Sunday, 29 November 2015 03:26

Writers for Conservatives: 23 -- Rebecca West and the Fruits of Romantic Utopianism in Our Time

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Writers for Conservatives: 23 -- Rebecca West and the Fruits of Romantic Utopianism in Our Time

Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner writes on literature from the Adirondacks where he may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The prophet Jeremiah, active from 625 BC through the fall of Jerusalem in 585, was a shepherd who, in his denunciations ("jeremiads") of unrighteous Israelites, worshipers of pagan idols, traced their apostasy to farming, a way of life richer and more complicated than that of pastoralism. He thought that shepherding offered a return to a state of purity and obedience to the one God. The Rechab family, Jeremiah claimed, embodied the ideal: they didn't build houses or sow fields or plant vineyards, they didn't drink wine (a symbol of cultivation), and they chose to live in tents. This is, so far as I know, the first recorded call for a return to the simple life where one is free to live uncontaminated by the struggles and compromises of ordinary life.

Just a couple of centuries later the Greek poet Theocritis wrote the Idyls, the first pastoral poems, celebrations of the simple shepherd life. So some of the earliest writings in the Western tradition express utopian visions, specifically of a simple life in the past that, if we will it, can be lived again. We call them utopian, because Sir Thomas More called his imaginary ideal society Utopia (in Greek, "nowhere"); and the name has come to mean something inherently unattainable. Fulfillment would suspend the laws of nature: we cannot recall the past, we cannot suspend time, and we cannot simplify life in more than superficial ways. The idea turns up again and again in our literature (As You Like It is Shakespeare's satire of its sentimentalities in the setting of the Forest of Arden). Why should this be so?

The fantasy is characterized by yearning for an imagined past and aversion to the present, contrasting a warm, simple life with the cold complexities of modernism (every present, whether two thousand years ago or today, is regarded as modern by its contemporaries). In the imagined past, or in a contemporary variant, the Beautiful Simple Country Life, people are warm and sincere, living in true community, and relations are direct, uncomplicated by the demands of mundane necessity, whereas in the modern world people are cold and selfish, there is no sense of community, and life seems a complicated muddle. That these notions are silly -- every moment in time is, to those living in it, complex; only the backward glance of nostalgia makes it seem otherwise -- has never prevented people from believing them, if only for a time.

Speaking of time, it is well known that children's sense of it differs from that of adults. Think back to your own childhood and remember how slowly time moved. A week stretched to the horizon, a month was practically forever, and a year was inconceivable. All too soon, however, time begins to accelerate. I recall when it happened to me. I was climbing the stairs in school when I noticed a poster exhorting us to buy war bonds, illustrated by large, vividly colored figures seen in a long perspective -- "1943." I was shocked! I had hardly used up 1942! At the age of ten I had had my first intimation of the variable velocity of time. I think that soon thereafter we begin to create in our minds a nostalgic version of the past. A year later I toured all my childhood haunts, the vacant lots where I had built "huts" out of cardboard boxes, the woods where we used to play Robin Hood, a frankly acknowledged tour of nostalgia since I had outgrown childish things. How uncomplicated the past seemed now!

If time moves with a softly measured tread for children, we all know with what mounting haste it hurries past us in our days and years as we grow older. Now there are whole decades that I seem hardly to have used. And now we know what we could not even guess at the age of ten: that time is the measure of our mortality. Is it any wonder that we create fantasies about the past (and future) that were at first responses to a feeling of time hurrying by?

To summarize: because we are physical organisms living in time, we are reminded by its passing and by our changing perceptions of it, of our mortality. Seeking to evade this knowledge, or at least to console ourselves, we like to imagine a happier past, one that might be revived, untouched by the forces within us and around us that move us forward in the relentless tide of life. That's why its imagined simplicity is contrasted with a complex present.

