Day and Night Time History
In this latest editorial, Analogy vs. Analogy, Goldberg touches on something I’ve been thinking about, the question of what lessons, if any, we can really draw from history. Human beings cannot help being historical, for the simple reason that we exist in time, whereas animals essentially exist in the passing moment. But what is time? More on that below.
Here is an excerpt from Goldberg’s piece:
“’Example is the school of mankind,’ proclaimed Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, ‘and they will learn at no other.’
“Burke was disparaging the folly of French revolutionaries who believed that man could break the iron chains of history and create utopias through willpower and planning.
“This argument about whether history has anything to teach us has been the essence of the left-right debate for most of the last two centuries. Conservatives said: ‘There's nothing new under the sun.’ The left said: ‘Until now!’
".... [M]y favorite summary of this mindset comes from Stuart Chase, the intellectual often credited with coining the phrase ‘New Deal’ for FDR. ‘Are our plans wrong?’ he asked. ‘Who knows? Can we tell from reading history? Hardly.’”
Goldberg then goes on to point out that in the present divide between left and right, each side is guided by a different historical analogy. For the right “it is 1938 in Iran and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is Hitler,” whereas for the left it is always Vietnam: “For many liberals of a certain generation, Vietnam is a universal peg, fitting perfectly into analytical holes of any shape. Indeed, the closest thing we get to a neat left-right divide on foreign policy these days is between those who see Vietnam as the Rosetta stone of international conundrums and those who see early 20th-century Europe as the universal translator.”
But are either of these analogies ultimately useful? History clearly has a phenomenal aspect (i.e., that part which we may know) and a noumenal aspect (whatever it is in itself). And of the phenomenal aspect of history, only a small subset of that is available to us in the form of written history. In other words, as Goldberg points out “we have a tendency to look for our car keys where the light is good. Our usable past is the past that is illuminated to us.”
“But what if there are historical parallels lurking in the shadows of our ignorance? What if the jihadists are more like the Muslim Barbary pirates made famous in the Marine Hymn with the line about 'the shores of Tripoli'? Or maybe they're more like the Thugees, an 18th-century murder cult in colonial India. Or the Panslavist Black Hand.... The point is, we don't know. But surely the ocean of historical experience cannot be summed up by the tributaries of Vietnam and Nazi Germany.”
One thing we do know--and this is without historical parallel--is that, thanks to technology, “second-rate powers like Iran, as well as basket cases like North Korea and modern-day Thugees like Bin Laden, can quickly attain destructive power Hitler only dreamed of. As science proceeds, this reality will loom ever more frightening.... It's ironic that just when the left has come to admire the utility of history, history may be offering us a blank page. The sobering question is: What kind of analogy will we provide for future generations?”
In my formulation--borrowed from Valentin Tomberg--I find it useful to consider history as having a “day” aspect and a “night” aspect. For example, the 9-11 movie that will be shown on ABC this Sunday night gives us a glimpse into the night time of history between the two Twin Tower attacks in 1993 and 2001. This is why it has the left so hysterical, for it completely undermines their clean and simplistic “day time” narrative of those years. But clearly, during the bright and carefree Clintonian daze, sinister events were incubating in the night time womb of history. And I’m not even blaming Clinton. We all wanted to ignore the gathering threat and sleepwalk through history at the time.
In fact, the majority of the country--and virtually all of the left--would like to return to the undisturbed slumber of daytime history. George Bush, on the other hand, is vilified for confronting threats head on while they incubate in the dark. Is a nightmare real if you wake up before it happened? This is the problem with the immature and anti--intellectual left. They chide Bush because Korea developed nukes on his watch, but also for preventing Saddam from developing them. Let’s be honest--anyone who thinks that Uday and Qsay would not have developed nuclear capability is just kidding themselves.
History, according to Tomberg, “is not to be understood as something which plays itself out on one level, but must be comprehended also in its dimension of height and depth.” Furthermore, “the key concepts for understanding the night aspect of history are ‘degeneration’ and ‘regeneration.’” Degeneration involves a gradual, step-by-step descent from a higher level, while regeneration is the opposite: re-ascent to a higher level. This is why, both personally and collectively, in the absence of periodic “booster shots” from above, things will simply degenerate below. Our much-rumored "fall" didn't just happen once upon a timeless, but is repeated on a moment-by-moment basis.
These periodic booster shots often enter history like depth charges from above. An avatar is not merely a human embodiment of the logos, but anyone--whether political, scientific, military, artistic, or religious--with a divine mission. For example, I consider the American founders as celestial emissaries par excellence, charged with a divine mission to regenerate a literally exhausted mankind. Subtract these and similar avatars from history, and history becomes a dark place indeed: imagine history without Abraham, Paul, Lincoln, Churchill--all people who saw into the night of history and altered its course.
As Tomberg puts it, “All movements of a social, political, artistic, intellectual, and religious kind may indeed have different speeds of devolution, but one thing they have in common: if no reinforcing impulse is given after a certain time, they will inevitably exhaust themselves. A thing of motion or or of life becomes a corpse unless 'reawakening impulses' intervene.”
Now the reactionary, illiberal left has repackaged itself as “progressive,” when the very nature of leftist assumptions prevents it. Because they are wholly horizontal and “live by day,” they can only regenerate themselves on their own excrement, so to speak. If you have any understanding of Freud’s developmental model, you will appreciate this in a quite literal way when reading, say, the explosively anal missives of dailykos. Talk about a historical rearguard action.
But in its own fumbling way, the conservative movement is clearly oriented to the “above,” always mindful of looking for regeneration outside the things of this world. The inspiration of the American founders did not come from the visible world. Indeed, they even say so: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” and “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men...”
History is a circle, but it is an open circle, or spiral. However, it can only maintain the upward spiral if it is specifically oriented to the finality of spiritual ideals that are not located in the field of time. These revivifying impulses from above eventually exhaust themselves unless we keep them alive. This is the esoteric meaning of conservatism. In its absence, gravity takes over and human nature takes care of the rest. Grace is to hitch a ride on one of the ubiquitous spiritual streams that course through the arteries of the cosmos, luring us toward our deustiny.
The historian of the future... will not compose a history of civilization--that is, the story of technological progress and sociopolitical struggles--but will trace the path of mankind through the stages of purification and illumination to its ultimate attainment of perfection. His narrative will detail mankind's temptations and their vanquishment, the standards set by particular individuals and groups, and the progressive lighting-up of new insights and the awakening of spiritual faculties among human beings. --Valentin Tomberg