FAIL BETTER: TACITUS AND ART ON THE DISSIDENT RIGHT
Raw Egg Nationalist
In the very first issue of this fine magazine, I suggested that the writings of Cornelius Tacitus, the great post-Classical historian and ethnographer, have a lot to tell us about the predicament of today’s right, including its fixations on a “retVrn to tradition”. According to Tacitus, we can – and should – look to the past for guidance and inspiration, but this does nothing to change the fact that the past is gone and circumstances may be radically different from those that once obtained. In the historian’s own day, this meant the decline – yes, decline – of Rome from ancient republic into empire, and from empire into tyranny. So while Tacitus might look across the Rhine frontier to the German tribes and see many of the proud martial and social virtues of his own ancestors, qualities he believed to be sorely lacking in the Romans of his own day, he would have been the last to call for his compatriots to abandon their complex urban civilisation and start living in the forest, drinking milk and beer, and wearing simple tunics fastened with thorns. New situations call for new responses, and Rome at the end of the first century AD was not the Rome it once had been, at the foundation of the city, in 753 BC, or even the Rome of a hundred years before.
This understanding of the past and its relation to the present even informed Tacitus’s writing style. Unlike us moderns, the Romans made no distinction between “is” and “ought”, between the domains of facts and values. For the Roman historian, his craft was unavoidably a moral endeavour, but Tacitus chose to go further than most by very deliberately coding his assessment of past virtue and present vice into the way he wrote. As anybody who has at least a little Classical learning will know, reading Tacitus in the original Latin is a strikingly different affair from reading Julius Caesar or Livy in the same manner. Tacitus deliberately subverted the conventions of style, and especially the style of historical writing, as part of a far-reaching critique of the moral basis of his society. Given the state of Roman society, according to Tacitus, it would have been impossible, at least with a good conscience, to write like Caesar or Livy.
But what does this have to do with anything we, the so-called “dissident right”, might be interested to know? I think it can help us begin to understand what it is we must do, at the very least the attitude we must take, if we want to make a distinctive aesthetic contribution. Too often we see a simple-minded – and no doubt well-intentioned – attempt to “pick up where we left off”, before art became fake and gay, as it so obviously is and has been for quite some time. Let’s just pretend that modernism never happened. Let’s go back to portraiture, landscapes, epic poetry and sonnets.
AlthoughTacitus could easily have chosen to ape the great Classical writers before him – nobody was stopping him writing flowing Ciceronian periods – he didn’t. His mature acceptance of changed conditions led to a new synthesis, a new product that was simultaneously dependent upon and respectful to the past, yet also, as I say, strikingly different. Unlike Tacitus, we also face formidable technical challenges, not least of all the massive decline of learning and literacy, and the destruction of the great schools and traditions that nourished and sustained Western art. In many cases, it’s not just that we shouldn’t try to go back – that we should make a conscious decision to do something else – it’s that we can’t go back. Trying to do so will only make us look silly. It’s a waste of time.
*As I explained in my first article on Tacitus, Roman history was necessarily a moral enterprise. In contrast to professional history today, in which the historian, after Leopold von Ranke, seeks to describe things simply “as they were” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist), the Roman historian was, above all, telling a story. This didn’t mean that the Roman historian simply made things up to suit the purpose of the narrative – although we should of course be alert to the possibility of exaggeration and even falsification – but that the idea of simply putting facts on display for the reader would have made absolutely no sense to a Roman. The Roman historian wanted to know why things happened, and that meant, above all, understanding the good and bad deeds of his ancestors. This was the entire basis of the Roman conception of public morality.
