The Deadly Fruits of Victory

When my children were small, I would sing songs for their edification and amusement.  Apart from a few hymns, most of these songs came from the American folk tradition.  I don’t mean that they appeared in Pete Seeger’s Communist Campfire Sing-Along, but that they were songs of the sort we used to sing around boy scout campfires and in music classes at the public schools: She’ll be Coming ’Round the Mountain, Old Suzanna, Sweet Betsy from Pike, Bright Mohawk Valley, Down in the Valley, and others of that ilk.

No doubt most of these songs made their way into the schools through Carl Sandburg’s New American Songbag (1950) and Burt Ives Historical America in Song (1950), but they were nevertheless traditional in the sense that they remembered, and for the most part gently celebrated, what was then understood as the tradition of the American people.

And when I sang these songs all those “many long years ago,” I had more than a hunch that this was the tradition of my people.

It would be rash to try running a tight fence around this tradition, or around “my people,” but these words have something to do with being descended from the Old Americans.  Not the First Americans, but the Old Americans who took this land from the First Americans, and are even now losing it to Americans who are new.  It therefore has something to do with a vital and sentimental connection to men who fought in the Civil War, who swung their axes in the sylvan solitudes of the Great West, who surveyed stumps from the door of a log cabin, and who threw their hats in the air at the shrill whistle of the first iron horse.

These are their memories and this is its myth.

My children have now grown to an age where their father’s singing has ceased to edify or amuse, so they no longer hear about Babe’s red pajamas from me.  Nor from anyone else, it would seem, since no one sings about Babe “coming ’round the mountain” in the schools they attend, and I suspect their principals would not let the students “all go out to meet her” if she did.

Like poor Clementine driving her ducklings to the water, I’m afraid the tradition of the Old Americans “hit her foot against a splinter, and fell into the foaming brine.”

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine

(2)

Dreadful sorry, indeed.  But I would still like to look a little more closely into the nature of that fatal splinter.  In the old song, this was almost certainly a shard of stone.  Clementine’s father had, after all, encamped his family “in a cavern, in a canyon,” and, what is more, as befits a “miner, forty-niner,” was actively “excavating for a mine.”  We may, therefore, reasonably suppose that shards of stone littered his camp, and that the old miner and his family had grown accustomed to stepping over and around them.  Indeed, stepping over and around those splinters of stone must have been—even to Clementine’s little sister—a sort of second nature or muscle memory.

And that is why it is pertinent for us to ask, just what befell poor Clementine?  Why did her foot forget to step over that splinter, with the terrible consequence that she ended her short life “blowing bubbles, soft and fine”?

The answer to this question has, I believe, two parts.  The first is that that particular splinter hadn’t been in that particular place the day before, or any of the days before that, but had been but recently tumbled, or blasted, or dropped into that position by Clementine’s father, the industrious “miner, forty-niner.”  This alone explains the suicidal guilt that overtakes the old man in the third verse, his beginning “to peak and pine,” and his morbid resolution that he “oughta join his daughter” in the fatal embrace of that icy mountain stream.

The second part of the answer is that Clementine, although lovely, had grown lax and lazy in her daily driving of those ducklings to the water.  After who knows how many weeks or months of rounding them up “just at nine,” Clementine was not so much driving those ducklings to the water as she was just following them.  In other words, Clementine was just going through the motions and pretending to work.  And while pretending to work, Clementine’s mind was, we may well suppose, filled with frivolous thoughts of the musical beaux who narrates this sad old song.

So, there you have it.  Darling Clementine was dawdling after the ducks, mooning about her hair, and her dress, and what happed the night before, behind the sluice box, after that old miner, forty-niner went to sleep, when she was suddenly torn from her reveries the by pain of her toe striking an unremembered stone.  She then tripped, tumbled, dunked, sank, and drowned.

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine

 

(3)

As suggested earlier, I believe the catastrophe of Clementine can be read as an allegory of what happened to those old songs that my children do not sing, and to the tradition of which those songs were a part.  The catastrophes are not parallel in every particular, of course, but are so at least in the two causes of downfall.  In both cases, there was a relaxation in discipline and indulgence in some degree of frivolity and luxury, and then there was an ambush by some foreign novelty for which the doomed one was altogether unprepared.

The English divine William Inge attributed the catastrophe of the Roman Empire to these same two causes: an endogenous failure of discipline and the exogenous challenge of a foreign element.  The first cause, a failure of discipline, seems to follow on the heels of empire as surely as night follows day.  As I wrote in an October post,

“To build an empire takes men of a special character: men who are bold and brave, and who believe they have a right to rule.  But once an empire is built, it remorselessly destroys this character.”

