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Last Rites Hardcover – February 24, 2009
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In these writings concerned with his thoughts and beliefs rather than his life per se, the great twentieth-century historian touches on two major themes of his interpretive (and imaginative) A Thread of Years (1997) and At the End of an Age (2002). One is that the modern (or, more properly, Lukacs says, the bourgeois) age is over; its great intellectual construction, liberalism, exhausted. The other, more important, is that history as knowledge is personal and participant. Objective history is impossible, Lukacs maintains, for each person, including the historian and the thinker (lofty or humble) about history, is enmeshed in human relations and has particular perspectives on events. But those philosophical convictions do not monopolize Lukacs here. Vast and public as well as personal matters, including the connections of physics and history, Lukacs’ situation as a man of two nations (Hungary and America), Churchill (the subject of his most famous histories), and in the lovely, musical last chapter, his three wives, also fall within the purview of his thoughtful, measured prose. --Ray Olson
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Top Customer Reviews
Several of the chapters reprise the themes of Lukac's later work -- the end of "bourgeois civilization," the rise of pathological nationalisms, and the corruption of political "conservatism." Like a Wendell Berry turned political historian and philosopher, Lukacs has a unique take on the decline and loss of traditional American sources of strength in the history and traditions of particular places -- our cities, towns, and rural regions.
Lukacs' Hungarian-American Catholic identity colors his conservatism in mildly cranky and endearing ways -- it rounds out the readers' understanding of his perspective -- but it strikes me that his unrelenting interpretation of himself and others (mainly his wives) through the lens of their ethno-religious heritage overstates how much character is conferred through family without reference to class and the economic order. Lukacs seems to think of culture and tradition entirely on the level of ideas which can't exactly be adopted or chosen as they arise from existing culture and tradition. They seem to operate in a kind of closed loop -- chicken or egg? -- either you have them or you do not. That's not an incorrect way to think about healthy cultures, but it is conceptually problematic, and it leaves a lot out. I wish Lukacs had reflected on this.
There is not much awareness in the book of how culture can be fractured by a purely material interest that dominates the economic order. Lukacs describes the end of western, bourgeois civilization as if it just dropped from the sky some time in the 1960s. His memoir suggests he would, in a casual moment, blame the destruction of culture on things like "bad breeding" even though he should see clearly how much family and community life is conditioned if not strongly determined by economics. (In this he is, as he likes to call himself, "a reactionary.") As long as the pure profit motive of capitalism reigns supreme in a divided society where pluralism has always meant racial and class conflict, the redeeming values of bourgeois societies -- like Decency -- do not have much of a chance. As a kind of old center-right liberal Lukacs might correctly blame the coarsening of culture on the failure of the post-war consensus and our inability to limit the influence of power and wealth, but even this would not be enough to give a full account. He should understand very well why the values of European social democracy that he seems to hold would become increasingly divisive toward the end of the last "American century." He should be able to see the ideological and economic toxins of an ascendent neoliberalism that has been willing to exploit extinction anxieties and racial fears to enlist middle class citizens in support of policies that help them destroy themselves. Strangely there is no sign of such awareness.
Lukacs remains a nimble, even youthful thinker behind the cultural curmudgeon who walks out of mass when the priest mentions the Superbowl and speaks romantically about ethnic and religious identities. This latter tic is irritating but also an instructive puzzle to sort out. Lukacs understands his wives and others through their family, religious, and ethno-national formation with such a reflexive essentialism he seems blind to how it depersonalizes them and reduces the idea of the individual in a way common to the nationalisms he deplores. In this, Lukacs himself shares the kind of Romanticism of tradition that turns into an idolatry of collective Identity, and in others a worshiping of blood and soil. There is a very short trip from this conservatism of tradition and place to something very nasty that betrays it. Perhaps this is because Lukacs shares a few of the traits of Umberto Eco' "Ur-Fascism" which may be benign or healthy if they are not radicalized. It is a risk every conservatism and every custos traditio must hazard.
