In Pennsylvania, the state where I grew up, you can still stumble upon a diner in places like Kutztown or Lititz and hear people, and not old people either, jabbering away in the low German of their ancestors. Most of these folks drive cars, whether or not they are Mennonites in the old garb. At a mom-and-pop amusement park in central Pennsylvania I saw Hiram the Mennonite, one hand pressed to his stovepipe hat to keep it from flying off, whooping it up with his children as they all slid down a big water slide. The dress may be old-fashioned and the people earthy, but I've always found the Mennonites to be courteous and gentle-mannered and, at least in the subtleties of human interchange, cultivated. I don't think anyone would call a simple and hardworking Mennonite family "barbarian," merely because they don't let their trousers hang from the hipbone, don't watch American Idol, and manage to marry before they have children. Those may be marks against them, to be sure, but barbarian? Even a hardened secularist would hesitate to make that accusation. The hobbits of The Shire are not barbarian, though they have no motorcars. Saddam Hussein and his henchmen were, though they had motorcars and then some.
If it is not any particular tool that distinguishes the cultivated from the barbarian -- as if you could give a cell phone to Attila the Hun and, shazzam!, instant Alistair Cooke -- and if it is not the wearing or watching or playing of what almost everybody else is wearing or watching or playing, then what is that mysterious smudge on the soul that reads, "Still Unfit for Civilized Life"? I've been thinking about this for a while. It's inevitable that I should think about it, seeing as I have to teach college freshmen about the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. Apparently the nature of barbarism was not a topic at the recent medieval conference at Kalamazoo (thanks to Stuart Koehl for the link), where a few thousand medievalists showed up largely to indulge experiments in jargon, adolescent silliness, and careerist toadying. Check out the session on medieval excrement. No, it is not a humane and historically solid analysis of the sewage systems of medieval Europe. It is an exercise in giggling and contempt.
Here, then, is the first mark of the barbarian: the inability to appreciate the beautiful, the noble, or the grand. Dante says that when the barbarians invaded Rome during the fifth century and caught sight of the church of Saint John Lateran, they went dumb with wonder. Livy says that when the first Gauls invaded Rome and saw the streets empty and the great houses empty -- empty, that is, except for stern old men here and there within, dressed in the senatorial togas, awaiting their death -- they too were for a time stupefied. Those barbarians at least had sense enough to be impressed, before they began their sprees of destruction. In general, the barbarian, whether on the steppes of Asia or of the Capitol, has had a life ground down to mud by physical necessities or, perhaps, by stultifying indolence, and can manage only to be impressed by what is big or flashy or brazen, the subtle traceries of beauty escaping him altogether.
So in Kalamazoo the barbarians congregated to have a pseudo-learned blast laughing and sneering at what they could not understand, or what they had not even the self-awareness and humility to confess that they could not understand. The age that stippled the continent of Europe with buildings of incomparable beauty, massive and soaring and delicate all at once, that invented the university, and far-flung capitalism, and the chivalric romance; that gave us the great and wise Dante and the greater and wiser addle-pated Francis, that age had to be "honored" with papers on "fecopoetics" and "menstruating male mystics" and Xena, Warrior Princess. If only a fireman from Ray Bradbury's incisive dystopia would show up, to put us all out of our jobs and our misery. "Geoffrey Chaucer, eh?" he chuckles in his cockney patois. "Lots of bleedin' potty trainin' in there. No use. Burn the dirty bugger." It would be a better fate for that old customs officer, wouldn't it? As it would be a better fate for the Nike of Samothrace to be ground at once to marble powder than to be made a mockery of, defaced and dissolved by barbarians passing by with their outlandish credentials, using it as a convenient post to relieve themselves upon.