Marlowe's Shade

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Spengler on Tolkien

Just when I thought Spengler couldn't be any cooler, he weighs in on one of my favorite authors. I had just finished Flieger's Splintered Light and fortunately I read Silmarillion first.

He revisits some of the same themes that I referenced earlier this week.

A people vanishes from the earth when its language no longer is spoken. Tolkien did not simply invent languages, but recreated the linguistic maelstrom of the early Middle Ages, when the high speech of great civilizations faded from memory while the dialects of small peoples dissolved into larger language groups. Tolkien's great philological skills created a unique means of portraying the temporally of the nations...

Today's Europeans are willing themselves out of existence (see Why Europe chooses extinction, Apr 8, '03). The two world wars of the 20th century destroyed the national illusions of the European peoples, their pretension to strut and swagger upon the world stage. France was the first nation to misidentify its national interests with the fate of Christendom (The sacred heart of darkness, Feb 11, '03), emulated in far more horrible form first by Russia ("the God-bearing nation" in Dostoyevsky's words) and then by Germany. Why is it that radical Islam yet may defeat the West? Migrants from North Africa and the Middle East may overwhelm the shrinking population of Western Europe, without ever assimilating into Western European culture. Collapsing birth rates in formerly Catholic strongholds (including Quebec) coincide with negligible church attendance, and demoralization within the Church itself.

Present-day Europe, according to Spengler, is like Tolkien's world weary Elves, for whom immortality wasn't enough.

Christianity in the confessional, and universal Christian empire in politics, offered the Europeans a form of immortality beyond the existence of the nation. Europe fell from grace when its great constituent nations decided that this sort of immortality was not enough for them, and that they should instead fight for temporal dominance upon the earth. Exhausted from their wars, the peoples of Europe sank into a torpor that is destroying them slowly but with terrible certainty.

I would argue here that it was the "En-dark-enment" in France which initiated the decline by substituting the standards of man over the standards of God. However Spengler's point stands on it's own.

Jackson's portrayal of Denethor, the feckless Steward of Gondor, doubtless reminded Americans of European defeatism with respect to Iraq and other venues in the Middle East. Out of context, the character has little motivation. Perhaps Jackson will provide the missing background of Gondor's decline in a future extended version.

The parallels between the decadent Gondorians and modern Europeans map well, right down to the declining birth rates. I think Spengler has a valid point in the following observation about Europe backsliding into paganism, but then starts to skip a few beats regarding Tolkien's "failure".

A tragic flaw was set in Europe's foundations, in the form of its Faustian bargain with paganism (Why Europe chooses extinction). Christianity offered salvation in another world; the Europeans wanted a taste of immortality in this one. By allowing the pagans to syncretically adopt their old gods into the new religion, Christianity left the Europeans forever torn between Jesus and Siegfried. Richard Wagner returned to the old pagan sources and found in them a foretaste of the Nihilism that would ravage Europe during its Second Thirty Years' War of 1914-1944. Repudiating Wagner, Tolkien hoped to link an ennobling pagan past and the Christian present. In this respect he failed utterly. He is reduced to elegaic yearning for a lost agrarian past. He is a reactionary looking backwards, for his vision is too clear to allow false hopes for the European future

There is a lot to unpack in Tolkien's supposed nostalgia for a more pastoral existence. First of all, Tolkien would himself consider his work an overall failure in light of his youthful ambition to present his beloved England with an epic the equal of the Norse Sagas or the works of Homer. The value of what he did produce is another subject entirely, but his failure was not in lack of vision. He knew and stated in his description to his editor of the Silmarillion that history begins with a Fall. The Lord of the Rings was the story of the end of an era, the reign of Aragorn is at best an extended denouement, history ends when it is redeemed.

But at heart, Spengler, like his namesake, is passionately concerned with the fate of nations and he serves this topic well.

Tolkien kept faith with the original Christian message. Man must accept not only his own mortality, but the mortality of his nation, the extinction of his culture, the silencing of his mother-tongue, and look instead toward salvation beyond all mortal hope. That is what Christianity offered the pagans during the Great Extinction of Peoples after the collapse of Rome. Frodo knows that the entire race of Hobbits will become extinct. He begins his journey with Gildor's warning that one day others will dwell in the shire when hobbits are no more. Gildor is the first among the High-Elves he meets as he rides toward the Havens, in the company of Elrond and Galadriel, who, along with Gandalf, finally are revealed in their true capacity as the bearers of the Three Elven Rings.

But the European nations threw off the bonds of universal Christian empire and, through Wagnerian nationalism, sought immortality within the mortal realm - the tragic flaw of Feanor, Galadriel and the rebel Eldar. The Great Wars and the fall of Europe were the consequence. Except in the imagination, there was no going back.

The sea-passage to the West, in Peter Jackson's interpretation, represents death. It might just as well represent immigration to America. Unlike all other peoples, Americans need not fear the extinction of their cultural identity, because they have none to begin with. That is America's great weakness but also its abiding strength. It is the reason that America well may endure for all time while the Kulturnationen dissolve into the dust of the libraries. Americans bridle when told that they have no culture. But what can they name whose loss would destroy their sense of national identity? Erase the memory of Homer, and what becomes of the Greeks? Forget Herman Melville, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and even The Simpsons, and Americans still are Americans. If German or French no longer were spoken, the concept of "Germany" or "France" would become meaningless. At the time of their revolution, Americans considered German as a national language. A century from now they might adopt Spanish. America can withstand the loss of the English language itself. As long as America's political covenant remains intact, Americans can change their "culture" as often as convenient. America may fulfill the Christian project, as an assembly of individuals called out of the nations, cut loose from their heathen heritage - an outcome Tolkien could not have imagined.

That last point about the great weakness and strength of America will sing in my mind like a tuning fork for some time to come. But I think that difference between the US and other nations is so otherworldly that we are almost a phantom in history. The great Christian account of the end of the Age, The Book of Revelations has coded references to many nations, but none seem to have any resemblance to the United States. And yet don't we all, at least subconsciously see events accelerating to a final battle?

For myself and many others, Islam has replace the Communists as the looming World-Antagonist. And if supposing we actually subdue the jihadis in the next four years, then China waits in the wings. But I've been thinking lately that these nemeses are more like the opportunistic infections that would usually be quickly eradicated by a healthy immune system, but thrive in the presence of a more fundamental disease. As I stated above, the poisonous fruit of the humanism that spread through Europe after the French Revolution, and started to gain a foothold on our shores early in the last century, seems to be the true culprit.

Now true Christianity needs always to allow for disbelief, tolerate skepticism, and can never require faith. That violates the free will that our covenant with God is based on. And Christian are told that this opposition is an inescapable fact of this fallen creation. But both nations and individuals succeed or fail based on the choices they make.

As to the future of Europe and the United States, something will have to give soon. Although in my post cited above, it is stated that the birthrates in the US favor the believers, I also think sooner or later we will be unable to isolate ourselves from the decline of Europe in a global economy. Our national will to keep our values intact barely survived the last election. Many Christians in this country are not only prepared for this gloomy eventuality, but will likely thrive on it, as they are in more benighted parts of the world. The outlook is grim however for those who put their faith in a government, a culture, a language or set of folkways that are not eternal.
papijoe 7:11 PM