For earlier historians like Livy, the story wasn’t especially complicated. Virtue – virtus, literally “how a man (vir) behaves” – almost exclusively consisted of “fighting to the death to defend the state against a common enemy”, in the words of historian Ronald Mellor. Stories like that of Horatius Cocles, who during the Etruscan siege of Rome single-handedly defended the pons Sublicius, allowing the Roman army to retreat successfully, are uncomplicated in both the telling and the understanding. Livy’s monumental work, From the Foundation of the City, covers the legendary migration of Aeneas from Troy to the Italic peninsula, through the foundation of Rome, to the establishment of Augustus’s principate in Livy’s own day. The message of the narrative as a whole mirrors that of the individual episodes described: that displays of virtue lead to glory and success. The culmination of this, at the great work’s end, is Augustus’s reign as Rome’s first emperor.
Tacitus in no way rejected the basic premise that historians were, first and foremost, purveyors of moral truths. Where he differed from earlier historians, and especially Livy, was in his assessment of the moral trajectory of Rome, which of course meant the moral trajectory – the virtue – of its leading men. In the histories of Tacitus, instead of waxing virtue, we see virtue’s wane, and the decline of Rome into superstition, civil war and tyranny. Tacitus’s view of Rome’s course was especially influenced by his personal experience of the rule of the Flavian dynasty, especially the Emperor Domitian, after the Empire’s year-long first civil war. His short biography, Agricola, telling the story of his father-in-law’s glorious career and then persecution by Domitian, leading to his eventual death, probably by murder, is a bitter tale, as much because Tacitus felt himself personally complicit in the emperor’s reign of terror as anything else. But Agricola’s martyrdom was, at least, an example that, in a world given over to corruption, an honest upstanding man can still acquit himself honourably – even if, in the final instance, he has to die unjustly to do so.
What is most remarkable about the histories Tacitus wrote is the way that this new moral vision became inseparable from a new style of writing. There can be no doubt that this was a deliberate aesthetic choice. We know that Tacitus could write in what we might call “stock style”, as he showed in his earliest surviving work, The Dialogue on Oratory, which, as an archetypal dialogue on rhetoric à la Cicero, used Cicero’s elegant style masterfully. I don’t want this to become a technical linguistic analysis, comprehensible only to students of Latin, so I won’t be quoting Tacitus in Latin, or in translation. I just want to give you an idea of what Tacitus was trying to do. You’ll just have to trust that my description of his style, and that of experts who have written on it, is correct.
In seventeenth century Europe, Tacitus was known as the “prince of darkness” (prince des ténebrès), specifically because of the difficulties of his style. Even Napoleon later famously complained to Goethe of Tacitus’s “obscurity” at Weimar, in 1808. Here is Ronald Mellor, again, on how Tacitus distinguished himself from earlier Roman historians.
If Tacitus rejected the genial candor, abundant prose, and buoyant patriotism of his greatest historical predecessor, Livy, he found in Sallust a political cynicism combined with an intense and acerbic style suitable to his subject and temperament. Rhetoric can embellish and conceal, but this is a rhetoric of exposure in which acute political diagnosis reveals the hidden truths of the empire. His aggressive ferocity of syntax was embellished by a Vergilian richness of diction to produce in the most political charged Latin ever written a remarkable marriage of style and content.
While there were certainly precursors to Tacitus’s new historical style, including Sallust and Seneca, Tacitus created a synthesis of prose and poetical techniques that was uniquely his own. Mellor continues:
The reader is constantly disoriented by shifts of syntax as Tacitus avoids the hackneyed expression and pursues the surprising turn of phrase that upsets the grammatical balance. That stylistic asymmetry also reflects the changes of mood, now by the breakneck speed of the narrative, now by the extended portrayal of a static nocturnal scene with vivid, if somber, poetic diction. This remarkable combination of nobility and intimacy, of gravity and violence is enormously effective at conveying the underlying sense of fear that pervades the Histories and the Annals.
