The following is an excerpt from Michael Walsh’s new book, The Fiery Angel: Art, Culture, Sex, Politics, and the Struggle for the Soul of the West, taken from Chapter Ten: Miraculous Mandarins.
The world that emerged from 1918 had no hopes for the future, only questions about the past – just as we do today. Europe had fought Napoleon; had fought the Prussians; and now had fought the German Kaiser and his empire – and had won all three fights. Now its new war bride had arrived, the United States of America, somehow still virginal in her white wedding dress, but stained with the blood of Belleau Wood and St.-Mihiel.
Who will save us from Western culture? The question, naturally, was posed by a Hungarian, Georg Lukács, one of the instigators of the Hungarian Soviet Republic and its first People’s Commissar for Education and Culture. The early Hungarian Communist state didn’t last very long, but the cultural-battlefield prep Lukács managed resonated and extended to the Soviet client state that followed the end of World War II.
The notion of a mandarin class was alien to revolutionary circles, who still believed in the impossible-before-breakfast idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat being promulgated by Lenin in Russia. Mandarins were the boyars, the Junkers – the old aristocracy whom Lenin and the Bolsheviks hated unconditionally.
But with his former librettist Bela Balázs in political exile, the composer Bela Bartók needed another collaborator for the revolutionary ballet he wanted to write. He found him, or at least his material, in Melchior Lengyel – like Lukács and Balázs, another Hungarian Jew with an outsider’s sensibility but an insider’s eye – whose 1916 story (a “pantomime grotesque”) Bartók chose for his scenario. As a glimpse into Europe’s recent past and its unintended and mostly unwanted future, it’s hard to beat.
The story of The Miraculous Mandarin is that of a mysterious Chinaman, who’s the target of a “badger game,” in which three thieves use an alluring young prostitute to entice passing men upstairs into her room in order to mug them. The first two victims have no money, so they get summarily chucked out the door. The third is the Mandarin. Physically repulsed by his otherness, the girl rejects him. He keeps coming. Assaulted, he fights back against his assailants, who try to suffocate him, stab him to death, and even hang him from a lamp hook. He keeps coming. He will not bleed, or die. Instead, throughout it all, the Mandarin continues to stare at the beautiful girl, absorbing all the punishment the murderous crooks can hand out, consumed by love and unwilling to let go of life until his love is either acknowledged or reciprocated.
The rope on the lamp hook won’t hold; he falls from the hanging, his body beginning to glow with a strange inner light. The muggers recoil, but the girl finally understands; like Bluebeard, the Mandarin is the Outsider, in dire need of love and understanding. She wraps her arms around him, and gives him the love he has been seeking. The Mandarin’s wounds ooze; released, he dies, an oriental Tristan in the arms of his trollop Isolde.
So far, so Wagnerian; the Mandarin’s physical pain is nothing compared to his emotional distress. If a girl he is willing to pay for won’t love him, or pretend to love him, even for twenty minutes, then who will? Love transfigures, then kills.
The other clear analogy is to Rasputin, whose at least subliminally erotic power over the Russian royal family ended with his death in 1916. Like the Mandarin, he did not go gentle into the dark night that Lenin had planned for the rest of the Romanovs. According to the very likely embellished tale purveyed by one of the assassins, Prince Felix Yusupov, the Mad Monk ate the poisoned cakes and drank the poisoned Madeira, survived a gunshot wound to the chest, played possum, struggled with his assassins, was shot again, and finally collapsed and died in a snowbank, like mad Jack Torrance in Stephen King’s and Stanley Kubrick’s versions of The Shining.
On one level, then, The Miraculous Mandarin is the massacre of the boyars, staged for our edification, with the “priest” of the Czars thrown in for good measure. Certainly audiences of the time might have seen it that way. But is it? The purpose of subtext in art is to communicate that which is incommunicable. Throughout most of the ballet, and the music, we have no idea what is going through the Mandarin’s mind; as a pantomime, the ballet mimics the action of Lengyel’s scenario, displaying what words would have told us, were there words. The music is violent but dispassionate; Bartók never allows any sympathy for the Outsider – the Außenseiter– to bleed through before the Mandarin finally expires. The work is as cold and cruel as Communism itself but, one senses, in reaction to it, not in endorsement. “It will be hellish music,” wrote Bartók to his wife, and it is.
As one of the tempest-tossed during a particularly tumultuous period in European history – Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, which is today Sânnicolaul-Mare, in Romania, and few of the other places he lived in his native land still remain in modern Hungary. Bartók wound up with the short end of the twentieth century’s musical stick. What had once been part of the Austro-Hungarian empire wound up a rump state squeezed between what was left of Austria and Romania, which swallowed up a chunk of Hungary’s eastern provinces. After the Great War, empires crumbled, dynasties vanished; the revolutions that were bruited across the Continent (but somehow mostly landed in Russia) were revenge writ large for the hash the crowned heads had made of Europe. What was needed, many felt, was a peoples’ revolution, and Marxism provided a ready answer; what few Marxists admitted was that what was needed was a new mandarin class, with themselves as the mandarins.
This was the great, satanic lie of Marxism: that the people would rule. Lenin and his Bolsheviks never had any intentions of allowing the worker’s paradise they preached to actually come to pass. They co-opted the legitimate revolution that had driven the Romanovs from power and purged their rival Mensheviks, among whose early leaders was Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, who switched sides in 1917, around the time of the October Revolution. A fat lot of good it did him: opposing the rise of Stalin got him exiled, first internally, then externally, and, in 1940, assassinated in Mexico City, although the “Trotskyite” wing of the movement continues to live a zombie existence to this day in a few precincts around Manhattan’s Union Square.
