'Who Will Save Us From Western Culture?'
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.