Last Rites for the United States, and Himself

A Review of Last Rites, by John Lukacs

In 1990, at the age of 65, John Lukacs wrote a well-received “auto-history” entitled Confessions of an Original Sinner. Now, almost twenty years later, Mr. Lukacs has given his readers part two: Last Rites. The book not only appears to constitute a valedictory for an erudite and influential 85 year old man — who admits that his curiosity, reading and appetite for life are weakening — but also the swan song for the five hundred years of European culture carried forward, until recently, by the United States.

Which is to say that Mr. Lukacs sees signs of America’s decadence all around: academics who neither buy nor read books, the widespread decline of serious reading, “the rapid deterioration of attention, the nervous constriction of its span,” an “unwillingness to think,” the rise of pictorial culture (a new “Dark Ages of symbols, pictures, images, abstractions”), and, most ominously, the emergence of a militaristic political conservatism in the United States.

He notes: “In 1950 there was not one American public or political or academic or intellectual figure who declared himself a ‘conservative.’ By 1980 more Americans declared themselves ‘conservatives’ than ‘liberals.'” Accompanying this rise of political conservatism was a “militarization of the popular imagination” that abetted the replacement of normal patriotism with aggressive nationalism.

Relying upon such ugly nationalism, the President and Vice President who occupied the White House prior to the Obama administration believed “that going in Iraq and crushing its miserable dictator in a quick war would be popular, resounding to the great and enduring advantage to…[their] reputation and to the Republican Party’s dominance in the foreseeable future. There have been many American presidents who had chosen to go to war for different reasons: but I know of no [other] one who chose to go to war to enhance his popularity.”

Sick, but widespread, American nationalism also goes far to explain why the opinion elite, the mainstream news media and the misinformed public would lend their support to an unprovoked, illegal, and thus evil, war of aggression. It wasn’t the behavior one would expect from a civilized people.

(Writing about the fate of liberalism in the United States, Mr. Lukacs asserts, “Ten years after the 1960s it was just about dead. It belonged to the past; it had nothing more to achieve; it was exhausted. Its tasks had been done.” Unfortunately, Last Rites is silent about America’s recent economic collapse and the overwhelming decision by America’s voters to elect a liberal, Barack Obama, to direct its recovery and, perhaps, its transformation.)

Nevertheless, Last Rights leaves much to be desired, especially when compared with two recent and exceptionally thoughtful books by Mr. Lukacs — Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred and George Kennan: A Study in Character. Beyond the swan songs, it’s a watered-down goulash containing sketches of his life in Chester County, Pennsylvania, tender memories of his native Hungary and brief vignettes capturing the loving and lovely essence of each of his three wives. It also is weakly seasoned by Mr. Lukacs’ poorly reasoned epistemological “grand truth,” which he presents in Chapter One: “A Bad Fifteen Minutes.”

Knowledge, according to Mr. Lukacs, is neither objective nor subjective, but always personal and participant. “Every person has four relationships: with God, with himself, with other human beings, and with other living beings.” Moreover, our knowledge is participant, because there cannot be “a separation of the knower from the known.”

Although Mr. Lukacs acknowledges that matter existed before the human mind, its preexistence is meaningless, because “without the human mind we cannot think of its ‘existence’ at all. In this sense it may be argued that Mind preceded and may precede Matter (or: what we see and then call matter).”

Going further, Mr. Lukacs concludes: (1) “What happens is what people think happens.” Thus, he denies the possibility of “objective” history. Yet, inconsistently, he objects to those who define history as “the narration of actions worth remembering.” Worse, he insists, “every person is a historical person.” (How about the millions of persons over the ages, who have died without leaving a trace?)

Mr. Lukacs also insists, “The human mind intrudes into causality, into the relation of causes and effects.” For Mr. Lukacs, this conclusion — famously demonstrated by Heisenberg – leads to another: science is little more than a “probabilistic kind of knowledge with its own limits.”

