A Rose for Edmund
STEPHEN M. BORTHWICK wonders what exactly today’s conservatives have left to conserve
There’s something perennially fascinating about Southern Gothic – it has something to do with the accuracy and elegance of the metaphors authors like Faulkner and O’Connor use in their stories. It is true that these authors have often been accused of being grotesque – but it rather points to a tendency in their art towards the true that earns them this. Of course, Flannery O’Connor has herself anticipated this argument – commenting that
Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.
I like to think I have enough appreciation for the South not to fall into this trap, but the truth is that I am condemned to die a Copperhead – never a true Southerner. Nevertheless, I think there is a universal genius to be observed among the great Southern authors. Faulkner, especially, hit upon a wonderful metaphor in A Rose for Emily – the story of an elderly patrician who has murdered and then slept next to the decaying corpse of a man she fell in love with as a girl. It was written as a sort of critique of the Lost Cause mythos, and the Southrons who stubbornly clung to the Antebellum age in the face of radical change – change which would have come regardless of who won the War. There is, though, a more eternal quality of the metaphor that I think speaks to the whole of the contemporary Western world, and in particular to the immobile conservatives still clinging to the corpse of Edmund Burke.
The problem with Anglo-American (indeed, Western) conservatives is that they confuse institutions with the principles that produce them. I am not the first commentator to level this accusation – in his book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present (Princeton University Press, 1997), Jerry Muller goes as far as to say that the institution is a fundamental part of the conservative ideology. If he is right, then there is a flaw in conservative thinking that must be put right if the stated goal of the Right is ever to be achieved.
The Scouts offer a wonderful example of all this: Scouting is an institution that arose out of a massive social movement that dominated the so-called “Gilded Age”. The progressive spirit drove the formation of civic-minded youth groups that were militant and formative – the primary goal being to manufacture, en masse, generation after generation of men bred in the Anglo-American conception of the world – that is to say liberal (capitalist, Protestant, and parliamentary) – willing to die for it, and able to kill for it. Over time, the killing part faded away, and with it the dying part and it became a civilian organisation that merely clung to the old civic principles of the progressive era, bent on manufacturing a certain kind of man.
Conservatives in America cling to the Scouts as an institution that represents the world-view they inhabit – that is to say, Christian and civic-minded, with a bit of “classical” liberalism to flavour. They think of it as a sort of bulwark against change, not realising that in fact the very idea of manufacturing a certain kind of man is part-and-parcel of the so-called “social engineering” they so thoroughly denounce, and the “rugged individual”, the masculine hero they romanticise out of history, is in reality the alienated individual that so thoroughly differs from the human person of tradition. The Scouts were what they were solely because they arose at a certain time and out of a certain milieu – one far more tolerable to the conservative mind but no less dangerous to traditional society.
It is perhaps worth noting now that the man with whom young Emily fell in love with in Faulkner’s story was a northern contractor who had come South. The metaphor now becomes clear: an agent of change becomes the focus of the affections of the conservative because of the age in which those affections grew. The drive, then, is to preserve the corpse, the dead institution, not realising that to survive it must change, it must go back North (as Emily refuses to allow her lover to do), because that is its nature. To preserve it, to conserve it, does not mean merely refusing to change, but to recognise the inherently transient nature of these institutions, and if (or perhaps when) they become corrupted, leaving them aside.
The Boy Scout Association and its acceptance of homosexuality is a small example, but the reality is that conservatives are doing the same thing with Western civilisation at large. It is becoming increasingly clear to the historically aware that what was so valued at the heart of Western Civilisation – that is to say, Christendom, honour, hierarchy, natural law, etc. – no longer resides within the purview of what we have grown accustomed to call “the West”. There is no turning back the clock – to return to “classical” liberalism merely means pining for an earlier stage of decay; to reverse the ideology of liberalism, abandoning it altogether, is no more possible, for it has ceased to be an ideology, and has become the West itself. Wrapped up in the language of rights, equality, freedom, civic responsibility, even support for monarchy – arguing how it benefits “the people” – all of this is modernity, all of it liberalism, all of it entropy in which conservatives actively participate when they use this language. They need not even be liberals at heart – they may be speaking of rights and freedoms in a very Christian sense, they may even appeal to natural law and use arguments of ages past, but the meaning of words – and the reality they therefore not only represent, but create – is not in the control of the speaker, but in the control of the audience, and the audience is saturated in the reality of modernity. An attempt to deny these things – to speak and believe, as Julius Evola put it, in a way that
…before the French Revolution, every well-bred person considered sane and normal
is to enter a sort of self-exile, not only because that way of thinking and belief is abhorrent to modern man, but, far more importantly, because it is incomprehensible. Oswald Spengler offers a most appropriate quotation:
…the age has itself become vulgar, and many are unaware of the extent to which they have been tainted.
The fact of the matter is, the West is dead, and conservatives are only very slowly waking up to that reality. No greater illustration of this can be found than a recent Newsmax article, relating with mournful impotency the situation of monuments dedicated to the First World War in Hawaii, North Carolina, and Michigan. These monuments are crumbling, and while some voices are calling for their repair and renovation, the reality is that the antiquarians are outnumbered by the apathy of the society around them, and government (which is a practical institution) cannot brook the costs of restoration. In Michigan, the Memorial Hall dedicated to the war has already been knocked down. The Newsmax article captures the situation wonderfully:
For many residents, the structure’s architectural and historic significance pales in comparison to more immediate needs. ‘The war was a long time ago”, Wharton said. “I don’t think it’s meaningful for most people.”
War memorials once united people behind a common cause and ideology; as the ideology becomes permeating, facing no real competitors, and the civilisation reaches its old age and dies, the memorials and monuments built to that worldview and ideology will collapse and crumble, held up by a few interested antiquarians far removed from the living concerns and devotions that drove the architects of those great edifices. The sad, but undeniable, truth is that the Vestal Flame has been extinguished in the West, and there are few, if any, alive who remember why it was lit in the first place. Others are coming to inherit and inhabit the cultural ruins left behind by the West – as well as the very real ruins, like these war memorials. As Arthur Moeller van den Bruck remarked,
…to be a conservative means creating something worth conserving
a recognition that not the institution, but the spirit that drives it, is at the heart of a living tradition. It is this living tradition to which conservatives, or, rather, those who seek the goals of the traditionalist and conservative, must look, rather than the shell in which that tradition dwells here or there, now and again.
The West has had the good fortune to inherit much of the cultural heritage of classical civilisation, to reinterpret and re-appropriate this heritage. Pagan learning became Christian learning, forums became marketplaces which likewise became headquarters for confraternities. The circuses were replaced by jousting lists. The Byzantines, last remnants of a dead civilisation, looked to the West as their protector and future – much better than the future they faced under the Saracen. The West sacked Constantinople, slew and raped, and did other unspeakable things, but the ruins of classical civilisation endured in the West even to its own demise. What civilisation will inherit the West? What heritage does the West leave – is it worth preserving and conserving? Certainly there were things derived historically from the classical civilisations that made our own civilisation unique – but the wheel of history is turning about again. It is left to conservatives, who refuse to actively participate in the liberalism and suicidal progressivism that defines the last phases of the West, to determine what they shall build that is worth conserving, or if they shall prefer to lie next to a corpse until they themselves pass away. It falls to us, to embrace or to deny history; in the words of Seneca, ducunt fata volentem; nolentem trahunt.
STEPHEN M. BORTHWICK is a traditionalist Orthodox Christian writer and PhD student at Catholic University of America in Modern European History