With Aristotle, Gerhart Niemeyer saw art as being closer to philosophy than to history. Like philosophy, art begins and ends in wonder—it promotes a deeper sense of the mystery that bounds our experience. In the great works of art and literature, the relationship between art and religion is that of a seamless garment, and not the yoking of two “themes” or realms of discourse.
Beginning in the 1970s, a noticeable shift in focus and subject matter in Gerhart Niemeyer’s writings took place. It was in that decade that he began to concentrate less on the intellectual and geopolitical threat of communism and more on the cultural and spiritual condition of the West. Of course, there are no clear demarcations here: Niemeyer continued to write about communism through its demise in the Soviet Union, and matters of culture and spirit had been central to his thought for decades. But the shift was unmistakable.
It should be remembered that Niemeyer had produced an extensive body of work about the totalitarian ideologies of the modern era, especially communism, by the 1970s, by which time it was becoming clear to most observers that the struggle with communism around the globe would be a protracted conflict rather than one likely to lead to apocalyptic violence. The ultimate battleground, Niemeyer concluded, would be in the hearts and minds of those in both the East and West who could bring about renewal through an openness to transcendent truth and the wisdom of the past. In particular, Niemeyer’s deepening faith impelled him to find concrete ways to embody the Christian vision in the public square. And so the essays of his last two decades turn increasingly to matters of culture, literature, the arts, and education in the West.
It may be a truism that the published writings of most great thinkers represent only the tip of the iceberg when compared to the depth of knowledge that never makes it into print. But I would argue that this is especially true of Niemeyer. He was a meticulous scholar with a strict code of ethics. Even into his eighties he could publish an essay with the cautionary footnote, “The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” Though he was a man of enormous learning—in history, philosophy, theology, and literature, among other disciplines—he felt that he needed to speak out of his primary discipline, that of political theory. For example, he had strong convictions about modern developments in literature and the arts, but he rarely addressed such topics directly; his comments on them are found primarily as lines of inquiry within essays devoted to political concerns. Even his last book, the collection of essays entitled Within and Above Ourselves, bears the subtitle “Essays in Political Analysis,” despite the interdisciplinary breadth of wisdom permeating nearly the entire volume. As a man who became, late in his life, both an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and a Roman Catholic convert, Niemeyer had read widely in Christian spirituality; and yet, with the exception of a few quotations from certain beloved medieval mystics like John Ruusbroec, he did not translate this interest into his published works.
As a student of Gerhart Niemeyer at Hillsdale College in the late 1970s, I had a privileged viewpoint on his life and work. In the classroom, the broader range of his interests was much more evident. For example, two of the courses he taught at the time were based entirely on fiction: “Russian Writers and Totalitarianism” and “Modern Writers and Ideology.” In the discussion that follows I will supplement my commentary on his late essays with references to the courses I took with him. Like so many of his students, I bear the indelible imprint of his vision. Because my own vocation has been shaped, to a significant degree, by my encounter with Niemeyer’s teaching, I hope the reader will indulge the autobiographical quality of parts of this essay. For a brief time, at the beginning of my professional life and the end of his, he and I were able to exchange views on the possibilities for cultural and spiritual renewal through literature and the arts. And though we did not always see eye to eye, that exchange continues to shape the direction of my work.
With the publication of his essay “The ‘Autonomous’ Man” in 1974, the shift in the center of gravity in Niemeyer’s writings becomes evident. Up to this point, Niemeyer had devoted his intellectual efforts to understanding how modern ideologies had moved from the realm of the mind—the fantasies or “possible realities” of alienated intellectuals—to totalitarian systems that attempted to impose those dreams on the world through organized violence. But Niemeyer’s autonomous man is not necessarily a totalitarian apparatchik or even a Western “fellow traveler.” Rather, the autonomous man is Niemeyer’s description of a different sort of ideologue, someone in rebellion from tradition and transcendence but detached even from the political movements of his time. In one sense, the autonomous man might arguably be called “postmodern man,” though Niemeyer showed little interest in that term. The individual he describes may not be an active member of an ideological political movement, but this does not lessen his destructive potential for the larger social order. A society of autonomous men, Niemeyer believed, tended toward anomie and anarchy. The realms in which the autonomous man makes the greatest impact are in culture and education rather than politics or government.
Niemeyer begins the essay by invoking his concept of the “total critique” in which the modern ideologue, turning the human mind into “its own place” (Milton), denounces all existing order and seeks to substitute for it dreams of utopia. From Machiavelli and Hobbes through the philosophes and on to Marx and Nietzsche, the modern mind found the classical and Judeo-Christian foundations of the West to be utterly inadequate.