Now, I also have doubts about science, and not only about quantum physics. We’ve yet to satisfactorily explain how life originated on earth. Moreover, my mind reels when I read that within the first one-thousandth of a second after the big bang, a particle smaller than an atom expanded instantaneously to the size of a galaxy.

Yet, “uncertainty” with regard to quantum physics, the origin of life or even the scientific working backward from the expanding universe to the big bang hardly justifies doubt about whether water is H2O and it certainly does not support Mr. Lukacs, when he asserts: “When I, a frail and fallible man, say that every morning the sun comes up in the east and goes down in the west, I am not lying. I do not say that a Copernican or post-Copernican astronomer, stating the opposite, that the earth goes around the sun, is lying…But my commonsense experience about the sun and the earth is both prior to and more basic than any astronomer’s formula.”

Thus, when Mr. Lukacs further asserts, “the known and visible and measurable conditions of the universe are not anterior but consequent to our existence and to our consciousness,” he believes that he has eviscerated the “Copernican/Keplerian/Galilean/Cartesian/Newtonian discovery” that removed both man and the earth from the center of the universe. Yet, he’s accomplished no such thing. Newton’s law of universal gravitation continues to bring to earth every consciousness convinced that it can remain aloft forever. Moreover, the brick wall will have its say, notwithstanding the fearless consciousness of every man determined to run through it. In a word, the “known” demands due respect from the “knower.”

This has enormous implications for man’s freedom, a matter Mr. Lukacs barely mentions. Ask any technophobe who has suffered through the upgrade of a computer program and subsequently found himself compelled to learn new ways to accomplish the same old tasks. He’ll tell you that he felt like a helpless slave, subject to a new program (and, thus, the whims or insights of some distant technician). Yet, as the Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev observed, virtually every type of “objectivized” knowledge poses such a threat to man’s freedom.

In his book, Slavery and Freedom, Berdyaev defined objectivized knowledge as “the most ‘objective’ in the sense of verified truth.” Thus, “the most objectivized knowledge is mathematical. It is the most universally binding and it is the concern of the whole of civilized mankind. But it is the most remote of all from human existence, from knowledge of the meaning and value of human existence.”

Before Mr. Lukacs, it was Berdyaev (following Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky) who asserted the primacy of the conscious subject over the created object. But, unlike Mr. Lukacs, Berdyaev also explained how the conscious subject often enslaves himself by falling “into the power of the exteriorization” — the objectivized knowledge — he has created.

(It was Dostoevsky’s famously rebellious “Underground man,” who boldly asserted man’s freedom, when he observed: “Consciousness…is infinitely higher than two times two.”)

Finally, Mr. Lukacs’ epistemological grand truth must be faulted for failing to subject his own Christian faith to the same “crucible of doubt” (as Dostoyevsky called it) that he employs to attack the claims made by science.

Crucible of doubt? Yes. Consider the work of Harold Bloom who asserts, in his book, Jesus and Yahweh: “There is not a sentence concerning Jesus in the entire New Testament composed by anyone who ever had met the unwilling King of the Jews, unless (and it is unlikely) the General Epistle of James truly is by James his brother, rather than one of James’s followers.”

Crucible of doubt? Yes. Consider the story of the “virgin birth” found in Matthew and Luke. According to biblical scholar, Paula Fredriksen, “The tradition that Jesus’ mother was a virgin…draws on a prophecy available only in the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14: In the original Hebrew, the word that stands behind the Septuagint’s parthenos, “virgin,” is aalmah, “young girl.” [Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews, p. 27].

Crucible of doubt? Yes. Consider the world’s foremost New Testament scholar, the late Thomas Metzger, who examined virtually all of the New Testament witnesses (sources) and tells us that “the last twelve verses of Mark (xvi. 9-20) are lacking in the two earliest parchment codices.” Thus, he concluded, “Mark was not responsible for the composition of the last twelve verses of the generally current form of the Gospel.” Yet, it is those twelve verses that tell us about the risen Jesus first appearing to Mary Magdalene and, subsequently, to the eleven – to whom he said “go into the world and preach the gospel to every creature.”

