Erik Von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

It is by way of solid compliment to call Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909-1999) a baroque incarnation, like an enfleshment of Salzburg’s Kollegienkirche, for the baroque is an art of overstatement done so elegantly that truth is not distorted. The one glaring understatement I heard from him was, "I dislike specialization" — words baroquely unbaroque in the flamboyance of their diffidence. One of the most florid polymaths I have known spoke eight languages and worked so well in eleven others that sometimes his syntax slid from baroque into rococo, to the frustration of editors.

The universities of Vienna and Budapest taught him law civil and canonical, theology, and political science. Sixteen young years after his birth in Vienna, he became an essayist for the London Spectator and was not yet 21 when he took up residence in Russia as a correspondent for a Hungarian newspaper. Annual research trips took him to "the Subarctic and other regions," and that tally eventually added up to 75 lands. "Most of these countries I have visited on several occasions: Vietnam, for instance, five times and Northern Ireland recently twice." Utterly contemptuous of a certain breed of superior Europeans, he boasted having visited all 50 United States, and added with an imperial air, "including Puerto Rico and the Canal Zone." These journeys produced journalistic commentary for 51 journals in 13 countries, plus four novels and six volumes of political philosophy. The Austrian aristocrat championed America’s Founding Fathers and the Hapsburgs with both fists. Although he would have disdained the term "inculturation" as a modern vulgarism, he took on the local color wherever he was, but more like a peacock than a chameleon.

The 1930s were testing times for faithful Catholics in Austria when brutalism was crucifying the baroque. "When a people’s religion dies, its culture is moribund." As the Nazis annexed his homeland, he left for Washington to teach at Georgetown and, after a second inspection of the Civil War in Spain, he lectured in a few other Catholic colleges on various subjects, including Japanese at Fordham. If he was a dilettante, so was Rubens. Painting, however, was his one blatant mediocrity. He claimed to "enjoy much more wielding the brush than the pen" and began exhibiting in 1971, but unless you liked a frail attempt at Bosch, his esteem of what he painted was singular, and it was a topic we did not discuss.

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My last conversation with the Professor was a year or so before he died, over lunch arranged by his patron and friend William Buckley, who called him "the most fascinating man" he had ever known. Incapable of gracelessness, our host mortified himself by remaining virtually silent as Erik reviewed with me the chronicles of kaisers and crusades from the purview of a world trembling on the brink of an uncivil hell. Not that there was anything dissolutely pessimistic about the Professor’s "extreme conservative arch-liberal" monarchist politics, which were essentially libertarian: "’I’ comes from God, and ‘We’ from the Devil." His heroes included Tocqueville, Burckhardt, and Montalembert, and the last non-specialized endeavor of his closing years was a study of "the spiritual problem of Eros as distinguished from sex." It was a pity that he did not live to see the papacy of Benedict XVI, who echoed some of this Eros in his first encyclical. Nor did he witness the beatification of Emperor Karl, who was the very model of all he meant a king to be.

When war clouds blew away, the Professor made a home for 50 years in the Austrian Tyrol, and singing his joyful Requiem at a gilded altar were grandchildren and great-grandchildren from the three children born to him by his wife, Christiane Goëss, a baroque hybrid of Countess and Doctor of Philosophy. Looking back on three of the cruelest gaucheries against the human race, two of which he had seen first-hand, he had decreed with stentorian confidence: "All forms of totalitarianism, all leftist ideologies, have opposed individualism, reaching their culmination in the French, German and Russian revolutions," and they did this with the aid of "guillotine, gallows, gas chambers, and Gulag."

Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available through Crossroads Publishing.

  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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