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After the revival of the Welsh language, can Faliscan be far behind? Europe’s interest in its 50 or so “minority languages” is growing, in inverse proportion to its birthrate. One or two of the 6,700 languages spoken on the planet go extinct every fortnight, but not all of them will go down without a fight. Peeking through the perforations in the veneer of European civilization are cultures that pre-date Rome. With apologies to comedian Robin Williams, a more fitting name for “Western civilization” might be the “Dead Peoples Society.”
The 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrongly qualified the pope as “the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the tomb thereof.” Hobbes was wrong about that (and wrong about everything else, including the social contract). Rome left no ghosts at all; Rome itself was a casket in which the ghosts of extinct tribes were interred. We still hear the undigested remains of dead peoples banging on the inside of the casket called Rome, demanding to get out. That is the subject Italy’s National Joke. Stop me if you have heard this:
An Italian driver misses a hairpin turn in an Apennine fog, and finds himself hurtling toward the valley floor a thousand meters below. “Save me, Sant’ Antonio!” he prays. An enormous hand catches the car in midair. “Grazie, Sant’ Antonio of Padua!” says the driver.” “Sorry, I am Sant’ Antonio Abate,” a celestial voice replies, and the hand drops the car.
In fact, the Church of Sant’ Antonio Abate appears in the January issue of National Geographic magazine with this caption:
The walls of Sant’ Antonio Abate Church in Novoli in southern Italy blaze with holiday lights during a Mass on January 16, the eve of the feast day of the town’s patron saint. After the service the townspeople gather at a giant bonfire of flaming grapevines – a ritual passed down from the 1st millennium BC, when the Italian peninsula was a patchwork of vibrant cultures known today as the Italic peoples. Even as the Romans began to consolidate their power in 4th century BC, these different groups retained their traditions, many of which are still visible throughout Italy today.
Italy’s fertility rate of 1.27% is among the world’s lowest, and portends the disappearance of the modern Italian language along with all its dialects, living or dead. As mortality beckons to the Italians, their ghosts have come out from amongst the old stones – the Pentri, Caraceni, Caudini, Hirpini, Frentani, Brutii, Messapii, Umbrians, Sabines, Faliscans. Senescent Italy remembers its remote past better than its recent history. The more keenly Italians feel their mortality, the more prominent becomes the old pagan identity. Italy never was a nation, but rather a fractious collection of tribes held in bondage by Rome. Rome ingested the Italic tribes forcibly; force later made them Christians. Local patron saints, of course, are their old gods.
The ghosts of peoples extinct long before Rome haunt the consciousness of Western Europe. The European Union has awarded 25 million euros (more than US$32 million) to assist the 50 or so “minority languages” still spoken in one form or another in the region. There is clownish Breton nationalism, independence movements in Corsica and Galicia, and the bloodthirsty Basque obsession with independence, not to mention the revival of the Welsh and Gaelic languages. Meanwhile the dwindling inhabitants of Italy wax sentimental over the pre-Roman kingdom of the Samnites. What applies to the Roman equivalent of the Home Counties, namely the Italic peoples, applies all the more so to the empire. After thousands of years, after Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, after Napoleon and Hitler, and after the European Union, Europe still languishes in nostalgia for the mud and stink of barbarian tribes long since faded into obscurity.
One cannot assimilate peoples by force. Empire and ideology are poor substitutes for blood and culture. To be remembered, we require not only progeny, but progeny who speak our language. Globalization did not begin with McDonald’s, but with Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, and later with Church and Empire. The nations converted at swordpoint never reconciled themselves to homogeneity of religion and ruler; only the individuals who abandoned their culture and set sail for America are free of the old ghosts. The United States has nothing to do with “Western civilization,” that is, the Dead Peoples Society. The founders of the US were radical rejectionists who broke away from Western civilization to found something quite different, a throwback to the Hebraic notion of a Chosen People.