As the total critique of society gathered momentum, all aspects of society being condemned as totally false and inhuman, all human authority as a sham, all norms as suspect of hidden self-interest, all power as masked violence, man was denuded of the last vestiges of order. Nothing was left to mediate between each person’s subjectivity and universal reality. Universal order and meaning could no longer be found through any concrete manifestations, it had no more standing in this world and thus vanished into unreality. Man found himself isolated in a meaningless and irrelevant setting, far more isolated than Pascal in the vast cosmic spaces.
The autonomous man believes himself to be self-created, and thus refuses to acknowledge dependence on a Creator. And with the disappearance of a transcendent ground for truth, Niemeyer continues, the autonomous man denies the existence of higher norms outside of himself. Thus “norm is absorbed into will.” Here Niemeyer appropriately invokes Nietzsche, who is undoubtedly the tutelary spirit of the autonomous man.
Two crucial deformations follow from the ideologue’s self-deification. First is the substitution of psychology for ontology. Instead of the human effort to probe the nature of a reality that exists above and prior to his own existence, the mind’s own drives and needs—including its unconscious drives and needs—become the fons et origo of reality. Thus the imagination, instead of seeking symbols that are attuned to transcendence, becomes the source of abstract, disembodied, self-enclosed systems. This leads to the second deformation: the confusion of acting and making. Aristotle made clear the distinction between acting, which is the proper realm of ethics and politics, and making, which is the creation of new artifacts. “Acting,” Niemeyer writes, “occurs in the midst of things which are what they are by nature; it means choosing conduct, or actions, bearing in mind what befits the natures of men and things.” (Aftersight, 9) But the modern ideologue looks upon politics as the realm of making, believing that wholly new structures can be created out of the mind. Hence, the rise of totalist political systems.
Niemeyer was well aware that the rise of the autonomous man did not mean a society full of Nietzschean übermenschen. So he introduces into this essay a distinction between two types of autonomy. The “mega-self” is closer to the Nietzschean model: It is the intellectual or activist who sees “science as power” and dreams of conquering the recalcitrance of both nature and the traditional social order. The other type of autonomous man is not such an overreacher: The “micro-self” is the isolated, alienated individual whose ambitions are more hedonistic. The micro-self, immersed in modern therapeutic psychology, seeks above all to craft a “lifestyle,” which has increasingly been defined as one that defies moral and social conventions. This quest for freedom, Niemeyer concludes, has devolved into the proverbial pursuit of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
A few years later, in another important essay, “Beyond ‘Democratic Disorder,’” Niemeyer extends his analysis of contemporary Western culture. Here, instead of the somewhat awkward terms mega- and micro-self, he speaks of nihilist intellectuals and a “profanized” middle class. By furthering the process of secularization, the elite make it possible for the hedonistic middle classes to pursue happiness as best they can. Living off of the last remnants of moral capital bequeathed by Christianity, these contented, urban masses do not so much engage in active rebellion as they make a pastime of petulant “whimpering” about their lives. Their desire for perfection is not the ardent pilgrimage toward holiness of the Christian saint but the tantrums of the brat whose limitless desires are not immediately met. The desire for safety supersedes the need for sacrifice and decisive action. In the political realm, Niemeyer contends, this restless desire for perfection is translated into the political correctness of never-ending quests for more equality. If that means a denigration of the very traditions and institutions that have given rise to the search for greater justice, then both the elite and the middle classes are satisfied.
Niemeyer notes the different spheres in which the elite and the masses live and move and have their being. For the middle class, the milieu they inhabit is that of popular culture, whereas the province of the elite is that of high culture. As an intellectual whose life was devoted to calling other intellectuals to moral and spiritual accountability, Niemeyer devoted relatively little time to a critique of popular culture, and much of what he wrote about it differs little from similar critiques over the last half-century. Nonetheless, he possessed an acute awareness of the rise of what Philip Rieff called the “therapeutic mentality.” While Niemeyer tended to use the word therapy in a positive sense, indicating the sort of healing wisdom of the great thinkers and saints, he understood that a heavily psychologized West would be characterized by “spiritual restlessness.” This restive spirit sought solace not only in material hedonism but also in spiritual hedonism, including a shallow curiosity for spiritual fads and trends, particularly those that seemed exotic and Eastern, but which made few personal demands on their adherents and which were changed as quickly as the year’s fashions.
Inevitably, Niemeyer’s interest in culture centered on the loftier heights of literature and the arts. In his later essays, illustrations from these realms are never far away. For example, in “The ‘Autonomous’ Man” he illustrates the idea that “norm is absorbed into will” with reference to what has come to be known as serial or “twelve tone” music: a form which insists that each of the twelve musical tones be sounded before any can be repeated. Thus serial music imposes a type of order, but it is utterly abstract, ungrounded in human experience. It is the product merely of the will of the composer.
