Essay / Misc.

Marmosets Underfoot (Decadent Conservatism)

marmoset print There are some peculiar footnotes in the 1845 edition of Calvin’s Institutes translated by the industrious Henry Beveridge. The weirdest ones are the result of Beveridge double-checking his translation work by turning from the Latin Institutes to the French translation (much of which is by Calvin’s own hand). My favorite example is in Book I, chapter 11, when Calvin is ridiculing the practice of venerating statues. Since there are religious statues everywhere, Calvin asks, why is that people “fatigue themselves with votive pilgrimages to images while they have many similar ones at home?” At this point, Beveridge notices that the French translation offers a slightly different wording (“Pourquoy est-ce qu’ils trotent si loin en pelerinage pour voir un marmouset, duquel ils ont le semblable à leur porte?”), so he puts that, in English, into a footnote: “Why is it that they trot so far on a pilgrimage to see a marmoset, when they have one like it at their door?”

A marmoset? Um, you mean the South American monkey? What are 16th-century Europeans doing taking pilgrimages to bow down to South American monkeys, or for that matter keeping them at home? How many New World monkeys were there in Switzerland by that time? Were there constant marmoset runs being made between 1492 and 1559?

Attractive as that idea might be, the more plausible solution is this: the French word marmouset means something like “a grotesque little image,” but Beveridge missed the point and went for the monkey meaning. Instead of Calvin calling religious statues “monkeys,” the influence probably went the other way: Some French explorer saw a funny-looking New World monkey and exclaimed in French, “What a grotesque image that is!” (I don’t actually know if this happened, or if the marmoset was insulted)

I like to picture the 19th-century Beveridge leaning over his translation, trying to figure out what to make of “trot so far to see a marmoset.” Here’s what I think was going through his mind: “I don’t know why Calvin is talking about marmosets here, but I’d better leave it in, marmosets and all. If I put it in the footnote, future generations can decide for themselves.”

With that move, Beveridge lines himself up with the quintessential conservative temperament. When in doubt, conservatives keep things around. I don’t care if it makes no sense whatsoever, put it in the footnote. The last thing we’d do is dispose of it.

All cultures and subcultures move through stages, and two notable stages are the classical and the decadent. In cultural terms, a classical period is a time when all the parts of a community’s life seem to hang together, mutually reinforce each other, and make intuitive sense. By contrast, a decadent period is marked by dissolution of all the most important unities, a sense that whatever initial force gave impetus and meaningful form to the culture has pretty much spent its power.

Decadence is a falling off, a falling apart from a previous unity. Inhabitants of a decadent culture feel themselves to be living among the scraps and fragments of something that must have made sense to a previous generation, but which now seem more like a pile of unrelated items. Decadent cultures feel unable to articulate the reasons for connecting things to each other. They spend a lot of time staring at isolated fragments, unable to combine them into meaningful wholes. They start all their important speeches by quoting Yeats’ overused line, “Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”

Decadents either fetishize their tribal and party distinctions, or mix absolutely everything together in one sloppy combination. Not everybody in a decadent culture even feels a need to work toward articulating unities, but those who do make the attempt face a baffling challenge. At best, the experience is somewhat like working a jigsaw puzzle without the guidance of the finished image from the box top; at worst, it is like undertaking that task while fighting back the slow horror of realization that what you have in front of you are pieces that come from several different puzzles, none of them complete or related.

Evangelicalism in our lifetime seems to be in a decadent period. In some sectors of the evangelical subculture, there is not even a living cultural memory of a classical period or golden age; what we experience is decadence all the way back.

Under conditions of decadence, two types of reaction typically occur. Conservative temperaments tend to grab up all the fragments and insist on keeping them as they were found. They may be totally inert lumps which nobody knows how to make use of, but the conservative will faithfully preserve them as museum pieces. Liberal temperaments, on the other hand, tend to toss the fragments aside as rapidly as they stop proving themselves useful.

Imagine a conservative and a liberal in some future dark age, pondering an antique internal combustion engine which either can operate but neither could build. Bolted to the side of the engine is an inscrutable gadget which is not clearly adding anything to the function of the vehicle. The liberal would reason that since it cannot be shown to do anything for the motor’s function, it should be removed and discarded. The conservative would reason that since it cannot be shown to do anything, it must remain precisely where it is forever. Perhaps if we knew what it did it could be removed, but as long as we do not understand it, it stays.

Whatever the merits of their temperaments (and neither can be right in this case), under the condition of decadence liberals become streamliners and conservatives become packrats. Evangelicals have long tended toward the packrat temperament, even though there are some signs that we may currently be exchanging that temperament for its relatively less happy alternative. What it leaves us with is an impressive stock of doctrinal and devotional bric-a-brac that we don’t know what to do with, or how it originally went together. Maybe Dwight Moody knew, maybe R. A. Torrey knew, but we can no longer articulate the unity.

Until we can do that, we’re left to squat in the ruins arguing about whether we should throw things away because we don’t understand them, or enshrine them unquestioningly forever because we don’t understand them. Conservatism is to be preferred, but only in a very relative way. Having marmosets in your footnotes is no way to live. The only real way forward is to understand why things are where they are.

That’s the only way we’re ever going to save the marmosets. Or set them free. Or whatever it is you’re supposed to do with marmosets.

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