Is Time itself best understood by those things in life which are Time-less? Such is the main question posed in The Habsburg Manifesto. Habsburg is not a political play but a philosophical one, whose main theme is the inner nobility of the individual as that which withstands and transcends all politics, all ideology, all history—that is, all of Time…
What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance? —Theodore Röpke
Author’s Note: The following excerpt is from my play-turned-forthcoming independent film project, The Habsburg Manifesto: How Modern Democracy Ruined My Life and How I Got Revenge, a story about the meaning of Time. Owing to the utter Misthaufen, as we say in German, that is modern theater and off-Broadway drama in which no aspiring T.S. Eliot or Eugene O’Neill will go unpunished for attempting a contribution to the stage free of urban-chic corprolalia, gender psychosis, tiresome PC obsessions or twee revivals of musicals, I am undertaking to translate this little gem as a film production of modest yet profound aesthetic ambitions. The timing is right: As Hollywood self-immolates in its own filth and assembly-line “blockbuster” hits that no one actually sees rake in billions, it is high time for a renaissance in film: stories of character, moral appeal, elegance, maturity and love of language. My effort here is in the spirit of My Dinner with Andre or My Man Godfrey; the intellectual jousting and moral intensity of the storyline is inspired by an all-time favorite, A Man for All Seasons. I am in the nascent stages of fund-raising, and would appreciate any contributions directed to the following site: www.marciachristoff.com
Thematically, The Habsburg Manifesto is a dramatic work that examines the concept of Time. It is about how one defines the “present” when every past was once a future and every future will someday become a past. Is Time itself best understood by those things in life which are Time-less? Such is the main question posed in this work. Habsburg is not a political play but a philosophical one, whose main theme is the inner nobility of the individual as that which withstands and transcends all politics, all ideology, all history—that is, all of Time.
The narrative storyline involves two half-brothers, Hilton and Francesco, ideological polarities of Cold War biases and dated mentalities; one beautiful inherited estate they must urgently sell; a theory on political power, a brilliant plan, a mysterious stranger, and a life-altering revelation—all taking place in one stately drawing room, one night. During the course of a single night, these two philosophically opposite brothers grapple over many of the timeless questions of value and meaning in life, and, through the intervention of a mysterious stranger and his life story, their rank cynicism is ingeniously transmuted to a profound, and what has to be called moral, truth. And this insight yields the genuinely startling recognition of what the true objective of government ought to be.
A satire on intellectuals, ideologues, the meaning of modern Democracy, the persistence of history, and the nature of power, Habsburg brings together philosophy, ideology, Right, Left, word-play, mind-games, art, psychology, men and women and the curious questions of tempi passati over the course of one warm summer evening’s zealous quest to understand man’s never-ending search for the meaning of love, life and human ideals.
My late agent, Mr. Jack Scovil, called this work a “splendid play” and “an illuminating addition to the theater of ideas” that is “constructed with considerable wit and flair, as well as compelling dramatic tension.”
The following excerpt is from the first act of this play-script. Hilton and Francesco are has-been, once-prominent Cold War intellectuals: Hilton is a lapsed-Catholic, former diplomat and reader of Malcolm Muggeridge, turned former art curator, turned full-time crank and hedonist. Francesco, his half-brother, is a disheveled half-Spanish, half Anglo-Irish, one-time professor of Frankfurt School Marxism; a man who is forever borderline broke and yet harbors ambitions to power that would rival any money-mad plutocrat. On the evening of the estate’s probable sale, Francesco arrives, ostensibly to discuss the property—its mismanagement after Hilton’s divorces; each brother’s individual financial dire straits, the terms of the sale, and so on. The two men are reluctant to let go of the beloved mansion but there is a mysterious, potential buyer who wants to meet them there in a few hours and their fears of the future are somewhat relieved.
