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All of this was said before and better by the earliest German Romantics in the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution. It was Germany’s bad luck to fight its way to nationhood in response to the Napoleonic conquests, at a time when its intellectuals largely had abandoned religion in favor of philosophy. The modern notion of self-invention erupts into history through the Cult of Reason. Its prophets were Rousseau and Kant, who were armed by the French Revolution. In Germany, the first salvo against the Cult of Reason came from J. G. Fichte, who argued that Kant’s transcendental reason could only exist in human consciousness, and that this consciousness must arise from nationality. Fichte’s young student Novalis inquired rather how national consciousness might be formed in the first place. Consciousness, he argued long before Heidegger, is time-consciousness, and our sense of ourselves in the present moment was an ecstatic unity of memory and anticipation. But upon what memory might the Germans draw? In his 1799 essay “Christianity or Europe,” Novalis proposed a return to the Christianity of the early Middle Ages, but a Christianity that would ennoble the tales (Märchen) of the past. The disenchanted world which Schiller bemoaned in his poem “The Gods of Greece” would thus become reenchanted (wiederverzaubert) through the fairytale world that underlay medieval Christianity.

That in summary was the Romantic programme, and a very bad idea it turned out to be. Where Schiller and Hölderlin hoped to re-enchant the world with Hellenism, the Romantics succeeded only in dredging up the raw material for a revived paganism. Heinrich Heine warned in 1834 that “if ever the Cross — the taming talisman — were to fracture, then the wildness of the old warriors will clatter to the surface, their mad berserkers’ rage . . . and the old stone gods will raise themselves up out of the forgotten dust and rub the dust of a millennium from their eyes, and Thor with his giant hammer will at last rise up and smash the Gothic domes.” In the hands of Richard Wagner, the Nibelungenlied became an anti-Christian manifesto. In the 19th century Germany brought forth a peerless high culture in literature, music and the sciences, but its national sense of the sacred lost its way in the land of Märchen and was bewitched by the pagan past.

America’s first writer of any stature, Washington Irving, draws a bright line between American and German culture in his allegory “Rip van Winkle”. Irving’s feckless Dutchman wanders into the hills of the Hudson Valley before the American Revolution and finds himself in the middle of a Märchen, one found in a different version in the collection of the Grimm Brothers. He encounters the ghosts of Henry Hudson’s lost crew, and spends the night with drink and ninepins. He awakes and makes his way home unaware that he has slept for 20 years. In the world of “once upon a time” an enchanted traveller may mistake seven days for seven years; what is different in Irving’s story is that Rip wakes up in the modern world of time, in which the Revolution has set a permanent temporal marker. Irving lived in Germany and knew the Romantic sources, but his best-known story is not Romantic, as some critics argue, but rather an ironical reversal of the Romantic view. The American Revolution has disenchanted the world and banished the ghosts of the pre-modern world. Irving’s story thus helps explain the strength and staying power of American culture.
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pbasch
February 1st, 2018
1:02 PM
Matt, your comment on what Anglo-American identity is built on neglects so many things, two of which immediately spring to my mind: the pragmatic tolerance of the New Amsterdam Dutch, and the vicious racism of the Deep South slave lords. The Appalachians were indeed individualistic, but easily swayed by Southern racism. The bandying about of the word "liberty", meaning the right to oppress others, has always been persuasive to whites who feel powerless.

amcdonald
January 5th, 2018
3:01 PM
Vast emptiness, nothing holy ( Lao Tzu). The universe/Nature is inhumane. Scientists say humanity has peaked. Tory membership has shrunk to 70,000. What`s public sacred in the UK is Brexit and voting Labour.

Arnold Ward
January 3rd, 2018
9:01 AM
This appeal to romantic sentiment aka The Bible opens a pandoras box of confused irrationality. A better approach is principle based, i.e how can we create the conditions whereby all the individuals in a society are best able to achieve their full potential? Markets tempered by democracy are the tried and tested route and national sovereignty is the most reliable basis for democracy. There is no "New Nationalism". Belief without evidence is delusion.

Lawrence James
December 26th, 2017
12:12 PM
What makes me suspicious of the promotion of the 'sacred' as an antidote for contemporary woes are its historic stage props: priestcraft, intolerance, fairy stories and the coercion of the sceptical.

Anonymous
December 22nd, 2017
3:12 PM
It was inevitable that the fall of Western Civilization would occur as history attests to the objective truth that man, severed from God and thus relieving himself from his obligation to worship and serve God, simply acts according to his lower, animalistic nature. Human nature does not and will not change although man, playing God, has always believed he can construct all of creation, including and especially, humanity to his own liking. 21st century man has come to the point where he no longer has even a natural survival instinct as he has placed all his faith and trust in both himself and in science to create this idealistic but fruitless life and future as the "new man", created by him and for him. God has other ideas and since He is Creator and ruler over Heaven and earth, man's designs for himself will always be thwarted and his self-destruction inevitable.

Andrew Hamilton
December 19th, 2017
6:12 PM
Spengler gives true intellectual depth and seriousness to the existential issues facing the West. Weaving threads of great philosophers with current trends, he gets to the nub of the catastrophe and provides a way forward.

Pan Cogito
December 10th, 2017
4:12 AM
@Alan Vainman Do not dispense the f-word before trying the perfect fit it makes for you. You no more understand Trump than you do, it appears, the greater mysteries of life. God--and you may translate it as "the Energy of the Universe," the Great Wheel of Karma or whatever--often chooses a broken vessel to carry the most precious nectar. Maybe Spengler would consent to write an essay titled "The music and the men," illuminating for fool vainmen what shits the vessels we know as Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner and Chopin were and why their music attained the highest degree of luminosity.

Surak
December 5th, 2017
10:12 PM
Anonymous: America is indeed experiencing a wave of fascism, but it is not at the hands of the nationalists. It is at the hands of ANTIFA, BLM, and university students, faculty, and staff beating to a pulp, or attempting to murder, those people who believe that nations are allowed to have borders. What name would you apply to the belief system that commanded the decapitation of a British policeman, and the systematic rape of a continent's women? AnonymousHegelman: Most of the world's sacred systems prohibit murder. Only one religion's scripture commands the murder of all non-believers.

Rick Groves
December 5th, 2017
3:12 PM
In America, enlightenment values used to be held sacred. This was the key differentiating point about America. It was not based on arbitrary lines on a map nor wrongly held ideas about the superiority of one's own tribe. It was an idea of a polity held together by the commitment to liberty and justice. Cultural practices evolve by their nature. That's what they are and what they do. Holding cultures sacred is misguided and destined to create conflict as that inevitable evolution pushes forward. The path forward is not through embracing the arbitrary and superficial and trying to entrench and protect it. It is finding core, deep values that benefit all peoples and following those ideas where they lead us.

AnonymousHegelman
December 5th, 2017
9:12 AM
When people talk of the sacred, they usually mean murder. All of us have a sense of the sacred. We just differ as to what precisely.

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