“Men of Kalidu, the centuries look down upon you!” So cried His Excellency, Manfred Arcane,Minister Without Portfolio to his Mightiness Achmet XI, Hereditary President of Hamnegri and Sultan in Kalidu. This day the wise and virtuous Minister, confidential servant to the heroic Monarch, exhorted the captains of hundreds and of fifties and of tens, on the eve of their southward march to annihilate the immoral and murderous slaves of the Progressive usurpers.
“Ask not what Kalidu can do for you,” the Minister continued, in a burst of original eloquence. “but what you, brave men at arms, can do for Kalidu.”
So Russell Kirk’s brave and cynically honorable alter ego sends his polyglot troops off into battle with one of the most darkly hilarious Thucydidian speeches ever uttered in the fictional War for the Third World. Kirk’s A Creature of the Twilight (published in 1966) exposes the follies of what we all once knew as Liberal Internationalism, but which now masquerades as the foreign policy of a “conservative” administration.
Despite the good efforts of solid scholars like James Person, Wesley McDonald, and Gerald Russello, the man my students of three decades ago still call “Saint Russell” is often condescended to even in the movement he did so much to found. Checked off the intellectual list, it may be said; especially in the Great Debate on power and international politics. Russell preferred a modest foreign policy, shorn of ideological excitements, a preference not shared these days by some in the established conservative “movement.” Russell has been accused of the foreign policy equivalents of racism; namely, “isolationism”; and even anti-Semitism. The latter charge is silly and outrageous, and deserves to be ignored; the former is insidious and dangerous. That “isolationism” is still the “racism” of both major political parties is the great foreign policy obfuscation of our time. It masks the agenda of the “immoral and murderous slaves of the Progressive usurpers” of conservatism.
There has never been an isolationist party or a serious isolationist political movement in the history of the United States of America. Clever New Dealers won what had been their losing rhetorical battle thanks to an insane Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (certainly encouraged, perhaps caused, by Franklin Roosevelt and an advisory cabal about the size of today’s neoconservative movement) and an even more demented declaration of war on America by Hitler’s Germany. Overnight what had been an 80 percent American conviction that we should stay out of European wars turned into the crusading mentality of the “Four Freedoms” and “unconditional surrender.” Honorable leaders of America First were transformed into head-in-the-sand “isolationists” or nazi-symps (the government-sponsored campaign to accomplish this is a story that has not been fully told). They were, except for a few left-wing loonies, less isolationists than unilateralists, as Manfred Jonas so ably proved many years ago. But a New Deal war waged in partnership with the most monstrous regime in human history against the second most monstrous regime in human history wiped out the distinctions and changed America’s position in the world for my entire lifetime.
And for Russell Kirk’s lifetime. Preoccupied as he was with the revival of the Permanent Things, the Moral Imagination, and the Roots of American Order, when Kirk’s baroque mind turned to matters of state he did not write much about power politics and foreign adventures, at least not much by his standards. (I once asked him what explained the enormous volume of high-quality prosehe manufactured. “It’s the smell of the lamp,” he replied.) When he did write about the affairs of nations he preferred to state principles rather than to offer policy proposals or information. In fact it was one of Kirk’s complaints against neoconservatives that they “thrust upon us a great deal of useful information” but are deficient “in the understandingof the human condition.” Kirk generally preferred wisdom to mere information, and always came down on the side of what Thomas Fleming (in The Morality of Everyday Life) calls “the nuances and textures of human life” against the “terrible simplifiers,” ideologues of all kinds. As in all things, Kirk’s writings on the great god Power exposed the ideologues.
Kirk knew that power, and what one does with it, is much more important to understand than mere matters of international politics. In fact, what one does about the latter is always a reflection of one’s convictions about the former. Kirk’s lifelong conviction about the American constitutional order was that it was founded upon the limitation of power; that it was and is a prudential order; and that its success depends upon the utter rejection of ideology. Such insights are not susceptible to categorization by descriptive labels such as “isolationism” or “interventionism.” Such labels are instrumental; Kirk thought in terms of prescription.
