28. How Sweet & Gentle Life Can Be
Sweetness vs grandiosity, Talleyrand, Nazi megastructures and Kenneth Clark.
Talleyrand and Morgenthau
He who has not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know how sweet and gentle life can be.
I wonder if he was right.
It certainly seems physically possible for us to have soared over a ‘sweetness cliff’ in the historical timeline. I know no law preventing the possibility. It certainly seems morally possible - I'm not sure we've done anything to expect another outcome.
But on the other hand, maybe Talleyrand is being nostalgic. Perhaps his articulation is personally rather than historically true, given the impact of the great chaos that affected his life (which spanned from 1754-1838, with the French Revolution right at the midpoint).
Talleyrand’s look backwards reminds me of the memoirs of Henry Morgenthau, a turn-of-the-century American ambassador to Turkey, whose writing about leadup to the first World War conveys a similar nostalgia. This quote from Ambassador Morgenthau's Story is a bit long, but the imagery is rich, and I found it worthwhile. Imagine being there:
By this time we had moved from the Embassy to our summer home on the Bosphorus. All the summer embassies were located there, and a more beautiful spot I have never seen. Our house was a three-story building, something in the Venetian style; behind it the cliff rose abruptly, with several terraced gardens towering one above the other; the building stood so near the shore and the waters of the Bosphorus rushed by so rapidly that when we sat outside, especially on a moonlight night, we had almost a complete illusion that we were sitting on the deck of a fast sailing ship. In the daytime the Bosphorus, here little more than a mile wide, was alive with gaily coloured craft; I recall this animated scene with particular vividness because I retain in my mind the contrast it presented a few months afterward, when Turkey's entrance into the war had the immediate result of closing this strait.
However, these early summer months were peaceful; all the ambassadors and ministers and their families were thrown constantly together; here daily gathered the representatives of all the powers that for the last four years have been grappling in history's bloodiest war, all then apparently friends, sitting around the same dining tables, walking arm in arm upon the porches. The ambassador of one power would most graciously escort to dinner the wife of another whose country was perhaps the most antagonistic to his own. Little groups would form after dinner; the Grand Vizier would hold an impromptu reception in one corner, cabinet ministers would be whispering in another; a group of ambassadors would discuss the Greek situation out on the porch; the Turkish officials would glance quizzically upon the animated scene and perhaps comment quietly in their own tongue; the Russian Ambassador would glide about the room, pick out someone whom he wished to talk to, lock arms and push him into a corner for a surreptitious tete-a-tete.
Meanwhile, our sons and daughters, the junior members of the diplomatic corps, and the officers of the several stationnaires, dancing and flirting, seemed to think that the whole proceeding had been arranged solely for their amusement. And to realize, while all this was going on, that neither the Grand Vizier, nor any of the other high Turkish officials, would leave the house without outriders and bodyguards to protect them from assassination — whatever other emotions such a vibrating atmosphere might arouse, it was certainly alive with interest. I felt also that there was something electric about it all; war was ever the favourite topic of conversation; everyone seemed to realize that this peaceful, frivolous life was transitory, and that at any moment might come the spark that was to set everything aflame.
Yet, when the crisis came, it produced no immediate sensation. On June 29th we heard of the assassination of the Archduke of Austria and his consort. Everybody received the news calmly; there was, indeed, a stunned feeling that something momentous had happened, but there was practically no excitement.
- Henry Morgenthau, Ambassador Morgenthau's Story (1918)
These then are the contrasting possibilities: the real and substantive historical ‘sweetness cliff’, vs the appearance of such cliffs through the personal experience of transition into dark and tumultuous world events. A variety of more detailed secondary hypotheses could be described.
I would indeed like to know the true topography of historical sweetness, but in this post I’ll try to comment on something more elementary which precedes my interest: the conviction that this sweetness in life is a good thing.
I don’t mean to say this flippantly. I will try to explain.
Sweetness and grandiosity
Most talk of civilization is grandiose. Civilization is grandiose. We instinctively channel the power, enormity, astounding scope and drama of history itself; we speak in the mode of shock value and intensity.
Over the years I’ve been rather guilty of this, surely more guilty than nearly everyone I’ve known. As a transhumanist, back in the day, I’d channel the grandiosity with images like these:
Of course the futurists have only a partial claim to civilizational megalomania. The Soviets, for example:
Another incredible example of such grandiosity is the never-completed Nazi Volkshalle (designed by Albert Speer), a speech hall crowned by a 1000 foot dome:
In Robert Harris’ historical fiction Fatherland, the Volkshalle (based carefully on Albert Speer’s actual designs)
would indeed have had its own "weather", with the breathing and perspiration of 150,000 occupants precipitating in the high dome
Now, I want to be clear about my position here: these megastructures are obviously fucking cool. I have tried to make it as clear as possible that I love dope shit. But that doesn’t mean these works are humane, in the broadest sense.
They are majestic and powerful, and majesty and power are parts of humanity. But I find myself remembering the dictum of Frank Loyd Wright, who believed that a man should never feel dwarfed and intimidated by his own home.
Of course the Führer's megastadium is no one's home. It seems a bit weird to vibe to National Socialism in pajamas in a big cozy Nazi slumber party, no matter what Caroll Quigley might say about ‘the coziness of totalitarianism’:
So these days, when talking about civilization, I try to remember the polarity: the majesty, but also the sweetness. The power, but also the gentleness. The quiet moments that remind us why society is worth having in the first place.
Kenneth Clark's Civilisation
I stan civilization. I want it to work. I wrote about it in my first substack post and I'm writing about it now:
Did you say ‘making an excellent society’?
I guess I mean the thing the Philosopher King is working on. The Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. The Dream that was Rome.
So how, then, does one channel the spirit of civilization? With thundering monuments, mega projects, triumphs of science and war?
Yes. But also, hopefully: with sweetness.
In Kenneth Clark, an art historian I mentioned in Issue 8, I found a voice more adept, articulate, and sober than my own. His Civilisation, currently free on YouTube, is a magnificent survey of art through human history which develops Clark's personal thesis about the nature and conditions of civilization.
Clark is brilliant, studied, and eloquent, and far more importantly humane in his treatment of the subject. At a loss for my own words, I made him the subject of my latest vibe reel: "COURTESY".
COURTESY is an homage, or perhaps better seen as a prayer. I think it's my best work yet.