Decadence and the Intellectuals

Notes on the (apparent) exhaustion of the Western mind.

The new Philip Roth biography, by Blake Bailey, has produced an outpouring of terrifically entertaining reviews. Here’s Laura Marsh in The New Republic. Here’s Christian Lorentzen for Bookforum. Here’s Joshua Cohen for Harper’s, playing the medium for Roth’s unquiet ghost. Here’s David Remnick, using his editor’s privilege to review the book for the New Yorker.

The essays are a lot of fun; they are also implicitly nostalgic for the novelistic world that Roth so egomaniacally bestrode. At her death two years ago I suggested that Toni Morrison might be the last “Great American Novelist,” meaning not the last good novelist (good novels are still regularly published) but the last writer who “made novels seem essential to an educated person’s understanding of her country.” That might be premature — Cormac McCarthy is still living, after all — but in the sheer energy and delight of the Roth reviews you can feel a cultural pulse that contemporary fiction rarely stirs, unless it’s being scrutinized for problematic appropriations or getting adapted by HBO.

In my Morrison column I blamed readers more than writers for this shift: I think the experience of reading on the internet has been particularly hard on novel-reading as a pastime, and the combination of golden-age TV and now peak TV — the first the high-quality taste, the second the more-adulterated addiction — has captured a lot of the audience for extended, novelistic stories.

But naturally I’m also inclined to connect the novel’s apparent cultural diminishment to deeper forces of intellectual torpor and repetition, our long captivity to Boomer culture, the sclerosis of institutions (which affects the MFA program no less than Congress), and other subjects treated in The Decadent Society.

In that vein here’s an extended provocation from Tanner Greer, from the last of a triptych of posts on cultural and intellectual stagnation. He’s talking about Oswald Spengler, the original prophet of Western decadence, and his attempt to identify the world-historical thinkers of what was then Europe’s very recent past:

… Spengler gave himself a fairly difficult task. It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history—say, Socrates or the Buddha—and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight. That they are still household names millennia later is all the evidence you need to prove that these men were, in Spengler’s words, “world-historical” figures. But how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honor? One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition—which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St. John's curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series—and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.[2]

Now Erskine’s list is not perfect; it has not perfectly weathered the centuries. The fame of William James has sunk with time; today we usually think of Joseph Conrad, not Thomas Hardy, as the supreme English novelist of that era. But the broader point holds: only a decade or two after these men’s deaths intellectuals confidently spoke of them in the same breath as Shakespeare and Plato. And not just subjectively, in the sense we might today ("I think Ursula LeGuin is as good as Shakespeare" or "I think Hayek is better than Plato") but with full knowledge that the broader public already knew that these people and their works belonged on the list. It was obvious to even those who disliked Nietzsche that he was a seminal figure in Western thought; it was obvious even to those who disagreed with Ibsen that he claimed a similar place in Western literature, and so forth. Their ideas might be argued against, but their genius and their influence was undeniable.

Is there anyone who died in the last decade you could make that sort of claim for?

How about for the last two decades?

The last three?

Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?

In the realm of science, perhaps. But in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind. Most "great books" curricula stop right around World War II and its immediate aftermath. St. John's recently added Wittgenstein and de Beauvoir to their curricula, but their works are almost 70 years old. Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.

In the world of literature there are more candidates that I can imagine people listing: Beckett, Achebe, Márquez, Morrison, Ishiguro, Solzhenitsyn all come to mind, but none save the last would be recognized as automatically, obviously deserving to be on the list, and the last only because he is one of the key testaments of the 20th century's totalitarian experiment, and it still is not clear which individual will be seen as the definitive voice of that experiment in a few centuries time (Orwell? Arendt? Levi? Grossman? Serge?).

Where have all the great works gone?

