Where is the Treasure of Old Europe?

Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes are slowly but steadily turning into dinosaurs. The time is coming when the world of the Egyptian mummies will seem clearer and dearer to an intellectually curious European than the world of his own great forefathers. Of the voices that call to us from centuries past – what others could the 21st century reader manage to hear?

Those great forefathers with their fondness for novels about knights and chivalry might come across as a bit ridiculous. They were known to do some crazy things, like making deals with the Prince of Darkness. They could go too far at times – consigning their contemporaries to hell and claiming to have the ear of the denizens of heaven …

But they lived in a world in which the words “God,” “repentance,” and “grace” were all suffused with very tangible meanings. The Christian world cradled them in its arms, and even if they did not return the embrace – instead wrenching themselves free of its clasp – they still remained the children of that world – which was complex, finely-woven, and founded on the Gospel, but without ceasing to sin.

But now, now … Once you take your cross from your neck and forget the meaning of your catechism, you cannot help but lose your connection to the semantic range found within that culture – a culture that should feel native to you, both in essence and in name. Therefore, to someone who no longer wears a baptismal cross or knows his catechism, the contents of the Egyptian pyramids will seem more interesting, and the Mayan prophecies will sound more credible.

There is no need to descend into hell, halfway through one’s earthly life. On the contrary, at the risk of not making it as far as the blessed age of thirty-five, a European can spend many years, for example, in the hell of addiction, contemplating the wailing shadows of his contemporaries. If God is not needed and there is no prayer, if you are nothing more than a tourist when you enter a temple, then hell eagerly assumes its rights and makes its presence known, not with the smell of sulfur, but with a sense of depression and meaninglessness. And thus Dante in his singed cloak is no longer needed or comprehensible, with all his erudition, passionate denunciations, and philosophical generalizations.

"The Devil Pact", Theodor Knesing
“The Devil Pact” by Theodor Knesing

The situation regarding Goethe and his Faust is the same, if not worse. Sell one’s soul? No problem! And it might no longer even be sold in exchange for insight into the meaning of existence, but merely for the mundane desire to pick up enough cash to pay off a loan.

I can close my eyes and see the ad on Craiglist: “Soul for sale. Nice one, gently used. A real bargain. The soul’s current owner, due to his atheistic upbringing, has a few doubts about its (the soul’s) existence. But all sales are final.” It lists the phone numbers to contact.

I can even imagine how the demonic buyer, dressed in black and looking like Robert De Niro from Angel Heart, would arrive at the listed address and meet the seller. The seller is no wizened old scholar of law and theology, but rather a young man-child with a job in a bar somewhere, blasting rap as he wanders around his disheveled apartment in his boxers, holding a beer. “Who is it?” he asks, and hears the response: “I’m here about the ad.” The buyer walks in the door, has to hunt around to find a place to sit, and the conversation begins. They bandy about a few prosaic sentences, which aren’t even worth inventing here. And in the end, the guest utters something that sounds nothing like Goethe, but plausibly contemporary, therefore taking on the semblance of a court verdict.

The guest says: “You fool!” (Yes, that’s what he says, but without the evil laugh or bared fangs.) “You fool, you have nothing left to sell. Your unhappy little soul has long been worthless. And it’s already mine anyway. You’ve been selling it your whole life. You’ve been selling it off piece by piece, although a soul can’t be portioned out. But that’s another thing you don’t understand. I have long owned you, your thoughts, and your desires. I twist you around my little finger like a bunch of keys. Why would you have even written that ridiculous ad, if I didn’t have access to your ignorant thoughts that even I find insipid?

I have no wish to keep going with this imaginary dialog. I bequeath this plot to the filmmakers and only wish to emphasize the conclusion: Goethe’s narrative, once plunged into modernity, is greatly transformed. It is transformed because of the toxic alteration that has been seen in mankind in recent centuries.

Don Quixote praying
Don Quixote praying

And Don Quixote, where is he? Where in our world can we find this antithesis of Hamlet, as Turgenev called him? Where is this poetic soul, who wants to don his armor and mount his steed, not in order to seize oil wells or ensure the triumph of democracy, but in order to console the tears of the innocent and subjugate villains? Where is this misfit idealist, who is so comical and touching, yet still great in the midst of his own naïveté? I do not see him. He has been killed by the arrows of positive philosophy. He has been dismembered by the ridicule of the press. He has been buried with the shovel of practical good sense, and no cross marks his grave. Instead a wooden stake made of two-bit profits and materialism has been driven into it. Weep, Sancho. You will never again have such a master, and even if you become the governor of some small island, your heartache will devour you. Your only hope is to go to that knight’s grave and don his armor. Then, having put the spurs to another Rocinante, ride off to wherever misfortune lies and they await a gallant champion.

Exclusively translated by ORIENTAL REVIEW from the Russian source.

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