However, Francesco’s arrival is about something else. He has brought with him an unpublished book he has written entitled The Habsburg Manifesto, his blueprint for the return of the intellectual to prominence in public life. As the brothers are disgusted with their respective experiences in the camps of the political and cultural Right and Left in America, they find a philosophical meeting point in their contempt for modern “Democracy,” which both see as a failure, an absurdity. Enamored of his own sagacity and erudition, Francesco explains to Henry the main idea of his book: Throughout history, man has always favored and, even today, will continue to favor any horrible system of government he’s given as long as it is presented to him as the best government possible. The way to power for the intellectual-turned-ideologue, Francesco continues, is, thus, to promote the very government in which he, the ideologue, has absolutely no belief. For, “a philosopher is one who actually believes what he says. An ideologue, meanwhile, is more successful for another reason: he is only convinced that others will believe what he says. There is no better exploiter of the masses than the intellectual.” This, argues Francesco, is the way to the influence, power and wealth that the two men crave…
The setting is the immense drawing room of a memory-haunted country house outside of Grosse Pointe Farms, a beautiful suburb of Detroit. It is a balmy, late summer evening around five pm. In this scene, about halfway through the first act, Francesco has is recently arrived at the house in time for its sale, and has begun a dialogue with Hilton to draw him into the scheme of his plans:
FRANCESCO: […] I do understand, and I understand much more. I understand that after all this time—you, the Reactionary or crank if you prefer, and I, the Revolutionary; the Leftish anarchist, wooly-headed and otherwise—have gone to such extremes in our views that we have finally met up with each other. Left has become Right, Right has become Left. We’ve arrived at the same conclusions only from different directions. I’ve got you just where I need you to be. I’ve asked my first question, let me ask my second.
HILTON: Go ahead. I’m intrigued.
FRANCESCO: First, I began by asking you: Is it possible today for a great statesman to come to power? And you said-
FRANCESCO: Correct. You answered that there shouldn’t be a great leader. The less the greatness and the less the leading, the healthier the citizenry is to begin with, as you see it.
HILTON: That’s it.
FRANCESCO: But I, meanwhile, maintain that a great leader could not possibly come to power because we no longer create or even allow for the kinds of independent personalities that could lead if they were needed to do so. The real kind that is, not just ‘personalities’ that whip up the masses at rallies. This is a twentieth-century phenomenon. We are so busy being Correctified zombies and deep state democrats, you see, that we suppress that part of the personality that distinguishes a man as a natural leader.
HILTON: I would hardly say that the ‘distinguished men’ of the twentieth century did too much suppressing of their personalities
FRANCESCO: You say that democracy is only as healthy as its citizenry is vigilant. You say that this particular democracy is killing itself because that citizenry has capitulated to the lowest possible standards in the name of some phony ‘egalitarianism.’ You blame the power of the mass-mindset, essentially.
HILTON: Yes. You show me a society for which anything goes and I’ll show you a society for which not much is going at all. Yes.
FRANCESCO: And I, meanwhile, blame the power of our elite, because we persist in the illusion that our best interests are served by our elected officials. Because very few people realize that we have been completely shut-out of the decision making that effects us on every single front. Because people hang onto the myth that, despite all evidence to the contrary, that this country still strives to be class-free; a Jacksonian-everyman democracy at the end of the day. We are a managerial class, this country—a democracy by board-of-directors; a financial services conglomerate dedicated to the bliss of the short-term and the blur of the short-sighted. Yet, this will go on simply because either no one really wants to believe it is going on or—even worse—they aren’t bothered by it going on. Look, a man living in a democracy has a harder time abandoning the belief that he lives in a functioning, transparent system than some other man, living under a regime, who accepts the reality that his country and his life have been taken over by a thug. Under the dictatorship, the thug is at least visible, known. In a democracy—ours, of today—the thugs form a natural, permissible elite because no one can distinguish them from the thuggery of the mass—which is just how our elite wants it. This is what we call: ‘representation.’
FRANCESCO: And so, our Right and Left come full circle to say basically one thing: Our mass-elite and elite-mass democracy has left us with a country that has ceased to be a nation. No unifying principle—like that bit from your book a minute ago about the Royalists and the Republicans joining forces for the cause of Greece in the nineteenth century. A unifying cause, a meaning. We are today so far afield from the historical mission of this country that we have rendered ourselves a-historical. Meaning, we’ve lost our ‘meaning.’
HILTON: Which means what…?
FRANCESCO: Isn’t that for you to answer? Isn’t that the theme of the book you still don’t know how to write?
HILTON: It is the theme of the life I no longer know how to direct. Okay, if you wish to mock what I am doing—go ahead. You have every opportunity to attack as you see fit. Here it is: yes, all right. I bowed out. You are right. I gave up. The origin of how things got to this point is what I want to find out in my reading, because it is too painful to try and find out through that which I have lived. I have long given up trying to be the person I would have been had I all along been the person I was meant to be. I’m out.
FRANCESCO: Which is why you’re ready for my second question…
FRANCESCO: What if I asked you to start a revolution with me?
HILTON: No. No revolutions for me tonight, or any night, James. Just the slippers and Chippendale.
FRANCESCO: To be precise: an intellectual coup d’etat. In Washington. Of course.
