The Eternal Feminine - Encounter Books

The Eternal Feminine

On Faust, the Frankfurt School, and the Elemental Power of Sex
By Michael Walsh | December 12, 2017

The assault on the citadels of Western culture had many fronts, but foremost among them was sex—the most powerful engine in human existence, the one that brings us closest to the Godhead, a force of such overwhelming power that it can change the courses of our lives, bringing death or transcendence in its wake. Children are its primary issue, but also transformative insight, bravery, courage, altruism, self-sacrifice; great works of art are born from the union, lives sacrificed and won, everything ventured, worlds gained.

So no wonder the relationship between the sexes and the hard-won morality attending such congress was one of the focal points of the attack by the Frankfurt School and their fellow travelers in politics, academe, and the media. The “transgressive” assault on Western culture had to start somewhere, and it started with the idea of the nuclear family.

The first step was to mock it (in the 1960s and ’70s, the idealized “Father Knows Best” and “Leave It to Beaver” worlds of the pre-hippie era came in for particular scorn), then to accuse it of various crimes against humanity (particularly the newfound charge of “patriarchy”), then to illustrate that there were “really” other sorts of families, just as good, just as loving, just as valid as the traditional two-parent, opposite-sex nest. Finally, the nuclear family was simply dispensed with altogether, as behavior considered acceptable in the underclass, where sexual license had always just barely been suppressed, percolated up into the higher culture. The morals of those with nothing to lose and everything to gain from a dysfunctional social-welfare system bubbled upward from the black and white underclasses into the middle classes, who had been induced to feel guilty on behalf of the “underprivileged.” And those considered “marginal” or “disadvantaged” no longer bore any responsibility for their destructive personal choices and behavior. It is no accident that the new social acceptance of out-of-wedlock pregnancies coincided with the rise of both bastardy and the abortion culture, the growing demand for contraception, and, later on, gay rights. Once Pandora’s Box was opened, all sort of things flew out, some of them at first seemingly contradictory, but all related by the very fact of their confinement in the Box. The Box had stayed closed for a reason, but under pressure from Critical Theory, it had to be opened.

Many have observed, the historian Arnold Toynbee prominently among them, that society begins to crumble when the morals of the underclass become mainstream. Toynbee noted that when self-expression begins to substitute for disciplined creativity, civilization has a problem. Critical Theory’s obsessive compulsion with its genitals is not the sign of a mature culture but a childish one. Discussing the chapter “Schism in the Soul” from Toynbee’s Study of History, Charles Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal, in 2001:

He observes that one of the consistent symptoms of disintegration is that the elites—Toynbee’s “dominant minority”—begin to imitate those at the bottom of society. His argument goes like this:

The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue, and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along through mimesis, “a mechanical and superficial imitation of the great and inspired originals.” In a disintegrating civilization, the creative minority has degenerated into elites that are no longer confident, no longer setting the example. Among other reactions are a “lapse into truancy” (a rejection, in effect, of the obligations of citizenship), and a “surrender to a sense of promiscuity” (vulgarizations of manners, the arts, and language) that “are apt to appear first in the ranks of the proletariat and to spread from there to the ranks of the dominant minority, which usually succumbs to the sickness of “proletarianization.”

That sounds very much like what has been happening in the U.S. Truancy and promiscuity, in Toynbee’s sense, are not new in America. But until a few decades ago they were publicly despised and largely confined to the bottom layer of Toynbee’s proletariat—the group we used to call “low-class” or “trash,” and which we now call the underclass. Today, those behaviors have been transmuted into a code that the elites sometimes imitate, sometimes placate, and fear to challenge. Meanwhile, they no longer have a code of their own in which they have confidence.

In his 1964 opera Der junge Lord, the German composer Hans Werner Henze parodied—in this context, “aped” is apposite—precisely this phenomenon. A wealthy, eccentric English nobleman arrives in a small German town with an entourage of slaves and wild animals and succeeds in passing off an ape as his nephew, “Lord Barrett,” whose simian behavior charms the impressionable townsfolk until his costume falls apart and everyone can see him for the glorified chimp that he is. (Interestingly, Henze was a committed Communist, although “limousine liberal” or “champagne Socialist” might be a more apt description of him. Having fled Germany—West Germany, not Nazi Germany—for its perceived conservatism and intolerance of homosexuality, he lived la dolce vita in Italy.)

