This is Part 5 (A) of "'I See Further Than Others': Reflections On Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and The Hour of Decision", a serial essay by Steve Kogan.
Conceived in view of an imminent world war, The Decline of the West bids a long farewell to a vanishing world, whose fate is mirrored in the "blossoming and fading" of other "once flourishing cultures" (1). Their end is all the more poignant in that they are "sublimated life-essences," like "the flowers of the field," which is also the "mother" landscape of their prime symbols, or "first visible structure, / So that what first appears, even in plants, is the child" (2). Hence Spengler's "Rural-intuitive" epoch of a culture's awakening, such as the "infant Christianity," born in the "springtime" of the Magian world, and "that deeply-felt relationship between plant destiny and human destiny which is an eternal theme of all lyrical poetry."
A decade later, Spengler would speak of destiny exclusively in terms of global war and spiritual disintegration. His "fateful thundercloud which is passing over this century" is a symbol of this doom and one of the most concentrated images in all his works. Like Borges, Miller, and his other admirers, I too revelled in the densely-packed language of The Decline and the drama of its "virile pages"; yet when I began to reflect upon his emblematic storm cloud, it seemed to say more about the man and his times than I felt I could ever express. For weeks I could get nothing into perspective until a familiar sound from U.S.A. pierced my mental fog and made it all come clear. It was the voice of John Dos Passos in "Meester Veelson," beginning with the president's triumphal entry into France in December, 1918; and in the moment I recalled it I was drawn once more to the catastrophic years in which Spengler wrote The Decline, only this time in view of the human cost and of worse to come:
At the station in Paris he stepped from the train onto a wide red carpet that led him, between rows of potted palms, silk hats, legions of honor, decorated busts of uniforms, frock-coats, rosettes, boutonnières, to a Rolls-Royce. (Did Meester Veelson see the women in black, the cripples in their little carts, the pale anxious faces along the streets; did he hear the terrible anguish of the cheers as they hurried him and his new wife to the Hôtel de Murat, where in rooms full of brocade, gilt clocks, Buhl cabinets, and ormolu cupids the presidential suite had been prepared?)
Beginning with delegates from twenty-seven nations, "the grand assembly of the peace conference" finally came down to the leaders of the three principal powers,
Three old men shuffling the pack,
dealing out the cards:
the Rhineland, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, the Ruhr, self-determination of small nations, the Saar, League of Nations, mandates, the Mespot, Freedom of the Seas, Transjordania, Shantung, Fiume, and the Island of Yap:
machinegun fire and arson
starvation, lice, cholera, typhus;
oil was trumps.
For Dos Passos, the peace was just as grotesque as the war. The Hôtel du Marat and Palace of Versailles appeared like ghosts of old-world opulence against the background of Europe's devastation, and, in the ensuing spectacle of the treaty makers, "Three old men" began playing a high-stakes game, with economic policy itself the strategic principle, and "oil was trumps."
From Spengler's point of view, the table had been prepared in the midst of the war, and the subsequent treaty, followed by new rounds of economic warfare through "the Bolshevik economic offensive expressed in the Five Year Plan" and "the Dawes and Young plans," only helped to guarantee the outbreak of another war :
In 1916 there set in, side by side with the military war, a systematic economic war, to be carried on when the other came inevitably to an end, and from then onward the war aims were oriented more and more in that direction. The Treaty of Versailles was not intended to create a state of peace but to organize the relation of forces in such a way that this aim could at any time be secured by fresh demands and measures. Hence the handing over of the colonies and the merchant fleet . . . and finally the reparations, which England, at least, intended not as war indemnification but as a permanent burden on German industry until it should collapse. . . . What it really amounts to is that the life of one's own nation has to be gained at the cost of destroying that of others. It is the struggle on the keel of the overturned boat. And when all other means are exhausted, then the oldest and most primitive, the military means, will come into their own again.
