I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”
Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:
“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”
Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one. But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw what has come about in this country and other “developed” (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”
What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:
“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”
At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”
We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.