In the end, however, the sexual behavior of ancient cultures (the Greeks) or other primates (Bonobo chimps) is not relevant to the problems we face today. No culture until ours has so willingly abjured procreation, so enthusiastically practiced abortion, so demonized (an apt word) those who demurred, and refused to understand the demographic “consequences of no consequences.” If procreation is only an afterthought or an optional lifestyle choice, our Ponzi-schemed social-welfare programs, such as Social Security, which depends on future generations to make it function, will collapse. Indeed, we could be looking at the demolition of the entire “social safety net”—though one would think radicals would want to save this, if we are to believe them when they express grave concern for humanity.

“Who will save us from Western culture?” The good news for the Left is that they have been saved—by Western culture itself, which succored them in the breasts of academe and nurtured them in what the late Andrew Breitbart memorably described as the “Democrat-Media Complex.” This is the tight, rotating network of college gigs, media jobs, and government “service” that rewards intellectual conformity to the leftist narrative, even as many of its adherents live their private lives according to conservative principles, raising small nuclear families within the two-parent structure and ensuring their children’s safety by living in economically segregated, sometimes gated, communities.

Meanwhile, beyond the borders of Potomac, Maryland, Bel Air in Los Angeles, or the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the citizenry is subject to whatever laws its betters choose to make—and the more the laws, the better, so that, in the words of Harvey Silverglate, just about everyone unknowingly commits “three felonies a day” (the title of his 2009 book) while simply going about his daily business. And to prevent future generations from rising up against what they must eventually perceive as tyranny, anti-procreationists and abortion “providers” are busily erasing the next generation in the name of “women’s rights.” Few cultures, if any, have been as gleefully self-righteous about the moral righteousness, the transcendence, of their suicide as the West.

Thus, like Rosemary’s baby in the iconic movie of that title, the culture of death was born in a country that had formerly welcomed babies and children. Up until the 1960s and ’70s, and prior to Roe v. Wade, American culture had prized babies as a necessity in a muscular, growing, culturally confident republic. Fittingly, in Roman Polanski’s 1968 horror film, Death, in the form of Rosemary’s baby, arrived in the intellectual precincts of the nation’s greatest city, New York. In order to make its anti-life, anti-procreation argument work, the Marxist squid had to exude great quantities of ink—most of which landed on the pages of the house organ of leftism, the New York Times—to obscure its true purpose. The Malthusian myth of overpopulation was trotted out once more. Leftists love zero-sum games and “scientific” prophecies of certain doom: “climate change ” “diminishing resources,” “peak oil,” etc. It would be a crime to bring a child into this terrifying world, they warn, and subject him to a shrunken future. Overpopulation was an omnipresent theme of the period. Even the movies got into the act—Logan’s Run, Soylent Green. The world would soon be crawling with mewling, starving people, and the most merciful thing would be to kill them and maybe even eat them. Thus was the leftist suicide cult born.

It’s crucial to remember how quickly this transformation was accomplished. The cultural revolution of the late sixties took place during a period marked by widespread dislocation. The Tet Offensive, LBJ’s abdication, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Bobby Kennedy’s murder—all occurred in the first six months of 1968. Still to come that year were the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Chicago riots at the Democratic convention in August, and the launch of Apollo 8. By the mid 1970s, there was no going back. After Deep Throat (1972) and The Devil in Miss Jones (1973), porn shops and peep shows popped up across the land, Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy philosophy” began its cultural ascendancy, and the sexual revolution got well and truly under way.

But what, precisely, was the problem that the Left sought so desperately to fix? What required the destruction of the preexisting system of cultural and social mores? The answer—despite the earlier battering by the Fabian Socialists in 1880s England, by the Bloomsbury Group of Virginia Woolf and her compatriots, by Margaret Sanger’s “progressive” eugenics movement of the 1920s—was nothing.

When the businessman/villain Gordon Gekko is asked in the 1987 movie Wall Street why he wants to wreck a company that’s his takeover target, he irritably replies: “Because it’s wreckable, all right?” The hit movie was co-written and directed by another man of the Left, Oliver Stone, and Gekko’s remark was meant to illustrate the mean-spirited avariciousness of the “greed is good” Reagan-era businessmen. And yet, looked at another way, it says more about the ethos of the eliminationist Left than it does about the Right’s putative avarice.

