This final Part 5 (B) concludes "'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.
It is rare for Spengler to speak of the actual death of a culture. The past for him is "living history," and even the end-time Cosmopolis that he envisions will be rooted in a "life-feeling" all its own. Its core impulses, however, like those of earlier city-civilizations, will be fact-oriented and materialistic rather than soulful and inward, and eventually the body itself will die, the last remains of "the great petrifact."
As in Weil's reading of the Iliad, but far less emphatically, The Decline "lies under the shadow of the greatest calamity the human race can experience - the destruction of a city" (1); yet it lacks the qualities of justice and compassion in Homer that "bathe the work in their light without ever becoming noticeable themselves, except as a kind of accent." No such accent is heard in The Decline, nor could it be, since the Iliad for Spengler belongs to "the spiritual childhood of the Doric," whereas The Decline is an "early winter" expression of an irreligious, or "unphilosophical philosophy - the last that West Europe will ever know."
During the long twilight of the west, the "late man" lives in the last rays of its culture. In 1984, they are reflected in Orwell's beloved English classics (2), and for Spengler, they glow in the art and music of the west; but where Orwell's "last man in Europe" is worn down and finally broken by a totalitarian state, Spengler's cultures are doomed by life itself:
All art is mortal, not merely the individual artifacts but the arts themselves. One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be - though possibly a coloured canvas and a sheet of notes may remain - because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone.
There is no sad reflection on the ruins of time, no grim commentary such as Hamlet's in the graveyard scene, only the dark finality of Kafka's epitaph on existence, "The meaning of life is that it stops" (3). Hence Spengler's icy detachment when he depicts the death of "the great Cultures," for those same "majestic wave-cycles" that mirror their "becoming" end in a seascape of complete desolation: "They appear suddenly, swell in splendid lines, flatten again and vanish, and the face of the waters is once more a sleeping waste." All that was alive in a culture disappears into the abyss, as all of Moby-Dick would have been swallowed up by "the great shroud of the sea" if Ishmael had not miraculously survived to tell the story of the Pequod; that same Ishmael who heard Father Mapple's magnificent sermon on the Book of Jonah before setting out on his voyage and who, before the services began, gazed upon the chapel's memorial tablets of sailors who "placelessly perished without a grave" and was uplifted by the sudden thought that "Faith, like a jackel, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope."
Spengler has no such faith. His very temperament goes against the grain of Christian optimism, yet he sees "the ungraspable phantom of life" that Ishmael sees and with an equally vivid sense of its urgency in human consciousness. This recognition, which recurs throughout The Decline, reaches the height of metaphysical drama in his reading of the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate, when the world of facts and the world of religious truths stood face to face in a scene that is "appallingly distinct and overwhelming in its symbolism." To the Roman Procurator's unforgettable question "'What is truth?' . . . the silent feeling of Jesus answers . . . by that other which is decisive in all things of religion - 'What is actuality?'" For Spengler, this encounter marks the turning point in the life of Jesus, an encounter that he knew in another form in Dostoevsky's "The Grand Inquisitor," in which Christ returns when the Inquisitorial fires begin. The Inquisitor has him arrested and confronts him with a long argument against his message of spiritual freedom. Christ remains silent throughout and at the end replies with a kiss on the Inquisitor's "bloodless aged lips." Spengler was deeply attracted to Dostoevsky and knew of his spiritual rebirth in the Czarist prisons of Siberia. He regarded his figure of Alyosha Karamazov as a type of the nascent Russian soul; and he may also have had the tale in mind when he remarked in Vol. II that if Dostoevsky had written his life of Christ, "as he always intended to do - [it] would have been a genuine gospel like the Gospels of primitive Christianity."
Spengler's chapters on Russia and early Christianity have an unspoken presence in the darkest scene of all in The Decline, in which he depicts the death of a culture as the final triumph of the "fact-world" over the spirit. In this brief anti-Gospel of history, a "Second Religiousness" appears but drained of all redemptive meaning and as barren as the final "winter" epochs of the past. Here there are no "lilies of the field," no parables taken from life, and no real confrontations, nothing but a religion that seems tragically meaningless in the face of a dead civilization and nature's implacable indifference:
In the midst of the land lie the old world-cities, empty receptacles of an extinguished soul, in which a historyless mankind slowly nests itself. . . . And while in high places there is eternal alterance of victory and defeat, those in the depths pray, pray with that mighty piety of the Second Religiousness that has overcome all doubts forever. . . . Only with the end of grand History does holy, still Being reappear. It is a drama noble in its aimlessness, noble and aimless as the course of the stars, the rotation of the earth, and the alternance of land and sea, of ice and virgin forest upon its face. We may marvel at it or we may lament it - but it is there.
