Cinema Film Noir The Problem of Evil

Nobody Lives Forever: A Lenten Reflection on Film Noir


In recent years I have come to love the cinematic genre known as film noir. Noir has always had a fairly substantial following among film aficionados since its heyday in the late 1930s through the early 1950s. That has been helped in large part by the continuing general popularity of a few of the most iconic noir movies, such as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, and The Big Sleep. If you are, like me, a Turner Classic Movies junkie, its continuing appeal (at least to a certain type of television viewer) is pretty apparent.

I have tried to articulate to myself why this genre of film is so compelling—foggy nights, clever wise cracks, the palpable danger that seeps from every crevice of the setting and the plot. Then there are the trench coats and the fedoras—what would a noir film be without these? In other words, there is something terribly romantic (in the old sense of the word) about it. In that kind of a setting something interesting is bound to happen.

In Amor Towles’ book A Gentleman in Moscow, Osip Ivanovich Glebnikov, chief administrator of the Soviet Secret Police, has meetings over several decades with Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who is imprisoned in the Metropol, a luxury hotel in downtown Moscow. Osip has Count Rostov teach him Greek and Latin, as well as Western history and literature. He is trying to know his enemy, the free West, better than his enemy knows itself.

Osip specifically wants to understand America, the Soviets’ chief adversary in the Cold War. And one of the ways he thinks would be best to do this is to watch American movies. So, together the two men watch Marx Brothers’ comedies, musicals, even horror films. Osip concludes from these that Hollywood’s role in American society was social stability:

“Just look at their depression,” he said. “From beginning to end it lasted ten years …. If ever there had been a time for the American worker to cast off the yoke, surely that was it. But did they join their brothers-in-arms? Did they shoulder their axes and splinter the doors of the mansions? Not even for an afternoon. Instead, they shuffled to the nearest movie house, where the latest fantasy was dangled before them like a pocket watch at the end of a chain.”

With cinema, he thought, “the Yanks had apparently discovered how to placate the entire working class at the cost of a nickel a week.” “Hollywood,” said Osip “is the single most dangerous force in the history of class struggle.”

Or so he argues, until he discovers film noir.

Noir films were the one genre that seemed to defy Osip’s theory. “What is this?” he asks. “Who is making these movies?” The two men watch This Gun for Hire, Shadow of a Doubt, and Double IndemnityFrom one to the next they seem to Osip to depict an America in which “corruption and cruelty lounge on the couch; in which justice is a beggar and kindness a fool; in which loyalties are fashioned from paper and self-interest were fashioned from steel.”

Film noir makes no effort to tidy up the underbelly of American society. In fact, it seems to revel in the dark side of our culture. Whether we agree with Osip in his theories about American movies (and there is a certain plausibility to them), his description of film noir is compelling and insightful.

One of the major themes of film noir is the allure of evil. In the movie Out of the Fog , Stella Goodwin (played by Ida Lupino) is enamored of the low-level hood Harold Goff (played by John Garfield) precisely because he is dangerous. He offers her a way out of the mundane safety of home. As viewers, we are drawn to it ourselves in strange ways.

The problem of the attraction of evil in literature has a long history, perhaps the most famous example being Paradise Lost, which was the occasion of some criticism directed at Milton because his Satan is so much more compelling than the good angels (not to mention God Himself). Was this because Milton made him so? Or is it because evil, by its very nature, is more compelling? If the latter is the case, it would explain a whole lot of human behavior—in movies and in real life.

Then there is the opposite theme: the compelling nature of seeing justice done. Justice is one of the sine qua nons of any good story (to which I would add freedom and order). Again, in Out of the Fog, Officer Magruder (played by Robert Homans), discovers that two fishing buddies have killed Goff because he had been extorting money from them. Magruder does not report the crime, however, because he is satisfied by the justice of what has happened, even if the act itself was technically illegal—a satisfaction we as viewers share. We watch Dirty Harry or The Equalizer precisely for this reason: We like seeing justice done—even if (and sometimes especially if) it happens outside the bounds of the formal legal system.

Justice, of course, is a double-edged sword. If we rely on the ancient Greeks’ definition—that justice is giving to each man his due—that would mean not only that the bad guy gets it in the end, but that the good guy gets it in the end as well. Except that the thing the bad guy gets is the evil he practiced, and the thing the good guy gets is something of the good he performed. In a noir film, many times you get both.

Noir films tend to mostly resolve with this natural justice of the Greeks, but occasionally we see something more—a higher justice, a Christian justice—that goes beyond the limitations of what one has coming to him—a kind of justice that we know, as Christians, is the truer justice, which we call Grace.

