And more on decadence...
What was the behavior of good people, the few that remained, in late Roman Empire days? Or, more urgently, how should decent people behave in 2009 when we have fifty-year-olds still attending rock concerts, nostalgicizing Star Trek, lamenting John Lennon, reading Stephen King – a generation that cannot and never will become authentic adults? Shall we also mention those with three divorces who end up in a blended family comprising three husbands, two wives, the gardener, pets, neighbors, and clones? May we talk about high school graduates who don’t know how to wear a baseball cap, who weigh twice too much, about new style women chasing capital gains, 12-year-olds dreaming of rectal intercourse, tax-sponsored therapy for those as can’t wipe themselves, popular “music” as the most perfect distillate of mass ignorance ever yet devised, of new and ingenious forms of Anglo-demotionism designed to punish the inventors of the West, may we, pray, talk about these matters. No? Of immigration policies calculated to recruit civilization’s most active enemies and bring them here? Can we talk?
Or is it more useful to think about those two or three hundred souls (like mine obviously), who have wasted so much time trying to hold decadence at bay? How, really, should we respond to a dwindling culture that once held the world in envy and imitation? Ought we secede from current affairs, turn off our television sets, retreat into rural areas or tiny towns with small populations, cultivate our own talents and dedicate our last decade(s) - (it is taken for granted here that no one under the age of 50 can possibly know what it is to have lived in a normal society) – and dedicate our final years, as I was saying, to our spouses, our books, good music and dogs?
Yes we should.
(How to go about this project will be detailed in future messages, assuming the extraordinary number of responses hasn’t become too many for me to handle.)
More on Decadence
We cannot of course predict how long, under conditions of deep decadence, the once-great culture of the West can persist. Some say a full century still remains to us, citing as examples the seemingly interminable cultural stasis of Egypt persisting down to Alexander and beyond, or Byzantium’s thousand-year collapse. Others believe we have less time than that, perhaps only a single generation before the last performance of an opera will have been given, the last piece of literary fiction published, and the last good school sacrificed to diversity and a perverted egalitarianism. For those whose tastes run in that direction, we may by then boast ten thousand rock stars, a million celebrities, and marriage will be understood as any legally valid agreement uniting a list of husbands, wives, pets, and clones.
How then should serious people behave in the short time left to us? I have acquaintances who have chosen to stand up against the current debasement, and who seem in some cases actually to believe that a restoration of social health is still possible. That is not the opinion of this person. Decadence is easy, lots of fun, and is especially attractive to prosperous people who have become averse to struggle and concentration. That is why the facile virtues, the ones that can be practiced while sitting on a couch in a darkened room – compassion, empathy, tolerance – have crowded out the hard ones, which is to say integrity, strength, and achievement.
(We’ll definitely return to this theme in our next contribution where we [just me actually] will try to reply to the question cited in the first sentence of the second paragraph inscribed about four and a half inches above.)
Labels: Decadence, Literature, Opera, Western Culture
The jury may still be out on Iraq and Iran, on Brittany’s hairstyle and global warming, but by now we have a clear-cut verdict on the issue of western decline. No longer sufficient to admit that the West has lost relative position with regard to the rest of the world in material terms, it’s past time to confess that we are deep into the historically well-attested syndrome sobriqueted [my word] as decadence, a mortal condition, probably irreversible, that is reflected, indeed proved, by the waning quality of the civic and aesthetic arts in evidence today.
Has ever there been a time when merit and success were so inversely related? And really, could anything be more painful than forced to scan the roll call of America’s most famous people? Than the best-seller lists? Than our educational system? Than the conduct of billionaires? Than television?
Imagine the historians of the future trying to understand this, how the cultural contributions of the earth’s richest and most powerful nation can be summed up in terms of basketball, rock and rap, consumerism, new forms of pornography, art galleries full of high priced junk, “vibrant” neighborhoods, pulp journalism, etiolated children glued to computer screens, women soldiers, pullulating cities, special effects cinema, etc., etc., the whole bloody list.
Truth is, in its senescence our civilization has become a cultural failure, a denouement foreseen by Toynbee and others, fostered by comfort and security and a prosperity that has been too far prolonged – the worst of conditions for writers of serious intent.
(Future blogs will offer suggestions as to how writers can continue to operate under such conditions while still preserving some measure of human integrity.)
Distracted by Samuel Johnson
Yes, well perhaps I did promise to read, or anyway to start, David Foster Wallace’s elephantine Infinite Jest and report back my findings. And I sincerely intended to do that too, which is to say until I was tempted, sore tempted, to look into Peter Martin’s mediocre biography of one of Britain’s least mediocre of men - Samuel Johnson, specifically speaking. Already I have passed through this man’s penurious childhood, his rather incongruous marriage, his sojourns in London, and have now begun to read how and why he compiled, with the aid of five sometimes assistants, his famous English language dictionary. Impossible not to sympathize with this man, who endured so many mental and sublunary obstacles, and yet who at the end of the day had produced so much. Learning of his bodily peculiarities I, too, have recently begun to exhibit certain convulsive tics and involuntary movements of all sorts, a real hindrance to getting into my usual reading posture, which entails a 40-watt lamp, a leather covered couch, and about two inches of spirituous liqueur, all which are to be enjoyed between the hours of one and four o’clock a.m.
Labels: David Wallace, Infinite Jest, Peter Martin, Samuel Johnson
Infinite Jest by David Wallace
Having lately invested in a paperback edition of David Wallace’s Infinite Jest, a 1,037-page text in small print (a length, I’ve repeatedly been told, is not publishable), I seek suggestions on how to approach the thing. Dave Eggers has said it required him a month to read it, but at my age I expect it will need much longer. My fear, of course, is that it will turn out to be a pretentious production, a display of cuteness designed to prove how informed the author was, how reckless and sophisticated, and how the possession of genius empowered him to ignore the value of being understandable.
My great hope, on the other hand, is that the book is as wonderful as so many critics have claimed, and that this author’s genius is not merely putative, but real. In any event I will be giving the novel my best attention for as long as I find it useful to bear with it, and will report back at intervals.
I should also say that I am dismayed by the lack of attention that has been given to this writer’s suicide, far less notice indeed than what has been given to Paris Hilton’s hairdo. The decay of the West – I’ll be reporting on that, too.
Labels: David Wallace, Infinite Jest by David Wallace
In at least one way, fiction writing differs pronouncedly from non-fiction, as also from other forms of creation. The best surgeons, for example, are generally the best paid, the best basketball players earn far more than mediocre ones, the best architects, best engineers, etc. etc. In non-fiction, too, the better writers are the most likely to succeed. Not so in fiction, where the best are far less likely than the mediocre ones to be published and acknowledged. Fortunate are those who aim at the sweet spot in the Bell Curve - not too hot and not too cold - and who sell in the millions while lingering for a long time at the top of bestseller lists. Numbers are everything, and the number of not-too-smart readers outnumber discriminating ones by a ratio of about a hundred to one. “Cultural democracy,” it might be called, a foolproof way of ensuring that America will never rank culturally in the same place as its political and economic power might lead one to hope.
Labels: apocalyptic fiction, cultural democracy, success