Even earlier, in The Wild One (1953), the glamorous biker-gang leader Johnny Strabler (Marlon Brando) is asked by a local girl, “Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” His reply, “Whaddya got?” is one of the most famous lines in film history, and a perfect encapsulation of the sense that for the nihilist new Romantics, civilization tout court was worthless. Significantly, the first complete draft of the script was written by Ben Maddow, who was blacklisted in 1952, taking him off the project as well as stopping his work on the first draft of High Noon. Maddow was a Columbia-educated leftist who, under the pseudonym David Wolff, was a poet of considerable renown in bien-pensant circles. Allen Ginsberg even cited Wolff’s “The City” (1940), a sprawling account of urban horror and alienation, as the inspiration for Ginsberg’s own, better-known “Howl.” Like many artists who came of age in the inter-war years, Maddow—and the rest of the herd of independent minds—had come to believe that an apocalyptic broom would need to sweep clean the detritus of the broken world and remake it anew.

The system had to go because it was blocking the Marxist arc of history, that rainbow that would end somewhere, somehow, in a pot of gold in a humble proletarian field. And who better represented “the system” than the modern incarnation of Adam and Eve, a man and a woman, their bodies designed to act reciprocally in the matters of procreation and pleasure, the creatures that God himself had interposed between Heaven and Hell, free to be strong or weak as the mood took them, and thus a perfect target for the satanic impulse, whether literarily or literally?

The family was the first target, but even that was a feint, collateral damage from the principal target: the nature of the sexual relationship itself. And for that, we must once again turn to our evocation of man’s primal dark side, Faust.

When Goethe’s Faust first sees Gretchen (in a magic mirror, having been warmed up by a witch’s potion), he is immediately smitten—and just as quickly mocked by the Devil, who remarks: “With this drink, you see Helen of Troy in every woman.” (As it happens, Helen will play a large role in Faust, Part Two.) This is how Faust describes Gretchen to Mephistopheles, after first encountering her in person in the street and having had his advances rebuffed:

By Heaven, this child is beautiful!

I’ve never seen anything like her.

She’s so rich in purity and virtue

and just a little saucy, too.

Her lips red, her cheek fair,

’til the end of days I shan’t forget it!

The way she cast down her eyes

deeply impressed itself into my heart;

how curt she was with me,

Now that’s pure enchantment!

Faust is thunderstruck, just as Mephisto had predicted he would be. But look at what he reacts to: his opposite, the “other.” Faust is old; Gretchen is young. Faust has seen everything in the course of his studies; Gretchen is a simple girl, but he has never seen anything like her, nor she him. Faust is stiff and cold; Gretchen is pert, with a telling hint of sexy mischief in her sparkling eyes. Faust is blunt; but with one shy downward glance, Gretchen binds his heart forever.

Faust, in short, has been bewitched, charmed, enraptured—in other words, he is going through the same thing he is currently experiencing with Mephistopheles, though in the physical realm. But the Ewig-Weibliche, the Eternal Feminine here instantiated by Faust’s fantasy of the pure and innocent Gretchen (soon enough to be defiled) and ultimately the end point of the entire two-part poem, proves a far greater force than Mephistopheles’s satanic temptations. It is, for Goethe and innumerable other artists, the greatest single force in creation—so powerful that in Milton, in Book Nine of Paradise Lost, the first thing Adam and Eve do after they both taste the forbidden fruit is to make love in what is one of Western literature’s first sex scenes:

So said he, and forbore not glance or toy

Of amorous intent, well understood

Of Eve, whose eye darted contagious fire.

Her hand he seized, and to a shady bank,

Thick overhead with verdant roof embow’red

He led her, nothing loath; flowers were the couch,

Pansies, and violets, and asphodel,

And hyacinth, Earth’s freshest softest lap.

There they their fill of love and love’s disport

Took largely, or their mutual guilt the seal,

The solace of their sin, till dewy sleep

Oppressed them, weary with their amorous play.

After you disobey the only commandment God has given you, what else is there to do but have sex?

