Christers and the Smart Set

I have a friend of long standing who suffers periodic paroxysms of rage against Christians, whom he calls “Christers” to underscore his contempt. I have pointed out that the term is a slur at which one might take offense, but he is attached to it and I am attached to him, so what am I going to do? When he used the term recently, however, it started me wondering where the word came from, and I think you may be interested in what I found.

Everyone has heard the quote, “to learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.” This is always attributed to Voltaire, although apparently without warrant, since there is no record of his having said it. In fact, it is most probably a refinement of a statement first made in 1993 by Kevin Alfred Strom, a White Nationalist who was thinking of his persecution for Holocaust denial. Whatever its provenance, it is now an internet meme, and rightly so, since it neatly encapsulates a self-evident truth. Power has its privileges, one of them being lèse-majesté.

We can invert this and say that a sure sign of powerlessness is the absence of lèse-majesté. In other words, “to learn who the truly marginal nobodies are, simply ask who you are allowed to criticize.” Criticize here means mock, ridicule and call rude names. To lay the proposition out fully, we should state it thus: “to learn who the truly marginal nobodies are, simply ask who you are allowed to mock, ridicule and call rude names in polite society.” If you can make a group the butt of a joke, or the object of scorn, and still be invited to the next wine and cheese party, that group has no lèse-majesté. They are marginal nobodies.

Which brings me to the subject of Christers, a group more or less bereft of lèse-majesté. It has been close to a hundred years since anyone was dropped from fashionable guest lists for mocking Christers.

I first encountered the term Christer in the transcript of William Buckley’s 1978 interview of Malcolm Muggeridge. At one point the two men discuss the curious fact that God is one topic one cannot broach in in polite society. To do so would be thought indecent, much as Victorians at the dinner table would have thought it indecent to broach the topic of abortion or venereal disease. Buckley remarks,

“The term, ‘Christer,’ is a pejorative term as socially used and in order to earn the reputation of being one, you have only to mention Christ, I would say, three times. Once per year might be permissible. Twice per year is tolerable. Three times per year is overdoing it. You become, a ‘Christer,’ and people think of you as not quite focused on the important things.” (1)

I believe Buckley is describing the state of affairs in his rather elevated social class ten or twenty years earlier, since, by 1978, one could be denounced as a Christer on much weaker evidence than this. But he correctly states the essential nature of the Christer as a social type and cultural symbol. A Christer is a Christian whose Christianity is obtrusive, as measured against what polite society regards as the threshold of obtrusive Christianity. Buckley describes where that threshold stood around 1950, when he graduated from Yale; by 1978 it was in elite circles considerably lower.

Christer (or Kristor) was, originally, a name in the vein of Christian or Christopher. It means Christ-bearer, and has long been popular in Scandinavia. In England, Christer seems also to be been a general noun denoting a person of unusual piety. Miles Coverdale used the phrase “right Christer” to refer to a true or authentic Christian in 1543, and in that same year the name was applied to six unyielding Protestant martyrs (2). A hundred years later George Fox wrote that neighbors had called his father “Righteous Christer” because the good weaver’s sober conduct gave evidence of “a Seed of God in him” (3). The term was not at all common in print until the twentieth century, but there is reason to believe that it had at least some vernacular usage and meant a person who stood above the religious level of his time and place.

Christer entered American English around 1920, perhaps returning from Europe with the demobilized doughboys. I can find no direct evidence of the word being used, but many of the soldiers complained about sanctimonious busybodies who interfered with their sampling the pleasures of France, and the historian Paul Fussell calls these blue stockings Christers (4). In 1921 H. L. Mencken wrote that the term was new to America and had come from England (5).

Mencken certainly welcomed the term, since it was a good handle for much that he hated in American society. Indeed, to properly understand the idea of the Christer, one must see it as a symbol in the culture war of the 1920s. On the one side stood the Christers, representing the fading evangelical culture of late-nineteenth-century, small-town America; on the other stood the Smart Set of flappers and playboys, representing the new sensibility of the Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s 1922 novel Young People’s Pride, we meet a member of the Smart Set who has behaved badly and feels “like a swine.” His friend consoles him this way: “Nobody our age who hasn’t been one or felt like one—some of the time—except Christers and the dead” (6). The word was used in Hollywood by the 1920s, where it denoted Christians who got above themselves and attempted to cramp the studios’ style with small-town morality (7).

