Magazine March 23, 2009, Issue

Worlds Old And New

Anthony Daniels reviews Last Rites, by John Lukacs (Yale, 208 pp., $25).

John Lukacs is an American historian of Hungarian origin who achieved wide public notice comparatively late in life with books such as Five Days in London: May 1940. In that book he maintained that his hero, Winston Churchill, had saved the world from the utter barbarism of the Nazis by deciding to fight on, when the decision to do so was by no means unanimously approved or a foregone conclusion. There was, of course, a wider historiographical point being made here: that history is not determined by impersonal forces, or by impersonal forces alone, but that the character of prominent men, and the decisions that emerge from that character, actually matter, and matter decisively.

Lukacs came to the United States in 1946, having experienced enough history in his first 22 years to last for several lifetimes. His experience no doubt gave him the conviction that the fundamental conflict of human existence, at least in its public manifestations, is between civilization and barbarism, and he opted for the former. America then seemed to him the repository of civilization, a kind of Alexandrian library of all that European civilization had achieved but had so willfully and completely destroyed; it was, in effect, the last hope of the bourgeois culture to which he was deeply attached. He has since modified his opinion somewhat.

Now in his 86th year, he has produced a short book that is not quite memoir, not quite philosophical treatise, but something in between. The nearest equivalent I can think of is Somerset Maugham’s The Summing Up, which was a distillation of the lessons that Maugham had learned from life and the practice of literature. Professor Lukacs will probably be consoled to know that Maugham went on to write quite a few more books after he had thus summed up, many of them still in print: So there is life after summation.

There is one literary aspect of his book that I found slightly disconcerting, namely his propensity to quote himself. For example, he repeatedly cites his own diary in his footnotes. Now footnotes are usually employed to provide subsidiary evidence for, or make subsidiary points to, assertions in the text. Repeatedly to quote oneself is bound to give the impression, probably false, of undue egotism and self-satisfaction. All authors are egotistical to an extent, of course, for they must believe that they have something to say that it would pay others to read; but they should always beware of falling into the Bellman’s fallacy in The Hunting of the Snark, namely that “what I tell you three times is true.”

Lukacs begins the book with a philosophical excursus on the epistemology of history. Some of his reflections seem to me dangerous, in the sense of conducing to a subjectivism that is one of the causes of the destruction of the bourgeois civilization that he so loved: “Isn’t Objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge — indeed of human life itself — is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.” Combined with his belief that there are no such things as facts, but only events, the very observation of which alters them, the above passage leads (I think) to the terrible deformation of intellectual life in which one person’s view is held to be as valid as another’s merely because it is held with equal conviction.

That past assertions taken to be facts have turned out to be not facts at all cannot be an argument against factuality, for the argument against factuality is based upon a fact. If the fact is true, the argument is unsound; if the fact is false, the argument is also unsound; therefore it is unsound. And it seems unwise of Lukacs to wander, as he does, into epistemological speculations based upon Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, for even quantum physicists have difficulty in understanding quantum physics and its philosophical implications. The intelligent should not rush in where genius fears to tread.

I think that what Lukacs is trying to say is this: One cannot remove human intention from history or the writing of it. Moreover, the whole of history — “what actually happened,” in Ranke’s famous phrase — can never be captured because language is too blunt an instrument. To capture everything in words is like trying to catch bacteria with a fishing net. It can’t be done; but that doesn’t mean that the fish caught in the net are not real fish, with no objective existence. Words are wise men’s counters; but they are the money of fools.

Perhaps of more interest to the general reader are Lukacs’s subsequent reflections upon the state of the world. Here I confess that I am much in sympathy with his lament, though I cannot quite make up my mind whether this is because of the state of the world, objectively considered, or my approaching old age. (How I’m looking forward to my concessionary rates for entry to French museums — though, knowing my luck, they will be withdrawn as an economy measure just as I reach the age!)

