A View From Rocco's Cafe: More of the Same? Or The Desert of the Tartars?
(The Remnant, September 15, 2008)Returning from the Roman Forum's Summer Symposium in Italy to Greenwich Village is not without certain consolations. The first of these, as always, is the happy rediscovery of the undying charm of my Stammtisch at Rocco's and the instructive chats with neighboring clients that its strategic location offers. A second and highly unexpected solace this year is a new cocktail hour joy at Fr. Demo Square, right in front of my tenement stoop on Carmine Street. Nearly every clear evening, just as I head back to the apartment to pop out the booze, a young musician has taken to rolling his upright piano to the south of the square's fountain. There, he plays an impressive medley of classical and ragtime pieces until close to midnight, the latter enlivened still further by the energetic pavement pounding of two untiring tap dancers. I cannot tell you how soothing this lengthy outdoor concert is to the inner traditionalist beast.
Still, the greatest consolation as I begin my regular work at my neighborhood cafe is the chief conclusion that I brought back from this summer's Gardone program. That conclusion is the fact that I have absolutely nothing new to say to anyone about anything whatsoever. Indeed, I am writing this piece today to tell you only what I have already said a hundred times before.
I must insist that it was by no means certain to me before I left New York that "nothing new under the sun" would be the conclusion I would draw from our summer session on Lake Garda. Yes, my article for The Remnant last spring attempting to justify the whole venture underlined a conviction that the beauty of the northern Italian environment, and the camaraderie to be gained there, gave the program an unchanging value. Nevertheless, I also indicated that I was looking to this particular year's vastly expanded dialogue as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity to gain some new--and perhaps even startlingly new---practical and definitive guidance regarding a Traditionalist Road Map for the future; one that I could use to give fresh direction to the years leading into my dotage. In one sense, I suppose I could say that I was looking to Gardone 2008 as the conference to end all conferences; that I was hoping it would give me fourteen points to make the world safe for innovative, effective, Traditionalist action.
This was because the disturbing message of The Desert of the Tartars was weighing heavily on my mind as I made my sixteenth journey back to the earthly paradise that is the setting for our summer sessions. Written in 1940 by Dino Buzzati, one of the most imaginative of twentieth century Italian authors, this novel tells the tale of a newly commissioned officer sent to watch for "the Tartars" in a fortress on an unnamed country's borders. While soon worried that there is something futile about the entire Tartar-watching enterprise, he nevertheless cannot bring himself to break away from his commitment to a life-long career engaged in it. The reader watches with horror as he sees the officer missing every chance at escape from his all too unchanging and increasingly pointless life. When something really does threaten to happen, at the end of the novel, his personal time has run out anyway. He will never know the truth, significance, and possible outcome of the Tartar threat, nor will he have played a real role in confronting it.
How could this not make a deep impression not just on me but on anyone who sends out annual fundraising letters claiming that his organization is manning the fortress of Holy Mother Church against Tartars both foreign and domestic? How could it not force a man to wonder whether he himself might be imitating Buzzati's officer, wasting his life and, even worse, encouraging others newly commissioned to the service of the Movement to do the same? "Here lies Joseph II, who accomplished absolutely nothing", that unfortunate late eighteenth century Hapsburg philosophe wished to see written on his tombstone. I may have already mentioned in these pages how often I have worried that such an epitaph might be suitable for the Roman Forum's own monument---if, that is to say, it were to encourage a seemingly eternal "preparation" for fighting "the Tartars", without ever grabbing at the chance to put the visions jotted down in its spiral notebooks into concrete form.
Thankfully, I am now certain that such a fear is a totally false one. Gardone 2008 convinced me, once and for all, that there simply is no fresh strategy for the future; that the only "new", "pragmatic", "militant" goal for an organization like the Roman Forum today should be an ever more fervent commitment to a greater abundance of exactly the same kind of broad cultural education that it has already offered in the past. As far as I am concerned, Gardone 2008 showed better than ever before that such education is: 1) holistic and balanced; and, 2) open to the realities of a changing world in a manner that makes it the only tool effective both in steering Catholic towards successful, militant action in the front lines of battle and away from the dead end of life in The Desert of the Tartars. Allow me once again to examine these two points briefly in turn.
I. Holistic Balance
Remnant readers who are familiar with my article on this subject from last spring know that I was especially keen on using 2008's "once in a lifetime" symposium to present what the Roman Forum means by "holistic balance" in the most vivid colors possible. I think we succeeded---if for no other reason than the fact that it worked its charms on me as though I had never been exposed to it before.