Reading this over again actually makes me more bullish on the novel. Greer allows that literature comes out looking slightly better than other fields of intellectual production, but I might actually go further than he does, and argue that the novel has been a significant outlier to the general trend, surviving the film-and-television age and coming through the torpor of the last half-century with a lot more vigor than other forms of art. Without their being placed quite as high as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky I think there’s a continuum of greatness and near-greatness that extends well past the middle-20th century, encompassing internationals like Naipaul and Sebald and all-Americans like Morrison and McCarthy, and I can easily imagine a few contemporary working novelists eventually being ranked among the great — Ishiguro and Elena Ferrante, J.M. Coetzee and Marilynne Robinson, arguably the great chronicler-of-decadence Michel Houellebecq. What’s happened to the novel in my adult lifetime, the dip in sales and cultural momentousness, feels more like a particular problem of the last fifteen years, an internet-and-streaming issue with some MFA decadence and ideological straitjacketing worked in, than the inevitable conclusion of a much longer stagnation or decline.

But considering the novel’s relative resilience also makes it seem more clearly like an outlier. Questions of Tolstoyan greatness aside, novels have managed to sustain a large audience for what you might call the higher middlebrow or lower highbrow that doesn’t really exist for other forms of art and entertainment. In the wreck of the academic humanities the novel is still the best available life raft if you don’t want to go in for Buffy Studies; God help you if you’re trying to cling to the classics, or poetry, or fine arts or opera or classical music instead. At the movies high-middlebrow artists like Martin Scorsese, who made what academic sophisticates once would have considered crass populist entertainment, are cast as either horrible film snobs or embattled aesthetes for issuing a few critical words about the Marvel juggernaut. Television, after a brief higher-middlebrow moment that gave us The Sopranos and its successors, is now being drawn inexorably into its own Marvel-ization, a peak-TV variation on the pattern that Phil Christman describes as “lowbrow genres, done with middlebrow earnestness, in revolt against a thoroughly defunded highbrow regime.”

And then there are the intellectuals, where I think Greer’s analysis is all-but-inarguable. I can’t imagine anyone making a confident claim about contemporary philosophers and religious thinkers and would-be scientists of human nature that ranks them with Nietzsche or Marx or even Freud, with William James or W.E.B. DuBois, with Kierkegaard and Newman. Yes, maybe someone currently toiling away in academic or monastic obscurity is actually Marx’s intellectual equal or superior. But intellectual greatness has to exist in some kind of relationship with one’s audience and times, and so Greer’s point about the broader public’s reception and recognition is important: If you’re looking for people to compare to Spengler’s list today, you would want figures who enjoy at least some sort of substantial audience and recognition.

And that means — well, you can make your own list, but if called upon to name the most important thinkers since the year 2000, assessed purely for their influence, with no comment on quality, I might list (working my way backward in time) Ibram X. Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Jordan Peterson, Peter Thiel, Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker, Tyler Cowen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Slavoj Žižek, Andrew Sullivan, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Peter Singer, Samantha Power, my colleague Thomas Friedman ... at now we’re back at the turn of the millennium. Religious thinkers? Well, Dawkins and Pinker and Kendi, of course — but okay, more exactly, perhaps James Martin, Rod Dreher, Charles Taylor, David Bentley Hart and Tim Keller. (In another ten years I might add a post-liberal Catholic, but not yet.)

Some of these writers are impressive; some less so. Many are journalists, in practice or in spirit — an important occupation, but maybe not the ideal one for generating great works. Will many of them adorn a Great Books curriculum in 2075, if such an antiquated thing exists? I’m doubtful.

Now in fairness Spengler was looking backward across a longer sweep than twenty years. And to my mind the distinctive thing about our own era is how many of its debates all still running along tracks established by intellectuals fifty years ago. Thus the left-versus-libertarian divide in U.S. politics goes back to John Rawls and Robert Nozick. The language of critical race theory and intersectionality largely has its origins in the 1970s (though you might want to stretch forward to 1990 to encompass Judith Butler and Derrick Bell and Kimberlee Crenshaw). The social and religious analysis of Christopher Lasch and Robert Bellah and Philip Rieff still applies two generations later. And the spirit of Foucault, Greer’s choice for a plausible world-historical figure, still broods over us all.

