Recently I have been revisiting Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, and have been struck by the importance of his definition of decadence for what we now see happening in the Western world:
All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.” It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary , it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces.
It is this which we surely see in our own culture, and it is important not just for those of a ‘religious’ persuasion but for us all.
To put it in its most simple terms, as we look at the present state of the Western world and ask ourselves “What next?” the question is difficult to answer at every level.
What next in art, for example? We have had modernism, and post-modernism. But as Barzun observes, it is the very fact of decadence itself which inspires “the repeated use of the dismissive prefixes anti- and post-”. They are symptomatic not of ideas, but of a lack of ideas. He continues, “The hope is that getting rid of what is will by itself generate the new life.”
And what next socially? One of Barzun’s ‘themes’ of the last five hundred years of Western civilization is emancipation —the desire to be ‘free from’ perceived constraints. The sexual revolution, and now the homosexual revolution, are simply the latest variations on this theme. But over against this, we see another set of forces at work, whereby the individual perceives increasing bureaucratic constraints, just at the point where God and respectability are losing their old power.
Or what of politics? There is an increasing ‘greyness’ about the old parties, whose agendas are no longer clearly distinguished from one another. What was ‘new’ about New Labour was not a radical socialist agenda but a departure from traditional socialism in favour of something much nearer to the middle ground.
As a culture, we are staring into the abyss, not of the unknown but of the completely, and repetitively, known. What we face, in our darkest moments, is not the fear of danger but the fear of ennui — that there really is nothing more to life than this.
This goes some way, I believe, to explaining the various responses to global warming, for what this provides is not simply a threat to be addressed but a moral cause. On the surface, climate-change is a ‘scientific’ issue, but the language of the ‘debate’ about climate-change is anything but ‘scientific’. One well-known campaigner, for example, refers to climate-change sceptics as ‘scumbags’.
Now my own view is that at the end of the day, such people may be wrong, but if they genuinely believe the evidence favours their point of view, then that is all they are. They may be frustratingly wrong, they may be dangerously wrong, but in strictly scientific terms, they cannot, as the term ‘scumbag’ implies, be morally wrong.
But addressing climate-change is not simply about the science —it is a cause, which is why, as we have seen recently, people are prepared to lie about it.
In short, for some people, the climate-change issue provides a welcome cause: a rationale by which to live. It is worth getting up in the morning in order to save the planet. We are moved and motivated by pictures of melting ice-caps and floundering polar bears. But what if we think beyond the challenge? What if we save the planet? What next? And what if we don’t? Will it matter, given that, in the great scheme of things, we know (‘scientifically’) that the planet is doomed anyway?
We have reached a stage where it is best not to think too deeply about anything. In such a situation, to become regularly and blindingly drunk, as some sections of our society now do, may be an entirely rational response. It was, after all the very rational philosopher David Hume who wrote that when his reflections brought on too much melancholy,
I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold and strained and ridiculous that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.
Surely those who fill the streets of our towns and cities with ‘revellry’ on a typical Friday and Saturday night are simply applying (albeit unconsciously) the same remedy. We are developing at one level in our society a class which is not so much ‘under’ as consciously aimless.
Those who are fortunate enough to have the resources and the imagination to construct their own ‘micro-meanings’ will, of course, apply themselves to other goals. For most of the middle and upper classes, these consist of material acquisition and advancement, coupled with ambitions for their children and the ravelling and unravelling of their own domestic arrangements. The trick, however, is not to stop and ask why or for how long. For the inescapable truth, as Hume knew, is that these things last but the blink of an eye, then they, and we, are gone.
How can we of the West deal with that? This is surely as great a challenge to our cultural life as the threat of global warming is to our physical survival.
John RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
26 November 2009
26 November 2009