In Nobody Lives Forever, Nick Blake (played by John Garfield, who also played Goff in Out of the Fog) is a soldier who has been released from the Army after the war and is recuperating in a military hospital across the bay from New York City, where he grew up. Before going to war he was a small time but successful mobster, and he is looking forward to returning to settle down peacefully with his girlfriend, whom he had left in charge of $50,000. But when he finds her she claims to have lost his money. She is now working with another man, with whom she now has both a professional and personal relationship. Disappointed and angry, Nick forcibly takes money from his girlfriend’s new boyfriend and leaves without his girlfriend for Los Angeles.

In LA he runs into a former underworld partner from New York, Doc Gansen (played by George Coulouris), with whom Nick had worked in Florida before the War. Gansen is down on his luck but has identified a rich widow staying at a nearby luxury hotel, ripe for exploitation. He does not have the up front money or charm he will need to bring the caper off, and he needs the money badly. He knows Nick has the skills (and the money) needed for what he has planned, and convinces him—for a share of the proceeds—to get close to her and closer to her money. Nick takes a room at the tony Marwood Arms Hotel, posing as the owner of a fleet of salvage vessels. He hopes to convince the widow and her business manager to invest her money in his fake business. For his part in the scam, Nick demands two-thirds of the money with the desperate but dissatisfied Gansen settling for the rest.

Nick Blake, posing now as Nick Lloyd, learns quickly that the widow is trusting and vulnerable. But she is also beautiful, with a beauty that is more than skin deep. She quickly falls in love with him—which, of course, was part of the plan. The trouble is that he also falls in love with her, which was not part of the plan at all.

Like all great dramas, the conflict is more than external—more than that between two characters or two dramatic forces. There is certainly extrinsic conflict in the movie, mostly among the hoods involved in the scam themselves. But the conflict in almost every great story is in the soul of the protagonist. And it is in the soul of the hoodlum Nick Blake where the real battle occurs.

All his life Blake has been surrounded by people who were out for themselves. He grew up a hoodlum among hoodlums. All his friends and associates (save one, Pop Gruber, played by Walter Brennan) are looking out for their own interests, and have attached themselves and their destinies to him only in order to serve themselves. The girlfriend he returns to from the Army has no real concern for him either. To her he was just another way of furthering her own interests. Nick Blake is completely immersed in the Order of Selfishness.

But in the figure of the widow Gladys Halvorsen (played by Geraldine Fitzgerald), Blake encounters something almost completely outside his experience: Here, for the first time, he discovers an utterly unselfish person, one whose love for him is also completely unselfish. His friends begin to notice the inordinate pleasure he takes in her company. They begin to worry about his commitment to the scam, and they begin questioning his motives. But Blake is by this time questioning his own motives; he realizes he is falling in love with her.

Nick and Gladys have been spending their days at a beach cottage he has rented. But one day she asks him if they can do something else. She wants to surprise him, she says, and the next day takes him to the Mission at San Juan Capistrano. They walk through the beautiful gardens and the centuries-old structures of the Old Spanish mission and then come to a door. “Can we go in here?” he asks. “Yes,” she says, and they walk into the church. Here he sees in the sacred statuary what he has seen in Gladys herself. He has lived in the Order of Selfishness, but now is fully confronted with the Order of Selflessness. He is stricken to silence, and Gladys, not understanding what he is thinking, wonders openly if she has ruined his day by taking him there. He protests unconvincingly that she has not.

Nick cannot yet comprehend what is happening to him, but he does realize that he cannot go through with the deception. She is completely at his mercy, but he cannot cheat her now. He refuses to accept the “investment” money Gladys’ business manager offers him, and that had been the whole purpose of his original intention. He begins pulling up the stakes on the operation. He decides that he will pay off the partners in the scam with his own money and that the best thing for Gladys is for him to leave town before she realizes who he really is.

She has been unselfish toward him, and now he, who set out to cheat her, is being unselfish toward her. He is on the verge of becoming a good person. 

But Blake’s past has been slowly catching up with him. The bellhop at the hotel recognized him when he first came, and has begun to talk. His girlfriend from New York has arrived trying to resume her relationship with Blake, and Gladys’ business manager has become suspicious and has shared his concerns with the local district attorney. On the day that Gladys confesses to her manager that she is the happiest she has been in her life, he finds out that Nick Lloyd is really Nick Blake, the New York con man, and he shares his discovery with unbelieving Gladys.

Nick comes to Gladys’ room, not knowing what she has been told who he really is, and agrees to meet her at 5:00 p.m. in the hotel bar, while he really plans on leaving town by 4:00, never to see her again. Suspecting he may not keep the appointment, she goes to his room where she finds Nick packing. In the climactic scene in the movie, she confronts him with what she now knows.

