A splendidly received and widely commented debut of a young historian of ideas
The death of God affected all of Europe, eliciting a different response amongst the na- tions with traditions of Roman civilisation than it did among the Germans and Russians.
The former did not greet this event as joyful news. Because of it, their lifestyle, their principles and forms of life, the sensitivity which moulded their saints, their knights, kings, and artists, ceased to be self-evident. The realisation that Providence was not watching over them sowed anxiety in their souls. This unease arose from the fact that now, it seemed, the greatness of which Latin civilisation was constituted was based on no unshakable metaphysical foundations, such as could never be destroyed by anyone. The order that heretofore prevailed amongst them proved historical, that is to say fragile, crumbling. They gazed uneasily at the ruins of Rome, which now no longer were mon- uments of an ancient glory that still endured, but evidence of the fact that the lives of nations and empires were fleeting, and that not much at all is needed in order to interrupt them. By some miracle, the civilisation that had been trodden underfoot by barbarian hordes had once sprung to life again. But now, everyone was learning that it could disappear once more– that it was indeed a miracle that it had emerged from the dense fog of past history in the first place. The magnitude of the effort that it cost to rebuild it did not constitute any guarantee that such huge efforts were not in vain. In the church there was no longer any God. But even without God – the church was beautiful.
The news that God was dead found a different reception in the North. There, it had long been intuited; people had readied themselves for it. No forms of human life were anchored in any foundation firmer than history; there are no values capable of subduing time. Just as epochs change, so does human nature. Everyone was now conscious of the fact that nothing stood in the way of the transformation of man. Prohi- bition and taboo are mere illusions; the world, it was acknowledged, can be made over. The heavens are empty. Since Heaven does not exist, the path is free for the creation of paradise on earth. It was believed that the transformation of the world and man lies in man’s power. The last words of this conviction were Nazism and Bolshevism.
The frontiers of Roman and Catholic conquest define the border between reactionary nihilism and its revolutionary counterpart. The first of these, Mediterranean nihilism, is focussed on the past, in which history has revealed what is most valuable in man and his works. The Roman nations sought measure in the greatness of their history. Northern nihilism boldly looked toward the future; for it, history imposes no obligations, only burdens. It was not seen as a reserve of examples and lessons, but rather as ballast that impedes freedom of movement. The Northern nihilist does not wish to learn from history, or study the principles, from which developed the conditions that fostered the flowering of humanity. He wish- es to free himself from it. He doesn’t want to match, to equal, greatness, for he intends to create the new. Revolutionary nihilists are not interested in man as something shaped by centuries of experience – centuries of subtle pressure, deepened by Catholicism, by an entire sheaf of benevolent influences; they are not interested in the type of person who appears in the portraits of Titian – of whom Eugenio d’Ors once said that man was never closer to superman than he is there. Rather, they wish to transform human nature themselves, without a view toward anything that might increase the happiness of humanity. Although God had disappeared, the Mediterranean nihilist wished to set upon the altar neither Race, nor Caste, nor State, nor Man. The throne remains empty, awaiting His return. The Northern nihilist took the situation in hand with- out the slightest scruple. It adored the German nation, the proletariat, or man himself, who – so these nihilists would have it – can do anything, including taking the world apart in painstaking detail and transform- ing human nature in accordance with his own plan. The latest incarnation of revolutionary nihilism – con- temporary liberalism, a type of liberalism such as had never before existed among the Latin nations –has founded the Church of the individual. The individual person, and his each and every desire, have become sacrosanct, and the setting up of boundaries to his whim is now blasphemy.
excerpt translated by Charles S. Kraszewski
A splendidly received and widely commented debut of a young historian of ideas
Zouaves of the Vacuum is Krzysztof Tysz- ka-Drozdowski’s first book. The author, born in 1991, is associated with the University of Warsaw. His work has appeared in the conservative journal Arcana, as well as in Political Theology.
This debut volume is made up of eight essays, which in the main are portraits of various artists sketched in the margins of interpretations of their works. The main focus is on French writers, chiefly Henry de Montherlant, with Maurice Barrès and Charles Maurras being recurrent figures. Poland is represented by Henryk Sienkiewicz. These are the eponymous ‘zouaves of the vacuum’. For they have encountered contemporary nihilism; they knew of the death of God, and they ‘waited in expectation of His return’. They did not succumb to the temptation of setting the ‘idols’ of race, ethnicity or caste upon the abandoned altars. Revolutionary radicalism being foreign to their natures, they felt themselves to be the inheritors of dying Europe: Latin, Mediterranean, Roman Europe. They were both patriots and Europeans, manifesting a paradoxical attitude, which Tyszka-Drozdowski reconstructs and comments upon.
This multiple portrait of the ‘zouaves of the vacuum’ is the main, yet not the only, theme of the book. It is allied to attempts toward a critical characterisation of the Northern nations, to reflections on history and politics, to an analysis of dandyism, to an apologia for classicism, and to descriptions of the oeuvre of El Greco.
Zouaves of the Vacuum oscillates between essay and manifesto. The spirit of the essay can be seen in its broad and not self-evident erudition, the digressive ease with which the author weaves together various strands, and finally his aphoristic language, which flashes at times with great beauty. (For one example: ‘When our ideals end in catastrophe, we reject them out of cowardice. When they triumph, we reject them out of delicacy’.) The manifesto can be seen in the clarity of the solutions offered, the serious passion with which the author sets them before us, as well as in his appeal to his contemporaries to imitate the greatness exemplified by the heroes of his book.
Zouaves of the Vacuum is vibrant proof that the superb tradition of Polish essay writing is alive and well, enduringly strong, and able to offer us such marvellous, thought-provoking books.
Maciej Urbanowski, translated by Charles S. Kraszewski
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