In Spengler's reading of events, Europe had reached the edge of the storm by 1878, its course marked by global colonization, world-scale economic rivalries, the modernization of war, and "competitive arming for potential wars." Looking back at the enormity of the disaster and its consequences for the west, Spengler asks if it is even clear who won and who lost. "In 1918," he writes, "we thought we knew." In reality, the whole of Europe lost, the proof being that the war's "great problems are today as far from solution as ever." Nor could it be otherwise, he concludes, for "The truth is, a new form of world has arisen, as the precondition for future crises which must one day set in with crushing force."
By the 1930s, it would have taken a hard dose of the old Allied propaganda to believe that the Great War would be "the war to end all wars." This was the slogan that Jean Renoir addressed in his cinematic masterpiece The Grand Illusion (1937), but it is only now, after the failure of the League of Nations to oppose Japanese and Italian aggression, the subsequent failure of French and English diplomacy to appease Hitler's ambitions, and the current state of the United Nations as a clearing house for terrorism, that we have finally caught up with Spengler's prediction that "the oldest and most primitive, the military means, will come into its own again." Today its time has come, from the so-called "rogue states" of Iran and North Korea to the jihadist militias of Hamas, Hezballah, and the Taliban, the quasi-military drug cartels of Asia and Central and South America, and the world-wide network of Al Qaeda, all of which are exploiting the increasing loss of authority, will, and national identity in the west and its steady drift toward formlessness. A telling symbol of this growing void is the fact that Hitler and Stalin, the rulers of one-time powerful yet inherently chaotic regimes, have once again become models of totalitarian leadership, Hitler and Nazi ideology in the jihadist world, and Stalin among such tyrants as Castro, Vladimir Putin (with direct ties to the KGB), and, before his overthrow by American forces, Saddam Hussein.
Spengler's storm cloud sums up a terrifying world-picture that confronts us from the beginning in The Hour of Decision: we live in times that are "far more terrible than the ages of Caesar and Napoleon," the world has become possessed of a "frightful reality," the sheer danger of life "comes once more into its own," and History, with a capital H, reappears "as it really is - tragic, permeated by destiny," fate, and chance. Once again, as in The Decline, Spengler reads human history almost as a fact of nature, here depicted as an uncontrollable. destructive force: "Thunderstorms, earthquakes, lava-streams; these are near relatives of the purposeless, elemental events of world history."
Those who know their classics have heard this voice before. It is one of the oldest on record, and it comes down to us from the very beginning of our literary heritage:
As inhuman fire sweeps on in fury through the deep angles
of a drywood mountain and sets ablaze the depth of the timber
and the blustering wind lashes the flame along, so Achilleus
swept everywhere with his spear like something more than a mortal
harrying them as they died, and the black earth ran blood. (3)
Like his other "near relatives" of war and social crisis, Spengler's "fateful thundercloud" belongs to that same "dominion of force" that is for Simone Weil "The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad," which she describes as "the purest and loveliest of mirrrors" for those who "perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history" (4).
Fires, floods, and tempests are among the many "inhuman" events of nature that Homer associates with war; yet, as Weil demonstrates, in the Iliad force takes many forms, and its universal sway is such that "In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck" to it. Grief and humiliation are as universal as slaughter, a soldier who triumphs one day can be destroyed the next, and the rage of the conquering hero, which deprives him of reason and pity, has its counterpart in the blind fear that petrifies his victim. In this ruthless equation, "both, at the touch of force, experience its inevitable effects: they become deaf and dumb" and are thereby "turned to stone." By its very nature, writes Weil, "nobody really possesses it."
How then is the Iliad "the purest and loveliest" of its "mirrors"? The answer lies in "the extraordinary sense of equity which breathes through" the work, so much so that "the note of incurable bitterness that continually makes itself heard" has the unique quality of proceeding "from tenderness," which "spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight":
Never does the tone lose its colouring of bitterness; yet never does the bitterness drop into lamentation. Justice and love, which have hardly any place in this study of extremes and of unjust acts of violence, nevertheless bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent. . . . The whole of the Iliad lies under the shadow of the greatest calamity the human race can experience - the destruction of a city. This calamity could not tear more at the heart had the poet been born in Troy. But the tone is not different when the Achaeans are dying, far from home.