Nowhere does Niemeyer set out a specific aesthetic. In “The ‘Autonomous’ Man” he notes that the imagination can be used for good or ill. In the broadest sense, he believed that the imagination could move either in the direction of autonomy, creating self-enclosed systems, or in the direction of participation, that is, a deepening of our sense of the mystery that surrounds our existence. So the poet William Blake represents for Niemeyer the “romantic intoxication with the imagined; he created an entire mythical world for himself, but also sought to impose new mythical meaning on various aspects of existing reality.” (Aftersight, 9) Blake’s popularity is directly related to the way autonomous individuals find their condition reflected in his poetry. Bad art, for Niemeyer, was not just that which promotes immorality, but, in an even deeper sense, promotes unreality—the fantasy that leaves us locked in private purgatories.
Though he believed art should promote order, Niemeyer did not impose on it a merely didactic or utilitarian ethic. He recognized, for example, that “art is a territory that must not be sullied by the advocacies of politics or philosophical contention.” (Aftersight, 305) With Aristotle, Niemeyer saw art as being closer to philosophy than to history. “Art aims at understanding, which is the dimension of the eternal encountered in the setting of the particular.” (Aftersight, 316) In writing about the Southern philosopher-poet Marion Montgomery, Niemeyer said that “his focus is on poets, writers and their concern, which essentially is with nature.” At its best, then, art does not lead to fantasy and abstraction but to the concreteness of daily human experience, or what Niemeyer called “the reality given to us in time and place.” (Aftersight, 316) Like philosophy, art begins and ends in wonder—it promotes a deeper sense of the mystery that bounds our experience. Above all, art recreates “the abode of mankind, the ‘in-between,’ where there is the experience of tension between the higher reality of the divine and the lower reality of created things as well as of demonic narcissism, between nature and grace, between tradition and alienation.” (Aftersight, 303)
What, then, did Niemeyer make of the literature and art of the modern era? Despite ubiquitous references to the creative masterpieces of the twentieth century, he never developed a consistent position on this subject. At times, his focus was on the way that modern art reflected the solipsistic realm of the autonomous man. In a typical passage, he might criticize such modern movements as Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, serial music, and so on. These movements are dominated by the “laws of dissolution.”
In music, the serialist says: ‘Thou shalt not use any note more than once, lest it become a tonal center.’ In Cubist painting the law is: ‘Thou shalt not leave the object intact.’ In literature: ‘Thou shalt have no hero to your story,’ which is the first commandment followed by the other, which is like unto it, ‘Thou shalt not portray any personal character, because there is not [sic] truth in any character except that of the ideology to which the person is committed.’ Regarding films the law forbids the depiction of reality, since it is nothing but illusions, so that only irrational dreams or actions deserve to be called real. (Within, 75-76)
As broad-brush criticism of modern art, these sentences might elicit agreement from a majority of people, but the very broadness of the brush is somewhat problematic.
There were several modern writers whom Niemeyer admired, including T.S. Eliot, who were pioneers of High Modernism. Eliot’s poetic technique for much of his career was the literary equivalent of Cubism, and in literary personae like J. Alfred Prufrock and Gerontion, Eliot created some of the most enduring anti-heroes of the modern age. There are times in his essays when Niemeyer seems close to granting that artistic forms which appear to represent dissolution may, in fact, be up to something constructive.
Then came solitary thinkers who could supply a voice for the suffering: Kafka, Beckett, Joyce, and Canetti; Alban Berg and Schönberg, playwrights for the theater of the absurd; artists painting without object or line; and rock stars. Their function in society is to put into words, music, pictures, and action the agony of the Nothing, so that the millions of its mute sufferers can feel understood. (Within, 338)
While still largely negative in connotation, this passage lists individuals elsewhere singled out as among those who have wrestled with modernity in a fruitful manner. After singling out some of the greatest interpreters of modernity such as Eric Voegelin, J.L. Talmon, Norman Cohn, Albert Camus, and Henri de Lubac, Niemeyer goes on to cite: “T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Robert Musil, Heimito von Doderer, and Elias Canetti” as men of insight. Others named elsewhere include Wyndham Lewis, Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, Evelyn Waugh, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Thornton Wilder. Of course, when it comes to a poet of the stature of Eliot, Niemeyer was perhaps more willing to accept his earlier poetry as diagnostic of modernity’s ills, so long as Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and crowning achievement, Four Quartets, were kept to the forefront.
