Art, Totalitarianism and Western Culture

“Crucifixion”, Michael D. O’Brien

Art, Totalitarianism and Western Culture


Adapted from an article published in the Summer, 1991, issue of Communio, a journal of theology and culture.

As power extends its grasp into wider and wider rings of human life it becomes more hostile to everything outside of itself. As it becomes near absolute it grows increasingly negative, because by its very nature it must oppose what cannot be extinguished in men’s beings. Totalitarian power does not rest content with obedience and a passive populace. It must seek at some point to destroy the inner impulse to creativity, which depends for its well-being on freedom from manipulation. It must find and erase all resistance, all spiritual autonomy, all dignity in its subjects.

We are familiar with the grotesque scenes of repression common to tyrannies—the times are awash in them: images of KGB bulldozers crushing a free exhibit of painting in a Moscow park. Or a poet mumbling at his show-trial, his mind deranged by drugs courtesy of a state hospital-prison. One thinks of book-burnings in Hitler’s Berlin, or the humiliation and expulsion of Solzhenitsyn. The list is practically endless, yet it pales against the background of a century of unprecedented brutality. In the West we have almost reached the point of satiety, a certain numbness instilled by the passive observation of constant streams of horror on the television. Electronic vision has given us immediate knowledge of distant events, but its price is a schizophrenic relationship with the world, and a cumulative apathy. Crisis is now artform; above all it is entertainment.

The flood of refugees to the West, however, has recalled us to the reality of suffering. The deranged poet is not merely a tragic character in some vague ideological drama. He is a brother found bleeding on our doorstep. Many victims have escaped through the net, arriving in the land of freedom in a state of euphoria, talking about their suffering as if it were real, in a language barely comprehensible to Western man. They exult that now they will not die but will live and give birth to their gifts. It is astounding, therefore, that shortly after their arrival so many of them experience radical disillusionment. The several refugee artists whom I know each have expressed dismay over the condition of their new home. Moreover, they often struggle against the bitter conclusion that modern North Americans simply have no time, inclination, or apparatus to read correctly the face of reality.

The pain of this is especially acute for those Christian artists who had survived in Soviet states by making clandestine religious imagery, some of them willing to live as “non-persons” at great sacrifice in order to pursue their art. They cannot understand why there is so little interest in their work in the West, despite the fact that it is usually technically and spiritually superior to that produced by our own small number of religious artists. This dearth of Christian artists in the West is an additional puzzle, for it would appear that many avenues of development lie open to the gifted person of faith. No imprisonment, death, or destitution await him here.

But the West is no longer Christian and is sliding rapidly into various forms of neopaganism. The refugee can well understand a pagan state functioning according to its convictions, but it is a cause of surprise for him to find a local Church culture that in many places has become sterile and invaded with the utilitarian spirit. A great majority of our churches are full of opulent tasteless décor, and outfitted with cheap factory “art” devoid of a sense of real art, presence, or reverence. Our art illustrates the sacred, “talks about” it visually; it is a decorative advertisement for the truth, but it does not provide a window opening onto the infinite.

To speak out against this degradation of the House of God merely strikes the Western ear as pride or as a violation of the democratic spirit. To the European eye, however, it is clear that some colossal tragedy has occurred in North American church culture. Thus, many expatriate Christian artists feel a keen sense of displacement. Though life is undoubtedly softer here, many of them wish to return to their devastated homelands. Are they ungrateful? Do they so lightly spurn the freedom we have generously bestowed? Why do they wish to go back into captivity? Perhaps they have discovered that it is we who remain captive, we who have not yet awakened to the danger in which we lie. They see in a glance what we find so difficult to understand, that in the West a relentless cultural revolution has paralleled the overt socio-political convulsions of the East. They know that the violent manifestations of dialectical materialism are matched by the implicit violence of our own quite deadly materialism.

