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Barbarism and civilization

by David Engels

«Barbarism is our own desire to escape from our civilization and its malaise»

What is a Barbarian ? The word has a long history. Originally used to refer simply to a person who spoke an incomprehensible language, it has eventually become synonymous with a person who is culturally or morally “inferior” to the “civilized” society that defines the norms in question. So much, then, for definitions. But what do we feel when we read the word ? That is the really intriguing question since, let’s admit it, we are increasingly envious of the Barbarian, secretly perhaps, but no less intensely for all that. More and more, I would argue, and for good reason, the Barbarian is merely the hidden face of Civilized Man, and as Man gradually closes himself off within the paradigm of rationality and universalism, his antipode, Barbarian Man, grows stronger.

Only a few hundred years ago, in an era in which people dressed in silk and brocade and changed their clothes once a fortnight, in which people built palaces of marble and glass but forgot to install sanitation, in which people killed each other one day and took the Eucharist the next, in short, in an era that was probably happier and certainly more vital than our own, the very notion of the “Barbarian” was meaningless. There were only the “Others” (the infidels on the far shore of the Mediterranean, the savages in the Americas, etc.). But the Enlightenment, science, industrialization, popular government – the triumph, in short, of mathematical logic over instinct, spontaneity and tradition – forged a new world. Or, rather, I should say, a prison, for democratization has engendered technocracy, progress dehumanization, sexual liberation the end of all sublimation; while secularism has given rise to materialism, psychological understanding to general forgiveness for any ignoble act, tolerance to the diktat of the politically correct, historical objectivity to a loss of solidarity with our past, and liberalization to the dictatorship of the market. Thus, while pushed to their extremes, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity may have “freed” individuals from the demands of traditional society, they have, at the same time, imprisoned them in the invisible trap of a radically individualist societal logic bereft of all transcendence. On the pretext of liberating Man from his constraints, every opportunity is taken to demonstrate the relativity and absurdity of the very essence of his culture, thereby stripping him of his points of reference and leaving him alone on the edge of an empty universe devoid of meaning, a prisoner of his thirst for freedom, reduced to the state of a fragmented individual adrift in a society resembling a strange cross between a shark-infested swimming pool and a palliative care dispensary. Even time seems to have come to an end in this curious paradigm of a democratic post-history which is at once the ideological justification and the factual result of our utilitarian society. For when the “superstitions” of the past were exposed, when the “common good” was clearly defined, when a political system was established that claimed to be capable of rectifying, on a permanent basis, all potential “errors,” and when foreign policy was reduced to freeing the “oppressed,” even against their will, there could be no more real history, no more vision, merely stagnation and the maintenance of what has been achieved or of what seems to have been achieved.

It is hard to deal with life in such a univocal, ideologically untouchable society, for who can criticize “freedom”? But anyone with a spark of vital élan who is thrown into a prison cannot help but desire either to escape from it or to break down its walls. And that is where “Barbarism” comes into play. For the Barbarian – that chimerical dream – seems to be the free man par excellence, the man who incarnates not only the “Other,” but the antipode, who is indifferent to the politically correct and seems interested only in satisfying his own instincts, in the hic et nunc, a being alternatively destructive and creative, glutton and saint, monster and hero. Thus, the Barbarian is not external to our civilization, but instead its hidden face, its Manichean opposite; not the last witness of an archaic life, but, rather, the imaginary product of a late society. Barbarism is not only the ensemble of all those we exclude from our society, simultaneously furnishing them with all the spiritual and material weapons they need to fight us; Barbarism is also our own desire to escape from our civilization and its malaise, from a world that we have fashioned but which we can no longer bear. Barbarism is the thirst to find at last, whatever the cost, a meaning to life, even in the fallow fields of obscurantism, superstition and syncretism; Barbarism is complicity with decline, the will to immolate our accumulated riches amassed in an immense pyre of Sardanapalus in order to be rid of them once and for all. Barbarism is the impulse to encourage, consciously, our culture’s decomposition, by debasing it, levelling it, mixing it and denying it until the whole rotten edifice collapses, finally allowing its inhabitants a little breathing room – or, at any rate, those rare inhabitants who survive the last act of the spectacle of the decline and fall of the West, which has already begun to play itself out.

Once again, the dialectic between Civilization and Barbarism is nothing new; it is the inevitable result of the ageing process of European civilization. This only serves to confirm the eternal law of the morphology of history, or, in other words, the genesis, blossoming and decadence of the great cultures. For all societies have invented their own Barbarians, who they have, in turn, idealized as “noble savages,” fought against as hereditary enemies of “civilization,” integrated in order to display their “tolerance,” excluded by building ramparts, and to whom in the end, after taedium vitae and defeatism had taken their toll, they succumbed. The Egyptians to the Peoples of the Sea, the Romans to the Germans, the Abbasids to the Turks and Mongols, the Chinese to the nomads of Central Asia – I could go on. All of them have gone through this phase before exiting history’s tragic stage. Thus, already, the instinctive disgust and enlightened culpability that our own civilization inspires in us have found, in the hostility of the Ancient Third World, a significant sounding board which, every day a little more, undermines the credibility of the West as an “example” for other cultures, just as, long ago, Rome created, idealized and armed the Germanic enemy to whom it was destined to fall. Already, the hypocritical game played with the ideals of tolerance and freedom has generated the two clichés on which are projected all the fears and desires of our society: international finance and non-integrated immigration. The first, because it has rendered itself guilty of the poverty generated by an ultra-liberal form of capitalism; the second because it incarnates all those who profit from a particular system without contributing to it or even identifying with it, but who nevertheless live in a societal environment better protected and more clearly sign-posted than that of the natives, just as, in Rome, the unscrupulous nouveaux riches and the excluded – for example, the Syrians, the Jews and the earliest Christians – were, in turn, idealized and envied as the true enemies of a civilization that was, however, jealous of them, because it was jaded and exhausted.

It is, therefore, difficult to imagine why we would be an exception to the rule; who, after all, would want to hear and follow the only piece of advice that can ward off our end? For, just as we are unable to fight our shadow, we cannot hope to stabilize our society by combating “Barbarism.” It is, rather, in encouraging the forces of tradition and of the past that we can attempt to restore a semblance of meaning and historical continuity to our rapidly decomposing society, and to oppose to this sentiment of complicity with decline a feeling of loyalty to our culture… But who would dare, in this day and age, make such apparently reactionary suggestions?

David Engels
holds a doctorate in Roman History, is a Professor at the Free University of Brussels.

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