As I walk the streets of Trier, in Western Germany, overcome by an emotion similar to the voice in Shelley's poem Ozymandias, I cannot help but to realize that the breathtaking greatness of our culture may be in its death throes.
Leszek Kolakowksi has a wonderful yet sweeping line in one of his essays, i.e. "The General Theory of Not-Gardening."
"Fondness for gardening is a typically English quality. It is easy to see why this is so. England was the first country of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution killed the natural environment. Nature is the symbol of the Mother. By killing Nature, the English people committed matricide. They are subconsciously haunted by the feeling of guilt..."
And although Kolakowski is evidently taking the piss with his choice of theme and words, the substance and scholarliness of his writing makes it evident that he means business. And he is spot on. Europe, as is the case of England, is a Christian culture not because of decrees, history, or number of built churches, but because it sublimates the amalgam and eternal balancing and search contained in Christianity. And that encompasses, in a warm, wide embrace, both its apparent foes, like the Enlightenment it originated, and its rough patches, like the colonial adventures. It is all part of the eternal search, symbolism, and ethos that is Christianity.
Mircea Eliade accurately reads man as homo religiosus. Man thirsts for meaning. Trapped as he is between a nurturing but deadly nature, and a formative but oppressive society, man continuously ritualizes his search for the transcendent, the spot where chaos and order meet in harmony: nature contained but providing, society protective but not asphyxiating. That is the perfect place where man is closest to sense his connection with the most sublime ideal, and thus Christianity is generously peppered with symbolic annihilation and re-creation of the world, for therein man is too created anew, cleansed from sin before attempting, one more time, the return to balance.
That is the embodied mythology I experience when walking the streets of Trier. I am able to touch Europe every time I become one with the city. One symbol that brings it home to me is Porta Nigra, the black gate, the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps. It represents the Roman's eternal search for their past in the mythological Romulus and Remus story by means of pushing fiercely into the future with their formidable army, proud and ever enriched culture, and sophisticated laws. There, they valiantly went to the frontier where the barbarians lurked, and with their presence, Marcus Aurelius was telling the world that, by reason or force, the greatness of Rome was to reach everyone and bring it into the realm of civilization. The other symbol that is able to reach my heart is St. Peter's Cathedral, the oldest in Germany. Symbolically built over Roman ruins, it emerged from the hand of Bishop Maximin of Trier as if celebrating the conversion of Emperor Constantine to Christianity. The ecclesiastical greatness beyond of Rome is still standing there in all its glory, hinting at the existence of something greater than us every time one stands in the atrium, around the baptistery, and look up.
In "Looking for the Barbarians", Kolakowksi correctly points out that European culture and its date of birth are impossible to pinpoint without making value judgements. Is it Assyrian? Is Socrates its father? Or Saint Paul? Perhaps Charlemagne? Rich in influences as it is, nevertheless, it became identifiable through a unity of faith among those fighting the invading threat in Iberia, Silesia, the Danube basin. As it was also a time of great blossoming in the arts and the explorations of the mind and soul, Kolakowski argues, convincingly, that it is then when Europe acquired its greatest strength but also its greatest weakness: ambiguity. Conscious and proud as it was of its superiority, it conquered and spread all over, while also being able to step outside its exclusivity, to question itself, to see itself through the eyes of others. Illustrative of this was the New World. While Spanish conquistadores, perhaps the greatest adventurers the world will ever see, were pillaging, armed with the peace arising from a conviction that can only come from knowing the God of the Bible, Bishop Bartolomé de las Casas, using exactly the same principles, violently attacked the invaders (his own kin) for being so ruthless. Far from the only example, the latter perfectly symbolizes Europe for me.
In his own words...
When God died, as per Nietzsche, though, the ambiguity was broken and, forced to make its own values from scratch, Europe fell into the trap of universalism. Here, Kolakowski makes what is, in my opinion, one of his most elegant arguments. When saying all cultures are equal, it can mean one of three things: (a) that I live in a particular culture and others don't interest me; (b) that there are no absolute, ahistorical standards by which to judge any culture; or, finally, (c) that, in the contrary, such standards exist and, according to them, all mutually conflicting rules in all cultures are equally valid. The last meaning is impossible to maintain, simply because mutually exclusive rules in every culture cannot be reconciled. It is an inconsistent and pitiful view. The first, in contrast, can be held with consistency, for it means that one is satisfied with one's culture and the rest are of no interest. However, it is of no use for the suicide that Europe is committing in our time. The crux of the matter, thus, is in the second position, marked as (b), and widely used nowadays. Unfortunately for those who find solace in it, that position hides a trick or two.