What, then, are the sources of this tragedy? The decline of Western culture had its beginnings as far back as the Great Schism between the Latin and Greek Church, where a difference of theological emphasis regarding the human and the divine prepared the ground for later developments in humanism. The Renaissance, of course, was the primary point of rupture, and for all the glory it released into culture, it also released the spores of a humanism uprooted from the imago Dei, the image of God in man, which until then had been the fundamental ground of his identity. The Reformation and the Enlightenment followed inevitably as the liberal revolution worked out its logical consequences. The modern revolt began in earnest with the philosophical upheavals of the 19th century, thought-revolutions which have since demonstrated all too clearly that ideas are not mere abstractions. Simple concepts containing alluring truths and a mixture of flattering half-truths, not to mention outright falsehoods, can sow in history a deadly fruit.

Contemporary Western nations would do well to study the cultural state of Germany during its descent into totalitarianism. Hegel and Nietzsche had exercised a powerful influence on novelists, dramatists, and visual artists of their own time and the ensuing generations. By the 1920s and 1930s the German people had been culturally prepared to accept political philosophies which would have been unthinkable in a Christian nation a short century before. When, for example, Georg Wilhelm Hegel postulated his theory of an evolutionary dynamic in history, which he called dialectic, he did not foresee the consequences: According to Hegel, in the dialectic there first comes a thesis, followed by a reactionary antithesis, and finally a synthesis emerges out of the two; the synthesis then forms a new thesis which precipitates an ongoing evolution.

Hegel was a great admirer of Napoleon, and in all probability, if he had lived in the 20th century, he would have assessed Hitler and Lenin as admirably effective thesis-makers. Karl Marx adapted the idea to “dialectical materialism,” his theory of revolution. Terrorists also use dialectic to justify their most outrageous acts. They will bomb an airport or marketplace where it is certain that many innocent lives will be destroyed (thesis). This is intended to provoke the state into suppressing civil rights in an effort to stop the violence (antithesis). The masses will then be moved to overthrow the repressive state and an era of universal freedom will be inaugurated (synthesis). The concept of demolition as a necessary prelude to rebirth is obviously an incomplete reading of reality. Despite massive historical evidence that the theory is a disastrous half-truth, numerous Western intellectuals continue to defend it on every level of culture, from politics to art to ecclesiology. The popular image of the revolutionary as heroic demolisher is clearly the opiate of the romantic intellectual.

In this spirit of revolutionary idealism, many artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries abandoned traditional realism in order to revert to primitive art forms, attempting to plunge through the stultifying layers of a decaying civilization into a supposed natural innocence, a primaeval purity of vision. Needless to say, the gates of Eden remained resolutely shut, and in despair painters increasingly turned away from natural creation into an interior universe. Since then, a multitude of schools of abstraction and surrealism have developed cryptic languages from which one may decode variations on a theme: no one listens, no one hears, words have become pointless in a meaningless universe.

The modern movements took as many forms as there were personalities who could articulate their pain. Manifestations ranged from the poignant, the silly, and the cynical to eruptions of the diabolical. After World War II the unprecedented crimes of “civilized” man were disclosed, increasing the general atmosphere of despair. Sartre, Camus, and other existentialists offered a philosophy of heroic despair, a form of modern stoicism which for a time provided the motivation to create. Furthermore, Hitler and Stalin had tried to suppress the avante-garde and to harness realism to the cause of propaganda. The avant-garde mistook this as proof that their own movements were instruments of liberation. Neither the oppressors nor the oppressed could foresee that the persecution of “degenerate art” by a degenerate state would, in time, legitimize and exalt the cultural degeneracy. One form of revolution would be exchanged for another and degeneracy itself eventually become the establishment.

If the Soviet Union offers a monolithic, long-lived example of totalitarian manipulation of culture, the history of Nazi Germany presents to us a concentrated, rich fund of information about the causes and effects of totalitarianism arising in a highly civilized Western society. It is also a striking example of the pagan state taken to its logical consequences. Spiritually divided by the Reformation, indifferent to papal warnings about National Socialism, and undermined by the post-Enlightenment philosophies which von Balthasar called “the slow but sure degeneration of the German intelligentsia in a second, more subtle enlightenment,” and saturated with artistic decadence, the German people were ready for a secular messiah. Albert Speer claims that most Germans disliked the sinister side of National Socialism, but in a spirit of optimism they focused on Hitler’s positive promises. They were confident that once he had attained the nation’s highest office he would leave his more unpleasant ideas aside. For this naïveté the world was forced to pay a terrible price.

