Friday, November 13, 2009

Thoughts on "Last Rites"

John Lukacs, Last Rites. Yale University Press, 2009.

John Lukacs writes in this latest retrospective of his life that this book reverses the pattern of his earlier autobiography, Confessions of an Original Sinner (1990). The earlier work went from the personal to the impersonal - “from something like an autobiography to something like a personal philosophy.” In Last Rites, he begins by recapitulating many of the concerns and preoccupations that have formed his professional life as a historian, especially his great work Historical Consciousness, which he describes as “a historical philosophy of history.” In Last Rites these large preoccupations are distilled “from something like a philosophy to something like an autobiography.” The result is something like a work of art: structured, measured, almost classical in form, yet startling in its heartfelt feeling and surprising moments of self-confrontation and emotional honesty.

Different historical periods view history differently. In a recent talk in Philadelphia, Lukacs gave an overview of how people have viewed the enterprise of history. In the 18th century it was a branch of literature; in the 19th century it was acclaimed as a science; in the 20th century it fell to the province of a social science.There are problems with each of these identifications, and no one better than John Lukacs has exposed the fallacies and shortcomings of “history as a science.” In Historical Consciousness, or The Remembered Past, he attacked the scientism view through many angles, but mainly through the Cartesian idea of the bifurcation of reality into “subjective” and “objective.” These themes reappear in Last Rites: human knowledge is neither objective nor subjective, but personal and participant; the knower is involved with the known; the mind (ideas and what people think that they know) intrudes into “causality”; the evolution of consciousness is maybe the only “evolution” there is – for what goes by the name of “evolution” today is profoundly anti-historical; and people do not “have” ideas – they choose them – just as they often choose not to think. What masquerades as ignorance is more often an unwillingness; what is termed “cognition” is often the will – the tendency or leaning, of choice and decision.

And this- choosing, the will, the moral act -- is the central point. It is, in John Lukacs' attitude toward history, life and thought, essential- for “morality” has to do with the interpenetration of thoughts and things. The “mores” of any society are those habits and practices dealing with the relations with self, nature, God and others-- the inescapable four cardinal points of our life, of any human life. The centrality of the moral life in John Lukacs has led him to another central recognition, but one that will be bitterly resisted. It is that we – or rather, the earth – is at the center of the universe. Oh no, I can hear the groans resounding from the halls of fashionable academic opinion. “Wasn't that decided by Copernicus?”

But consider: history is not a science. Science deals with the physical world, and in its history (and yes, science too is a part of history) it progressed by means of a gradual (but relentless) stripping-away of all “metaphysical” qualities from the universe. With the rise of science, mankind began to live in an increasingly physical world – a mode of living that would have been considered very strange indeed to our distant ancestors – or even many of our not-so-distant ones. It is a very big step to move from representation of being to “mere being” - as anyone who has participated in the raising of a healthy child knows. For all things wear an aspect, carry a mood, symbolize something. If anything, this type of consciousness is more “natural” to mankind than the modern, reductive, anti-symbolical one. Science has, as it were, externalized the inner magic of things into manipulable forces and powers -- which may be a discussion for another day. But the rise of science – where does that leave history?

It was perhaps understandable that people, especially in the 19th century, but even also today, would want to make history into something like a “science.” But history cannot be externalized. It is not experimental. It is something we are immersed in and that we live, feel, know, and experience. We participate in it and remember it and our aspirations are involved with it – also our ideas, our philosophy, and our sense about the purpose and meaning of life. History involves interpretation and re-interpretation. It is a human art, a developing understanding. In essence history is metaphysical, if by “metaphysical” we mean something that is beyond the strict limits of the sensory, physical and measurable. History is “beyond physics” in this sense: for without history, there could be no physics. The atom contains several thousand years of human thought, to say the least that can be said. The atom, like history itself, has both a “physical” and a “metaphysical” aspect.

But why – earth at the center of the universe? It is perhaps not unlikely that life exists elsewhere in the universe – but does history? Here the discussion reaches a different dimension. For there is life – primitive life, plant life, even animal life – but historical life? In fact I think the question has hardly been dealt with at this level. But if that is the case, it is because, being immersed in history like fish in water, we don't “see” it. We fail to notice that our discussion about life, the universe, the development of life on earth, about science and geology and all the scientific notions and “facts” -- it's because we've had time to study and absorb them in history. The words and the notions have become familiar to us – but not the process by which they became discovered, thought about, and disseminated. We forget, or rather, we fail to remember, their beginnings, and because these beginnings comprise a gigantic but ignored presence of history in our minds and thoughts, there is something laughable in the way we think. We're puerile – maybe even sterile.

