And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison, and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, and will gather them together for the battle; the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and encompassed the camp of the saints, and the beloved city. -- Revelation chapter 20:7-9a
It is unfortunate that the most prescient book ever written about the present mass migration of immigrants from the Third World to the First, especially to the US from Mexico and Central America and to Europe from the Levant, is out of print and therefore unavailable: Jean Raspail’s eerily prophetic The Camp of the Saints (hereafter Camp). (The Amazon link says simply that “This title is not currently available for purchase.” In fact, I seem to remember that years ago I bought my copy, well-thumbed but in good condition, from a second-hand bookstore.) It is equally unfortunate that progressives, liberals, and left-leaning activists, when they can get the book, most often read it and, abandoning anything like a close and critical examination, unreflectingly and reflexively excoriate Raspail and his text for what they consider arrant and blatant racism and Eurocentric jingoism. I have lived with The Camp of the Saints since the middle 1970s, i.e., a few years after it was first published, and such reactions seem as knee-jerkingly obtuse now as when I first read Raspail’s dystopian prophecy.
But I would make bold to suggest an alternative reading, a reading even more radically prophetic than the naively superficial race-centric interpretation of Camp: that Camp foretells the eventual consequences that will ensue when post-modernist, specifically deconstructionist, moral and epistemological nihilism escapes from the biosafety-level-4 containment of academic philosophy and literature departments and infects life, politics, and world-views outside the university. The epidemic is already proceeding apace. In fact, I have written elsewhere about how to save, or at least provisionally preserve and shelter, the European Enlightenment, and have argued that Donald Trump is the first truly post-modern President. The virus is loose in the wild. The media show us the results of the consequent epidemic every day. The infected are already here, and are most assuredly not extras in The Walking Dead: most of them have white skin.
The fact that the dozens of millions of mariners on board Raspail’s mega-flotilla of several hundred junk steamers and decrepit ships have brown skin actually has nothing to do with race – yes, yes, I know! … keep reading – and everything to do with Raspail’s ideological agenda: he is trying to draw the contrast in the sharpest possible terms between the psychology of the Third World, which knows nothing of the Enlightenment and its principles, and the First World, comprising the heirs of this classical-liberal tradition whose heirs know nothing about the Enlightenment 300 years after it occurred. Raspail’s point is that, really, both groups are in the same boat … so to speak.
The difference is that, whereas the junk-boat mariners can know nothing about it, their First World counterparts could know about it, in fact, could know all about it, but notwithstanding, because of intellectual flabbiness, incuriosity, and just plain-vanilla laziness choose not to know. In other words, pretty much like many (most? God help us, all?) of today’s college undergraduates, many of whom are no longer required to study the history of Western civilization, for fear of giving DWEMs (Dead White European Males) excessive credit. (Don’t believe me? Try asking any randomly selected undergraduate, who is not a history major, to name 3 principles of the European Enlightenment, 3 of its luminaries, and when roughly the Enlightenment occurred. I have run this experiment. The results were uniformly discouraging.) Raspail could have made the same argument if hundreds of ships had set sail for the coasts of the Continent from the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the States, New Zealand, and Australia, but the lack of contrast between European and these First World immigrants would have considerably blunted the force of Raspail’s succeeding argument. For Raspail's argument to retain its ability to gob-smack the reader, the Third World flotilla essentially has to originate in many of Trump's "shithole countries". The up-side of Raspail's discourse in Camp is that this radical contrast warp-drives his argument, but the down-side is that this very contrast is virtually guaranteed to be interpreted as a dog-whistle call to racism by many of Raspail's more doctrinaire left-wing critics. For the record, I think Raspail chose wisely.
Toward this end, and in the interest of lending his argument maximum force, Raspail uses the boat people themselves and the people in the European nations to which they are sailing, especially the opinion makers and members of the “commentariat” in the latter, as foils to play off against each other. This contrast is present from the very beginning when, according to subsequent legends and word-of-mouth-published anecdote, the entire migration allegedly began with hundreds of thousands of Indians gathered outside the gates of the Belgian consulate in Calcutta, shrieking for their children to be allowed to enter the consular compound for eventual travel to Europe, a frenzied request the single Belgian consul persists in refusing until, along with his single British-trained guard, the consul, a tragicomic figure if ever there was one, marches with his one guard, who finally abandons him, to the waterfront, where he takes the guard’s rifle, shoots a single refugee, and immediately falls to his death in the filthy waters. Whereupon the ragged flotilla sets sail for Europe.
Regarding this multitude, Raspail inveighs
The turd eater [the presumptive leader of the junk-ship convoy] went on board [his ship] before all the rest [boarded their vessels]. As the monster totem’s [the turd eater’s grotesquely deformed son] rigid head traced its wake through the crowd, like a periscope poking up out of the water they all fell still. … First the monster’s head stood out against the side of the ship. Then his father’s. And everyone could gaze at the symbolic pair slowly climbing up the gangplank. … [T]he prophet’s ascent became a god’s ascension. No one could doubt that the enterprise must be divine. No one, that is, but the little commando bands, instigators all, who at that moment were visiting the other ships in port, as well as every other port along the Ganges. … Up on the bridge of the "India Star", the turd eater lifted his hands toward the sky. He grasped his son by his two twisted stumps, and when he raised him high in the air with a signal-like flourish, each soul in the numberless mass thought he heard himself summoned by name.