Under Hitler the theoreticians of the new order declared modern thought and art to be the flabby activities of a pampered elite, and attempted to replace it with a juvenile worship of the body and power. But a sophisticated culture is not so easily reduced. The l933 establishment of the Reich Culture Chamber was intended to nazify and control the whole of German cultural life, eventually to coordinate the activities of some 100,000 workers in cultural activities. All artists who wished to exhibit and buy materials had to be members of the Reich Chamber For Fine Arts. “Undesirables and non-Aryans” were forbidden to work, and all artistic events required a license—without it the police could intervene. The end result was that the nation’s art was driven underground and artists pressed into powerless isolation. By the end of the first year the Chamber had engineered the dismissal of several leading artists from German academies. Many artists emigrated, and a few renowned painters were imprisoned in the concentration camps of Dachau and Oranienburg. Other camps would receive their artists in time, and Auschwitz especially developed an appetite for many of the most gifted creators of Europe.

Early on it might have been possible to read the signs of the times and stop Hitler before he had gone too far. From the beginning there were fascist book-burnings of “un-German and anti-Nazi” writing, including the works of a number of Nobel Prize winners. By l936 state agents had confiscated 5000 paintings and about 12000 prints from German museums and public collections. Drawing from this resource, the first “Degenerate Art” exhibit opened in that year and toured major German cities. Two million people saw it in Munich alone in l937. It was an impressive collection; undoubtedly, some of the public came to admire and be informed by the works, not to sneer, which was the official objective.

The modernist movement in art is a complex phenomenon. Some of its streams are depraved, others are unquestionably beautiful and concerned with truth. But the Nazi rejection of modern art was indiscriminate: among the confiscated work were paintings such as Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” (l888), some Matisse’s, Cezanne’s, and Gaugin’s. A second wave of purges after l937 swept an estimated 24,000 works into storage, illegal resale, or destruction. Later, during the invasion of France, 500 works of art were burned in front of the Tuileries in Paris.

The suppression of German art only served to drive the avante-garde deeper into its conviction that the modernist revolution in art was a great cry of freedom. Indeed it was, in a strangulated form. Certainly it was a protest against a violated, intolerable world. In Max Bechmann’s painting, “The Birds’ Hell” (l938), for example, screeching figures with arms raised in a Hitler salute cower before a fuehrer of birds, a black-gold eagle of the Reich, a diabolical figure presiding over scenes of torture. Bechmann pushes political allegory just as far as it can go without breaking down into counter-propaganda. And propaganda, even in a righteous cause, remains propaganda. The quality of the painterly technique is high, and therefore it would be a mistake to say that it ceases to be art. But as art it is weakened. A similar example, Hans Grundig’s hallucinogenic triptych, “The Thousand Year Reich” (l935/38), is a surrealistic plunge into the world of nightmare. Grundig boldly crosses over the line into political preaching. By contrast, Edgar Ende’s “The Barque” (l933), is a serene composition in which a boat crowded with people, sailing over a dark abyss, is pulled by a globe floating in a bleak sky. It is a landscape of interior anguish, intensified by the apparent calm of the scene. Order is restored to the world, but a stifling ennui pervades a blind search for transcendence in a landscape that has lost all orientations. Similarly, in Richard Oelze’s “Expectation” (l935/6), a group of ordinary middle-class citizens stand in a field gazing beyond the trees to an ominously overcast sky. The sense of dread is palpable.

