Friday, August 12, 2011

The Dry Well.

Whittaker Chambers was both religious and conservative in his youth. In Cold Friday he describes his experience of Columbia University in transforming his outlook on life.[Ed:I've edited some of it for brevity]
It was in the fall of 1920 that I made my way along 116th Street to my first class. Belatedly and reluctantly, I was doing what was expected of every bright youth of my age and class: at last I was going to college. It would have been much more realistic to say that I was stepping across what my geology instructor would soon teach me to call a line of fault-the line along which the seeming-solid surface of the earth was secretly cracked and under pressures and stresses beyond our sight or  knowledge would one day, in a twinkling, tear apart, upheave or sink, engulfing cities whole in that readjustment of physical reality that we call an earthquake. Only this line of fault did not run invisibly under our feet. It flawed the whole structure of civilization. Two years before, the first four-year shock [Ed:World War 1]had ended after leveling Europe to a ruin that could not be measured merely by its physical wreckage. For the ruin took place in men's souls before it was made visible in the rubble of cities.

In the crisis of the twentieth century neither Harvard nor Columbia could be other than what it was-a citadel of the mind swaying in the vertigo of a civilization changing (without admitting it) the basis of its faith from a two thousand-year-old Christian culture to the new secular and scientific culture. That is to say, changing the nature of its organism. This change Nietzsche heralded and in part prescribed. To it he gave a useful term: the transvaluation of all values, which is the pedagogue's way of saying that the change was a change in the moral, religious, and intellectual organism of Western civilization. In that revolution (of which Communism, socialism, and related forms are only logical political developments), Western civilization slowly and only half-consciously, and by a process reaching much farther back in time than it is common to suppose, rejected its two thousand year-old Christian faith, which placed God at the center of man's hope, in favor of a new faith, secular, exclusively rational and scientific, which set Man at the center of man's hope. I cannot remember ever hearing the word Communism or the name of Marx mentioned in a classroom. Lenin as a writer of political theory was then locked up in Russian or unread in German. No member of the Columbia faculty was remotely suspect as a Communist. The words Communism and Communist were almost never heard.

There was nothing to tell me the day I walked across the Columbia University campus as a freshman that the path was to lead me into Communism. No member of the Columbia faculty ever consciously guided me toward Communism. Columbia did not teach me Communism. It taught me despair. I loved Columbia and still love it in the physical way with which most men ever after love the campus on which they passed formative years of their youth. In the last decades I have sometimes gone up, to move alone-a foiled circuitous wanderer among the hordes of later alien undergraduates- among its remembered walls and walks (now greatly changed). But as a citadel of the mind, in the second decade of the twentieth century, I found its experience a trap. I thought that I had found the perfect description of it when one day in Hartley Hall I read T. S. Eliot's Wasteland, just published in the old Dial magazine:
And upside down in air were towers
Tolling reminiscent bells, that kept the hours
And voices singing out of empty cisterns and
exhausted wells.
Chambers describes an intellectual climate of moral relativism and skepticism which instead of producing a dynamic materialism, effect a culture of despair and nihilism.
It was not the world of twentieth-century politics but the much more basic, pervasive world of the mind and spirit that I discerned was in extremity. The profound sense of the incurable sickness of the world made all men sick. In this mood, the undergraduate (I) wrote:
And we on whom its shadow fills-
sober and containing air
Feel it as tired and late despair
Between enfolding iron wall
A generation of writers, the clinicians of every age, fixed the mood and the dimensions of the crisis-in four brackish lines of Edgar Lee Masters' epitaph for the Unknown Soldiers:

STRANGER: Tell the people of Spoon River two things:
First that we lie here, obeying their words;
And next that had we known what was back of their words,
We should not be lying here!
The mood was not a discovery of our generation. The first rumblings of catastrophe had been uttered by a generation of giants by contrast with whom we would clearly trace the decline of the human condition and the deepening of the crisis. Ibsen, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Shaw, Hardy, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson had foretold us.

