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Two Hundred Years of Strangulation: Reviving Form in a Formless Age

Death, Memory, and Oblivion

Toward the midpoint of his 1,000-page Aesthetics, Dietrich von Hildebrand describes the death of culture in violent terms:

[U]ntil the beginning of the nineteenth century and the triumph of the machine, culture had not yet been strangled by civilization. The expression of the spirit, the gift of giving form … penetrated all the practical spheres of life up to that time. A knife should not only cut well; it should also possess a noble form. A chair should not only be comfortable and solid; it should also be beautiful, in fact it should sooner be a little less comfortable than be sober and prosaic. Practical life as a whole possessed an organic character and was therefore united to a special poetry of life. Related to this was the penetration of life by culture. But as the practical life of the human being was robbed of its organic character and was mechanized and thereby depersonalized, so too the poetry of practical life was lost[.] … [T]here is no [longer any] link between practical requirements and the spiritual requirements of the human being. (Vol. II, 52, trans. Crosby and McNeil)

The strangulation of culture is exactly the right image, for culture is a living reality that draws breath from divine worship. It is worship, more than anything else, that reminds man of his hylomorphic nature, at once body and soul, and teaches him to cooperate with God in bestowing form on matter. For gardening — the cultivation of matter — is not only man’s original vocation, but his essential vocation. It is human nature to order, to shape, to beautify the world. This is the essential meaning of culture. Yet today, 200 years after the French and Industrial Revolutions began their stranglehold on culture, 100 years since the tipping point of the Great War, and fifty years since Paul VI deprived the world of authentic cult, immemorial culture is not merely dead; it has passed from memory. No one alive today remembers the world before 1914.

This is how epochal shifts occur, as Tacitus notes in the opening to his Annals. It was the longevity of Octavian that cemented Rome’s shift from Republic to Empire. The authentic Republic had been suspended for twenty years — since Julius Caesar’s fording of the Rubicon — when Caesar’s adopted son Octavian assumed absolute power after the Battle of Actium, but the Republic was still within the living memory of much of the population. Forty years later, when Octavian died (as “Caesar Augustus”), there was no one left to remember.

When there is no one left to remember, whom do you consult about a renaissance?

The Communion of the Wise

“To learn and at due times to repeat what one has learnt, is that not after all a pleasure? That friends should come to one from afar, is this not after all delightful?” It is with this praise of study and philosophical friendship that the Analects of Confucius begin (trans. Waley). The “gathered friends from afar” surely refers as much to the classics and the classical authors as to one’s contemporaries at school. When sophists fill the academies and the courts of the city and the world, philosophers may yet commune in the catacombs of culture: the living ashes of books and scores and painted canvases.

One of the ironies of the process of mechanization in the last 200 years is that machines recorded their victims as they were destroying them — almost like Mark in Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. Thanks to the photograph and the phonograph and the camera, we have innumerable records of the old world as it was being strangled. The ease of publishing and diffusing the written word in the mechanical age affords us invaluable impressions from the last generations of the old world. Indeed, as Roger Scruton notes in his foreword to the second volume of the Aesthetics, which was recently published for the first time in English by the Hildebrand Project, Dietrich von Hildebrand himself was one of the last surviving members of Old Europe, “a persuasive representative of the culture of bourgeois Germany”(xx). His Aesthetics are valuable not only because of the ideas he expresses, but also because of the judgments he renders on cultural artifacts and because of his recollections of beautiful, lost situations. He mentions, for instance, “the stage-coachman in the countryside”:

I can still recall his white-blue costume with the red waistcoat and the yellow postal coaches. They were beautiful, and the coachman’s costume was charming. And he blew with his horn pleasant melodies as he drove across the landscape to bring people the letters with news that was eagerly awaited or feared, news that was joyful or sad. This activity, so human and classically woven into the fabric of life, was in itself charming and poetic. (Vol. I, 350)

Or there is the lost poetry of the carriage-riding hour at Rome:

[A]ll the upper classes drove in beautiful carriages drawn by noble horses along the Corso in Rome at one particular hour of the day. No doubt, the beauty of the buildings, the light, the coaches, and the horses stood in the foreground, but the situation itself was the bearer of a value, the value of the life that took place there. (Vol. I, 352)

These recollections shine against the ugliness of modern life, reminding us of the beauty of the old world. By reminding us of desirable lost things, they enable their retrieval at some wiser moment — as the ball scene in Visconti’s The Leopard may serve as the exemplar for a new ball when the culture has recovered sufficiently to mount a ball again. (Hildebrand too recalls the beauty of a ball.)

The Emergence of Artistic Form

What should a ball look like? What is a noble form for a knife? What makes a chair beautiful? For those on the far side of two hundred years of strangulation who share the ancient vision of the indivisibility of form and matter, of beauty and being, these are actual questions. Learning how to reunite the practical and the spiritual requirements of human production is particularly imperative for artists and their patrons.