In the long run, such works impart a more powerful, though subtler, experience of the totalitarian Zeitgeist. This is not to suggest for a moment that we should do without the violent cries of warning uttered by Grundig and other anti-Nazi painters such as Max Ernst, George Grosz and Otto Dix. In the work of these painters a message is dramatically shouted: totalitarianism is evil, moral chaos, pain. They are correct, of course. But the viewer recoils in horror from that other world. The average citizen strolling down an average street in a totalitarian state does not experience his world in terms of continuous absolute madness. However distressing it may be, the passage of months and years gives to even the most extreme of situations a certain semblance of normality. In the highest art, such as in “Expectation,” the viewer is drawn into the painting and realizes that the world he has entered is his own. He is enabled to understand that totalitarianism is essentially a spiritual state.

Many Germans of the 1920s and 1930s were justifiably repelled by the corruption of beauty, reverence and intelligibility promoted by elements of the avante-garde. Hitler harnessed their disgust to his own purposes. Totalitarianism invariably inflates an image of some real or imagined “enemy of the people” in order to seduce the ordinary citizen, along with the “sociopath”, into using evil means to destroy the foe. “Degenerate Art,” “The Jewish Conspiracy,” or “the inquisitional Catholic Church,”—practically anything will do. There is an important lesson here. Because the modernist revolution in art is fundamentally anarchistic, it does in fact open the field to totalitarianism—at the least by exalting in society the myth of the anarchist as hero. Yet anarchy, in the name of freedom, inevitably leads to tyranny—a dynamic that is recounted throughout recorded history (Plato’s The Republic, Aristotle’s Politics).

As anarchy gains ascendance, there comes the point of greatest temptation for the establishment, the temptation by which nations and cultures so often fall. The wielder of power is deluded into thinking he can remold reality into a less threatening condition, by using force. If he succeeds in convincing his people of the delusion and posits for them an enemy of the collective good, then unspeakable evils can be released in society. Those who share a mass-delusion rarely recognize it as such, and can pursue the most heinous acts against humanity in a spirit of self-righteousness. Democracies are not immune from such delusions, although they tend to forms of oppression that are not overtly violent. Democracies in decline, however, will revert to covert oppression and the overt, gradual erosion of human rights.

Any society that wishes to remain free must defend the right of expression for those whose ideas it finds abhorrent, for there is no truly human society without freedom, and a world without freedom soon has no room for Christians. Prudence demands, of course, that there be limits to this principle and in a vital society the debate will always be carried on regarding the exact position of those limits. It is not freedom to allow evil to go on devouring the good indefinitely. After all, the organization of states is, in part, for the purposes of restraining the evil impulses in man. But the preservation of the good will never succeed simply by repression of evil. This is the great test to which freedom is always put. We must learn and relearn that the only real solution to degeneracy, political, cultural, or otherwise, is to create an alternate culture that is so good, so beautiful and true, that man is drawn back to his own true home.

It is important to note that preoccupation with absurdity, violence, and death is not peculiar to artists oppressed by their governments. It is endemic to all post-war Western societies, and it thrives especially in the climate of post-modernity, for the latter’s superficiality, consumerism, and lack of absolute moral reference points (both vertical and horizontal) open wide the gates to the anti-human—the anti-human no longer as a top-down oppression but manifesting instead as an all-pervasive psychological cosmos. Thus, as the overt tyrannies fall or decline we must not assume that man will now right himself and produce works of art restored to a sense of beauty, truth, and virtue. It is entirely possible that the opposite may occur: the revolution shifting from the exterior political sphere and plunging into the interior, riding on the vehicle of culture. In this way it can penetrate to the soul of man in a manner that violent regimes never can, for they alienate their citizens, rendering them perpetually on guard. The most effective revolution is the one that appears as liberation. The culture of negation which has taken forty years to germinate and produce its fruit under the severe pressure of dictators has evolved smoothly and efficiently in the democracies, where there has been little public violence to alert us to the fact that the worst is indeed happening. The enemy, we find to our surprise and disbelief, is not so much this or that tyranny, as it is a concept of man that has become well-nigh universal.

