III

François-René de Chateaubriand understood the challenges posed by modernity as well as anyone. He, like myself and other traditionalists, desperately clung to the past, but with decidedly mixed results.

Ancient smiling Italy offered me her host of masterpieces. With what holy and poetic awe I wandered among those vast edifices consecrated by art to religion! What a labyrinth of columns! What a train of arches and vaults! How beautiful are the sounds we hear among the domes, like the sigh of Ocean waves, the murmur of forest winds, or the voice of God in his Temple! The architect builds, so to speak, with the poet’s ideas and makes them tangible to the senses. But what had I learned thus far with so much effort? Nothing certain among the ancients; nothing beautiful among the moderns. The past and the present are two unfinished statues: the one has been rescued, all mutilated, from the ruin of the ages; the other has not yet been perfected by the future.

Doing his best to perfect the future, in the words of the late and much-lamented Roberto Calasso, Chateaubriand “sought to saturate the psyche in a new liquid. Nameless sunsets, misty cataracts, hollow echoes. A burnish of aesthetic retreat, a lining of death, a claustral cobweb, heather invincible among ancient slabs of stone,” all in the service of “cultivating and nurturing the past in the new age.” Nothing he did, however could shake what he diagnosed as mal du siècle, the “sickness of the century,” an overwhelming sense of melancholia and world-weariness that tormented the younger generations of the Romantic era, as the inhuman forces of modernity, efficiency, and perpetual revolution ominously hoved into view.

Following in Chateaubriand’s footsteps was Alfred de Musset, author of La Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836), who disturbingly described the “the present, the spirit of the time, the angel of the twilight which is neither night nor day; they found him seated on a lime-sack filled with bones, clad in the mantle of egoism, and shivering in terrible cold. The anguish of death entered into the soul at the sight of that specter, half mummy and half foetus” — a fitting mascot for our times, simultaneously etiolated and infantile, yet never lacking in self-regard. The virtuoso poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi, for his part, perceived a faint flicker of something like hope: “although all things great and beautiful have been extinguished from the world, our inclinations toward them remains. Though we may be denied these things, nothing has or ever could stop us from wanting them. Young people have not lost that longing which drives them to seek a life for themselves and to scorn nothingness and monotony.” These days we cannot rely even on that vital instinct, as nothingness and monotony seem to be the chief exports of our politico-media-culturo-pharmaceutical-economic industrial complex. Yet Chateaubriand was still correct in describing the past and future as unfinished statues. It is still possible to cultivate and nurture the past so that we may cultivate and nurture the future, in defiance of the shadow cast by Musset’s grotesque ange du crépuscule.

One day, I hope, it will be possible for me to visit the Torlonia Marbles in person. I will seek out the portrait of Euthydemus of Bactria, with his wrinkled face, knobbled nose, and frowning mouth, and the famous bust of the baldpate Old Man of Otricoli, nobler than Euthydemus but even more wracked by age, with deep-set folds of skin around his glazed-over eyes. Other immortal masterpieces will be there — the scowling, brutal likeness of Caracalla, the horrific full-length figure of the satyr Marsyas (an unfortunate early martyr to the principle of free speech) being flayed alive by Apollo, and the serene bust of Livia, replete with waving locks and a delicate veil. But there is one piece I have always wanted to see in person, No. 33 in the recent exhibition, the Unfinished Statue of a Dacian Prisoner. Unearthed during an 1859 excavation at 46 Via del Governo Vecchio — in ancient Roman times the site of a sculptural workshop, now home to “Madame Gu’s Club and Restaurant in a Yacht,” where I can’t imagine being caught dead — the work dates from the Trajanic era, and depicts a heavily bearded, hulking barbarian, defeated but subtly defiant, directing his mournful gaze towards the ground. It is a work of surprising and incomparable dignity. The right hand above the Dacian’s wrist has disappeared, the left fingers are missing, and there are chisel marks all over the Luna marble slab from which the statue never quite emerged during its abortive production. And yet here it is, still extant in the 21st century, having survived the accident of it artistic stillbirth and the innumerable invasions, conflagrations, earthquakes, and other fickle forces of man, nature, and chance that followed over the centuries.

Source: The American Spectator

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