CONFESSIONS OF AN ORIGINAL SINNER By John Lukacs, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 328 pp., $19.95 IT is late in their careers that the autobiographical impulse strikes many intellectuals and public figures. The desire to correct history, settle accounts, make a pitch, gain attention one last time, plus the importunings of publishers and literary agents, all prove hard to resist.
Consider this deft, sometimes touching but also shrill and polemical self-portrait by John Lukacs. A college history teacher for 40 years in Philadelphia, Lukacs is less a traditional historian - only his first book (1953) displayed heavy footnoting, documentation, the appraisal of evidence, etc. - than a commentator on history, in 13 books and many journalistic pieces.
Essays, commentary, bits and snippets drawn from recent history, free-wheeling observations on the Western world and its woes: This is Lukacs's forte. It rings of the cafe intellectuals of old Budapest, where he grew up. Questions of fact, accuracy, or disciplined analysis hardly applied around those tables. Brilliance, glitter, self-promotion: These helped to determine success.
Lukacs's thinking largely derives from Central European, Roman Catholic conservatism, whose hierarchical, nationalistic style provides the spin for his frequent fastballs, a spin to which most American reviewers have been entirely oblivious.
But the eloquence and erudition Lukacs abundantly displays have carried him across some very thin intellectual ice. The questions reviewers outside the historical profession have not asked of John Lukacs are: What is he saying, and why does it matter?
``Confessions of an Original Sinner'' gives us the ``what'' bluntly and aggressively about a 20th century that Lukacs openly detests. Marxism, psychoanalysis, egalitarianism, secularism, democracy, consumerism, not to mention the (purported) Western blindness and cowardice that permitted the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe in general, of Hungary in particular: All he dismisses with contempt.
Nor does Ronald Reagan escape. In lashing out at the suburban sprawl outside Philadelphia, Lukacs insists, for example, ``That is Soviet America: the wave of the future as seen and promoted by Ronald Reagan, his friends and followers.''
If he delights in skewering both Hungarian and American liberal intellectuals, Lukacs also jabs at Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, even antifeminist Phyllis Schlafly; his stance is that of a supremely civilized, cultivated man fighting the good fight against the liberal fools and radical knaves of a creeping barbarism.
To create this ultranegative ideological stew, take a pinch of Evelyn Waugh's patrician Roman Catholicism, mix with the elegant consumerism of the old Budapest bourgeoisie, spice liberally with Russophobic racism, add a distaste for American ``vulgarity'' and ``naivet'e,'' and there sits Lukacs, pontificating at the academic high table.
This is old hat, of course. The radical rightists who helped undermine both the Weimar Republic and the French Third Republic all followed it. So did that pessimistic granddaddy of American conservatism, Alfred Jay Nock, not to mention Oswald Spengler, whose ``The Decline of the West'' is much admired by Lukacs:
``The brutal power of Spengler's imagination appealed to me: his suggestive capacity to make those astonishing connections of all kinds of matters or, rather, of symptoms; in sum, the achievement of a historian of cultures.''
In fact, the Spengler who so impressed the young Lukacs while Hitler's armies were goose-stepping across Europe has been proved entirely wrong. The West is not ``decadent'' - whatever that means - but economically vital, politically stable, and culturally creative.
Liberal democracy has vanquished Nazism and Communism, eliminating world war in the process. Mass movements in Eastern Europe have freed their countries with little bloodshed.
These achievements Lukacs entirely ignores, opting instead for trifling anecdotes and impressions: conclusions based on facial expression, etc., etc. The bottom line is: All is bad, and steadily growing worse. It is not, but Lukacs the essayist clearly feels no need to be fair-minded, or even balanced. Rather, he is simply pessimistic and provocative.
And yet ... when Lukacs portrays the Pennsylvania countryside, memories flood back to me. When he describes his first wife's fatal illness, my heart goes out to him. When he writes of clearing brush, building a terrace, working with wood and cement, I admire his energy. When he analyzes the old, hierarchical Philadelphia of the 1940s, I respect his insights regarding my hometown, though he ignores the stratification and political corruption that his patrician friends shrugged off; but, then, the old Hungary was also corrupt.
``Confessions of an Original Sinner'' adds up to form versus content; magnificent writing, but perverse, wildly eccentric opinions. A pity that so intelligent a person should see so much, yet understand so little.