Know Your Barbarians

Men raise monuments to remind themselves of things that should not be forgotten. Our word monument comes from the Latin monere, which means to remind; and as G. K. Chesterton told us, we men are ever in need of reminding. Take away our monuments and we become creatures of the present, a rootless, amnesiac breed.

A monument aims to do more than evoke a memory. It also indicates the way in which we ought to remember the person, event, or cause that it memorializes. It suggests the emotion that every decent person ought to feel when this thing is called to mind. A celebratory monument indicates emotions such as awe, admiration, gratitude, or pride; a vilifying monument indicates emotions such as horror, hatred, or shame; a sublime monument indicates a complex pathos of loss and longing.

Where there are no monuments, there is no memory. At least no shared memory. And where there is no shared memory, there is no culture. A culture is, after all, an agreement as to the fundamental shape and meaning of things, and thus as to the emotions proper to the recollection of things that have been.

If you are a member of a culture, you will therefore look upon its monuments with warm approval. If you are an enemy of a culture, the sight of its monuments will fill you with enmity and a thirst to pull them down.

If you see a man pulling down a monument of which you approve, he is your barbarian (as you very likely are his). This is because “barbarian” is nothing but the name of the other side in a culture war.

My barbarian is the man who sacks my churches, who burns my libraries, who razes my monuments.  When I lay the ax to his Irminsul, I am, of course, his barbarian.

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Charlemagne Destroys the Irminsul (details), Hermann Wislicenus (c. 1885)

Perhaps the quickest way to know one’s side in a culture war is to ask, which monuments are mine, and who are my barbarians.

Perhaps the quickest way to loose a culture war is to doubt, and dither, and forever decline to answer these questions.

In fact, to doubt, dither, and decline to answer these questions is to tacitly concede that one has no side because one has no culture. It is to betray the fact that one’s culture has reached that stage of terminal decadence where meaning, sacrilege, and barbarians fade into nothingness.

Now go back and look at the painting by Wislicenus. Do you find yourself in it? Are you one of the victors on horseback? Or are you one of the vanquished priests and chieftains who are prudently bowing their heads? Or are you one of the puzzled rubes gaping at the stump of an Irminsul you though would never fall?

Or are you, instead, a fourth type of character in a culture war? Are you a listless energumen of acedia, a decadent without a culture, a man for whom meaning, sacrilege, and barbarians are no longer anything at all.

Are you to be found somewhere in here?

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Romans in the Decadence of the Empire, Thomas Couture (1844-1847)

14 thoughts on “Know Your Barbarians

  1. Our barbarians?
    Scream for barbed Aryans!
    Reduced…
    To near-armed contrarians.
    Then molded
    Into complementary,
    Deracinated
    “Christian missionaries.”
    Sexy style beguile
    A pervertedly invert
    Perpetual subsidiary…
    Sub-racial posture
    Egalitarian visionary!
    Born to shorn
    A last (F)ather in misery…

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  3. If you are a member of a culture, you will therefore look upon its monuments with warm approval. If you are an enemy of a culture, the sight of its monuments will fill you with enmity and a thirst to pull them down.

    Right. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and all that. A “melting pot” of incompatibles is just asking for trouble.

    • Zippy mentioned in one of his comboxes the other day the sad fact that the term “exceptionalism” has taken on a whole new meaning these days. As in “great,” “superior” etc. Some years back the left was all up in arms over the term “American Exceptionalism” because, according to them, the term means, or gives the impression that we think we’re better than you. Of course when it actually applied that isn’t what the term meant at all; it simply meant “different,” as in we do things differently than others. But no need to worry about that now; we aren’t all that different than any other society that needs a lot of external government, therefore the only “exceptional” quality we possess is that of being exceptionally unexceptional.

      • I once looked into the history of the phrase “American Exceptionalism,” and I found something both surprising and interesting. The phrase was first used by the COMINTERN to denounce those American Communists who argued that America would go Communist in its own special way. The COMINTERN said, no, America would go Communist in the way Marx had mapped out: it was not an “exception” to the Iron Law of orthodox Marxism. Conservatives might have been “owning the insult” when they embraced this phrase, but odds are they were simply clueless.

      • Hmm. That *is* interesting!

        I find it interesting too that many many American liberals (in which I include right-liberals) have a sort of a blind spot when it comes to communism American style. It is as though these people think Americans can’t possibly be communists whether we adopt communist ideals or not. I have thought this is because most Americans equate communism with the old USSR or Red China; that if it’s not Soviet or Red Chinese communism (in appearance) then it is not communism at all to their way of thinking. I guess this phenomen must involve a kind of “American Exceptionalism” mode of thinking as well, I don’t know.

  4. “My barbarian is the man who sacks my churches, who burns my libraries, who razes my monuments. When I lay the ax to his Irminsul, I am, of course, his barbarian.”

    Dear J.M. — I agree that we need to restore a sense of barbarism in distinction from civilization and to explicate the concept of barbarism, as carefully as we can, but I would add two qualifications to my agreement. One is simple: There are objective ways of identifying barbarism. We need not relegate it to perspective. The other is a bit more complicated: We should distinguish (again, objectively, as much as possible) among three terms rather than two. We should distinguish savagery, barbarism, and civilization.

