If we truly believe in the ultimate salvageability of Western and of human civilization, we have to be able to “get to the bottom” of problems in order to face them effectively. The ever-festering race problem in the US, whose echo in Europe demonstrates that it is a problem of the West in general and not simply of the American experience with slavery that tends to serve as its catalyst, has demonstrated the potential of an unchecked faith in our “sense of (in)justice” to provide an inexhaustible pretext for the unraveling of liberal-democratic institutions, no longer countered by even the haziest concept of the social order (“socialism”) to be put in its place. This is not a defect but a feature of today’s radicalism.
My use of the term “victimary,” which translates the French victimaire, irritates some people because they cannot bear to see the word victim used in a sense in any way pejorative. This moral inversion is central to Christianity (“the last shall be the first”), and was no doubt the principal source of its original attraction as an “other-worldly” religion that refused to endorse, if not passively accept, the hierarchies of “this world.” This antinomian element, in a rich dialectic with the acceptance of secular power (“render unto Caesar…”), unleashed over two millennia the social and intellectual creativity that enabled the West to become by the 19th century the world’s unrivaled center of intellectual, political, economic, and military power.
Had Islam, Christianity’s rival for over half of this period, and which has been seeking to renew that rivalry on various fronts today, been the victor in its various attempts to subdue the Christian world, no “victimary” problem would exist. The victory of Islam would simply have demonstrated what its believers already knew, the will of Allah that all the world share its submission to him. And until its final defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683, Islam’s unselfconscious assertion of its unique truth seemed to have a good chance of conquering the Western world, always at least partially divided between church and state.
But Christianity won out, although there was plenty of science and “civilization” in medieval Islam, because the dialectic of the revealed and the hidden, reality and appearance, matter and spirit, which permits the mechanisms of human thought to discover the unapparent structures of reality, is better served by Christian paradoxicality, which owes a great deal to its Hebrew sources, than by a culture that demands utter submission to the “uncreated” word of Allah.
Yet the 20th century’s hot and cold wars between what could still be called the Christian West and the post-Christian (not non-Christian) totalitarianisms of Germany and the USSR, while the rest of the world appeared incapable of contributing usefully to modernity, seemed not unreasonably at their termination in 1989-91 to herald the “end of history,” not in metaphysical but in practical terms. What seemed demonstrated was the triumph of liberal democracy as the only system compatible with a modern economy grounded in ever-evolving science and technology. The end of racial segregation and colonialism in previous decades now seemed to herald an era of universal progress, with the concomitant reduction of international rivalries to manageable economic and secondary geographical conflicts—for which international bodies like the UN would provide helpful mediation.
Today, China has come to present an unanticipated challenge at the same time political, economic, and military. Yet it is difficult to see this challenge as somehow at the origin of the West’s increasing inability simply to keep order in its cities and in its souls. The recent mob unrest that has been a magnet for the generalized malaise of resentment rather than the product of well-defined grievances could not have begun, let alone persisted, without the active complicity of the authorities against whom the mob is purportedly rebelling. China may have provided, presumably accidentally, the virus that has served as the catalyst for this development, but it is difficult to believe that even the Machiavellian genius of Xi Jinping could in any way have anticipated or planned it.
In any case, unlike with Trump’s victory in 2016, no one so far has claimed a role for hostile powers in the shameful passivity of this nation and much of the West in the face of the current wave of amateur and semi-professional thuggery, however much it has profited from generous funding sources and Internet connections.
The post-Christian category of the victimary that explains the West’s self-destructive behavior is well exemplified by the fact that today’s Christian leaders, as represented by the Archbishop of Canterbury (see https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/27/uk/justin-welby-jesus-scli-intl-gbr/index.html ), are more concerned with whether Jesus should be represented as “white” than with anything he said or did. And yet the attitude that gives rise to such thinking is a distant consequence of Jesus’ doctrine—concerning his ultimate complicity with which I would not presume to speculate.
Be that as it may, Lars van Trier’s brilliant satire Dogville (2003), starring Nicole Kidman as “Grace,” aka Jesus, seems an increasingly accurate prophecy of the West’s current abjectness. Viewers of the film will recall how it ends—and how satisfying this ending is to the spectator who has witnessed poor Grace’s prolonged mistreatment at the hands of the humanity to whom she has sought to bring her Father’s message.
Today it seems that all that remains of Christianity in Western society is an increasingly groveling respect for “victims.” But the lower the high sink, the less their sinking is respected. Removing the statues of Andrew Jackson from the Jackson County courthouse in Missouri and the name of Woodrow Wilson from buildings at Princeton and from his fellowship foundation (I was once proud to be a 1960 WW Fellow) is diametrically opposed to the Pope washing the feet of the poor at the Holy Thursday ceremony, or Father Zossima bowing to the “great sinner” Dmitri Karamazov. It is cultural self-abasement, not humility, and merits only contempt. And indeed, this contempt is its real purpose—contempt for the United States of America, and for “white” Judeo-Christian Western civilization.
As Dostoevsky said in the same context, if God does not exist, everything is permissible. Those who thought that a kind of Spinozist Deus sive natura could suffice were unaware of the transcendence expressed by the sign at the moment of human origin, which, whether or not figured as a “personal” god, cannot be understood or experienced by us as a natural phenomenon.