But if Niemeyer’s ideas about aesthetics and modern art were far from systematic or entirely consistent, it would be wrong to see his engagement with literature and the arts to be of little importance to his overall vision, particularly in the last two decades of his life. In the classroom, as I have indicated, he was much less shy about extended considerations of modern literature. Two of the most memorable courses I took from him were “Russian Writers and Totalitarianism” and “Modern Writers and Ideology.” These courses focused on two different approaches to the political and spiritual crises of the modern era. As I look back upon them, I realize just how demanding—and rewarding—they were.
In “Russian Writers and Totalitarianism” Niemeyer was able to chronicle the Before and After of the Communist Revolution. We read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Dostoevsky’s The Possessed and Brothers Karamazov, Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, and Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The First Circle, and Cancer Ward. Turgenev and Pasternak were studied primarily as transitional figures. In Fathers and Sons, a generation of liberals is succeeded by radical ideologues who have taken advantage of their fathers’ relativism and decadence to seek after the goal of political revolution. In Doctor Zhivago, Pasternak attempts to find the answer to the question of how a ruthless totalitarian system could arise out of Russian soil; his story, while epic in scope, falls short of profound insight into the spiritual pathology of ideology. “A pall of great metaphysical sadness hangs over [Pasternak’s] work,” Niemeyer once wrote. (Aftersight, 290) Without the redemptive vision of Christianity, Pasternak could only fall back on romantic individualism, which inevitably ended in sadness.
The central figures in the course were Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn. In print, Niemeyer could be quite tough on Dostoevsky, who, he concluded, was limited by an existential Christianity that veered dangerously close to irrationalism and what in theological terms would be called fideism. From the frightful ordeal of the radicalizing of the Russian intelligentsia, Niemeyer wrote, Dostoevsky “emerged not a radiant victor but rather a battered, bruised, and bloodied warrior whose exclamation of faith comes in his work to hardly more than a stammer.” (Aftersight, 289) In the classroom Niemeyer was less harsh, taking us through The Possessed—with its large cast of ideologues—as well as Brothers Karamazov—the core of which is nihilistic Ivan’s metaphysical challenge thrown down at the spiritual neophyte Alyosha—with great energy and passion. We paid particular attention to the story-within-the story—Ivan’s tale of “The Grand Inquisitor”—for its incisive and compelling portrait of a Nietzschean vision, including a critique of the metaphysical freedom which is the legacy of Christianity, and the need for Supermen to relieve the masses of the freedom that they do not want.
Those who know Niemeyer’s work at all know that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of his heroes. Having inherited the totalitarian world prophesied by Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn had endured deep and prolonged suffering in the Gulag Archipelago. What struck Niemeyer as extraordinary was that Solzhenitsyn and others within the Gulag had had the experience of spiritual renewal precisely when everything had been taken away from them. Stripped of freedom, possessions, modesty, and health, at least some of the inmates of the Gulag heard the still small voice of God and rediscovered their human dignity. For Niemeyer, this rediscovery was intimately linked with the very freedom that Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor had mocked as something human beings did not want.
[I]n the midst of the most inhuman conditions the dozen or so main characters [in Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle] make choices central to their humanity: whether to consent to an assignment of routine drudgery or be sent to a Siberian slave camp, whether or not to divorce a husband who is behind bars, whether to humor a warder’s tyranny or resist it, whether to do honest work or mark time, whether or not to cooperate as an informer, whether or not to go along with Communist reasoning. (Aftersight, 291-92)
In a world of degradation, a nihilist’s dream made into reality, Solzhenitsyn’s characters discover God not merely in shallow emotional conversions, but as the source of goodness. If, as Niemeyer once wrote, the “shapes of order and structure in human history manifest vectors of underlying goodness,” then the protagonists in Solzhenitsyn’s stories become aware, through suffering and deprivation, of just where some of those vectors lie. (Within, 205) Even in the frigid wasteland of Siberia, the goodness of creation itself can be experienced.“The soul, open to being, senses participation, the Creation is good, and our companions, for better or for worse, are of it too.” (Aftersight, 296) Thus, in the Gulag ontology replaces psychology, reversing the secularizing movement of modernity and restoring divine being as the ground of human existence. “Even in the midst of apparently bottomless defeat, [Solzhenitsyn’s] characters manage to sustain faith, hope, love; they remain pilgrims on their way to man’s ultimate destiny.” (Aftersight, 290)
The other literature-based course taught by Niemeyer, “Modern Writers and Ideology,” was equally absorbing, though in some ways even more dense and ambiguous. What held the course together was Niemeyer’s interest in the relationship between the decay of liberalism and the rise of totalitarian ideologies and alienated elites in the West. The texts studied were Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and Max Frisch’s The Firebugs. The settings and styles of these works are literally all over the map—from Frisch’s satirical play, a morality tale about the helplessness of relativism in the face of evil, to the massive novels of ideas by Musil and Mann. But each contains profound insights into what Niemeyer called the “throes of mortal agony” that have characterized a decadent liberalism in recent decades. From Musil’s dense novel about the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Niemeyer picked up the author’s understanding of the way that fantasy leads to ideology. As Musil’s narrator says, the ideologue is someone who prefers “possible realities” to “real possibilities.”