It was a mood whose temper Oswald Spengler caught exactly, not so much in his philosophy, which comparatively few men read, still fewer understood, and many recoiled from, but in the tremendous poetry in which he asserted his vision of the crisis of twentieth-century man. It is in almost every line he wrote . . . The mood was implicit in the title of his chief work, The Decline of the West (written just before World War I), and even more expressive in the German version, Der Untergang des Abendlandes-The Down-Going of the Evening Land.
I carried away from Columbia a mood in which skepticism was only one ingredient-a mood that was by no means peculiar to Columbia. It was shared in one degree or another by practically every intelligence and focus of intelligence in the world, and had been for more than half a century. It was a feeling of despair, not always explicit and seldom definite, but running like a wistful theme through any view of life that was not merely practically ambitious. It was the sense of historical sundown the sense that man had reached one of the great jumping-off places-or what was worse, a place where it was impossible to jump because it was the end.

I felt, and most of the men I knew and most respected felt, that the world was too old, that it was late in its night, that that night was very dark, man was very far from home, he lacked inner strength to make the effort, and besides the right way was lost. No one quite knew how or why. Something was radically wrong. No one quite knew what. It was useless to seek an answer from any traditional voice (that was part of the despair), for all the oracles were dumb or lied because in the general darkness they could see no better than anybody else what threatened them, but feared it even more. Most people knew that something catastrophic was happening.[Ed: My italics]
The interesting observation here is that the traditional voices did not help and were of no comfort, even for those seeking it. Indeed, the picture he paints is of the acute perception of the failure of the old order in response to the social crises of the times. Its interesting to note that traditional societies' inability to mount a credible assault on this despair was part of the despair itself. It would appear that people didn't want traditional society to fail.
By the end of my sophomore year at Columbia, I had ceased to be a conservative. I was nothing. God, when He was not an intellectual embarrassment, was an admission or a convention that one conceded for the sake of tradition, civility, or an argument. Truth was wholly relative. Nothing was absolutely true and hence, by inference if not by direct evaluation, nothing was absolutely false. In other words, nothing was absolutely good or bad, though those other words were held to be a little naive or uncouth, just as the word "truth" was avoided in favor of the word "fact." My mind, which from the hodgepodge of my boyhood reading and other influences had begun in adolescence to sort out a crude conservative order, was once more a hodgepodge. Now it was the higher hodgepodge, a spiral nebula which caught up the whirling dust and fragments of literary and philosophical ideas from Homer to Gertrude Stein and the pre-Socratic philosophers to T. E. Hulme. * Insofar as my mind was not a hodgepodge, it was a vacuum. Its law was scepticism.
Here Chambers describes the intellectual environment that pervaded the universities of the West at the time. We also note, at this time that art too broke from its traditionalist conceptions veering into hitherto uncharted waters. The Cubism, Symbolism, Dada and so on  were not just an impost on the Western Cultural climate, but a reaction to the intellectual nihilism that had taken hold. In the rejection of the Western Christian metaphysic there was nothing to take its place. This nihlism chafed at Chambers and presumably others like him,
In this disaster, in which the whole fabric of civilization was heaving, I reacted violently at last from that climate around me which enjoined doubt rather than faith, and robbed all action of its energy in the name of uncertainty. I did not believe that life is hopeless. With my deepest instinct, I did not want to be told that there are no ways out of catastrophe and that that does not matter in any case, for it is alike indifferent to the sceptical mind how we live and die since good or ill alike are relative. I wanted to know what the nature of the crisis was. I wanted to know the way out. Everything that was alive and strong in me wanted to know those things and I believed in a solution exactly in the degree to which I was alive and strong. To the same degree I became restless. I wanted to know: "Doesn't anybody know why we are in this mess? Is there nobody alive with the intelligence to figure a way out? For God's sake, somebody give me a straight answer."

At that point, the revolutionary mood takes rise with the feeling: Well if there is no answer, if nobody can say what is wrong, or what to do, let us do something anyway. Let us at least smash something, for our condition is a great stagnant pond where life rots in stinking water, and if we do no more than break the banks and let the water out, we will perform a service to life. That is the mood where the anarchist stops. It is the mood in which Bakanin celebrated destruction as a creative act. But only a child's mind or an arrested mind can stop there. A mind, rounding into maturity, whatever its jolts, lags, and lapses, and however much it may recognize destruction as the first phase of any building operation, must seek a constructive purpose. The answer to death is not more violent death. The answer to death must be more complete life.