Although there were occasional futuristic utopias, like Sir Thomas More's, the fantasy did not come to life as a collective ideal until the 19th century, thanks to the Romantic movement, a reaction against Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th Century who, it was thought, overemphasized rationality at the expense of feeling and imagination. We think of it as a literary movement -- Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, et al. -- and the revolutionary expectations in the work of many writers (Coleridge entertained the idea of joining a utopian community in Pennsylvania) are discounted as poetic hyperbole. It is at this time that the fantasies became ideas about how to organize the future, witness the writings of Robert Owen and Fourier, and the many experimental communities like Brook Farm. These fantasies are what I call Romantic Utopianism, not a movement but a trend of thought, a set of affinities among the like-minded, that would come to exert a powerful influence on social thought for more than two centuries (It may be that enough wealth had been created in the Western world at that time to allow individuals and small groups to indulge themselves in this way).

The best way to understand this fantasy is to examine a book which is animated by it, a brilliant, fascinating text wherein the fantasy is enunciated by a writer, superbly articulate, who was wholly captivated by its ideas. Rebecca West (1892-1983) wrote Black Lamb and Gray Falcon (1942), a book of over a thousand pages about Yugoslavia based on her travels there in the late 1930s. It is said by people enamored of her vision that this is the book to read about the country, but in fact the reader will learn almost nothing about the place because Miss West was transfixed by Romantic Utopianism, and Yugoslavia was only a screen on which her vision was projected. With a style that is direct and immediate, precise and passionate, she creates the illusion (no small feat) that nothing stands between the reader and what's described. From the first sentence we are in the presence of a sensuously vivid, perceptive sensitivity that makes us seem to feel the heat and cold, smell the flowers, taste the food, see as she does the people, the churches, the streets and houses, the landscape, the rutted roads. It is a tribute to her powers that I have read the book three times and have not skipped a word.

Equally brilliant is Miss West's management of structure, the way the mass of disparate material -- travelogue, ancient and modern history, political analysis, artistic and literary criticism, impassioned polemic -- is put together so as to make all of it interesting, often fascinating, and at the same time that the skill with which it's done enhances the author's authority; we believe, we trust her.

A brief description of the Prologue shows her method. It opens with Miss West speaking to her husband in the train in 1937, but he's asleep, and she thinks:

. . . certainty that this train was taking us to a land where everything was comprehensible, where the mode of life was so honest that it put an end to perplexity.

This, despite the fact that she went there for the first time only the year before (1936), and first spoke its name in 1934 when, recovering from an operation, she heard the news of the assassination of Yugoslavia's King in Marseilles. That led her (in 1934) to think of other violent deaths affecting the Balkans: Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1897, Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889, the King of Serbia and his wife in 1903, finally Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914. The circumstances are described, and the characters and ideas of many of the actors are assessed. The narrative returns to Miss West's hospital bed (in 1934), where she reflects on this series of deaths, frightened because she fears that:

. . . man was going to deliver himself up to pain, was going to serve death instead of life.

Out of hospital, she sees the newsreel film of the assassination in Marseilles, describing it closely. She is so impressed by the King's face (she reads a great deal in faces), seeing in it a "peculiar wisdom" drawn, she thinks, from Yugoslavia, she feels she must learn about the country. Her ignorance is a calamity because:

. . . there proceeds steadily from that place a stream of events which are a source of danger to me.

In 1936 she goes there on a lecture tour. Afterwards, stricken by dengue fever, she stops to rest outside Vienna, and there her husband finds her, weeping over dresses bought from Macedonian peasants which have been ruined, bleached in the convalescent home.

I had not properly protected the work of these women that should have been kept as a testimony, which was a part of what the King had known as he lay dying.

She tries to explain to her husband what Yugoslavia means to her, but it is difficult to express in words; it has to be seen, experienced, and she realizes she has to see it again to fix it in her mind.

In a panic I said, "I must go back to Yugoslavia, this time next year, in the spring, for Easter."

In just twenty-three pages, Miss West has meditated on events from 1889 to 1937, involving the reader in her thoughts, feelings, and memories in such a dramatic way as to make this journey seem of paramount importance. The immediacy of her expression and the depth of her sensibility dictate the pace and shifts in the narrative; we are swept up into her confidence, her imaginative world. A certain intimacy is established, and since this is a book intended to persuade us of some extravagant ideas, winning our allegiance is vital. We are ready for the quest, we can't wait to be on our way.