Or if you would like that from a greater authority than I, here is Edward Gibbon:

“A secret poison had been introduced by long peace and lethargic inactivity into the very bowels of the empire.  Military spirit no longer existed. . . and the commanding genius of Rome forsook the polluted habitations of a luxurious and effeminate people.” (1)

And, likewise, Inge, who tells us that, once Rome had made herself “mistress of the world,” “the Roman no longer felt himself a member of a militant community.”  The long fight was over, and the time had come to taste the deadly fruits of victory (2).

“The idleness of the citizens, their extravagance and luxury, their insatiable greed of money, above all, their habit of vicious celibacy . . .” (2)

Remember that celibacy does not necessarily entail chastity, only childlessness through avoidance of marriage or a marriage that is deliberately barren.  When either course is accompanied by sexual indulgence, you have what Thomas Malthus called “vicious celibacy,” or what the Roman historian Tacitus described as “limiting the number of children” through abortion, infanticide, or sodomy of one sort or another (3).

Needless to say, once they had conquered the continent and established their empire, those Old American pioneers did not refuse the deadly fruits of victory.  Many pretended they were still driving their ducklings to the water, but ever growing numbers fell into a fatal dream-world of idleness, luxury, greed, and vicious celibacy.

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine

 

(4)

Clementine’s frivolous daydream ended when she struck her foot against a stone that had not lay in her path the day before, and for which she was not prepared.  It was this foreign, alien, and exotic element that delivered her coup de grâce.

The deadly fruits of victory cause a relaxation of discipline and prepare a conquering people for their coup de grâce, but such a people will linger, “luxurious and effeminate,” until an executioner appears to dispatch them with the final stroke.  Gibbon tells us that the executioner of decadent Rome was “a hearty race of barbarians” who came out of the north, but this is not the whole story.  More deadly still were the witty and wily sophisticates that poured in from the east, and lay their axe of skepticism to the root of the Roman spirit.

Juvenal complained about these demoralizing invaders early in the second century:

“Syrian Orontes has long since flowed into the Tiber, and brought with it its language, morals, and the crooked harps with the flute player, and its national tambourines, and girls made to stand for hire at the Circus.”

Out of the east came a swarm of philosophers, magi, and pimps, all deadly fruits of victory “imported to Rome by the same wind that brought the plums and figs” (4).  These men were deadly, Inge explains, because they carried in their breasts the discord of alien sentiments and memories, and because this discord destroyed the concordant Roman religion of “patriotism,” “civic duty,” and “national esprit de corps.

“The constant influx of foreigners from every quarter of the world, especially from the East, was fatal to the national religion.  Neither natural propensities nor traditions led these newcomers to embrace the religion of their conquerors.  None but Romans could be faithful worshipers of the Roman gods.  The old stock, an ever-decreasing minority, could make no stand against an invasion of aliens often intellectually their superior . . .” (5)

Hooted and heckled by a mob of these contumacious foreigners, the Roman general Scipio reviled them as “stepsons of Italy.”  These stepsons would, in time, inherit the Roman lands, but they could not inherit the Roman tradition because they could not grow a Roman heart.

“Romans were Roman by blood and not by adoption.” (6)

In much the same way, the “stepsons of America” that I’ve called the new Americans have already begun to inherit American lands, but they do so with an alien heart, with discordant sentiments and memories that make inheritance of the Old American tradition all but impossible.  And this is why, in years to come, they will not attempt to edify and amuse their children with the verses of “Clementine.”

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine.

 

(5)

A stepson may very well love his father, and even his grandfather if he benefited from the old man, but he will not make a cult of their ancestors.  The father and grandfather enter into the stepson’s story, but the stern old faces in the family photo album do not.  This is why “none but Romans could be faithful worshipers of the Roman gods.”  Only Romans could read Roman history as their history.  Greeks and Jew could not have Roman memories, Roman sentiments, Roman hearts.

I am sure you have spent an evening with a family that was sharing old memories.  For you, these memories may have been curious, amusing, revealing, or droll; but as they were not about you, they could not in any deep sense affect you.  They were not your memories.  But it was different for the members of the reminiscing family because those memories were their story — the story they told themselves about themselves.  That story is that family’s tradition of cherished old chestnuts, which they have carefully selected, polished, and arranged in a collective memoir.  It is their self-portrait, the image through which they understand who and what they are.

A people also has a collective memoir that we call its national myth.  This myth is made from the nation’s true history, but is very far from being the same thing.  Like the family’s memoir, or the self-image of an individual, a national myth is the child of art (poiesis), not science (noesis).  It is made, not found.  And it is made with the purpose of sustaining the Life of the nation (a purpose that takes precedence over any strict obedience to Truth).  It sustains the nation’s life by giving the nation the heart—by which I mean the courage—to persevere in the struggle that is its national Life.