Weil's insight into Homer, as exquisite as any in The Birth of Tragedy, gives new meaning and a new emotional coloring to Nietzsche's thesis on the Greek union of Dionysian fury and Apollinian form. Spengler would have especially admired the phrase "impartial as sunlight," for it is an exact word-picture of what he means by the "noonday" clarity that the Greeks achieved in their finest creations and with the strictest economy of means, above all in the Doric temple. It is this concentration on the "pure Present" of the "near and completely viewable" that is for Spengler a defining trait of the "Euclidean soul," and he would have been struck as well by Weil's classically-oriented thinking in her definition of force in somatic terms as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing":
Exercised to the limit, it turns man into a thing in the most literal sense: it makes a corpse out of him. Somebody was here, and in the next minute there is nobody here at all; this is a spectacle the Iliad never wearies of showing us.
How different the "Faustian life-feeling" in Spenger's eyes, which longs to discover the hidden workings of nature and bend them to its will through the power of machines. Hence
the significance of the perpetuum mobile dreamed of by those strange Dominicans like Petrus Peregrinus, which would wrest almightiness from God. Again and again they succumbed to this ambition . . . They listened for the laws of the cosmic pulse in order to overpower it. And so they created the idea of the machine as a small cosmos obeying the will of man alone.
Later still, Leonardo and Marlowe's Dr. Faustus will envision feats of engineering that reach "as far as doth the mind of man" (5), and, in our own time, as Spengler writes, "The entire Culture reaches a degree of activity such that the earth trembles under it." Moreover, this "intellectual intoxication" has far from run its course. In 1927, Collingwood insisted that Spengler's predictive claims were worthless (6), yet his eye for the future was as accurate as General Billy Mitchell's, who foresaw the supremacy of air power eight years before Collingwood wrote his essay. In December, 1941, nineteen years after Vol. II of The Decline appeared, carrier-based Japanese planes almost crippled America's Pacific fleet in just under two hours. Six months later, three of those carriers succumbed to U. S. Navy dive bombers within minutes of each other, and in 1945 two Japanese cities were vaporized in seconds. As in the Iliad but augmented by what the military calls "force multipliers" of seemingly limitless power, "Somebody was here, and in the next minute there is nobody here at all."
So much for "those dreamers," writes Weil, "who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past." In the 1920s and '30s, Cendrars knew similar dreamers who "believed in the coming of socialism," whereas "I could foresee nothing but the ancient slaughters ... war modernized by science" (7). By 1916, he had seen enough to convince him that this would be our future. In L'homme foudroyé, he recalls a soldier on the western front who disappeared in a shell-burst right before his eyes, and in The Trans-Siberian (1913) he took readers on a journey through apocalyptic scenes of the Russo-Japanese War, the first of his many exposures to "war modernized by science." It was this work that led Dos Passos to call him the Homer of "Turbines, triple-expansion engines . . . speed, flight, annihilation," which have become our own "cruel and avenging gods" (8).
Spengler began The Decline just before The Trans-Siberian was published and died in the year that the third part of U.S.A. appeared. Weil's essays on the Iliad and the origins of Hitlerism were written between 1938 and 1940, and Orwell began 1984 toward the end of World War II and completed it in 1948. Although he rarely mentions the writers of his time, I like to think that if Spengler had read these works he would have recognized their authors as "superlative types" and keen observers of the modern scene, far different from the mass of intellectual "fumblers" and the carnival tricksters of the cultural avant-garde, whom he scornfully dismissed as ""pretentious fashionable artists, weight lifters with cardboard dumbells." It is worth noting that all four writers - Cendrars, Dos Passos, Orwell, and Weil - had witnessed the downward slide up close. The central vision of U.S.A. is the waste of a generation; both Weil and Cendrars were present at the fall of France in 1940 and associated its collapse with the uprooting of Christian faith in the French Enlightenment; Orwell's original title for 1984 was "The Last Man in Europe," and even Cendrars' break with his fellow artists and writers has a Spenglerian ring to it. As he writes in L'homme foudroyé, "not a year passed between 1924 and 1936 without my spending one, three, or nine months in the Americas, chiefly South America (when others were going to Moscow), that's how tired I was of the old Europe and despaired of its future and the future of the white race."
