There are some subjects that are almost too large for literature, even for Tolstoy, who tried to answer the question “how should one live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world?” by following the fortunes of characters in his novel War and Peace.
Some characters seek fame, others sensual gratification, a few — like Napoleon — pursue an egotistical sense of power. But altogether too many of the rest are content to gnaw their way through the world like insects, not only incapable of answering Tolstoy’s question but unable to even ask it.
Some even want to meet God, a few glimpse the answer fleetingly and are content. One suspects the present time, like 1812, is a special era, one when more people than usual ask: “Where is God in this amoral world?” The answer may be that “God is away on one of His customary disappearances.” For one of the hallmarks of historical discontinuity is that God vanishes temporarily, during a time when old loyalties, ideologies and beliefs lose their power to bind.
The last 70 years have been spent dismantling the mental world of our fathers; in teaching us about the corruption of America, the emptiness of patriotism and the hypocrisy of organized religion. But along the way it has been impossible to deny the brutality of Communism, the fatuousness of manufactured causes, and the perversity of Hollywood.
That cumulative deconstruction has cheapened everything we fought for and everything we might fight for. Like Tolstoy’s characters in 1812, it has left us with nowhere simple to turn; with no easy way to live a moral life in an ethically imperfect world.
Dick Diver in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night explained the consequences of lost faith when he took his friends on a tour of the old Somme battlefield. Looking out on that undistinguished stretch of land Diver explains that “this land here cost twenty lives a foot that summer”:
“See that little stream–we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”
“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco—”
“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers. …
This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle — there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”
But of course Fitzgerald was wrong. Within a few years men had found enough love and loyalty and faith to climb Mount Suribachi, endure the Frozen Chosin and win the Cold War. They found it in the memory of shared myths, and even shared silly songs:
Who’s the leader of the club
That’s made for you and me
Forever let us hold our banner High!
Today we might accept the argument by our intellectual leaders that the past was a pile of propaganda, but they taught us too well not to avoid the conclusion that the debunking intellectuals were themselves logically just another pile of propaganda also. In destroying faith in the old things, they’ve destroyed faith in everything.