1574) all but dismissed the value of the arts between the rise of a Christian culture in Europe after the conversion of Constantine and the rediscovery of classical art in his own time. But Burckhardt (d. 1897) canonized this interpretation for a modern audience. Henceforth the period of Christian art and culture that flowered for a thousand years was dismissed as the “middle ages” when traditional Christianity obscured the worldly potential of human greatness.

This view is no longer held in its purest form by historians, many of whom have today come to discover the riches of medieval art and culture. But like all great ideas it has cast a lasting shadow over our understanding of the past. Continue reading

The Desiccated Soil of Late-Medieval Western Christendom

The Christendom of the late-medieval west was a soil desiccated of the experience of paradise. Centuries of Roman Catholic piety had enriched this soil with faith in the kingdom of heaven, but not far below the surface there was an aridity that caused longing for a more immediate experience of it. Growing frustration was expressed in the period’s proliferation of mystics, and also in the life work of the man that would unintentionally inspire modern Europeans to depart from Christianity altogether, Francesco Petrarca, or Petrarch (d. 1374). Continue reading

Cultural Revolution

Before the culture wars of contemporary American Christendom, there were the cultural revolutions of Europe’s totalitarian regimes.Lenin1917SovietPoster-3

When Trotsky hurled his “dustbin of history” curse upon those who declined to follow Lenin and the Bolsheviks in establishing a socialist utopia in 1917 (see my previous post), he was not only excoriating political rivals. He was suggesting that the Russian Revolution was about more than politics. It was also about culture, that is, it was about the radical transformation of beliefs and values. Continue reading

A Triumph of Absurdity

While the Wagnerian suicide of Adolf Hitler in 1945 may have been the perfectly consistent end of a modern nihilist (see my previous post), the death of Albert Camus in 1960 was not.

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True, this great French novelist and philosopher–a recipient of the Nobel Prize in 1957–was fascinated with nihilism, and even spent a good part of his early career as an exponent of it. Convinced with fellow existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir that God does not exist, he celebrated the absurdity of human action in the face of its resulting meaninglessness. An early work was The Myth of Sisyphus. For Camus the ancient figure of Sisyphus pushing a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down again–for all eternity–was the ultimate mythos of modern Christendom. For him, Sisyphus was a kind of post-Christian “hero of the absurd.”

Yet far more than his fellow existentialists, Camus was a dynamic thinker. He was never satisfied with his conclusions about the moral dilemmas of the modern west and progressively explored their root problems. This was the case with his fictional account of Nazi totalitarianism, a novel called The Plague. This beautiful book (one of my students once commented after reading it in our course that it made him “proud to be a human being”) took Camus beyond nihilism, back toward the central concerns of traditional Christianity.

Part of his inspiration was, interestingly, a lifelong attraction to Saint Augustine that contradicted his otherwise atheistic convictions. In the novel, evil is absurd, yes, and all-pervasive, but the protagonist’s response to it is not. A physician, he applies the cure of sacrificial love knowing that he can not completely annihilate the evil in this world, but knowing that he can prevent its triumph. Himself an atheist, the protagonist comes in spite of himself (and perhaps in spite of the author) to the remarkably similar conclusions of traditional Christianity. Indeed, some see Camus’s allegory of Nazism as a “proto-Christian” step in his intellectual development.

If so, his next work of fiction–and, alas, his last–went much further. The Fall is a very strange short book about a man who compulsively confesses his sins to a bartender. The man in question is a former judge, and an atheist. Or so he claims. Yet his preoccupation with a great sin he once committed reveals the weakness of his self-proclaimed nihilism, which he associates with Friedrich Nietzsche (who, it might be noted, was one of Hitler’s intellectual heroes). In the case of The Fall, Camus now takes his study of evil–what modern philosophers call theodicy–away from society and government and locates it . . . deep within the heart of the individual.

By this time in his career Camus had been visiting a Roman Catholic monastery off and on and was increasingly drawn to the values of traditional Christianity. It is significant that the sinner in the bar has the given name of Jean-Baptiste–John the Baptist, who once preached a “baptism of repentance.” His family name is also significant–Clamence, similar to “clemency,” or mercy and forgiveness. The problem is, he is an atheist. From whom does he need forgiveness?