“Nick,” she says, closing the door, “tell me the truth. Is your name Blake?” Not knowing that she has found him out, he has greeted her with a smile, but now the smile—and with it the whole mask—comes off.

“Yes. Who told you?” She then relates what she has been told. She realizes that Nick had not planned to meet her in the bar at all when she notices him packing.

“But Nick, you’re …. There are so many things that I don’t understand,” she says, her voice betraying, again, her innocence.

“Just forget the whole business. Nobody’s hurt. I might as well say goodbye now,” he says as he stuffs his clothes in his bags.  There is no sense in denying what she already knows. But, despite knowing now the ugly truth of the situation, she still protests.

“I just can’t say goodbye like this. You say that nobody’s hurt. I am.”

“But you could have been hurt worse,” he assures her, stuffing papers into his briefcase. “You’re a nice woman, I’m just a guy trying to take your dough, that’s all.” She realizes that he was in the process of abandoning his plan to cheat her even before she had found out who he was.

“Then why didn’t you take it when Charles offered it to you?”

Stung by her insight, he dissembles. “Maybe I got wind of something. Maybe I figured the longer I put off your manager the bigger the take.” At this point she knows who he is and that their entire relationship was a set up to get her money. But she knows something more.

“You refused the money on my account didn’t you? Because after that day at Capistrano you just couldn’t ….”

“What’s the difference? We were a hundred-to-one shot. Believe me, we’re two different kinds of people.  Go home. Stick with those you know. Pretty soon you’ll forget the whole thing.”

“I don’t want to forget. I love you. You can start all over again.” Until this point in the conversation he has mostly avoided her gaze, but he turns to her now and answers with what he thinks is an undeniable truth:

“Guys like me don’t change,” he says.

But Gladys knows him better than he knows himself, and she knows that he is wrong about himself. She knows the Great Secret of the World—that guys like him can change. And it is at this point that the movie transforms itself from what has until this point been a good noir film to a great Hollywood classic. He is leaving her—not because he doesn’t love her, but because he does, and she sees this. Gone is the selfishness. He is now sacrificing his own good for hers.

Blake has spent most of his life deceiving people. And in order to deceive people, you need to know how they think. You need to know people better than they know themselves. This is the way evil is commonly portrayed: as being wiser than the good. The theme of the vulnerability of innocence in the face of evil is not an uncommon one in literature.

In his novel Billy Budd Herman Melville cast a character who is so utterly innocent that he has no understanding of evil whatsoever, and it leads to his downfall. In the act of creating such a character as Billy Budd, Melville implicitly proposes the question: Can a completely innocent person understand evil at all? 

This theme appears too in Jane Eyre, but accompanied by an answer. Here the cynical Rochester, who has traveled the world and experienced all the pleasures life has to offer, articulates to his young and inexperienced governess Jane his vision of himself as a lost and degraded person. As he sits by the fire in the dark house and articulates to Jane his nihilist view of life, Jane, in spite of her innocence, simply but confidently articulates what is, in essence, the Christian vision of reality–that the Good is greater than evil, and that there is hope even for him. Rochester thinks he sees the world more clearly through darkness, but Jane knows the the simple truth that all things are seen clearer in the light.

Of course, Melville’s question is answered once and for all in the character of Christ, who is the only human who could really be said to be completely innocent, and who yet—since He is also God—understood evil so perfectly that He was able to defeat it. Not only is innocence able to understand evil, it is the only thing that can subdue it. Darkness has no power to extinguish the light because darkness is nothing in itself. But light has the power to quench darkness.

In C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the author portrays Screwtape as wiser and more knowing than his unfortunate targets. He seems to know them better than they know themselves. This is how he is able to manipulate his sinners in the way he does. The schemer, the scammer, the swindler, the scoundrel—they survive on their wits, and so their wits seem sharpened to a razor’s edge.

But there is one character in The Screwtape Letters who is wiser even than the senior devil Screwtape—and more clever—and it is a character who isn’t actually in the book. It is the character outside and over the book, the character who is not a character, but who is the author himself. Screwtape is the creation of Lewis, of course, and it is in Lewis’ own cleverness in creating him that shows that evil is not as clever as it seems. Screwtape may be able to see right through his subjects, but Lewis sees right through Screwtape. 

The innocence of the angelic Gladys does not prevent her from seeing the worldly-wise Nick in a way that he cannot see himself: It is the very thing that allows her to see it. “You have changed,” she says. “What does it matter what you were? We love each other.”

She doubts herself only briefly, when a look comes over her face, a look of doubt and fear. She raises her hand to finger the bow on her neck in a gesture of vulnerability, “I supposed I should have realized,” she pauses,–“that that was also a part of the deal.” She is tempted for one moment to believe that the good she has seen in Nick is a mirage.

