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Rosalind Murray on Barbarization

Rosalind Murray On Barbarization

Rosalind Murray (1890 – 1967) was the daughter of the Oxford classicist Gilbert Murray, who sensing early his daughter’s talent encouraged her to write. She published a first novel, The Leading Note, in 1910. In 1913 Murray became the wife of Arnold Toynbee, bearing him three sons. She divorced Toynbee in 1946, thirteen years after her conversion to Catholicism. No one today knows Murray’s name but in her lifetime she wrote steadily, sustained an audience, and garnered the attention of literary critics. In her later career she sidelined herself as a fiction-writer and devoted her productivity to religious non-fiction. She produced the first fruit of this authorial metamorphosis in 1939 under the heavily laden title The Good Pagan’s Failure. No doubt but that the coinage of “the Good Pagan” implies close personal relations, touching on both her father and her husband, but the book never mentions either. In it, rather, the formula denotes the modern, upper-class humanist whose sincere good intentions center on building up a global regime of justice and equality, but who, at the same time, rejects any concept of God and assumes a stance, sometimes dissimulated, that is hostile to religion. Such people appear as early as the Eighteenth Century. They refer to their advent as Enlightenment, which materializes in 1793 as the iconic Guillotine. Their heirs in later centuries have adopted, variously, such labels as Liberal, Progressive, Socialist, or Communist. Their failure consists in the irony that acquiring total control over the institutions and using them to carry out their policies they have by no means improved the human situation. They have largely torn down civilization and immiserated millions. When The Good Pagan’s Failure first appeared, Murray could point to the Great War as evidence for her thesis; revising the text in the early 1950s, she could point to another global conflict, the subsequent and dire Cold War, and many signs of the degeneration of Western society.

The Good Pagan’s Failure belongs in a genre consolidated by the conservative critics of modernity, especially those who assume a Catholic perspective, as do Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, Henri de Lubac, and Gabriel Marcel. The cognoscenti will also detect in Murray’s Weltanschauung echoes of José Ortega y Gasset, whose influence on the final section of her study marks itself as indubitable. This spotting of sources by no means suggests a lack of originality, however. It attests, on the contrary, to Murray’s education both broad and deep, her enduring concern for the sinfulness of the modern condition, and her religious conviction, to which she adds the intense personal discoveries that originate in her highly conscious experiences of life – of her milieu in youth and of her thirty-three years of marriage. Whereas in Ortega’s prose the reader will notice a degree of intellectual detachment from the distorted social scene under description; in Murray’s prose, by contrast, he will remark her uncompromising involvement in a moral clash between irreconcilable points of view. Nor does she abstain from applying a stark moral terminology where justified. Wickedness redoubles itself when it assumes the disguise of charity and offers a suave smile. The duty falls then on the Christian conscience to rebuke it, but an incumbency of clear explanation also exerts its claim. With respect to sincerity, whether the Good Pagan’s or anyone else’s, it can never solely vindicate any position. Murray divides The Good Pagan’s Failure into three parts: “Christian and Pagan”; “The United Front”; and “Barbarization.”

The section on “Christian and Pagan” defines basic terms, explores attitudes, provides historical context, and establishes important differences. The first and most important of these differences expresses itself as a dichotomy of opinion concerning religion. That two large groups – one of which takes religion as, in the Marxian phrase, “the opium of the people,” and the other of which holds as sacred “the freedom with which Christ has made us free” – strikes Murray as “bewildering to contemplate.” The opposing views betoken a drastic polarization of the society. Of the former view, Murray writes that “it extends far beyond the ranks of loyal Marxists,” ensconcing itself, in fact, “as the generally accepted orthodoxy among ‘enlightened’ intellectuals.” In a personal aside, she adds how “those among us who have grown up in such circles will have imbibed it from infancy, without bitterness or fanatical abhorrence, but as a platitude, a chose jugée”; and “we can see that the ‘thing judged’ was a bad thing.” It occurs to Murray that the denouncers of religion, especially of Christianity, base their antipathy on a “bogey.” They simplify and caricature; they “take examples of religious corruption as religion.” For the enlightened, “religion stands for illusion and limitation, a refusal to face the truth, a shirking of natural responsibility, a narrowing and foreshortening of the horizon, a deliberate attempt to escape reality.” From the perspective of the believer, it is rigidified rationalism that narrows the horizon. Utility provides only a short-term outlook, and it encourages impulse and egocentricity, such that “dissociated ideas, emotions, sense impressions are almost deliberately cultivated at the expense of continuous or long-distance considerations.”