This is the "fact-world" in its starkest and most unforgiving form, where the "eternal alterance of victory and defeat" is as desolate as "the alterance of land and sea," and not even those who have "overcome all doubts forever" seem to know anything more than a "holy, still Being" that resembles the peace of the grave. It is not the end of history but the end of a history, whose early stages now confront us in the dangers that Spengler spells out in The Hour.
In his introduction to The Decline, Spengler hints at Russia's significance for the fate of the west, and in The Hour he reads our future in light of radical movements from the French Revolution to the Soviet regime, whose work of subversion and murder Khrushchev would later sum up when he said "We will bury you," which was not only a concise expression of its aims against the west but also a sinister echo of what Bolshevism had wrought upon masses of Russians as early as the civil war (1918-23). It took Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago to expose the full horror of what Spengler understood in 1922 when he asked "who to-day seriously thinks of the millions that perish in Russia?"
In The Hour of Decision, Spengler accurately portrayed the regime as a modern form of "Asiatic" savagery, and he also predicted that a new culture would be born from the Russian soul; but he never linked the two, nor, so far as I know, did anyone else in the west foresee that the spirit of Dostoevsky would survive a prison system that was spread across a world "of ice and virgin forest" and bore the imprint of Stalin's malevolence in the very "course of the stars":
It was the end of November, and a recent snowstorm had whipped up enormous drifts around the building. The sky was clearing, with the beginning of a severe frost, and the stars glittered as always in winter, with a gloomy power and a remote indifference to all that is alive. (4)
Like other Russian writers who were raised to be "Soviet citizens" and were later thrown into the camps, Lev Razgon understood to the last bitter dregs that the only real aim of Marxist propaganda was destruction. In The Hour of Decision, Spengler describes the Soviet leadership as "a ruling horde, called the Communist Party," which uses "murder as a routine administrative method," and he explicitly calls Trotsky a "Bolshevik mass-murderer"; but what is even more interesting is that nineteenth and early twentieth-century Russian writers anticipated what Heller calls "the evil future" in terms that accord with Spengler's philosophy of history. Unlike his western critics, writes Berdyaev, Russians would not have been "taken aback" by The Decline, for "All the Russian religious thinkers have . . . sensed a certain sacred terror at the perishing of culture and the ensuing triumph of civilisation." In Berdyaev's concluding words, "This -- is our style of book."
Berdyaev had only read the projected contents of Vol. II when he wrote his essay, but he had already gleaned from Prussianism and Socialism that "Spengler sees in the Russian East that new world, which will come to replace the dying world of the West"; and to his Russian readers he also observed that "for us these thoughts are of interest, this turning of the West towards Russia, these expectations, connected with Russia." Nevertheless, Spengler does not allow us to forget that he is writing as a westerner in "an irreligious time," in which "we are born as men of the early winter of full Civilization" and not "on the golden summit of a ripe Culture, in a Phidias or Mozart time." As Berdyaev notes, Spengler's thoughts bear the mark of a culture that "has lost its faith and is tending toward decline." Moreover, writes Berdyaev, Spengler is unusual in that he does not grieve over this loss or struggle to find a way back. Living in a "cold" time, he makes a virtue of necessity and absorbs what has gone before to the maximum of his intellect, his intuition, and whatever remains to him of old-world soul.
Berdyaev sees Spengler clearly because he sees the man. He knows that there is a "Spengler problem," yet he not only acknowledges but also insists that Spengler is "exceptionally gifted, at times close to genius in certain of his intuitions," a point he makes several times. What compels his attention is not Spengler's mind alone but the entire character of this "exceptionally gifted" thinker, which for him is split between the man of high culture and the man of civilization, between soul and soullessness, and which is strangely untouched by the depths of spirituality that he himself has sounded. Here is a philosopher-historian who has "examined the role of Christianity within the fate of European culture" and knows that "culture is religious by its nature," yet he sees no common humanity in the workings of history, no "single mankind" to give it meaning, a discrepancy that Beryaev calls "the most striking side of his book." In everything from the Greek classics and Christianity to science, art, and mathematics, Spengler "has been able to express very noble thoughts," but "he does not understand the religious life of mankind," and "In this is his tragedy."