And so we have a twinning in the cultural mythos of forbidden fruit and Eros/Thanatos, for both Adam and Eve realize that now they must surely die, now that they have tasted both celestial knowledge and human love in its purest form, and have experienced for the first time “la petite mort” of orgasm. And the twinning is crucial to the formation of humanity—another unsuspected benefit of the Fall. The heterosexual human sex act is unlike that of most mammals in that it can happen at any time, not only when the human animal is rutting (our species is always rutting, for good or ill).

Animals respond to the power of the sexual urge; they flock to its smell and its call; they indulge in it with ferocious, sometimes lethal abandon. Humans (and not just in the female’s fertile months) are always on the lookout for the entire panoply of human sexual experience: the main chance, the quick score, the illicit affair, the eternal love, the one-night stand, and the enduring relationship that survives even Death. At once unspoken and yet the subject of countless works of literature, poetry, theater, film, and the musical arts both high and low, this salient feature of the Fall is continually celebrated by mankind even as its primal power causes us so much pain and heartache.

At the first sight of Gretchen, Faust’s lust for knowledge is alchemized into his lust for her. The Eternal Feminine, she is what drives him from this point in the poem—onward but not necessarily upward. Seduced and impregnated, Gretchen (saucy but pure) is the innocent Eve turned murderess. Awaiting Faust’s arrival in her virgin bedchamber, she inadvertently kills her mother by administering a fatal dose of sleeping potion; later, she drowns the bastard child and is condemned to death. Upon seeing Mephisto appear alongside Faust in her dungeon, she calls Satan the spawn of darkness: “Was steigt aus dem Boden herauf?” (“What climbs out of the earth?”) Then she begs Faust to send him away. “What does he want in this holy place? He wants me!”

“You shall live,” replies Faust. Knowing that he himself is doomed by the loss of his wager—for he has known true spiritual and physical love with Gretchen—Faust now rises to the role of rescuer, interposing himself between Satan (“she is condemned”) and an otherworldly voice, which corrects: “She is saved.” Even at the end of the tragedy, the Eternal Feminine conquers Mephistopheles, representing Eve’s revenge and forecasting the Virgin’s final triumph over the Red Dragon.

This is the elemental power of sex—that for all its complexity and difficulty, it nevertheless points the way to transcendence. Almost every religious cult is based around it (with the transient guru having unlimited access to the most nubile and desirable females). Those that aren’t—say, the Shakers (the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing)—rejected it as too powerful but still throw themselves into transports of quasi-sexual religious ecstasy, sublimating the erotic impulse while paying it religious homage.

Critical Theory attacked all of this, principally the idea of transcendence. Not every sex act has larger meaning, of course, but the goal of Critical Theory was to reduce human beings to the level of animals (“If it feels good, do it”) and to deny the transcendent component that had driven creative artists for centuries. Tellingly, the word “sex” came to mean the same thing as “gender,” an impersonal grammatical term that includes masculine, feminine, and neuter. Primal notions of masculinity and femininity were redefined and “nuanced,” which in practice meant shattered and rendered meaningless. Herbert Marcuse, the author of Eros and Civilization, celebrated “polymorphous perversity,” advocating the liberating power of sex, but only in the narrowest sense: liberation from the (in his view) arbitrary and capricious strictures laid down by culture and civilization. By following the directive to “make love, not war,” the gullible individual might well have felt that he was striking a blow at the hierarchy; in reality, though, perhaps he was simply expending his creative, sexual energy in useless and unproductive ways. But Marcuse knew that a populace engaged in pointless sexual intercourse was a populace uninterested in much of anything else; thus “polymorphous perversity” weakens the foundations of the society he sought to undermine.

Again, we must use the word “satanic,” which, rightly defined, means the desire to tear down a longstanding, even elemental, order in order to replace it with…nothing. Critical Theory very effectively harnesses resentment, transmuting it into rage; it excuses solipsistic indolence, presenting it as “self-realization.” The Frankfurt School rejected Jung’s collective unconscious—the only truly “collective” thing about humanity—describing it as an “obscurantist pseudo-mythology,” vastly preferring Freudianism. The psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who founded “socialist humanism,” in particular devoted a great deal of his attention to Freudian theory, and while he found “contradictions” within it, he described Freud as one of the “architects of the modern age,” placing him in the pantheon alongside Marx and Einstein.