For cultural revolutionaries, East and West alike, post-modernity is progress because their world-view is based on the assumption that man is evolving inexorably towards a state of perfection. What is current must be better than what has gone before. Denying the reality of sin, they will not admit that educated man can fall into a fatal error, dragging an entire society with him into the abyss. Falling to the temptation to use power to hasten the coming utopia, they see no wrong in blocking the expression of what seem to them reactionary, antiquated world-views. Thus, Catholic literature and Catholic visual arts have become silent, relentless battlefronts, and the field close to being won by our opponents. In North America it is barely possible to publish a religious novel springing from an orthodox reflection on the nature of man, and whenever one does appear it rarely surfaces in the mainstream of culture. Writers such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are exceptions, but it must be remembered that their literary reputations were established before the suppression of the Catholic voice became pandemic. Moreover, their work is implicitly Christian, which enables it to pass beyond the ghetto walls.

Admittedly, the near absence of overtly Christian arts in the mainstream of culture is due, in part, to the decline in numbers of truly Catholic artists. But the crisis is primarily due to the guerrilla war against orthodoxy in the organs of public culture. The work of numerous Christian writers, poets, and painters circulates as a kind of Western samizdat but, by and large, it is not permitted to surface before the public eye. When occasionally a work of art breaks through the web of containment (penetrating a minefield of editors and curators hostile to Judaeo-Christian absolutes), it is met with either indifference or the sly ridicule of critics. The totalitarian dynamic is at work in any materialistic society where repression is no less effective for being covert. Perhaps in the long run we shall find that violent persecution generates reactions of genuine outrage erupting in profound works of art. In seemingly benevolent regimes the artist is left to die from lack of oxygen and displays no embarrassing outrage against the status quo. In both states, discouragement of the explicitly religious vision submerges religious perception, which can then only emerge in disguised, often subconscious forms.

In a recent address to an international meeting of artists in Florence, Pope John Paul II urged them to work for the restoration of culture, to express an authentically Christian humanism, to oppose what he called “the culture of death” pervading the world, to incarnate a true vision of man. (See also two exceptional addresses on art and faith by Pope John Paul II in L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 27 October, 1986, p.16, and 19 May, 1986, p.12). The ways in which this can be done are many, and it would be impossible to discuss even a few of them here. Obviously there is an urgent need for regeneration of the sacred arts in the worship life of our Catholic people. But equally important is the need for restoration of the surrounding culture. On that level of communication it would be almost certainly fruitless to attempt to speak with liturgical art to the mass of men who are alienated from the Church. There is room, however, for reflective work which calls man to ponder ultimate questions. By stimulating thought, such work can prepare him to receive the full message of salvation.

Consider, for example, an artform with the least obvious religious content, the landscape. The landscape can be implicitly religious and political in so far as it exteriorizes interior perceptions of the nature of things. These perceptions instruct the soul (and often the mind) at a deep level, arming them against the untruths rampant in totalitarian systems. A section of mountain range in a painting may recall the viewer to the active yearnings of youth, sentiments (though not sentimentality) of sacrifice, courage, the quest and ascent. Or a river moving slowly in the sun may speak of contemplative stirrings in the soul, of abandonment, prayer, and eternity. A distant city rising on the horizon in the dawn may be a metaphor of a nation’s sense of order and destiny, or alternately a foretaste of the heavenly New Jerusalem which will be given by God after the devastation of the world by man’s sin and error.

Culture strives to ensure that the full complement of such insights are preserved and imparted to the passing generations. But culture is never a static thing; it is always expanding or contracting, refining itself or degenerating. Art is its lingua franca. “A work of art is a good in itself,” said St. Thomas Aquinas, and among its greatest goods is its power to reflect back to us the beauty of Being itself. In giving to the invisible absolutes “a local habitation and a name,” incarnated beauty teaches us to love. Love of creation, of one’s past, one’s people and culture springs from an intuitive understanding of the purpose of diversity: individuals, nations, and races live out their particular genius as an epiphany of one or more aspects of the infinite creativity of the Father-Creator. Totalitarianism in its nationalist form tends to feed on these legitimate passions and pervert them to its own ends . . . consider the pathetic patriotic art produced by National Socialism. Internationalist tyrannies, on the other hand, attempt to sweep away or submerge the national and racial loyalties of various peoples in an effort to create homogeneous masses, more easily subdued and re-educated. To accomplish this, it must invade culture, which is the sanctuary of a people’s identity.

