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“Men of Kalidu, the cen­turies look down upon you!” So cried His Ex­cel­lency, Man­fred Ar­cane, Min­is­ter With­out Port­fo­lio to his Might­i­ness Achmet XI, Hered­i­tary Pres­i­dent of Hamnegri and Sul­tan in Kalidu. This day the wise and vir­tu­ous Min­is­ter, con­fi­den­tial ser­vant to the heroic Monarch, ex­horted the cap­tains of hun­dreds and of fifties and of tens, on the eve of their south­ward march to an­ni­hi­late the im­moral and mur­der­ous slaves of the Pro­gres­sive usurpers.

“Ask not what Kalidu can do for you,” the Min­is­ter con­tin­ued, in a burst of orig­i­nal elo­quence. “but what you, brave men at arms, can do for Kalidu.”

So Rus­sell Kirk’s brave and cyn­i­cally hon­or­able alter ego sends his poly­glot troops off into bat­tle with one of the most darkly hi­lar­i­ous Thucy­did­ian speeches ever ut­tered in the fic­tional War for the Third World. Kirk’s A Crea­ture of the Twi­light (pub­lished in 1966) ex­poses the fol­lies of what we all once knew as Lib­eral In­ter­na­tion­al­ism, but which now mas­quer­ades as the for­eign pol­icy of a “con­ser­v­a­tive” ad­min­is­tra­tion.

De­spite the good ef­forts of solid schol­ars like James Per­son, Wes­ley Mc­Don­ald, and Ger­ald Rus­sello, the man my stu­dents of three decades ago still call “Saint Rus­sell” is often con­de­scended to even in the move­ment he did so much to found. Checked off the in­tel­lec­tual list, it may be said; es­pe­cially in the Great De­bate on power and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Rus­sell pre­ferred a mod­est for­eign pol­icy, shorn of ide­o­log­i­cal ex­cite­ments, a pref­er­ence not shared these days by some in the es­tab­lished con­ser­v­a­tive “move­ment.” Rus­sell has been ac­cused of the for­eign pol­icy equiv­a­lents of racism; namely, “iso­la­tion­ism”; and even anti-Semi­tism. The lat­ter charge is silly and out­ra­geous, and de­serves to be ig­nored; the for­mer is in­sid­i­ous and dan­ger­ous. That “iso­la­tion­ism” is still the “racism” of both major po­lit­i­cal par­ties is the great for­eign pol­icy ob­fus­ca­tion of our time. It masks the agenda of the “im­moral and mur­der­ous slaves of the Pro­gres­sive usurpers” of con­ser­vatism.

There has never been an iso­la­tion­ist party or a se­ri­ous iso­la­tion­ist po­lit­i­cal move­ment in the his­tory of the United States of Amer­ica. Clever New Deal­ers won what had been their los­ing rhetor­i­cal bat­tle thanks to an in­sane Japan­ese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor (cer­tainly en­cour­aged, per­haps caused, by Franklin Roo­sevelt and an ad­vi­sory cabal about the size of today’s neo­con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment) and an even more de­mented de­c­la­ra­tion of war on Amer­ica by Hitler’s Ger­many. Overnight what had been an 80 per­cent Amer­i­can con­vic­tion that we should stay out of Eu­ro­pean wars turned into the cru­sad­ing men­tal­ity of the “Four Free­doms” and “un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der.” Hon­or­able lead­ers of Amer­ica First were trans­formed into head-in-the-sand “iso­la­tion­ists” or nazi-symps (the gov­ern­ment-spon­sored cam­paign to ac­com­plish this is a story that has not been fully told). They were, ex­cept for a few left-wing loonies, less iso­la­tion­ists than uni­lat­er­al­ists, as Man­fred Jonas so ably proved many years ago. But a New Deal war waged in part­ner­ship with the most mon­strous regime in human his­tory against the sec­ond most mon­strous regime in human his­tory wiped out the dis­tinc­tions and changed Amer­ica’s po­si­tion in the world for my en­tire life­time.