In his most important work, Escape from Freedom (1941), Fromm explicitly rejected Western notions of personal freedom, preferring instead the ordered society of—of all things—feudal Europe. (There is no Progressive like a Regressive.) “In having a distinct, unchangeable, and unquestionable place in the social world from the moment of birth, man was rooted in a structuralized whole, and thus life had a meaning which left no place, and no need for doubt.” (“Structural” is a favorite word of the Marxists, believing as they do in a “scientific” basis for what it is little more than a resentful nineteenth-century revenge fantasy.)

To take a step back from the Frankfurt School and its curious, culture-specific obsessions is to note what a stunningly self-referential and limited world these intellectuals inhabited. They were a group of tiresome, quarrelsome, pedantic, mostly German- or Austrian-born intellectuals endlessly rehashing the theories and merits of an earlier generation of tiresome, pedantic, mostly German- or Austrian-born intellectuals, with the added layer of their largely shared (or rejected) Jewishness in common.

One is reminded of the historian Paul Johnson’s memorable chapter in Intellectuals on Marx, with a title that recalls Satan himself: “Howling Gigantic Curses.” In it, Johnson describes the political devil of our narrative as he set about his war with God:

He never received any Jewish education or attempted to acquire any, or showed any interest in Jewish causes. But it must be said that he developed traits characteristic of a certain type of scholars, especially Talmudic ones: a tendency to accumulate immense masses of half-assimilated materials and to plan encyclopedic works which were never completed; a withering contempt for all non-scholars, and extreme assertiveness and irascibility in dealing with other scholars. Virtually all his work, indeed, has the hallmark of Talmudic study: It is essentially a commentary on, a critique of the work of others in the field.

Perhaps that is ascribing too much to Marx’s Jewish roots, which included prominent rabbis on both sides of the family; as Johnson notes, Marx’s father was baptized in the wake of an 1816 Prussian edict that banned Jews from the legal and medical fields, and he had his six children baptized as well. Ascribing innate “racial” or cultural traits is a dangerous business in the aftermath of the Holocaust; still, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of the members of the Frankfurt School were Jewish, as were many of the early Bolsheviks, including Trotsky, Kamenev, Sverdlov, and Zinoviev; like all Bolsheviks, they were fiercely anti-Jewish, banning teaching in Hebrew and religious instruction (not that it saved them from Stalin, whose own Georgian anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s). Nevertheless, although Jews made up a high percentage of the German intellectuals of the period, well out of proportion to their small share of the population, the philosophical terms of the debate were German, not Jewish.

Another of Marx’s traits was evident from his youth: his passion for destruction, expressed in the poetry he wrote as a young man, including “Savage Songs,” one of whose verses ran: “We are chained, shattered, empty, frightened / Eternally chained to this marble block of being /… We are the apes of a cold God.” Faust was one of his favorite poems, of course, but he took the side of Mephistopheles, quoting the Devil’s aphorism “Everything that exists deserves to perish” in his essay The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Johnson concludes his study by remarking: “Marx is an eschatological writer from start to finish.”

In other words, not to put too fine a point on it: a madman. For Marx resembles nothing more than those monomaniacs, convinced of the righteousness of their cause (or, in this case, an anti-cause dressed up as a cause), desperately scribbling upon acres of foolscap and furiously buttonholing just about everyone they meet, with a lecture or harangue always ready to hand. How anyone could have fallen for this load of quasi-scientific, pseudo-intellectual, anti-human codswallop remains a mystery, and yet in a world where even Charles Manson can find love behind prison bars, anything is possible. A selfish, ravaging monster in his personal life, Marx is the archetype of the modern leftist, an apotheosis of hypocrisy who makes others suffer and die for his sins.