There were two principle points of difference between the old culture represented by the Christer and the new culture of the Smart Set, the first a matter of behavior, the second a matter of attitude. With respect to behavior, the Christer stood for “clean living,” whereas the Smart Set stood for a relaxed acceptance of drinking, dancing, cigarettes, and even petting parties. An enemy of the Christers, writing in Mencken’s American Mercury, complained that Christiers in the Y. M. C. A. were haunted by a fear that, without their supervision, college men would “begin to swear, to play cards, to gamble, to smoke cigarettes, to patronize the bootleggers, to read wicked authors. Even graver sins may follow: they may cheat on their classwork, they may acquire habits of skepticism, flippancy and irreverence, they may fall among loose women.” Christers were prudes, puritans and killjoys, a nuisance to the fun-loving undergraduate, who was said to be “a jovial low fellow who smokes and swears and takes a pull at any gin that is offered him” (8). In 1930 a group of debutants said Christer was “a common expression” and meant a “goody-goody” (9).

Christers differed from the Smart Set, not only in their ethos of clean living, but also in their up-beat and sunny disposition. They were “boosters” who embodied the nineteenth-century belief in positive thinking, progress and the value of lofty ideals. The Princeton University Chaplain wrote that the negative stereotype of the “Christer” appeared in the “Jazz Age” and was that of a simpleton who still believed the old pieties and mouthed the old platitudes. Where the Christer was earnest and a real cornball, the Smart Set was blasé, jaded and cool (10). The American Mercury mocked the Christers’ love of “uplift” and enthusiasm for “reforming the world.” It is often said that the three quintessential modern theorists are Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, three writers united by cynicism. The doctrine of each rests on the claim that ideals are bunk, simple rationalizations of low instincts. In Marx, ideals are the mask of greed, in Nietzsche, of the Will to Power, in Freud, of sexual libido. The Smart Set drank deeply from this cup; Christers refused it. The Secretary of State Dean Acheson was a member of the Smart Set who came out of this milieu, and he “would later mock moralistic do-gooders as ‘Christers’” (11).

Needless to say, Christers lost the culture war of the 1920s, and by the 1940s were no longer a force at elite institutions such as Yale. This was a large part of what drove William Buckley to write God and Man at Yale (1951). A professor of philosophy at that university describes the situation in the 1940s this way. “Christer” was applied to “Roman Catholics, Protestants and Jews whose beliefs are orthodox and whose devotion to their church or synagogue is as authentic as it is unpopular.” These students were treated with “public contempt,” he wrote, and were thought to be “very queer and not quite ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’” (12).

“Christer” is, therefore, a slang word from the 1920s.   It was the name that the Smart Set gave to their enemies, the doomed defenders of the older, late-nineteenth-century culture of small town America. The Waterloo of the Christers was repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, as in this the country yielded to both loose living and cynicism about the possibility of social reform. This lends irony in the story of the novelist John Cheever, who near death from alcoholic poisoning in the 1970s, resisted admission into a treatment center because he feared it might be run by a “bunch of Christers” (13). Even then, in the mind of the aging Smart Set, Christers were poised to snatch their fun away.

In 1976, for instance, the Washington Post columnist Nicholes von Hoffman (fresh from working as a community organizer under Saul Alinsky) denounced sexual prudery and urged Americans to “make anything legal, be it for free or for commerce, that is done in private between consenting adults.” He wrote that furor over political sex scandals, and remaining sex laws, were embarrassing relics of the minority morality of “the Christers, the anti-orgasmic Jeremiahs, the sensual-repressives, and the Savanerolas” (14). In 1980 Gore Vidal complained that “Christers” were throwing their support behind Ronald Reagan became he “is against Satan as represented by rights for women and homosexuals” (15). Ironically, only two years earlier, the Village People had recorded their “gay anthem” Y.M.C.A., a song that literally danced on the grave of the Christers.

