Frits Bolkestein reminds me of the fellow with Alzheimer’s who decides to commit suicide. As he kicks away the chair, he forgets why he has hanged himself, and muses, “This is appalling! What am I doing hanging here?”
Bolkestein, of course, is the newly notorious member of the European Commission who warned that Europe would implode like the Austro-Hungarian Empire if Turkey were admitted into the European Union. He discerns that he is dangling at the end of a noose; as Professor Bernard Lewis told Die Welt on July 28, Europe will be Islamic no later than the end of the present century. But he cannot remember why, and Europe’s absorption into the Maghreb will continue no matter what he does or says.
Long before Professor Lewis’s interview, this writer among others (e.g. Alain Besancon and Baat Ye’or) pointed to Europe’s demographic implosion as the source of its policy in the Middle East (Why Europe chooses extinction, July 8, 2003; Spain, and why radical Islam can win, March 16, 2004). Bolkestein, however, made Lewis’s Die Welt interview the subject of scandal in his September 6 speech before the University of Leiden. I translate from his German text:
Increasing numbers of European countries are becoming multi-ethnic as a consequence of continually growing Islamic communities. In some major cities the majority of residents will be of non-European origin. In addition, the population of Europe is beginning to age, while the population of North Africa and the Middle East is growing rapidly … Bernard Lewis maintains: “Europe will become part of the Arab West, the Maghreb; immigration and demographic point in this direction.” I do not know if this will happen, but if he turns out to be correct, the relief of Vienna [from the Turkish besiegers] will have been in vain …The USA remains young and dynamic … the USA will remain the only superpower. China will become an economic giant. Europe will be Islamicized. Bolkestein referred to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy before 1914, in which 8 million German-speakers sought to maintain sway over 20 million Slavs. Eastern immigration into the Hapsburg domains, he observed, parallels Muslim immigration into the European Community today. “Unfortunately, the development of this country was interrupted by the catastrophe of the First World War,” he concluded.
The statement bespeaks a kind of cultural Alzheimer’s, for it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire that bred World War I. Precisely because its 8 million Germans could not cede power to its 20 million Slavs, agitation among Slavs produced the Serbian terrorists who murdered Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914. It stood ready for decades to tear itself apart. Bolkestein cites Robert Musil, the great Austrian author of The Man Without Qualities, for a characterization of the Hapsburg monarchy. Musil invariably referred to his country as “Kakania,” as in “kaka” (a pun on the German pronunciation of the term “imperial-royal”).
Austria’s unease was a “paradox,” muses Bolkestein, “because the economic situation was relatively good. Vienna also flourished culturally with Franz Liszt, Richard Strauss, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Richard Wagner and so many others.” Why, oh why, am I here hanging?
The trouble is that elements of this “flourishing” culture were toadstools that poisoned the ground forever. As a matter of fact, Richard Wagner spent little time in Vienna, where Brahms’ circle despised him. Vienna had a Wagner Society, and Wagner was well received at its 1872 concert, but otherwise spent little time in the Hapsburg capital. This may seem a small quibble, but Wagner was just the fellow to explain to Bolkestein why all these terrible things are happening (see The ‘Ring’ and the remnants of the West, January 11, 2003).
Europe first heard a formal invitation to suicide in 1870, at the premiere of Wagner’s Die Walkuere, the second part of the Ring tetralogy. Its protagonist, the doomed god Wotan, uttered the lines that might serve as Europe’s epitaph: “Let everything that I have built collapse! I still want only one thing: The end! The end!” Wotan is the first protagonist in European literature to pronounce a collective death wish.
Wagner was the definitive personality of senescent European culture. He was the first artist to state without hesitation that the old order of Church and empire had rotted past repair, and urged in its stead absolute freedom of the will. By merging Teutonic paganism with Arthur Schopenhauer’s mock-Oriental pessimism, Wagner touched the nerve of his time more forcefully than any artist before or since.
In The Ring of the Nibelungs, the Norse god Wotan rules by laws to which he himself is bound. He needs the giants (the proletariat) to create the great fortress of Valhalla, and to pay them, he must steals the treasure of the Nibelungs (the capitalists, with some anti-Semitic coloration). This ring, the power to create wealth and rule the world, is the poisonous power of capitalism, dissolving all the bonds of tradition. It is cursed and eventually kills its master. Once Wotan appreciates that even he, the god, is not free, he simply wants the world to come to an end, as he explains in the above-cited outburst.
All the little Wotans of Europe – Hapsburg, Hohenzollern, Romano – met their common end in World War I. Of all the elements of the old order on which Wagner wished annihilation, the Hapsburg monarchy stood first on the list. The Austro-Hungarian Empire – Bolkestein’s historical parallel for the European Community – was the last remnant of the Holy Roman Empire, and the living exemplar of the old order Wagner despised. As I wrote under the rubric Why Europe chooses extinction:
Siegfried triumphed over Christ during World War I. No shred of credibility was left in the Christian idea of souls called out of the nations for salvation beyond the grave. In 1914 Europe’s soldiers still fought under the illusion of a God that favored their nation. Germany fought World War II under the banner of revived paganism. For today’s Europeans, there is no consolation, neither the old pagan continuity of national culture, nor the Christian continuity into the hereafter.Europe has sunk so profoundly into self-parody that an educated man like Bolkestein can be forgiven for the historian’s equivalent of Alzheimer’s. Even Richard Wagner, the well-poisoner of European culture, would be aghast at how modern Europe treats his legacy. Alone among composers, Wagner enjoyed a summer festival dedicated exclusively to the performance of his works in a theater of his own design, still managed by his descendants in the Bavarian town of Bayreuth. His widow Cosima, the daughter of Franz Liszt, befriended Adolf Hitler at the outset of his political career.
Some combination of guilt and cupidity has led the Wagner family to hire a series of manic nihilists from the alternative culture milieu to direct his operas, eg the “performance artist” Christoph Schlingensief, responsible for a new production last summer at the Bayreuth festival. About this The New Yorker magazine wrote on August 9:
“A ray of light: the Grail is fully radiant. A dove floats down from the dome above.” These are Richard Wagner’s stage directions for the maximally transcendent final moments of Parsifal, his last opera. Christoph Schlingensief’s production at the Bayreuth Festival last week gave us instead two dead rabbits, their rotting bodies intertwined, their images projected on a screen above the stage. We then saw a sped-up film of one rabbit decomposing, its body frothing as the maggots did their work. I’ve seen a lot of stupid, repulsive, irritating, befuddling, and boring things on opera stages over the years, but Schlingensief’s dead-rabbit climax was something new: for the first time, I left a theater feeling, like, ready to hurl.A decomposing rabbit in place of a dove is not a bad metaphor for Europe’s spiritual condition. Nations who despise themselves to this extent will not inflict their children on the world, and will bequeath their hills, valleys, railway stations and pedestrian zones to whoever might walk in to take possession of them.
One hopes that Wagner has to watch this sort of thing from hell, as punishment for aiding and abetting the suicide of Europe. Europe is too senile to remember Wagner as he actually was. Those who seek exposure to Wagner for clinical purposes should obtain the James Levine production of the Ring cycle at the New York Metropolitan Opera, available on digital video disc. For the Americans, the monsters of the Old World inspire no fear, for Americans have forgotten why there were monsters in the first place. That is why Americans watch Wagner’s works with all their original creepiness, like the old cinema version of Frankenstein.