Berdyaev's conclusion depends upon his prior observations. He does not say that Spengler's case is tragic because he is an unbeliever but because, for all his "noble thoughts," there is a universal fact about the interior world that escapes him. He can "feel" himself into the inwardness of a Beethoven string quartet, the conspicuous care for the past and future in Egyptian architecture, and the eternal Present in the Classical soul, but he remains an outsider, as distant from "the religious life of mankind" as the spiritual distances that he sees among the high cultures of the world.
One does not have to be a believer to experience what Berdyaev calls mankind's "bond of fate." Of the modern thinkers I have read, no one has understood human affliction in Christian terms more clearly than Weil, yet she says that she only got as far as the foot of the Cross; while Orwell, a professed unbeliever, nevertheless affirmed his faith in common human decency and believed that fraternity was the only spiritual value that could replace God in an irreligious time. Seen in this light, what Berdyaev means by his pronouncement is that there is something profoundly incomplete about Spengler, for he is incapable of experiencing any sense of communion with his fellow man. In Berdyaev's understanding of The Decline, this incapacity amounts to a "spiritual deformity" that is "almost its monstrous defect."
There is a telling passage in Spengler's early letters in which he also seems disconnected from himself. Writing to Hans Klöres in October, 1914, he sees with uncommon clarity that France "displays for the last time her best qualities, a sense of honour and personal courage: all the quicker will the marasma settle in in the coming years"; and he sees as well that the future of Germany "is unfortunately equally unconsoling, if one thinks and feels as a man of culture." One assumes that Spengler includes himself among those who despair that "The ray of inward culture from the time of Goethe . . . has been completely extinguished by this war," yet seven months later he writes to Klöres that he does not "regret" the loss of "the Germany of Goethe" but simply regards it "as a fact."
What then is Spengler "as a fact?" He states in no uncertain terms that the war has "completely extinguished" the soul of Goethe's Germany, yet shortly before the outbreak of hostilities, he tells Klöres that he is "deeply buried" in his manuscript, and he remains hard at work until its publication, despite privations, loneliness, and bouts of depression. Through it all, he is sustained by the guiding lights of Goethe and Nietzsche, the two great exemplars of German culture "to whom I owe practically everything," as he will write in 1922. He himself is living proof that his cultural heritage has not been "completely extinguished by this war," yet he does not seem to recognize that this too is a fact.
Borges draws a compelling picture of Spengler's solitary existence at this time, but there is a sense in which Spengler is a solitude even to himself, since he gives no weight to his own example. It is a "ray of inward culture," after all, that he carries within himself and in just that productive sense which Goethe believed was the true test of ideas. By contrast, writers such as Razgon and Solzhenitsyn never lost faith in the power of the individual to keep the human flame alive; and from Kafka, Freud, and Thomas Mann to Niels Bohr, Albert Schweitzer, and Furtwängler the Goethean ideal was likewise not "completely extinguished by this war" (5).
Among my culture heroes cited in these pages, Spengler will always remain an enigmatic and disturbing figure who "thinks and feels as a man of culture" yet lacks the human touch that the others have in overplus. I say this despite all that I have learned from him and all that I too admire in his "very noble thoughts." Had the voice of Dos Passos not come to my aid, I might never have taken Berdyaev's critique to heart or understood what was missing for me in Spengler's "fateful thundercloud"; for, although he speaks brilliantly of "world-fear" and the "mighty destiny" that is even now "whirling" whole nations "in confusion, exalting them, destroying them," there is no intimate human presence to relate to in his work other than his richly personal prose, no feeling of compassion over the recurring spectacle of waste and loss, as in the Iliad and U.S.A., and no unfolding of a "painful mystery," such as A. C. Bradley saw in Shakespeare's tragedies.
There is, however, and again by contrast, something of Jack London's Wolf Larsen in Spengler's critique of pacifism in The Hour of Decision ("Man is a beast of prey. I shall say it again and again"), and there is even more of Napoleon's icy mind, which moved with ease, as Larsen's did, across whole areas of knowledge and experience yet remained similarly unbending in its lack of human sympathies. Spengler sees him as the first of the "late men," and there are no less than twenty-three references to him in The Decline and fifteen in The Hour. When Spengler wrote "I see further than others" he was repeating almost word for word a remark that Napoleon once made about himself (6).