It soon becomes evident that, however similar they are in other ways, the sailors in the immigrants’ flotilla have in abundance one quality not possessed by the inhabitants of the West: passion. The immigrants, unlike enervated Westerners, at least know what they intend and what they are about and are willing to pursue that goal at all cost. The Third World will simply take what the effete hands of the First are too lazy to bother grasping, much less defending. For Raspail's West is inhabited by people straight out of T. S. Eliot, specifically Apeneck Sweeney and J. Alfred Prufrock and Gerontion. The blatant passion of Eliot's Grishkin is utterly gone -- except from the immigrant flotilla. Raspail's West is now the habitation of "the hollow men, the stuffed men" with headpieces of straw. Raspail's Camp extends and elaborates Eliot's prior vision of decadence from 40 years before.
This apathy is no less rampant in the highest counsels of government than in the media. I will spare you the impotent mumblings of the French cabinet during a dinner meeting with the President of the Republic, other than
“The governments of the Indian subcontinent” [said the Minister of Foreign Affairs], gravely concerned with domestic conditions and the worsening crisis in food distribution … “ Another snicker. “Balls!” exclaimed the undersecretary of this or that … The President is hardly one to frown on after dinner banter. Still, he finds the expletive somewhat out of order. “Please,” he says sharply, “a little decorum. This is a serious matter.”
The chattering classes of the European, specifically French, media acquit themselves no better, nor do the ordinary citizens who listen to them. Progressives are always, usually justifiably, excoriating right-wing media. Raspail does not treat their left-wing counterparts any more gently.
[Prominent French commentator Albert Durfort was a] Zorro of the airwaves. And the public adored it. … [I]n fact … the most obtuse … saw each nightly editorial as a serial installment: Durfort on skid row. Durfort on the Arabs. Durfort vs. the racists. Durfort vs. the police. Durfort against brutality. Durfort for prison reform. Durfort and capital punishment. Etc., etc. But no one, not even Durfort himself, could see that Zorro was flogging dead horses, flying off to the rescue of issues long since won. Something else, strange but true: he was looked on as the model of the free, objective thinker.
I repeat: yes, it is possible to interpret Raspail’s text as a racist screed. It is also possible to interpret Moby Dick as a treatise on the science of cetology; A Tale of Two Cities as an illustration of optimal ways to use a guillotine; Homer’s Odyssey as a travelogue of some hapless vacationer’s cruise from hell; etc. But to interpret Camp this way is to cleanly miss the exquisite irony, which is – or, anyway, should be – evident from Raspail’s sarcasm in the flyleaf quotation from the Book of Revelation about St. John’s “camp of the saints”.
For Raspail leaves hanging the question: How did the West end up as the effete, exhausted, and quintessentially weak civilization it eventually became, and, I think, is still in the process of becoming? I would suggest that in the early 70s when Camp was published, neither Raspail nor anyone else was in a position to address this question. Now, 45 years later, we are. A full argument is more than this column has time or space to undertake. If you are interested in a fuller answer -- which you should be if you are at all enamored of things like liberal democracy, free speech, the rule of law, gender equality, LGBTQIA rights, and religion-neutral government -- see the above "Skeptic's" columns on Donald Trump as the first post-modern President and strategies to preserve Enlightenment principles.
For now, suffice to say that, while it could not have been known to Raspail in the early 70s, postmodernist nihilism had already, even then, begun to sap, not so much the rote belief, as the passion, the affect from supporters of liberal-democratic, specifically Western, civilization. (I believe I could not-altogether-arbitrarily date American academe's infection with the virus of postmodernist nihilism from Jacques Derrida's lectures at Johns Hopkins University in 1966.) Belief in these institutions, practices, and principles is now, for the most part, a matter of the upper 1/10 inch of the cerebral cortex in Western brains, not something that commands the heart, the glands, the adrenaline of the emotions. Had that not been the case, had belief in the Enlightenment-centric values and practices of liberal democracy been a matter of the deep viscera and not just of the intellect, Donald Trump's candidacy would have been over the first time he advocated censorship-by-litigation of, e.g., the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other dissident media outlets. But he got away with it. That says a helluva lot more about us than it says about Trump. As a Nation, we forgot to care, any more than the anaesthetized listeners of Durfort in Camp.
The Camp of the Saints started out in the early 70s as a prescient warning of what we in the West could become. Now, two years into the first-ever fascist American Presidency, it is fast becoming a documentary of what we are.
James R. Cowles
Postmodernism word cloud ... Versionz ... CC by 2.0
T. S. Eliot ... Thomas Stearns Eliot with his sister and his cousin by Lady Ottoline Morrell ... Public domain
"Crossing the Acheron" ... Gustave Doré ... Public domain
Jean Raspail ... Own work ... Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International
"Liberty Leading the People" ... Eugene Delacroix ... Public domain
"Rousseau" ... Maurice de la Tour ... Public domain
"Voltaire" ... Workshop of Nicolas de Lagilliere ... Public domain