I have acquaintances who have embraced the Catholic faith on the premise that the Church represents the continuity of European high culture – the philosophy of Augustine and Aquinas, the poetry of Petrarch and Dante, the music of Palestrina and Mozart. I think they were short-changed. The philosophers, poets and musicians were for the most part mercenaries in imperial employ, ready to betray their ecclesiastical masters at first opportunity. So-called Western philosophy is the softest target. It takes a long-faced functionary with no sense of humor to pass off Church dogma as the successor to Greek philosophy. My reading of Socrates, along with his great predecessors Parmenides and Xeno, has more in common with Mel Brooks’ “standup philosopher” routine in History of the World, Part I. In fact, Plato’s “Parmenides” dialogue is much funnier than Brooks’ “Caesar’s Palace” routine in the cited film:
Socrates, he said, I admire the bent of your mind towards philosophy; tell me now, was this your own distinction between ideas in themselves and the things which partake of them? …
I think that there are such ideas, said Socrates.
Parmenides proceeded: And would you also make absolute ideas of the just and the beautiful and the good, and of all that class?
Yes, he said, I should …
And would you feel equally undecided, Socrates, about things of which the mention may provoke a smile? I mean such things as hair, mud, dirt, or anything else which is vile and paltry? …
Socrates avers that a “universal idea” of hair, or dirt, leads him into a “bottomless pit of nonsense.” I do not see Socrates as an apostle of reason but as an ironist, following Soren Kierkegaard (Socrates the destroyer, May 24, 2004).
Catholic culture of the 20th century was a junkyard dog, rooting up the remnants of dead cultures. Its exemplar was T. S. Eliot, the Nobel Prize winner in literature who converted to Anglo-Catholicism late in life. Eliot did more than any other individual of his generation to marry the notion of High Culture to Catholicism, which is odd.
What attracted Eliot to Catholicism was not so much the religious content, but the fact that Catholicism allows the corpses of ancient pagan cultures to stare up through the still waters of the Church. Nostalgia for dead cultures, their songs, myths and legends, was the raw material for the poetry of a generation that already had seen the apocalypse of Western culture in World War I. T S Eliot, W B Yeats and Ezra Pound are the poets of pagan nostalgia; the latter two also dipped into the politics of nostalgia, namely fascism (Pound deeply, Yeats superficially). As an artist, though, T S Eliot loved the Catholic religion for its openness to paganism.
In his notes to “The Wasteland” (1922), Eliot wrote, “To another work of anthropology I am indebted in general, one which has influenced our generation profoundly; I mean The Golden Bough” of James Frazer, a thorough account of the pagan precedents for Christian imagery and ritual. From Frazer we derive the notion that the folk tale of the Fisher King anticipated the story of Christ, as well as the commonplace idea of a sacrificed god. It is a favorite of free-thinking anthropologists who wish to refute Christianity. The astonishing thing is that it was Catholic poets who first embraced it, as a tour guide to the Dead Peoples underlying the Catholic past.
We cannot read “The Wasteland” without footnotes, for the poem consists of disjoined references to the whole of Western (and some Eastern) literature, arrayed like cadavers washed up on a beach after a shipwreck. I find “Wasteland” indigestible as a work of literature, but as a device for shifting the viewpoint of the reader, it has a point. The West can understand itself only through a past so remote, so fractured than it cannot be recognized without footnotes.
Despite his eventual conversion, Eliot was a bad Catholic, for he could not shake off a morbid fascination with what stared up at him through the shallows of his religion: the pagan ghosts imprisoned within the tomb of the Roman Empire. As he wrote in “The Wasteland”:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
Paranthetically, Eliot’s fascination with pagan antecedents helps explain why he so hated Jews. Like the Jungian popularizer Joseph Campbell, those who lust after the stories of strange gods cannot bear the exclusivity of the Hebrew story.
Voltaire said of the Holy Roman Empire that it was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Western civilization passes for a synthesis of Hebrew ethics and Greek philosophy; someone should point out that it was neither Hebrew, nor ethical, nor Greek, nor philosophical. Americans should stop worrying about the decline of the West. The bad news is that the West has long since declined right over the edge; the good news is that the matter is hopeless, but not serious.