Murray contends that Western Civilization never fully lived up to the title of Christian and that it ceased to be Christian in any significant way when the anthropocentric view, or humanism, replaced the theocentric view, which, however, included an anthropology much richer than that deployed under humanism or socialism or the progressive order. The advocate of militant modernity will claim that Christianity has failed because of its intrinsic defects. Whatever afflicts society today, issues in his eyes from the essential inadequacy of the religious view of existence. The time thus presents itself as replete for the undertaking of the total project of modernity, which will demonstrate at last the marvelous perfectibility of the human being. Murray acknowledges, with no little subtlety, that indeed the age has witnessed “a failure of the half-established Christian culture,” but the waning of the Christian portion coincides with the waxing of the Pagan portion, which gained predominance two centuries ago at least and now governs ubiquitously and absolutely. If the West had disavowed the Gospel in a distant yesteryear, and if people saw about them pervasive failure, they could hardly place blame on the premises they had long since rejected. The search for a cause must direct itself elsewhere, toward the long-prevailing substitute premises. Murray puts in play one other consideration: Failure tends to persist; failure never vanishes instantaneously, but it lingers in a sickly way. “Our case is not,” she argues, “that because the good Pagan civilization has now failed it is therefore rightly finished, but rather that, in the whole manner of its failing, the falsity of its elements are revealed.” That for which the time makes itself replete is the post mortem examination of modernity, which has entered the phase of its extended morbidity. As the Good Pagan furnishes the type of modernity, and as the reconstruction of society on egalitarian lines stands rooted in his premises, he makes for a necessary beginning of that examination.

Murray describes the Good Pagan with admirable fairness. He exhibits, she writes, “an extreme sensitiveness to all forms of suffering” and “an extreme reluctance to pass moral judgment.” The contemporary perspective reveals, however, the propensity to distortion inherent in these attitudes, making Murray prescient. The Good Pagan deserves the epithet of “the most perfected ‘natural man’” and this despite the fact of his upper-class or even aristocratic affiliation. “His values being all ‘relation-to-man’ values,” Murray writes, the Good Pagan “is at his best in purely human relations,” and yet if one spoke to him in a language unfamiliar, such as that of belief, he would find himself abruptly disoriented, if not indignant. “He cannot breathe another atmosphere; but there, on his own ground, he is supreme.” While the Good Pagan behaves in a more or less gentlemanly way, his mission disqualifies itself from any chivalrousness. Murray would contrast a medieval attitude with a modern one. Medieval people lived an earthly life; they acknowledged their allegiance to their secular governors. For the medieval mind, however, “there is no question at all of equal balance between a divine and human allegiance.” The Grail Knight “serves Arthur as earthly king, but neither he nor Arthur would suppose such earthly kingship should compete with God.” For the Good Pagan and for his civilization, Murray asserts, “earthly allegiance to the Human Race, to Man as ultimate, has supplanted Divine allegiance”; and nowadays “it is Man that arbitrates, Man that chooses what of God’s things may be of use to him.” In service to the abstract “Man,” whose traits are entirely proletarian, the Good Pagan thus naturalizes himself, but Murray employs the term in the pejorative, implying materialization, vulgarization, and bestialization.

The displacement of the divine and the substitution of the human perpetrate themselves as a downward motion. This downward motion characterizes modernity generally speaking. “The barbarization of life,” Murray writes, “is essentially the supplanting of higher, less tangible values, by solider, more immediate returns,” a process that “has been intensified recently by the increased mechanization of life… but it is in its essence only the same process as the transference of value from God to Man.” Swiftly enough this movement accelerates; it takes on an “aggressive” mood. The displacement debouches, at last, in “equalitarian disintegration.” In his earlier historical iteration, the Good Pagan adhered to a philosophical disposition. In the modern world, as Murray sees it in the years just after World War Two, philosophy has yielded to science, and science to a brand of scientism in thrall to technique. “The philosopher dethroned God, in favour of Sovereign Man, the scientists dethroned Man in favour of Animal Nature, and finally even the animal is now yielding to the Machine,” Murray writes. This shrinking away of the transcendental awareness entails the disappearance of redemption – or rather of the notion of redemption. He who knows nothing of redemption will hardly seek it although the Action of Grace works perpetually no matter his ignorance. When men seek not redemption, moreover, they invariably come in conflict with inhibition and prohibition. Murray cites the “alarming increase in crimes of violence, more especially among the young, [that] has admittedly accompanied the benefits of the Welfare State.” The Welfare State truckles to the egalitarian impulse; it redistributes wealth, but that redistribution, far from satisfying resentment, aggravates it. Rather than love of the neighbor welfare-ism incites envy of the neighbor, which can escalate to vile deeds.