In yet another arresting parallel, there are two big things that neither saw and this too in similar ways, for when Napoleon crossed the Nieman River into Russia, he had no real grasp of the physical and spiritual forces that would soon converge against him; and it is striking to see a similar blind spot in Spengler regarding the German army of August 1914, about which he made one of the few telling errors that I have come across among his many predictions and with the same fatal lack of skepticism that led Napoleon to exclaim to the Compte de Narbonne in March, 1812 that his fears of Russia's vastness, her "barbarity," and even "a gigantic effort on her part" would prove groundless:
Facts will dispel all these fears. Barbarian nations are superstitious and have simple ideas. A single blow delivered at the heart of the Russian empire, at Moscow the Great, Moscow the Holy, will in a single instant put this whole blind and apathetic mass at my mercy.
Spengler speaks in the same disastrous Napoleonic mode when he tells Klöres in his early wartime letter, "I am a thorough optimist. We shall win and in such a way that the great sacrifices will be richly compensated." This was a far cry from Spengler's later observation that all of Europe lost the war, and, as far as I can tell, the only German sacrifices that were richly compensated were Spengler's own struggles to complete The Decline. In November, 1915, he writes to Klöres that he has again been rejected for military service on account of his health, and he goes on to describe his "sleeplessness, severe headaches, and my frightful nervous sensibility," to which he adds,
For the last few weeks I have been working day and night, literally right through the night, sitting by a candle owing to the lack of kerosene, trying to collect and transcribe whatever was possible, and getting a quantity of collections of notes ready for the printer. Nevertheless, it was for me a sort of walk to execution - it can't be expressed otherwise.
The dark times ended with the success of his work, but there was one problem that remained intractable, which was writing itself as a way of life for him. Although he tells Klöres in May, 1915 that his "task . . . is more valuable" to Germany than any active service he could perform even if he were well, six months later he confesses to "the feeling that I must see my life spoilt because its whole reality is carried out on paper." In "Pessimism?" he distances himself from writers and thinkers whose work is not "in the service of active living," and his passion for history as "a vast treasure . . . of experience" is for me his most sympathetic trait. I know just what he means when he says that there are "long days when paper disgusts one," and he sends me back to Goethe once more when he tells Klöres, "If you read the misunderstood Tasso, Goethe's most profound drama, you will discover deep down this self-contempt of the 'mere writer.'"
This is the Spengler who draws me in, yet a moment later he begins to harden his position in that peremptory way of his, first when he claims that "Shakespeare had this feeling even stronger, for the caricature of the poet [Cinna] in Julius Caesar is self-ridicule," and then when he turns to his favorite example of a man "who is to himself a Destiny" and writes that "Napoleon also in later years had a repulsion towards people who wrote books" and that "One will always be envious of Napoleon . . . because he always was able to realize his ideas without any opposition."
I shudder at the thought of such a man, yet Spengler knew his Bonaparte better than he did his Julius Caesar, for his chilling exaggeration highlights one of the great seductions of Napoleon's public image, which was his apparent freedom from common constraints, to the point where it seemed that he might fulfill his ambition to establish what he called "a new society" across Europe through the sheer force of his intellect, his energy, and will. It took the Battle of Borodino, Russia's scorched earth policy, and the frightful retreat in the winter of 1812 to set in motion his decline; and it likewise took Russia's greatest nineteenth-century novelists to anatomize the disastrous consequences of his "Destiny-idea," Tolstoy in epic form in War and Peace and Dostoevsky in psychological terms in Crime and Punishment. As for his French critics, Chateaubriand cut through Napoleon envy in one deft stroke when he remarked in his memoirs that "Bonaparte had nothing good-natured about him. Tyranny personified, he was hard and cold: that coldness formed an antidote to his fiery imagination; he found in himself no word, he found only a deed, and a deed ready to grow angry at the slightest display of independence: a gnat that flew without his permission was a rebellious insect to his mind."
Both in victory and defeat, the man who was "to himself a Destiny" taught the author of The Decline a harsh lesson on the fate of nations. Spengler never forgot that Germany had long been a battleground of foreign armies, and, as Weil observes in The Great Beast, it was Napoleon himself who "awoke German nationalism by his conquests and oppression. . . . German romanticism, one of whose aspects is power-worship . . . dates from the time when the whole strength of the country was strained to breaking-point against Bonaparte."