Again, note the Christian allegory. Marxism is often compared to a religious cult in its outward trappings and external rituals, but a closer look at its founder and practitioners reveals even greater similarities. Marx’s own self-identification with Mephistopheles might well be proof enough, but let us go further. The sense of having been wronged—by fate? the universe?—runs throughout the Left’s list of grievances against a God they profess not to believe in. Their own lives bear little scrutiny, as they are too often revealed as duplicitous, deceitful, and treacherous toward even those they claim to love. The media today shriek in glee whenever a putative conservative is caught with some part of his body in a honey pot, yet they consistently turn a blind eye to those on their side in the same predicaments. Their lame explanation is always the same: Conservative (or better yet, religious fundamentalist) hypocrisy is news. After all, it is a violation of Alinsky’s Rule No. 4: “Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.” Whereas the Left has no rules, only objectives, and since “by any means necessary” is a perfectly acceptable moral code, there can be no hypocrisy on the Left, just as there can be no enemies.

Consider that much of leftists’ enthusiasm for sexual freedom stems from their own, shall we say, irregular personal lives; for them, the love that dare not say its name instead shouts it from the rooftops. And, by extension, they have assumed that what works for people who are often engaged in creative and artistic pursuits (who tend to be highly sexed) ought to work for everybody else, even those whom they dismiss as plebeian. The Bloomsbury circle was a hotbed of hot beds, both gay and straight; the rapaciously bisexual Simone de Beauvoir was an early advocate of women’s adopting a masculine view of serial sexual conquest, passing along her often underage female conquests to her lifelong partner, Jean-Paul Sartre. Famously, the lascivious Nadezhda Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, became the butt of jokes in the Soviet Union, the most famous of which goes like this:

A Soviet filmmaker makes a film called “Lenin in Warsaw.” Everybody shows up for the premiere. The film opens—on Krupskaya, naked, having mad sex with another man. And then another. And another. And so on. The film goes on and on in the same vein for ninety minutes. Finally, the lights come up and the director takes questions from the audience. First question: “Very interesting movie, comrade, but—where was Lenin?” The director answers: “In Warsaw.” (Marx’s own sex life, like Rousseau’s, also bears little scrutiny.)

And yet the Judeo-Christian example is always reproachfully before the “transgressive” leftists, the thing they cannot avoid even when they try. In 1898, Debussy tried to rebel against the musically puritanical Wagnerism outlined in Wagner’s seminal 1849 essay, Das Kunstwerk der Zukunft (“The Artwork of the Future”) but that Wagner expressed most completely in Das Rheingold (with its lack of arias, choruses, etc.). As I mentioned in the previous chapter, the French master wound up writing the ineffable Pelléas et Mélisande, which conforms precisely—in a way that even Rheingold does not—to Wagner’s theoretical strictures. Wagner’s ideas themselves were a direct reaction to the “Franco-Jewishness” of the works of Giacomo Meyerbeer, then the darling of the Paris Opera and a man whose success Wagner fervently desired to emulate and, failing thereat, decided to resent.

One of Meyerbeer’s greatest successes was, as noted earlier, the satanic opera Robert le diable, from whose themes Liszt (Wagner’s father-in-law, as things turned out) fashioned one of his most popular concert showpieces. Wagner himself picked up the Meyerbeerian thread with his early opera The Flying Dutchman (1840), bringing the circle of resentment and imitation to completion. Art imitating life, or life imitating art? Or something even more elemental, the unity of the two?

Robert le diable, shockingly for the day, featured a chorus of dead nuns rising from the grave, casting off their habits, and writhing temptingly nude before the hero. In Dutchman, by contrast, the temptation is toward goodness and the light, as exemplified by Senta, the village girl who eventually frees the Dutchman from the power of his terrible curse, sending his doomed ship to the bottom and both him and her to Heaven through her Selbstmord (self-sacrifice) suicide. Both operas, though, feature the Ewig-Weibliche to drive home the elemental point: Eros and Thanatos, together again, with Eros once more triumphant.

Wagner’s heroines are a panoply of redemptive femininity: Senta, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), Elsa (Lohengrin), Isolde (Tristan und Isolde), Eva (Die Meistersinger), Brünnhilde—strong women who often outlive the men they love. They are the musical and dramatic idealizations of Gretchen, both temptress and redeemer, the spark of the divine made flesh that drives their poor, often weak heroes to their deeds of glory. All of them owe a debt of gratitude to the archetypal operatic feminist heroine, Beethoven’s Leonore in Fidelio, who rescues her imprisoned husband, Florestan, by disguising herself as a boy and then holding the evil governor of the prison, Don Pizarro, at gunpoint until the cavalry finally arrives.