Following Kolakowski, indeed it is true that it can be argued that value systems are immune from logical and empirical attack as long as they are consistent, but it is not possible to prove that, for example, equality in the face of the law is superior to caste privilege, that freedom is superior to despotism, and so on. Those things are not obvious and it cannot be said that they are obvious because what is obvious is culturally determined. Nevertheless, it is impossible not to have a preference on such matters. Europeans prefer freedom over despotism, and would not like to have their hands chopped off for stealing, or getting flogged or stoned for committing fornication. So, truthfully, when someone insists on such an argument, what that person is saying is "it would be hell if that happened here but for those barbarians, in their land, it is fine." And that is not respect but contempt for other traditions. We affirm European culture by viewing ourselves critically, at a distance, through the eyes of others, and by valuing tolerance in public life and skepticism in intellectual work, confronting scientific theories, opinions and ideas, and leaving uncertainty open so there is always growth, knowledge and richness. By doing that, we tacitly (and sometimes explicitly) express that a society that does the same is a superior culture.
Europe could exist forever mounted on those values, then. An irrefutable proof of its might is the never ending flow of ideas, technology, conquests, institutions, discoveries, greatness, and also constant correction of its own mistakes throughout history. However, the flow seems to have stopped. It appears that the guilt became too much to bear. The seeds (also European) of Communism, married to the seeds (also European) of postmodernism, have debilitated the moral fiber of this great civilization now that it is far from God. The elements of balance that allowed Europe to exist and thrive in uncertainty are now thinned, weakened. The brakes seem to have malfunctioned.
Sweden has lost its self-respect, hellbent on enshrining political correctness at the price of their women being sodomized and their men castrated, taking 814,000 migrants in a year without asserting the necessity of subscribing to the ideals that made Europe unique. The treacherous British left has remained silent while the Ayatollah in Iran and the tyrant in Turkey smash dissenters, execute homosexuals, and tell their men that it is acceptable to have sex with goats and marry and rape 9 year old girls. France is no longer France yet wants to infect everyone by forcing Europe into a false unity which is the negation of European diversity within its unifying ideals. And Germany, once the nest of intellectual and economic greatness, is too busy implementing humiliating and barbaric measures on its people, perhaps weakened by guilt, creating women only zones in public festivities, and implementing hate speech laws that effectively silence any dissent.
Europe is the sick man of the world.
And just when I am thinking about that last phrase, I realize that I am still in Trier, sitting at a café across the Cathedral, teary eyed, breaking my head trying to figure out if there is still hope and, if so, how it can come to pass.
Everybody is familiar with the requisition and melting of church bells during World War II, mostly for the purpose of making more ammunition. But I prefer and give more symbolic significance to the true European war, World War I, when the values of gallantry, honor, and ritual collided with the brutality of new weapons, military techniques, and the realities of sustained, total war. It was the moment when innocence was lost. Officers were still wearing feathers on their multicolor uniforms and mounting horses, yet had to wear gas masks and fell by the millions into a meat grinding machine, being spitted out the other way, dismembered beyond recognition. This is the war where Erich Ludendorff, in the hopes of debilitating the Russians and force them out of the war, smuggled the pariah Lenin from his rathole in Switzerland and into Russia, unknowingly causing a true contagion that cascaded over his own troops, decimating their morale and culminating in defeat. That virus, unfortunately, continues to this day. And, if not stopped, is about to claim victory in its fratricidal fight.
So, it was in those days of World War I that Germans started, systematically and at a great scale, to take church bells for ammunition making. One can read in journalistic accounts and memoirs, like the ones from Princess Blücher von Wahlstatt, for example, how an entire village would walk as in a procession behind the soldiers pulling the cart in which the bells were taken away, and they all cried and placed flower offerings. This is very appropriate to this story. Because church bells have two functions. One, they serve as alarms to inform the community that something is happening, whether festive or concerning. The other, more ancient, is to drive away demons.
We need to find where's the last church bell in Europe and, instead of crying and offering flowers to it before it's melted, perhaps this time we should stop the requisition, place the bell once again in its righteous place at the top of the church, and bring the community together by driving the demons away.