For Spengler, the central event of the Befreiungskrieg, or War of Liberation, was the awakening itself. Like the young Nietzsche, who wrote in The Birth of Tragedy that "the German spirit . . . like a knight sunk in slumber," will one day "find itself awake in all the morning freshness following a tremendous sleep," Spengler believed that "the Prussian standard" was one of those "wordless ideas" that lives "by inheritance" and "still sleeps in the depths of our soul as a permanent potentiality. It is to be reached only through the living example and moral self-discipline of a ruling class, not by a flow of words or force."
The last phrase speaks to the principle means by which the Nazis gained ascendancy and indulged their delusions of omnipotence. As in Weil's analysis of force, Spengler remarks on the blinding effects of sudden triumph through "the intoxication of the moment," when "Elements come into power which regard the enjoyment of that power as an event in itself and would fain perpetuate a state of things which is tenable for moments only." To rely on coercion and the ideological "compulsion of a program" is a weakness, not a strength and no substitute for a national heritage, which has grown and been tested over time, and therefore "if a stable foundation is to be laid for a great future, one on which coming generations may build, ancient tradition must continue effective."
Although his words fell on deaf ears, Spengler's lesson itself has been time tested and is even now coming to consciousness among untold numbers of Americans who have never heard of him yet have awoken to their inbred faith in the nation's founding documents. The Decline wears well. In his comment on "the reverence" in which "the American" holds the Constitution, Spengler notes that every remnant of political forms "that are older than the [French] Revolution and Napoleon . . . will before long rise to incalculable values and bring about historical effects which no one yet imagines possible."
This was yet another of Spengler's predictions that came true "before long" and in a way that he too could not have imagined. By 1929, as in 1911, he saw the portents of an imminent world war, yet nothing in his bleak analysis of England and America allowed for the possibility that the power of "ancient tradition" would soon come alive in their second allied effort, nor could he nor anyone else have guessed that even Stalin would appeal to the Soviet masses' love of "Mother Russia" should a world war break out. Spengler noted that America was overtaking England as a naval power, yet he understood it least of all the major states, and, like so many European writers and thinkers since the nineteenth century, he uncharacteristically followed the prevailing group-think in The Hour of Decision when he described it as a nation populated by raw immigrants, "alien" and "foreign-thinking," with an "intellectually primitive upper class, obsessed as it is by the thought of money," and a way of life that is "organized exclusively from the economic side and consequently lacks depth." His misjudgment of the nation's character was ingrained in him from the beginning of his career, as we see in his letter of October 1914 to Klöres, in which he could not have been more wrong when he said that "a completely soulless Americanism [would] rule" Germany after the Great War was over.
Spengler had a true insight into the conservative strain in American life, yet nothing could shake his ignorance of a nation for whom "the War" was merely "a novel sport," its religion "a sort of obligatory entertainment," and its people a mass "of trappers, drifting from town to town in the dollar-hunt, unscrupulous and dissolute; for the law is only for those who are not cunning or powerful enough to ignore it." By contrast, even the old Hollywood got it right in Meet John Doe (1941) when Henry Connell, a hard-boiled newspaper editor who has been drinking more than is good for him, tries to warn a naive "John Doe" that the paper's new owner is a would-be dictator who has elevated Doe to national prominence as a political screen for his aims. Connell even touches on the notion that "the War was a novel sport" for Americans when he says to Doe that he saw his father killed before his eyes and a moment later exclaims,
I like what we got here! I like it! . . . And we don't want anybody coming around changing it, do we? . . . And when they do I get mad! I get boiling mad. . . . I get mad for a lot of other guys besides myself—I get mad for a guy named Washington! And a guy named Jefferson—and Lincoln. Lighthouses, John! Lighthouses in a foggy world!
Spengler never put the case for founding traditions more concisely than Robert Riskin did in his screenplay, with its Christian-political image of our democratic lights shining "in a foggy world" (7).
It pleases me to think that it took an American novelist to provide what was missing for me in The Hour of Decision and help me organize my thoughts; and it was only by chance that I recently discovered a little-known classic of American journalism that describes the first shock of "the fateful thundercloud" in a way that I had never read before. The book was With the Allies (1914) by Richard Harding Davis, the nation's most renowned war correspondent of his time. Davis had covered several battle zones around the world, beginning with Cuba in the Spanish-American War, and he was in the thick of things once more during the first weeks of August 1914, when the German army attempted to cripple France by way of neutral Belgium and avert the threat of a two-front war with Russia in the east and England and France in the west.
