A most literary book on the fine distinctions and fanatical actions born of wanting to make heavens on earth.
Or, if not heavens on earth, to keep chivalry—or something like it—alive. Long gone are the days when men could come together, joust, and go home; the world has seen little of the like since WWI, before which, foreign correspondent Pfaff (The Wrath of Nations, 1993, etc.) writes, the code of chivalry “considered war as a national recourse which was limited, tolerable in its employment of violence, a legitimate if extreme instrument of national policy that nonetheless posed no threat to the existence of states or to the nature of society.” No more, of course, and though Pfaff finds room for al Qaeda on the rational side of the rational-irrational spectrum—terrorism with a recognizable goal of, say, removing American troops from Saudi Arabia is materially different, he says, from terrorism with an unattainable goal of creating a perfect society—he’s more concerned with finding out what happened in Europe in “the inner history of the twentieth century,” when chivalry gave way to mass murder and total war. Among his subjects: the deadly clown Gabriele D’Annunzio, who made a little protofascist cloud-cuckoo-land in Fiume, an Italian enclave in Croatia, and inspired Mussolini to take the project large-scale; T. E. Lawrence, of Arabia, “the last hero,” who encouraged generations of men to seek the beautiful in violence, as did Ernst Jünger, the German writer/soldier who so repented that quest that he took to saluting the unfortunates who wore the Star of David armband; and Arthur Koestler, who so wanted a perfect society that he moved to the Soviet Union to volunteer as a tractor driver, only to end up in England living in the paradise of paranormal psychology.
Pfaff’s thesis is elusive and his narrative allusive, but this long essay on the dangers of giving intellectuals too much power and influence—as grave as giving them to morons—is full of useful provocations.