But this is too much for Blake. “No it wasn’t. Believe me, it wasn’t.” Although she doubts the reality of his love for her for a moment, what she has seen is, in fact, real.

Doc Gansen, thinks this was Nick’s plan all along—to marry the widow and take all her money for himself. So he kidnaps her. In the final scene, Nick’s one truly loyal friend—the only person who bothered to send him packages during the War, Doc Gruber—saves Nick and Gladys’ life by shooting Gansen. His dying words to Nick, “Nobody lives forever,” seem to put a period on the main message of the movie: Life is short, but there are things that are longer—things like loyalty and friendship and love.

Few noir movies, as great as many of them are, reach this height of vision. That such a great message could come from so dark a film could be considered a paradox. But it is this very paradox that is at the heart of Christianity:

But unmeasured of plummet and rod

Too deep for their sight to scan,

Outrushing the fall of man

Is the height of the fall of God.

It is this very paradox that Chesterton sees: That the God of the Universe would appear in the form of lowly man whose death and Resurrection would save the souls of undeserving sinners, serving to remind us that nobody lives forever, and that, in another sense, some of us actually do.

Architecture Modernism

Classical Buildings in a Modern Age: An Interview with Allan Greenberg


The following is an interview with architect Allan Greenburg about the relevance of classical architecture in the modern world. This version of the interview is adapted from an essay originally published in the Fall 1996 issue of American Arts Quarterly and was published in the March/April 1997 issue of The American Enterprise. It is published here with the kind permission of the American Enterprise Institute.

TAE: You’ve been an outspoken critic of the inappropriate designs used for many of the public buildings erected in the U.S. since about the 1950s. One building you’ve focused a lot of attention on is the courthouse. What’s wrong with the way most courthouses are built these days?

Mr. Greenberg: I first became involved in courthouse projects in the 1970s, and I discovered that new courthouses are often seen by nearly every segment of the population—judges, attorneys, jurors, staff, and the public—as disappointing. A Modern courthouse’s public spaces are often unfortunately similar to those of a motor vehicle department or a second- or third-grade commercial office building. The lobbies, corridors, and foyers are often dull, unadorned, seemingly leftover spaces. The message communicated to attorneys, witnesses, jurors, litigants, and the taxpaying members of the public is that they are not important enough to warrant special attention being paid to their need for intellectual and visual stimulation, clear orientation, and physical comfort.

TAE: How does this differ from the message transmitted by a traditional courthouse?

Mr. Greenberg: Many old courthouses have grand public spaces, which still convey an aura of dignity despite what some would consider to be their obsolescence. In the great eighteenth or early nineteenth century courthouses and in other civic buildings of that time, the main public spaces were the most beautiful spaces in the building, because they were the ones where the public was. The fact that the public spaces in an old courthouse provide more than the bare minimum of both quantity of space and quality of design is a celebration of human values and a demonstration of concern for the well-being of everyone using the courthouse. Even when they are overcrowded, they usually provide a sense of order.

TAE: What about attempts to shape courtroom interiors in a more up-to-date way?

Mr. Greenberg: There have been many ideas for reconfiguring the courtroom. One of them is the courtroom in the round. The problem with this is that it violates the symbolism that a courtroom ought to have. The equality implied by a circular form fails to differentiate between the trial participants and to express their roles. The shape of the room and the placement of the furniture and participants in a traditional American courtroom are not arbitrarily arrived at; they grow out of the American view of law. In the United States, a judge is an impartial arbiter and is therefore positioned on a raised podium in the center of the front of the room. Defense and prosecution are equal adversaries assigned tables in the well of the courtroom, facing the judge. The jury box is placed on the side, purposely divorced from the axial relationship of judge, counsel, and public. This placement reflects the impartiality of the jurors who must decide guilt or innocence.

The formal arrangement and design of the courtroom reflects society’s views of the appropriate relationship between a person accused of a crime and judicial authority. Seen in this light, the traditional American courtroom layout is a unique and valuable representation of our system of justice and its orientation toward the rights of the accused. It is not a set of functional relationships that can be changed at will.

TAE: Is there a particular reason why courthouses and other important public buildings, until recent decades, were often designed in a Classical style?

Mr. Greenberg: When Thomas Jefferson designed the Virginia State Capitol and Supreme Court, he based the design on a Roman temple because he wanted to express the continuity of Classical ideas of democracy and rule of law, which were being realized anew in the American republic. Jefferson wanted to demonstrate the intellectual traditions to which Americans were heir, and to signal the greatness to which this country aspired. Classicism is a language that expresses high, democratic aspirations. The exterior character of a courthouse and its relationship to its surroundings declare our conception of the law’s role in society.