Under the moniker of “The United Front,” Murray explores the political rhetoric – and the major political technique – of the Good Pagan’s ever-insinuating regime. Like the Hegelian Juggernaut, or dialectic, the progressive campaign insists relentlessly on compromise. It does so through the age-old and un-Christian gesture of offering up before the intransigent party some figure sufficiently reprehensible that in common cause or as a “United Front” the otherwise opposite factions will join themselves to combat and eliminate it. This figure need not be a person although it often is; it need only be a phenomenon whether social or political, something that, in the phrase, cannot stand or that poses an existential threat. Union, of course, requires compromise. As for the direction of compromise – the Good Pagan never proposes that he should move some distance toward the believer, but only ever that the believer should move some distance toward him. Any hesitancy on the part of the believer triggers in the Good Pagan his righteous indignation. Such indignation reveals the Good Pagan’s actual assessment of his opponent. He concedes no equality of conscience, but regards the opponent as inferior to himself and as bound a priori to agree with him. As Murray writes, the Good Pagan “looks on the Christian’s refusal to join with him as arbitrary and unreasonable and discourteous.” For Murray, compromise always entails something dubious. The “United Front” against the Axis empowered the Soviet Union and led straight from victory over the Reich to the Cold War and the enslavement of Eastern Europe. Attempts by half-hearted Christians to effectuate rapprochement with the anti-religious result in a watered-down pseudo-Christianity that does no one any good.

“In dealing with this ‘dilutionism’ as our opponent,” Murray writes, “we are not forgetting the continued existence, in many quarters, of real and militant anti-religious feeling; that this continues always underneath the various forms of united front advances, the world situation leaves no room for doubt.” Dilutionism presents a grave danger nevertheless. The Good Pagan suffers from the psychological need to witness others renouncing their principles. The Good Pagan designs “to bring Christianity into a form acceptable to the Pagan.” However gentlemanly his self-presentation, however ample his words of welcome, the germ of the show-trial contaminates the Good Pagan’s demeanor. He offers temptation, in the unuttered knowledge, no doubt, that suckers are in no short supply. Murray argues that too many self-proclaimed Christians readily take up temptation under the false idea that they make only a minor concession in the revered common cause. They willingly concede in part because they have already given up on the existence of an implacable Truth. That is, they have accepted the contradictory relativism of the liberal mentality. “We shall find,” Murray writes, “that the concept of ‘objective truth’ is incomprehensible to the modern agnostic; he will say that he appreciates our position and only wants us to be reasonable, but the fact is that he does not understand in the least.” Notice that this segment of Murray’s exposition echoes her earlier description of the anti-religious frame of mind as one of reduced horizons.

The concept of mental involution, of reduced intellectual horizons, plays a recurrent role in the third and final part of The Good Pagan’s Failure – “Barbarization.” In Murray’s vision, barbarization overlaps greatly with the Progressive’s imposition egalitarianism and what calls itself democracy, but really only amounts to mob rule, on a formerly hierarchic society. In fact, the three categories – barbarization, egalitarianism, and democracy – overlap in so great a degree that percipience might as well regard them as one and the same, as mere aspects of a singular phenomenon. What lies at the root of this singular phenomenon? Early in the third part of her book, Murray invokes “the outcast,” who will soon morph into the “proletariat.” She assembles a set of instances to illustrate what she means by her locution. A class of people exists whose members have, for different reasons, never accommodated themselves to the civilized order and who live out their lives in an anxious and disorganized way. “There have always been certain sections of society whose hold on existence was precarious, casual labourers, unemployables, tribes on the North-West Frontier of India, Balkan brigands.” The persistence of such groups suggested the untenable character of the Good Pagan’s conviction that humanity in toto was perfectible. He tended to ignore them. When they asserted themselves, especially within the boundaries of the civilized order, he sought excuses for them and devised new programs to equalize them with all others by reforming them. This proved a fatal mistake and produced consequences that the two world wars exacerbated, but did not create. Insecurity figures a prominent trait of the outcast or proletarian, as does an extreme short-term view. The colossal displacements of the wars, revolutions, and economic crashes that shook Western civilization in the Twentieth Century promoted a like insecurity and a like proneness to the short-term view among millions.