And for Rus­sell Kirk’s life­time. Pre­oc­cu­pied as he was with the re­vival of the Per­ma­nent Things, the Moral Imag­i­na­tion, and the Roots of Amer­i­can Order, when Kirk’s baroque mind turned to mat­ters of state he did not write much about power pol­i­tics and for­eign ad­ven­tures, at least not much by his stan­dards. (I once asked him what ex­plained the enor­mous vol­ume of high-qual­ity prose he man­u­fac­tured. “It’s the smell of the lamp,” he replied.) When he did write about the af­fairs of na­tions he pre­ferred to state prin­ci­ples rather than to offer pol­icy pro­pos­als or in­for­ma­tion. In fact it was one of Kirk’s com­plaints against neo­con­ser­v­a­tives that they “thrust upon us a great deal of use­ful in­for­ma­tion” but are de­fi­cient “in the un­der­stand­ing of the human con­di­tion.” Kirk gen­er­ally pre­ferred wis­dom to mere in­for­ma­tion, and al­ways came down on the side of what Thomas Flem­ing (in The Moral­ity of Every­day Life) calls “the nu­ances and tex­tures of human life” against the “ter­ri­ble sim­pli­fiers,” ide­o­logues of all kinds. As in all things, Kirk’s writ­ings on the great god Power ex­posed the ide­o­logues.

Kirk knew that power, and what one does with it, is much more im­por­tant to un­der­stand than mere mat­ters of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. In fact, what one does about the lat­ter is al­ways a re­flec­tion of one’s con­vic­tions about the for­mer. Kirk’s life­long con­vic­tion about the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tional order was that it was founded upon the lim­i­ta­tion of power; that it was and is a pru­den­tial order; and that its suc­cess de­pends upon the utter re­jec­tion of ide­ol­ogy. Such in­sights are not sus­cep­ti­ble to cat­e­go­riza­tion by de­scrip­tive la­bels such as “iso­la­tion­ism” or “in­ter­ven­tion­ism.” Such la­bels are in­stru­men­tal; Kirk thought in terms of pre­scrip­tion.

He wished to con­serve the pru­den­tial Amer­i­can order, and so the in­stru­ments of preser­va­tion nec­es­sar­ily had to be guided by a healthy re­gard for how much power was re­quired to achieve that end. War in­creases the power of the state; thus war is to be avoided ex­cept in ex­treme cir­cum­stances, and al­ways to be re­garded skep­ti­cally, and never to be em­ployed in the name of a cru­sade. “Be­ware of right­eous­ness;” he loved to quote Her­bert But­ter­field to this ef­fect, be­cause right­eous­ness knows no bound­aries in the power it would em­ploy. The great­est dis­as­ter that could be­fall Amer­ica, Kirk un­der­stood, was “pre­ven­tive” war; that would take the wraps off power, and en­cour­age the “Pro­gres­sive usurpers,” who are pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in be­com­ing hege­monic, both abroad and at home. In 1989, a decade and a half be­fore the pre­sent de­ba­cle in Iraq began, he wrote: “A ‘pre­ven­tive’ war, whether or not it might be suc­cess­ful in the field—and that is a ques­tion much in doubt—would be morally ru­inous to us. There are cir­cum­stances under which it is not only more hon­or­able to lose than to win, but quite truly less harm­ful, in the ul­ti­mate prov­i­dence of God.”

A Crea­ture of the Twi­light is set in West Africa, in a myth­i­cal coun­try that is part Mus­lim, part Chris­t­ian, part an­i­mist, and for­merly a part of the French em­pire. The “United Com­mon­wealth of Ham­ne­gri” (lit­er­ally, the black sons of Ham; one of Kirk’s dozens of plays-on-words that make the novel hi­lar­i­ous) is in tur­moil. Its ex­alted ruler has been as­sas­si­nated, “Pro­gres­sive” forces have taken power, and the hold­out regime of re­ac­tion is about to be erased by the na­tional army whose friends in­clude the usual pro­gres­sive sus­pects around the world. Be­cause the north­ern re­gion—Kalidu, where the forces of re­ac­tion re­side, also con­tains oil and a large hy­dro­elec­tric pro­ject, the United States is hedg­ing its bets, want­ing to be pro­gres­sive but want­ing also to se­cure the oil re­serves to line the pock­ets of pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions. It is a clas­sic case of “Third World” diplo­macy. Not much is at stake in the geopo­lit­i­cal uni­verse, but every­thing is at stake in the moral imag­i­na­tion.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Man­fred Ar­cane. As his name sug­gests, he is a mys­te­ri­ous lit­tle wiz­ard with dark se­crets, who seems to know some­thing about every­thing, and for what­ever rea­son is de­ter­mined to block the armies of progress. Could his mo­tive be greed? He has, we learn, a per­sonal con­tract that gives him a cut of Kalidu’s oil pro­duc­tion. He in­tro­duces him­self by say­ing, “All my days I have done evil.” But we see no de­sire for wealth; his (like his cre­ator’s) life is as­cetic, his needs are few, ac­qui­si­tion is a byprod­uct and not an end to his plans. Is it power? The world of Ham­ne­gri seems to re­volve around money and power, but Ar­cane wants to give power away. He spends many hours teach­ing the son of the mur­dered Sul­tan the tra­di­tions of his peo­ple, so that he might rule with grav­i­tas. “In the af­ter­noon sun,” writes Ar­cane’s pub­li­cist Gus Ran­dolph (more about him later), “the young chief sits be­side the Old Devil for hours, talk­ing, talk­ing, his slop­ing mer­ci­less young face earnest and def­er­en­tial. I never knew Ar­cane to take so much trou­ble with any­one be­fore . . . I be­lieve he talks to Mo­hammed on every­thing con­ceiv­able: the com­par­a­tive mer­its of var­i­ous au­to­matic weapons, the econ­omy of a harem, French for­eign poli­cies, Kalidu ge­nealo­gies, pride and duty, love and ha­tred. Mo­hammed takes all this more solemnly than he does the Koran.” Ar­cane is a teacher, not a usurper.