TAE: But we’re not living in the eighteenth century. Is the Classical architectural language comprehensible to Americans today?

Mr. Greenberg: Classicism is the most comprehensive architectural language that human beings have yet developed. I maintain that Classical architecture is still the most potent, the most appropriate, and the most noble language to express the relationship of the individual to the community in a republican democracy. Classical architecture’s fundamental subject is the connection between the individual human being and the community—between citizen and government. It’s no accident that Classical architecture’s birth coincided with the birth of the ideal of democratic government in Athens nearly 3,000 years ago.

TAE: What is it about Classicism that expresses a relationship to human beings?

Mr. Greenberg: A Classical building uses the human figure as the crucial measure of all things. The ancient Greeks used columns and statues of people interchangeably. Columns typically have capitals, like human heads, forming their tops, and they have bases corresponding to feet. The function of the ankle—to transmit the body’s weight through the feet to the ground—is performed architecturally by plinths and base moldings. To strengthen the anthropomorphic quality, the upper two thirds of the column shafts have a slight taper, which creates a widened base, like a person with his feet spread solidly apart for balance and stability. This taper—the term for it is entasis—infuses the column with vitality. Similarly, the three-part division of the human body into legs, torso, and head is paralleled by a Classical building’s plinth, walls and columns, and roofs—in other words, base, middle, and top.

One of the jobs that influenced me in the 1960s was a new courthouse I worked on designing in Alexandria, Virginia. The job eventually fell through, but I approached it as a Classical architect trying to solve problems in the mid-twentieth century, and the building seemed so much more significant than it would otherwise have been. I seemed able, through the mechanism of this architecture, to talk about ideas that the judges found very important. When the judges talked about a dignified building, and they showed me old courthouses in Virginia, and then I showed them a brick, Georgian-inspired courthouse I was designing, we seemed able to communicate in a way that my associate architect, who was developing more modernistic solutions for the judges at the same time, was not able to do. I sensed that if one wanted to seriously discuss ideas about architecture with a client, one had to work in a language of architecture with which the client was familiar, one for which they could cite examples.

TAE: Were there other reasons for your movement toward Classical architecture?

Mr. Greenberg: Beyond the fact that I found it much easier to talk to the public in public hearings and to my clients through the medium of Classical architecture, I was also able to answer one of my earlier challenges: how to build in cities, because the vast majority of successful buildings in cities, past and present, are Classical buildings. Let me give you some examples. The City Beautiful movement in the United States initiated and helped articulate the transformation of American cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in an extraordinarily successful way. The great parks and public buildings of New Haven, the expansion of the Yale campus where I taught in the 1960s and ’70s, were built under this set of ideas. The great bridges of New York and other cities were a product of this great movement. This happened all over the country.

Tradition is a source book. For a classical architect, the past is a series of case studies, which can teach you different lessons about formal manipulation, about construction, about social, political, and other urbanistic questions—about how these challenges were resolved in the past. The past is not dead. It is active and there for you to study. It is relevant.

TAE: One of the obstacles to traditional design is that relatively few architects today possess enough knowledge to practice it well. Did you have someone who brought you along in this?

Mr. Greenberg: No. But before I went to Europe and then to the United States, I studied at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, a school whose leading light was Rex Martienson, who had been one of the first disciples of [the powerful Modernist] Le Corbusier. Along with two and a half years or three years of a Bauhaus approach to architecture, we also had two and a half years of rigorous Classical education. We studied the history of architecture by the comparative method, where you do measured drawings, to scale, of great buildings. So at the end of five and a half years of schooling, you had a vocabulary of 100 buildings which you knew by heart, by dimension. The great buildings of architectural history were mixed into one’s architectural brain cells. We were exposed not only to the history of style but to the history of construction. We learned how Romans built their bridges, how medieval masons built their vaults, how lime and mortar were used in English buildings, and so on.

I kept asking myself, Why is it that the work of the past is so much richer and more urbane than our work today? The buildings of Le Corbusier are fabulous architecture. His buildings moved me in a very deep way, but I sensed there was something about his approach that was destructive.

TAE: Did this have to do with the Modernist tendency to make each building stand out from its surroundings rather than create coherent groupings and unified streetscapes?

Mr. Greenberg: As an architect, I was awed that for over a thousand years, architects and builders in London had added to the beauty of the city, whereas some of the new buildings I saw seemed to divorce themselves from their context and not play a part in this process of accretion. Contrast is a singularly limiting way to relate buildings to a city.