What we have, then, is a form of expression that matches the very conditions it is supposed to represent, and the conditions under which it was produced. In this sense, we could say it’s no different from the styles of earlier writers like Caesar or Livy, since their “abundant prose” was a reflection of the different, perhaps less complicated, conditions under which they wrote. But for Tacitus to write like Caesar or Livy would have been to obscure, even deliberately hide, the true nature of Rome’s moral predicament. Because history itself – the moral narrative of Roman life – had been subverted, so must the writer of that history subvert the reader’s expectations and experience in various ways, whether by unbalancing what would – should? – have been an expertly poised series of parallel constructions in the hands of another historian, or by using unusual poetic terms that arouse deeper, unexpected emotions and associations, and so on.
There are many parallels that can be drawn from the histories of Tacitus, including the very obvious parallels that are usually made with regard to political corruption, tyrannical government and imperial decline. Certainly, any interested observer of politics today would do well to pay attention to his portrayals of interrogations, denunciations, sham trials, forced suicides and the like. But with regard to the Dissident Right specifically, and in particular those seeking to produce art of any kind, I think we should take note of how Tacitus incorporated form and function to produce something new and different. This is exactly what we need to do today: to find a way to create authentic products that aren’t simply pastiches of the great works of the past, and that represent our particular moment in a way that is interesting, arresting and meaningful.
For many of us, it will be obvious that we shouldn’t try to write poetry like Milton or Wordsworth or Poe – at least not as anything other than a technical exercise – but it’s worth reflecting on why it’s such a dead end, and Tacitus helps us to do that. Simply put, the world has changed in various ways that make picking up wherever it is we think we – by which I mean Western civilisation – left off, a difficult proposition indeed. No conception of art, even under “perfect” conditions, has ever been static, something many on the right don’t seem to grasp very well, but in our present situation we face tremendous obstacles to continuity with the past. To write poetry, or indeed criticism, like Milton or Wordsworth presupposes that the writer must know what Milton or Wordsworth knew, must have the range and grasp of literature, theology, culture that they had. Even the greatest writers and artists today possess learning that would, in many respects, shame an undergraduate or understudy of Milton’s day. And what learning they do possess doesn’t, in the end, seem to amount to much in the way of great art. Look at Cormac McCarthy’s final duology of novels if you want to see what good spending a decade or more at the Santa Fe “institute for geniuses” has done his oeuvre. Two prolonged deathbed farts would have been a more meaningful, not to mention enjoyable, last statement.
This is, of course, about the decline of the institutions that supported great art and literature in the past, not just schools and universities, but also the art workshops in which future great masters apprenticed under current great masters. None of this is coming back any time soon, not in our lifetimes. The winner of this year’s Passage Prize, “Some Bracing Pessimism”, by Aeneas Tacticus Minor, explains our predicament bluntly, and we would do well to take notice.
We aren’t going to create any great art ourselves. We didn’t grow up in the right world for it. Enlightened patrons don’t exist, an adequate audience isn’t there, and the schools and institutions are all corrupt from kindergarten onwards so that even if we did have a God-given creative gift there was nobody to guide us or cultivate that talent and turn it into a set of skills. Not by the standards of the more competent creators of the past. Right now there’s no culture that can support great artists, or musicians, or writers, and let them create important art. We have to live with that fact.
We’re probably not going to live to see the next generation produce anything great either. We have a different job. We have to plant the seeds, lay the foundations and otherwise do everything we can to make a culture, a society and a world that will allow greatness in the future, so that maybe our grandchildren will have a chance that we never had.
This is the correct response: to see ourselves as precursors to some future greatness. A Tacitean approach to art and literature, one that simultaneously acknowledges the power of the past and its ideals, while accepting our present inability to live up to them, is perhaps the most honest – the only honest – approach we can take. But that doesn’t mean that others, our children and grandchildren, and their children and grandchildren, won’t be able to live up to those ideals either, some day in a glorious future. The question, simply, is whether we can make ourselves a means to that end. There are worse – and better – ways for us to fail.
THIS PIECE IS AVAILABLE IN PRINT FORM IN VOLUME II ISSUE VI