Trying to see the bright side of the current cultural malaise is difficult in the glare of modernity. Over one hundred years on, that is since the infamous Armory Show, the squandering of Western culture has reached its nadir with a wallowing in wantonness and a rejection of good and bad, along with all such standards and values.
Other than that, what’s not to like? The pervasive music is loud, and the beat distracting, the visuals titillating, and feelings are all the rage—the showers are just ahead, so keep moving please. (The holocaust reference is not made gratuitously.)
So sorry! I shouldn’t be repeating myself. I wrote something like that in the early 1970’s, didn’t I? Where have I been? How can we have reached a nadir in 1974 and still be there?
Well, the answer is, because it’s there, and for more than a couple of reasons, any of which might suffice. But now that I am an old man and see that the efforts I myself have made against that subversive undertow of offal have been so feeble as to be as useless as a sand castle on the beach of a tidal cesspool, it pisses me off (to use the vernacular, appropriate to the age we live in, after all).
What is most enraging is my own incompetence, of course. We are always most angered when we have been wrong or done something wrongly.
The flow against the ebb of our low-grade culture is likely the result of better efforts than mine to salvage what could be. There certainly have been many such efforts to applaud. But they have failed as well, and here we are, together again.
Is this moment worse than 1941? No. And what happened after that was one wonderful bounce in Western Europe as well as America, true enough. But lest we forget, for all those murdered Armenians and Ibos, Ukrainian farmers and Crimean Taters, Chinese peasants and ‘intellectuals,’ Jews and Tutsi and Anatolian Greeks and Cyrenaicans and Assyrians, and Cambodians and all the many more, as bad as it looks to me, it certainly looked far worse at times for others in that horrific 20th Century. And now we have started off our 21st Century with no better.
In context, it’s not so bad—but for the impending doom and gloom.
I have asked the question before. Are we worse off now than 1941? Yes and no are both the answer. No grocery list of hurts and wrongs is necessary. Make your own. Certainly, technology has triumphed—but for better or worse? The fact is, in cultural matters, we have been scraping bottom like a scallop boat net for quite some time. The harvest is far too small. And I am well beyond arguing the importance of culture to society. The need to get up in the morning with a positive attitude about the good you can do for the day is too obvious. You just have to avoid reading the ‘news.’
On the bright side, the light is simply too dim for reading by. Staring at an illuminated screen is so much easier. As is having the choices made for us for Mark Zuckerberg. The canned laughter is not optional.
But you see, I read Heather Mac Donald’s essay this morning at The New Criterion concerning the wonderful musical prodigy Alma Deutscher, and then of the attacks on her by the intellectual monsters who pose as gatekeepers to our present kulture and I am at once elated and depressed. Agitated, though such a manic swing has become clinical and almost routine in my life over the years. Is there yet a chance that great contemporary music might be known again to my grandchildren.
What chance is there, after all the mayhem, to overcome the intellectual Babbitts who rule us now? I just can’t see.
My own children were raised to take a positive view, despite my curmudgeonly gripes (their mother helped with that). They might certainly do better than I have. At least, if given the chance. But this is my worst fear. That the Zucking of our culture will make for them a far worse and more difficult time than they yet understand. What they see, they still take existentially as the best that is and something to be built upon. But you can’t build on rotten foundations.
H. L. Mencken was so much depressed in his time by the middle-American visions of Sinclair Lewis, and the cultural decay afoot, that he felt a need of escape, and resorted to an idealizing of a Pan German past born on the wings of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms—but that country never was and was not about to be, except in the twisted minds of a cultural Reich. Mencken was a genius, but even he was blind to the genius of his contemporaries Rachmaninov and Mahler. The wanton stupidity of the First World War had laid waste to the Happy Days of his youthful fancies. Yet, unlike his intellectual ‘betters’ of the moment, he still refused to let his American Mercury turn to the political thuggery of Woodrow Wilson, Benito Mussolini, or Adolf Hitler when all else seemed lost, while The Nation, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Harper’s each ran with such bright ideas to make democracy work—by force. All you need is more government!
And yet, despite another “World War’ a ‘Cold War’, and all the devastation of the ‘authorities’ since, that element is still with us today. Rule by unelected bureaucrat. Over-rule by Supreme Court hacks. Misrule by mysteriously wealthy politicians who have never worked a non-government job. And lawyers with one rule only: don’t get caught.
I suppose I could do worse than recall Mr. Mencken in my darker moments.