When I was a young man, I loved Peter Weir’s 1989 boarding school drama Dead Poets Society, featuring Robin Williams in one of his most celebrated roles.
Back then, I admired Williams’s character, Mr. Keating, a rebel rouser teacher who tries to wake up a group of rich kids, who, without his help, are destined to end up in the same boardrooms and country clubs as their fathers. I liked the rebellious stuff, but I also admired the stuffy establishment setting. That was me, I guess: a kid who felt at home in a conservative aesthetic but did not want to be told what to do. My one complaint with the film was that the boys did not appreciate that they got to push their boundaries amid New England fall foliage and mahogany leather, while I was suffering alongside philistines in flip-flops at my suburban Florida mega-high school.
Anyway, Mr. Keating did not follow the script, prescribing Walt Whitman poems and encouraging the bookish young men in his charge to sound their barbaric yawps. He turned a blind eye when they snuck off at night to perform faux-primitive rituals and read their middling adolescent verses aloud. Again, as a teenager I ate it up. When Mr. Keating got fired after one of the boys committed suicide, I felt bad for him. I imagined I would have stood up on my desk proclaiming “O Captain, my Captain” along with the other boys who were devastated to see their rascally mentor go.
Through high school and college, I pretended to intellectual superiority by avoiding mainstream American male inanities. I never set foot in a frat house. I majored in French. I sat alone on my dorm balcony smoking cigarettes and listening to Nick Drake. I looked to cinematic icons like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Woody Allen (yes, Woody Allen), and I searched half-heartedly for my own brand of existentialism. I decided to keep God sort of in the picture. Good for me.
Then, in the early 2000’s, I had a brief career as a high school teacher, and I styled myself something of a Mr. Keating, spouting off whatever niche political opinions I had from one day to the next, belittling the official curriculum I was given to teach, and looking for any opportunity I could to plant seeds in the minds of young people – especially boys – to reject the rottenness of bourgeois America and to choose an extraordinary path for themselves in life. I wanted to be the kind of teacher who could help guys feel intellectually strong, to avoid being the figure Mr. Keating ridicules in Dead Poets Society: a 98-pound weakling who gets copies of Byron kicked in his face when he goes to the beach.
I also began lifting weights, and despite my skinny frame, I put on muscle quickly, with my personal best lifts increasing for years. I suddenly excelled in physical pursuits with the same rebellious perfectionism that had made me an excellent, even intimidating student in school. I often saw my students at the gym and we would spot each other. In my classroom, I challenged football players to push-up contests, and I never lost. My lifelong prejudice against mediocrity intensified – for myself, of course, but increasingly as contempt for weakness in the world too, even though I still proudly voted Blue and was more-or-less comfortable with liberal Protestantism as the best place for a huge snob to opine about what Christianity, and everything else, should be.
It was all pretty fun; but remembering those years makes me cringe a bit now. Like Mr. Keating, I was reckless, and selfish. I was something of a Nietzschean “blond beast.”
But then God began to save me from myself first by giving me a wife, and then by sending me out to study theology. Suddenly I had one person on earth whose feelings had to come before mine, and whose love for me humbled me, despite my ongoing immaturity. And then I acquired a whole library of Father-figure teachers, intellectual giants that far outweighed my heroes Montaigne and Goethe and Truffaut. I kept lifting weights, certainly. But I looked into the mirror less often and I felt less inclined to enjoy hating the growing cultural void in society around me.
I’ve recently discovered these words from Pascal’s Pensées that pulled me back in time to the moment of my spiritual coming-of-age:
Know then, proud man, what a paradox you are to yourself. Be humble, impotent reason! Be silent, feeble nature! Learn that man infinitely transcends man, hear from your master your true condition, which is unknown to you. Listen to God.
At twenty-seven years old, I was finally ready to be a man, and a man in Christ. Not a superman.
And this brings us to the aforementioned Friedrich Nietzsche. The sincerity of my Christian upbringing had stuck to me too closely to go all the way dark during my Wanderungsjahren. Even though I was enamored with existentialism, I preferred the humane Camus to the misanthropic Sartre. Hence I mostly avoided Nietzsche; but I can imagine an alternate reality where the right Nietzschean got hold of me at the right moment, and I came out (at least for a while) an utterly cynical, narcissistic creep. And this brings us to a most disturbing latter-day Mr. Keating called the Bronze Age Pervert, a highly-influential Romanian-American man named Costin Alamariu, who was recently profiled in a fascinating piece by Graeme Wood.
I won’t rehearse all the details of BAP here – again, I highly recommend Wood’s article for that – but here’s the gist: A self-described “aspiring nudist bodybuilder” with a Ph.D. from Yale has captivated a portion of young people on the political Right with the false gospel of Nietzsche’s beyond good and evil and will-to-power. Learning of the BAP phenomenon immediately reminded me of an idea attributed to Ross Douthat, related here by Rod Dreher: the post-religious Right is really bad news.
But criticizing BAP’s immoralism is too easy, and perhaps too self-congratulatory. (Right Wingers love to police our fringes to find real bad guys to point to when progressives smear us.) A more serious intellectual engagement is required.