Yet ideological art never touches the real needs of the human person, and all attempts to appear as if it does merely heighten the sense of depersonalization in its audience. Though ideological art is almost always mediocre, banal or strident, and unconvincing, it often succeeds in displacing the art that springs spontaneously from the spiritual depths of a people. Especially victimized are the forthcoming generations who naturally experience their barren world as normal—after all, it is the only world they have known. How difficult it is for them to see that they have been robbed. The young who have been thus deprived, and do not know it, must thereafter function with a blanked out zone on the existential spectrum. For them, art has become merely irrelevant—or at best an entertainment.

In de-emphasizing the value of individual being (the unique identity of any given person, nation, or people) for the sake of a collective convergence, totalitarianism generates several contradictions and impossible tensions. The implications for human freedom are not encouraging. The accelerating homogenization of culture on the planet is a sign that convergence may not be as healthy as it seems. The opportunities for global conflict might be reduced, perhaps one day even eliminated, but the denial of fundamental human qualities could be as thorough a destruction of man. By contrast, diversity widens the pool of resources open to man in the difficult process of integrating freedom and responsibility, reason and faith, mercy and justice. A multiplicity of culture provides a rich choice of lenses through which we could consider our nature and destiny, and our propensity to evil. The man with one eye and the man with two can describe the same object word for word, but the invisible dimension of depth is lost to the former, and it is the latter who we would prefer to drive a car down a busy street.

The flattening effect in the new global culture is the result of loss of the transcendent dimension, which is a perception that can only be nurtured by a hierarchical vision of existence. For this reason, the ancient and modern tyrannies alike have hated the authority of hierarchical Christianity, for the Church incarnates in her structure the principle of cosmic hierarchy. The office of Pope is a living symbol of the Incarnation, representing Christ who is the living image of the unseen God, the Father-Creator who reigns at the head of his rich and diverse creation. Today there is a resurgent irrational hatred of Catholicism because it dares to exercise spiritual authority in an age which equates authority with tyranny. Thus, Western (and now Eastern) man is cut loose from submission to both tyranny and legitimate authority. He has become his own emperor and pope—a power he will soon find hollow, for his desacralized world is only superficially exalted, his self only temporarily deified. He must now stagger about his existential landscape, his apparently “real” world, in search of his own lost face. In reality, every aspect of his existence is reduced to the level of accident and absurdity. He must more and more grasp at power in order to reassure himself that he is real. Thinking himself to be free, he is in reality the most tragic victim of the spirit of global totalitarianism.

Corrupted liberalism, in its secular and religious forms, has given us this world. In a climate of moral and spiritual sterility, truth is made relative, shiftless, and undependable. Love is eroded, communication rendered pointless, human life devalued (being is despised) and art, in the short time left to it, becomes the final gasp of a people’s rage and despair. The image we have of our society is an unreal mental construct. It is no longer the land of the brave and the home of the free, but a landscape of secret nightmare, where millions of children are murdered annually, discreetly, hygienically, in the clinics and hospitals of our land. Legalized murder, loss of the transcendent vision in culture, and the death of art are each in themselves key symptoms of a society’s collapse into totalitarianism.

Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World Revisited (l958), said that the totalitarianism he had foreseen in Brave New World (l931) was materializing in the Western world at a much faster rate than he had thought possible. In his earlier work he had predicted a society in which art, literature, and religion had been neutered and all conflicts eliminated by genetic engineering. He portrayed a perfect synthesis of technology and paganism. In Revisited he had come to believe that the totalitarianism of the immediate future would be less visibly violent than that of the Hitlers and Stalins, but it would create a society “painlessly regimented by a corps of highly trained social engineers.” He maintained that in such a society “democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial,” but the underlying substance would be a seemingly benign totalitarianism. Josef Pieper has pointed out that this kind of totalitarianism is the most inhumane, and impossible to overthrow, for it can always argue that it is not in fact what it is. (See his essay, “The Art of Not Yielding to Despair,” in Josef Pieper: An Anthology, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 1989, p.228).