The new geocentrism is about recalling to ourselves this presence of history – to the significant realization of the historical dimension of our thinking. And perhaps to the sobering importance of our thoughts, words, acts, and choices. Wouldn't the anti-historical Darwinoids want to keep us in a state of infantile moral frivolity? That sure would suit the agenda of the corporatists to rape and plunder the planet-- and maybe the corporatists like having a few Darwinoids on their payroll. After all, if we just came here by chance and will disappear in a few million years without regret, why struggle for quality of life, beauty, wholesomeness, love and reconciliation? What moral virtues matter in such a view of life? John Lukacs is here to tell us about the next step we need to take – as thinking people and as a society. If we don't take it, we Americans are in danger of ossifying into puerility. I've never read in John Lukacs before something like this, that “I despair of this nation and of many of its people.” It was in a footnote – as several of his surprising or startling remarks are footnoted in this book. But yes, puerility may be worse than decadence-- for “...decadence is... full of dissolving maggots of maturity, of remnant memories that puerility does not possess.” That was in the context of “a puerile presidency may be but one symptom of the devolution of this republic into a military superstate.” The optimism about America so noticeable in many of John Lukacs's previous works has vanished. This is a sobering and sober-minded book.

And there are several other things. Keen-witted and clear-eyed observations come up in this book – about Lukacs' alienation from his profession, about Americans' alienation from one another, suburbanization, the carelessness with which we use our landscape, the fact that the Modern Age is over – and the establishment of the United States was a part of that Modern Age.
Have we quite digested this? Nor is the answer “postmodernism” either – Lukacs has a few well-chosen derisive comments about that – for “postmodernism” failed to grasp historical consciousness as well. No, the step we need to take – into a moral geocentrism, historical consciousness, the realization of an inescapable historical dimension in our thinking – these all signify not an “opposite,” nor even a “more” and certainly not a “same” - (all these being merely Hegelian moves and counter-moves of futile intellectualized wishing) -- but a break, almost like a “conversion” -- a qualitative change of consciousness, an interiorization of a dimension. This dimension is as intimate to us as memory – for history is the remembered past. There is history in what we remember - just as there is the dimension of memory in our thought.

We need this deepening dimension of historical consciousness, which is the true and unifying humanism to reconcile the warring factions of science and religion. On the last page of this book John Lukacs quotes Pope Leo XIII - “In a way all history cries aloud that God is.” The taking of the historical dimension into our minds is the new communion to which Christ calls us today.


Mark said...

This may be the most insightful and fair article about Lukacs I've read. A great review, and an excellent rendering of Lukacs' thought.

Personally, I prefer to say "anthropocentric" rather than "geocentric"--even though the former does sound unfortunately pedantic--because the point is that human consciousness makes this earth the center of our universe.

Caryl said...

Dear Mark-
Thanks for your kind and encouraging comment!

Leo Wong said...

Earlier today, before seeing your article, I thought of Lukacs when I read this quotation from Diderot: "Man is the sole starting point and end to which everything must finally be related. It would be absurd to put a cold, insensitive speechless being in place of man, for if you banish man . . . from the face of the earth, this sublime and moving spectacle of nature will be but a sad and lifeless scene-- the universe will be hushed, silence and darkness will regain sway . . . why should we not indeed make man the center of all that is?" A Jacques Barzun Reader, p. 208. I think the quotation is from Diderot's Encyclopedia article on "Encyclopedia."

Caryl said...

Hi Leo-
Nice to hear from you! Actually I prefer the term "geocentric" to either "anthropocentric," as Mark said, or placing human kind, "man," at the center, as per Barzun. Why? Because "geocentrism" acknowledges the living earth, the life-bearing world, to which we are indebted - in 'geo' is the root of geology, geography, and many other words having to do with rock, with foundation, with the basic conditions of our existence.
To put human beings or human consciousness at the "center" seems to me narcissistic. Geocentrism effectively does it but avoids the narcissism and self-centeredness.

Leo Wong said...

Hello, Caryl -

"Man" is Barzun's translation of Diderot's "l'homme".

You might consider this from Frederick Wilhelmsen:

[Belloc] held that the center of existence was the tabernacle of the altar. Those close to him have witnessed to his deepening devotion to the Eucharist as the years bent him down. Indeed, Belloc insisted, it was the hatred for and attack on transubstantiation that formed the center of the bitterness moving the English reformers in the sixteenth century. Read Belloc on Cranmer. They turned all the altars around and made of them tables and thus first obscured and finally denied what it is that gave life to Catholic churches and left all others temples reminiscent of tombs.
— Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, Hilaire Belloc: Defender of the Faith

Leo Wong said...

This seems good on Lukacs' character, but Caryl would be a better judge than I:

Mark said...

Very neat, thanks for that link.

I don't believe Lukacs has a Ph.D., as I'm not sure the Hungarian system in the 40's worked that way.

He is fascinating in terms of personality. He strikes some people as aloof and elitist, and his distaste and scorn for bad ideas can be intense. But he is an incredibly gracious and generous man.