Vidal had a morbid paranoia of Christers, whom he imagined on the brink of taking over the government and instituting a theocracy. In his 1995 Oxford Amnesty Lecture, for instance, he warned that “militant Jesus-Christers are organizing to take political control” and embark on a “theocratic age” (16). No one appears to have laughed out loud at this preposterous nonsense, and this is because Vidal was protected by lèse-majesté and Christers were not.

(1) Cecil Kuhne, Seeing Through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), p. 137.

(2) Miles Coverdale, A Christian Exhortation to Customable Swearers (Antwerp, 1543), p. 16; David Calderwood, History of the Kirk of Scotland, ed. Thomas Thomson (Edinburgh: Wodrow Sciety, 1842), vol. 1, p. 175.

(3) George Fox, A Journal or Historical Account of the Life, Travels, Sufferings, and Christian Experiences of George Fox (London, Thomas Northcott, 1694), p. 1.

(4) Paul Fussell, Wartime: Understanding and Behavior in the Second World War (New York: Oxford, 1989), p. 96.

(5) H. L. Mencken, The American Language, second edition (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921), p. 155

(6) Stephen Vincent Benet, Young People’s Pride (New York: Henry Holt, 1922), p. 281.

(7) Victoria Wilson, Steel-True, 1907-1940, vol. 1 in The Life of Barbara Stanwick (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), p. 214.

(8) Richard Dye, “Saving the Sophomore,” The American Mercury (November 1926), pp. 288-294.

(9) Barbara Brown, “The Great American Slanguage,” The Outlook (November 12, 1930), p. 417.

(10) Robert Russell Wicks, “The Self-Sparing Life,” Princeton Alumni Weekly (Nov. 13, 1931), p. 161.

(11) Douglas Brinkley, “Architect of a New World,” Washington Post (August 9, 1998), p. 10; James Chace, Acheson: The Secretary of State who Created the American World (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), p. 199.

(12) Theodore Greene, “Religion is a Bore: Let’s Skip It,” The New Outlook, 18 (Jan. 1955), p. 21.

(13) Blake Bailey, Cheever (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), p. 511.

(14) Nicholes von Hoffman, “Of Pols, Sex, the Press and Morality: A Commentary,” Washington Post (June 25 1975), p. B5.

(15) Gore Vidal, “But What if You Don’t Like Any of Them,” Los Angeles Times (Oct. 26, 1980), p. G1.

(16) Gore Vidal, The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000 (New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2002).

33 thoughts on “Christers and the Smart Set

  1. Pingback: Christers and the Smart Set | Neoreactive

  2. Excellent essay – and a new term to me.

    Do you pronounce it Chryster or Chrisster?

    As an ex-atheist who might well have used this term, had I known it – I think Christians massively underestimate the importance of pleasures to the non-religious. There is a sense in which they live for their (typically less-or-more sinful) pleasures – they are the ultimate, a bottom line for daily survival.

    The very thought of having them taken away (eg by Christers) is both genuinely terrifying and a cause of extreme anger – it is, in fact, experienced as an existential threat; as can be seen from the sheer venom and hatred against Christians routinely expressed by advocates of the sexual revolution. This threat is driven by fear that life will become unendurable without the daily distraction of pleasures.

    This was, indeed, one of the themes I covered in my Thought Prison mini-book – which was written only about three years after I became a Christian, and the memories of my previous condition were still very fresh.

    http://thoughtprison-pc.blogspot.co.uk/

    • Thanks. I’ve heard the word pronounced both ways, although more often as Chryster. Here in the States we have a protestant denomination known as the Church of Christ, and they are sometimes called Christers as an abbreviation of Church of Christers. That is a neutral descriptor, like Baptist or Methodist, although I think they refer to themselves as “Christians.” If you try it out, you’ll find it is much easier to convey snarling contempt with Cryster than with Christer. In the second pronunciation, the rising first syllable sounds too cheerful, and the second pronunciation allows one to really hiss.