A traveller and adventurer since his teens, Cendrars saw combat from 1914 to 1916 and reported on Hitler's invasion of Belgium in 1940 (Chez l'Armée anglaise). Dos Passos saw the Great War as an ambulance driver after graduating Harvard, undertook an extensive trip through the middle east soon after the Armistice, and was the most cultivated, well-travelled, and politically courageous of the great American novelists of his time. Orwell went from Eton to the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, lived among the working poor in England and France, served with Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, and resumed work as an author and journalist, which included wartime broadcasts on the BBC. Weil recapitulated Orwell's early life by going from the École Normale Supérieure to teaching and political action, working in factories until her health gave out, and deepening her political education during her brief time in Spain, after which she had a conversion of a kind to Christianity and in her few remaining years attempted to work for the French Resistance in London, where she wrote her last and greatest work, The Need for Roots (1943). Spengler, by contrast, was a scholar and thinker from first to last, and, although he enjoyed wide contacts and a wide public audience, he lived far differently than Weil, the only other philosophically-oriented writer in this group.
I am drawn to these writers because of their distinctive voices, intellectual energy, and grounding in reality, in the same sense as Maxwell Geismar said of Dos Passos, that he "really knew what had happened to his society" (9). One feels their special connection to the age in almost all their works, and yet, although their affinities are close, they are not interchangeable, for we are dealing with highly charged personalities, among which Spengler's stands alone. Even in the case of Weil, whose analysis of tyranny and propaganda is second to none, we are always aware of the warmth of her intelligence, as we are of deep human sympathies in the writings of Cendrars, Orwell, and Dos Passos. All four had an aversion to intellectual conformity, but not even Cendrars, who detested the French "intelligentsia," could have cut the avant-garde to the quick as Spengler did, for he had been one of them when he came of age as a writer and witnessed the all-too-human path of their decline, which he describes as a gradual descent from invention and discovery to a sterile aestheticism as their celebrity status increased. He continued to keep a place in his heart for Modigliani and enjoyed the company of Léger, a fellow veteran who had been gravely wounded in the Argonne, as he had been near the Somme, but as he wrote in his farewell to that once inspiring group, "The modern painters have profoundly disappointed me." This too came from the heart and spoke to a wound of another kind, as Spengler did when he wrote of surviving "the misery and disgust of these years."
Everything that Spengler felt about Germany's defeat and subsequent failures is summed up in that phrase, yet, unlike Dos Passos and the others, he rarely mentions actual human suffering; and it is a remarkable fact that this same thinker, whose two major works are practically symphonic in their range of feelings and impressions, can also sound as implacable as the "first crash" from "the fateful thundercloud that is passing over this century." Words such as “all,” “only,” “no one,” “no longer,” "must," and “no more” come readily to his pen, especially in The Hour of Decision, whose every page conveys a warning that "History recks nothing of human logic," that "The pacifism of the century of Liberalism must be overcome if we are to go on living," and that "No one living in any part of the world of today will be happy," although "many will be able to control by the exercise of their own will the greatness or insignificance of their life-course. As for those who seek comfort merely, they do not deserve to exist."
Spengler is hard (10), and not for his erudition only, nor even for his challenging use of "certain basic terms," such as being and becoming, world and soul, and space and time, "which carry strict and in some cases novel connotations." The man himself is hard, to the point where his words are often misinterpreted by association with the rhetoric of Hitler's cult of power. When Spengler says, for example, that "those who seek comfort merely . . . do not deserve to exist," his words ring in our ears, as they did in Gunther Gründel's, with an instant echo of the Leader's voice. What Gründel admired we despise, but it was a false echo in 1934 and remains false today; for Spengler says almost the same about the future of Germany when he warns that the Nazis' political triumph came too easily "to open the eyes of the victors" and that if any western nation, especially his own, continues to ignore its dangerous position in the world, then "fate - and what a fate! - will submerge us without mercy."