But let’s back up. Kirk was con­sis­tent about power pol­i­tics over a long ca­reer. Here is a précis of his prin­ci­ples, taken from (in chrono­log­i­cal order) A Pro­gram for Con­ser­v­a­tives (which mor­phed in sev­eral ver­sions into Prospects for Con­ser­v­a­tives), The Amer­i­can Cause, The Po­lit­i­cal Prin­ci­ples of Robert A. Taft (with his then young friend, James Mc­Clel­lan), The Pol­i­tics of Pru­dence, and The Sword of Imag­i­na­tion. Few men other than Kirk wrote from 1954 to 1994 (ba­si­cally the length of the Cold War) keep­ing their ideas and their honor in­tact. I add to this précis thoughts from scores of con­ver­sa­tions with him be­gin­ning in 1975, when we be­came on-again off-again col­leagues at Hills­dale Col­lege.

The United States, Kirk al­ways con­tended, was uniquely fa­vored but not the tri­umphal end of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion. Its in­de­pen­dence, a pre­scrip­tive and not a propo­si­tional cir­cum­stance, was framed by a con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem that at its heart and by its na­ture lim­ited the au­thor­ity of some men over oth­ers. It would last only so long as pru­dence pre­vailed over ide­ol­ogy; only so long as its reach did not ex­ceed its grasp. The ge­nius of its con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem was fa­vored by his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy (and Prov­i­dence, al­though Kirk was never fond of the “shin­ing city on a hill” metaphor) so that con­quer­ing a con­ti­nent, un­der­go­ing a true rev­o­lu­tion (“In­dus­trial”) and nu­mer­ous hor­ren­dous wars, in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, did not ex­tin­guish the lamp of an or­dered lib­erty lit in an age that promised free­dom but gave the world ide­o­log­i­cal chaos.

The pru­den­tial order, how­ever, has al­ways been con­di­tional. Lead­ing us back to A Crea­ture of the Twi­light, here are some of Kirk’s fa­vorite ways of talk­ing about the prin­ci­ples of for­eign pol­icy.

“I have been sug­gest­ing—not to blind eyes, I trust—that a soundly con­ser­v­a­tive for­eign pol­icy, in the age which is dawn­ing, should be nei­ther ‘in­ter­ven­tion­ist’ nor ‘iso­la­tion­ist’: it should be pru­dent.”

“An ide­ol­ogy of De­mo­c­ra­tic Cap­i­tal­ism might be less ma­lign than an ide­ol­ogy of Com­mu­nism or Na­tional So­cial­ism or Syn­di­cal­ism or An­ar­chism, but it would not be much more in­tel­li­gent or hu­mane.”

“The blood of man should never be shed but to re­deem the blood of man”—Kirk quotes Burke; and then says, “A war for Kuwait? A war for an oil­can!”

Per­tain­ing di­rectly to Africa, Kirk wrote, “The in­tended trans­la­tion of Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions to Africa has been a dis­mal fail­ure: Africa has in­sisted ob­du­rately upon re­main­ing African.” Rus­sell spent a life­time try­ing to teach us that the world is not made of play-dough or tin­ker-toys. A Crea­ture of the Twi­light may have been his best les­son.

Ar­cane con­trols the ac­tion. He tells the story, but al­lows oth­ers a voice: Dr. Mary Jo Tra­vers, a so­cial worker Peace Corps vol­un­teer whose heart is Amer­i­can lib­eral good but who hasn’t a clue about evil; Au­gus­tus Enoch Ran­dolph, a black Amer­i­can Geor­gian whose tal­ent makes him use­ful to Ar­cane but whose slave psy­chol­ogy makes him also a crip­ple; var­i­ous news­pa­per re­porters who are stu­pid, ide­o­log­i­cal, ma­nip­u­lated, and de­spi­ca­ble; and T. William Tall­stall, the Amer­i­can “rov­ing am­bas­sador” whose per­sonal greed, pro­gres­sive rhetoric, and po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion make him a per­fect “vice pres­i­den­tial hope­ful.” Sen­a­tor Eu­gene Mc­Carthy, a man Kirk grew to like and ad­mire, once said that the best rea­son never to vote for a politi­cian was that he had “vice pres­i­den­tial po­ten­tial.”