A possible experience or a possible truth does not equate to real experience or real truth minus the value ‘real’; but, at least in the opinion of its devotees, it has in it something out-and-out divine, a fiery, soaring quality, a constructive will, a conscious utopianism that does not shrink from reality but treats it, on the contrary as a mission and an invention.
To take just one example from this course, Niemeyer’s teaching of Mann’s Doctor Faustus demonstrated a capacity for a close reading of literary texts. This novel, published in the aftermath of World War II, is Mann’s attempt to understand the tragedy of Germany’s descent into National Socialism. It is written in the form of a biography: The “author,” Serenus Zeitblom, is an earnest, humane liberal; the “subject” of the biography is Adrian Leverkühn, a towering genius of modern classical music, but also a man who has sold his soul to the devil in order to become the celebrated founder of a new, abstract form of composition that bears a remarkable resemblance to the twelve-tone or serial technique. Leverkühn is essentially a composite of two modern thinkers: Nietzsche and Arnold Schoenberg. As Niemeyer pointed out in class, Nietzsche is never mentioned in the text, which is ironic, given his pervasive influence on German culture. But the omission is deliberate: Nietzsche has been absorbed into the people, the culture, into Leverkühn himself. The composer—whose name means “I’d rather be bold”—becomes not only a Romantic “genius” (with overtones of the cultic worship of the charismatic leader), but a revolutionary who will bring a new, abstract order to a decadent, liberal culture. Leverkühn says to Zeitblom: “[B]arbarism is the opposite of culture only within the order of thought which it gives us. Outside of it the opposite may be something quite different or no opposite at all.”
Mann’s vision comprehends not only the emergence of the alienated ideologue-as-revolutionary, but also a sense of how an entire culture can drift into complicity with evil. The German people, lost and alienated in a liberal culture, grow weary of freedom without direction or moral energy. So the new order promised by Leverkühn and his political equivalents becomes powerfully attractive, a magnetic force. As Zeitblom reflects at one point, the intellectuals had begun to develop a sense of inevitability about Nazism:
But what… they were saying was: It is coming, it is coming, and when it is here it will find us on the crest of the moment. It is interesting, it is even good, simply by virtue of being what is inevitably going to be, and to recognize it is sufficient of an achievement and satisfaction. It is not our affair to do anything against it.
Doctor Faustus ends with this sentence: “A lonely man folds his hands and speaks: ‘God be merciful to thy poor soul, my friend, my fatherland.’” In German, of course, “man” can be rendered “Mann.” In his pointing out Thomas Mann’s own intense suffering over the tragic fate of Germany, Niemeyer’s own suffering resonated in the classroom.
The relationship between suffering and the “positive experiences” that could bring about renewal by recovering the “vectors of underlying goodness” was one of Niemeyer’s constant themes. In the case of Solzhenitsyn and others who had rediscovered their souls in the Gulag Archipelago, the suffering had been so intense that it had served as a refiner’s fire, producing men and women of prophetic vision. To add just one more example, late in his life, Niemeyer encountered the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt. Pärt had been educated in twelve-tone serialism, which had been adopted by the Soviet intelligentsia who dominated the captive nation of Estonia. Niemeyer picks up the story:
[Pärt’s] way from ‘under the rubble’ [a phrase from Solzhenitsyn] led him through the equivalent of the musician’s ‘abyss,’ through complete silence, musical silence, mental silence, spiritual silence, silence observed for years, silence as the soul’s recovery-regime from absolute lostness. As he began to emerge, cautiously sounding first one note, then a repetition of that note, he remained committed to silence as the point of beginning, and allowed no notes ‘unworthy of the underlying silence.’ The emerging music turned out to be strongly spiritual, and his latest composition is a Passion according to St. John. (Within, 87)
Pärt’s music combines some of the best elements of minimalism with a renewed interest in ancient Christian chant and polyphony. The result is music saturated with reverence and respect for mystery, helping to bring about a renaissance of sacred choral music in our time.