Spengler got it right about Germany. He was also quick to see that Marxism had become a school for third-world revolutionaries, and he reads like today's news when he speaks of the renewed threats to the nations of the west:
For the first time since the siege of Vienna by the Turks they have again been put on the defensive, and they will have to commit great forces, both spiritual and military, into the hands of very great men if they intend to weather the first mighty storm, which will not be long in coming.
The prospects are not good. In the closing pages of The Hour, Spengler writes that "The white ruling nations have abdicated from their former rank. They negotiate today where yesterday they would have commanded, and tomorrow they will have to flatter if they are even to negotiate." Tomorrow has come, and our enemies are now throwing our pandering back in our face. In an article on President Obama's decision to chair a meeting of the U. N. Security Council on nuclear nonproliferation without "Naming names, or identifying actual threats" (National Review, September 5, 2009), Anne Bayefsky remarks that "the spectacle of proclaiming affection for world peace in the abstract" will be taken as yet another sign of appeasement by all "rogue states," especially Iran. "As a Teheran newspaper close to the regime snickered in July: 'Their strategy consists of begging us to talk with them.'”
If Heller had read Spengler's prediction in light of these words, he would have taken them as further proof that Spengler was attuned to "the destructive tendencies of the age" because he himself had "a crude and wicked mind." As we saw earlier, nothing that Spengler could have said in his defense would have shaken Heller from his position, for he ignored the fact that Spengler was issuing real warnings, and he compounded this failure with a confused religious argument against the predictive accuracy of his "Destiny-idea." This was his contribution to the vexed question of the "Spengler problem," behind which every critic had his own reason for shutting his eyes. Whereas Hitlerites like Gründel were disappointed and then outraged by Spengler's critique of the Nazi revolution, and Fennelly's "men of learning" found fault with his scholarship, his methodology, and famous "pessimism," Heller disputes the indisputable by claiming that he "is not a historian, but a false prophet" and that the test of a true prophet is not whether his projections are right or wrong but how pure and sincere he is in his "concern for the things threatened by human sin and divine anger." It never once crosses his mind to consider the historical analysis that led Spengler to his conclusions or that there might be something to the idea that there is a fatality at work in human affairs. Unlike Berdyaev, who distinguishes between Spengler's "atrophied religious sense" and the brilliance of his intuitions, Heller wants to have it both ways and argues that a "false prophet" is more likely to be right the more he is complicit in "the evil future." One has only to replace Spengler's name with Dostoevsky's and his argument falls apart.
Weil would have been incapable of constructing a thesis along Heller's line of reasoning, not so much because of its flimsiness, although that too, but because her religious thinking, as strict as Spengler's insights, led her to the same conclusion as his that the salvation of the soul is the central teaching of the Gospels, that Christ expressed it perfectly when he said "My kingdom is not of this world," and that "'Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's' means: "Fit yourselves to the powers of the fact-world, be patient, suffer, and ask it not whether they are 'just.'"
The "fact-world" is Spengler's chosen sphere and in every time-frame he examines. His reports from the future are almost always on target not only because he has a solid working knowledge of science and history but also because of his command of current events and freedom from wishful thinking and ideological bias of any kind. In The Decline, he writes that "Everything depends on our seeing our position, our destiny, clearly, on our realizing that though we may lie to ourselves about it we cannot evade it"; and in The Hour he speaks of a wholesale flight from reality among masses of people and party ideologues of all persuasions, who crave illusions in place of facts and indulge in an "evil sentimentality" that celebrates one utopian ideal or another - the workers' state, world peace, etc. - all of which are "artificial and lifeless," ignore what men "were and are and not what they ought to be," and cannot be put into practice except through a particular "craze for organization which, becoming an aim in itself, produces bureaucracies that either collapse through their own hollowness or destroy the living order." In his analysis of mob hatred for "the living order," Spengler's critique of Europe's radical movements reads like an update of Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, which Spengler both knew and admired.