Combined with the Good Pagan’s denigration of received morality, these developments made for a disaster. “Increasingly,” Murray writes, “the emphasis is on here and now; the ‘here’ is smaller and the ‘now’ more fleeting.” The displaced person asks, “Why deprive [myself] of an immediate pleasure in a view of a future that may never come?” Even against a background of improvements in material amenity, people feel that “they [do] not enjoy the advantages to which they [are] entitled.” The “grievance” culture appears, in another manifestation democracy. The aggrieved aggregate quite naturally, with the complaint of one exacerbating the complaint of all others and vice versa. For Murray the exalted d-word is thoroughly mendacious. She defines it as: “The rule of the crowd, of the mob, nothing more, nothing less; not, be it noted, social justice, not fair play for the underdog, but just mob-rule.” The prevalence of la foule both stems from and reactivates another trend of the modern faux ordre. Murray remarks how “the principle of control has shifted gradually from a quality to a quantity standard… Numbers qua numbers have become decisive.” She cites the extension of suffrage as an instance of the quantity standard: “It is easily arguable that the old property qualification for voting was faulty”; after all, “a man does not become wise nor a good politician by owning something.” On the other hand, “the fact that he owns nothing does not make him wise either.” When the crowd votes, it votes on its grievance-motive and it votes as a crowd. Everything must cater to the milling millions. “Under the rule of the crowd it is crowd opinion which forms the ideas of the modern world, and the crowd is, in essence, undifferentiated, without quality, without merit or excellence.”

Ortega and Marcel discuss the role of radio in the shaping (or is it the un-shaping) of the modern shapeless masses. Murray turns her attention to cinema. “No film can be produced profitably,” she writes, “unless [in Britain] it appeals to about two million people, yet the cinema has more cultural influence than any other form of art.” In a formulation that will strike home with many today, Murray adds that, “those of us who belong to the old culture are obliged, if we go to the cinema, to see what the crowd wants to be seen.” The same “democratic” principle operates “to a lesser degree, [in] the theatre and the daily press.” Everywhere the critical eye observes “a progressive foreshortening of vision, a progressive shrinking of responsibility, progressive insistence on material value in an ever-narrowing and more limited sense.” Crude labels take over from an inheritance of subtle distinctions. Passions replace thought. And passions converge. Education meanwhile becomes pure indoctrination while festive occasions give way to crass spectacle. Murray reports that all teenage girls want to ogle Elvis Presley when he comes to London and wiggles his pelvis; and that his performances provoke his hysterical female audience to collective swooning. One of her terms for modern mass culture, “subhuman,” surely applies to such behavior. The “subhuman” is what one gets when one “has rejected superhuman guidance.”

Murray has tried to give the Good Pagan his due. In her concluding paragraphs, however, she cannot forebear to condemn him – for having put his intentions above his critical foresight and for the devastating reverberations of that initial self-swindle. “The reforms, the whole position of the Pagan presuppose the material nature of the human beast; they assume that purely animal well-being can, in the end, completely satisfy him; it is our contention that the whole development of our civilization disproves that theory.” The Good Pagan’s hypocrisy, which entangles itself with his arrogance and his ideological blindness to reality, stands revealed in the inevitable reversal of his projected goals. The socialist scheme, with its deadly materialistic presumption and its ardent hatred of religion, especially of the Christian religion, far from exalting man, has dehumanized man, fixing him as a cog in the Moloch-like machine of mass society. Most wickedly, “the Good Pagan has no compunction in destroying, where he can, the Love of God.” He cannot really destroy the Love of God, but, as in the case of redemption, he can obliterate the concept of it. Consider in this light the ferocious censoriousness of the mass media and public institutions in 2020, the attempts to destroy heterodoxy, and the relentless vilification of everything and everyone of a traditional orientation. Like Ortega and Marcel, Murray saw with prophetic vision what the trends of her time would yield. The reader of The Good Pagan’s Failure owes it to Murray to believe her argument that, already in 1939, when the book first appeared, or in 1962 when the revised version came out, things were as bad as she portrays them – that the world found itself in an acute crisis that threatened the humanity of human beings. And not simply in the looming war. How different would the situation be today if people had seen with Murray’s eyes, or Ortega’s, or Marcel’s in their day?