Crucible of doubt? Yes. Consider the exceptional work of America’s foremost Jesus historian, John Dominic Crossan. Writing in his book, The Birth of Christianity, Crossan informs us that that it was not at all unusual in the Greco-Roman world for humans to believe that a holy spirit or god could join with a human to produce offspring. Thus, back then, the story of the Holy Spirit and Mary had nothing on The Aeneid (the epic story in which the union of the Trojan, Anchises, with the goddess Aphrodite results in the birth of Aeneas), or the birth of the historical figure, Augustus, whose mother, Atia, supposedly was impregnated by Apollo. (Does anyone, today, actually believe that Apollo impregnated Atia?)

Concerning Jesus’ resurrection, Crossan notes that, even today, it’s not all uncommon for those grieving a recent death to feel an “intuitive, sometimes overwhelming ‘presence’ or ‘spirit’ of the lost person.” Thus, when one considers the fact that people crucified around Jerusalem were rarely buried in private tombs — because “it was actually nonburial that made being crucified alive one of the three supreme penalties of Roman punishment” — there’s good reason to question pseudo-Mark’s claim that Mary Magdalene saw an empty tomb and was the first to see the risen Jesus. (Crossan even goes so far as to assert that Mark “created” the story of Jesus’ burial by Joseph of Arimathea.)

Crucible of doubt? Yes. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, writing in Lost Christianities, notes the following contradictions within the Gospels: “Did Jesus die during the afternoon before the Passover meal was eaten, as in John (see 19:14), or during the morning afterwards, as in Mark (see 14:12, 22; 15:25)? Did Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt after Jesus’ birth as in Matthew (2:13-23), or did they return to Nazareth as in Luke (2:39)? Was Jairus’s daughter sick and dying when he came to ask Jesus for help as in Mark (6:23, 25), or had she already died, as in Matthew (9:18)? After Jesus’ resurrection, did the disciples stay in Jerusalem until he had ascended into heaven, as in Luke (24:1 – 52), or did they straightaway go to Galilee, as in Matthew (28:1 – 20)?”

If Mr. Lukacs is aware of such evidence, it hasn’t prevented him from asserting that “the coming of Christ to earth may have been the central event of the universe: that the most consequential event in the entire universe occurred here, on this earth two thousand years ago.”

Yet, beyond his failure to subject his Christian faith to the crucible of doubt he employs against the claims of science, Mr. Lukacs also knows that he is vulnerable to being hoisted by his own “grand truth” petard — which is why he feebly asserts: “But God is more than our invention. And to those who think that God is nothing but our invention my question is: Why? What makes human being s want such an invention? Is it not that a spark of God may exist within us?”

Such flaws in Last Rites render it a disappointing valedictory from such an erudite and accomplished gentleman.

Walter C. Uhler is an independent scholar and freelance writer whose work has been published in numerous publications, including Dissident Voice, The Nation, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the Journal of Military History, the Moscow Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. He also is President of the Russian-American International Studies Association (RAISA). He can be reached at: Read other articles by Walter C., or visit Walter C.'s website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MrCynic3 said on March 3rd, 2009 at 6:30pm #

    Mr. Uhler,

    You wrote about Bush and his attack on Iraq :

    “There have been many American presidents who had chosen to go to
    war for different reasons: but I know of no [other] one who chose to go to war to enhance his popularity.”