Here is how Friedrich Schlegel described the connection between the national myth and the heart or courage, of a nation.

“One of the most important advantages to a nation, in regard to its further development . . . is . . . possession of a store of national traditions; these . . . it is especially the business of poetry to commemorate with imperishable splendor.  Such traditions, the most glorious heirloom of a country, are indeed a possession which nothing else can replace.”

“The memory of great deeds of past ages, embodied in matchless strains of poetry, kindles the noblest feelings of a people and fires their bosoms with a glorious ardor.”

“Boundless aspirations, high enterprise, notable events do not alone suffice . . . . a people that would rank high in our esteem must themselves be conscious of their own doings and fortunes.” (7)

Here is George Elliot, writing some years later :

“The eminence, the nobleness of a people, depends on its capacity of being stirred by memories.” (8)

Indeed, it does.  But what happens when a people are not stirred, but shamed?

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine

 

(6)

No sooner had the Old Americans conquered their continent, and begun to loll beside bowls filled with those deadly fruits of victory, than the predictable influx of foreigners began.  As in Rome, polyglot streams poured in from every quarter of the world, these streams being in the American case supplemented by artesian wells of restive Indians and manumitted slaves.  Mixed in with these streams were the usual leaven of philosophers, magi, and pimps, who made their special sorts of mischief; but the whole flood demoralized the Old American tradition because it was wildly discordant.

Remember that discord means, at bottom, disunited hearts.  It is from this fundamental lack of unanimity that there arises the beast that Milton described as

“Discord with a thousand various mouths.” (9)

And what issues from each of these thousand various mouths is, naturally, the angry and insistent demand that its memories, its sentiments, and its tradition be received by all other hearts as true.

As we have seen, such demands are dishonest because memories, sentiments and tradition, serve Life, not truth.  These things are made to give a nation the heart, the courage, to persevere in the struggle that is Life.  These things are the instruments of morale, spirit, confidence, esprit de corps.

But they work in this way only on the hearts for which these particular memories, sentiments and traditions were made.  On all other hearts, they have the opposite effect.

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine

 

(7)

So far as a heart is concerned, there are two types of memory, stirring and shaming, tonic and morbid, invigorating and poison.  The self-image of healthy man is vitalized by tonic memories that give him courage to press on with his life.  The self-image of a sickly man is poisoned by morbid memories that sink him in a quagmire of self-loathing and despair.

As Schlegel and Elliot make clear, a healthy nation naturally makes its national myth of tonic memories.  This does not mean that it tells itself nothing but Pollyanna stories, for tragedy can be tonic, but that the story it tells itself about itself kindles confidence, courage, and hope.  This is its sustaining myth; this is its “glorious heirloom . . . which nothing else can replace.”

A sickly nation has a national myth infected by morbid memories, memories by which it is shamed rather than stirred.  The bosoms of its people are not “fired” with “glowing ardor,” but are rather doused to dead ash by an endless recounting of vile crimes and infamous deeds.  The people of such a nation looks in the mirror of their tradition and sees a loathsome beast.

And this happens because their tradition has been littered with alien memories that were made to bolster the courage and sustain the spirit of another people.  These alien memories are the unexpected “splinter” against which our metaphorical Clementine hit her foot just before she “fell into the foaming brine.”

We owe to Lucretius the proverb that, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.”  Much the same could be said about nations and their sustaining national myths.  A myth that feeds the morale of one nation may very well poison the morale of another.  The myth that sustains the Life of one people, giving them heart and courage to persevere and struggle, may very well dishearten and discourage another people.

Indeed, a sickly nation languishing under a national myth that has been infected by alien memories may well take after that old miner, forty-niner.  It may begin to peak and pine, and to at last resolve to do away with itself by a fatal plunge into an icy mountain stream.

And this may be why my children do not know the words to Clementine.

You are lost and gone forever,
Dreadful sorry, Clementine

__________________________________________________________

(1) Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1789).

(2) “When the fall of Carthage had left the Romans with one difficulty the less to be overcome, a relaxation of patriotism became evident.  Obstacles were to them, as to all men, an incitement to exertion; and in proportion as these were subdued . . . indolence became national.”  Richard Chenevix, An Essay Upon National Character (London: J. Duncan, 1832), vol. 2, p. 466.

(3) William Ralph Inge, Society in Rome Under the Caesars, two vols.  (London: J. Murray, 1888), pp. 8, 36.

