book cover imageLast Rites
by John Lukacs,
Yale University Press (New Haven, CT)
$25.00 hardcover, 2009

It is now twenty years since John Lukacs made his Confessions of an Original Sinner. Has time rolled ’round so soon for his Last Rites? That is the title of his second autobiography (or “autohistory”), but it should perhaps be considered a sequel to rather than a continuation of Confessions, a distinct if not entirely separate “summing up,” seen in a now longer perspective and substantially less dense with narrative. Last Rites begins with an (at first glance) odd and oddly named chapter, “A Bad Fifteen Minutes,” with an appended second chapter “Why?” to elucidate his chosen mode of beginning. To these I shall return later in this review. The core of the book is a quartet of chapters which focus on his observations of episodes and events of the past two decades.

Before continuing with a consideration of these chapters I note a significant difference from Confessions. On the first page of Last Rites, Mr. Lukacs insists (notice the “must”) that “in this [book] there must be no place for a chortling summary listing (or even a melancholy one) of my published achievements.” The reader might well respond by wondering, Why not? After all, more than half of the author’s published books have appeared since Confessions. The circumstances of these books, their intentions and purposes, their fates—these would seem to be a significant and important part of an author’s autohistory. Only a handful rate even passing mention; nothing here corresponds to the splendid Chapter 7 of Confessions. But reviewers are too often in the habit of complaining that an author did not write a book other than the one he did write. So, no matter. Let us turn to the four chapters.

The first concerns “My Adopted Country,” America, in three concentric spheres. Of the largest, Mr. Lukacs’s principal observation concerns the final disappearance of the old Eastern patriciate, the definitive close of America’s “bourgeois interlude,” and the replacement of its civilization by the various odious “cultures” of a now classless, amorphous mass population held together only by the “viscous cement” of an unthinking popular nationalism (mislabeled “patriotism”), increasingly militarized in its imagination. Concurrently, both liberalism and conservatism—each unable or unwilling to rethink its devotion to Progress (“[l]iberals adulate Science; conservatives adulate Technology”)—are in their death-throes.

The narrower sphere of academia is where Mr. Lukacs for over fifty years pursued his vocations of writing and teaching, but not often happily. Fourteen years ago his college, Chestnut Hill, forced him into retirement and a subsequent part-time position at the University of Pennsylvania was abruptly aborted after onlythree years. That the world of academic intellectuals has normallytreated him with uneasy disdain is nothing mysterious, for the author is quite aware that he has been a “strange presence” among them and that some of his monitory writings have appeared to them as minatory as well, amounting to attacks on the guild. One new and humorous perception here is that the class of intellectuals barely exists any longer: “I would have never thought that one day I should miss the presence of intellectuals around me; I do—a little—now.”

The shortest radius circumscribes a few acres in Phoenixville, Schuylkill Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania: place, home, the “little platoon,” and even here two decades of change and decay. The deaths of old neighbors, the transitoriness of new; the never-ending creep of suburban “development”; sclerotic traffic on highways whose clogged conditions make Philadelphia not easier but harder to visit—all conspire towards further isolation. But not alienation: one episode, reminiscent of his earlier forays (related in Confessions) into local politics, recounts Mr. Lukacs’s efforts to maintain Anderson Burial Ground, a two-hundred-year-old cemetery of his first wife’s family, efforts crowned in 2006 with the successful transfer of ownership to the township. Commending the dedication ceremony’s “American willingness of the heart,” Mr. Lukacs modestly downplays that of his own (old-fangled) American heart, yet admits with proper pride “I was named the first Distinguished Citizen of Schuylkill Township.”

With the ending in 1989 of the Cold War, of the Soviet empire, and of the short twentieth century, “some important matters in my life too changed,” matters of the author’s relations with “My Native Country,” Hungary, recounted in the second chapter of the quartet. Having remarked, in Confessions, that the “dream of many exiles of my generation is home,” he now notes that the attractions of Hungary have proven to be “not enough to make them stay for good.” So too with John Lukacs. Yet something not anticipated in 1989 has drawn him back year after year: translations into Magyar of his many books have made him “something of a successful author” in his native land, to which he returns, for the annual Book Week in Budapest. An epiphany of gratitude towards his Hungarian readers, lined up for him to sign a book, provides one of the chapter’s winning vignettes. Another, the most moving, is of his unexpectedly hearing read on the radio the passage from Confessions of tribute to his grandparents. Most fascinating is the “starry occasion” of the opening meeting of the first freely-elected Parliament since 1945, presided over by his deeply-loved old friend Msgr. Bela Varga who had been chairman of that Parliament forty-five years before and whose speech, now in 1990, he asked John Lukacs to compose.

Briefest of the four chapters is an “intermezzo,” which he labels in mock-heroic style, “My Churchill Saga.” It concerns not (except as introduction) his writings about Churchill but his attempts, somewhat reminiscent of the earlier tale of the Anderson Burial Ground, to have a square or street in his native city named after Churchill. The result (in 2003) turned out to be the opening in Budapest’s City Park of Churchill Walk, complete with a statue. “I visit that statue almost every year.”

And following the “intermezzo,” a charming and impressive chapter describing “what I owed and still owe to my three wives”: Helen Schofield (1953–1970), Stephanie Harvey (1974–2003), and Pamela Hall (2005–). The descriptions (“tributes” might be the better word) are romantic and candid and always discreet, for Mr. Lukacs, past-master of distinctions, knows well the difference between the personal and the private. Each of these women is portrayed in her distinctive individuality, but principally her characterand her intelligence. And not the women alone, but how each made and shaped that littlest of little platoons, home.