L’homme possède ou un Dieu ou une idole, the epigraph to Girard’s Mensonge romantique (see Chronicle 663), remains pertinent. Generative anthropology assimilates divine intentionality to that of the emergent human community, but to dismiss it as an implicit potentiality of the material universe is an empty tautology—on a par with the philosophers’ faith that mathematics, and propositional language as well, “existed” from the beginning of time, awaiting their “discovery” by members of our species.
In the works discussed in The Scenic Imagination (2007), beginning with Hobbes’ “social contract” with the Leviathan, the central figure is not a victim but a sovereign. Since the institution of the big-man, whether or not it came about as Marshall Sahlins described it in Stone Age Economics, the stability of the social order has depended on that of its central authority, understood as the institutional focus of the community’s love and resentment.
In the US today, the fact that a large segment of the opposition party has been in principle disloyal to the current president since even before he took office, using the term resistance and seeking from the outset a reason for his impeachment—“impeach the M…F…,” as a Congresswoman colorfully put it—is surely unique in American history. Yet this extraordinary attitude, shared by the mass media and most of the nation’s elites, is treated by them as just par for the course. No doubt the opportunity for political disloyalty is a prized American value; one knows how far one would get with an “impeach Putin” campaign. But the shamelessly outrageous “resistance” to Trump has gone far over the line—to the point where the Speaker of the House, third in line for the presidency, feels free to publicly tear up his speech at the end of an official State of the Union ceremony.
There are few signs that this seditious spirit will be in any way diminished by the results of the upcoming election. If Trump wins reelection, things will continue in the same vein; if the Democrats win, they will consider their victory as not a normal succession, but the restoration of legitimacy after a usurpation—which they will make every effort to insure will not be repeated.
There is in all this an air of unreality, as of little children performing mock-outrageous acts because they know that Daddy and Mommy will always be there to provide for them. I do not agree with those who explain the grovelers’ actions by fear. Their only “fear” is a metaphysical one; that somehow their “white privilege,” which derives from the hegemony that Western culture has exercised over the world during the past few centuries, can no longer be justified. Our world has sown the seeds of its own destruction, yet without arousing any real sense of oppression such as may be said to have motivated the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Daddy and Mommy are still there for those who cry “burn it down!”
Although the epistemology of resentment experiences all hierarchy as oppression, its basis is simply difference. No “theory of justice” can justify to our deepest human sentiment of moral reciprocity—being “created equal”—one person’s having more than, or authority over, his neighbor, even if he benefit the community a million times more. Only a central authority sanctioned by the transcendent unity of the human community can provide such justification. As one of those old enough to have celebrated our victory in WWII, I find it shocking to observe that respect for such authority is no longer forthcoming.
A Happy Ending?
We might explain the unanticipated permeability of the institutional fabric of digital modernity to the venerable hydra of “socialism,” with its endless capacity for growing new heads as the failed ones drop off, as a by-product of the vast new terrain for resentment opened up by the social media. But to explain is not to remedy the situation. Breakdowns of democracy since before Aristotle’s Politics have generally been followed by tyranny, which in the present case would mean the tyranny of the mob, our “forces of order” having shown themselves fearful of doing its participants even the least injury. Yet we may still hope that, as in the past, the “pendulum” of democracy will swing in the other direction.
Meanwhile, whether or not we are fated to fall before long under China’s economic and/or political hegemony, we can at least be assured that, at the very least, the greatest works of Western music—the structural summit of Western, and of human, order in the cultural domain, today studied and played far more assiduously in China than here—will be lovingly preserved.
As assurance of this, and to compensate for the ennui of these lamentations, I offer, courtesy of “Spengler” (David P. Goldman), our most erudite pundit as well as a trained musician, one among many of the beautiful musical performances of Yuja Wang available on YouTube—where watching her is at least half the pleasure. Wang has spanned virtually the entire classical repertoire, from Bach to Bartok and Shostakovitch (and Gershwin), and revels in the “impossible” concerti of Prokofiev. Spengler’s superlative evaluation cannot be dismissed, and I would not dissent from those who describe Wang, still only 33, as one of the great piano virtuosos of all time.
Spengler’s assessment of her talents can be found here (the reader may wish to ignore the somewhat forced comparison with Milo Yiannopoulos), and the performance of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata (Op. 106) that Spengler comments on in detail is here.
Ms. Wang is indeed lovely to look at, and takes advantage of this with her daring costumes, but for me, the loveliest moments of her performance are those that just show her fingers on the keys. Of all the performers I have ever seen, she is the one whose relationship to the keyboard is most fully symbiotic. There is no rhetoric in her fingering, only a confident intimacy. Nor can anyone fail to be moved by her obvious joy in performing and in sharing her enthusiasm with the audience. (I take Spengler’s anomalous description of Wang as “cold and impish” as describing not her, but the unique insight into Beethoven’s “demonic” music embodied in her performance.)
I cannot imagine anyone like Yuja Wang in Nazi Germany or in Stalin’s USSR—let alone in Mao’s China, where lovers of Western music were beaten and killed by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Her very existence is a ray of hope for the future.
To watch and hear Yuja Wang play the piano, even with YouTube’s low-fi audio, is a uniquely moving experience. It inspires the spectator with pride in belonging to the human race, whose uniqueness is, after all, defined by the sharing of signs. This process can arguably be said to have reached its highest degree of sensual intensity in these works, whose subtleties Wang’s performances so powerfully reveal to us. One may be fairly certain that the human mind will never conceive, nor the human body make available to our senses, more beautifully complex structures of tension and resolution—of love transcending resentment.