Borges writes that Spengler identified with Germany's isolation and felt that he too, like his nation, was alone. This existential sense of "Germany in danger" would always color his patriotism, yet he accepted the invasion of Belgium without any thought of its military or political risks or that it might even be fatally flawed, as indeed it was (8). In his letter to Klöres on October 25, 1914, in which he made his blind prediction of a German victory, he was carried away by "the intoxication of the moment" for the only time in his life:
The possession of Belgium alone, which will certainly remain German, is an enormous gain: 8,000,000 inhabitants, a harbour on the Channel, a gigantic industry, and a very old civilization. Also we shall get what we need, an African Colonial Empire. The invasion of England is technically possible and is included in the plans of the General Staff. I assume that it will take place at the beginning of November.
Those who accused Spengler of Nazi sympathies were looking in the wrong place for his conception of a powerful German state, which was not to be found in the racist "herd" mentality of 1933 but in the Germany of 1914, whose "old-Prussian 'style'" he regarded as a legitimate weapon of "high policy," as it had been in the War of Liberation against Napoleon and again at Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, "which just barely staved off a general offensive of the armies poised at our borders by preventing Italy's declaration of war" (9). For Spengler, 1813, 1870, and 1914 are the key dates in modern German history when "the Prussian standard" welled up in defense of "this masterpiece of a state, our most genuine and personal creation - so personal that no other people has been able to comprehend or imitate it, hating it instead like everything daemonic and inscrutable."
If this dark view was fueled by fears of a highly organized state, as Spengler says it was, the German army of 1914 made it a reality in the infamous "rape of Belgium," in which masses of people fled before the advancing juggernaut, civilians were executed to enforce a brutal occupation, and what Spengler welcomed as the possession of "a very old civilization" was laid waste from Brussels to the German border, most heart-wrenchingly the medieval-Renaissance city of Louvain (Leuven), an exquisite example of the period to which he refers as the late springtime of the Gothic world.
It was Davis who brought the onslaught home to me and in the same Homeric language as Spengler's "Thunderstorms" and "lava-streams" of history. Like so many others of his generation, Davis had been schooled in the classics, but it was the voice of a first-rate American journalist that spoke to his readers as he reported the three-day march of the German army through Brussels, which he first witnessed in front of the Hôtel de Ville and from his own hotel room later that night:
After an hour, from beneath my window, I still could hear them; another hour and another went by. They still were passing. Boredom gave way to wonder. The thing fascinated you, against your will, dragged you back to the sidewalk and held you there open-eyed. No longer was it regiments of men marching, but something uncanny, inhuman, a force of nature like a landslide, a tidal wave, or lava sweeping down a mountain. It was not of this earth, but mysterious, ghostlike. It carried all the mystery and menace of a fog rolling toward you across the sea. . . . And when early in the morning I went to the window the chain of steel was still unbroken.
It is "war modernized by science," in which a mechanized flood of men and equipment moves "like a river of steel" and "as smoothly and as compactly as an Empire State express." Davis' prose is as unrelenting as the thing itself: "This was a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute strength of a steam roller." The singing of the men "in absolute rhythm and beat" is "like the blows from giant pile-drivers," and even when "the machine halted" at night, "the silence awoke you, as at sea you wake when the screw stops." In the end, Davis declares, "all modern inventions" had gone into perfecting "this monstrous engine, with its pontoon bridges, its wireless, its hospitals, its aeroplanes," and "its field telephones" through which "the vanguard talked to the rear."
For several days, With the Allies stopped me in my tracks. Here was an eye-witness account of an invasion that Spengler welcomed without any regard for "a very old civilization" or the hot-button issue of Belgium's neutrality. Was Heller somehow right after all? Was Spengler's "Destiny-idea" the projection of an urge to hand the west its "marching orders" toward an "evil future"? Could he himself be one of "the enemies of the spirit"? He tells us in no uncertain terms that he regards Germany's loss of "the inward ray" simply "as a fact," takes pride in embracing "the hard cold facts of a late life," and sees "no reason, no honesty, no equity, no final aim" in history "but only facts."