    I don’t know is this your opinion or John Lukas’ opinion?
    Anyway this is very naive and uniformed opinion about the mechanics
    of going to war in this country.
    No president no matter how powerful he is, just say let us have a war.
    Going to war is the result of the ruling elites decision and after a long
    ponering and discussions. Whether
    that decision was wise decision and is good for the country or for the benefits of special interests is a good point to ponder.
    is debatable

  2. MrCynic3 said on March 3rd, 2009 at 7:48pm #

    “My previous post had a let of spelling mistakes ”

    Mr. Uhler,

    You wrote about Bush and his attack on Iraq :

    “There have been many American presidents who had chosen to go to
    war for different reasons: but I know of no [other] one who chose to go to war to enhance his popularity.”

    I don’t know is this your opinion or John Lukas’ opinion?
    Anyway this is very naive and uninformed opinion about the mechanics
    of going to war in this country.
    No president no matter how powerful he is, just say let us have a war.
    Going to war is the result of the ruling elites decision and after a long
    poneridng and discussions. Whether
    that decision was wise decision and is good for the country or for the benefits of special interests is a good point to ponder.

  3. Deadbeat said on March 3rd, 2009 at 9:45pm #

    “Aggreesive Nationalism” wasn’t the only reason why “America” went conservative. There was an immense backlash against all of the social movements especially the civil right movement and integration. Ronald Reagan inaugrated his Presidental Campiagn in Philedelphia, Mississippi where Civil Right workers were murdered. As MLK identified the triad of militarism, racism and capitalism. There should not be an effort to yanks these ideologies apart. It is better to understand how it all works together.

  4. bozh said on March 4th, 2009 at 9:46am #

    in my knowledge, all wars are waged for land; everything on it and in it; conqurees either wanted or not wanted.
    ?all leaders want to glorify selves.
    only the trojan war was not- if homer is to believed- fought for land; provided that war ever happened.

    so, the evaluation that each prez waged his war[s] for diff’t reasons and sans factors/causes for them, cannot stand.
    the word “reason” is an overgeneralization; specifying a cause or a factor wld be by far more illuminating.

    it appears to me unlikely to a very high degree that US aggressed against iraq to hand part[s] or all of it to ‘jews’.
    and torahic claim for lands btwn the two great rivers notwithstanding.

    lotsof impious amers died to obtain iraq. even christians may not be elated with giving iraq to the people of a cult which they never accepted and actually persecuted for 2K.

    as an aside, in rereading Noam Chomsky, an interview with david barsamian, published 1992, they both use solely the labels “palestinian” and ” palestinians” and not “palestinian arabs”.
    but in the Chomsky’s Reader, 1984 , chomsky oft uses the label “palestinian arabs” .

    but i’m not sure if he now thinks of the palestinians as also descendants of canaanitic peoples and hebrews.
    or of the ‘eurojews’ as an admixture of many folks; having no connection at all to either hebrews or judeans.
    i hope chomsky wld read DV. thnx

  5. Barry said on March 4th, 2009 at 11:12am #

    I think the US war on Iraq was fought for several reasons. Firstly, the Neocons wanted it, and were actively pushing for attacking Iraq for a number of years. This largely has to do with maintenance of Israeli regional hegemony. It has also to do with petroleum and natural gas – to some degree ownership of these resources thru American corporations, but at the very least, to control of supply and pricing. In this matter, the neocons would find a reinforcing reason for attack – but oil control is perhaps even more important to the Paleocons. It is understood by Paleocons that if the US does not gain control over world oil supplies, a rapidly strengthening China is likely to. Further, there is always the imperial goal of opening any and all markets for capital penetration. So Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, et al all had material reasons for destroying Iraq.
    Bush’s reasons are likely more psychological in nature – he wanted to prove himself in the eyes of his father, and to surpass his father who he believes failed to take Saddam. He saw his mission as finishing the job his father started. Further, the ever so simplistic Bush believes that any president worth his salt has a succesful war he can claim his own. Reagan had Granada, Bush Elder had Panama, Clinton had former Yugoslavia. None of Bush’s tangle of superstitions can be said to be the reason the US attacked Iraq but instead made it easy for Cheney and Rumsfeld to forge ahead.
    War also provides opportunity for major internal change – that is, in time of war the nation can be made over. Constitutional amendments can be suspended (we now read that the First Amendment – free speech – was about to be punted away by Bush/Cheney), privacy rights can be tossed out the window so not just your phone but your entire life can be tapped, major economic changes such as privitization of capital can be pushed through (turning Social Security over to Wall Street sharks), ending taxes on unearned income, etc. Those who beg to differ can be branded as traitors, anyway, we all know the drill here – its about Shock Treatment to the nation – something Naomi Klein wrote about extensively. This shock treatment is not why the US invaded Iraq but are some of the sweet benefits that putting the nation on a wartime footing brings to our ruling elite.