Spengler is no more a clairvoyant than anyone else. When he says "I see further than others," he is not only thinking of all that he knows of the present but also commenting on his certainty that "the forces which will sway the future are no other than those of the past." Cultures may differ, but the forces remain the same; and, as "at the commencement of the Imperium Romanum, so today, the form of the world is being remoulded from its foundations, regardless of the desires and intentions of 'the majority' or of the number of victims demanded by every such decision." The Hour of Decision could well be subtitled "The Metamorphosis of Power," for it is the constant theme of his observations on imperial Rome, western history after the establishment of the ruling nation-states, and world history ever since "The first flash and crash of the fateful thundercloud which is passing over this century."
Orwell was off the mark when he included Spengler in the fascist orbit, yet his wartime writings on London and Kipling call attention to the subject of power in a way that sheds light on a trait of temperament that Spengler shares with them. In "Rhythms of History," I noted Orwell's observation that both writers draw our attention to far-flung places where brutality is the norm, but he also suggests that they are able to describe this side of life convincingly because it corresponds to a streak of brutality in themselves. Indeed, Orwell had it himself or he could not have engaged in "the dirty work of Empire" (11) or depicted a fictional tyranny so menacingly real that readers behind the Iron Curtain were suprised to learn that its author had not lived under the Soviet regime. He had read its literature, anatomized its propaganda, and escaped its clutches in the nick of time in Spain, yet no amount of empirical knowledge without the emotional certainty of what hatred, deception, and ruthlessness feel like could have created the world of 1984. When I finished reading the novel for the first time, I threw it across the room as though it were a hateful thing, and there are moments in Spengler that have also caused me to recoil.
(1) Nikolai Berdyaev, "The Pre-Death Thoughts of Faust" (1922). Berdyaev Online Bibliotek Library.
(2) Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, "The Metamorphosis of Plants" (1797), trans. Christopher Middleton, in Selected Poems, Suhrkamp / Insel Publishers, 1983, p. 155.
(3) The Iliad of Homer, trans. Richmond Lattimore, The University of Chicago Press, 1951, Book XX, 417, ll. 490-94.
(4) Simone Weil, "The Iliad or The Poem of Force" (1939), trans. Mary McCarthy, in Simone Weil: An Anthology, ed. Siân Milles, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1986, p. 192.
(5) Christopher Marlowe, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus (1588), Washington Square Press, 1959, I, i, l. 64. And again, "Yea, stranger engines for the brunt of war / Than was the fiery keel at Antwerp's bridge / I'll make my servile spirits to invent!" I, i, ll. 99-101.
(6) See R. G. Collingwood, "Oswald Spengler and the Theory of Historical Cycles," Antiquity, 1927. For a contrasting and highly perceptive rereading of The Decline, see Adda B. Bozeman, "Decline of the West? Spengler Reconsidered," The Virginia Quarterly, Spring, 1983.
(7) Blaise Cendrars, L'homme foundroyé, Denoël, 1945, p. 343 (trans. mine).
(8) John Dos Passos, "Homer of the Trans-Siberian," Orient Express, Harper and Brothers, 1927, p. 165.
(9) Maxwell Geismar, Introduction to The Big Money (1936), the third volume of U.S.A., Washington Square Press, 1961, p. 3.
(10) On the contrast between the dogmatic simplicities of "multicultural" studies and the intellectual demands of The Decline, see Thomas Bertonneau, "The Jargon of Mock Ethnicity: Multiculturalism and Diversity as Virtual Thinking," Praesidium, Fall, 2001.
(11) George Orwell, "Shooting an Elephant" (1936), Penguin, 1970, I: 266.