Manners and Soul

THERE WAS A TIME when the concept of human equality did not mar the evaluations of men. There was no absurd belief then in a substratum of “basic human goodness,” no naïve faith in the inherited value possessed by each and every, simply because each and every was born humanoid. Men were noble, men were base, and such titles carried import and announcement: these men must be cultivated, these men cannot be; these men must grow, these men are soil; our energies are limited – we must not waste them – so let us set the best aflame, and use the rest for kindling. All of society felt the weight of this purpose, for each man carried his title in his bearing: character was written on deportment. And the distinguishing deportment of the noble was his manner.
      Like so many of our inheritances, manner has been appropriated by the equality-mongers; it has been altered, twisted and polluted; it has been made smaller and smaller yet ‘till even the dullest simpleton alive can fit his narrow approbation around it. What was once the exclusive prerogative and indication of nobility has become common property; manners have degenerated into mere politeness, which has had the unsalubrious consequence of simultaneously diminishing manners and rendering politeness disagreeable. Just as everything the diseased flesh of egalitarianism comes to touch, manners have acquired vulgarity.
      What were they, once? To those men of an aristocratic age, what purpose did they serve? – As I have stated, they provided a palpable differentia between classes; the nobles possessed an air of decorum, of self-control and self-assurance, of duty and destiny, while the men of the lower class, unable to acquire self-possession, thoughtless of distant targets or faraway goals, were incapable of the kind of discipline necessary for manifestations of nobility. Upright posture, honest deference to superiors, finesse with tongue and with sword, self-reverence – the meaning of such things cannot be fathomed by the common man. He takes such mannerisms to be pretense and vanity (if he takes them at all), when in fact they are at once promise and education – the promise of a future for the best men, and the education needed to achieve it. Manners demand of a person everything requisite to his cultivation: the strictest self-discipline, to train him in hardness, both with himself and with others; honor, that he may come to feel utterly devoted to the import of life; etiquette – that is, small actions of respect offered up to his betters and his equals – that he may come to understand, and defer to, all things of quality and power in this world; noblesse oblige that he may take his responsibilities to his inferiors with utmost seriousness; dignity, that his amour propre might be justifiably augmented, that his sense of his own destiny might spur him to greatness and genius; superciliousness, that he may never feel unworthy of his cause, that he may never lose clear sight of the beauty and strength in himself.
      It would be foolish to aver that manners have always fulfilled this exact purpose or to claim that they have not been badly handled by the conceits of waning aristocracies. Yet it is necessary to indicate their possibilities in this world, that this might be contrasted with what today is being built upon this rubbled ground.

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Burning the Past

I AM OBLIGED to denounce an article I recently stumbled across in the New Yorker, which to my eyes represents the worst American tradition of stuffy Puritanism and obnoxious, totally officious, interference in the affairs of other countries. This not to speak of the deeper question it inadvertantly raises, of America’s profoundly ambivalent relation to history, which even now is erupting forth in the contemporary attempt to purge America of its “slave-owning icons”—folly which I have already commented on.
      The article of which I speak poses the question (quite as if it were perfectly legitimate to presume that every nation in the world should hate itself with the same fervor as America), “Why are so many Fascist monuments still standing in Italy?” For evidently it is not enough to go hunting for such game in one’s own country; one must go about moralizing insufferably on every one elses’ turf, as well.
      Now, the author of this piece, one Ruth Ben-Ghiat, is, by her own description “an expert on fascism and its memory,” which makes it particularly curious that she should desire the physical elimination of so many traces of that memory. Or rather, I should say, all of this would be curious, if a neat indication of the author’s real motives were not furnished precisely in her name. Be that as it may, it is essential to clarify that when Ben-Ghiat speaks of “Fascist monuments,” she is not referring merely to this or that little statue thrown into this or that dusty corner of old and crumbling buildings. She references openly, among other things, the Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and the statues in the Stadio dei Marmi. She is speaking that is to say of essentially every public work of art or architecture which was put up in Italy between the years of 1922 to 1943.
      It is to be wondered if she makes any distinction between monuments which were raised by the Fascists in open glorification of Fascism on the one hand, and monuments which happened to be raised in the epoch during which the Fascists ruled. But really such refinements are beside the point, for when one is dealing with a “Professor of History” who is willing in perfect composure and without any awareness of proposing an offensive absurdity to recommend razing entire buildings because their architects were not good liberal democrats, it is quite beside the point to argue over any subtlety so fine as artistic intent.
      I have made this observation before but it bears the repetition: this kind of generalized resentful ire against of the past, and the accompanying zeal to utterly erase the evidence of what we judge to be past wrongs, has no clear boundary, no clear terminus. The same logic could promote the destruction of the Colosseum, in which countless “oppressed souls” lost their lives, or the elimination of the White House, which was built for slave owners, and by the slaves themselves. Once one begins on the course of whitewashing history, one is not soon done with that Herculean labor, and there will be much rubble and much dust, and, inevitably, much blood, before one has had one’s fill.
      What is really at question here, of course, is not even Fascism, so much as Nazism. That is the real bone of contention in the question of “Fascist monuments,” the real horror that one wants somehow to redress. It is not Mussolini as such, but rather Hitler, with whom Mussolini allied himself, that one wishes to brutalize and demonize and finally eliminate from annals of history. I say “one,” which is of course polite; in truth one knows who really desires these things, just as one knows precisely who it is that most fervently wants to defeat Lee a second time and smudge Columbus out from the national ledgers in America. Ben-Ghiat’s article here is but the latest most consistent move in a campaign which proposes to eradicate the memory of a regime which burned books, by burning the monuments of the same.

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