November 27, 2004


The Happy Hater (Franklin Foer, 11.24.04, New Republic)

A misanthropic character, who considered Western civilization to be on a road to perdition, [Albert Jay Nock] viewed himself an atavistic figure from premodern times and occasionally wore a cape to symbolize his preference for the past. This sartorial detail also had the intended effect of enshrouding him in mysteriousness. During a stint as editor of the Freeman, he declined to give his colleagues his home address or to reveal more substantive details about himself. Van Wyck Brooks recounted a rumor that contacting Nock required leaving a note under a rock in Central Park. None of his New York friends or colleagues knew that Nock had spent decades as an Episcopal priest or that he had abandoned his wife and children. Had they read his Memoirs they would not have come to know these facts either.

While most conservatives have willfully suppressed any memory of Nock, the godfather has been gracious in his treatment of him. In a lecture in 1999, Buckley recounted, "I began reading Albert Jay Nock, from whom I imbibed deeply the anti-statist tradition which he accepted, celebrated, and enhanced." Buckley hadn't just known Nock from his oeuvre. During the early forties, Nock regularly lunched with Buckley's father at the family's estate, delivering sweeping pronouncements about civilization's decay. A good portion of the early National Review staff looked upon Nock with similar reverence.

Given the noisy victory dance Christian conservatives are now performing, it is hard to imagine that they are part of a movement that Nock helped launch. But, at its birth, the conservative movement looked a lot more like Randolph Bourne than Ralph Reed--a bit anarchist, somewhat bohemian, occasionally blasphemous, and thoroughly misanthropic. Nock's Memoirs exudes these qualities and has another charming trait: It may be the most splenetic work in all of American literature.

Memoirs of a Superfluous Man begins with an advertisement against itself. Nock tells his readers that he "led a singularly uneventful life"--an announcement that doesn't portend the massive egotism and arrogance to come. From the start, the book fails miserably as memoir. Just as he refused to give colleagues his address, he resists supplying readers with the most basic data. He lives in towns without names, cavorts with nameless friends in unspecified years. As a self-described anarchist, he stays true to himself and resists convention. The book abandons all pretenses to chronological storytelling and melts into a pot of digressions. But Memoirs isn't really memoir at all. It resides in the canon of elitist misanthropy--a genre that flourished in the interwar period in the angry writings of H.L. Mencken, Ralph Adams Cram, and, to an extent, Jose Ortega y Gasset.

Nock began his journalistic career as muckraker, working along side Lincoln Steffens. But, like Mencken and Cram, he grew wildly disillusioned with the secular faith of the progressive era. When he looked at the changes of the early twentieth century, the embrace of the democratic ideal and the rise of mass culture, he recoiled in horror. Society was in the midst of what he described as "rebarbarisation." It was "increasingly repulsive and degrading." He lamented, for instance, that the expansion of literacy and schooling had "enabled mediocrity and submediocrity to run rampant." And the state, he argued, had turned into "a pliant organ of such segments of the Neolithic mass as can get at it."

The last phrase holds the key to Nock's view--the Neolithic mass. Society, he believed, included both humans and barbarians suffering from delusions of grandeur. These barbarians hadn't evolved to a state that could be properly described as human. But in the twentieth century, they had broken through the gates. Nock responded to this incursion with seemingly infinite haughtiness. "One can hate human beings, at least I could--I hated a lot of them when that is what I thought they were--but one can't hate subhuman creatures or be contemptuous of them, wish them ill, regard them unkindly."

Nock can't easily be slipped into a shelf on the taxonomical table of American ideology. He gets described in turns as an anarchist, anarchocapitalist, and libertarian. His biographer Michael Wreszin places him squarely in the anarchist camp. (Wreszin also wrote a superb biography of Dwight Macdonald, another devotee of Nock's work.) Indeed, he wrote a book called Our Enemy, the State. When Nock summed up his political philosophy, it sounded strikingly similar to the objectivism of Ayn Rand. "I found myself settled in convictions which I suppose must be summed up as an intelligent selfishness, intelligent, egoism, intelligent hedonism." But unlike Rand and her disciples, this celebration of selfishness didn't lead him to laissez faire economics. In fact, he despised modern society's embrace of "economism" and rampant materialism. "Such values," he wrote, "cannot build a [society] which is lovely." In end, he is a classic conservative, who views the values of the past as superior to those of the present.

Mr. Foer seems to have misread Nock and misunderstood Christianity, conservatism, and America--none hate men, rather finding great humor (not to mention the only insightful political philosophy) in Man's Fallen nature and his inability to be human, and taking great pleasure in the fact that Man nonetheless struggles mightily to overcome his limitations, sometimes even succeeding. Mr. Foer's confusion about how you could have such a dim view of humanity but still be happy is yet another illustration that all humor is conservative.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 27, 2004 7:00 AM

Mr. Foer seems to have misread Nock and misunderstood Christianity, conservatism, and America

It's worth keeping in mind, however, that Nock was an atheist.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at November 27, 2004 5:36 PM


He was a minister.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2004 6:28 PM

all humor is conservative.

And all ham sandwiches are Jewish.

Posted by: Social Scientist at November 27, 2004 11:41 PM

No, but the love of most Jews for ham is proof of the point.

Posted by: oj at November 27, 2004 11:51 PM

And the love of the people for the humor of Albert Jay Nock over that of Chaplin, The Marx Brothers, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor, is, too.

Posted by: Social Scientist at November 28, 2004 8:12 AM