Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Road to Ruin: Choniates and Lukacs


Manuel I Komnenos
Over Thanksgiving, I settled-in for some serious reading.  Two titles stand out.  The first, O City of Byzantium, is a 700-year old history by Niketas Choniates, the other, Last Rites, a slim 2009 work by Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs.  At first glance they appear to be wildly dissimilar, but on some level at least, they both deal with the subject of ruin.

Choniates was an up-and-coming court official in Constantinople, serving under the latter Komnenian emperors.  Making good use of his access to records, he began his narrative in 1118--at the ascension of John II Komnenos--and concluded abruptly about 1206.  Choniates' detailed history serves as the primary source for the sack of Constantinople in 1204.

The translation by Harry Magoulias is surprisingly accessible to the modern reader.  Choniates was no court sycophant, nor does he seem to be swept-up with any particular Byzantine faction.  And Choniates is not averse to a bit of salacious sensationalism when it comes to the sexual politics of the day.  Early on, he relates Anna Komnene's retribution against her husband's failure to seize the throne upon her father's death:

It is said that Kaisarissa Anna, disgusted with her husband's frivolous behavior and distraught in her anger, and being a shrew by nature, felt justified in strongly contracting her vagina when Bryennios's penis entered deep inside her, thus causing him great pain.

Well alright then...I may never again think of Anna Komnene in quite the same light.  But there is more of this sort of thing.  For example, the death of Manuel I Komnenos left the Empire in the hands of an empress not yet thirty years of age and her twelve-year old son, the new Emperor Alexios II Komnenos.  In the inevitable scramble for power, a young Komnenos nephew (also named Alexios) seduced his newly-widowed aunt and empress.  In Choniates' droll telling, he sought "to mount both mother and throne."  And in an almost comical telling, the scoundrel Isaakios Komnenos, escaping from prison once again, nevertheless took time to engage in sexual intercourse with his wife--up against the prison wall, no less--"leaving her pregnant with a son" before fleeing his captors.

Alexios I Komnenos is generally credited with saving the Empire in the desperate years following Manzikert in 1071, and indeed the 12th-century witnessed a revival of Byzantium's fortunes.  From Choniates' standpoint, however, it was at best a hollow rebirth.  The rot was set, as they say, and like the proverbial dead fish, it began at the head--the power elites--in this case the Komnenoi themselves.

Of course, had the Byzantine rulers been more saints than sinners, they would have still had to have dealt with aggression from the West.  Choniates savages the Latins, as would be expected.   

Even the serpent, the ancient plotter against the human race, did not conceive and beget such enmity.  But because the land which was our allotted portion to inhabit, and to reap the fruits thereof, was openly likened to paradise by the most accursed Latins, who were filled with passionate longing for our blessings, they were ever ill-disposed towards our race and remain forever workers of evil deeds.  Though they may dissemble friendship, submitting to the needs of the time, they yet despise us as their bitterest enemies; and though their speech is affable and smoother than oil flowing noiselessly, yet are their words darts, and thus they are sharper than a two-edged sword.  Between us and them the greatest gulf of disagreement has been fixed, and we are separated in purpose and diametrically opposed, even though we are closely associated and frequently share the same dwelling.  Overweening in their pretentious display of straightforwardness, the Latins would stare up and down at us and behold with curiosity the gentleness and lowliness of our demeanor; and we, looking grimly upon their superciliousness, boastfulness, and pompousness, with the drivel from their nose held in the air, are committed to this course and grit our teeth, secure in the power of Christ, who gives the faithful the power to tread on serpents and scorpions and grants them protection from all harm and hurt.

Choniates' account of the sack of Constantinople by the Latins in 1204 is particularly vivid--sparing neither the living nor the dead (for they looted the tombs) and leaving it "a miserable corpse of a city."  He calls the Latin faith a fraud, noting that even the "sons of Ishmael" behaved with much more magnanimity when they retook Jerusalem from the Crusaders.  "By grasping pearls, they rejected Christ, the pearl of great price."

And while Choniates clearly expected little from the Latins, his real scorn is reserved for the ruling Roman elites of Constantinople.  Over the decades, the Empire weakened in many ways.  Control of the seas slipped away from Byzantium.  The triremes were not refurbished and replaced, but allowed to rot in the harbor.  Money lavished on the army contributed to their decline, as well--making military service a vehicle for financial gain rather than defense of the Empire.  Byzantine strongholds fell to cowardice and disloyalty.  The Empire failed to establish a modus vivendi with the West.  The fabled Byzantine bureaucracy broke down under the weight of graft and nepotism,  But according to Choniates, it was the Komenoi themselves--even with the first three strong rulers--that was the poison working its way through the Empire. 