Purely Personal. For some years a profound reluctance to employ the first in my writing person has gripped me. Prose ought to address its topic, not the obtruding presence of its composer. But prose can hardly escape expressing its author’s presence. His prejudices and convictions must present themselves in his arguments, observations, and in his choice of vocabulary. Even if an exposition should rigorously exclude the egocentric pronoun, everyone knows whence that exposition derives. I therefore lift my rule in order to proffer some remarks that are other than purely intellectual, other than an attempt (and only ever that) to put in order thoughts that have been provoked by my reading of books and my application of their insights to our prevailing – and dire and depressing – situation. Recently I have re-read José Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses and read for the first time Gabriel Marcel’s Man versus Mass Society. In a deeper context, I have been involved with the Russian thinker Nicolas Berdyaev for two or three years – whose view has altered mine in significant ways. The thought of these men stimulates more than an intellectual response. Emotions, deep ones, dark ones, gut-twisting ones, accompany the journey through their profound insights and humbling meditations. Such emotions have to do in part with a growing sense that the contemporary catastrophe was foreseen a century ago at least and that it was foreseen in convergence many times by sensitive diagnosticians whose work – alas! – has disappeared from memory. As though a fever-dream had overcome me, I envision, in a spasm perhaps of paranoia, a vast, red, satanic creature, wrapped in fire, snatching Ortega and Marcel from Mnemosyne’s domain and casting them into oblivion so that their declarations will not alert men to his horrific agency.

I experienced the same emotions in a heightened way on reading, for the first time, Rosalind Murray’s study of The Good Pagan’s Failure. The re-burgeoning emotional reaction sprang from the fact that I had never before encountered Murray’s name and that – on the Internet at least – very little knowledge of her is to be had. The usual source furnishes only a sparse treatment. It does list her books – and possibly, in rounding them up, a diligent researcher might encounter some autobiographical asides. Now in The Good Pagan’s Failure there are, in fact, autobiographical allusions, but only of the most oblique sort. Murray’s perspicacity strikes me as genius-level; like Marcel, she ought to be known, and yet she dwelt beyond my ken. A kind of guilt seized me as I turned the pages. I knew her husband’s Study of History from having patiently thumbed through the twelve volumes of it during a fallow interval thirty years ago. Her father’s studies of ancient Greek culture furnish me with constant and rich reference. Why had I never heard of Mrs. Toynbee? Virginia Woolf, Rebecca West, and Rose Macaulay belong in my ambit, after all. The answer involves that vast, red, satanic creature, wrapped in fire. He is not a paranoid delusion but quite real. He emanates from the demented herd and its drivers. He intends to obliterate the past wholesale so that nothing – not so much as one tiny particle – of prophecy or prevision can cross into what has become a perpetual present without temporal depth. Let us call him, among other names, the murderer of time.

An opposition exists in the stance taken by Murray in her succinct and convicted discussion and by Berdyaev and Marcel among numerous others. But this resistance suffers from fragmentation. If the mass were an ocean, the conscious struggle against its ever-rising turbulence would exist as so many scattered islands. The oceanic monster communicates between its massive regions instantaneously. The islanders remain largely deprived of communication with one another, but an intermediary serves them as it can or rather in their moods of lucky receptivity. How did Murray – or for that matter Berdyaev or Marcel – come to my attention? The Good Pagan’s Failure emerged from near the bottom of a cardboard box full of dusty old paperbacks in a thrift store, which, both thrift-store and box, I explored on a whim. But what is a whim? It is significant, I believe, that we would never ascribe whimsicality to the crowd of masked, skite-hurling social justice warriors nor to the faceless, undead delegate assembly of the European Union. We would not ascribe it to the vast, red, satanic creature, wrapped in fire. A whim is, however, a kind of fire. It is the kind of fire that Origen named as Charis and that Rome knows as Grace. Charis breaks through into the earthly realm from beyond. Grace possesses an animating power, which it bequeaths, and it requests to be shared. The descending dove serves us as a messenger bird, calling our attention to the explanation of our happenstance, demonstrating to us our communion, and showing the way along which we shall freely and joyously pass.

Thomas BertonneauThomas Bertonneau

Thomas Bertonneau

Thomas F. Bertonneau is an intellectual and professor and has been a member of the English Faculty at SUNY Oswego since 2001. His articles and essays have appeared in a diverse array of scholarly journals, including William Carlos Williams Review, Wallace Stevens Journal, Studies in American Jewish Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Michigan Academician, Paroles Gelées: UCLA French Studies, and Profils Americains.

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