Niemeyer, in his typically tough and unsentimental fashion, was much less inclined to see signs of spiritual recovery in the West, precisely because we have not experienced either the extremity of suffering or the shock of societal collapse and defeat. One partial exception to this skepticism was Niemeyer’s late appreciation for Southern culture and literature, especially as mediated through the critical and philosophical writings of Marion Montgomery. When the novelist Walker Percy was asked about why the South had produced so much great literature, he replied, “Because we lost the war.” Niemeyer appreciated the tragic wisdom that informed writers like Percy, Eudora Welty, and, above all, Flannery O’Connor.
In his review essay “Why Marion Montgomery Has to Ramble,” Niemeyer responded to Montgomery’s trilogy, The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age, which consists of Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home, Why Poe Drank Liquor, and Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy. The title of Niemeyer’s essay is a reference to a criticism made of Montgomery’s style, that it is rambling and repetitive, circling back on itself and revisiting many of the same ideas and authors. As Niemeyer’s title indicates, he strongly defended Montgomery’s approach. The trilogy is “a sensitive man’s existential journey,” and “a succession of social encounters” between the reader, Montgomery, and the authors Montgomery studies. Moreover, Niemeyer argues, Montgomery’s habit of circling around core topics and writers is not repetitive, but always reveals new angles and new perspectives. The form of Montgomery’s writing is that of a “quest,” which is attuned to the nature of the search for meaning in the mystery of the in-between (metaxy). (Aftersight, 301, 303)
Montgomery helped to open a realm of literature to which Niemeyer had had little access. This is especially true in the case of Flannery O’Connor, who perhaps provides an example of a Western writer whose work represents a major achievement in what Niemeyer would call “therapeutic” thought. Her writings are not a response to totalitarianism, which is a European and Eastern phenomenon, but to the “soft intellectual irrationality” that has penetrated the cultural life of the United States. Niemeyer singles out the series of “separations” that O’Connor contends have contributed to the decline of American culture: the separation of “thought from action, judgment from vision, nature from grace, reason from imagination.” (Aftersight, 317) As Niemeyer sees it, Hawthorne, O’Connor, and Montgomery (as guide) all contribute to a necessary critique of America’s Puritan heritage. This religious tradition, while possessed of many virtues, also brought about deformations of central Christian themes and ideas. The danger of Puritanism lay not just in the incipient utopianism of the “city on a hill” metaphor, but in an excessively low view of nature and creation. From Montgomery’s analysis, Niemeyer calls attention to the Puritan emphasis on “Industry” as chief virtue, which tends to stress mastery overnature, and ceaseless activity. Montgomery points out the fascination of the Puritans with “technometria,” the idea of applied science as a means to power. Niemeyer’s own Christian vision moved, by contrast, in a more sacramental direction, upholding the goodness of creation and its capacity to mediate transcendence.
There is one other aspect of Montgomery’s trilogy that Niemeyer singles out. Twice in his review essay Niemeyer points to Montgomery’s fundamental graciousness as writer and intellectual combatant. There is no hostility, Niemeyer notes, in the Southerner’s approach, even when dealing with thinkers who have arguably unleashed demonic forces in the modern era. Not all would-be culture critics have been able to maintain this spirit. “We have had a number of books casting the acid of angry rejection over the spirit of our age. They are not in error; it is only that in many cases they do not get us anywhere.” (Aftersight, 318) Though he does not make the connection directly, I would argue that it is the very nature of the humanities, and in particular the study of literature, to help remind thoughtful people of the ambiguities and dangers of intemperate denunciations and the rhetoric of polarization.
If one looks carefully at the late essays of Gerhart Niemeyer, there are similar statements, cautions against forms of culture criticism that may become vitiated by rigidity and extremism—and perhaps even become ideological in themselves. Through most of his career, Niemeyer was comfortable thinking of himself as a political conservative. He even tended to support the majority of political efforts spearheaded by conservatives. But as a scholar steeped in the humanities and a deeply spiritual man, he did sound a note of caution when he felt that conservatism itself might cease to be an “up-turning” force and descend into ideology. In his seminal essay, “Beyond ‘Democratic Disorder,’” written soon after the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, Niemeyer called on conservatives to wield power with prudence and “sobriety.” (In hindsight, his hope that conservatives would heed Camus on the need for “limits” was not realistic, particularly in the case of Reagan, whose rhetoric shaded into the language of unlimited expansion and progress.) Niemeyer warned not only of the danger of certain intellectual strands of conservatism, such as “individualist rhetoric,” but also of the whole tendency of conservative factions to act “with the air of a crusade, with fanfares of a ‘final battle’ being heard in the background.” (Aftersight, 333)
When I founded a literary and arts quarterly—Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion—in 1989, much of the impetus behind the project could be traced back to what I had learned from Gerhart Niemeyer. Two key concepts of his shaped the journal’s editorial policy. First, it seemed to me that it was incumbent upon those who sought to uphold the tradition of the West—a tradition in which faith, reason, and imagination are grounded in openness-in-love toward transcendent truth—to avoid the blandishments of ideology, even when it appeared in conservative trappings. For me, that included the temptation to carry on “with the air of a crusade,” denouncing modern art and literature as monolithically evil. In light of Niemeyer’s teaching, it was evident to me that the “Culture Wars” could only end in Pyrrhic victories, as the rhetoric of total righteousness battled against all enemies. Niemeyer’s passion for history and tradition as the living memory of a people united not only in space but in time meant, to my mind, that the tradition had to be kept alive, not pronounced dead by those who had given up on the idea that the Judeo-Christian vision could reanimate Western culture in the present moment.