He wished to conserve the prudential American order, and so the instruments of preservation necessarily had to be guided by a healthy regard for how much power was required to achieve that end. War increases the power of the state; thus war is to be avoided except in extreme circumstances, and always to be regarded skeptically, and never to be employed in the name of a crusade. “Beware of righteousness;” he loved to quote Herbert Butterfield to this effect, because righteousness knows no boundaries in the power it would employ. The greatest disaster that could befall America, Kirk understood, was “preventive” war; that would take the wraps off power, and encourage the “Progressive usurpers,” who are primarily interested in becoming hegemonic, both abroad and at home. In 1989, a decade and a half before the present debacle in Iraq began, he wrote: “A ‘preventive’ war, whether or not it might be successful in the field—and that is a question much in doubt—would be morally ruinous to us. There are circumstances under which it is not only more honorable to lose than to win, but quite truly less harmful, in the ultimate providence of God.”
A Creature of the Twilight is set in West Africa, in a mythical country that is part Muslim, part Christian, part animist, and formerly a part of the French empire. The “United Commonwealth of Hamnegri” (literally, the black sons of Ham; one of Kirk’s dozens of plays-on-words that make the novel hilarious) is in turmoil. Its exalted ruler has been assassinated, “Progressive” forces have taken power, and the holdout regime of reaction is about to be erased by the national army whose friends include the usual progressive suspects around the world. Because the northern region—Kalidu, where the forces of reaction reside, also contains oil and a large hydroelectric project, the United States is hedging its bets, wanting to be progressive but wanting also to secure the oil reserves to line the pockets of powerful corporations. It is a classic case of “Third World” diplomacy. Not much is at stake in the geopolitical universe, but everything is at stake in the moral imagination.
The central character is Manfred Arcane. As his name suggests, he is a mysterious little wizard with dark secrets, who seems to know something about everything, and for whatever reason is determined to block the armies of progress. Could his motive be greed? He has, we learn, a personal contract that gives him a cut of Kalidu’s oil production. He introduces himself by saying, “All my days I have done evil.” But we see no desire for wealth; his (like his creator’s) life is ascetic, his needs are few, acquisition is a byproduct and not an end to his plans. Is it power? The world of Hamnegri seems to revolve around money and power, but Arcane wants to give power away. He spends many hours teaching the son of the murdered Sultan the traditions of his people, so that he might rule with gravitas. “In the afternoon sun,” writes Arcane’s publicist Gus Randolph (more about him later), “the young chief sits beside the Old Devil for hours, talking, talking, his sloping merciless young face earnest and deferential. I never knew Arcane to take so much trouble with anyone before . . . I believe he talks to Mohammed on everything conceivable: the comparative merits of various automatic weapons, the economy of a harem, French foreign policies, Kalidu genealogies, pride and duty, love and hatred. Mohammed takes all this more solemnly than he does the Koran.” Arcane is a teacher, not a usurper.
But let’s back up. Kirk was consistent about power politics over a long career. Here is a précis of his principles, taken from (in chronological order) A Program for Conservatives (which morphed in several versions into Prospects for Conservatives), The American Cause, The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft (with his then young friend, James McClellan), The Politics of Prudence, and The Sword of Imagination. Few men other than Kirk wrote from 1954 to 1994 (basically the length of the Cold War) keeping their ideas and their honor intact. I add to this précis thoughts from scores of conversations with him beginning in 1975, when we became on-again off-again colleagues at Hillsdale College.
The United States, Kirk always contended, was uniquely favored but not the triumphal end of Western Civilization. Its independence, a prescriptive and not a propositional circumstance, was framed by a constitutional system that at its heart and by its nature limited the authority of some men over others. It would last only so long as prudence prevailed over ideology; only so long as its reach did not exceed its grasp. The genius of its constitutional system was favored by history and geography (and Providence, although Kirk was never fond of the “shining city on a hill” metaphor) so that conquering a continent, undergoing a true revolution (“Industrial”) and numerous horrendous wars, internal and external, did not extinguish the lamp of an ordered liberty lit in an age that promised freedom but gave the world ideological chaos.