In a healthy culture, artistic form emerges from the mysterious dance of the artist and his milieu. The milieu shapes and influences the artist in a manner analogous to Providence, while the artist also responds to special inspirations analogous to actual graces. Authentic cultural objects do not appear out of nothing like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the Nabisco products that litter the Cambodian tributaries of the Mekong. Authentic cultural objects emerge from their own time and place like children: begotten, not made. Hildebrand calls this “organic rootedness” (II, 64). He speaks of it in connection to architecture, giving the theoretical example of a contemporary Romanesque church “flawless in its proportions and in every detail … full of life, no mechanical imitation. … [W]e would assume that it came from the eleventh century; but if we learned that it was built only a few decades ago, an element of disappointment would be inevitable” (II, 63). For Hildebrand, this disappointment would be a legitimate response to the objective lack of “a dimension of reality, namely, the real life that stands behind the building” (II, 63). Inherent in the flawless copy is an element of deception, a denial of the rootedness of every artist and every artifact in a particular place and time ordained by Providence.

In an unhealthy culture, one built on the falsehood of being established ex nihilo, is “organic rootedness” still of value? Is it even possible to be rooted in a rootless age? One of the foundational claims of cultural modernism is that modern art should reflect modern life. This claim, which found an extreme formulation in Theodor Adorno’s fashionable slogan, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” contributed to the increasing brutality of modernist architecture and artwork in the 20th century. (For more on the origins of modernist architecture, read Tom Wolfe’s slim, perceptive, and droll little book, From Bauhaus to Our House.) Postmodern architecture and thought refer to the world before 1914 only in a shallow, sardonic, irreverent manner. The modernist is boorish, the postmodernist mischievous; both are equally ignorant and dismissive of tradition.

In this anti-culture severed from its roots, only forms that recover those roots can live and give life. Hildebrand puts this forcefully: “This zeitgeist of the industrialized world is itself a lie. It contradicts the true, genuine, valid rhythm of human life, a rhythm that is indissolubly linked to the objective essence of the poetry of human life. We must fight against this zeitgeist and redeem man from this curse.” He concludes that “the true artist should pay no heed at all to the zeitgeist,” instead “liberating the zeitgeist from its barren depoeticization and mechanization” (II, 65–66).

For Hildebrand, the artistic path forward lies neither in copying the old world nor in embracing deracinated modernity. The architect “should create a building in which the general artistic requirements are fully satisfied. He can employ many motifs, including those from earlier periods, but these will be inserted completely into the special invention of the specific building” (II, 65). In this way, the architect will “fight against the zeitgeist, not through imitation of older styles, but through the unchecked use of great architectural inventions of the past, in order to create something new that is nourished by the artistic inspiration of the architect” (II, 66). These prescriptions are abstract, but Hildebrand does provide one example of a successful modern building: Königinstraße 107, Munich, by O.E. Bieber and W. Hollweck. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the building was constructed in 1912–13.

When the milieu is formless, the artist’s burden becomes much greater. First, he must consciously reject the spirit of his age, and continue to keep vigilant in guarding his perception and his work from this evil spirit. Then, he has to find a way to root himself in the tradition that he did not receive — that of the old poetic world.

Formation Theoretical and Practical

This brings us back to Confucius. A broad classical education is fundamental. We must encounter all the great cultures — Pericles’s Athens, Justinian’s Constantinople, Song Peking, St. Louis’s Paris, Medici Florence, Muromachi Kyoto, Counter-Reformation Rome — not merely as tourists or historians, but as lovers of culture. Yet our study of the poetic world must extend beyond the study, the museum, or the classroom; poetry must permeate our daily lives. Insofar as possible, let us expunge from our lives everything that is base, trivial, and ugly and embrace all that is noble, significant, and beautiful.

For those with the means, there is no excuse for living in a post-war suburban home. While many homes built before the Second World War were ugly, and some few custom homes built after are beautiful, 1945 is a good, realistic cut-off for North American homes. One’s home need not be grand — simple homes can be lovelier than palaces — but it should have good lines, quality materials, and integrity. Gray walls and the “open concept” design, especially when imposed on historic homes, thwart cultural revival.

The things one puts in one’s home also play an important role in helping to ennoble or debase the spirit. There are few sadder sights than walking through an attractive neighborhood at dusk and seeing the interiors lit by garish lights and plasma televisions. Throw out the television and invest in attractive lighting. Select your chairs for their beauty, not their comfort. Comfort is one of the idols of modernity and one of the great enemies of beauty. Avoid plastics, including polyester. Dress in organic materials and eat real foods, prepared from scratch. All of this will foster a poetic life, sharpening one’s aesthetic sense and capacity to create or commission things of beauty.

Developing the tastes of patrons is just as important as developing the tastes and skills of artists. Part — perhaps a large part — of what was lost in the Great War was the financial and civil resources of a cultivated aristocracy and haute bourgeosie. The economic and political upheaval of the first half of the 20th century is a major reason why few great works were commissioned then. Without cultivated princes, even the most cultivated artist will bear little fruit. So those with means, or those who may one day have means, are just as much in need of a liberal education and the integration of beauty into their daily lives as are artists themselves.