It should be clear by now that Rebecca West is a romantic who dramatizes her emotions, but this conclusion is possible because I have quoted selectively; when you read the full twenty-three pages you are carried along in the narrative that pulsates with her feelings, and it is very difficult to stand aside, to see the subjective extravagance.

To get to Zagreb, the first stop, we must take the train from Austria, and here we meet a major problem in the book -- Germans. The book was addressed to the looming threat of the time, Nazism and Fascism, so inevitably Germans, like the West's fellow passengers, are portrayed as unlovely people. We do not doubt her observations. We may demur when she says, as she frequently does, that Germans hate all Slavs, but then we recall that the Nazis intended to enslave the Slavs and we let it pass. The problem arises, however, when this attitude distorts her perception of Yugoslavia. As we press through the book, wending our way around the country with side trips into its tangled history, we realize that all the troubles of the Yugoslavs have been caused, according to the author, by outsiders -- Turks in the south, Italians in the west, Bulgarians in the east, and preeminently, the Austrian empire (and now the Germans) in the north -- and we know the account is biased. She does not exactly hide internecine frictions, but she glosses them over, and this inhibits our understanding of Yugoslavia. Despite the constant physical presence of the scene, the Yugoslavia in this book is an imaginative creation. Miss West created it as a message to the West, and the book is the elucidation of the message.

The first part of the book, the West's travels around Croatia, Dalmatia, Herzegovina, and Bosnia, is the simplest and most agreeable; the message is there, but it is not so insistently pressed. The narrative seems to ramble in space -- landscape, people, places, and time, excursions into the past prompted by sites (e.g., the history of Dubrovnik), but this is artfully constructed, a deliberately easeful introduction preparing the reader for the reception of future crescendos.

The positive theme, the romance of Yugoslavia --

In Yugoslavia there was an intensity of feeling that was not only of immense and exhilarating force, but had an honorable origin, proceeding from realist passion, from whole belief.
(They) cared for loveliness with the uncorrupted eye of an unmechanized race.

-- has its opposite negations --

Such conversation demanded attention, discrimination, appreciation, all forms of expenditure which we Westerners, being mean, are apt to grudge.
. . . the cityish [Western man] who wears spectacles without shame, as if they were the sign of quality and not a defect, who is overweight and puffy, who can drive a car but knows no other mastery over material, who presses buttons and turns switches without comprehending the result, who makes money when the market goes up and loses it when the market goes down.

-- especially urbanism --

. . . it takes the supreme assault of urban conditions to bring on humanity the curse of a craving for insipidity.

-- even against literacy --

. . . only a small proportion of literature does more than partly compensate people for the damage they have suffered by learning to read.

-- and of course, against capitalism: --

The West . . . is vulgar and superficial and economically sadist.

This is a natural consequence of the utopianism that's part of the romance of Yugoslavia; in the utopian vision, our arrival in the Promised Land is always hindered by enemies who must be vanquished. We are apt to miss the utopianism in this part of the book, passing over occasional remarks -- ". . . the world [must] at last abandon its bad habit and resolve into mercy, justice and truth" -- as momentary hyperbole, just as we may ignore other negative indications of utopian thinking -- "There is no use denying the horrible nature of our human destiny." Her feminist sallies we may also take cum grano -- ". . . man is a hating rather than a loving animal." The author is always making sweeping statements, some so blatantly silly -- ". . . wood, that clean, moral substance." -- that we tend to discount the wilder declarations.

In Sarajevo, the Wests team up with Constantine, a well known Serbian poet and government official with whom the author traveled the year before, and after some expeditions in the area they go on to Belgrade to meet Constantine's wife Gerda, who is German, all too German (she is later apotheosized by the author's husband as the spirit of all that's worst in Germany). Revolted by everything about Yugoslavia that Miss West most prizes, contemptuous of the English in general and the Wests in particular, her presence on their jaunts around Serbia is a constant source of discord and unpleasantness, and when she insists on accompanying them to Macedonia, the Wests are in despair. From a literary point of view, however, as a foil for Miss West, she is a godsend, and the reader feels that if she didn't exist, the author would have had to invent her. Macedonia is the heartland of the romance of Yugoslavia, the place where Miss West's imagination is worked up to its greatest intensity, and without Gerda sneering in the background we might begin to doubt, our allegiance might weaken, but we always recoil from Gerda's crassness to the author's side. Her use of Gerda is the most brilliant stroke in the book.