Ar­cane con­trols their voices, so the story is his. He re­veals just enough about him­self to show a pro­found sense of sin, a huge ego, a ro­man­tic sen­si­bil­ity against which he strug­gles, a ca­pac­ity for love that he both nearly de­stroys him­self to ful­fill and tries hero­ically to hide, a ruth­less prac­ti­cal­ity will­ing to use peo­ple but to pro­tect them when they show loy­alty or a need for re­demp­tion, a brave heart, and an utter vul­ner­a­bil­ity to true fem­i­nin­ity. He holds God at arm’s length. He seems to have ab­sorbed all of the lit­er­ary wis­dom the cult of the West has to offer. He is per­haps Rus­sell Kirk’s fan­tas­ti­cal de­scrip­tion of him­self.

That said, let us in­dulge him. A com­pli­cated char­ac­ter like Ar­cane can exist only in com­pli­cated places like Ham­ne­gri, or Ser­bia, or Colom­bia. Moder­nity doesn’t sit well in those places—or, as Ar­cane says at the end of the novel, “moder­nity be­numbs us.” Most of us Amer­i­cans have ad­justed to the con­di­tions of progress. Man­fred Ar­cane re­fused to ad­just.

As the Pro­gres­sive army slowly ad­vances, Ar­cane puts in place a bat­tle plan based first on “Poly­bius, my dar­ling among his­to­ri­ans,” but also on the Bible, Shake­speare, Kipling, Cer­vantes, Dante, Lenin, Napoleon, Machi­avelli, Yeats, Cather­ine of Si­enna, Lewis Car­roll, Cae­sar, Churchill, Homer, Vergil, Wal­len­stein, Muhammed, Or­well, “Rob­bie” Burns, Madame de Stael, and prob­a­bly sev­eral more. He re­lies on Arpad Nemo, tor­tured by the Nazis and, lit­er­ally, face­less (“Arpad” was the first Mag­yar leader; “Nemo” is “no­body”); Cleon and Brasi­das (the “mor­tar and pes­tle” of the Pelop­pone­sian War), cute mon­sters who are only half human; Lady Grizzela Fer­gu­son, sur­vivor of British African ad­ven­tures; Mel­chiora ( his “Perse­phone,” god­dess of the un­der­world) who loves him un­con­di­tion­ally; Gus Ran­dolph, be­fore-men­tioned; and Colonel Jose Pelayo Fuentes y Iturbe. Pelayo is the leader of the “In­ter­ra­cial Peace Vol­un­teers,” an amus­ing and vi­cious bunch that the Pro­gres­sive army un­der­es­ti­mates at its un­do­ing. Along with Nemo and Ran­dolph, Pelayo has a long his­tory with Ar­cane. He fought with the Span­ish Blue Di­vi­sion in the USSR dur­ing World War II, on the side of the Ger­mans, and has spe­cial feel­ings about the Pro­gres­sives.

The Amer­i­cans, it turns out, funded the pro­gres­sive coup. The French want to re­assert their hege­mony, but have no more than a dis­tant and friv­o­lous hope. The Rus­sians are back­ing the pro­gres­sives, but are un­will­ing to be too pub­lic about it. The Red Chi­nese, using ex-nazi sur­ro­gates who think they can black­mail Ar­cane on the basis of false in­for­ma­tion about his mys­te­ri­ous past, are try­ing to get to the oil. How could Rus­sell have spot­ted such Chi­nese tricks in 1966? The Amer­i­cans are of course un­will­ing to spend any­thing but money in Africa, so Am­bas­sador Tall­stall, not hav­ing the clout to au­tho­rize as­sas­si­na­tions (as Dean Rusk gave to Am­bas­sador Henry Cabot Lodge in Viet­nam), bides his time, and even thinks that he may have of­fered dif­fer­ent ad­vice to his gov­ern­ment had he met the in­trigu­ing Ar­cane, who “gen­er­ally sees rea­son and will sit at the bar­gain­ing-table,” be­fore he threw in his lot with the agents of progress.