    Two other things – I don’t think invading Iraq was about actually turning Iraq over to Israel or the Jews, that’s beyond the possible. It’s about regional hegemony. Israel wants no one to challenge it or support the Palestinians. This is the impetus for punishing Iran now – it is the only effective supporter of Hamas and Hezballah.

    I agree with Deadbeat that the nation’s move toward conservatism was and is about race. That is, the driving force of conservatism is racism and the notion that non-whites – and blacks in particular – are trying to get something for nothing while imposing their culture upon the nation. The rise of conservatism accompanied the voting rights and civil rights laws of the fifties and sixties. Republicans tapped into it in the South and virtually all whites switched sides. By the late 70s, much of white America joined in the switch.

  6. bozh said on March 4th, 2009 at 12:42pm #

    socalled israeli regional hegemony wld have never been established w.o. christian support.
    and israel, i deduce, wld not have existed past 1955 w.o. christian support and/or judeo-christian money and diplo.

    and once US accepted Israel {causes/aims still unknown} and began to pour even more money into Israel; supplying it with training/arms, israelis knew they are unstoppable in their quest for greater US/Europe/Israel.

    most israelis may brush aside or not even espy their utter dependency on the christian world.
    israel, when armaments and money she receives are taken into account, is one of the least independent countries i know of.

    and precisely because of that, its cunning leadership welcomes nato and US wars and the attack on iran with even wmd.
    israeli leadership wld certainly be/feel much less dependent on nato lands with an independented kurdistan.
    taming or breaking up iran, iraq, syria and helping set up a kurdistan that wld include parts of syria, turkey, iraq, and iran wld be much gladhanded by ‘zionists’.
    more cld be said. thnx

  7. Barry said on March 4th, 2009 at 6:50pm #

    Israel has always been on welfare of one stripe or another – reparations, aid from East and West, and American Jewish donations in the billions. (And its tax deductible. You can give money to the Jewish National Fund which purpose is to buy land for Jews and never sell it to gentiles – and take a deduction for it.) Then when aid from the US kicked in big-time during the Johnson Admin. Israel was home-free. Israel, a developed nation, gets more welfare than any collection of poverty-stricken nations we can compile – and they get it on the terms that it dictates. Indeed, any time the US can sow havoc in the region gets a thumbs-up from Israel – in fact, they probably suggested the idea.
    Nonetheless, as I do believe in self-determination for all peoples, and the Kurds have been desiring autonomy or independence for many decades, as far as I’m concerned, a Kurdish state would be the only positive outcome of the US invasion. I’m not certain that it would extend beyond Iraq. Israel would certainly be interested in an independent Kurdistan (they’ve advocated the break-up of Iraq as you know), but the world is a complicated place. I don’t know if Israel lives or dies based on an independent Kurdish state.