God intends that every divine and human tool, harmonized according to the proper hierarchy of values, be used to build a manifold variety of Catholic-minded communities to aid the work of the transformation of individuals in Christ. We tried to carry out this supernatural command to the best of our ability in our 2008 program for Catholic living in Gardone. Participants taking advantage of all that was offered to them this past June and July certainly had packed days at their disposal. They could begin the morning by hearing Matins sung by our friends from Estonia in the village Oratory next to the hotel. Prayer might be followed, either then or in the afternoon, by a hike in the mountains up to the little chapel of San Michele or a swim in the glacier lake or a bicycle ride to visit the Lombard churches in neighboring towns. Lectures, soon to be made available through downloads from Keep the Faith (www.keepthefaith.org), presented a picture of the many interlocking elements one needs to take into consideration in order to construct a harmonious society reflecting the fullness of reality and therefore capable of transforming individuals in Christ---sacramental and moral practice, theology, philosophy, political theory, the physical sciences, economic order, and the problems involved in the crucial work of communicating to a mass audience a message meant for everyone.
Conference attendees heard Holy Mass, both in the Traditional Roman Rite and according to the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, accompanied by magnificent organ playing and chant, and were able to end their workday with Vespers, either in the Oratory or at the parish church of San Nicolo. They took boat trips giving magnificent views of the castles on the Lake, and visited San Marco in Venice and the site of the Council of Trent. They ate long, traditional Italian meals---"slow food" composed of regional specialties---animated by conversation regarding the defense and promotion of the Faith, as well as by a great deal of song: the medieval spiritual music presented by the Estonian Ensemble Linna Muusikud; the haunting Alpine mountain ballads of local veterans from the Coro della Rocca; and the pieces sung spontaneously by their fellow participants. They even waltzed and jitterbugged in a ball in the central piazza, where all tensions swiftly evaporated and the consequent exhaustion assured them an undisturbed night's sleep.
II. Openness to History
Catholicism is a religion that understands that individual human persons have been created in the image of God, in possession of free will, and that each and every action in their lives is therefore charged with overwhelming significance. Our Faith teaches us that human actions, whether for good or evil, affect all of us, and will continue to do so throughout all ages, until the end of time. This means that new things do happen in history, often wreaking havoc with familiar secular customs and socio-political systems. Believers should not be frightened by this truth and the frequent changes in daily existence to which it calls witness. Rather, they should understand that God uses everything new that takes place in history, both the good and the evil, for his own purposes. As Emile Mersch notes in discussing the Apocalypse of St. John:
"So, in order that the faithful may understand the true meaning of history, which seems so profane and at times so scandalous, Jesus reveals the meaning of events, of all events, to John first, and, through John, He reveals it to them. The great prophecy embraces all ages, those of the beginning and those to come; and though it may be difficult and at times even absurd to try to read there a prediction of the political revolutions that appear so formidable in our eyes, but in eternity's balance are so trivial, we nevertheless have the right to seek the eternal meaning, the only true meaning, of the entire course of history. Through all, and, says the prophecy, more especially in times of persecution than at other times, 'He cometh'. The sorrows of the first century, like those of today and those of tomorrow, but prepare and veil a return. Lest their patience fail, Jesus Himself, through John, gives to the Churches an assurance of this coming: 'Behold, in all that cometh, it is I who come'." (Emile Mersch, The Whole Christ, London, Dennis Dobson, 1938, pp. 155-156).These Ruins Are Inhabited, which compared the problems of Catholicism and Catholics in the tenth century with those we have experienced in the twentieth, was designed to illustrate the above point. My own lectures on the earlier period showed that the "mainline" of the Catholic world faced a great number of very unpleasant "new facts of life" in the 900's, and refused to run away from them, making believe that somehow or other they could not be "real". A better world emerged from their willingness to confront historical change. Speakers dealing with the twentieth century squarely confronted the same phenomenon: the fact that we, too, live in a world quite different from that even of just twenty years ago, and that we cannot somehow "will" those changes into oblivion. Our forthright acceptance of life in a changed world may well lead to a better Catholic future.
But These Ruins Are Inhabited was also intended to make it clear that it is precisely Traditionalists, characterized by their commitment to understanding the fullness of the Catholic Faith and the fullness of Catholic culture, who are best suited to coping with the very real problems of historical change. My talks underlined the fact that it was the men who probed the "holistic" Tradition who discovered how to handle the altered historical reality of the 900's, and thus became the agents for the "mainline" of Church development at the time, building the great civilization of the High Middle Ages in consequence. Tenth century thinkers and activists who did not place the "holistic" Catholic Tradition at the top of their considerations became stuck in an ideological or nostalgic "rut", attempted to define their Faith in terms of enslavement to that rut, and therefore could not cope with the highly different world rising before them. Similarly, speakers dealing with the twentieth century indicated that only a renewed appreciation of the whole of the Catholic Tradition can enable us to handle the admittedly mostly unpleasant changes that have occurred in our own day, and thus potentially someday bring good from them. Failure to go back to the roots leads to an ideological and nostalgic rut in 2008 just as much as in 908. But encouragement of a life trapped in a rut amounts to nothing other than an enlistment drive for service in The Desert of the Tartars.