TAE: Do you see widespread use being made of Classicism or tradition today, particularly in civic buildings?

Mr. Greenberg: No. The federal government, the state public works departments, and cities’ public works departments are peopled by architects who graduated from schools in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s and who know little, if anything, about Classical architecture or the larger role that architecture can play in embodying the fundamental ideals of a society and reminding people what those ideals are.

TAE: Are schools and magazines and journals becoming more receptive?

Mr. Greenberg: Yes, but not much. The curriculum at most architecture schools is unique for being so biased, for ignoring so many fundamental factors of nineteenth and twentieth century architecture—a level of bias that would be laughed out of any department of history or political science or English literature. On the positive side, there is a school in New York that teaches Classical architecture part-time, at night. At the University of Notre Dame, you can study Classical architecture and emerge as a competent Classical designer. Architectural magazines are a little more open to publishing Classical buildings than they were in the past. The most significant development, I think, is that there are probably 50 or 60 offices across the U.S. doing this kind of work, whereas 20 years ago there were one or two or three.

TAE: What’s needed for Classicism to really flower again?

Mr. Greenberg: What it needs is a President of the United States who knows about and is interested in architecture. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but the welfare of architecture in the U.S. has, to a large extent, reflected the interest of a great President. Washington designed Mount Vernon and was very interested in architecture. Jefferson was maybe our greatest architect ever. Madison was interested in architecture. For these people, the architecture of Washington, D.C., and the Capitol, and the public buildings was very important. Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt were very interested. So were Coolidge, and Hoover, which is how the Federal Triangle came into being.

I think a President who is interested in architecture could make a big difference.

Before classicism can again occupy a central place in our lives, a monstrous libel must first be undone. Throughout much of the twentieth century, influential segments of the art world have accused classicism of opposing freedom—an allegation that continues to unjustly undermine classicism’s influence.

A commonplace in the aesthetic education of my generation was the easy dismissal of contemporary classicist architecture as “fascist.” Monumentality, symmetry, mass; the Classical vocabulary of column, arch, dome, and architrave; the use of dressed stone; the sculpted figure—these were, especially in combination, the signals for scoffing. If the offending architecture were safely old, it would be forgiven, but if built in our century it would be linked to Hitler and Mussolini.

The association of classicism with fascism and Nazism extended beyond architecture to Classical painting, music, verse, sculpture, theater, and dance. Even today poets who write in strict metrical form, painters who honor the ideals of harmony, firmness, and utility, actors and directors who tell a coherent story and provoke an audience’s identification with sympathetic characters can be accused of crypto-fascist tendencies by avant-garde critics.

Hitler and Mussolini are claimed to be artistic conservatives who used the vocabulary of classicism, especially in architecture, to express their political ideology. Since the fascists rejected modernist art and persecuted those who practiced it, the logical conclusion was that artistic modernism stood for freedom of human expression, while traditional art meant the suppression of creative impulses and the destruction of personal liberty. Or so went the accusation.

This argument, despite some surface plausibility, is riddled with false assumptions. It is simply not true that the regimes of Hitler and Mussolini were conservative. Their policies were radical reversals of traditional relations in their societies. Hitler’s party was called the National Socialist Workers’ Party, and it is disingenuous to pretend that it did not mean what its name implies. Mussolini’s early career and mental formation were those of a socialist, and his program of public works, central control over the means of production, and a national bureaucracy for the general welfare was not profoundly different from the policies of Mao Tse Tung, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il Sung. After five decades of leftist obfuscation and apologetics, it is at last becoming clear that fascism, socialism, and communism were but three competing branches of left-wing ideology. All three shared a suspicion of international banking, hereditary inequality, inherited family wealth, laissez-faire capitalism, individualism, ethnic otherness, and Jews. All three saw the collective social organism as the true unit of humanity. All three, claiming to be creating genuine equality, sought compulsory measures to encourage a sense of mass communion.

Certainly Hitler encouraged Albert Speer to create a new Classical architecture for the Third Reich. Mussolini, too, favored classicizing art and architecture. But as Leon Krier argues in his essay “An Architecture of Desire,” Hitler’s choice of style may have contradicted his revolution’s spirit. The appropriate expression for an efficient totalitarian order, presided over by a planning bureaucracy, and predicated on reducing the individual to a cog in the machine, would surely have been Bauhaus or International Style. The fact that Hitler and his lieutenants preferred Classical art and architecture for themselves is no more significant than the fact that they preferred Cuban cigars and French wine: Classical art was the best quality art available. The corresponding fact that Hitler chose Classical art and architecture as an instrument of his propaganda proves only that as a P.R. man, he knew what he was doing: the Classical art vocabulary is the most expressive and persuasive yet created, and its beauty and grandeur would be the most effective disguise for the regime’s crushing regimentation and savage horrors.