Now, it is possible that some BAPist aims could overlap with those of faithful Catholics. But the fundamental moral visions are polar opposite. And Wood’s article asserts that there is a sleeper cell of BAPists who have infiltrated the U.S. government and other influential institutions, and they are biding their time before coming out in the open and seizing the reins. In my mind, there is no chance these guys will ever pull off a coup, but I do have some concerns that the movement will enlarge the space of anti-Christ in our society at the very moment when the veil over the fiction of a neutral public square increasingly falls. And I worry that the Church of our day is in no position to offer astute young seekers, exhausted by mediocrity, a superior lifestyle choice rooted in the philosophical depth BAP presumes to offer.
On this point, Wood’s otherwise excellent article offers a naïve conclusion – namely, that BAP’s movement may serve to renew the defenses of a liberalism that has grown lazy by taking its dominance for granted for too long. “The antibodies are stirring,” he writes.
I don’t think so.
In fact, I find it hard to believe that great numbers of people under 30 (or 60?) would care to come to the defense of the Enlightenment or find the ideals of liberalism compelling anymore. Nietzsche thought all of this was passing away, and he may have been right. Now the Dictatorship of Relativism has been conquered by the even crueler consumerist, post-human technocracy. To resist it requires…well…quite a triumph of the will.
But if Christians must reject BAP’s chauvinism – and we must – and if there is no way to re-implement the ideals of modern liberalism – and I don’t see how there is – we have to propose a different philosophical project of Christian humanism and the resurrection of Christian society.
One person to look to for inspiration is the 20th-century German soldier and polymath Ernst Jünger, a one-time Nietzschean. I’ve written before about the early Jünger and his most famous work, Storm of Steel, a World War I memoir with the opposite perspective of Erich Maria Remarque’s famous All Quiet on the Western Front. Jünger was wounded several times and decorated for valor in the Great War, and afterward he was highly critical of the Weimar government, and of liberal democracy. Hitler admired him, but Jünger never joined the Nazis. He did, however, don the uniform of the Third Reich during World War II, where he was posted to Paris and hobnobbed with French intellectuals. Ultimately, he was peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler – an event fictionalized in Bryan Singer’s great 2008 film Valkyrie. Hitler knew of Jünger’s involvement and let him off the hook. Make of that whatever you like.
Jünger is not well known in the United States. His status as a major man of letters in Europe, and particularly Germany, is too enormous to relate here, but this Swedish documentary is a fascinating introduction. Jünger lived to the ripe-old-age of 102, and was received into the Catholic Church shortly before he died in 1998. He has become a cult figure for English-speaking Right Wingers, including BAP; but most of them fail to acknowledge Jünger’s turn away from Nietzscheanism and towards Christian humanism during World War II, when he read through the entire Bible closely. The result was a little treatise called The Peace.
Although Jünger did not refer to himself as a Christian at the time when the book was released, The Peace is entirely grounded in Christian metaphysics. Jünger advocated for dispassionate justice to be meted out to the aggressors, and he wanted a solution that would bring about immediate victory and long-term flourishing for the entire European continent (totally unlike the Treaty of Versailles); but without Christ at the center of society, they may just as well have annihilated each other.
Jünger envisioned a new Christian imperium to stand between the emerging materialist superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. His project was an utter rejection of nihilism, and he wrote “Spiritual salvation must come first, and only that peace can bring a blessing which has been preceded by the taming of the passions in these hearts and minds of men.” Likewise, “If the struggle against nihilism is to succeed, it must be fought out in the heart of each one of us.”
And most significantly, Jünger argues that the incautiousness of the Mr. Keatings and the cruelty of the BAPs of the world can only lead us to destruction:
The leadership of men cannot be granted to the nihilists, to the pure technicians or to those who despise all moral obligations. Whoever places his trust in man and human wisdom alone cannot speak as judge, nor can he expound as teacher, heal as doctor or serve the state as official. These are modes of life that end with hangmen in the seats of the mighty.
Jünger rejected the idea that a return to a liberal state was the answer. The failure of Weimarism was final. And while he insisted that the churches were central to the peaceful future of Europe, he also saw that “the churches, too, stand in need of a revival.”
Eighty years after World War II, Christians must stare down today’s nihilism, both in the wacky but worrisome BAP variety, and in the de facto atheism in the hearts of most modern people, including churchgoers. But the Church can only succeed in this task by refocusing on the deep mysteries of reality – “the God beyond the death of God,” as Paul Tillich said. Another much greater German than Jünger, our late Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI, pursued this project to the very end of his life.
The Church needs to carry forward Benedict’s ideas and teach the world that our faith is a comprehensive, lived philosophical proposal that puts the Bronze Age Pervert’s antiquated will-to-power Nietzscheanism to shame. And so, we give the late Pope Emeritus the final word here from his essay “Monotheism and Tolerance,” from Ignatius Press’ newly published collection What is Christianity? The Last Writings:
The thought of Socrates, who was pious and critical at the same time, had in its own way the effect of unveiling the illusory character of the gods. Today we face the opposite movement of the human mind. Modern thought wants to acknowledge the truth of being, but wants to acquire power over being. It wants to reshape the world according to its own needs and desires. With this orientation – not to the truth but to power – we no doubt touch on the true problem of the present time.
Today’s Christian thinker’s task is to expose the lie of power’s promises with counter-cultural zeal – a task, by the way, that requires manliness (virtus). Is anyone up to the challenge?
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