… préserver la sacralité du pouvoir (Le Figaro, September 10, 2022)
Given that René Girard’s death coincided with Chronicle 500, I found it disturbing that just as I was beginning work on No. 750, the world lost Queen Elizabeth, its most universally respected resident. I won’t speculate as to whose disappearance might precede Chronicle 1000…
Girard played a major role in my professional life, whereas my closest connection with the Queen was learning that my biographee Carole Landis met princess Elizabeth on her USO trip to England in 1942, and later attended her wedding to Prince Philip in November 1947, a few months before her suicide. Girard was defined by his ideas; the Queen was the exemplary embodiment of a public role, one that throughout her life was played out as much on the world’s stage as on that of the United Kingdom.
By the perfection with which Elizabeth performed her queenly duties, rather than merely adding her name to the long list of those who had previously performed them, she became by the force of history the unique and indispensable example of royalty in the sole nation for which, given the circumstances of the last Great War, this example retained a global resonance. There remain of course a number of other European monarchs, in Sweden, Denmark, Holland, Belgium…, but as the last monarchical survivor of WWII, one who served as a young princess in a war effort in which Britain fought for a time alone, Elizabeth provided an model of fortitude that her son Charles, as he demonstrated by his moving speech in her memory, will do his best to emulate.
Elizabeth exemplified an era, ever farther behind us, during which states were governed by hereditary sovereigns rather than elected officials. Yet the unique sense of loss occasioned by her death obliges us to reflect on the world-historical significance of the one person in whom this regal role, as measured by her presence in the attention and affection of the world, was anything but vestigial. To the extent that the Queenship that Elizabeth inherited may have been in danger of sharing the marginality of the other surviving European monarchies, it was by her extraordinary strength of character, demonstrated by her long and faithful devotion to her role as the bearer of the spirit of the English people, that Elizabeth succeeded in maintaining the monarchy intact for her heirs to carry into the 21st century. The question in all minds today is whether Charles III can successfully take her place and pass the role on to his son William and thence to future generations with an expectation of permanence, or whether Elizabeth’s passing is truly the end of an era in which her uniquely long reign and unique ties to the past will have transformed the role of the British crown from a permanent function into an unrepeatable personal history.
But we should not forget that what Elizabeth embodied, and embodies even in death, was not merely the soul, the essence of England, but its uniqueness as the one nation whose soul deserves to be so personified on a world scale. No one would begrudge the sovereigns of other nations their right or duty to incarnate their respective realms, but the asymmetry of Elizabeth’s place in the public imaginary makes comparisons superfluous. That Great Britain is no longer by any means the world’s most powerful nation is all the more reason to seek an explanation for the anomalous position of its Queen.
Alone among the world’s monarchs, Elizabeth was given the opportunity to maintain throughout her long life our sole surviving link with the era of WWII and with England’s heroic role as the lone force of resistance to Hitler in 1939-40. Although the war and its post-colonial aftermath drastically reduced her nation’s power and direct influence, it has retained its timeless role as the exemplary modern nation-state, the model for the USA as well as for the other nations of the Commonwealth. The world-historical task that Elizabeth fulfilled so successfully was to embody this influence at a moment when, having lost its justification in Realpolitik, it could survive only as a historical reminder to accompany its—now exclusively linguistic—hegemony.
Thus the incontestable fact that the Queen’s English has become for all intents and purposes the world’s sole international idiom is in no way a fortuity. It reflects the centrality of what Winston Churchill called “the English-speaking peoples” to Western civilization, as well as to the expansion of this civilization beyond its traditional geographical boundaries—most notably, in the extension to the ends of the earth of “the worst form of government except for all the others” that defines the political norm of modernity.
I dare say that Elizabeth’s unique status, in the memory we will long retain of it, provides us with the most powerful symbol of whatever optimism we are still able to generate concerning this civilization’s future. It is easy to mock Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 declaration of the “end of history,” yet nothing we have witnessed since then, despite all the challenges that the hegemony of Western culture has endured at the hands of proponents of Islamism or socialism with Chinese characteristics, shows any sign of providing a model for the human future superior to the “worst system except…” as defined and defended by the wartime prime minister who was the first to serve in Elizabeth’s reign.
I think that, in a soberly optimistic view, the West’s current malaise should best be understood as reflecting the painful but necessary transition to a truly global future from the centuries of Western superiority in science and technology, centuries during which our civilization was spread, often by less than gentle means, to the rest of the world.
This difficult transition has, no doubt inevitably, engendered the current “post-colonial” reaction in which the West, in its desire to atone for its sins, has imposed upon itself a perverse culture of self-abasement. As a result, we have recently devoted far more energy to spanking the baby who embodies our achievements than to flushing away its remaining bathwater.
But we must hopefully assume that humanity will not follow this path to its logical conclusion of self-annihilation, and that in time, a truly global society will emerge, within which conflicts can be prevented from reaching the montée aux extrêmes against which Clausewitz and Girard have warned us. This world of the future will have been defined by contributions from many nations, but, for the next few generations at least, we must assume that its underlying structure will remain, like its world-language, of British origin. And that among its most privileged human embodiments will continue to be the figure of the sovereign who kept alive through the war, postwar, and post-colonial eras the honor and good humor of the tight little island that stubbornly refused to give in to the forces seeking to destroy it, along with the civilization that it had done so much to build.
I would like to think that Edmund Burke, whose respect for historical continuity was displayed in exemplary fashion in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, would have approved of these reflections on the non-revolution in Britain. In defense of the preservation of the English monarchy, the very fact of its anachronism is its first principle. And even should the monarchy be eventually abolished, its abolition will be of lesser significance than the historical reality of its embodiment, extended beyond the Cold War into our current Time of Troubles, in the person of Queen Elizabeth II.
Elizabeth was given a unique historical opportunity, and she fulfilled it magnificently. Throughout her ninety-six years, she never failed to recognize that her serene and steadfast focus on service to her people and to the example they had set for the world exemplified for all humanity the providential connection between each singular human being and the totality of our species—the prolongation of the connection inaugurated by our distant ancestors who exchanged, in obedience to sacred différance, the first sign.