“Peace may only be made when each Catholic withdraws from the class-struggle and finds what lodgings he can in the stable. He must see the world from without, among peasants and kings.” (May 22, 1932)
Carl Schmitt was overwhelmed by the beauty of Dalmatia from the time he first set foot there in January, 1914. His visit was purely serendipitous. Sailing through the Adriatic on its way to Italy, his ship stopped briefly in Split and Schmitt disembarked to explore the ancient city. He heard the ship whistle the “all aboard,” but, enchanted by the people and the scenery, he decided to remain. When he returned to the port, the ship was gone, and thus began Schmitt’s first sojourn in Croatia.
Schmitt made the most of his stay, sketching peasants, army officers, musicians, and others he met on the streets and in the cafes of the city. As he described it to Catholic activist and writer Peter Maurin, in Dalmatia “People still combine cult, that is to say liturgy, with culture, that is to say literature, with cultivation, that is to say agriculture.”
Schmitt’s constant sketching and his association with some newfound friends of a revolutionary stripe attracted the attention of local authorities. In the politically charged days before the ourbreak of the Great War, they took him for a spy and after a brief interrogation, let him go. He decided to go on to Italy as planned, but always pined for Dalmatia.
The brief sojourn in the city made a deep impression on the artist, and Schmitt even considered settling there with his family after a subsequent visit to the region 1926. The sketches he made of the island of Korčula off the Dalmatian coast during this later trip formed the basis of a series of prints published in the February 1929 issue of Scribners Magazine. In the article Schmitt described his attraction to the picturesque town in almost rhapsodic terms:
“Korčula is a town of 3,000 people on an island of the same name. It is on the regular steamboat route between Split and Dubrovnik. Since I was first in Dalmatia fourteen of the principal cities of the mainland have lost their character of peasant homeliness and something fine is gone out of their hospitality. But not so Korčula.
“I could write at length of the health (and consequent beauty) of the imaginations and bodies of the people of Korčula, due, I think, in part to a providential weakness in modern banking ability and in part to a beneficent sun. But the city, the buildings, the boats, and the indescribable water of the Adriatic are also a part of the picture. The city rises out of this clean blue water of carved white glowing stone and climaxes in the cathedral which was begun in the thirteenth century. There are no automobiles here. The limestone-paved streets rising steep to the cathedral are built only for the prince and the peasant, one on foot, the other on a donkey. For this is the story of Korčula.”
Schmitt would return to his beloved Dalmatia only once more, this time with his wife for a second honeymoon in 1934, shortly after their tenth child’s second birthday. For him, the region embodied his ideal of becoming a true “peasant,” one whose role is to “intuitively envision, act, create.” He longed to form a firm “base of culture and religion” for his family by “a long memory and experience of [a] place.” For him, such a place is “where body and soul become one.” Silvermine would fulfill that role for him and his family in the years ahead, but for Schmitt, Europe would always remain “an island of the Fine Arts; the locus of the full liberation of the imagination.”
“To feast and fast is to be lonely. Society is always neo-Greek—’Moderate in all things.’ Since Christ, this last is the first step to smugness and hypocrisy. It is Aristocratic to feast—it is Peasant to fast. It is an Aristocratic right to take—it a Peasant right to give. But who can take who will not give, and who can feast without fasting, who can enjoy kingship without servitude, and leisure without sacrifice?” (1928)
“Man has lost all respect for those people who necessarily are economically defenseless and dependent—I mean the so-called creators, those close to the origins. The minute modern man gives money not primarily in trade, his respect for the recipient of that money is gone. This means that those whose destiny it is to make, and who wish to continue to make, must either intensify their religious life and find a highly individual happiness in love and humility—or regain the respect of the middle-class majority by deserting their prerogative of originating and join the ranks of the middle-man. For the artist this has necessarily meant virtuosity, performance (or commercial) ‘art.'” (c. 1931)
“Many of our enemies and most of our friends seem to think that a peasant is a man whose end in life is to raise vegetables. That is the definition of a truck gardener. A peasant is a man whose end in life is to raise a family, and to do that, it is usually necessary to raise vegetables, or hell, or both.” —Carl Schmitt, 1932
Carl Schmitt was a family man. He was also an artist. But first of all Carl Schmitt considered himself a peasant.
Schmitt readily admitted that the word ‘peasant’ is troublesome—even offensive—to our modern egalitarian sensibilities. “The trouble seems to lie in the word itself,” he writes, “deliberately corrupted by the crowd who wrote our school-books.”
Schmitt’s remedy was to understand this word not primarily in social or economic terms—as a class of men doomed to hopeless slavery to their greedy masters—but in a different way altogether, as “those whose destiny it is to make.”
In Schmitt’s triune hierarchy, a man is either prince, middle class, or peasant. The prince concerns himself with ends. His function is to “be wise, judge, decide” (toward what is this society ordered? What is our best good?) The middle class occupies himself with the means. He must “understand, exchange, produce” (what things are necessary to accomplish those goals? How do we get from here to there?) But it is the special province of the peasant to occupy himself with the origins of things. In Schmitt’s vision, the peasant’s role is ever to “intuitively envision, act, create.”
Along with the “fine-artist” like himself, he counted among peasants “the individual farmer, the mother of children,” the last with the conviction that “only family life can produce people.” Peasants, then, do not rule or set policy as does the prince, nor do they manufacture things to trade or sell, or provide services, as do the middle-class. Peasants cooperate with nature to create something entirely new—a work of art, a field of wheat, a child.
If, as we have seen, Schmitt saw his calling as an artist to be strictly subordinate to his role as father, at a more fundamental level they were expressions of the same impulse, to “originate,” to cultivate.
Paradoxically, he considered his role as originator to be a “high fatherhood which makes an aristocracy,” where “priority of birth, a long memory and experience of the place” form “the base of culture and religion. It is the point where body and soul become one.” We will cultivate this thought in our next post.