But in the end, my choice was based, not on the teachings of Marx and Lenin, their historical or economic analyses, or even the faith of Communism and the vision of man's salvation on earth. In the end, I made my choice, because I became convinced that the intelligence and power of the West were no longer able to solve the continuing crisis.[Ed: My italics]
A portion of the men, not all, who became Communists did it for altruistic reasons. Their universities, and the example of their society, with its entrenched inequalities and injustices gave them nothing but despair, and yet they wanted their society to be changed in order to live. In the Anglo-West this escape from the dying West was an acceptance of socialism.  In the same way, the horrible nihilism engendered by Weimar Germany pushed men towards the Nazi's. (Rhopke recollected how the Nazi's rallies were full of vigour and spectacle, lingering in men's minds for days afterwards, whilst their oppositions attempts at countering them feeble and weak and quickly forgotten). The West was failing and men were grasping at ideologies in order to live.
We are witnessing this same effect today. The absolute corruption of politics, art and general culture are festering a current nihilism. Anyone who isn't an idiot can see that something is wrong in the West. The Tea Party movement, the fissuring of political parties in the face of unprincipled political leaders, the resurgence of nasty forms thuggish right wing politics, even the actions of Brievik  should be seen in the light of this cultural banality and nihilism. The culture is trying to survive and its embrace of malignant ideologies are its death throes. History is repeating
Most men, lacking the intellectual faculties of an Aristotle or Aquinas, did not recognise that in escaping the dying West the solutions that they were embracing were malignant.  Even then, being alive in the company of the Devil was better than being dead. .
This is an oversimplification. But in some similar ways this is the form in which the turn
toward Communism takes in the mind of every man or woman who becomes a Communist. It is the crisis that keeps them Communists, sometimes long after disillusionment or discontent with the reality of Communism have set in. Nor does the ex-Communist returning to the world that he abandoned as hopeless,hav any illusions, if he is intelligent and sincere, about the crisis. He does not return to the world because he believes that it is morally healthy or capable of solving the crisis which in fact is deeper than when he left it. He returns because he believes that Communism is evil. The crisis remains and  world remains unable to solve it.
The West will only survive if solutions to its problems can be found within the tradition of the Western identity: And that identity is Christian. I'm not pushing this line because I'm a fundy, its because men who've been on the other side have worked it out themselves. The logical consequence of materialism is nihilism which in turn unleashes the forces of societal destruction.

No faith and we're dead. It's as simple as that. Man does not live on bread alone.


Anonymous said...

I suppose it's a bit pedantic, but I must point out that in the expression "death throws" the word is actually spelled "throes". One of the many peculiarities of English orthography. Well done splendid article, it's one of the best I've read in a long time. It's quite refreshing to find those on the internet who rise above the puerile level that has become ubiquitous in this worthless modern age, & actually engage in an activity that fills most moderns with horror.......thinking. Cheers.

The Social Pathologist said...



Thank you.

Ryan said...

Agreed re: the necessity of Christian faith for the survival of the civilization. But the more challenging question is:

How can Christianity be resurrected among Westerners who have mostly been both theoretically and practically trained to be either hostile or apathetic to it (or, more accurately: a particular caricature of it)? Nobody will even hear-out anything that smacks of "Christian" or even "religious"/"faith-based"/"unscientific". All trust in the West's possible saviors has been pre-emptively attacked.

My initial answer:

Figure out the most effective way to re-package/re-brand -- if not the religion itself -- at least its philosophical foundations, and without sacrificing any of the substance. Sadly, due to lifetimes of being taught to avoid anything even suspected of entailing Christian-friendly truth, of being effectively programmed to auto-reject whatever claims are offered w/even the slightest hint that their source is Christian (and therefore merely attempting to convert/brainwash everyone), we won't be able to advertise normally. This seems to imply that we can't go around "preaching" about Christianity per se.