The Emperor Alexios I Komnenos began placing his extended family connections in all positions of power within the vaunted Byzantine bureaucracy.  In short order, the families Komnenos, Doukas, Byrennios, Kontostephanos, Kantakuzene, Angelos, Palaiologus and Branas grasped the levers of power.  "All of the emperor's relatives were avaricious and grasping, and the frequent turnover of officials taught them nothing else but eagerly to steal and loot, to purloin the public taxes, and to amass great wealth."  Canon law prevented close marriage within families (although more than one Byzantine ruler flaunted this restriction), but the web of relationships rivalled that of the Hapsburgs and Bourbons during their heyday.  And with every generation, a new crop of cousins arose who nurtured the belief that it was they, rather than the Emperor, who was destined for the throne.

And so, while the Emperor Manuel I Komnenos "piled up mounds of money as though they were pebbles," his successors did not "hold on to the wealth they amassed but poured it out with both hands on the excessive indulgence of the body and costly ornamentation....like heaps of chaff and blown away like summer dust to fill the slow bellies."  The latter emperors wallowed in debauchery, and grew reluctant to leave the comforts of the palace, with its banquet tables laden with "carved meat."  Choniates quotes Archilochus who said "that what has been amassed at the expense of much time and labor often flows into the belly of the whore."

It was the Komnenos family that was the major cause of the destruction of the empire; because of their ambitions and their rebellions, she suffered the subjugation of provinces and cities and finally fell to her knees.  These Komnenoi...were the utter ruin of their country, and whenever they attempted to seize and hold sway over our public affairs, they were the most inept, unfit, and stupid of men."

To quote Adam Smith (something I do not ever recall doing before), "there is a lot of ruin left in a nation."  Certainly the Komnenian emperors presided over an additional 125 years between the post-Manzikert implosion and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.  As the decades rolled-on, however, one is hard pressed to find much of anything to admire from this Constantinopolitan society.  The reconstituted, chastened and humbled rump empire that held on from 1261 until 1453 was, on the whole, a more admirable civilization.        

John Lukacs

I laid down Choniates and picked up Lukacs, who writes of another ruin, 700 years later.  He has a compelling biography.  Lukacs was born in Hungary in 1924, the son of a Catholic doctor and a Jewish mother who divorced before the Second World War.  I assume that the mother converted to Catholicism (she lies buried in a Catholic cemetery in Chester County, Pennsylvania) for John Lukacs has been a lifelong committed Catholic.  His maternal ethnicity, however, put him in grave danger during the latter years of the war.  He was assigned to Jewish work battalions , but somehow managed to evade transfer to a concentration camp and survive the conflict.  In 1946, seeing the direction of things in his native land, young Lukacs walked west, towards the promise of America.  He taught history for many decades, primarily at a small Catholic college.  He pursued this course primarily in order to be able to write.  Once, at some academic reception, he overheard a colleague remark that he was not really more of a writer than a historian.  Lukacs was not offended.  And write he did.  As the title suggests, this was intended to be his final work.  "Twenty years ago I was still standing dans les faubourgs de la viellesse, ambling in the suburbs of old age.  The ages and walls of that stony city I saw at a distance.  No longer."  Lukacs had more time than he imagined in 2009, perhaps, for I understand he has since published another, his 30th.

Lukacs adapted quickly--though never completely--to his adopted country.  By the mid 1950s he had married Helen, a Philadelphia editor.  They moved into a small, unfinished house on three acres of a farm her family had owned since long before the Revolution.  He resides there still, after the death of his first wife at age 42, his subsequent remarriage to Stephanie, her death, and his final marriage to Pamela.

This work is hard to pigeon-hole, being a wide-ranging rumination about his life, history, and how America intersects each.  One of the perks of old age, I suppose, is the luxury of speaking plainly and boldly without worrying about any repercussions.  (Personally, I am looking forward to that.)  For example, he dismisses Francis Fukayama's The End of History as "idiotic," and Subjectivist Determinism as "nonsense."  Contra Collingwood et al who argue that history is nothing but the history of ideas, Lukacs counters that "no idea exists without the person who thinks it and represents it--people do not have ideas, they choose them." (And here, Lukacs frames the instinctive opposition I have always felt towards Determinism, whether it be in history, ideology or religion.)  And against Lord Action's "purpose of history is the definite, and final, establishment of truths," Lukas answers, decisively, no.  Rather, "the purpose of historical knowledge is the reduction of untruth" (or what Andrew Louth terms a "process of undeception.")  Indeed, the "method of history is description, not definition."