HILTON: An ‘intellectual coup d’etat’—of what?
FRANCESCO: What do you say?
HILTON: I say no. To whatever it is I am saying no to.
FRANCESCO: I am serious.
HILTON: That’s the amusing part…
FRANCESCO: You walked away from everything.
HILTON: Everything had to be walked-away-from. That should be clear by now.
FRANCESCO: Everything changed in a way you could not stand, and you cannot abide any idea of what others regard as ‘Progress.’
HILTON: That is correct.
FRANCESCO: You resent that this ‘progress’ has so much influence. It scares you, in effect. Yours is a world-view based upon fear.
HILTON: Listen to me. It’s a world-view based upon disgust. Let me make things clear for you since you do not seem to get it: I told you that I called myself a Reactionary. I am someone who does not believe that everything new is necessarily an improvement. That not everything called “progress” is an advancement. That just because something is, does not mean it should be. I have no label, I have no category, no politics. I am a social conservative who can’t stand society. I am a happily-lapsed Catholic who still defends the Church. I am a right-winger who hates the Republicans and a law-and-order fascist who is a radical anarchist against the status quo. There you are. Now try to stuff me into some dated notion of “world views” and “political parties” and “ideology” and all these failed phantom fantasies. I have one belief, I believe in one thing and I say it once more: History.
FRANCESCO: But you would not be opposed to the idea of having those institutions back, on your terms…your kind of cultural terms…your ideal terms.
HILTON: I wouldn’t even begin to expect such a thing.
FRANCESCO: You can expect it, if you join my revolution as a way back to power, for both of us.
HILTON: No, for you. You’re the Marxist. The obsession with power is yours, not mine.
FRANCESCO: Former Marxist, by the way
HILTON: Just go on to Washington without me and plant your formerly-Marxist ideas there or whatever it is you’ve concocted. You can meet up with all of my formerly conservative former friends there. Your former ideology will probably have more in common with them—all of whom are former something, anyway—if indeed it is the final blow to and burial of American democracy that you are interested in.
FRANCESCO: Your hatred for the Left knows no bounds.
HILTON: There’s no Left to hate anymore. Unfortunately. You’re as meaningless a bunch as the Right. Time was when an articulate Liberal happened, at times, to be a good challenge and when being a Conservative still meant an intellectual culture of some stature. Now both sides are equally as dull and corrupt. My old Right? Buckley, Muggeridge, Mencken, Kirk, Burke, Weaver, Pound, the Founding Fathers… My old Left? Lewis Lapham, Hitchens, George Kennan, George Orwell, the Founding Fathers. Think of it. Those were good times, in retrospect. Retrospect—see? I can’t stop myself. We’ve butchered the future, by living the consequences of the past. We are trapped in a kind of continual present—that doesn’t even exist!
FRANCESCO: But what I am talking about has nothing to do with Left or Right…
HILTON (not paying attention): One thing is for sure, though. I would have been able to tolerate your Leftism, had you not been so Liberal. Do you understand the difference? Do you know what I mean? I just mentioned Malcolm Muggeridge. There was a Man of the Right who referred to himself as a Man of the Left. Do you know why? Because he was philosophically a radical in his time. What does that mean? It means that the labels apply least to those individuals, those thinkers, whom the world is always trying to define by such labels. And herein lies the mystery of art. Think for a minute of Ezra Pound, the fascist poet, and Pier Paolo Pasolini, the communist film director, reading together from Pound’s Canto 81, one of the most beautiful poems of the twentieth century written when Pound was wasting away in an American military jail in Italy. Here, a real Man of the Right and a genuine Man of the Left came together through art—art as power over politics, art as power over war, art as power over life and most importantly art as power over Time. This is what I am talking about when I talk about wanting to do something that has nothing to do, as you say, “with Left or Right.”
FRANCESCO: Listen to me for five minutes. I am telling you there is something to be created from the wreckage of liberal and conservative thought in this country, and we’re going to do it.
HILTON: No, we are not.
FRANCESCO: This is an excellent time for making History, not just being obsessed with it—
FRANCESCO: —and what you have been saying plays a central role in my plan. It is why you have to join me.
HILTON: I am not interested in your plans. All your plans—your whole career, in fact, if one is to so generously label it such—has been one devoted to defending Marxism, Communism, socialism, social democratism, statism, welfarism, multi-culturalism, open-borderism, globalism, and whatever else has littered the path to your current state of desperation. I mean, really—yours has been one long exercise in this weird psychosis of your side to punish the sovereign and pimp for the state. What is it with you people? You’re not interested in any ‘revolution.’ The last thing you want to see come to an end is authority and control.