What seems to protect the appropriate liberality and love men like Lukacs have for their time and place is their acceptance of limits. For others a flash of anger and fear at loss -- real loss -- turns them to try to exceed themselves and their place in time to control their destiny and that of "their people." Tradition and culture become reified, ossified words, political idols used as weapons in culture wars. Lukacs seems to intuit that one can only enjoy but not instrumentalize and use the things that are most worthy of love -- not even to save them. In one reflection on Johann Huizinga's famous insights into late medieval civilization -- and the dawn of bourgeois civilization -- Lukacs notes Americans remain late medievals, perhaps through our predominant Calvinist ethos that tends to literalize and oversimplify its ideals:
"A too systematic idealism gives a certain rigidity of the conception of the world ....Men disregarded the individual qualities and the fine distinctions of things, deliberately and of set purpose, in order to always bring them under some general principle....What is important is the impersonal. The mind is not in search of individual realities, but of models, examples, norms....There is in the Middle Ages a tendency to ascribe a sort of substantiality to abstract concepts."
Lukacs, in his own Romanticism, does this too, but he also remains a man of distinctions, open to the diversity and plenitude of the world, even if this means facing the death of all the things he has loved. Lukacs finds no despair in this, because he keeps finding the good and reminding himself that history does not repeat, what comes about is often unexpected, one might not see things others do, and there is the possibility of being wrong. Only by following this pattern of humble, loving openness to reality and the future can a good society be realized and renewed.
His voice (as past readers will be aware) is strong in its opinions and strong in its expression. Those are good things. Even if one does not agree with him his firm views cast the issues in bold relief and prompt reflections on them. He is particularly hard on a few academic idols, but that is, as often as not, refreshing. His views on history are, of course, deeply considered and they are very suggestive and useful.
There is a sadness in his voice, a sadness born of experience and, he would say, Hungarianness. At the same time, there is joy and affection throughout. He has said that he has had a happy unhappy life (which is preferable to an unhappy happy one). This book explains that feeling and it exhibits a sensibility which is simultaneously traditional and unique, sad but hopeful, wise but a bit fearful. It is a very special sensibility, one that his readers will treasure.
Why not Hungary? It's where he was born. There's no fault in being born in Hungary; the great advantage is leaving and thus bringing an intelligent foreign perspective to British and American history. Most folks born in a country grow up with various assumptions; intelligent immigrants ask "Why?" and thus provide a deeper insight.
Every reader can disagree with some of Lukacs' conclusions; on a personal basis, I think the English people detest bullies and Winston Churchill reflected that attitude -- not vice versa. The end result is the same, we differ on the process.
That is the charm of history, and the priceless contribution of
Lukacs. No intelligent person can read Lukacs without having at least a few comfortable old assumptions reaffirmed, or challenged, and sometimes upset.
This book is a gem which explains how much of his historical insights came about. It didn't take more than a few pages before I went back to the listing and hit the "1-Click" button for another copy to send to a friend. I'll order more, because this is a book to read, to ponder and to share with friends.
"The American, Benjamin Franklin trumpted, is a self-made man. Not more than a half truth (and so many half-truths are worse than are lies). I am not a self-made American. I have not dismissed my ancestry," Lukacs writes. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.
Lukacs is a self-made American, somewhat as President Barack Obama with a Kenyan father, born in Hawaii and raised overseas for some years is a self-made American. The best are those who blend their ancestry and their dreams and their lives into a conscious choice as citizens. Every country deserves to have such people, and the world would be better if more countries did so.
It is this "wanderlust" that greatly contributes to enlightenment and progress; nothing is as good as a visitor or an immigrant who asks "Why?"
Not all immigrants are so gifted, and I include myself among the ungifted; but, allow me to pay tribute to a man who is a perfect immigrant.
The man is a gem, and this book adds sparkle to his qualities.