Of the Reappearance of the Gothic in the Twentieth Century

by Carl Schmitt

Cezanne was the first to show that a return to creative design was necessary to save art. He aimed at connecting nineteenth-century descriptive painting with the creative design of the Renaissance. He actually did more than he aimed to do. He knit (however inadequately) the modern description to the intellectual of the thirteenth century and with him appeared, for the first time for many years, the Gothic.

Since that time there has been a tremendous revival of the Gothic culture. While the philosophy behind this manifestation is essentially Christian and Catholic, many of the leaders are not professing Catholics. Why is this? I think it is because the “rational” civilization, that is, the civilization based upon the practical intellect and which was the civilization of the nineteenth century, was an “inverted” Gothic civilization. The reaction from the Gothic of the practical intellectual man is necessarily intellectual. Man cannot obliterate his mental hunger. When he turns, it is to the opposite extreme of intellectual spirituality which is the Gothic or Catholic spirituality. For the extreme of greed is poverty. The extreme of the practical mind is the just mind. That explanation is mystical, and to many does not explain at all.

It is not necessary to prophesy a Gothic Revival. The thing is upon us, having grown greatly in every “Christian” country in the last twenty-five years. Modern man in increasing numbers seems to realize that his soul must live if he would be happy—that the nineteenth century aim of comfort is not sufficient. When a man is impatient of mere comfort, he is Gothic. When he gives up the winning side, which in the long run dies, he is Gothic. When he sees the losing side which dies is the side which lives, and desires that losing side for his soulís health, he is Gothic.

Such symptoms, I say, have reappeared, and he who runs can read them in the rhythms of the “new art” of every country of Europe and America today. To consider briefly the leading figures of this Gothic movement may not be out of place. First of all the men who are the core of the Gothic ideal are anonymous. For anonymity is the first attribute of the cruciform ideal. In the thirteenth century (when the universal (European) ideal of the cross was very nearly permanently accepted) the thing was common and anonymous. However, leaders appear today who quietly suggest the way. These leaders are religious, social or political or practical as you choose, and cultural or artistic. The religious or political leader may use the arts for his propaganda, if he have the grace, or he may not. If he uses the arts, he necessarily reaches a different class of people than if he does not.

As I am interested chiefly in the cultural side of this manifestation, and as it is through the observance of the Gothic or “oppositional harmony” in the arts of the past twenty-five years as registering unerringly the trend of the times, my data on the religious or political sides is correspondingly weak. I think, however, that Pope Leo XIII with his wish for frequent communion was largely responsible for a gradual turn among Catholics toward a Gothic ideal. I will not take the time to go into my reasons for this statement. My conviction is largely mystical—I will content myself by simply telling my reader very personally and privately that I have an absolute conviction that frequent confession and communion is the secret of the whole thing and let it go at that.

On the political or sociological side, Hilaire Belloc is unquestionably the leader. It may seem strange at first blush that he should be thought of as ushering in a Gothic movement. But he has been hammering away for years building a foundation quietly and attacking his public through his literary artistry. At times he very nearly dispenses with the arts. He is English and is interested primarily politically. He uses all of the subtleties of English diplomacy. However, much of an artist he is, and I think he is a great artist, the fact remains that he is not French enough to be the esthetic leader. I have said that he has laid a foundation; he has laid a large one and a permanent one, and it is exactly the kind that should be laid. It is a Romanesque and imperial foundation, and only on such a structure can our later men hope to rear the aspiring Gothic structure. He has patiently, and almost alone, devoted his life to this work, and I believe that the significance of his quiet labor will be of tremendous import for future generations.

© Copyright 2012 Carl Schmitt Foundation