by N. Gabriel Martin
When I was younger, I gravitated to conservatism’s deference to the actual. In my suspicion towards the progressive preference for ideas over what just is, it took me a long time to understand that conservatism misunderstands the future and therefore what it is attempting to achieve. Conservatism’s purported ambition to preserve the present and its roots in tradition are also efforts to bring about a different future, and therefore to change the world to suit its designs. However, it took me a long time to understand this self-contradiction at its heart.
In college I had a running argument with my friend Sky about Damien Hirst, the artist most famous at the time for suspending a great white shark in a tank of formaldehyde. Hirst was never my favourite artist (I actually like him more now than I did then), but I defended him because Sky’s dismissal appalled me. In my youth I embraced the culture as if it were a stately home I’d been welcomed into. While I was not uncritical, for me criticism had to come from a well of reverence for what was already there. It was the sanctity of established culture, tradition, and history that made criticising it worthwhile, and so criticism could never undermine that sacredness. Sky, however, criticised Hirst because she preferred a culture without him and what he was doing to it. I never understood that in my twenties, because I couldn’t understand the future.
At that time, the only way to respond to the world that made sense to me was to accept it and affirm it as it was, and comment on it as a passionate, but disinterested, observer. It wasn’t just that I revered tradition, I was also sceptical towards what I saw as the arrogance of progressivism; that it wants to improve upon things and believes it can.
On top of that, I treated culture almost as though it came down fully formed from the heavens. I thought a lot about the history and the transformations it had undergone, but I could not begin to imagine the form such transformations would take tomorrow, or even consider what I might wish for from them. I couldn’t really imagine that the future would be any different from the present.
While the past offers so much that is comprehensible in its luminous concreteness, the future only appears as a hazy extension of our current plans and fears. That’s why I could only imagine a present that carries on unchanged until it fades off into the void. It was because I was so concerned with history and its knowability that my outlook was, paradoxically, ahistorical. I was frozen in time, because I could not imagine that the future would be any different from the present.
This one-sided way of thinking historically is not altogether wrong. The future is, obviously, unknown, and to think that it can be anticipated, predicted, or planned for is as much a denial of the future as the thought that the present will go on without changing. Neither way of facing the future is adequate.
As long as I refused to imagine the future, my affirmation of the present and the history that brought it forth made perfect sense. If the task is not to change the world, but to explore and understand it, then how could protesting against any part of it be any use? What could it even mean? And how could we change the world if the future is nothing besides an indeterminable ‘not-yet’?
The unreality of the future meant that I could exalt the Catholic church’s wealth and ostentation without having to reconcile that with my unbelief in either its tenets or its social benefits. This wasn’t because of some perverse calculus, some idea that the great artistic treasures of Catholicism redeemed it. It made no sense to deplore the age of Christianity, not because it had in any sense been ‘good on balance’—whether or not it had been was irrelevant. I was not interested in justifying the past. It was beyond reproach simply because it was part of what constituted the world I inhabit. Only the fact that the church belongs to the concrete world made it immune to disapproval.
So, my attitude to the events of history was not at all the same as Harry Lime’s in The Third Man. Lime defends his crimes on the grounds that atrocities had provided the destructive energy that fuelled all of history’s creativity: “After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” I didn’t need Lime’s inhumane utilitarianism to justify the past I worshipped, for the simple reason that the past has no need of my justification. It was only because what happened in the past belonged to the past that it was immune, and whatever else Lime’s crimes had in common with those of the Borgia’s they did not have this in common: they were not already accomplished.
I could unconditionally affirm the world I was still entering into, together with all of the violence and darkness that had helped to form it, without having to justify them. They belong to the past and therefore their justification is not related to whether or not ‘similar’ actions, if taken today, could be justified. The Borgias were not redeemed ethically by some shallow utilitarian calculus, they were redeemed simply by having become real.
When it came to the real, I thought, the only thing to do was to embrace it and affirm it. To fail to do so would be a kind of wishful thinking and a way of detaching from reality. It would be a kind of nihilism. Lime’s argument is a self-serving reading of Nietzsche’s affirmation, his ‘saying yes to life.’ However, as an attitude towards a painful and difficult, even horrific, world (rather than as a justification of doing whatever harm you will), affirmation has a lot to recommend it. At the very least, and somewhat contradictorily, it provides an important counterweight to the tempting nihilism of dreaming that things could be otherwise.
However, Nietzsche (who understood the future as well as anyone) brings affirmation into conflict with another principle: overcoming. If we are going to say yes to life, we must also recognise that life is constantly transforming, and that we are transforming what it means to live, giving it new meaning as we live it. This is what took me so long to learn; that to say yes to life is not to preserve it in a museum. Life is not a cabbage that can be pickled or a sweater that can be mothballed. That is not what saying yes to life means, because it is not possible to preserve reality just as it is now, and because if it were possible then that would no longer be life.
What I failed to understand was that to say yes to life is to say yes to change and to a different future. That’s because the future is real, even if it is not concrete. I failed to understand that though I cannot encounter the future the way that I can encounter the past in the present, it is real because I face towards it. The future exists because it is in the future that our goals lie, as Heidegger argued. The meaning of what we do today is in what those things are supposed to accomplish, and so the meaning of what is done today is held in the future.
If I could defend my view that the world must be unconditionally affirmed, I could never at the same time justify actually holding that view. That’s because the justification of this or any other way of acting could only be in the outcome it is supposed to bring about. Whether to lighten your mood or to start a revolution, the purpose of an action (even an action that is confined to thought) always lies at least a little bit ahead. The justification and purpose of affirming tradition lies in the future that I was refusing to acknowledge. And yet, without the future, it was impossible to make sense of my continuing to argue with Sky, and continuing to defend the world as it was. After all, what could be the point of affirming life if not to perform the transformation of life that affirmation would accomplish?
This is the question that now bothers me the most; what was the point of my reverence for tradition and culture? Could it be anything but a conservative reaction against the winds of change? To celebrate the present in that one-sided way is to pretend that it should never be altered. And yet the point of that celebration is to alter it.
My conservatism wasn’t ideologically committed, as I’ve said, it was just a consequence of my inability to understand the future or the little bit of responsibility I bear for creating it. But perhaps every conservatism suffers from this inability to comprehend what it is to live constantly tumbling or leaping ahead of oneself into the future that one is already creating.