And yet this most elemental force in human life, the Ewig-Weibliche, is routinely scorned and denigrated by the offspring of the Unholy Left, the increasingly deracinated “feminist” harpies whose anti-male rhetoric bespeaks not so much impotent rage as sexual jealousy.

The attack on normative heterosexuality—led by male homosexuals and lesbians, and invariably disguised as a movement for “rights,” piggybacking on the civil rights movement of the 1960s—is fundamental to the success of Critical Theory, which went straight at the hardest target (and yet, in many ways, the softest) first. The reason was simple: If a wedge could be driven between men and women, if the nuclear family could be cracked, if women could be convinced to fear and hate men, to see them as unnecessary for their happiness or survival—if men could be made biologically redundant—then that political party that had adopted Critical Theory could make single women one of their strongest voting blocs.

And so Eve was offered the apple: In exchange for rejecting a “traditional” sex role of supposed subservience and dependency (slavery, really), she would become more like a man in her sexual appetites and practices (this was called “freedom”), and she would be freed from the burdens of motherhood via widespread contraception, abortion on demand, and the erasure of the “stigma” of single motherhood (should it come to that) or spinsterhood. Backed by the force of the government’s fist, she would compete with men for jobs, high salaries, and social status, all the while retaining all her rights of womanhood. The only thing she had to do was help destroy the old order.

The result has been entirely predictable: masculinized women, feminized men, falling rates of childbirth in the Western world, and the creation of a technocratic political class that can type but do little real work in the traditional sense. Co-educational college campuses have quickly mutated from sexually segregated living quarters to co-ed dorms to the “hookup culture” depicted by novelist Tom Wolfe in I Am Charlotte Simmons to a newly puritanical and explicitly anti-male “rape culture” in which sexual commissars promulgate step-by-step rules for sexual encounters and often dispense completely with due process when adjudicating complaints from female students.

Crucially, at every step of the way, “change” from the old norms was being offered as “improvement” or “liberation”—more fulfillment, more pleasure, more experience. And yet, with each step, things got worse—for women. Eve’s bite of the apple and Adam’s loving acquiescence sent humanity forth from the Garden, sadder but wiser. Today’s transgressive Western woman is merely sadder and often ends her life completely alone, a truly satanic outcome. G.K. Chesterton’s parable of the fence comes to mind, in “The Drift from Domesticity,” in The Thing (1929):

In the manner of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which probably will be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law, let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this, let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you destroy it.”

A splendid example of Chesterton’s Fence was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, championed by Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. “Contrary to the charges in some quarters, [the bill] will not inundate America with immigrants from any one country or area,” said the Massachusetts senator. “In the final analysis, the ethnic pattern of immigration under the proposed measure is not expected to change as sharply as the critics seem to think.… The bill will not flood our cities with immigrants. It will not relax the standards of admission. It will not cause American workers to lose their jobs.” Half a century on, those predictions have proven dramatically wrong; the question is whether Kennedy and his fellow leftists knew quite well at the time that their forecasts were bogus—although (as someone or other famously said) what difference, at this point, does it make?

In the same way, much of contemporary “reform” is marked by impatience, ridicule, and haste, cloaked in “compassion” or bureaucratic “comprehensivity,” disguised as “rights” prised out of the Constitution with a crowbar and an ice pick, and delivered with a cocksure snort of derision against any who would demur.

The last words of Faust, Part One, belong not to Faust or even Mephistopheles, but to Gretchen as her soul ascends to heaven, calling out to her lost lover: “Heinrich! Heinrich!” He has failed to rescue poor, mad Gretchen; now she must rescue him, if only from the next life. But the drama continues nonetheless.

English readers may not at first appreciate the familiarity and intimacy of this last line. Goethe does not use Faust’s Christian name until Scene 16, directly after the famous “Gretchen am Spinnrad” verses (also famously set to music by Schubert). Faust and Gretchen have exchanged their first kiss; her virgin world has been turned upside down; her body now aches for his, as suggested by her use of his Christian name, Heinrich, in the next scene. It’s an extraordinarily intimate moment—Germans of that period and well into the twentieth century did not easily move from the formal terms of address to the more intimate “dozen,” using the second-person familiar “thou” with each other. Even close friends and married couples might wait years before using the intimate form of address with each other, if they ever did at all. Faust’s problem is that he can’t see the light until it’s too late for his love and almost too late for him.

