May 22, 2009


Mortal Remains: The wisdom and folly in Albert Jay Nock’s anti-statism (JONAH GOLDBERG, 5/04/09, National Review)

There is a stock character in fiction, particularly science fiction, who might be called the Immortal. Whether he be vampire or angel, alien or just some everyman blessed — or cursed — with Methuselah-like longevity, certain traits define the Immortal. He is polite, generous, even kind, but also resigned to the fact that life is often none of these things. Sometimes he is dismissive or condescending, or perhaps bemusedly indulgent of men’s political or ideological passions, the way old professors relate to freshmen who insist upon the novelty of their ideas and the audacity of their fervor. He’s seen it all before, maybe done it himself when he was a younger man, and he knows deep in the subterranean reservoirs of his soul that there is indeed nothing new under the sun. His own passions are more like cultivated tastes, hard-learned lessons formed by trial and error over many decades. He is disgusted by harmful stupidity but reluctant to correct what can only be gleaned from firsthand experience. He understands Edmund Burke’s insight that “example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.” [...]

A large part of Nock’s mystique stems from the fact that he was mysterious, and deliberately so. He wore a cape, thought as well of Belgium as he did of America, knew nearly everything but pretended that he didn’t read the newspaper (William F. Buckley Jr. recounted how his father once stumbled on the proudly anti-newspaper Nock sitting on the floor poring over the Sunday papers). Nock’s memoirs say nothing about his failed marriage or neglected children and do not disclose his parents’ names or even mention that he played minor-league baseball. The joke at The Freeman was that the only way he could be contacted was to leave a note under a certain rock in Central Park.

He wrote a few books, including biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Rabelais. His most famous and successful works were Our Enemy the State and Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. But he was not prolific. As Chodorov put it, he “had a rare gift of editing his ideas so that he wrote only when he had something to say and he said it with dispatch.”

There is something almost hypnotic about Nock’s prose. When the hypnotist first waves the pocket watch in front of your eyes, there’s a simplicity to the ritual that is almost insulting: The swaying of this trinket is going to bewitch me? And yet moments, or in this case pages, later you are ensorceled. Nock, observed H. L. Mencken, “thinks in charming rhythm. There is never any cacophony in his sentences as there is never any muddling in his ideas. It is accurate, it is well ordered, and above all, it is charming.”

This is not, first and foremost, an observation about his gifts as a writer. To be sure, there are greater writers with even more timeless prose. Rather, Nock’s prose conveys a sense of timelessness. His motto was “See the world as it is,” and for Nock the world is, in the most fundamental sense, unchanging. In short, Nock writes like an Immortal, a traveler who has seen it all before. And I do not mean this in the way we say “the immortal Socrates.” Nock would be the first to admit that there were few new ideas in his writing. He took pride in the fact that he was merely reminding those willing to be reminded that whatever is fashionable and new in the ideas of men is little more than a rebranding effort. We may change the wardrobe of humanity, but not its nature. And yet, to Nock’s exasperation, humanity’s innate folly is the belief that the clothes will somehow remake the man.

Nock's most profound insight is the following:
Burke touches [the] matter of patriotism with a searching phrase. 'For us to love our country,' he said, 'our country ought to be lovely.' I have sometimes thought that here may be the rock on which Western civilization will finally shatter itself. Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

But there's a corollary to his observation about the basic immutability of ideas that the Right too often misses because reactionary. It is precisely because you can get people to buy your old ideas just by rebranding them that the effort is worthwhile.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 22, 2009 9:40 AM
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