Huxley’s otherwise perceptive book is itself a victim of the modern misunderstanding of authority. He could not see the connection between his own brand of liberalism and the world it was helping to create. The book is marred by his prejudice against the Church, which he lumps together with Marxism and Fascism. Like so many modern intellectuals he failed to distinguish between gratuitous power and responsible exercise of authority. The Catholic Church has functioned for more than a century solely as a spiritual authority. It has no police, no armies, only the exigencies of truth and love operating in the consciences of men. Truth and love, the Church knows, are the only real guarantees of social and individual freedoms. Curiously, it is her persistence in this regard that is found most objectionable to the modern mind, and especially to the totalitarian mind, violent and non-violent alike. The liberal revolutionaries of the West, even as they reject overtly tyrannical regimes, are turning increasingly to consideration of systemic “solutions” to the problem of man, which they presume will be benign, “humanitarian.” Furthermore, they know that orthodox Christianity alone stands against the “brave new world” in which they still place their hopes.

The idealism of the contemporary liberal is founded on a deep and dark naïveté about man. The people it has formed are glutted on artificial culture, pulverized by imagery and words, but starved for art and literature. They are ripe for overt totalitarianism. Ultimately, all the ideals of the liberal revolution will be betrayed, because they were never built upon philosophical and moral absolutes. The only uncertainty is whether its violence will erupt openly or continue to work covertly. As has been shown repeatedly in modern revolutions, the very revolutionaries are themselves liquidated by the less idealistic monsters that they spawn in the following generations. We shall soon see what can occur in a society that no longer lives by truth, a catastrophe due in no small part to the decline of beautiful forms which give shape to the truth.

Catholic writers, especially those who write from a base of implicit moral order, continue to be published, their books bobbing along as relative singularities on the tsunami of anti-words that flood contemporary consciousness. In this regard, I am thinking of the novels of Cormac McCarthy, especially No Country For Old Men, which is a brutal warning about where the loss of moral absolutes is taking American society. His post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, suggests that redemption lies in the restoration of fatherhood, and in prayer (the briefest hint at the end of the story). This book and its film have been enormously popular, which is, I think, a sign that the inner moral compass in modern man can never be entirely eradicated. Thus, there is hope—perhaps great hope—that the restoration to sanity is still possible, and that it may, in time, bring about a true new renaissance.

The overt tyrannies have toppled one by one with astounding rapidity. In the obscure designs of the cosmic revolt against God, the evil one who works to undermine the divine order may have found it unnecessary to sustain such artificial regimes. There now exists in Eastern and Central Europe a massive population deformed in its concepts of man and freedom, largely reduced to homo sine Deo, man without God. This new man yearns for the decadence of the West as if our toys and addictions are icons of freedom. Has he been liberated from an austere, perversely moralistic Communism only to become like us? Amoral, dedicated only to our appetites, and barely able to produce a lasting work of art or literature?

At the same time, the collapse of the barriers has exposed another great sign of hope: A Church of suffering is now emerging from the catacombs. It is drastically reduced in numbers from pre-revolutionary days. It is purified, visionary, rich in worship, story, art and song. We have much to learn from the survivors—if we would listen. They have prevailed over unmasked totalitarianism, while most Christians of the West gazed, and still gaze, trustingly at the benign mask which veils our own tyrant. It is we who now lie in the greatest danger.
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Author’s note: The foregoing essay is based on an article I wrote more than twenty years ago, which was published in Communio, a journal of theology and culture. It appeared as the Soviet regimes of Europe were falling one by one. I have revised it according to subsequent events.

—Michael O’Brien, March 2012.

Categories: Art

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