Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.
A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Civilised Barbarism, Barbaric Civilisation

“Despite my inclinations to the contrary, I have racial sensitivities. I am Latin. I regard the civilised barbarian in the North with an inherited sense of mistrust. Today [the United States] has become a colossal society, and has adopted the goal of imposing its industry, its commerce, and its imperialism. Each citizen of the Union is a kind of stockholder… [upholding] an ideal of material perfection above moral perfection, and equating civilisation with the triumph of industry and commerce. We, by contrast, descendants of the Latins and educated by the Greeks, regard that person as most civilised who is most morally perfect. … I am proud to say I am bored with railroads and factory chimneys.” – Belisario J. Montero

ONE OF THE best aspects of Catholicism is the affirmation (for lack of a better word) of absolutely everything that is good throughout the world. All the peoples of the earth, each with their particular genius, eventually descend from the same parents. This gives one, I hope, a certain sympathy towards every nation and every people, and an anticipation that each one will eventually grow into the full flower of a Christian order appropriate to their particular characteristics and personality. Christianity is not oppressive and conformist in its universalism but instead all-embracing.

There is much to be admired in the sentiments expressed by Belisario Montero, an Argentine diplomat, in the comments cited above. To put them in context, they were made after the final collapse of the Spanish Empire following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Argentina, as you already know, is a place that excites me. In her is found so much of the idea of Europe, varyingly perfected and perverted, accidentally demolished in an attempt to save it and then put back together again not precisely as it was before. Marx “travelled” to Buenos Aires, but so did Maurras (and ultimately the Frenchman was more influential). For a time, photographs of Mussolini cut from the illustrated magazines were plastered onto the walls of aspirational working-class porteños trying to keep up with the latest European fad, and the military elite and social aristocracy combined to oppose the vulgar and destructive forces of liberal democracy and unbridled capitalism. Almost every coup in the nation’s history was received with a sigh of relief, especially (and ironically) the coups getting rid of whomever the previous welcome coup put in charge. Argentina has a long history of terrible success and beautiful failure. Perón himself is the very embodiment of this.

Of course, unlike Don Belisario, I am not a Latin. Celts are in some ways the distant cousins of the Anglo-Saxons (and not as distant as we like to pretend), who are cousins of the Germans and the Scandinavians and so on. Perhaps that makes us people of the North, though if so only tangentially. The United States, however, is undoubtedly a construct that is Northern and Protestant in its nature. This does not make it inherently bad, but it does mean it has inherent difficulties which must be overcome. Leo XIII put it very well, I think, when he wrote “We highly esteem and love exceedingly the young and vigorous American nation, in which We plainly discern latent forces for the advancement alike of civilisation and of Christianity”. The inherent difficulty is that the characteristics which can prove so conducive to spreading Christianity & civilisation are likewise capable of spreading godless materialism and consumerism.

“Despite my inclinations to the contrary” – that is the telling phrase. It is that typically Christian idea, to accept the limitations of race but restrain oneself from the errors of racism. (We must beware each and every -ism). And for every Americano sneering at the North, there is an Estadounidense who sneers at the laziness and corruption of the South. “Why don’t these people WORK?!?” (The answer: because there are more important things to do: namely, to live). Of course, both are right – and wrong.

And that is the frustration of reality: you will never find your Utopia to live in, except in the realm of the imagination, or – God willing – in the next life. You merely have to find the place where you are comfortable with the accommodations you’re forced to make.

Part of the fun of ‘New World’ places like the United States, Argentina, or South Africa is that you have that mix of different European cultural spirits. Who could doubt, for example, that, at the Cape of Good Hope, the commercial spirit of the Dutch was elevated by the civilisation of the Huguenots? But then the Dutch were already elevated themselves, as even the most cursory survey of that people must conclude. And again, for better or worse, a great deal of Prussia survives in South America. And Portugal, that tiny mother who gave birth to Brazil! A few weeks ago, the Lex column in the Financial Times suggested somewhat whimsically that a possible solution to Portugal’s financial woes would be for it to apply to become a Brazilian state – an idea charming in its idiosyncrasy.

What fun it would have been to be a fly on the wall in Victoria Ocampo’s villa in San Isidro, where Malraux, Stravinsky, Saint-Exupéry, Ortega y Gasset, and even Indira Gandhi were guests. And her journal, Sur, published all sorts of characters: Camus, Borges, even Pierre Drieu La Rochelle.

It’s telling that Doña Victoria studied at the Collège de France and attended lectures at the Sorbonne: Argentina (and America? South Africa? etc.?) is still dependent on a periodic influx from Europe, whether of blood or of intellect or of spirit – and those influxes have ceased because Europe has almost stopped producing any people or ideas or spirit.

But I expect this will change, and, God willing, things will improve for a time until the next great crisis is upon us.

This post was published on Friday, May 13th, 2011 3:20 pm. It has been categorised under Argentina Arts & Culture and been tagged under .
13 May 2011 4:59 pm

“And that is the frustration of reality: you will never find your Utopia to live in, except in the realm of the imagination, or – God willing – in the next life. You merely have to find the place where you are comfortable with the accommodations you’re forced to make.”

How true and wonderfully phrased.


M Gousset van Heel
13 May 2011 5:49 pm

As my name suggests, the Netherlands itself, and not just its rough African colony, has been profoundly influenced by successive waves of French Protestant blood. Labouchere, Crommelin, Baart de la Faille, Taudin Chabot … the number of distinguished Dutch families who proudly display their French origins is disproportionally great.
Thus was the Northern Netherlands softened, and freed from an overly Germanic way of being.

S. Petersen
14 May 2011 6:14 pm

Thoughtful and optimistic. Thank-you.
Perhaps rather than a composite of discreet influences, the peoples you mention can been seen as falling in various places on a scale of the degree to which they accept and enact the tenets of western civilization (as understood, for example by people like Dawson or Medaille). Looking at them that way, it is easier to account for the contradictions within a given people. “Growing into the full flower of a Christian order” can be the dream only of those Argentines, estadounidensos or Afrikaaners who have, through the Church, had the opportunity of understand the relation of time and eternity.

Baron v Hetterscheidt
14 May 2011 8:13 pm

Leaving aside (for the moment) the offensive remarks of Mijnheer Gousset van Heel, may I salute the profound and, equally, useful contribution which Mr Petersen has made to this discussion.
And you, Mr Cusack, deserve the highest possible praise for having brought into being this nearly perfect blog world, this alternative reality to which your readers can repair at the end of a hard day’s work: to dream, to instruct, to advance ideas which your own entries have coaxed into being.
All praise, and long may it survive.

19 May 2011 7:57 pm

Awesome article! Thank you very much, from Argentina.

26 May 2011 2:49 am

Thank you very much, from Argentina. I appreciate your opinions and your interest in my country. People like Montero, Borges, Victoria Ocampo, Bioy Casares, etc. made of this land a sanctuary for Culture and Art. In recent times, there is an official effort to abolish these values, but I hope they will prevail.

R J Stove
29 May 2011 1:20 pm

I found out only this evening that Victoria Ocampo’s friends included Ernest Ansermet, the great conductor, and the author-cum-physicist Ernesto Sabato, who died the other day in Buenos Aires aged 99.

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