Cain's world: Persephone's second coming...
by Greg Swann
I sing the praises of Western Civilization, and it might seem as if I am speaking solely of ancient civilizations. I am in league with the Greeks, after all. It says so right there at the top of the page. We think of the Greeks and we think of Euclid or Aristotle, of a cool and deliberate people enthralled by a cool deliberation. We can find the same sorts of things to admire in certain Romans, the reason of Seneca, the wit of Horace, the sly inventiveness of Ovid. But if we turn an eye to Catullus or Juvenal, we see a very different Rome. And in the Philippics of either Demosthenes or Cicero, we catch sight of something very far removed from cool deliberation. In his account of the Catiline conspiracy, Cicero graces us with the Latin phrase "consputare coeperunt"--"they began to spit together." What man among us can say he is still an individualist once he has joined his brother men in attempting to drown their opposition in spit?|
The West I praise is not the West of the ancients, but rather the West we have inherited from the ancients and improved upon by vast degrees. This Western Civilization is not just Greek and Roman but also Christian and Germanic. Especially Germanic. Reading Roman accounts of the people they called the Germans can be very funny--except when those comical Germans are sacking Rome, as they did again and again. But the Germanic culture that so influenced the West was the Romanized Germanic culture of the late Middle Ages and beyond. It is the Germanic culture that became Austrian and Nordic and French and English culture, the trans-national Bourgeois culture that ultimately became American culture.
It was and is Cain's world in the way that I describe it, a culture of capital and commerce and conciliation, rather than the Warrior culture advocated if not avidly pursued by the raging sons of Abel. The Germans and Gauls slain and exiled and conquered by Marius and Sulla and Caesar were Warriors. The Germans of Mozart's Vienna or the Frankish Gauls of Hugo's Paris were Burghers. What accounts for the difference? Why were the people of Northern Europe so much like Cain at a time when the people of Southern Europe were still deeply committed to Abel, as was the rest of the Mediterranean and the Middle East?
I think there is a very simple answer: Once the Germans and Gauls had become 'effeminized' in Caesar's locution, they had to find a way to live indoors through the Winter without killing each other. Along the Mediterranean and further south, bickering friends or brothers or spouses could storm out of the house, expressing murderous rage without actually--or at least often--committing murder. But in the formerly Roman territories that came to be occupied by the Germanic tribes, to indulge a murderous anger in Winter was either to commit or to fall victim to murder. The Bourgeois Manners we can afford to deride today, wallowing in our vast energy wealth, evolved to divert and deflect and sublimate the passionate emotions that people in warmer climates were more safely able to express.
All that is by way of getting to this, itself just a milepost on a road to another place: Despite what everyone has said, Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ really is anti-semitic.
Not anti-Judaic, mind you. The word "semitic" actually refers to a large group of ancient languages, some of them undead like all of Abel's vampiricisms, all of them very passionately devoted to Abel's vampire-like code of ethics. The Passion is anti-Abel's world to a fault: anti-semitic-tongued, anti-Mediterranean, anti-Middle Eastern, anti-non-Germanic, anti-non-Mannered.
The Jewish people in The Passion carry on like Palestinians or Iranians or Arabs in modern-day news footage, racing around in all directions, shrieking, tearing at their hair, ganging up in volatile mobs. This is hardly coincidental, given that Hebrew and Assyrian and Arabic are all semitic languages. A human language is a map of the mind of the person who thinks in it, but it is also a map of the culture in which it evolved. In Classical Latin, there are a great many very specific words for murder, and this alone tells us how large a role murder played in Roman culture. The Romans in The Passion carry on like brutes, far better ciphers for Rome than Seneca or Horace, and one could only wish that they would stop at merely spitting together.
To view The Passion as a Hellenized, Romanized, Christianized, Germanized, Anglicized, Americanized son of Cain is to feel a vast revulsion for everything that is of Abel's world. These people, Romans and Jews alike, are dirty and crazed and seemingly incapable of anything even resembling cool deliberation. We know this cannot have been universally so, cannot be universally so today. And yet, day after day, there is that news footage of vast mobs of people from the lands of the semitic tongues, people who are dirty and crazed and seemingly incapable of anything even resembling cool deliberation.
And things fall apart. I started thinking about this because of Andrew Sullivan spitting together with Charles Krauthammer, who uses a false claim of anti-Judaicism in The Passion to indulge an hysterical, vicious anti-Catholicism. But the center cannot hold, and it remains that democracy is not a gift from Athena, who brings us reason and justice, but rather from Persephone, who had to learn to live with Hades all Winter, every Winter, without murdering him or being murdered by him. The Libertarian idea is not enough. Without those derided Bourgeois Manners, the ceremony of innocence is drowned. It doesn't matter, in the end, that Sullivan keeps trying to put together his own little Clodian spitting circle. And despite my own hopes for The Passion, I don't think it will do much to advance The War on Terror. Certainly the film shows what is wrong with Abel's world, but it doesn't show what is right with Cain's.
And this is not a job that Cain is willing to do, either, at least not for now, at least not in words. Sullivan is a louse, and Krauthammer might amount to as much as a cockroach. Gibson matters, though now I think more for Braveheart than for The Passion. There is no contemporary art of the West that is unashamedly of the West. But, by Persephone's gift, we do not continually destroy what we are. Our past is still right here with us. And Cain speaks best, at least for now, in languages other than art.
But Cain speaks treason to himself, too, and he always has. The compromise of Judaism, the compromise of Christianity, has been the guilty pursuit of the good life in Cain's world while pretending to live in the devout poverty of Abel's. Cain's Original Sin was not making a sacrifice of grain, but making a sacrifice at all. And Secularists afford themselves no escape, inventing Socialism as the Abel's world for non-believers. With very rare exceptions, no one in Cain's world is willing to say, "My life is mine to do with as I choose, not as you dictate." The best men of Cain's world lack all conviction, while the worst men of Abel's are always full of passionate intensity.
This is a contradiction that will not stand indefinitely. The West conferred a constitution upon Iraq yesterday, a constitution riddled with treasonous contradictions: A parliament to insure that stability is never more than temporary and Islamic law to insure that justice is never more than accidental. It lacks Athena's gift, conceding everything that matters to the unreason of Abel. But more importantly, it lacks Persephone's gift, a means for consistently and habitually settling disputes by cool deliberation instead of hot passion.
The United States takes great pride in her successes after World War II in democratizing Germany and Japan. But despite its Nazi nightmare, Germany was already Germanically Mannered, its passions tempered by its Winters. And Japan had a culture that had evolved mechanisms to resolve disputes peacefully in a land with virtually no land. By now, the United States, Cain's primary exponent, doesn't even dare to export real democracy. But even if she were willing to share Athena's gifts of reason and justice, I don't think that would be enough to assure a peaceful, stable Iraq. Without Persephone's gift of a coolly deliberate culture, committed to peaceful solutions even in anger, Western Civilization cannot persist. Not there--and not here, either.
The War on Terror will be won, if it is, not by the second coming of the Nazarene, but by the second coming of Persephone. When the West dares to be what it is, Cain's world, and when it dares to hold the rest of the world accountable for its expressions of murderous passion, then there will be hope for the transmission of the culture of cool deliberation that is the best and highest achievement of Western Civilization.
March 9, 2004