(Hilton takes a pack of cigarettes out of his jacket pocket, shakes one out and lights it. He holds the pack out towards Francesco and makes a gesture of offering. Francesco goes over and takes one; Hilton lights it)
HILTON: Besides, whatever it is we have in common, it doesn’t matter. No one does political philosophy, let alone real revolution, anymore…
FRANCESCO (impatiently): Let me explain to you how urgent this really is. You see, it is political philosophy that itself will be the revolution. You see, going beyond Right and Left, Communist and Capitalist, Conservative and Liberal, the West is divided today into two main camps: Those who believe ‘History’ is the source of all evil and those who believe that it is the reminder of all greatness. Few might express it in such a way, but every permutation and manifestation of all that we consider the problems of our age—the economic, the moral, the cultural, the social—have at their root the question of what is worth preserving and what should be destroyed—or just left to die off. History as a standard of value, a measure of human trial and error and excellence. Or—History as a morbid narrative of human irrationality and futility. Yet, somewhere along the fault line rests one central problem—what you said about America not meaning ‘America’ anymore. When History is the source of all evil, it allows governments to use the past as an excuse for the sake of ‘progress’ and the ‘perfection’ of the state—stagnation and decline usually result. When History is the reminder of all greatness, it allows governments to commit acts in the name of some past glory; a beauty stained in someone else’s blood. Still, whether one thinks of History as a reminder of all greatness or as the root of all of man’s horrors, it makes no difference since the question presupposes on our part the recognition of a common cultural heritage that is either worthy of defending or only fit only for destruction. These days—we citizens—can’t even do that. All of this to say that, the question you’ve been obsessed with—What is History for?— as the theme of your book just happens to be (he opens his briefcase and pulls out an enormous mound of manuscript): the theme of mine…
Later on in this dialogue, Hilton’s children, Cornelia and Christopher, arrive separately to attend the sale of the house and to spend the last few hours of its existence within the family with their father, uncle and their housekeeper-manager, Marina. The two show up in emotional shambles. Christopher is a publisher whose ideals have been thwarted by the imminent dissolution of his business owing to the fact that the book he wishes to publish as his last—the memoir of an intransigent, self-possessed and defensively Catholic Prince—he deems unsaleable in today’s cultural environment, while the memoir of a social justice warrior and prostitute he knows will save his business. In this realization, he decides to retreat from the game altogether. His older sister, Cornelia, meanwhile, is a beautiful, cynical tax hustler for a few banking fronts, in blatant flaunting of her past humanitarian pedigree. Her distress is revealed slowly: A few years ago, she witnessed how the one honest commodities broker she ever knew lose his job for being upfront with his clients prior to the economic collapse of 2008 was thereafter never able to obtain any work in the industry again. She then and there decided she was past believing that there is any system of ethics or character possible in today’s society, anywhere. As a result, Cordelia insists to her family that her professional goal in life consists only of working for the most corrupt institutions possible, as only this way her view of the world will not only be confirmed but she will be spared having to observe further grotesque injustices as committed against her former colleague. In trying to help the two children, Hilton and Francesco find that their discourse takes on another level of meaning, one more emotional, graver, on the meaning of how to live and live properly.
These discussions eventually become, with increasing complexity and heated exchanges, a debate about the future of the “Individual“—that is, about the true essence of a man when freed from politics, ideology, power; the need to influence, the need to be followed, to rule, to be ruled…But does such a being exist, they wonder. And should he?
It is at this moment that the stranger appears—an elegant, elderly man who does indeed wish to buy the forty-room house. The Fitzgerald family cannot understand why a man his age would be interested in such a mansion, all alone. Yet, as the family comes to learn, the house represents for this polite, wise stranger an unforgettable past. What’s more, Francesco attempts to “try out” his plan on the man to see to what point his ideas and arguments may influence the gentleman. And yet, the visitor’s unexpected, unconventional answers throw the entire scheme off, and into another dimension. Eventually finding out who the elderly man is, the family is shocked. Piecing everything together, Francesco realizes his plan has inadvertently taken on a new significance; an enlightened, complex twist, as he comes to understand that his political-power mind-game may, in fact, have led him, in a very intellectually circuitous way, to define a meaning of existence that he—and Hilton, and even the children—had thought impossible. The theme of the play comes full-force at this point: The only successful “ideology“ a person may live is that of one’s individual dignity—as the triumph over politics, over power, and all of life.
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