On the subject of history itself, Lukacs posits that it is not a "science."  He reminds us that "history is not just the recorded past, but the remembered past, and like memory, it is incomplete and fallible."  Indeed, "the purpose of human knowledge--indeed, of human life itself--is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding."

Lukacs writes at length about the end of the Bourgeois Age, long-gone, though not yet fully realized (If one has to have a year to bookend such things, Lukacs suggests 1969 as an outside date.)  He has a fondness for "the European era of five hundred years, that I cherished and to which I belonged," but does not sentimentalize it.  Lukacs finds no contradiction in the fact that "dribs and drabs" of the age persist here and there, for "that is how history proceeds." 

At first glance, conservatives might warm to his writings.  Lukacs, a self-described reactionary, would in no wise categorize himself as such (a traditionalist, yes.)  He is scathing in his critique of modern movement Conservatism, and no doubt would be wryly bemused at those whose cry is "Take Back America."  Lukacs notes that "there are no eternal returns in history."   

Lukacs knows there is no return, but expresses concern about what is taking its place. 

At this time, at the end of a great age when, having liberated mankind from all kinds of fetters, having declared the end of slavery, emancipation of women and of children, entire liberties of speech, of print, of pictures, etc., men's images of men and women are more sordid, more ugly, more desperate than ever?

And, as he notes elsewhere "it could be worse:  but very good it is not."  Lukacs contends that the Bourgeois Age with its hypocrasies, materialism, shallowness, "the mental wasteland of the hollow men," was not entirely wrong.  What was (and is) at fault, however, "is their institutionalization, the acceptance of their formulations as absolutes."  By the late 1960s, thebourgeois convictions--weak and superficial--had collapsed and disappeared, "and the behavior of their offspring changed instantly, together with what and how they thought."

Lukacs loves America, or more exactly, he loves his small corner of West Schuylkill Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania.    Looking farther afield, he sees little promise.

I despair of this country and many of its people.  I think that the 21st century will not be the American century, but that some giant and unprecedented catastrophe may smite this country, probably of its own making, and perpetuated by one or more of their own.--I do not fear an Arab crashing itno the Limerick nuclear towers, but an American in a state of sexual or ideological frenzy.

He also writes of the death of liberalism and the rise of conservatism (in the current parlance.)  Liberalism is "exhausted."  In 1950, no American leader, whether political, intellectual or academic, described themselves as "conservative."  By 1980, however, they were in the majority and proved it by choosing "Ronald Reagan, a divorced movie actor, for their hero, for their president."  Lukacs  describes this as a "tectonic change," though the manners and morals of most Americans "conservatives" differed little from "liberals."

There is one great and grave fault in the thinking of American conservatives as well as of American liberals.  This is their belief in (linear) Progress. The liberals, ever more strained, propaganda for the extension of limitless human "freedoms," their clinging to the Darwinist categories of evolution and "progress," not only compromises but goes counter to their once noble protection and defense of human dignity.  The conservatives' propagation of American power throughout the world and, above it, into space, their thoughtless belief in the endless benefits of technology, amounts to a denial of every conservative view of human nature and of its limits.  Liberals adulate Science; conservatives adulate Technology.  No great difference there.

Lukacs ridicules the extreme notions of American Exceptionalism of a "Chosen People."

...a Chosen People, an exception not only to others but to history itself, that they were living in the greatest and freest and richest country in the world...

...tend to believe not only that they are a Chosen People but also that what is good for America is good for the world:  Yet at the same time they are not much interested in the world outside the United States. 

God will always smite, or chastise, those who think they are his Chosen People.

Agreeing with Tocqueville, Lukas posits that "the character of a people is more important than are their institutions," and "more important than the measure of their material goods is what people think and believe."

Lukacs remains committed to his Church, but he is no Catholic triumphalist.  The fact that his first and second wives, both Protestants, converted to Catholicism during their last illnesses says something about the nature of his faith.  Helen Lukacs remained open to Catholicism the more she was exposed to Catholics during their marriage.  But she was set aback when priests would visit, trying hard to prove themselves "regular fellows, like all other Americans."  Lukacs remembers that she always expected more from American Catholic priests.  Early in 2001, Lukacs went to Mass, specifically to pray for his ailing second wife, Stephanie.  The priest promised to cut his homily short and "spoke of angels and saints in Heaven watching the Superbowl."  Lukacs walked out in disgust.

