Degeneration

“A generation after the commissars left the scene, positive freedom is more difficult to attain, and the West is populated by people who are less and less capable of an agency free from the banalities of the marketplace, the media, and mass opinion. It is not clear that our institutions can survive without a free people, or at least a plurality capable of self-command. The challenge of the next decade will be to break the ideological monopoly of liberalism so that thick views of the self can guide the education of future generations. Unless we succeed, we will lack the men of character we need to defend and renew the institutions that secure freedom in the West.”

Ryszard Legutko, Why I am not a liberal, First Things (March 2020)

An abiding theme of this blog is cultural decay. It is a concern that has been with me a long time. I recall at university being intrigued by the phenmoenon of late 19th century reaction against social trends of progress, as represented by Nietzsche’s abhorrence of the herd, the first studies of mass group psychology, such as Gustave Le Bon, and the extraordinary conservative condemnation of cultural and social progress found in Max Nordau’s Degeneration (1892). Nordau applied early concepts of pscyhopathology, as pioneered in the prisons and lunatic asylums of nineteenth century Europe, and applied it to the artists, intellectuals and cultural mimics of fin-de-siècle Europe.

I looked to this fin-de-siècle Europe not with Nordau’s horror and clinically authoritarian distaste (Nordau was a doctor), but with a kind of fondness. For this was the era – combined with the first 25 years of the twentieth century – that gave me my cultural traditions, as much as any other period of history or slice of culture – Proust, Joyce, Mallarme, Kafka, Stravinsky, Ubu Roi, early modernism, and so on. I looked to this time of degeneration from another end of century, that of the twentieth century, and wondered if we too were living through some kind of civilisational collapse, some kind of Götterdämmerung. As Nordau wrote in Degeneration:

But however silly a term fin-de-siècle may be, the mental constitution which it indicates is actually present in influential circles. The disposition of the times is curiously confused, a compound of feverish restlessness and blunted discouragement, of fearful presage and hang-dog renunciation. The prevalent feeling is that of imminent perdition and extinction. Fin-de-siècle is at once a confession and a complaint. The old Northern faith contained the fearsome doctrine of the Dusk of the Gods. In our days there have arisen in more highly-developed minds vague qualms of a Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.

Max Nordau Degeneration

The same question hangs over us today. Our institutions, our social arrangements, our culture appear in decay, and struggling to produce vital authentic and courageous affirmations of the human spirit. We have degenerated into polarisation, crud culture, identity politics and the careerist academy. Does Nordau’s heralding of an epochal decline – 128 years ago – not sound familiar today:

One epoch of history is unmistakably in its decline, and another is announcing its approach. There is a sound of rending in every tradition, and it is as though the morrow would not link itself with to-day. Things as they are totter and plunge, and they are suffered to reel and fall, because man[6] is weary, and there is no faith that it is worth an effort to uphold them. Views that have hitherto governed minds are dead or driven hence like disenthroned kings, and for their inheritance they that hold the titles and they that would usurp are locked in struggle. Meanwhile interregnum in all its terrors prevails; there is confusion among the powers that be; the million, robbed of its leaders, knows not where to turn; the strong work their will; false prophets arise, and dominion is divided amongst those whose rod is the heavier because their time is short. Men look with longing for whatever new things are at hand, without presage whence they will come or what they will be. They have hope that in the chaos of thought, art may yield revelations of the order that is to follow on this tangled web. The poet, the musician, is to announce, or divine, or at least suggest in what forms civilization will further be evolved. What shall be considered good to-morrow—what shall be beautiful? What shall we know to-morrow—what believe in? What shall inspire us? How shall we enjoy? So rings the question from the thousand voices of the people, and where a market-vendor sets up his booth and claims to give an answer, where a fool or a knave suddenly begins to prophesy in verse or prose, in sound or colour, or professes to practise his art otherwise than his predecessors and competitors, there gathers a great concourse, crowding around him to seek in what he has wrought, as in oracles of the Pythia, some meaning to be divined and interpreted. And the more vague and insignificant they are, the more they seem to convey of the future to the poor gaping souls gasping for revelations, and the more greedily and passionately are they expounded.

Nordau, Degeneration

The market-vendors, fools and knaves take different forms today – most appear on panel shows, and their tiresome repetition in staged panel appearances – but the same disappointment of the poor gaping souls appers in today’s crowds. But the paradox is that these crowds have never been richer, healthier or better educated. This cultural collapse is occurring amidst affluence and mass higher education. It makes it stranger still.

Ross Douthat – a journalist at the New York Times, not a promising sign – has written an account of this modern degeneration, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, which I have only accessed through a review and a discussion on a podcast.

He breaks decadence into four components, according to the review: stagnation (technological and economic mediocrity), sterility (declining birth rates), sclerosis (institutional failure), and repetition (cultural exhaustion).

His argument on repetition if interesting. This is the degeneration of the endless remake, the self-parodic redo, the umpteenth movie made from the Marvel comics. What his argumetn seems to neglect is the destructiveness of degeneration. After all, it is only a very narrow strand of the cutlrue that is repeated. So much more risks being lost in the infinity of the burning archive’s digital flames, as this blog and my poetry evokes.

His argument on sclerosis also takes us back to the quotation with which I began this post. This institutional failure is the political decay of Francis Fukuyama. It is abundantly clear everywhee, perhaps nowhere more clearly in the presentation by the Democratic Party of the United States of America of Joe Biden as a candidate for President. By this move surely America has descended into the political gerontocracy of the Soviet Union of the 1970s and the 1980s. But, as Peter Thiel observes in his review, Douthat offers no real solution to this sclerosis beyond a religious revival, which will mean little to me, and technological fantasies, such as interstellar travel. Instead a Renaissance in political institutions and the culture more broadly requires some reasonable, moderate and motivating goal for ordinary citizens.

For statesmen, that means deconstructing the ­corrupt institutions that have falsely claimed to pursue those goals on our behalf. It is a paradox of our time that the path to radical progress begins with moderation. Extreme optimism and fatalistic pessimism may seem to be stark opposites, but they both end in apathy. If things were sure to improve or bound to collapse, then our actions would not matter one way or the other.

Peter Thiel, “Back to the Future,” First Things (March 2020)

Our actions, our ordinary virtues do matter, and that takes us back to the prefatory quotation. This quotation comes from the concervative Polish philosopher and politician, a member of the Law and Justice party. I cannot speak for anything about what he has said but for the one piece, Why I am not a Liberal, that I have read. But surely an antidote to degeneration is to cultivate deep character, not shallow identities, and use it to rebuild vital institutions that express human flourishing.

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