Camus’s dynamic and honest struggle to confront the moral and philosophical problems of a post-Christian Christendom did not end with The Fall. Though self-consciously an atheist until the end, he continued to be drawn to the Christian anthropology of Saint Augustine.

Then, one day in 1960 he decided to accept the invitation of a friend to drive him to Paris by car. He would have preferred the train and had even bought himself a ticket. But nevertheless he agreed to drive. Along the way, the car went off the road and slammed into a tree.

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Camus was killed instantly. At only forty six years of age, the restless philosopher who had traveled beyond modern nihilism into the heart of traditional Christianity might very well have gone further. It was a tragic end to a remarkable intellectual journey, and perhaps a truly absurd one as well. They even found the unused train ticket in his pocket.

A Final Lullaby for Hitler

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April, 1945 was not a good month for Hitler or the German nation he ruled. The Third Reich teetered on the brink of collapse and a national catastrophe loomed. As American soldiers fought their way across the Rhine River from the west, the Russians moved inexorably toward a doomed Berlin from the east. Soon the city Hitler had once dreamed of redesigning as a monument to Nazism would be reduced to rubble by the Red Army. Mere boys were conscripted to mount a hopeless defense and young women prepared for the worst at the hands of the approaching conquerors. The atmosphere was simply apocalyptic. And it was in exactly this atmosphere that a symbolic but unnoticed moment in the history of modern Christendom was played out.

Albert Speer, the evil genius of German wartime munitions production and a professional architect–indeed, the very man Hitler chose to give Berlin its modernistic face lift–organized one final, climatic performance of the city’s world-famous philharmonic. The event must have been surreal. He tells of it in his remarkable memoirs, Inside the Third Reich.  I always find myself fascinated by this work, written as it was by a man who looked over Hitler’s shoulder at some of the most important scenes in the history of Nazi Germany (he can be seen immediately to the Fuehrer’s right in the famous photograph taken before the Eiffel Tower after the fall of France).

The musical performance Speer organized as the capital was encircled served as a kind of artistic last will and testament of National Socialism. As such, it provided a kind of swan song or perhaps even final lullaby for the visionary Fuehrer who had now withdrawn underground into his bunker to prepare for the end, brooding over plans to kill himself.

What was Speer’s musical taste for such an occasion? What else could it be? Richard Wagner’s opera Goetterdaemmerung, or Twilight of the Gods. Wagner was, of course, the preeminent composer for Hitler, and the final opera in the series the Ring of the Nibelung contained an ending that was as nihilistic as Hitler’s vision of the world. I will have much to say about Wagner’s place in the history of Christendom in later posts. It is really quite significant. For the moment, it is striking how well the music suited that vision.

In the final scene of the work, the heroine Brunnhilde, who is herself preparing to commit suicide by riding atop the funeral pyre of her lover Siegfried, pauses for a moment to sing softly to her absent father, the impotent god Wotan. In fact she sounds more like a mother singing a bedtime lullaby to her child. “Ruhe, ruhe, du Gott!” she coos, “rest, rest, O god!” And then the ten-minute march toward the destruction of everything begins, as the Rhine River overflows and the palace of the gods, Valhalla, comes crashing down in flames. It is marvelous music, beautiful and stirring and, when put to use by the Nazis, chilling. If any of my readers has never experienced it, one particular good production (with Gwyneth Jones singing the lead) can be watched here. As the smoke rises on stage at the end of the  performance, the scene looks rather like what I expect Berlin did after its fall in 1945. 

“Rest, rest, O god!” These words say quite a bit about modern Christendom. No longer convinced that a heavenly paradise can be attained in this world, no longer hopeful that a secular utopia can be built in its place, the values of twentieth-century Christendom found it difficult to resist nihilism. And in the case of the Nazis, to a horrendous degree.

And what was it like to attend that final concert in the doomed Nazi capital? One account related that when it was over, and the chords of one of modern Germany’s greatest musical compositions gave way to the distant thud of approaching tanks, a Nazi official was standing by to distribute cyanide tablets to Berlin’s true believers as they departed.

Was such a scene inevitable for a culture that had lost its moorings in both paradise and utopia?