The Fiery Angel, Western Culture and Its (Dis)Contents

This week, I’m in Washington, D.C. giving a series of lectures and seminars at the Institute of World Politics, a small postgraduate school that specializes in the areas of defense, foreign policy, and intelligence work. The school will feature Secretary of Defense James Mattis as its commencement speaker in May. On Monday, as part of the school’s Capitol Hill lecture series, I spoke at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center about my forthcoming book, The Fiery Angel, which addresses a currently neglected policy subject: the necessity of integrating an understanding of the West’s artistic, literary, poetic, and musical culture back into our practice of politics.  

My thesis is simple: we can learn more about the nature and practice of politics from, say, The Oresteia or The Aeneid—to give just two examples more than two millennia old—than we can from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, and that the visit of Vladimir Horowitz to the Soviet Union in April 1986 (about which I wrote a cover story for Time magazine) did more to hasten the collapse of the USSR five years later than all the white papers and policy statements from the American talking-head establishment wonks of the day.

The Fiery Angel, whose publication date is officially May 29, but will be available three weeks before that, on May 8, is ready for pre-order on Amazon and at the Encounter Books sites. It’s the sequel to The Devil’s Pleasure Palace, which discussed in a series of interlocking essays the eternal battle between good and evil and was illustrated by a detailed examination of the pernicious influence of the Frankfurt School of Marxist philosophers. Using Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and Goethe’s Faust, Part One as my principal analytical tools, I analyze the doctrine of “Critical Theory,” which justifies the attack on Western society, show how false and deliberately malevolent that approach is, and offer some hope for the future, based on our civilization’s long resilience, even in the teeth of Marxist aggression and Islamic fundamentalism.

The new book is more prescriptive—a kind of how-to combat manual of cultural touchstones from which we as inheritors of the Greco-Roman enlightenment can recollect our strengths and moral authority, reject the false equivalences of multiculturalism, accept that Western syncretism (known disparagingly now as “cultural appropriation”) is something profoundly good and beneficial to all cultures, and from which we can draw a renewed vigor in our defense of ourselves. As I note in Angel:

Without an understanding and appreciation of the culture we seek to preserve and protect, the defense of Western civilization is fundamentally futile; a culture that believes in nothing cannot defend itself, because it has nothing to defend. The past not only still has something to tell us, but it also has something that it must tell us. Let us listen, then, to the angels of our nature, for better and worse.

In Monday’s speech in the beautiful new Visitor Center, I located a signal change in the Western education system that, at the time, looked like an advance: the American reaction to the launch of Sputnik in 1957. Suddenly, America felt it was losing its technological edge over the Soviets so American schoolchildren became acquainted en masse with the wonders and joys of the slide rule and the hard sciences. The effect was immediate: we quickly regained and maintained our advantage over our antagonists, but it came with a price: the downgrading of the importance of the arts as a civilizing and ennobling force in American public (and private) life.

So while the emphasis on tech eventually resulted in the creation of the personal computer and the iPhone, it also reduced the literary and plastic arts from essential elements of nationhood to “entertainments” for the wealthy; triggered the coarsening of society and, worst of all, cut both America and, shortly thereafter, the Western European nations from the wellsprings of their shared patrimony. This may not entirely have been by design, but it was seized upon by the nascent philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which by this time had been transplanted from pre-Nazi Germany to Columbia University in Manhattan and quickly spread throughout the American system of higher education.  