(3) Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principles of Population, 1.14.  When Tacitus praises the sexual morality of the Germans, we should certainly read it as an adverse commentary on the sexual decadence of Rome.  “Marriage there [in Germany] is very strict, you would praise no other part of their customs more . . . Thus [German wives] live with guarded chastity, corrupted by no allurements of public shows, no incitements of banquets.  Men and women alike know not the secrets of letters [clandestine correspondence].  Adultery is very rare in so numerous a people, the punishment of which is prompt and given over to the husbands.  With her hair cut off, the husband expels her naked from the house before her relatives, and drives her with a whip through the entire village.  For there is no leniency for prostituted chastity; she will find a husband neither by beauty, not youth, nor wealth.  For no one laughs at vices there, nor is it called fashion to corrupt and to be corrupted . . . . To limit the number of their children or kill any of their offspring is considered a disgrace” (Germania 19)

(4) Juvenal Satires (c. 100 A.D.), iii.  “But we must now turn for a time from the Palace of the Emperor and the grand houses of the nobles . . . to the squalid taverns and lodging houses of the poorest of that vast mongrel population which surged through the streets of Rome.  It was not an Italian population, but was composed of the dregs for all nations, which had been flowing for generations into the common sewer of Rome . . . . The city was almost as much a Greek as it was a Roman city.  But, besides this, it abounded in Orientals . . .” F. W. Farrar, Darkness and Dawn: Scenes in the Days of Nero (London: Longmans Green, 1891), vol. 1, p. 92.

(5) Inge, Society in Rome, p. 9, 6.

(6) Inge, Society in Rome, p. 5.

(7) Friedrich Schlegel, Lectures on the History of Literature, Ancient and Modern (London: Bohn, 1859), pp. 8-9.

(8) George Elliot, “The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!,” pp. 235-265 in Theophrastus Such (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1907), p. 236.

(9) John Milton, Paradise Lost 2. 967.

 

14 thoughts on “The Deadly Fruits of Victory

  1. Pingback: The Deadly Fruits of Victory | @the_arv

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  3. I think much of the current impetus is a joke played by Satan. It is shoved in our faces. “Diversity” is the Latin “diversum” which means can be defined as “unlike, hostile, separate, apart”. Of course it would undermine unity and civilization. Almost every large institution is involved in or has a “diversity” program, which literally means a program of separation, of hostile dividing, of destruction.

    • Of course, if a truly diverse group is to function, it must restrict itself to the limited area of agreement. Imagine an international party where only three people were fluent in English. Party banter would be conducted a pidgin English made of a very few words and greatly simplified grammar.

  4. This was a pleasure to read. I was initially taken aback by Vox Day’s claim that the earlier wave of immigrants like the Irish and Italians are not real Americans, but I’m actually a good example of it. My ancestors came over from Belgium and Germany in the mid 19th-century–a long time ago–but I don’t identify with the Old Americans very strongly. I don’t revere the Founders (and didn’t even when I was a classical liberal and more-or-less agreed with them), I don’t like country or folk music (haven’t heard enough to dislike it, but certainly have no feeling that it is the voice of my volk), and since high school I’ve identified with French political categories (even as the particular party shifted with my shifting beliefs) rather than American ones. I’m not hostile to Old Americans. In fact, I’ve liked them better since realizing that I’m not really one of them. It’s their country more than mine, and we Catholics really should be ashamed of taking upon ourselves the immigrant’s perceived duty of perpetual ingratitude. (“The Protestants let us in; now it’s our duty to force them to let everyone else in!”)

    • Thanks, Bonald. I’m not much into their contemporary music, dress, or cuisine, but my loyalty comes to the surface when they are attacked. In was similar in the many years when I was not a Christian. I was very uneasy in the company of overt Christians, but would not stand to hear them attacked. The vindictive turn against Old Americans in the larger culture awoke this latent loyalty in me.

      • Right. I can be critical of my people, but you (the other) can’t! Not in my presence anyway; not unless you care to receive a good tongue lashing from yours truly in exchange for your efforts.

        Nothing wrong with that in my books.

    • Third. I thought it was great! I read it to my wife last night, and she, too, gave the essay high marks. Mainly, in her case I think, because she knows all the lyrics to those old folk songs and she used to sing them to our kids at bedtime when they were little.

      Very few things would give me more joy than to hear her singing those songs to the kids at bedtime, but I remember once when she stopped doing it for a while. When I finally asked why, she said because her impression had been that I was annoyed by it. I was initially confused by that answer, but the subject later came up between our oldest son and me. He said her impression was formed from my *apparent* lack of interest/indifference to it.

      I try to be more careful about the appearances I give off in the wake of all that. And after the discussion with our son I sat my wife down and explained that in spite of appearances, I had always (silently and actually) derived a lot of joy from those bedtime singings. And urged her to take up where she left off. She got emotional about that because it was the first time she realized her efforts in that vein were actually pleasing to me, and not the other way around. Sometimes I can be a real jerk!

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