Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Best Book Ever Written about the West

Image result for vinicius and lygiaQuo Vadis is the best book ever written about the West. It represents what is best in the West, and in that sense it is an American book, whose author was generally inspired by the American frontier in some of his other works no less than by Greek and Roman history in this one. Yet it is also a book which shows us very plainly that the West is indeed infected with a terrible sickness - a sickness that we would like to think was contained in Nero's character and receded into the past with the adoption of Christianity by all of Europe.
Yet it is telling that Ursus proclaims of the Ligians that though pagan, they do not have slaves, and that - not wishing to doubt the Wisdom of God for choosing to be born in Palestine, yet if He had been born among the forefathers of the Poles and of Slavic nations, He would not have been crucified, but worshiped through and through. It is clear that there is something noble about the Danubians that makes them a people for whom Christianity is as natural as water, air, earth and fire. It is clear that these barbarians lived a pagan life that lacked only the sanctification of a Living God. It is clear that the kind of internal struggles, the soul-searching and woe of the Roman struggling with Christ - whose archetype we see in Vincius - is a type unheard of among the Ligians for whom it is clear as day that Christ is not only God, but that God is Love and Happiness.
That this was not and is not clear to the West is one of the undercurrents of Quo Vadis. It is an undercurrent hidden from sight in times when the West shines with Christian splendor, it is an insight hidden from those who know Western history, who are capable of distinguishing periods of moral excellence from periods of moral stagnation in Western history. It is an undercurrent which - in the present day, when the West is in its death throws - comes screaming to the forefront when we read Quo Vadis.
Nero's great sin is his conflation of statesmanship with celebrity. Of course, he has his personal sins as well, but a ruler is, unlike all others, responsible for his city. Nero defies his role as a ruler in favor of what he honors more than political rule: theatre. Theatre and the arts, and more specifically the acclaim of the tumults combined with his own sense of artistic achievement is what drives Nero. Political power is merely an avenue for achieving what the modern world would call... celebrity. 
Do we really need to be explicit when conjuring in our imagination the myriad politicians and rulers of our present universe who share this grave Neronic vice? Our entire political culture is one which veers away from authority and towards celebrity. Authority is a dirty word - a word as dirty as it was for Nero, who never wished to commit any heinous act in broad daylight, never wished to assert the authority of his crown, but instead yearned for the adulation of a splendid artist and achieved it only because his art was backed by fear of his power.
This is the ultimate corruption of power - the substitution of celebrity for authority. This is also the fundamental characteristic of the modern West. Even in the United States, where there is now afoot a real attempt at restoring authority - it is a movement that would not and cannot live without the power of celebrity. So intimately is the national fabric tied to celebrity that any instinct of authority cannot even breathe without the oxygen that is celebrity. With all due respect to serious patriots who grasp at even the slightest hope as their republic drowns - this sickness is so severe that it even infects the greatest of her hopes.
As for the Continent itself - the subject of Sienkiewicz's novel - the vast cultural chasm between the descendants of Nero and the descendants of Ursus could never be greater than it is today. Western Europe is like a magnified Rome under Nero's rule. "We have 30 legions guarding Rome!" boasts a Consul at Nero's festival, before dropping to the floor and regurgitating the luxurious dishes he has over-consumed. How apt a symbol of the modern European, dressed in the power of armies, monies, and the remnants of past splendors, full of himself - and yet ugly, unable to hold the contents of his own stomach, immoderate, drunk, stupid - all while outside the barbarians are no longer at the gates - they are inside of the Temple itself. And amidst this terrible chaos - the descendants of the Ligians - the Slavic nations which, though still in many ways pagan, retain that pagan impulse which made them open to Christ and, having stood with Christ for a thousand years now, continue to stand with Him as if by instinct.
It is telling that this book, the best book about the West - the book that shows the splendor and greatness of the West - is not read in the West, only in the East.

screen capture from http://info-poland.icm.edu.pl/classroom/cinema/QV.html

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