The old confusions once again, and once again a Spengler problem at their core, for he is no ordinary fact-man but believes that "All that is, symbolizes," that "From this property of being significant nothing is exempt," and that nature itself "is a possession which is saturated through and through with the most personal connotations." Nevertheless, since "every kind of significance," like everything actual, "is also transient" (10), the fact-world provides "no tribunal of the spirit." Moreover, The Decline itself is bound by this constraint, insofar as "my own philosophy is able to express and reflect only the Western . . . soul, and that soul only in its present civilised phase."
No separation between a historical and a religious sensibility could be more complete, since for Spengler "There is no bridge . . . between the course of history and the existence of a divine world-order," between Pilate and Christ, Spengler's vision of history and Dante's, or, for that matter, between Spengler and Heller. All the old beliefs have been shattered "in the moving crush of facts," as he writes in Vol. II, and they point with "the emphasis of a symbol" toward a twilight, soulless age. Here too, Bonaparte provides a key to Spengler's thinking; for, ever since "Napoleon and his violent-arbitrary government by order," we have entered the "time of Contending States," when respites between "catastrophes of blood and terror" are marked by futile cries for "reconciliation of the peoples and for peace on earth":
The Hague Conference of 1907 was the prelude of the World War; the Washington Conference of 1921 will have been that of other wars. . . . The only moral that the logic of things permits to us now is that of the climber on the face of the crag - a moment's weakness and all is over.
All or nothing. That was how Spengler saw Germany's position in 1914 and the condition of Europe by 1922. His predictive accuracy was equally extreme, both zero and a hundred percent, for he was as wrong in his forecasts of a Germany victory as he was right in his perspective on the future of the west. The radical terms of his argument are clearly disturbing ("a moment's weakness and all is over"), yet they help explain why he says little about the ravages "of the World War," only that we have entered a time that is "far more terrible than the ages of Caesar and Napoleon."
On the other hand, Spengler has much to say about the ravages of revolution and cultural decay, which are for him the true enemies of the spirit in "the course of history":
Such is the trend of Nihilism. It occurs to no one to educate the masses to the level of true culture . . . . On the contrary, the structure of society is to be levelled down to the standard of the populace. General equality is to reign, everything is to be equally vulgar. The same way of getting money and the same pleasures to spend it on: panem et circenses - no more is wanted, no more would be understood. Superiority, manners, taste, and every description of inward rank are crimes. Ethical, religious, national ideas, marriage for the sake of children, the family, State authority: all these are old-fashioned and reactionary. . . . Bolshevism does not menace us, it governs us. Its idea of equality is to equate the people and the mob, its liberty consists in breaking loose from the Culture and its society.
Bread and circuses: in this one memorable phrase, the Roman poet Juvenal epitomizes all that the masses wanted in post-republican Rome. Spengler cites it five times in The Hour, and in The Decline he recalls the view from the heights in Juvenal's "This I will, thus I command," the concise expression of what he means by "violent-arbitrary government by order." Hence his focus on classical Rome, which has left us a more detailed record of this phase than any other culture and whose one recognizable name in the popular mind sums up for him the political character of every imperial age:
The change from the absolute State to the battling Society of nations that marks the beginning of every Civilization may mean for idealists and ideologues what they like - in the world of facts it means the transition from government in the style and pulse of a strict tradition to the sic volo, sic jubeo of the unbridled personal régime. . . . None of the innumerable revolutions of this era - which more and more become blind outbreaks of uprooted megalopolitan masses - has ever attained, or ever had the possibility of attaining an aim. What stands is only the historical fact of an accelerated demolition of ancient forms that leaves the path clear for Caesarism.
When he speaks of "the moving crush of facts," Spengler has in mind not only the Great War but also revolutions and insurrections from Germany to China and the collapse of old empires in Europe and the middle east, a global train wreck that wrought incalculable damage to "ancient tradition" and which Dos Passos bitterly describes in Orient Express as "the great bloody derailment of the War."
