Culture, the Victorious

The following essay is a brief piece on culture by the Russian painter and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, posthumously published in a collection of his essays titled ‘The Invincible’. Roerich is chiefly remembered as the creator of the Roerich Pact, which is dedicated to the preservation of cultural sites and artifacts across the world. Although not formally connected with the original Traditionalist movement, he spent the majority of life in exile from his homeland and studied the cultures of Asia, very much in the same essence of Traditionalist figures such as Schuon and Guenon. As with many individuals expressing doubts on the current state of modernity today, Roerich identified this troubling loss of cultural expression around the world back in the 1930’s and offered a return to tradition against what he saw as a civilization of unsocial customs. Having spent the last few days looking over papers and books from Roerich, I consider it inadmissible that such a luminous figure concerned with cultural preservation is so overlooked today, one who garnered the respect of statesmen and has over five thousand paintings to his name.

And so you like my definition of culture and civilization. One should note with justice that in India and China such a definition of the concepts of culture and civilization was understood quite readily and welcomed as something entirely natural.

But it was not thus everywhere. Sometimes it was proposed that I exclude altogether the word culture, because civilization fully expressed both concepts, as it were. I had to take down from the bookshelves various dictionaries in order to prove, at least formally, the difference between these two words. Of course my opponents did not convince me, and I am not certain that I convinced them. Maybe because of certain prejudices they still consider civilization as something tangible and culture as something abstract, ephemeral. Maybe, in spite of all proofs, some still think that the presence of a starched collar or a stylish dress is a guarantee not only of a sound civilization but also of culture. So often purely external, conventional signs are light-mindedly taken for an unquestionable achievement.

But in culture there is no place for light-mindedness. Culture is verily conscious cognition, spiritual refinement and convincingness, whereas the conventional forms of civilization depend entirely upon the passing fashion. Culture, when it arises and is affirmed, becomes indestructible. There may be various degrees and methods of its manifestation, but in its essence it is invincible, and it lives primarily in the human heart. The mind from which haphazard phrases spring up can be satisfied with mechanical civilization, whereas an enlightened consciousness can breathe only through culture. It seems, as was said long ago, that culture is that refuge in which the human spirit finds ways for religion and for everything uplifting and beautiful.

Culture is a guarantee of the impossibility of retreat. If you hear somewhere about some kinds of festivals and holidays dedicated to culture, and later learn that on the very next day something anti-cultural took place there, then do not attach much importance to these festivals. They consisted only of vain talk and falsehoods. They only defiled the luminous concept of culture. At present official days of culture are frequently observed on which people swear to each other that they will not permit any more acultural manifestations. Devotion to everything cultural is solemnly avowed, and everything coarse, negative, corrupt is denied. How good it would be if all these oaths were sincere and immutable! But shortly afterward look at the pages of the very same newspapers and you will be shocked to see that the usage of expressions and strivings not only is not purified but became somewhat more false and abominable. Does it not mean that many of those who but recently proclaimed publicly their participation in culture did not even understand the true meaning of this lofty concept? After all, taking an oath to culture imposes an obligation. One should not utter big words in vain or with evil intent. Advisedly did the apostle remind the Ephesians: “Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks.” “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:” And he also warned: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

How ugly it is to utter obscenity near the concept of culture. There cannot be any vindication for this. No matter how one may try to forget the very word culture and limit it with the concept of civilization, nevertheless, even upon the lowest steps of civilized society, all coarseness is definitely excluded. Someone sorrowfully remarks about the existence of civilized savages. Of course, different forms of savagery are possible. On the one hand, one can see that at times people who were compelled to remain in the most complete solitude not only did not lose but, on the contrary, uplifted their own humanness. On the other hand, quite often, even among the so-called civilized forms of life, people have fallen into unsocial customs, info an animal-like state. Let us not cite examples, although there are plenty of them.

All this only proves the extent of the frailty of the signs of civilization, and how necessary it is to be reminded of the principles of culture. And not for pseudo-days of culture, but for the establishment of its foundations in daily life. One should not delay any longer the establishment of real days of culture. Otherwise the pseudo-festivals may become sufficient for some people. The repetition alone of the word culture does not mean that the basis of this concept is being applied.

There exist many anecdotes about the ridiculous application of various scientific terms. It is also unfitting to profane that great concept which should improve and illuminate the twilight of contemporary existence. If the lights of the cinema signs are glaring, if newspaper reports are blaring the appraisal of the blows of a prize fight, this does not mean that the days of culture are nearer.

Young people often have every right to ask their elders about the extent to which culture enters into their free time. This is not to be regarded as some impermissible rebellion of youth. This will be simply a question about a beautiful yell-ordered structure of life. Often it merely shows a young blind striving keenly beyond the limitations of conventional civilization. Children often have an insatiable desire to learn that about which they usually receive such meager formal answers from their elders. And at times there may be added ergo bibamus — let us have a drink. And thus is Underscored a complete bankruptcy of thinking.

Life, in all its new aspects, is outgrowing the concept of conventional civilization. The problems of life, growing daily, insistently propel people toward higher decisions, in the making of which it is impossible to shift the blame in conventional outworn ways. Either all the newly found possibilities are to be blended into a beautiful, truly cultural decision, or the survivals of civilization will drag the weak-willed into a savage state. And then no pseudo-festivals of culture will inspire, nor will they hold back falsehood and destruction.

But, even if in the minority, even if persecuted as in the days of old, let a few gather; and in true festivals of culture, without sophistry, without pompous twaddle, they will firmly swear to each other to follow only the paths of culture, the paths of spiritual perfectment. It should be thus in all the various countries, in all corners of the world where the human heart is beating.

Peking

December 27, 1934

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