The closer one looks at the classicism = fascism equation, the more fantastic it becomes. Mussolini took a while before he abandoned his modernist razionalismo Italiano (which nicely expressed the spirit of the machine-gun by which his armies subdued Ethiopia) and adopted a more classical look, using it to appeal to the humanity and self-sacrifice of the Italian people. Communist art and architecture in the Soviet Union went through exactly the same correction, from the modernist constructivism that truly expressed the spirit of the Gulag, to the triumph of classical idiom, putting a humane facade on an inhuman regime.

If classicism were the ideology of history’s villains, we would not find a modern classicism blossoming in the first half of the century in the world’s most enlightened, free, and democratic nations. A splendid renaissance of Classical architecture took place in the Scandinavian countries, in Austria, and in France. There was a flowering of Classical forms in architecture, music, literature, and other arts in the U.S., especially in the 1930s.

Rather than accept the fallacy that classicism is inherently illiberal and reactionary, a historian could argue that the perennial association of Classical style with Greek democracy, Roman republicanism, Renaissance humanism, and Enlightenment intellectual liberation makes it the appropriate vehicle for the political ideals of liberty and the consent of the governed. The marvelous organic rhythm by which Classical forms integrate fine detail and large intermediate forms into the grand compositional lines of the whole—an art with an infinity of possible variations—is an apt way of representing democracy’s talent for reconciling individuality, intermediate institutions of civil society, and the general public interest.

By contrast, the frequently harsh innovations of modernist art, which reject the mysterious practices of tradition, suggest that modernism is in fact the appropriate expression of the totalitarian state. Political conservatism is not the enemy of freedom—revolutions that overturn tradition tend to result in states that are more, not less, oppressive than their predecessors. The more radically a revolution seeks to change the existing order, the more tyrannical and coercive the regime that follows. The English Civil War of 1640 that overthrew Charles Stuart created the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell. The English then sensibly carried out a conservative counter-revolution, restoring the monarchy and ushering in three centuries of gradual and prosperous transition to democratic liberty.

At the level of individual artists, the “classicism = fascism” equation falls even further into disrepute. There is evidence that many modernist artists enthusiastically courted Nazi, fascist, and communist regimes. The modern free-verse poet Ezra Pound toadied to Mussolini. Bauhaus artists sought commissions in Nazi Germany until they got discouraged by the cold reception. In 1932, Italian modernists staged a triumphant “Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution.”

Meanwhile, Toscanini, the giant of Classical music, defied Mussolini and fled to America. Thomas Mann, perhaps the most artistically conservative novelist of his time, did likewise. The only English-speaking poet who foresaw the “rough beast” of totalitarian terror and gave it its true name was the conservative classicist William Butler Yeats.

Of course there were heroic modernist artists and writers who opposed twentieth-century totalitarianism, and classicists and traditionalists who supported totalitarianism. I do not intend to simply exchange one set of libel victims for another. But I do wish to dissolve the subtle moral and political righteousness that still attends modernist and now postmodernist art. The new emerging classicism of our era should not be burdened by the malicious notion that it is connected to the forces of evil.

Logic philosophy

The Surprising Logic of the World


Memoria College professor Dan Sheffler’s new article in The Classical Teacher:

The study of logic is the study of that which makes sense, the study of those structures that necessarily must be in order for things to hang together without contradiction. The Greeks called the intelligible structure of something its logos, and this is where we get our word. These necessary structures, these logoi, are not things that we make up in our heads or record in our books. They are all around us, everywhere, the basic fabric of the world we inhabit.

Read the rest here.

Medieval philosophy philosophy theology Thomas Aquinas

All God’s Instruments


Memoria College tutor Thomas Cothran, writing at Eclectic Orthodoxy, about St. Thomas Aquinas’ position on the problem of predestination:

God causes all of our actions, including our acts of choosing. He does not merely give mankind the power of choice, he causes the act of choosing itself. We are mere instruments of God’s will. Such is the view of St. Thomas Aquinas. But St. Thomas also believes that human beings choose freely, and that the dependence of human volition in its every movement on God does not violate human freedom. On its face, St. Thomas’ view appears paradoxical, even contradictory. And yet a number of recent religious thinkers appeal to the medieval Dominican in their own attempts to reconcile divine providence and human freedom.

The discussion in the over fifty responses to the article is also worth reading. You can read it here.

Atheism Bertrand Russell Christianity Existence of God Frederick Copleston

The Most Famous Debate on the Existence of God

An excellent article on one of the great modern philosophical events:

On January 28, 1948, the BBC brought together two of the century’s brightest minds for a radio debate about the existence of God. To be sure, the debaters were not just lightweight showboats, blowing off steam. The two men represented the cream of the intellectual crop.