The Church, my church, must now reconcile itself to be a church of a minority of the truly believing--as it was, of course, in entirely different circumstances and with entirely different prospects after the age of the catacombs eighteen hundred or so years ago.  The Church must remain a single, lonely lighthouse of human comprehension, of wisdom, a proponent of love. 

Lukacs is often at his best in descriptive vignettes of people and places of his experience:

On his mother's Budapest friend:

...Ila knew her own interests very well.  She was sophisticated, intelligent, elegant, demanding, very, very careful with her possessions and money, though not with those of others; acid with her criticism of many people, save for her daughter and granddaughter, two small crystalline vessels wherein she poured just about every drop of her stream of coagulated love.  She lived in that once admired modern but now rundown building of the 1930s in considerable comfort, her apartment filled with good furniture and paintings and lacy things, something that she was able to guard and protect and keep even during much of the Communist regime.

On the character of his first wife, Helen:

H. had something like a historical sense of what the dissolution of her family meant...she evinced no illusions for some idyllic kind of American past lived and experienced by her immediate ancestors.  She understood too much about the fatal limitations of their perspectives, of their characters, of human nature, of the United State of America, of the world.  She was profoundly conservative--in the proper and best sense of that word that began to become corrupted in the 1950s.  She gave up her outside employment, her editorial job, at the very time (the early 1960s) when millions of American women, wives and mothers who had moved to the suburbs, suddenly felt constrained with what life in the suburbs offered to them, and fled their daytime loneliness to their employment in various offices.  Helen thought, and often said, that to be ("to be," rather than "to stay") at home with a family was the best employment that a woman could choose.  She was a traditionalist.  She was a patriot.  And a Democrat, and a liberal.  She was appalled by the Vietnam War, and by Nixon and Kissinger.  She disdained American nationalism and sentimentalism. "The American Dream" was a phrase that she abhorred....Somehow she understood that an entire civilization was unraveling and sinking, that Civilization was more important than Culture.

On the Greenbriar Resort, on a honeymoon trip with third wife, Pamela:

I knew that I did not belong here, not in the least.  I was not an American sportsman but a fortuneless immigrant who had not and could not dare have anything in common with the providers and riflers of this fabulous amount and variety of goods, with these ranks of Sam's and Dick's and Ron's people.  I was a foreigner, alien and uninvited, out of place and out of time as at a Nascar race or the Super Bowl. 

On Pamela's family home in Charleston, West Virginia:

...the bookcases on the wall of their living room or parlor lined with biographies and novels and histories of the America of the 1930s and 1940s, of a decent, honest, still book -reading , middle class.

Lukacs' work is not without hope. 

Ambition and greed invoke, they reach out to a future.  Envy and pleasure insist on the present.  But gratitude:  it comes always from a past.  There is my gratitude to the past, to my past, including those who loved me and whom I loved.  Beneath and above them is my enduring gratitude to God, for both my past and my present.  Will the sincerity of this gratitude suffice to escape His adverse judgment of me:  I do not think so; I only hope.


Both Niketas Choniates and John Lukacs sift among the ashes of history, searching to salvage something of value.  Choniates started his narrative with this admonition:  "Let no one be so mad as to believe that there is anything more pleasurable than history."  He speaks of kindling the fires of memory and ploughing the furrows of the past.  Lukacs would agree, I think, closing with this admonition:

My readers:  please turn toward the past, and dip into its records and remnants, for inspiration.  By doing that you may turn melancholy:  but you will not lose your appetite for life.



3 comments:

Brad said...

Wow, Lukacs was a good looking guy back in his younger days!

John said...

Yeah, most of the available online pictures of Lukacs are of him in recent years (read: old.) I thought it more interesting to post a photo of him at about the time he was a young immigrant to this country.

James the Thickheaded said...

Find myself agreeing with Lukacs even when I don't like where it leads. But then... I don't like where most of politics leads... whether today, yesterday or tomorrow. Guess I'm too old to think something could or should be done to "fix" things.

But to borrow a phrase, "What's impossible with man is possible with God"... most of the good things in our past did come from spiritual renewal. Not sure I see it... but I sure see the crying need. Were it genuine... like Wilberforce's... it might change everything.