  8. Shabnam said on March 4th, 2009 at 10:35pm #

    I suggest to people that learn history of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa then bring ‘self determination’ rhetoric where Gilad Atzmon defined it as “The Right to Self-Determination – A Fake Exercise in Universalism”, where it has been used by the Western powers in their game of ‘divide and rule’ where they have promised an ethnic group who wants to be a pawn, like the Kurds, ‘self determination’ in order to receive their services, usually terrorist activities, against a country that is targeted for destabilization and partition to create WEAK STATES to help the process of domination. A “self determination” at a time where western ‘progressives’ are preaching about ‘globalization’ and disappearance of borders for betterment of people, we in the middle east region witness people like Chomsky supports partition of Iraq and creation of Kurdistan which is Israel’s goal. No one in the region benefits from an independent Kurdistan EXCEPT Israel. The US also do not benefit from an independent Kurdistan EXCEPT Israel.
    Shimon Peres repeatedly reminds us about the ‘globalization’ and power of economic progress yet this liar everyday kills to steal more land and resources. We the people of the region are not going to allow ANOTHER ISRAEL IN OUR REGION. Creation of Israel has been a disaster to all states in the region but you; the West has benefitted from our children death bodies.
    The European colonists do not belong to our region and you should have taken responsibility to give the best part of your fuck**g land to them because as a result of your crime “self determination” our region has been ruined and our children have been massacred and our environment has been polluted by your WMD while you were in school or Theatre enjoying yourself and planning your future.
    You must know Kurdistan was part of Iran. The Kurdish territories located in Iraq and Turkey was taken from Iran in 1514 in the Battle of Chaldiran where Savavids Iran was invaded by Ottoman Empire. Today, the US imperialism and Zionism have a plan to destabilize the regional states including Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and other states to create mini states in order to control and dominate the region and its resources more effectively. What a state of 2 million people like Kosovo can do besides being a puppet state? Iranian people refuse to be subjugated to this kind of humiliation. The Kurds must understand that we should be working together, not against each other, to strengthen our economies and our societies. The regional countries must put aside their petty differences and join together, like European Union, to be able to fight against occupiers, Zionists and imperialists. We never allow another Israel, ever.
    People must understand if there is creation of Kurdistan, then there is going to be more wars in order to expand their tribe like Israel. Israel is seeking to establish ‘greater Israel’ therefore; Israel feels she needs non-Arab states as an ally. Israel is interested in breaking up Iran into Kurdistan, Azerbaijan, Baluchistan, Luristan and more. Imperialism and Zionism look at Iran like another Ottoman Empire. Muslims have never been humiliated the same degree as today. The entire region is under domination. You, of course, benefited from this arrangement, on our expense, controlling our economy and killing our children. Therefore, The Kurds must find a way to address their grievances by working with people of the region not against them. After all, the Kurds are not the only victims. We all have suffered from the western domination. The Kurds try to use victimization card, like the ‘Jews’ to buy sympathy. Different ethnic groups have lived together for thousands of years peacefully. We all are Iranians.
    Since World War I Kurds have placed their trust in the United States to support their bid for nationhood, they provided cover for CIA operations against Iraq. The CIA has been meddling in Iraq with disastrous consequences for over four decades. After working with the corrupt Nuri Said, the USA went after Abdul-Karim Qassem, who eliminated the old British agent Nuri in 1958. Among those whom the CIA recruited to do its dirty work were the Iraqi Baath Party, including Saddam Hussein. The Baath did finally succeed in overthrowing and killing Qassem in 1963. The CIA let the Baath into power and gave them a long list of Communists to be killed. A secret agreement was reached between the CIA and Mulla Mustafa Barzani in August 1969. Barzani had promised to turn oil fields over to the U.S., repeatedly saying that he wanted Kurdistan to be the 51st state.
    American used the Kurds many times for their agenda and then left them to be attacked by Saddam because they had other powerful states under their control, Iran, Turkey and the Arab States. But Israel continued working and relying on Kurds to get information on Saddam by building a hospital in the north of Iraq and put her agents, Mossad, as doctors in charge.
    The Kurds should cooperate with others in the region not against them as enablers for the enemy of the region, zionism and imperialism. That’s why the Kurds are not trusted and look upon as PAWNS.