Though he was no friend of the Catholic Church, Erich Heller was the enemy of our enemies, and under current circumstances, that should be good enough for us.
The man has been dead for 20 years, and my paperback copy of his most famous book, The Disinherited Mind, has been yellowing for half a century, but he remains our contemporary. It was among the small handful of books I found most useful in understanding the world when I was entering into adulthood; looking back through it now, my admiration for its author is renewed.
In fact, it is only beginning to blossom. For when I first came to it, Heller’s book served me merely as an introduction to a constellation of German writers and thinkers. He led me to Burckhardt, Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, and Karl Kraus. He made me want to learn German, as I began to realize that even Goethe was essentially untranslatable.
Heller gave a glimmering of that discipline called Germanistik — that curious field of the humanities in which poets and thinkers writing in German provide a field of references through which “the world” is to be discussed — and in the broadest sense of that term. It is among the most sublime of academic exercises. Of course, you have to know German to play.
Heller’s thesis passed largely over my head, or rather, right through it. The notion of great writers, trying to supply through Art what they are missing from Religion, is easy enough to understand as a formula, at first. But it becomes harder and harder as one grows to appreciate the enormity of the proposition. For what all the brilliant men listed above had in common — and add in everyone else, from Schiller to Heidegger — was disconnection from the life of faith, along with deep spiritual hunger.
In a sense, each was trying, brilliantly and quite sincerely, to “reinvent the wheel”: to provide the groundwork for an entire civilization that had to be rebuilt entirely by himself.
The thesis applies beyond the Germans. One thinks, for instance, of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and the genuine originality in them. Each, too, is trying to invent a whole civilization, a universe of interdependent symbols and meanings — an internally coherent aesthetic order. They are not unaware of the long past; on the contrary, they are vividly aware of “art history” in a way their ancestors could never have been. They make very witty play on the works of their antecedents. One thinks of Picasso’s endless (and basically empty) reprises on famous old paintings.
The artists, like the poets and philosophers, “know” the tradition; they have “seen” it or “read” it in some practical sense, but they can no longer inhabit it. They can only comment on it by constructing their own symbols and meanings in a mimetic way. They create, as it were, parodies of the tradition. For the profoundest Western tradition is unmistakably Catholic and Christian. It was not founded on symbols and meanings, but rather the symbols and meanings were expressions of faith — of the Truth it embodied, if you will.
Heller’s own “disinheritance” becomes part of this proposition. He is giving an extraordinarily sophisticated account of the black hole at the center of modernity — one that he traced specifically to the works of Francis Bacon. Yet he is a modern himself, an agnostic. He cannot possibly buy into the Judeo-Christian heritage that was his own birthright, also, as a Jew.
But he can see two great things, which converge in an intellectual and spiritual catastrophe. He can see that the finest German minds can only explain things; they cannot embody what they are explaining. And he can see the full horror of the Shoah that was visited upon the Jews by Hitler — the tremendous fact of evil that goes necessarily beyond any possibility of philosophical explanation. Put these two huge facts together, and we come to a proportionately huge conclusion: that Goethe became irrelevant in 1945.
The modern age is over; it died in the 20th century. It had been dying from the moment it was born, in the heresies of Descartes and Bacon — in the very formation of that detached, “scientific” view of the world that made so much technical advance possible. It was a science that was fatally contaminated by scientism from the beginning.
Out of their sincerity, the Germans perhaps struggled hardest to find some “scientific” way to retrieve the wholeness that was lost, when Descartes first split mind from matter, in that all-but-thermonuclear flash that destroyed the old scholastic order.
There are many alternative accounts of the same thing presented by brilliant agnostics. For instance, one of my interests over the years has been in the Austrian Friedrich Hayek — not so much as free-market economist but rather as historian of ideas. In his case, there is an attempt to trace the Enlightenment tendencies to statism and rationalist tyranny back to the same Cartesian and Baconian ideal, in which the material world is separated from the mental and spiritual and comes to be understood as a machine to be manipulated. We could go on and on with this.
The point to which I’m driving is what I imagine to be the central evangelical challenge for the Catholic Church now, in the postmodern No Man’s Land we occupy. It is to return their heritage to the orphaned moderns; to show how the “disinherited mind” is to be overcome by re-inheritance.
It will not be done by arguments and reason, except indirectly, insofar as those arguments point back to Faith. It cannot be done directly through Catechism, which is finally an external. It most certainly cannot be done by sponsoring some movement in society — some trend or fashion.
We cannot escape from the dead end into which modernity has delivered us, even by glimpsing the Truth in Christ that has been concealed. Instead, we must find the means to re-inhabit that Truth in our own persons: to rethink and re-assimilate our knowledge, through minds reanimated by Faith.
Paradoxically, the finest agnostic minds expound the case against their own agnosticism.
Image: Picasso’s Las Meninas