To use the word “sides,” however is misleading. In the aftermath of the First World War, there were factions on the Left, but only one side – just as, during the breakdown of the Weimar Republic a few decades later, the Communists and National Socialists were never arguing about what should happen to parliamentary democracy, or how quickly, but only how it should happen. The end of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was announced by Hitler in his surprise assault on his former comrade Stalin, with Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941; the non-aggression agreement, which lasted just shy of two years, had allowed the two Socialist countries to attack and carve up Poland and the Baltics while still circling each other warily, hungrily.
Ever since, the international Left has gone to near-inordinate lengths to try to separate the two forms of socialism in the public mind. In effect, they are forced to argue that the Munich-based National Socialist German Workers Party – which had its roots in the Bavarian Socialist Republic, among other movements of the period – was lying about its commitment to socialism, and more or less included the term in its name in order to fool the unwary. But the Bavarian soviet’s members included both Hitler’s future chauffeur and chief of his Schutzstaffel, Julius Schreck, and the notorious Sepp Dietrich, later a general in the Waffen-SS and the head of the Führer’s personal Leibstandarte, his SS bodyguards. Instead of calling the Leftist Hitler’s political party by its name, today’s Leftists choose to obscure reality by exclusively using the term, “Nazi,” instead, counting on the abbreviation’s invidious connotations to terminate all argument; what’s never explained is that Nazi is simply a shortening of the first word of the party’s name, Nationalsozialistische. The linkage of the two concepts – nationalism and socialism – was intentional from the start.
Mandarins everywhere, each one more ambitious and lethal than the next. Hitler felt no compunction about liquidating his first private army, the brown-shirted SA (the Sturmabteilung) and ordering the assassination of its leader, Ernst Röhm, during the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. Röhm had outlived his usefulness, and besides, the boss had something even more deadly in mind. In the Soviet Union, liquidation was the favored remedy for all enemies of the state, and both Lenin and his successor Stalin availed themselves of it liberally. Periodic purges swept the U.S.S.R. until the day Stalin (and Prokofiev, as we have seen) died, and you could get the chop for any reason, or no reason at all, at the behest of the Fiery Angel. Both Hitler and, especially, Stalin, kept little lists. There’s a memorable scene in Tony Palmer’s film of Shostakovich’s Testimony depicting Stalin sitting alone at his desk, crossing the names of those to be shot off his register, which captures the workaday banality of mass murder perfectly.
Outright treason against either the State or the Leader (the same thing) was punishable by death, but so were such crimes as insufficient zeal in carrying out the political program. Zeal, like rage, is another satanic characteristic, as we know from human history: the lust to put apostasy to death never goes out of style, whether it’s the Spanish Inquisition’s penchant for the auto-da-fé, Savonarola (another mad monk) and his bonfires of the vanities, or the dark crimes against humanity of the modern socialist/Communist states. Nobody likes a zealot: humorless prigs and self-righteous scolds who, if given the chance, easily transition into murderous thugs, convinced they are doing the Lord’s work. Whether religiously or politically motivated, they are the same the world over and down through history. Christians have their St. Paul; others have even worse.
This notion of insufficient zeal is especially pertinent today. One of the advantages Western cultural conservatism has over its Leftist antagonists is a constancy of belief and purpose. The cultural conservative wishes to preserve the past while learning from it – both its lessons and its mistakes – and hoping to affect the future with the knowledge gleaned from a proper study of history. This is not necessarily to endorse that history in its entirety, merely to acknowledge it and accept it for what it is. One can learn little or nothing when one is convinced of the utter righteousness and rightness of his cause; that is to say, if one is a zealot. Tearing down monuments, burning books, and airbrushing (or, now, Photoshopping) historically inconvenient personages from the record of the past is definitionally non-conservative. So is insisting that the past be liquidated for the crime of contemporary wrongthink.
Seen in this light, it is immediately apparent that in its zeal to liquidate the past, the modern international Left has not only made common cause with resentful, reactionary Islam, but also why it has. Both the cultural-Marxist Left and the zealots of Islam are bent on the destruction of the West; to Lukács’s question, each raises its bloody hand to volunteer. That they’ll eventually turn on each other – as the National Socialists and Soviet Communists did (and the cultural Marxists will lose) – is of no moment at the moment. What matters is that the enemy of their enemy is their ally of convenience, until it comes time for thieves, murderers, and cutthroats to fall out. But by then, they believe, the principal object of their animosity will have been vanquished, and thus no matter which of them loses, their side will have won. The zealots, therefore, are the shock troops of the Revolution. But they are not mandarins; they only work for the mandarins – useful idiots, as Lenin famously called the true True Believers.
A true mandarin, on the other hand, believes in nothing except himself and his own self-aggrandizement. These men do not serve the State, the State serves them: it takes care of their financial and physical needs and it helps them exterminate their enemies. In a mandarin-led society, the State is presented as a father figure, if not an actual Big Brother. He may be a boy emperor, a regent, a figment of the imagination – but he does not rule; the mandarins do. And they are opaque. In the Bartók-Lengyel ballet, the titular Miraculous Mandarin is not miraculous because he is a wizard, but because he is immune to physical pain until the girl finally takes pity on him and finds the way, mortally, to his heart. Like his real-life incarnations in bureaucracies everywhere, his intentions are obscure and his motivation well hidden. He is the Other; his attempt to fit in with the commoners is fatal.
We can always spot Mandarins, which is why their professed fealty to the welfare of the common man rings so hollow. Like vampires, they continue to stalk us, seeking more throats into which to sink their gleaming fangs. How, then, can we stop them?