      • Take it from me, the word is – or should be – pronounced to rhyme with “blister.” Notwithstanding that, I feel sure that those who use it disparagingly pronounce it to rhyme with “shyster.”

        A small correction: many aetymologies of the word speculate that it means “Christ-bearer,” but this is only so for the closely related name “Christopher” or “Kristoffer,” which in Latin means literally “Christ-bearer.” Krister in fact is in all its variants just the Germanic for “Christian;” as “lawyer” and “sawyer” denote men who practice law and who saw, respectively, so “krister” denotes one who practices Christianity.

        Yet Krister means something subtly different than Christian. NB that phrase: one who *practices* Christianity. Thus its ancient use as an appellation for peculiarly saintly men, as distinct from those who profess Christianity, but do not deploy their beliefs.

        I’ve spent much of my own life trying to live up to the standard my name represents. And failing.

  3. About 15-20 years ago, I remember running into the phrase “extra-chromosome conservative” to refer to the Christian right. Some sources state that the phrase originated with neoconservatives and country club Republicans.

      • Yes, I’ve seen that one. It doesn’t work so well if one is trying to scare people into thinking Christians are about to overthrow the government and set up a theocracy, but I suppose it bolsters one’s sense of relative intelligence.

      • “Christers” – like George W. Bush – are simultaneously hilariously stupid bumblers and fiendishly devious schemers whose vast and criminal plans require constant vigilance if the progressive vanguard is to frustrate them.

  4. Interesting essay.

    Upon reading the title, I imagined “Christers” to be some English translation of “Cristeros”, the name given to the Catholic rebels who rose against the Mexican government’s attempt to control the Church in the 1920s.

    BTW. there is a recent movie about them (“For Greater Glory”), which follows actual history pretty decently. I think most Orthosphereans will like it very much. Here‘s a link to the full movie on Youtube; of course it’s low resolution and also has subtitles, so I recommend looking for the DVD, but you can sneak a preview using the link.

  5. JM: As soon as I saw your title, I knew that the name Gore Vidal must show up. Of the people who used the term “Christer” twenty-five or thirty years ago, Vidal used it with the most vituperation. I wouldn’t be surprised if I learned that the Irish Kid (O’Bannon, O’Brien, or something like that) used the same word in private. The term’s intended meaning is the equivalent of one of the Irish Kid’s documented utterances – about people who “cling to their guns and Bibles.”

  6. Pingback: Christers and the Smart Set | Reaction Times

  7. I’ve never heard anyone contemporary use the term “Christer”. On the other hand, there are many snide references to followers of “Jeebus”, which has a slightly different implication, that the targets are lowbrows worshipping some pop-culture cartoon rather than real Christians.

    Vidal had a morbid paranoia of Christers, whom he imagined on the brink of taking over the government and instituting a theocracy… No one appears to have laughed out loud at this preposterous nonsense,

    I’m confused. There is no doubt that there is a political faction in the US who backs theocracy, and they have some real power, and although they are not strong enough to seize control anytime soon, they are definite players. The person currently leading in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Ben Carson, has ties to the theocrat W. Clement Skousen.

    And aren’t the people who write this blog also would-be theocrats?

    So in what sense was Vidal talking nonsense?

    • In my poking around, I was surprised by how commonly the term is used nowadays. Much of this is probably owing to the fact that the internet publishes and records a great deal of ordinary talk that in former days would have disappeared into oblivion.

      I think the most common opinion among Orthosphere readers is that we are ruled by theocrats, just not our theocrats. Instead they are goofy theocrats like Justice John Roberts.

      Seriously, the reason Vidal was talking nonsense is that all forms of western Christianity insist, and have always insisted, upon some degree of separation of Church and State. No one ever proposed that the offices of Pope and Emperor be united in a single man, or that secular affairs be placed in the hands of priests. And most American Christians descend from sects that were founded on repudiation of a national church or a “baptized nation.” So “theocracy” is just a hobgoblin raised by secularist who think religious convictions have no place in the voting booth. People who use that term are employing rhetoric (or exhibiting ignorance), much like the people who call Obama a “communist.”