Throughout there are allusions to a force for life, identified with women, and a force for death, identified with men, and that this is the ultimate explanation, the first cause of all the distinctions made herein, is made clear, almost hysterically so, in Macedonia when she witnesses the slaughter of a black lamb on a rock in a fertility ritual.

I knew this rock well. I had lived under the shadow of it all my life. All our Western thought is founded on this repulsive pretence that pain is the proper price of any good thing . . . this stone, the knife, the filth, the blood, is what many people desire beyond anything else . . .

How the taste for death achieves its triumph is explained a little later when they visit the plain of Kosovo where the Serbs were defeated by the Turks in the 14th century. Constantine recites an ancient ballad about the Serb leader and a gray falcon, the purport of which, in Miss West's interpretation, is that good people, to preserve their goodness, allow themselves to be defeated by evil, the force of death.

They listen to the evil counsel of the gray falcon. They let their throats be cut as if they were black lambs.

This revelation illumines the author's deepest convictions, bringing the issue down to the specific, personal present.

. . . the left-wing people among whom I had lived all my life had in their attitude to foreign politics achieved such a betrayal. They were always right, they never imposed their rightness. . . . Not one of them . . . has ever been a Caesar as well as his kind self; and until there is a kind Caesar every child of woman is born in peril. . . . I should ask myself whether I have done everything possible to carry those principles into effect, and how I can obtain power to make them absolutely victorious.

That some of these ideas were justified, I have no doubt. It is even more obvious now than it was then that the Nazis were bent on a career of death and destruction, and most of the leaders of the countries in the way of that career were suspended in attitudes of fatuous futility, ready for self-immolation. At this point, I want to move beyond the book to discuss the whole set of ideas embodied in it, but before we leave Miss West, I should acknowledge her great achievement. This is a stunning tour de force of remarkable literary grace and polemical power.It is for that very reason, clarity of writing, high sensibility of thought, that we are able to see and analyze its ideas in a way that would be much more difficult with a less articulate writer.

Romantic utopianism is readily identified by its preferences, those things it labels "authentic" (its antipathies are "false," "contrived"), exalting the peasant over the townsman, the countryside over the city, indigenes over Westerners, feeling over thought, sexual license over restraint, charismatic leaders ("kind Caesars"), men who'll use "power . . . for virtuous action," as opposed to workaday politicians, and so on. The utterances of its devotees are characterized by grand simplicities, by sweeping judgments, by stark apocalyptic choices, by exquisitely sensitive discernment (this gets tiresome in the book; in exasperation we want to shout that there are times, and they are not few, when a chair is only a chair, and a man passing in the street is no more than himself).

The essence of Romanticism, its full meaning, is to be found in its ambivalence toward the classic liberalism of the Enlightenment, which was, after all, the party of liberty -- insufficiently so for the Romantics, however, who scorned its bourgeois outlook, its worldly calculations, its cool-headed restraint. And, as one of liberalism's proud landmarks, the U.S. Constitution, demonstrates, it was definitely not utopian. As for liberals, they saw in Romanticism only a literary phenomenon with risque, bohemian overtones, an overheated inspiration to the freedom fighters of 1848 and Garibaldi's Red Shirts.

Romantic utopianism remained a fringe enthusiasm, witness its adherents in the U.S. before World War I -- eccentric radicals, utopian socialists, free love advocates like the Claffin sisters, aging Transcendentalists -- but its influence began to spread after the war, first, because classic liberalism became the reigning political system in the West, and second, because of the widespread postwar disillusionment, self-consciously celebrated by the modernist writers of the 1920s, embodied in these lines by Ezra Pound:

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization. --Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, V

Romantic utopianism has dual attractions: the simplicity of its main assertion, that the world can be a garden of truth, mercy, and justice if we embrace life and forsake nastiness, gives blessed relief from harassing thought about the complexities of human action; its compassion for peasants, psuedo peasants, and indigenes, perceived (falsely) as living simple lives close to the earth, lifts its believers above the Yahoos grubbing in Consumerland; its hypersensitivity is similarly ennobling. It is very difficult not to count oneself among the elect, by Rebecca West's side. And taking sides is very, very important. That's how the stark choices work. If you don't assent to the grand simplicities, you're on the side of beastliness, of death, one with gross urbanites, insensitive clods, the smug Gerdas of the world. This is its negative attraction, and as the Habsburgs and Hohenzollens departed, the ambivalence of romantic utopianism toward classic liberalism gave way to increasing antagonism, finally becoming its primary motive.