Now, what of the “bad fifteen minutes” which opens Last Rites? First, even a reader already well-instructed in John Lukacs’s historical philosophy can expect, if he reads carefully, as the content demands, to spend a good hour or more mulling it over. For the reader, then, an hour, but a good hour; for whom bad? Perhaps the author who, in Confessions, asserted that “I am indifferent to the immortality of my writing” even as he observed that everyone of us—a father, a mother, a lover, a scholar, an artist, a writer—may take some comfort from hoping, and knowing, that his efforts might be recognized and perhaps even appreciated after he will be gone. This is a thin diet for the minds of most of us, and not much sustenance for our daily lives, but there it is.

Classic Lukacsian themes are presented, once again, in the form of a “crystallization” or “distillation,” although perhaps even better might be the word “reduction,” as when a chef spoons off the fat from hot liquid and deglazes the simmering pan juices, boiling it down to reduce its quantity and thereby concentrate its taste. Which themes?

  • the false dichotomy of objective and subjective knowledge
  • recognition that all knowledge is personal and participant
  • consciousness that such participation, while precluding the separation of knower and known, does not prevent the knower’s chaste detachment
  • awareness that knowing participation cannot ever be complete
  • reflection that such limits on human knowledge are not only not impoverishing but enriching
  • the consequent duty to “think about thinking” (and especially to re-think the meaning of “progress”)
  • the radical contingency of historical events, all of which are pregnant with varied real possibilities
  • the correspondence of these insights with certain inventions of modern physics (while remaining aware that parallels are parallel precisely because they do not meet)
  • the new (and chastened) humanism of the new recognition of the anthropocentric and geocentric nature of God’s universe

This reduction is tasty indeed, not least because it is seasoned by wit and wordplay often lifted from the author’s diary entries, although it must be said that one or two of the latter are thoroughly obscure (“I want to [not square but] circle the circle”).

The reader of Last Rites seeking fuller, more elaborated, and clearer treatment will repair to Mr. Lukacs’s classic Historical Consciousness. Those intrigued by the history of the development of these insights (and the stolid, bovine, dismissive reactions of the intelligentsia to them) will consult Confessions. Others will perhaps be content to discover them implicitly in his histories: “the very structure and even the style of my histories have been consequent to my convictions of what history and historical knowledge consist of.” To my mind the most imaginative and brilliant presentation is to be found in what is, I am convinced, his most misunderstood book, A Thread of Years (Mr. Lukacs himself calls it “my perhaps most extraordinary book”). Its structure, a true invention, is a wedding (fruitful nuptials) of two diverse techniques: on the one hand, a narrative of real, or really possible, events and incidents impinging on the lives of imagined or composite or (one suspects) actual people; and, on the other hand, a dialogue of often acerbic commentary upon the narrative. Not least of its excellences is its silvery prose, another of Mr. Lukacs’ unique inventions.

To return to Last Rites and those “bad fifteen minutes,” the author calls this chapter “the most important part of the book” (as he has always called Historical Consciousness “my most important book”). Its writing is suffused with hope, hope that he might (at last?) succeed in reminding (not instructing, pace Doctor Johnson’s profound aphorism) readers of “some things that they may already know but that have not—yet—surfaced to the level of their consciousness.” In any case, his awareness of “the conditions of knowledge, of historical knowledge, of past knowledge, of my own knowledge [are what] stir me, they make me write now this autobiography.” And finally, poignantly, “Last Rites may amount to my last, desperate attempt to teach.”

We ought to reflect on this a little. On the last page of Last Rites, in the last footnote, the last two words are: magister historiae. They refer to Owen Chadwick, but we cannot help being aware that they apply to the author as well. For more than half a century, at his desk or at a lectern, John Lukacs has been a teacher. And by no means in vain. While he certainly has been, in a sense, “remote from the world around me,” he is aware as well that some of the best American historians, thinkers, teachers, researchers, writers may be found in the oddest of places in this vast country, in little known places, small colleges, and universities, and among such as these he has found an audience, a place where (to use a favorite phrase not of John Lukacs but of Russell Kirk) “conscience speaks to conscience.” And in addition he has found another audience, one of younger scholars and readers; in Last Rites, he commends “the young conservatives of lSI in West Chester,” “the young students [of Saint Joseph’s Prep History Club] who gave me an excellent impression [and who] may be the salt of the earth,” as well as “the many young Hungarians whom I on occasion encounter.”

Any history teacher who has recommended one or another of Mr. Lukacs’s books knows how the students will be delighted and even astonished. And in the larger world, it has been impossible not to notice the perhaps slow but steady growth, especially in the past twenty years, of his reputation. (Still, it remains a matter of almost stupefaction to realize that in all his long career, only one American college or university has seen fit to bestow upon John Lukacs an honorary degree—and that twenty years ago. But such is the deliquescence of academia.)

Echoing, distantly, Burke’s cry “I attest the rising generation,” John Lukacs exclaims, “I ask my readers to hear my voice . . . It is an appeal . . . to . . . think. . . . I can only hope that for some people the peal may ring with at least a faint echo of truth.”

It has rung. In Last Rites, it continues to ring.

John Connelly is a teacher of history at Regis High School in New York City.