The Spanish Baroque and its literary-artistic production was marked by excess—verbal excess in the wordiness of poets like Góngora, who presaged the French symbolists of the 19th century, but also erotic and sensual excess (eros) as figured in the stories of María de Zayas among others, wherein nobles sow the seeds of their own demise through licentious behaviors that rent the social fabric of the class that was meant to lead by example. For if the nobility couldn’t lead, how could the lower rungs of society be expected to follow suit? Unlike the caricature of the past projected from today, it is not so much that illicit sex was entirely repressed, and eroticism tamed, but rather that when it wasn’t, the consequences were taken seriously and their ramifications became the substance of careful scrutiny—especially by Golden Age playwrights, poets, and artists. Early Modern art did not lead with the myth that sexual license was free of consequences or mostly beneficial for the parties involved; it led with the toll that was exacted by that very myth’s allure as a form of false freedom.
All this is to say that when I look at cultural life in the West today—our self-seeking individualism, our pursuit of pleasure in its sundry forms—and to the attempts to dissemble and undo the consequences of these through no-fault divorce, the legalization of drugs, abortion on demand, and the technological advances of the bio-medical industrial complex—I am reminded, oddly enough, of Spain in the 17th Century. I am reminded of the existential struggles between a culture of life and a culture of death that roiled Spain then and roils the whole Occident today. In the case of the former, it was an effete, impotent aristocracy waging the war on life, rejuvenation, and renewal so that it might preserve its position of privilege; in the case of the later, the problem of power and privilege remains, but under the guise of our overly-credentialed retinue of “experts” in the fields of tech, academia, media, and now public health.
“One of the patterns in Golden Age Spanish theater,” a perceptive professor once told me, “is the ‘Chronos Complex.’” He continued on: “Normally, we mortgage the present to provide for the future. We make sacrifices now for the benefit of future generations. In the Spanish comedia we see the opposite. The future is mortgaged for the sake of the present, to maintain the decadent status quo at the expense of generational renewal.”
In one of the plays I studied, Reinar después de morir (1640), by Luís Vélez de Guevara, the King of Portugal’s first wife tragically dies, and the king marries her lady-in-waiting, a woman of noble but non-royal standing. Because she is a non-royal, he must marry her in secret. They live together happily, and the king’s new bride bears him multiple children. A fruitful and loving marriage, however, is cut short when the clandestine marriage becomes an obstacle to a proposed marriage to a fellow royal. Despite the scenes of conjugal and familial bliss, redolent in many ways of Murillo’s The Holy Family with a Little Bird (1650), the king’s wife is murdered so that the arranged royal marriage can take place. Instead of the hoped-for political stability, the murder sparks a vicious civil war and the “crowning” of the would-be queen’s cadaver.
In other so-called “uxoricide” or wife-murder plays, such as El castigo sin venganza, (1631) by Lope de Vega, men (often times much older men) kill their wives for their infidelity—perceived or imagined—with much younger lovers who would in any other circumstance have been the much more natural choice of husband. Something, then, at the core of Spanish society seems to be wrong—a sterile status quo duels with and ultimately defeats the forces of youth and rejuvenation. This is the Chronos Complex.
What better image, for us too, to depict a generation in the developed West, where birth rates have fallen below replacement levels, than that of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son” (ca. 1819-1823)? Our Chronos Complex is achieved first and foremost by our murder of the unborn, but also in our fundamentally misanthropic views that career, or leisure, or personal self-discovery come before children—that is, that children are an impediment too, not a wellspring of, our identity. What more certain a sign of a decadent status quo than the fact that a generation ago a single income could provide for an entire family and mortgage, while today even dual income households often struggle to achieve the same? And, finally, what better indicator is there of the vibrancy of the nascent nationalist-populist New Right than that, across the West, it has made family policy and demographic suicide a signature issue? Such issues, once deemed beyond the pale by our elite overlords and presciently discussed by Pat Buchanan in Suicide of the West (2001), are now coming to the fore as the New Right, more openly than any other political force, openly discusses what was once taboo.
The victory this week of Italy’s Giorgia Meloni fits into this story as well. Her words—and perhaps, in the future, by the grace of God, her party’s actions—are nothing less than a full-throated disavowal of the West’s Chronos Complex:
Why is the family an enemy? Why is the family so frightening? There is a single answer to all these questions. Because it defines us. Because it is our identity. Because everything that defines us is now an enemy for those who would like us no longer to have an identity and simply to be perfect consumer slaves. And so, they attack national identity. They attack religious identity… I can’t define myself as Italian, Woman, Christian, Mother. No. I must be citizen x, gender x, parent 1, parent 2. I must be a number.
“This is why we inspire so much fear,” Meloni continues, because the New Right scuttles the master class’s vision to make us all into subservient consumers and profit-maximizing wage-laborers before being human. Meloni and the New Right inspire fear because they challenge a decadent status quo in which the logic of the market is superimposed onto parts of life to which it was never meant to pertain. Meloni’s condemnation of the hedonistic consumer androgyny into which our post-Christian, postindustrial society has devolved indicates the stirrings of a revolution not unlike the bourgeois revolution of the “middle class” that shook Europe of its aristocratic shackles over the course of the late-19th and early-20th centuries.
As Richard Helgerson contends in his magisterially argued book Adulterous Alliances: Home, State, and History in Early Modern European Drama and Painting (2000), already in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, and across the Protestant and Catholic divide, a distinctly Western, and middle class (or “bourgeois”) morality was emerging in open defiance of the entrenched ruling class. Something similar is happening today across the West. But it’s not happening on the Left. It’s happening on the New Right, which is now, paradoxically, the movement of the future in order to become the movement of the past—that is, when middle class values were synonymous with stable families, piety, patriotism, and well-paying jobs. Whether VOX in Spain, FIDESZ in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland or the NatCons and MAGA Republicans in America, a force of renewal is sweeping across the West. This force of renewal is also a force of return to the Judeo-Christian values of the patriotic and pious middle class that made the modern, prosperous West. As in all (cultural) wars, it will be a fight to the death—or perhaps better put, a fight that is a choice between life and death, between an untenable status quo and commitment to the essential goodness of creation.