“Those with means” includes of course seminarians and priests, who may or do determine whether to spend parish funds on art or on air-conditioning. A shocking number of even traditional clerics confuse 19th-century kitsch with genuine artistic greatness. The seminary in particular should be a place where all disorder is excluded, where organic, poetic form permeates everything from the chapel to the shoe polish, as is the case at the admirable seminary of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest outside Florence.

Artistic Apprenticeship

Anyone today who wishes to receive the cultural tradition that was not passed down to him in order to help revive it and pass it on as a living tradition encounters this problem: a tradition cannot be received laterally; it can only be received directly. We cannot receive the tradition by standing outside the tradition, appropriating what we will. That is what tourists do. It is an inorganic approach, a postmodern approach, bound to fail. Rather than grafting ourselves onto the venerable tree, we would be assembling a bundle of sticks. When, in the old poetic world, the young received the tradition, they received it whole from a master. For our culture to live anew, we must apprentice ourselves to the dead. This can be done by copying masterworks directly, rather than from reproductions. John Singer Sargent, one of the last sublime masters of Western oil painting, copied every Velázquez in the Prado. Museums used to exist largely for this purpose. One cannot learn how to paint like a master by copying from reproductions.

We must also seek out the best living masters we can find. Here and there are artists and artisans whose artistic lineage links them, however tenuously, to the old world. In Japan, the government designates “living cultural treasures,” masters of traditional arts. In North America, the atelier movement provides would-be painters and sculptors  with the opportunity to study directly under a master painter, usually one tied to French Academicism. The results are somewhat discouraging, as a perusal of the Art Renewal Center Catalogue demonstrates. Most of these artists have great technical skill but lack the subject matter and aesthetic judgment to apply their skills. Perhaps this is partly because the atelier world tends to idolize Bouguereau and other technically skilled but tasteless painters, rather than the real masters of painting from Masaccio and Fra Angelico through Raphael, Pontormo, Rubens, and Velázquez down to Sargent and Anders Zorn. Nonetheless, apprenticeship to a living master alongside the dead is essential for having questions answered and techniques demonstrated, as well as for receiving critiques of one’s work.

Liturgical Formation

None of our aesthetic apprenticeship, however, will have any lasting fruition if we do not also become disciples of the incarnate Beauty of God, Jesus Christ. When our lives are permeated by liturgical beauty, where above all we encounter the Incarnate Beauty, we become beautiful. This transformation is supernatural — the sanctification of our souls — but it ennobles even our natural sense of order and decorum. Authentic liturgy trains us to give form to our passions and to the material world, ordering the jungles of our hearts and of our surroundings. There have been real and even sublime cultures without real Christian cult, but they are either preparatory to the reception of true religion (like Periclean Athens) or the afterglow of its banishment (like Elizabethan and Jacobite England). In the latter case, they are doomed to die unless they recover their ultimate source: authentic divine worship.

Liberalism reigned almost everywhere by 1914, but the liturgy itself survived almost everywhere. Indeed, one sees the adamantine pull of the ancient rites even in the secular artists of the day (see, for instance, Henry James’s “The Altar of the Dead” and Sargent’s The Triumph of Religion in the Boston Public Library). The total collapse of the culture, down to the last Calabrian peasant, pertained only after the de facto abolition of the immemorial Roman Rite by Paul VI in 1970. This abolition amounted to the disincarnation of Christ from the liturgy and hence from the culture. And yet, the rites survived, thanks to priests and bishops faithful to the “source and summit” of the true religion and of the true universal culture, even at the cost of censure and persecution by the ecclesiastical authorities.

In the twelve years since Benedict XVI promulgated Summorum Pontificum, the most significant step toward the revival of culture since the definition of the Dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary by Pius XII, we have witnessed an immense growth in the celebration and the appreciation of the true forms of the Roman cult, those indivisible from its essence and from the essence of Western culture. The current, disastrous pontificate is awakening many to the gravity of the crisis in the Church, a crisis at once liturgical, doctrinal, and moral that must be resolved before the culture can be truly and lastingly renewed. A key part of the resolution will be the universal restoration of traditional worship. Though the dissemination of error and the persecution of the faithful by an ignorant and craven hierarchy may intensify before it abates, the ongoing revival of the ancient Roman Rite is an undeniable sign of hope for souls and for the restoration of culture.

In 2018, the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei granted permissions to the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, and some other groups to use the immemorial rites of Holy Week rather than the mutilated Holy Week of 1955, which anticipated the disincarnate liturgy of 1970. As the traditional clerics scrambled to reanimate the authentic forms of the Holy of Holies of the liturgical year from old books, they were assisted by the memories of a handful of aged priests. Sixty-three years separated the suppression from the revival. Assuming that the youngest priests to have celebrated Holy Week before 1955 were in their early twenties, they would have been in their mid-eighties by 2018. Octogenarians and nonagenarians were transmitting for the first time the traditions they had received.

If the revival of the traditional Holy Week had been delayed even by a few years, there would have been no living memory. But Providence ordained that Holy Week should be restored now, even if only in a small sector of the Church, so that its memory should not altogether perish. On this front, at least, two hundred years of strangulation have not succeeded in destroying man’s capacity to participate in the divine formation of the world and to rejoice in its beauty.

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