The Faith apparently needs a new marketing-strategy. And perhaps it'll have to be more akin to a Trojan Horse, like subtle "inception" on the level of first principles. (E.g., "Neo-Aristotelianism".)

What's clear, though, is that the ubiquitous, pre-established obstacles to the faith have got to be removed/fundamentally-circumvented before the true construction begins. So maybe the manipulation/"deception" proposed above, if/once discovered, would only inspire further distrust and instead only brutally straightforward honesty remains as a feasible approach. Arguably, the "advertisers" need to stop appealing to -- and enabling -- the public's ridiculously entitled "consumerism", wherein only vicious means that target their most base desires can sway them out of idleness/complacency.

JMSmith said...

Thanks for bringing this relatively unknown work to light. I was very impressed by Chambers when I read Witness, as my teachers had always represented him as a grubby little man driven by paranoia and spite. I don't t think Chamber's early disgust was a reaction to injustice and inequality, though. He was, as I recall from Witness, and as these passages seem to confirm, recoiling from the enervation of the West. It's like a party that starts to wind down: guests leave because other guests leave. There's no future in it.

At one level, life in a dying culture is very pleasant. It asks very little of one, and since we're cashing in the chips, there are always plenty of drinks and goodies. But at another level one feels the toxins of the corpse spreading into one's soul.

Ryan:I'm not sure about the Trojan Horse strategy. Isn't this what Christian Existentialists like Tillich and Bonhoffer tried to do? They translated Christian doctrine into philosophical terms. C.S. Lewis tried the same thing by way of fiction. Maybe this made people more receptive, but sooner or later one has to get round to Christ himself. For my part, I think Christians should reject cultural assimilation and stand as a distinct and attractive alternative culture.

David said...

Highly recommended: Arthur Koestler's 1950 novel The Age of Longing, which is about the West's loss of cultural self-confidence. I reviewed it here.

The Social Pathologist said...


How can Christianity be resurrected among Westerners who have mostly been both theoretically and practically trained to be either hostile or apathetic to it (or, more accurately: a particular caricature of it)?

That's a big question, but I think it starts with personal transformation first, then association with other like minded individuals and then political action. Sorry to be so brief, but the topic probably deserves a much bigger treatment than I can give at the moment in a Combox.

JMSmith. I'm glad someones appreciated it. I honestly think that Chambers deserves far more thought from the Right than he has been given. The secular nature of politics tends to dissuade religious insight as a valid principle in Conservative thought. Yet what I think is needed is the recognition of the legitimacy of religion insight in how we choose to live our lives. I'm a firm believer in the separation of Church and State but I have no problem in the state recognising God whilst not being beholden to any particular religious interpretation of him.

For my part, I think Christians should reject cultural assimilation and stand as a distinct and attractive alternative culture.

Agree. I took me a while but I've learned to stop apologising for actins which spring from my faith. You can't really serve two masters.

The Social Pathologist said...


Thanks for the book recommendation.

I want to thank you for recommending "The Logic of Failure". I really enjoyed it and found it informative. It really should be part of the Conservative Canon.

A lot of Airline Saftey science is based on recognising the cognitive limitations of people and trying to account for it. The problem with regard to political theory is that most theoreticians do not take into accont the limitations of human intelligence. There is really a line of thought which could be developed from this book. I'm hoping to do my own little book review of it soon.

David said...

Aircraft safety: One phenomenon that accident investigators are very familiar with is confirmation bias, the tendency to select data supporting the hypothesis one already holds.. A hypothetical (or maybe not so hypothetic) example of this could be:

CAPT: Wonder why the runway lights aren't on? It's kind of dark.

FIRST OFFICER: I saw in the Notices that they're doing some electrical work at this airport.

CAPT: Yeah, that must be it. Call the tower and tell them we're ready to go. opposed to

CAPT: Wonder why the runway lights aren't on? It's kind of dark.

FO: Well, they're doing some electrical work here. Maybe that's it. Kind of odd, though.

CAPT:Wonder if we could be on the wrong runway (checking compass and runway signs) Oh, my God!

This happens in business and in political opinion-formation all the time...