"You know when people here are happy?" Mario Nappo, an old acquaintance and the owner of Gli Ulivi, one of the restaurants that we used to feed this year's forty-nine participants, asked me. He then answered his own query: "When 'the Americans' arrive". The Americans concerned are not Madonna or investment bankers or the latest batch of neo-con missionaries. We Traditionalists are the Americans in question. And, although it is quite true that the local inhabitants are not displeased that we bring a lot of business in our train, it would be blindly utilitarian and reductionist to think that it is chiefly the influx of our devaluated currency that Mario was referring to.
We make the local people happy because our Traditionalism, rooted in the whole of Catholic culture, is, in and of itself, a truly happy phenomenon, and this regardless of whether we personally feel particularly joyful most of the time or not. When we are in Gardone, Gardone rediscovers its own soul, sees how beautiful it is, and rejoices in it. If we were present long enough, and if the population had the chance to think through what it is that we represent, it might see the complete truth: that the fulfillment of its life under the altered conditions of the twenty-first century lies "full steam ahead" in the path outlined by the full tradition of its own glorious Catholic past; it might then see that anyone who tells it otherwise is, once again, merely a recruiting sergeant from The Desert of the Tartars. It can only fight what ails it spiritually and physically with the weapons we have to offer.
Gardone's story reminds me of the situation at Rocco's. "You know when I can truly encourage regulars at other tables here at the cafe, and give them a sense of joy in life?", I might ask Remnant readers. "When I present them with the fullness of the Catholic Tradition", the answer would come. Mind you, I do this very carefully, judging how much each of them can take in one sitting without visceral prejudices gaining control and causing them to indulge their ingrained anti-Catholic obscurantist tendencies. Still, they are shocked by what they hear, because the Catholic Tradition in its fullness is almost totally unknown to them. How could they know it? Who tells them about it? Liberals? Conservatives? Give me a break! If I can paraphrase a political speech of the present campaign to summarize my point, they simply do not know that Catholicism is better than it seems to be in the hands of those deemed to be its spokesmen, liberal and conservative alike. And they can truly be "surprised by joy" when they learn the liberating Truth.
Now, just how are the citizens of Gardone, my Stammtisch neighbors, and your acquaintances down the block along with them going to get the chance to connect the dots and learn that we are telling them the Truth about the fullness of the Catholic Tradition and not the others? Once again, it is only through "more of the same" broad cultural education to which the Roman Forum is committed. What that means is that the expanded, international symposium which met this past summer with such success cannot be a "once in a lifetime" experience. It has to meet again and again, because its meeting involves not just discussion of the Truth but practical introduction to the Way and the Life.
In fact, I would resurrect an argument that I have repeatedly made in these pages, and insist that the "Traditionalist Parliament" that met in Gardone become a Long Parliament, a permanent Parliament, one that is ready not only to provide guidance on the cultural level, but which is also prepared to take further action of a different sort when still further historical changes demonstrate the possibility for it to do so. This means turning some sort of association of representatives of Traditionalist groups around the entire globe into a "shadow government" of the kind that Italian Catholics created in the late nineteenth century to show how a fully Christian community would deal with the changing realities of the world around it if it held power; changing realities which baffle the short sighted rulers of the secular world, who are incapable of seeing beyond a sound bite, a cynical political ploy, or the unchanging demands of long-existing ideologies which are now nothing but agents of death.
Of course this suggestion sounds ridiculous to those who dominate our society and define what "practical" and "militant" mean. Of course it sounds absurd to the progressive Catholics who are part of the Tartar menace that we are fighting. Of course it sounds like madness to the conservatives who insist that only that truncated part of the Catholic heritage which they permit to be considered orthodox---the part that refuses any significance to petty concerns regarding the slaughter of innocents in unjust wars or the oppression of the weak in an unjust economic order---is worth defending. But, then again, they are the cheerleaders par excellence for a life wasted in The Desert of the Tartars fighting an incomplete battle against our opponents with faulty weapons provided by the naturalist Enlightenment in its Americanist manifestation.
I fully agree with my colleagues on The Remnant that election issues regarding immediate self-defense are very tricky matters to deal with. It is not the short but the long-term struggle that I am speaking of here. Can we Traditionalists be moved to stimulate ourselves to establish a Traditionalist Parliament and turn it into a permanent "shadow government" both rich in holistic educational possibilities and open for further action as new historical events unfold? Or will we be tempted by the self-deluding rhetoric of yet another election campaign into thinking that our battles can really be won through the pointless game of checks and balances played in The Desert of the Tartars? I do not know. But I once again place this oft-repeated suggestion of mine of the need to create our own "government in exile" before The Remnant community, because it seems to me both useful and immensely irritating to our opponents at one and the same time.
With that said, I am now heading off on this beautiful September evening to hear the ragtime in the square. For I feel that our own Franz Ferdinand incident igniting the next stage in the collapse of the modern world is just around the corner, and I want to gather me-self up all the consolations that I may while I can. In any case, I am not really worried about the future. The Tradition will teach us what to do when mobilization begins.
Return to main page.