Bertrand Russell was a renowned British philosopher, mathematician, historian, and perhaps the world’s leading atheist at the time. He authored many skeptical essays and books, including the collection still popular today, Why I Am Not a Christian

Read the rest here.

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis’ Boswell: Walter Hooper, RIP

I just found out today that Walter Hooper passed away a couple weeks ago. Hooper, for those who do not know, was the literary executor of the C. S. Lewis estate. Hooper edited various works that came out after Lewis passed away in 1963, managed the literary estate, and fought to keep his works in print―and did it all in relative obscurity. He was as responsible as anyone in keeping the interest in the writings of C. S. Lewis alive after his death.

I met Hooper at the C. S. Lewis/G. K. Chesterton Conference at Seattle Pacific University in 1987, where I was giving a paper on Chesterton’s religious thought. Quite a number of Lewis scholars were in attendance, including Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, and Richard Purtill. But Hooper, who had never before really sat down with the C. S. Lewis scholarly community, was the star of the show. Some of the papers that were presented there ended up being published in G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis: The Riddle of Joy.

I met Hooper when a group of us at the conference had gone out to dinner one night. I sat across from him and we had a long discussion. When it was time to leave, several of us decided to walk back to the university dorms where we were staying.

There ended up being four of us on the walk back. Along with Hooper, there was a professor of literature from Cal State Riverside, an FBI agent, and me, who at the time was a trust officer at a bank. We got lost on the streets and suburbs of Seattle, and what should have been a thirty minute walk took two and a half hours. 

Hooper was a fairly short man, about five-foot-six, and in a strange way was both somewhat formal and at the same time completely down to earth. As we zigzagged through various neighborhoods he regaled us with story after story. He explained how he had arrived in Seattle from England (where he lived at The Kilns, Lewis’ house) and that he had forgotten his toiletries. I don’t remember the specifics except for a hilarious description of combing his hair with a fork he had found in the street.

It turned out that Hooper—who, though he had grown up in North Carolina and had taught at the University of Kentucky near where I now live, now had a noticeable and dignified British accent—was a big fan of Clint Eastwood. “You like Clint Eastwood?!” I asked.

He furrowed his brow in mock seriousness. “Oh, yyyyyeeesss.” And laughed. He then went on an extended discourse about why Clint Eastwood was deserving of his admiration. He explained that so devoted a fan was he that he had a Dirty Harry poster on the wall at Tthe Kilns. He recalled the time when Edith Tolkien, J. R. R.’s widow, had walked in and, seeing the poster on the wall, had shaken her head and said grimly, “Oh Walter! You really should take that down!”

He also told of Joy Davidman, the American woman Lewis famously married to save her from deportation, only to later fall in love with her.  Far from the character portrayed in two movies (once by Clair Bloom, Davidman’s favorite actress, and then again by Debra Winger), Davidman was not popular with Lewis’ neighbors, largely on account of Davidman’s penchant for shooting their dogs when they came sniffing around The Kilns.

What little time I was able to spend with him, and hearing the wonderful speech he gave at the conference, made me think that he was much like what I had always imagined Lewis himself to be like: serious but joyful, gracious and funny.

I have thought of writing him a hundred times to see if he remembered that night. I had talked with people who had been to The Kilns, who always told of what a gracious and pleasant host he was, and I thought that when I finally got around to visiting England I would stop in and talk to him again.

But time goes by. And you don’t think to do the things you tell yourself you need to do “some day.” And so it is even sadder for me to hear of his death.

Hooper performed a great service, helping to keep the C. S. Lewis flame alive. We know Lewis in a way we could not have had it not been for the work of Walter Hooper. Samuel Johnson had James Boswell to cement his legacy, but such a comparison is, in one respect, ill-fitting, since Boswell, unlike Hooper, himself shared little of the great character of the man whose reputation he helped establish. 

Someone so devoted to the legacy of a great man, and one who did it in such relative obscurity, should surely be credited with some of his greatness here in this world, and will hopefully share some of his Reward in the Next.

C. S. Lewis mythology

The “Moral Mythology” of C. S. Lewis

by Thomas Howard

ONE WAY of putting what Lewis saw his literary task to be would be to say that he wanted to lead his readers to a window, as it were, looking out from the dark and stuffy room of modernity, and to burst open the shutters of that window and point us all to an enormous vista stretching away from the room in which we are shut. He despaired, I think of finding any furniture, pictures, or objects, in that small room that would suggest what he wanted to say to us, so he insisted that we come to the window and look out.