    The emperor in Constantinople had to deal with Charlemagne and Charlemagne had leverage in those dealings; but the emperor probably thought of Charlemagne, even if only in terms of language, as a Frankish barbarian, and of himself as the paragon of Hellenism hence also as the culturally superior party in the negotiation. I assume that in the speculative case we would be inclined to defend Charlemagne against the emperor’s prejudicial attribution. The Saxons, against whom Charlemagne, after a decade of fruitless importuning, at last fiercely campaigned, spoke a language close enough to Charlemagne’s own that they were in all likelihood mutually comprehensible.

    The difference was that the Saxons had no libraries or churches to sack even supposing that Charlemagne’s aim was a great haul of books and plate; the Saxons’ main institution was the forest altar where they relentlessly offered human victims, mostly captives, to Wotan. Their armed kidnapping raids against their neighbors were subordinate to that central institution. Theirs was a savage worship, par excellence, and I’m fairly sure that you would agree with me in granting legitimacy to Charlemagne’s righteous suppression of it. However incomplete Charlemagne’s civilization might have been, it was nevertheless really a civilization, complete with libraries and churches, as opposed to a state of barbarism or (worse) savagery.

    I know the origin of the word barbarian — foreign languages sounded to the Greek ear like so much bar-bar-bar… To the Greeks then the word barbarian applied indifferently to Scythians, Kelts, and Egyptians. We should do better than the Greeks. We should keep savagery, barbarism, and civilization as separate categories. A barbarian, it seems to me, is most usefully regarded as an ex-savage who has in a rare moment overcome his savage complacency, has glimpsed civilization, has left savagery, and would like to merge with civilization. (Think of Queequeg in Moby Dick.) The Goths of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries would qualify as barbarians. Charlemagne himself was their successor, and he was consolidating a civilization. The Saxons and the Wends would be savages. They were complacent in their own brutal way of life and showed no sign of wanting to transcend it.

    Was Cortez, the prince of idol-topplers, a barbarian? He was a criminal opportunist, certainly, and in comparison with the Aztec elites an uncultivated gabacho; but despite the aesthetic refinements of Aztec architecture and art, despite Aztec literacy and libraries, the central Aztec institution was indistinguishable from those of the Saxons and the Wends. And that made the Aztecs savages. No doubt the Aztecs had a rude word for Cortez and his mercenaries, but who cares? No doubt the Saxons and Wends had rude words for Charlemagne and his like, but who cares?

    Again – I agree with you. So maybe all of the above is needless quibbling. Just now there is an urgent requirement to identify who is a savage, and who therefore is our enemy; who is a barbarian, and who therefore is potentially our ally; and who belongs to civilization. The chessboard is very mixed up, with three colors contending, not just two, and one party in the combat deluding itself that it need not make any distinctions.

    • We agree that we are in need of words to precisely name the things in our world, and that there are powers at work that would deny us such words. As is obvious from this post, my sense is that we have difficulty naming our enemies (and that our enemies might be partly responsible for this difficulty). We have made tolerance and forgiveness into such overriding virtues that we don’t even know when we are being “slapped in the face.” It’s a pathological form of “turning the other cheek.”

      My aim in relativizing the word “barbarian” was to emphasize his oppositional character. If a “savage” destroys my library, it is because he has no conception of what a library is. But when a “barbarian” destroys my library, it is because he hates libraries in general, or my library in particular. He aims to destroy my culture, not “enrich” it. He is, essentially, Kippling’s “Stranger Within My Gate.”

      “The Stranger within my gates,
      He may be evil or good,
      But I cannot tell what powers control—
      What reasons sway his mood;
      Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
      May repossess his blood”

      • He is, essentially, Kippling’s “Stranger Within My Gate.”

        “The Stranger within my gates,
        He may be evil or good,
        But I cannot tell what powers control—
        What reasons sway his mood;
        Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
        May repossess his blood”

        I might not be able to tell any of that with a great deal of accuracy, but common sense tells me what he’s up to.:

        http://dwebsters.blogspot.in/2008/10/danger-will-robinson.html?m=1

    • The Aztec and Carthaginian cases – or for that matter the cases of the Bronze Age Greeks and Levantines, who also practiced human sacrifice (albeit on a far more modest scale) – indicate that civilization has numerous aspects. Carthage was a high civilization in many respects, but not in respect to their savage religious praxis. Ours is a high civilization in almost all respects, but not in respect to our arts or our civil orderliness (our architecture has fallen pretty far, too; one school *describes itself* as “brutal” – not even savage).

      I would therefore propose that civilization is the character of a literate politan society in which change transpires by creative destruction rather than by destructive destruction. Civilized exchange, e.g., transpires by gift, bequest or trade, rather than by uncompensated taking, raiding, theft, extortion, fraud, and the like. Civilized transfers of political authority, likewise, transpire (somehow or other) nonviolently, and without despoliation of goods or human bodies. Civilized reproduction transpires by freely and lawfully contracted marriage, rather than rape, promiscuity, kidnapping, sex slavery, and the like. Civilized religion abjures outright destruction of goods or people, instead adjuring festivals. And so forth. A perfectly civilized society would avoid destructive destruction along all dimensions of social reorganization.

      Thus a civilization might be quite sophisticated along many dimensions of social order, but utterly savage along some others, as Carthage and Aztec Mexico both were – and as ours is, more and more.

      The barbarian spirit, then, would be the nisus of a people toward the perfection of their own civilization – at, perhaps, some considerable cost to some other people and their civilization, some destructive destruction thereof. And a certain degree of barbarity would be needed to maintain and defend a civilization against the savages that ever threaten to tear it down, whether from within or from without – and from the barbarians of alien cults and their cultures.

      Or something like that.

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