I also became convinced that it was the role of great art and literature not only to provide diagnostic insight into social and cultural decadence, but also to capture the “positive experiences”—new visions of order—that Niemeyer believed would be the basis of genuine renewal. It seemed to me that such experiences might well be found in contemporary art and literature, precisely, as Niemeyer had pointed out, because in America a spiritual hunger was leading many people—including both makers and receivers of art—to explore once more the richness of the Western religious heritage of Judaism and Christianity. It seemed to me then (and still does) that we must be willing to look for these “positive experiences” in a variety of places. Niemeyer’s own life history predisposed him to art that engaged political and philosophical issues, which was why he responded so powerfully to writers like Solzhenitsyn, Eliot, and O’Connor. But in founding Image I felt that the aesthetic net had to be cast wider, and that we might need, in these postmodern days, to be willing to bring in many hauls of smaller fish, rather than wait for new Solzhenitsyns and O’Connors to emerge.
In the course of researching this essay I have come to believe that the mission of Image is close in spirit to Niemeyer’s ideas about education, which are captured in one of his most passionate essays, “The Glory and Misery of Education.” In that essay he sets out some of his familiar themes—the modern rejection of the classical-Christian synthesis, which has led to positivism, fragmentation (“the wine-tasting approach”), and the loss of memory that comes with the abandonment of tradition as a living thing. At the heart of his argument, however, is a plea for educators to once again seek out Heraclitus’s koinos, the realm of being that can be known and held in common by what Marion Montgomery calls “the larger body.” This is impossible unless educators are free to teach about what human beings have believed over the centuries. This is particularly true in the case of transcendent beliefs, which “transcend man’s subjectivity, both personal and collective” because they “regard the whole of which we acknowledge ourselves to be a part.” The need to understand ourselves as part of a larger whole brings us back to Niemeyer’s concept of “participation,” that loving openness to the divine that bounds our existence in the in-between.
The whole, then, has no context: there is no place beyond which we could stand, even in imagination, to look on the whole as if it were an object. Our wonderment about the whole therefore can have no end. The whole has inescapably the character of a mystery…. (Aftersight, 342)
The role of education, then, is to help students understand beliefs “not as if they were alien objects, but rather from within, the beliefs as well as their study being seen as an integral part of the ‘serious play’ of life in which we are involved.” (Aftersight, 343) The connection with Image comes in at this point, because it is in literature and the arts that we are able to enter the “within” of others. There may be no better definition of art than that of “serious play.” So for Image the goal has been to provide imaginative visions of what it is like to struggle with Judaism and Christianity at this moment in history.
I was nervous when I sent the pilot issue of Image to Niemeyer. His response was swift, and, as I feared, in his “tough” mode. He wrote on April 28, 1989:
What struck me first was the ‘and’ between the arts and religion. Try to apply this to Homer, or Sophocles, or even Mallory. One could not squeeze an ‘and’ in here any place, could one? Thus the unspoken premise for your magazine is still the ‘dissociation of sensibility.’ Now Eliot himself dropped this formula relatively early in his life. Why? Would it be because his own life had moved on beyond this condition? Then the question comes up whether to include in your journal only those of whom it was never true (e.g. David Jones).
This present issue [#1] seems to go the way of the first possibility. You then come up with strenuous efforts to discover God, or ‘religion,’ where the artistic message at first glance seems not to speak of God, or even to be incompatible with such speech. The article about Updike struck me as such an effort. It mentions that Updike read Karl Barth and is knowledgeable about Gnosticism; but that leaves one still wondering whether he read the Bible and knew the Church Fathers. And how about such speech about God which celebrates the ‘new freedom’ as being the ‘new message of God’? The work of [painter Steve] Hawley seems to be another example of what I mean, for it is necessary to bring out, with considerable effort, the meaning of his various pictorial symbols, after which one holds in one’s hand a message that could better be expressed in discursive language.