Whatever "idealists and ideologues" might have made of it, for Spengler the "accelerated demolition of ancient forms" meant that the survival of the west was at stake. Anything less than "the courage to face facts as they are" was for him an evasion of responsibility; and to those who cannot help but keenly feeel the passing of "the inward ray," the only comfort that he offers is that they are still capable of a "brave pessimism" and that our twilight time still possesses the "creative possibilities" of a "civilised spirituality." It is that or nothing, for "The age itself is radical," and unless the west lives up to its potential and accepts that "there is grandeur also in the realizations of powerful intelligences, in the energy and discipline of metal-hard natures, in battles fought with the coldest and most abstract means," it will not even have a future, since other "powerful intelligences" have dedicated themselves to its destruction. No utopian beliefs or party programs can answer to our needs. Indeed, their only effective influence is to hasten the end, most conspicuously through the politics of the left, which increasingly subverts the institutions of the west in every field and provides de facto support for the aims of radical Islam, Marxist-inspired dictatorships, and gangster drug cartels, all of which have made alarming inroads into the nations of the north-Atlantic region. In "Prussianism and Socialism," Spengler addresses the "latecomers" of the west and offers the following terms of survival: "Ideologies are a thing of the previous century. We no longer want ideas and principles. We want ourselves." It is heartening, if not surprising, to discover that a similar thought is alive today among millions of Americans who still cherish the "creative piety" that inheres in "forms that are older than the [French] Revolution" and have not lost their faith in the Declaration or the Constitution. In a recent survey by the respected pollster Scott Rassmusen, dated August 3, 2010, we learn that, by a large majority and in opposition to their ruling elites, "The American people don't want to be governed from the left, right or center. They want to govern themselves."
(1) In Weil's essay on the Iliad, cited in Part 5 (A). Troy was not the only city to fall under this shadow in the ancient world. On the destruction that "left cities burned and wealth plundered" across the Eastern Mediterranean region, see Thomas Bertonneau, “'The Catastrophe': What the End of Bronze Age Civilization Means for Modern Times," Praesidium (Winter 2009).
(2) See the conversation on Newspeak between Winston Smith and his friend Syme, who predicts that, in the coming decades, "The whole literature of the past will have been destroyed. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron - they'll exist only in Newspeak versions, not merely changed into something different, but actually changed into something contradictory of what they used to be." George Orwell, 1984, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1949, p. 47.
(3) More precisely, Kafka's presumed epitaph on existence, since the line has been widely attributed to him but never documented, as far as I know. The thought is pure Kafka all the same.
(4) Lev Razgon, "Jailers," in True Stories (1989), trans. John Crowfoot, Ardis Publishers, 1997, p. 229.
(5) Interestingly enough, over a hundred leading lights of the time, including Freud, Einstein, and Richard Strauss, celebrated Goethe in a collection of writings that was partly intended as a contribution to German wartime propaganda. On the publication of Das Land Goethes 1914-1916, see Matthew von Unwerth, Freud's Requiem (2005). Freud's brief essay "On Transience" ("Vergänglichkeit") appears in translation in the appendix. It was written at the same time as Spengler was concentrating his efforts on The Decline and invokes the same Goethean theme of "Alles vergänglich" that is central to the work. Unlike Spengler, however, Freud was deeply troubled by the war. In November 1914, he writes to Lou Andreas-Salomé, "I know that science is only apparently dead, but humanity seems to be really dead."
(6) "I see farther into the future than others . . ." From "Conversation, 1817, reported in English." In The Mind of Napoleon, J. Christopher Herold, Columbia University Press, 1955, p. 202.
(7) "And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not," St. John, I:5. There are direct parallels to the Gospels at key moments in Frank Capra's celebrated work, particularly in the dialogue, music, and lighting during the final moments of the film (midnight on Christmas Eve). In the last line of the screenplay, for example, the scene directions call for swelling music, "suggesting emergence from darkness and confusion to light and understanding."
(8) For a detailed overview of the Schlieffen plan and its many weaknesses, see John Keegan, "War Plans," An Illustrated History of the First World War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), pp. 19-39.
(9) In "Prussianism and Socialism," section 1, opening paragraph.
(10) For a particular instance of this world-view, see the passage cited in the third paragraph of this section ("All art is mortal, not merely the individual artifacts but the arts themselves"). As a final point about Spengler in relation to Freud, it is worth noting that Freud reflected on this same thought in "Vergänglichkeit" and in similar Spenglerian terms: "A flower that blossoms only for a single night does not seem to us on that account less lovely. . . . A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues which we admire to-day will crumble to dust, or a race of men may follow us who no longer understand the works of our poets and thinkers . . . but since the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration." In Freud's Requiem, pp. 216-17.