Similarly in Roman Catholicism the key debates revived in the Pope Francis era are still the debates between the different 1970s-era schools of post-Vatican II theology, Joseph Ratzinger against Hans Küng — except now they’re mostly carried on by, um, newspaper columnist and popularizers. (Without intending any disrespect to anyone on Wikipedia’s list of prominent Catholic theologians, when you get to the names born after 1940 a certain sense of … decadence sets in.)

So if you go back two generations you can at least find more important figures — perceptive, brilliant, dangerous, if maybe not necessarily world-historical. But a forty or fifty-year period still feels like a long time to wait for their successors, and find ourselves stuck with popularizers and imitators and journalists instead.

Left-wing observers of these realities, would-be champions of the humane pursuits against repetition and pop mediocrity and the eternal return to 1975, trend to stress inexorable economic and technological forces, late (or is it?) capitalism turning everything, intellectual life included, into a consumerist experience. I think there’s clearly some truth to this: Certainly the cultural language of our era, the way we talk about “streaming content” or “tentpoles” or the “ideas industry,” suggests how consumerism colonizes the mind.

But as with other areas of Western life I think the left is a little too focused on accelerating forces in capitalism when recent deceleration is also such an important fact. Both the 19th and 20th centuries offered ample proof that arts and ideas could flourish amid creative and not-so-creative destruction — could thrive despite yawning inequities whose scale dwarfs on our own — could coexist, however uneasily, with industrialization and consumerism and mass democracy and all manner of technological change. So the shift to intellectual stagnation over the last half-century has to be more multi-dimensional than a simple “capitalism dunnit.”

My own favored explanation, in The Decadent Society, is adapted from Robert Nisbet’s arguments about how cultural golden ages hold traditional and novel forces in creative tension: The problem, as I see it, is that this tension snapped during the revolutions of the 1960s, when the Baby Boomers (and the pre-Boomer innovators they followed) were too culturally triumphant and their elders put up too little resistance, such that the fruitful tension between innovation and tradition gave way to confusion, mediocrity, sterility.

I may be over-influenced here by the Catholic experience, where I think the story definitely applies. As R.R. Reno argued in a 2007 survey of the so-called “heroic generation” in Catholic theology, the great theologians of the Vatican II era displayed their brilliance in their critique of the old Thomism, but then the old system precipitously collapsed and subsequent generation lacked the grounding required to be genuinely creatively in their turn, or eventually even to understand what made the 1960s generation so significant in the first place:

…. a student today will have a difficult time seeing the importance of their ideas, because the grand exploratory theologies of the Heroic Generation require fluency in neoscholasticism to see and absorb their significance. Or the theories introduce so many new concepts and advance so many novel formulations that, to come alive for students, they require the formation of an almost hermetic school of followers …

In these and many other ways, the Heroic Generation’s zest for creative, exploratory theology led them to neglect—even dismiss—the need for a standard theology. They ignored the sort of theology that … provides a functional, communally accepted and widely taught system for understanding and absorbing new insights. 

I think this frame applies more widely, to various intellectual worlds beyond theology, where certain forms of creative deconstruction went so far as to make it difficult to find one’s way back to the foundations required for new forms of creativity. Certainly that seems the point of a figure like Jordan Peterson: It’s not as a systematizer or the prophet of a new philosophy that he’s earned his fame, but as popularizer of old ideas, telling and explicating stories (the Bible! Shakespeare!) and drawing moral lessons from the before-times that would have been foundational to educated people not so long ago. Likewise with the Catholic post-liberals, or the Marx reclamation project on the left. It’s a reaching-backward to the world before the 1960s revolution, a recovery that isn’t on its own sufficient to make the escape from repetition but might be the necessary first step.

Which brings us back to the question of traditionalism and dynamism, and their potential interaction: If you’ve had a cultural revolution that cleared too much ground, razed too many bastions and led to a kind of cultural debasement and forgetting, you probably need to go backward, or least turn that way for recollection, before you can hope to go forward once again.