The prudential order, however, has always been conditional. Leading us back to A Creature of the Twilight, here are some of Kirk’s favorite ways of talking about the principles of foreign policy.
“I have been suggesting—not to blind eyes, I trust—that a soundly conservative foreign policy, in the age which is dawning, should be neither ‘interventionist’ nor ‘isolationist’: it should be prudent.”
“An ideology of Democratic Capitalism might be less malign than an ideology of Communism or National Socialism or Syndicalism or Anarchism, but it would not be much more intelligent or humane.”
“The blood of man should never be shed but to redeem the blood of man”—Kirk quotes Burke; and then says, “A war for Kuwait? A war for an oilcan!”
Pertaining directly to Africa, Kirk wrote, “The intended translation of American institutions to Africa has been a dismal failure: Africa has insisted obdurately upon remaining African.” Russell spent a lifetime trying to teach us that the world is not made of play-dough or tinker-toys. A Creature of the Twilight may have been his best lesson.
Arcane controls the action. He tells the story, but allows others a voice: Dr. Mary Jo Travers, a social worker Peace Corps volunteer whose heart is American liberal good but who hasn’t a clue about evil; Augustus EnochRandolph, a black American Georgian whose talent makes him useful to Arcane but whose slave psychology makes him also a cripple; various newspaper reporters who are stupid, ideological, manipulated, and despicable; and T. William Tallstall, the American “roving ambassador” whose personal greed, progressive rhetoric, and political ambition make him a perfect “vice presidential hopeful.” Senator Eugene McCarthy, a man Kirk grew to like and admire, once said that the best reason never to vote for a politician was that he had “vice presidential potential.”
Arcane controls their voices, so the story is his. He reveals just enough about himself to show a profound sense of sin, a huge ego, a romantic sensibility against which he struggles, a capacity for love that he both nearly destroys himself to fulfill and tries heroically to hide, a ruthless practicality willing to use people but to protect them when they show loyalty or a need for redemption, a brave heart, and an utter vulnerability to true femininity. He holds God at arm’s length. He seems to have absorbed all of the literary wisdom the cult of the West has to offer. He is perhaps Russell Kirk’s fantastical description of himself.
That said, let us indulge him. A complicated character like Arcane can exist only in complicated places like Hamnegri, or Serbia, or Colombia. Modernity doesn’t sit well in those places—or, as Arcane says at the end of the novel, “modernity benumbs us.” Most of us Americans have adjusted,to the conditions of progress. Manfred Arcane refused to adjust.
As the Progressive army slowly advances, Arcane puts in place a battle plan based first on “Polybius, my darling among historians,” but also on the Bible, Shakespeare, Kipling, Cervantes, Dante, Lenin, Napoleon, Machiavelli, Yeats, Catherine of Sienna, Lewis Carroll, Caesar, Churchill, Homer, Vergil, Wallenstein, Muhammed, Orwell, “Robbie” Burns, Madame de Stael, and probably several more. He relies on Arpad Nemo, tortured by the Nazis and, literally, faceless (“Arpad” was the first Magyar leader; “Nemo” is “nobody”); Cleon and Brasidas (the “mortar and pestle” of the Pelopponesian War), cute monsters who are only half human; Lady Grizzela Ferguson, survivor of British African adventures; Melchiora ( his “Persephone,” goddess of the underworld) who loves him unconditionally; Gus Randolph, before-mentioned; and Colonel Jose Pelayo Fuentes y Iturbe. Pelayo is the leader of the “Interracial Peace Volunteers,” an amusing and vicious bunch that the Progressive army underestimates at its undoing. Along with Nemo and Randolph, Pelayo has a long history with Arcane. He fought with the Spanish Blue Division in the USSR during World War II, on the side of the Germans, and has special feelings about the Progressives.
