The end of civilization as we wish we had known it

Berthelot went on with his dispiriting revelations, at the end of which I exclaimed:

“So it’s all over? There’s nothing left for us to do but to rear a new generation to exact vengeance?”

“No, no,” cried  Renan, standing up and going red in the face, “no, not vengeance! Let France perish, let the Nation perish; there is a higher ideal of Duty and Reason!”

“No, no,” howled the whole company. “There is nothing higher than The Nation!”.

Pages from the Goncourt Journals, Edmond and Jules Goncourt (tr. Baldick, NYRB 2007),  p.172: September 6, 1870.

The captain remarked that was fighting between the Turkish troops and the Serbians, who are in revolt. The Russians intend to stir up a quarrel and then sit by and reap their reward. Since England, France, and Germany see that it would be to their detriment if Russia were to have full access to the Dardanelles Straits, they have been earnestly deliberating as to how they might protect them…. In their hearts the Russians fear the assistance that the English might render to the Turks, so they do not dare to act presumptuously. Since the Turks have recently agreed to settle the trouble in Turkey, their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war. (January 13, 1877)

Kuo Sung-t’ao, The Record of an Envoy’s Journey to the West, in J.D. Frodsham, The First Chinese Embassy in the West, p. 65, Oxford, 1974

“There is nothing higher than The Nation!”. The invading Germans had just captured Napoleon III with his army, and Paris was surrounded. The Second Empire was overthrown and a provisional government proclaimed, but the military situation remained grim and within five months France would surrender and be forced to accept an unfavorable peace. Very few Frenchmen held to Renan’s humane universal values; the call for vengeance was much more compelling. (As far as that goes  Germany, now become an empire alongside Britain and in place of France, wasn’t satisfied with the outcome either, and would soon enough come back for more.)

Seven years later Kuo Sung-t’ao, the first Chinese ambassador to England, kept a record of the long sea voyage  taking him to his post. During his trip he improved his knowledge of the Western nations and the relationships between them, and as it happened, at the time when he reached the Mediterranean Russia and Turkey were engaged in a dispute about Serbia, with all the other powers hovering on the wings to keep things from getting out of hand.

“Their joint efforts make it seem unlikely that the various powers of Europe will be embroiled in a general war”, wrote the Ambassador.  And he was right for the moment, but he had put his finger on the place where the general war would in fact break out 37 years later. In 1914 it was Russia v. Austria-Hungary instead of Russia v. Turkey, but it was the same game.

The sovereign nation-state is a war machine and the international order is a system for scheduling wars.  Already by 1870 culture was pretty much at the service of the state, and by 1914 most of the left and avant-garde enthusiastically committed themselves to the murderous, pointless Great National Causes of their various homelands, all hell broke loose, and the world was never to be the same again.

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 6:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

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