The death of Gabriel García Márquez gives Conservatives an occasion to reflect on the idea of Modernity. A thoughtful Conservatism unequivocally opposes the rise of Materialism—whether from a religious perspective, like Kirk and Eliot; a Humanist, like Babbitt and Santayana; or a Culturist, like Maurras and Arnold. A fixation with mundane material realities (consumerism, promiscuity, identity politics, and the like) is intellectually deadening and, frankly, boring.
But I think we should reconsider that Buckley quote, “A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop.” Have we paused to consider what that means? What use is there in trying to stop the progression of time, or pretending we can stop its slow march? That, too, sounds hideously dull.
That’s not to say Buckley literally meant he wanted all time to stop in the ‘80s. (“I won’t insult your intelligence by suggesting that you really believe what you just said,” anyone?) But when those lines enter our unconscious, they can be harmful. That line is rather the inverse of the equally quotable Chestertonism:
My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.
Our attitude toward conservation will, likewise, pass from enthusiasm to boredom. How do we expect to argue the virtue of Wednesday to Thursday simply because it’s Thursday? Like it or not, we exist in modernity. In fact, we’ll always exist in modernity. And that’s nothing to worry about.
The reality of this world is that things change, and they tend to change very quickly. In 1914 the armies of Europe were trying to get the hang of air combat; by the 1945 we’d flown a bomber over the Pacific and nuked Japan—twice. Gertrude Stein dubbed the young men who came back from the First World War the “Lost Generation” because of the irreparable trauma they’d endured. We’ve not “found” any generation since.
War is always awful, but there was something particularly devastating about World War I. One of the theories of interest was that of the contemporary psychoanalytic movement: “war neurosis” (we’d call it Post-Traumatic Stress) was born in the trenches. For the first time in the history of warfare, the individual soldier completely lost control of his own fate. His skill and cunning meant nothing; he was perpetually being ambushed by an enemy whose guns he could hardly see. This forced him to turn inward, to escape an immediate reality he had no power over. Grimly, the psychoanalysts’ research suggested that the most courageous and patriotic soldiers were the most susceptible to such shock: their uncontrollable sense of helplessness was felt far more than the pessimist and coward, who never had any hope or cause to be shattered.
If the psychoanalysts are right, we can see how our own conflicting ideas about the individual and society have come into play: by withdrawing into ourselves, we not only lose our sense of other, but we lose the authentic sense of self that can only be fostered by belonging to an organic society. The old paradox holds true. We only find true life by dying of ourselves.
Some of us fanatically embrace modernity out of that desire to shut the harsh realities of the world out. We want to believe we can be happy if we indulge ourselves in the “goods” promoted by the post-traumatic order—in vice, in ideology, in popularity. Of course, as Conservatives, we know that’s all wrong.
But as Conservatives, we might be tempted to look backward at the relative serenity of the old world—the pre-Modernity—and grumble. Maybe we think, “If only people could see how much better those values were, the world would be a better place.” In part, that’s true.
But think of it this way: the world has broken its neck, and it doesn’t want to do its physical therapy. It would rather lie in a hospital bed and hit the morphine button every time things get uncomfortable. If the doctor—the philosopher, the artist, the statesman—says to his patient, “You were happier before you had a broken neck; just do that,” the patient’s not going to get anywhere. Of course it’s always better not to break a bone. But the bone is broken, and the recovery is going to take time, concentration, and sacrifice.
That was the best of the Modernist project. Human beings are frail, physically and spiritually, but WWI and its aftermath was the first bone-shattering trauma we experienced collectively as a human race. Some, like Hemingway, didn’t get very far into the treatment. They’d seen the accident first hand, could give a lucid account of where it hurt and why, but were so stunned by the pain and anxiety that they couldn’t make it to the healing process. Others, like Eliot, through careful study and great moral courage, piped up with a treatment plan. (There’s probably an alternative medicine joke in there for all you Evola fans.)
So far we haven’t done a great job following through with that plan. We slip into self-pity and skip a day of PT; at other times, we give it our damnedest, fail, earn another bruise, and lose heart.
But the best Conservatives of the age—the Eliots, Yeatses and Lewises—didn’t shy from Modernity. They embracedthe challenge, learned from our failures. Lying back and reading Dante or Milton wasn’t an option. They were in Hell now. Dante and Milton might’ve served as able guides, but I’d bet a new penny that once you’re in Hell yourself, you have to be able to think on your feet. And so they took our human experience, Tradition, chomped down on the bit, and kept going.
Gabriel García Márquez wasn’t exactly a Conservative. Well, actually, he was a Socialist. But he wasn’t a slave of “Modernity”. We lament the rise of Materialism and the decline of the “permanent things”. So, too, Márquez devoted all of his creative energies to reinvigorating the human race with a treatment plan that wouldn’t be foreign to our Conservative sensibilities. His magnum opus, One Hundred Years of Solitude, bears a striking resemblance to the The Waste Land: both see the fractures, the scars, the bedsores, and all the sickening evidences of our trauma. And both salved those wounds with a sense of continuity, transcendence, and an abiding interconnectedness that’s at the heart of humanity.
The alternative is what Roger Scruton discusses in his documentary Why Beauty Matters. “Modern Art”, for lack of a better term, is all about hitting the morphine button. Our radical subcultures opt for the purple cast and think, if we’re going to suffer and die, it might as well be colorful. Or, worse, they’d rather desensitize themselves to the horror of violence and tragedy than strive for something regenerative. They think a sarcastic smile is going to get them through. We could be content with pitying them if they didn’t threaten to take the rest of us down, too.
If we can take anything from Modernity, it’s the same sense of justified triumph that follows any more localized tragedy. After 9/11, our eyes welled with tears when we saw that photo of the firefighters hoisting the American flag over the ruins of the Twin Towers. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, day after day we heard heartening stories of acts of heroic selflessness undertaken by ordinary Louisianans. So, too, the triumphs of art and culture are all the greater when wrought from our modern confusion and anxiety.
This isn’t a question of Left versus Right. One visionary Socialist like Márquez is worth a thousand despairing Conservatives. Our drug of choice mightn’t be consumption or ideology; it could be nostalgia, or escapism, or resentment. If we have faith in Tradition, in the permanent things, Modernity is neither here nor there. The enemy isn’t time. In fact, it’s the same timeless enemy our race has always battled against: Materialism, pessimism, and defeatism. The medicine that has always suited man’s minor bumps and bruises is the only cure for this far greater injury. We only need to take heart.
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