Ar­cane wins be­cause he does the un­think­able: he blows up the dam that rep­re­sents Ham­ne­gri’s progress. To the com­mu­nists, as Gus Ran­dolph later says, this was the “Sin against the Holy Ghost.” Pro­gres­sives wor­ship elec­tric­ity. As one of Ar­cane’s com­man­ders says, “Had our troops con­fronted a non-ide­o­log­i­cal enemy, our op­po­nents might have sus­pected that it was per­ilous to camp some miles below a large dam.” Being ide­o­log­i­cal, they fell into Ar­cane’s baroque trap. Moder­nity in­deed had be­numbed them.

Kirk pre­sents us in this story a time­less les­son. Power be­numbs us, and it isn’t all that hard to bring down su­pe­rior force, if one un­der­stands clearly enough what re­ally rules the world, and if one is will­ing to be de­vi­ous enough to put into ac­tion that knowl­edge. Ar­cane is a fancy, a made-up ruler of his lit­tle uni­verse, rem­i­nis­cent of Chester­ton’s Napoleon of Not­ting Hill, which was one of Kirk’s fa­vorites. But it’s pre­cisely be­cause Ar­cane knows his lit­tle uni­verse that he con­founds the ide­o­logues.

It’s in­ter­est­ing also that Kirk sym­pa­thizes with his fool­ish al­lies and evil en­e­mies. Ar­cane cau­tions against the im­pru­dent dis­em­bow­el­ment, im­pale­ment, and can­ni­bal­iz­ing of the de­feated pro­gres­sives. He is, as Gus Ran­dolph points out, “kind to the whole lot of us odd­i­ties.” He would not have be­grudged the neo­con­ser­v­a­tives their Machi­avel­lian­ism; after all, he calls him­self “Tan­cred, Knight of the De­vi­ous Ways.” He al­lows Nemo his re­venge against the Nazis, but that man is soul-dead any­way. He calls the so­porific lib­eral Mary Jo Tra­vers a “Child of Amer­ica” and means some­thing good by it; he be­queaths her ro­mance and sends her to a happy fate. If the Peace Corps vol­un­teers gen­er­ally look fool­ish it’s be­cause they were, but nei­ther Ar­cane nor Kirk con­demns them. Only the Pro­gres­sives are ci­phers, and that they de­serve to be. They are ide­o­logues.

“Ever since the end of the Sec­ond World War,” Kirk says else­where, “Wash­ing­ton’s con­duct of for­eign affairs has been af­flicted with lib­eral sen­ti­men­tal­ity.” Gus Ran­dolph has some­thing to teach us about that. Kirk’s M.A. the­sis was on John Ran­dolph of Roanoke; it later be­came a book that il­lus­trates the ambiguities of race and servi­tude, as well as the dangers of ex­er­cis­ing power. Gus Ran­dolph—Au­gus­tus Enoch Randolph (Au­gus­tus the em­peror, Enoch who was taken up by God with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing death, Randolph the slave owner and ex­treme re­pub­li­can), the name is not ac­ci­den­tal—tries hard not to be a sentimental man. But he is too de­pen­dent on Ar­cane. Gus knows his own weak­ness, and has an exaggerated sense of Ar­cane’s dark­ness.

Why are you women wild about the Old Devil? he went on. Be­cause in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Man­fred Ar­cane’s be­yond fear, being crazy. So you’re all ga-ga about him. You think he’s sweet and O so chival­rous. But if you knew him—if you just knew him! Lis­ten, girl: he’s done things that would make you run scream­ing up the street, if you heard half of them.

Gus is de­pen­dent upon Ar­cane be­cause he doesn’t un­der­stand that men are not evil be­cause they are com­mu­nists (or pro­gres­sives), but com­mu­nists be­cause they are evil. Or maybe they are com­mu­nists because they are in­no­cents, se­duced by the beau­ti­ful mis­tress ide­ol­ogy. Ide­ol­ogy, Kirk knew, was probably Satan’s best in­ven­tion, for the in­sid­i­ous way in which it lets both good and evil men strip themselves of his­tory and turn them­selves into mon­sters. In­ca­pable of com­pre­hend­ing the world of mystery or liturgy, the baroque or the me­dieval, Gus is stuck in moder­nity. It’s dif­fi­cult to make for­eign pol­icy if one is stuck in moder­nity.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreRepublished with the gracious permission of the University Bookman.

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2 replies to this post
  1. John, This is brilliantly incisive and wickedly cutting. I missed it when it first appeared and am delighted to savor its tart commentary now. How is that our beloved St. Russell understood the intrigues of the world so well? Your well-crafted words are fitting homage. And the observations he breathed through his characters could have been uttered this afternoon. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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