Lukacs tells us that an era half a millennium long, that of the bourgeois, has now drawn definitively to a close. Of course, there are still cultivated people who read books and listen to real music, who behave with a certain ceremoniousness and dress without wishing to appear as if they had just emerged from a slum tenement despite being enormously rich; but they are a decreasing minority, who feel themselves under siege by the meretriciousness of popular culture combined with an ideological imperative to genuflect before the demotic. Lukacs, perhaps because of his Hungarian heritage (for Hungary, after all, has had one of the highest suicide rates in the world ever since anyone ever thought to keep records of such matters), is profoundly pessimistic: The bourgeois eggs, in his view, will never be reconstituted from the proletarianized omelet.

He is insistent that the character of a people is more important than its formal political institutions, and that national character can change for the worse (he doesn’t say so, but I suspect that he thinks deterioration is fast, while improvement is slow). Americans, in his opinion, are less reflective, shallower, and more vulgar and egotistical than they were when he first arrived in the country. There was then a recognizable upper class, with refinement of manners and an interest in something other than money; now, there remains an elite (for no society is without one), but it is a much cruder one, consisting merely of the poor man writ rich. People are also more individualistic now than they were, but with less individuality.

Lukacs also laments the decline of real patriotism in favor of nationalism. Patriotism, or love of country, is primarily defensive and pacific, and of course conservative since it wants to preserve what it loves; nationalism, by contrast, is aggressive and warlike, and usually entails despising other nations or cultures, utilizing the past to justify self-aggrandizement rather than the preservation of excellent traditions. It is a revolutionary rather than a preservative force; and it is driven by hatred rather than by love.

Technology is another bugbear of his, one that according to him is hollowing out modern life. Because of their constant resort to electronic gadgetry, for example, young Americans are not proficient in the use of their own language; Lukacs notices that young Hungarians, until recently less familiar with and obsessed by such gadgetry, at least wrote and spelled their language correctly. There can be no bourgeois society without refinement of language; Lukacs upbraids the supposedly patrician George H. W. Bush for using the word “grandkids.” A society is classless when argot becomes the standard language.

I sympathize viscerally with a lot of what Lukacs says. I live in a country, Britain, in which things have gone a lot farther than in America: where, for example, no man can become a celebrity TV chef unless he swears like a trooper and expletives make up half his utterances (the very concept of a celebrity chef is, of course, of surpassing vulgarity). The bourgeoisie has almost ceased to exist in Britain: There are people with more money and less money, but they have very similar tastes. It is only the scale of indulgence in them that varies, not what is indulged in. Even the grandchildren of the monarch are culturally indistinguishable from children of the underclass.

At this point, I have to rein myself in, before I begin to sound like a latter-day Joseph de Maistre. There are still so many interesting books published, for example, that I regret that I shall have time to read only an infinitesimal portion of them before I die; notwithstanding a collapse in educational standards, and the ability of children to read, scholarship somehow survives and people still have arresting and original ideas. I have no difficulty in finding good music or in visiting good exhibitions. It is still possible to avoid the worst excesses of the demotic revolution and to associate with like-minded people.

Who knows? Perhaps the current crisis will cause some people to reevaluate the bourgeois virtues. My sympathy for Lukacs’s nostalgia for a more cultivated age is tempered by an awareness that many men suppose that nothing will ever be the same after them. Lukacs doesn’t exactly say with Nero “What an artist dies in me,” but he does seem to say “What an age dies with me.” Lukacs quotes La Rochefoucauld to the effect that things are seldom as good or as bad as people think them — but he then puts this wise dictum out of his mind. Of course, La Rochefoucauld did not say that things were never as bad as people think them.

– Mr. Daniels, a doctor, is the author of several travel books, including Monrovia Mon Amour and Utopias Elsewhere.

Anthony Daniels — Mr. Daniels, a retired doctor who worked in several parts of the world, is the author of Mass Listeria, a book about health scares.

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