What is to awaken us from the long slumber of reason that has marked American culture since the end of World War II? The Frankfurt School intellectuals found the perfect moment to attack their host country, not when it was weak but when it was strong. In times of trouble, societies often coalesce around their core values, but when times are flush, people are more inclined to a little social experimentation, especially if contains a basket of forbidden fruit. Prior to the American victory in the Second World War, men like Adorno, Horkheimer, Gramsci, Lukács, and Marcuse would probably have been shunned, their philosophy rightly considered the ravings of bitter, dangerous malcontents. But the very fact that America emerged with a high moral standing after its defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, whose crimes were inarguable, left the homeland open to the serpents who slithered in while nobody was looking and hissed, “Why not?”

Why not question authority? Why not overturn your moral code? Why not do it if it feels good? The secure children of the 1950s had become the spoiled college students of the 1960s and ’70s; their natural inclination as youths was to regard their parents as fools and idiots. The civil unrest of the 1960s added racism to the mix; Vietnam added futility and, paradoxically (as things turned out) suspicion of government. (Can government save us from government?)

The Unites States may have crushed Fascism, but what had it done for us lately? In for the long haul—fashioning the long march through the institutions in the same way that one of their icons, Mao, had effected his Long March to escape the Kuomintang in China and ultimately win control of the country—the leftists set about their business. It would take time, but the game was worth the candle. Besides, as Mephistopheles observes to an angry Faust, “There’s nothing more ridiculous in the whole world than a Devil who despairs.” They radiated confidence in their morals and their mission of cultural “liberation.”

Gretchen’s cry of “Heinrich! Heinrich!” to Faust is a cry of despair, but it contains within it a seed of hope; he is her husband, and she the Ewig-Weibliche, his better half. Critical Theory’s purpose was to remove any shred of such emotion; purposelessness became an end in itself. The slightest glimmer of hope (in this case, doubt about the correctness of the leftist cause) would be the candle in the darkness, illuminating the universe. That could not be.

When Gretchen, in extremis, calls out her lover’s name, it is her final attempt to break through Mephisto’s darkness and send a ray of Heaven’s light stabbing down into the hollowness of Faust’s soul. She has long been suspicious of his strange companion; Mephisto gives her the willies. His appearances never lead to anything good. As the dawn breaks on the day of her death, Gretchen alone forces Faust to see the Devil for what he is: a vampire, the spawn from deepest darkness. “What does he want in this holy place?” she cries to Faust. “He wants me!” Just as, one might observe, the Serpent wanted Eve in the Garden.

So, there it is. In the end, the Devil is interested not in Faust but in the woman, the Eternal Feminine, she who will eventually crush him under her feet. Faust’s soul, Mephistopheles believes, he already possesses. But the innocent, corruptible Gretchen—she is the one he really wants. In a sense, the entire poem (like Paradise Lost) has been a gigantic misdirection, and Mephisto’s (and the poet’s) true intentions are revealed only at the end. But then Faust steps forward and tells Gretchen, “You shall live.” She consigns her soul to God.

Sie ist gerichtet! (She is damned!)

Ist gerettet! (Is saved!)

Defeated, Mephisto claims the only prize left. He turns to Faust and, beckoning, says: “Here, to me!” And as they both vanish in brimstone, we hear the last lines of Goethe’s masterpiece, spoken by the ascendant Gretchen: “Heinrich! Heinrich!” Hers is the voice of hope in the wilderness, the light in the darkness of what otherwise would be eternal night, and the promise that, no matter what our sins, if only we have faith, this, too, shall pass. Even in death, the Eternal Feminine draws us ever onward, into the Light. And so it is to the Light that we now must turn.

This piece has been adapted from The Devil’s Pleasure Palace by Michael Walsh. 
Encounter Books is an activity of Encounter for Culture and Education, a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation dedicated to strengthening the marketplace of ideas.
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Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter, whose work includes six novels, seven works of nonfiction, and a hit Disney movie. The former classical music critic of Time magazine, he is now a regular contributor of political and cultural commentary to PJ Media and National Review, and an occasional op-ed columnist for the New York Post.

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