The Americans, it turns out, funded the progressive coup. The French want to reassert their hegemony, but have no more than a distant and frivolous hope. The Russians are backing the progressives, but are unwilling to be too public about it. The Red Chinese, using ex-nazi surrogates who think they can blackmail Arcane on the basis of false information about his mysterious past, are trying to get to the oil. How could Russell have spotted such Chinese tricks in 1966? The Americans are of course unwilling to spend anything but money in Africa, so Ambassador Tallstall, not having the clout to authorize assassinations (as Dean Rusk gave to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge in Vietnam), bides his time, and even thinks that he may have offered different advice to his government had he met the intriguing Arcane, who “generally sees reason and will sit at the bargaining-table,” before he threw in his lot with the agents of progress.
Arcane wins because he does the unthinkable: he blows up the dam that represents Hamnegri’s progress. To the communists, as Gus Randolph later says, this was the “Sin against the Holy Ghost.” Progressives worship electricity. As one of Arcane’s commanders says,“Had our troops confronted a non-ideological enemy, our opponents might have suspected that it was perilous to camp some miles below a large dam.” Being ideological, they fell into Arcane’s baroque trap. Modernity indeed had benumbed them.
Kirk presents us in this story a timeless lesson. Power benumbs us, and it isn’t all that hard to bring down superior force, if one understands clearly enough what really rules the world, and if one is willing to be devious enough to put into action that knowledge. Arcane is a fancy, a made-up ruler of his little universe, reminiscent of Chesterton’s Napoleon of Notting Hill, which was one of Kirk’s favorites. But it’s precisely because Arcane knows his little universe that he confounds the ideologues.
It’s interesting also that Kirk sympathizes with his foolish allies and evil enemies. Arcane cautions against the imprudent disembowelment, impalement, and cannibalizing of the defeated progressives. He is, as Gus Randolph points out, “kind to the whole lot of us oddities.” He would not have begrudged the neoconservatives their Machiavellianism; after all, he calls himself “Tancred, Knight of the Devious Ways.” He allows Nemo his revenge against the Nazis, but that man is soul-dead anyway. He calls the soporific liberal Mary Jo Travers a “Child of America” and means something good by it; he bequeaths her romance and sends her to a happy fate. If the Peace Corps volunteers generally look foolish it’s because they were, but neither Arcane nor Kirk condemns them. Only the Progressives are ciphers, and that they deserve to be. They are ideologues.
“Ever since the end of the Second World War,” Kirk says elsewhere, “Washington’s conduct of foreign affairs has been afflicted with liberal sentimentality.” Gus Randolph has something to teach us about that. Kirk’s M.A. thesis was on John Randolph of Roanoke; it later became a book that illustrates the ambiguities of race and servitude, as well as the dangers of exercising power. Gus Randolph—Augustus Enoch Randolph (Augustus the emperor, Enoch who was taken up by God without experiencing death, Randolph the slave owner and extreme republican), the name is not accidental—tries hard not to be a sentimental man. But he is too dependent on Arcane. Gus knows his own weakness, and has an exaggerated sense of Arcane’s darkness.
Why are you women wild about the Old Devil? he went on. Because in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Manfred Arcane’s beyond fear, being crazy. So you’re all ga-ga about him. You think he’s sweet and O so chivalrous. But if you knew him—if you just knew him! Listen, girl: he’s done things that would make you run screaming up the street, if you heard half of them.
Gus is dependent upon Arcane because he doesn’t understand that men are not evil because they are communists (or progressives), but communists because they are evil. Or maybe they are communists because they are innocents, seduced by the beautiful mistress ideology. Ideology, Kirk knew, was probably Satan’s best invention, for the insidious way in which it lets both good and evil men strip themselves of history and turn themselves into monsters. Incapable of comprehending the world of mystery or liturgy, the baroque or the medieval, Gus is stuck in modernity. It’s difficult to make foreign policy if one is stuck in modernity.
John Willson, a teacher, is Professor of History, Emeritus, at Hillsdale College. He taught nearly 12,500 students over the course of 45 years, and graded over 78,000 papers and exams, which is why he retired three years ago. He is proud to have been Russell and Annette Kirk’s friend.