Aside from their perennial enthusiasm for the initial stages of revolutions -- the storming of the winter Palace, Castro's entrance into Havana, Uncle Ho surrounded by smiling children, Mao on the Long March -- and the accompanying faith in those kind Caesars, Romantic utopians were never serious fellow travelers; sympathy for Communism was only a way of expressing antagonism to the West, of being more sensitive than those crude servants of death in the Pentagon. I would venture to guess that this was true of nearly all fellow travellers, which explains why the collapse of Communism failed to cause any soul-searching. It was only a stick to beat liberalism with; there are others to hand.

Anyone who attended a liberal arts college in the 1950s, as I did, could see how skepticism about the values of classic liberalism was coloring the thought of the cultural elite of the time. What had been eccentric in Greenwich Village in the 1920s was unthinkingly echoed by my professors thirty years later, staunch liberals all, partisans of Adlai Stevenson, teaching the modernist writers, revelling in their contempt for the hypocritical lies of the West. Pound again:

Came home, home to a lie,
Home to many deceits,
Home to old lies and new infamy;
Usury age-old, age-thick
And liars in public places. Hugh Selwyn Mauberly, IV

How could anyone be surprised by the abject collapse of the universities in the Sixties?

The Sixties represented the triumph of Romantic Utopianism over classic liberalism, as the attractions of its spurious freedoms spread far beyond the cultural elite. Insatiably hostile to the moderate values of classic liberalism -- rational discourse, civility, ordered change, free markets, conventional morality, political realism, respect for religion, anti-utopianism -- Romantic Utopianism created new crusades with which to belabor its enemy. Surveying contemporary movements like Greenism, multicultualism, feminism, sexual libertinism, anticapitalism in all the forms it takes today, what do we see? Grand simplicities, sweeping judgments, exquisite sensibilities, starkly apocalyptic choices (life vs death again), authenticity vs falsity, peasants and indigenes vs citified Westerners, feelings vs thought, and rancorous animus against the West in general. Romantic Utopians, both as leaders and followers, are furiously active in all these destructive movements.

It does not take a moment's thought to see how these stupidities characterize the Obama administration in all its policies, foreign and domestic. The former echoes the 1960s line that America was the cause of all the trouble in the world, and that the lamb could lie down with the tiger if we'd just be loving and trusting and lefty. The hard masculine hydrocarbon industry is to be suppressed as our energy needs are met by solar panels and windmills. As for the economy, hitherto in the hands of greedy businessmen, the government is taking on a distributive role, passing out money in enormous amounts to fulfill all our dreams. Will these policies arouse significant opposition, certainly not by those many citizens, yuppies mostly, still in thrall to the pieties of the 1960s, which, after all, were created by Romantic Utopianism.

The 20th century will be remembered by its disastrous utopias, Nazism and Communism (it is not widely known that Marx's vision of the future was a pastoral utopia in which he would be a shepherd in the morning, a fisherman in the afternoon, and a philosopher in the evening). Now the 21st century seems destined to see the United States, the greatest bastion of liberal democracy, ruined by Romantic Utopianism.

If classic liberalism is not dead but has changed its name to conservatism, nevertheless it is fighting for its life, routed from its commanding position by an unorganized movement begun two hundred years ago by a few poets and eccentrics loosely committed to a set of absurd simplistic assertions that can hardly be called ideas. Amazing. All we lack now is the kind Caesar. Or will Obama assume that role? *

"Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions." --G. K. Chesterton

Read 1348 times Last modified on Sunday, 29 November 2015 09:26
Jigs Gardner

Jigs Gardner is an associate editor of the St. Croix Review.

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