      • Descriptive terms have a way of becoming evaluative. Also there’s a world of difference between theoretical terms and the slogans one uses to promote a political program. Communist is a perfectly descriptive term, but the communists I know (I do know a few) call themselves “progressives.” What they wish to progress towards is communism, but they rightly deem it inexpedient to advertise that fact. Maybe we here should call ourselves “progressives,” and suppress the fact that we are trying to progress towards theocracy.

        For my part, I do not endorse theocracy as a political project. When I pray “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” I do not silently nominate myself (or anyone else) to act as God’s agent. It is my business to wait for the Parousia, not to induce it.

        I don’t know if they mention Rushdoony in the Wikipedia entry on Christian Reconstructionism. He’s the only figure I know from the movement. He was a remarkable man who wrote some good books, but ultimately not my cup of tea.

      • Amorphous-I think the point was that Vidal being paranoid about Christians steam-rolling into the American government and turning the tide of the culture wars is laughable in its implausibility. The culture has been lost for the past hundred years, maybe more, and the inertia of “God’s shadow,” as Nietzsche called it, is slowing down.

        You’ve been reading here a while. You ought to know that the position of most here is that there is a huge apostasy and the absorption of enlightenment values even within those calling themselves Christians, such as Pat Roberts, Falwell et al, is weakening Christianity.

        The more successful the left has been in the culture wars, the more they seem to protest that their enemies, many of whom kowtow to most of the left’s a priori’s anyways, are the powerful ones, when in reality no one holds less power in the American culture than an orthodox Christian. Most of the ideals espoused on this site aren’t even discussed, yet alone advanced by major public figures.

        Do you seriously think that Ben Carson wouldn’t mouth Enlightenment platitudes about “our Judaeo-Christian culture” or ” different traditions” or “my faith is a private matter” or “I may not agree with gay marriage but it’s the rule of law” or “Jews are our elder brothers” or “our sacred constitution” or “our common humanity” or or “the Dalai Lhama is a man of God” or “Jesus said judge not” or “we have to reach the moderate muslims” or whatever crap you would hear on Fox news?

        The U.S. is in no “danger” of re-introducing Christian religion into the public sphere, yet alone becoming a theocracy.

      • Amorphous-I think the point was that Vidal being paranoid about Christians steam-rolling into the American government and turning the tide of the culture wars is laughable in its implausibility.

        Well, the Christianists haven’t won, but they certainly constitute a major political force. I still can’t see how Vidal was wrong, paranoid, or talking nonsense. I also can’t understand your position — presumably you believe there is a culture war going on, so why is it wrong for one side to warn about the other side? Whether the Christians who are active politically are real ones in your eyes or not means nothing.

      • I guess we should take this as a compliment, because this side of the culture war sees itself as the very opposite of fierce and formidable. Defeatism is our motto! Retreat, our battle cry! Maybe this is because we take the long view and see the “war” beginning around 1640. It is true that we may recapture some ground, but it is ground we lost ten or twenty years ago.

    • So the Christers described above really are or ever were “on the brink of taking over the government and instituting a theocracy” in your eyes?

      If you seriously think that, you may be about as far out of touch with reality as Mr. Vidal.

      It’s ridiculous because the culture war isn’t so much a war as a total defeat right now and has been for a long time. Mr. Vidal’s paranoia was about as overblown as you can get. The left only accepts total submission. That’s why this is almost tragically funny.

      And defining terms properly means “nothing.” Got it. You’re appropriately named.

    • As someone who mocked theocrats and Reconstructionists in 2004, and is now a fan of theonomy and Rushdoony in 2015, I can say that President Bush and his evangelical supporters were very religious, but not theocrats, and not Reconstructionists. Iran is a theocracy. America was not, nor was close to becoming one.

      UNLESS, you view any law passed with religious rationale as “theocracy,” which many atheists are guilty of. I have a feeling you would agree with it, since your metaphysical moral reasoning around here is always called “science” and ours is always called “faith” (at best.)