The result? To take just one example, the New York City public school system went from offering a model education in music and the arts to needing police officers in the schools—a reflection of the overall changes in demography, to be sure, but also of the decivilizing effect the loss of a democratized high culture entails. More Mozart, fewer metal detectors…

In The Fiery Angel, I am not arguing that the arts should be politicized—that way lies the corpse of the old Soviet Union (and this is treated at some length in the chapter entitled “The Raft of the Medusa”). Rather, I am saying that the arts both predict and comment upon historical-political developments in ways that no dispassionate analysis can manage. Try this sequence of events on for size:

Beaumarchais–Mozart–The French Revolution–Beethoven–Napoleon.  From Le Marriage de Figaro the play, to Le nozze di Figaro the opera, to the start of the French Revolution and fall of Louis XVI is a span of only five years, and yet in that time the royal edifice was first lampooned, then sexualized, and finally pulled down around the aristocrats’ ears. Those with sensitive antennae—among them Louis XVI himself, who initially forbade public performances of Beaumarchais’ play—could see what was coming. Most could not.

The sequence of events that followed the premiere of Pierre Beaumarchais’ play La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (A Crazy Day, or, Figaro’s Wedding) in 1784 is one of the most extraordinary in Western history. Within less than a decade of its premiere, which occurred despite the trepidations of crowned heads across Europe, the Bastille was stormed, King Louis XVI and his queen, Marie Antoinette, were arrested and guillotined, and the ancien régime fell. And all because of a play? Well, yes…

For their version of Figaro, da Ponte and Mozart eliminated the overtly political speeches, in part to avoid problems with the censors and with the Austrian emperor, Joseph II—who just so happened to be Marie Antoinette’s brother. They cut the politically incendiary content because they didn’t need it: Mozart’s music carries all the subtextual freight imaginable in a radiant score that remains as moving today as it was more than two centuries ago.

As part of a new campaign to reconnect the arts and public policy, my partners and I have formed The Imprimatur Group, the nation’s first and only cultural-political consultancy (preliminary contact via Julianne Shinto at the link). We combine classical Western principles with modern narrative storytelling and political savvy to transform public figures and candidates for high office into the personal embodiments of the virtues and qualities they wish to project and that voters and audiences seek. We bring decades of combined professional experience to this transformative venture that has been welcomed in both the public and the private sector.

As I write in the concluding lines of Angel:

The history of our art reveals, and constantly revisits, the norms of Western culture. But no matter how “transgressive” we might wish to be, the fundamental things apply: the relationship of mankind to God; the physical and spiritual bond between men and women, and its absolute primacy in the world of human creation; and the need for heroes. Iconoclasm comes and goes, often literally, but it must be seen as an aberration, the yeast in the ferment of history, if we are to have faith in our culture, our civilization, and our future; it cannot be the norm. Revolutionaries—manqué and otherwise—come and go.

We must learn to distinguish between those who are the fulfillment of Western foundational principles, such as the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution, whose revolution was against their own, and our, imperfection; and those whose transient “truths” have ended up, like Marx himself, on the ash heap of history, no matter how many icons they smash along the way to the boneyard.

History, therefore, is neither an arc nor a plot. Neither “his story” nor “her story.” It is our story.

After the Sturm und Drang of the Oresteia, after all the blood and vengeance and guilt, the trilogy ends on a pre-Christian note of forgiveness, of a world restored, with the transformation of the Furies into the Eumenides, as the Women of Athens declaim the final chorus:

With loyalty we lead you, proudly go,
Night’s childless children, to your home below! . . .
Pass hitherward, ye powers of Dread,
With all your former wrath allayed,
Into the heart of this loved land . . .
Let holy hands libations bear,
And torches’ sacred flame.
All-seeing Zeus and Fate come down
To battle fair for Pallas’ town!

All the tropes of Western civilization are there, present at its creation, in 458 B.C.: the childless children of the night (what music they make), the bravery in the face of dread and danger, the healing power of justice and forgiveness and, above all, the light of the sacred flame, borne by the eternal feminine, to illuminate the conflict between reason and unreason that is Man’s endless and unwavering lot—to provide for us a beacon, an inspiration, and a goal.

That this comes at the very beginning of Western civilization, not its end, ought to tell us something. The battle fair for Pallas’s town continues. We have our guides, if only we will heed them.

        Who’s with us?

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)