In other words, the ‘and’ in your title turns out to stand for a distance of considerable magnitude. Is that your editorial intention? If so, it reminds me of all the parents who, in the sixties, spoke of their hopelessly rebellious children with the words: ‘He is trying to tell me something.’ Forgive me if I seem unreceptive to your ideas. Still, I wish the new Journal every good thing.
While it wasn’t the most encouraging of letters, I had to grant that Niemeyer had put his finger on one of the central theological and aesthetic problems for Image. The “and” in our subtitle pointed out an awkward fact: that we were pointing, rather self-consciously, to a relationship that ought to be unselfconscious. In the great works of art and literature, the relationship between art and religion is that of a seamless garment, and not the yoking of two “themes” or realms of discourse. The response to this, of course, is that we don’t live in the time of Homer or Sophocles or Mallory—we live in a postmodern world in which pluralism and diversity have been elevated above the ideas of cultural and spiritual unity. Of course, Niemeyer was aware that a number of modern artists, including Eliot and O’Connor, had found ingenious ways to avoid the problem of the “and”—to use indirection, violence, and the grotesque to reconnect the deepest purposes of art and religion.
My own conviction was that, despite his skepticism, Image represented a vision inspired by Niemeyer’s late concerns with Christianity and culture. I knew that most of the content in the journal would not have the same stark experience of life-after-totalitarian-ideology that characterizes the work of Solzhenitsyn and Pärt, but I hoped that the more subtle approaches in the pages of Image would transcend the self-consciousness of the “and.” Five years after his first letter I heard from Niemeyer again on the subject of Image. In a letter dated September 29, 1994, Niemeyer wrote:
You probably noticed that my attitude toward the Image idea was definitely lukewarm. I cannot give you an explanation therefore, except that I had not found anything attracting me in modern art.
Let me tell you that this attitude of mine has made a 180 degree turn, as a result of reading Image. The magazine is an astonishing accomplishment. I say this explicitly without the addition ‘of yours.’ It is an accomplishment tout court, and it would be an accomplishment of anyone else. First, its selections are authoritative. Secondly, the articles, each of which is most substantial, are written in a tone that bears witness to the title of the magazine no less than the pictures or other works of art do. In my mind—which of course may be doing some repenting of its erstwhile lack of respect—Image must be attributed a very high rank among all the publications of this century. And you deserve a deep bow of admiration for what you have brought into existence.
Niemeyer’s later, more reflective, response to Image indicated that he had expanded, yet again, his awareness of where in our culture the “positive experiences” might be found—a flexibility and openness that I continue to find astonishing in a man of his age.
In devoting much of the last two decades of his life to writing and reflecting on matters of culture and education, Gerhart Niemeyer demonstrated an abiding concern for the concrete ways that the deepest philosophical, theological, and political concepts can be embodied by the imagination and find resonance in the human heart. He once wrote that perhaps the most crucial thing for people to do in the current social climate is to heed St. Paul’s call to “discern the spirits,” the process of sorting out “what is from God and what is evil.” To be sure, philosophy, with its conceptual and rational orderliness, can do much to help us learn discernment. But the greatest and most enduring creations of culture, as well as the liberal arts tradition of education, combine to train our sensibilities so that we can discern the spirits in trying times.
Reprinted with the gracious permission of The Intercollegiate Review (Winter 1985-86).
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- “Forces That Shape the Twentieth Century” in Within and Above Ourselves: Essays in Political Analysis (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1996), 187. Other quotations from this book will be cited by page numbers inserted in the text.
- “The Autonomous Man” in Aftersight and Foresight: Selected Essays (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America and Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1988), 5-6. Other quotations from this book will be cited by page number inserted in the text.
- In light of the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, one can’t help but think that Niemeyer would be intensely skeptical about America’s revived spirit of patriotism, since it is not accompanied by any real desire for personal sacrifice and is unlikely to spur a deeper appreciation for the principles at the roots of our political order.
- To be fair I should mention that in a later essay, “Recovering History and Redeeming the Time,” published in 1986, Niemeyer was less harsh on Dostoevsky, more open to the idea that he was a major “prophetic poet.”
- Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities (New York: Capricorn Books, 1965), 12.
- Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus (New York: Vintage Books, 1971), 371.
- The title of Pärt’s work is Passio. It was published in 1982.
The featured image is taken from the Russell Kirk Center’s film, “The Wandervogel Years,” on Vimeo.