    • Literally it means “rule by God,” but in practice it means rule by God’s representatives, the priests. Puritans stretched this definition to make it “rule by the godly,” and I suppose this might count as theocracy. But when rule by the godly comes about in a democracy because the godly are a majority, that is obviously not a theocracy. I’d say a theocracy presumes a state-sponsored church, but that a state-sponsored church does not entail a theocracy.

      • John of Leiden, an Anabaptist, ran Münster in Westphalia as a theocracy during the months of his religious-communistic insurgency there (February 1534 to June 1535), declaring the city to be the New Jerusalem or Zion, abolishing traditional institutions such as monogamy (he took sixteen wives for himself), and persecuting those Lutherans and Catholics who remained in the city. Leiden saw himself as a Second David, assuming the dual regalia of a high priest and a king. While it lasted, this New Jerusalem or Zion was a theocracy, and John was its theocrat-in-chief. Girolamo Savonarola’s pulpit-regime in Florence during the years 1495 to 1497 was likewise an attempt to found a theocracy. Savonarola, an extreme Puritan, stoked a mood of agitation that raised him briefly tn power, his followers taking the opportunity to harass and assault their insufficiently enthusiastic fellow citizens. Like John of Leiden fifty years later, Savonarola claimed authority directly from God. Both John and Savonarola exploited the motifs of a “Third Age.” They were, in this gesture, practical successors to Joachim of Fiore, and exemplars of the Gnostic style in politics. So is the shrieking girl in the Yale Quad in the recently viral Youtube Video and so are the maniacal shouters in Missouri.

        Mohamed was a theocrat par excellence – the Caliphate that followed on his bloody campaigns was a theocracy; the Ayatollah regime in Iran is a theocracy; ISIS is a theocracy. As I write, agents of theocracy in Paris have slaughtered at least sixty people whose attitude toward their proposed regime they find to be insufficiently enthusiastic and they are holding at least a hundred more as hostages.

        The Aztec polity was a theocracy, quite as sacrificial as the Mohammedan ones.

        Christianity wants people to reform themselves morally, but it does not recommend theocracy. (“Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”) When Christ was tempted by Satan with the challenge to assume worldly power, he refused. In imitatio Christi, Christ’s followers should also refuse the temptation of theocracy. To the extent that they do so, they distinguish themselves from the Left, as sane in mind as well as in body.

        Insofar as we are living in a massively Gnostic polity, we are already living in a theocracy. We of The Orthosphere want out of it.

      • As I just said to Cassiodorus, I try to hold myself to a strict definition of theocracy. That way I can scoff at the Left when they shriek that evangelical voters are about to institute a “theocracy.” To qualify as a theocracy, I would say that the constitution (written or unwritten) of a polity must restrict rule to members of a clearly defined priestly caste. Rule by the godly must be an essential feature of the system, not an accidental feature.

        Donald Trump is demonstrating the existence of de facto priestly requirements (by elites’ shock that he lacks some of them) and the persistence of the essentially democratic nature of our political system (by the fact that he is still in the race). It is one thing to say that a man is not fit to hold office, and quite another to say that he is not fit to run for office. When I hear that said about Trump because he doesn’t share the faith of open borders, I get a whiff of theocracy.

  8. “……we are already living in a theocracy.” It would seem that atheo-materialism is, indeed, the unofficial worldview of the current age. But, should we regard this “gnostic polity” as a theocracy?

    • I would hold out for a strict definition of a theocracy, if only to rein in the more feverish ravings of the atheo-materialists. To use aristotelian language, our political system is essentially democratic and only accidentally theocratic. Although the Constitution says there will be no “religions tests” for political office, such tests do exist (although their content is an accident, depending on the polity). An avowed atheist would not be a viable presidential candidate, but we don’t inquire too closely into a man’s theology and don’t require much in the way of practice. Much more important is a man’s loud profession of gender and racial equality, backed up by plenty of evidence in the form of practice.

  9. JM: Permit me to recur to the two terms in your title: “Christers” and “Smart Set.” “Christers” is what those of the “Smart Set” call the Others of their worldview; and “Smart Set” is what the “Smart Set” calls itself. What does “Smart Set” mean? It means, Those Who Know – those who have experienced the Gnosis that, firstly, separates them ontologically from their inferiors, and secondly, guarantees their every pronouncement or preference to the degree that any of these may be imposed by main force, when necessary. The “Smart Set” of the Sinclair-Lewis 1930s quickly became institutionalized, as a foreign presence in the Constitutional order, in FDR’s “Brain Trust,” the fore-shadow of every leftwing NGO. Because the “Smart Set” hates and loathes the past, even its own past (nothing can ever be pure enough from the present perspective), it no longer calls itself the “Smart Set.” Nowadays it calls itself by such coinages as “Social Justice” and “Progress,” but its attitude is still that of its Gnostic prototype in the Salem Colony or in the Salem Colony’s prototype of Münster under John of Leiden’s Anabaptist commune.

    PS: There is another facet of the “Christers” / “Smart Set” opposition. The -er in “Christer,” from an old Indo-European suffix, implies someone who does something (a carpenter, a writer, a ditch-digger, a ranter); but “Smart Set” implies mere being, in perfect stasis, without any activity. One is of the “Smart Set,” without getting his hands dirty or breaking a sweat. Thus the “Smart Set” / “Christer” opposition produces, in addition to the knowledge-endowed / ignoramus difference, a privilegentsia / laborer difference. The “Smart Set” nevertheles claims to be the defender-class of the laborers except insofar as the laborers endorse the “Christer” superstition.

  10. Somewhere long ago I came across the phrase “reading against the grain,” meaning to to root for the antagonist and against the protagonist. I’ve been listening to a reading of Oliver Twist in the car recently, and I find myself listening against the grain. When Mr. Bumble speaks, I nod with approval. When the narrator sermonizes, I shake my head. Reading the literature from the 1920s “Revolt Against the Village,” I find much the same thing happening. George Babbit seems like a decent guy, and Gopher Prairie, Spoon River and Winesburg, nice places in their way. I must admit that wasn’t how they impressed me when I first encountered them as a young man, but that was because years of education had taught me always to identify with Holden Caulfield.

    The Smart Set (in England, Waugh’s “Bright Young Things”) are important in culture history because it marks a reversal in the flow of culture influence. For the first time in history, the upper class copied the lowest classes, most obviously in their passion for jazz. The significance of this is greatly obscured by the fact that jazz has since become highbrow music. Reading execrations of jazz written in the 20s is an education in itself.

    Am I right that we have the Smart Set to thank for the idea that there is a deep connection between alcoholism and literary genius? I caught this bug through Malcolm Lowry, but my sense is that it may have begun with Sinclair Lewis.

    • Yes, George Babbitt seems like a decent guy, as seen by someone from the “Smart Set.” Strong drink and writing as a profession go back together a long way (See Gissing’s novel New Grub Street), but the critical instance might be F. Scott Fitzgerald, who very publicly drank himself to an early death. Jack Kerouac also drank and drugged himself to an early death. On the other hand, Fitzgerald was highly critical of the “Smart Set,” whose follies he examined in his fictions, which he thought of as an American equivalent of Spengler’s Decline.

      The phrase Against the American Grain is the title of a series of essays-on-history by William Carlos Williams. Against the Grain is the title of a famous “decadent” novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans, whose decadent hero finds that decadence is a dead-end. Huysmans’ later novels reflect his re-conversion to Catholicism. The most accessible is The Cathedral, which is available in English and which I strongly recommend.

  11. As JM writes, taken literally, theocracy means “rule by god or by the gods.” Practically, theocracy means rule by some who claims to channel God or a god or the gods – as the Babylonian Ensis and Egyptian Pharaohs did. But Erech or Memphis were stable, long-lived polities where life went on pretty much normally on many different levels. By contrast in the Anabaptist commune or on a contemporary college or university campus, nothing is permitted that is outside the doctrine. The theocracy swallows up the civic society leaving nothing else but the theocracy. Ditto in Islam wherever it establishes itself. A calm polytheistic society or a calm Christian society, by contrast, can have actual politics complete with dissent and loyal opposition.

  12. Pingback: Our Age of Jazz, Jism and Jive. – The Orthosphere

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