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The Weakness of the West

Western civilization is caught between the horns of a dilemma.

by
David Solway

Bio

October 7, 2011 - 12:18 am
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For the most part, however, our leaders are like lower-class Hamlets, the proletarians of impotent rumination. Unable to decide upon a rational and meaningful reply to unfolding events, they continue either to vacillate or to remain numb and torpid, engaging in one or another form of self-justifying evasion. More committees must be struck, more “talks” must be held, more time is needed, and more “resolutions” must be compiled and passed whose words die on the page and vanish unmourned. Hamlet, of course, said it best:

And thus the native hue of resolution

Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,

And enterprise of great pitch and moment…

…lose the name of action.

And William Blake crystallized the notion in The Proverbs of Hell: “He who desires and acts not, breeds pestilence.”

The West now finds itself the victim of its own essential and defining quality as a civilization. Unlike the civilizations of the Orient, Western thought at its best and most characteristic is engaged in the noble adventure to seek out truth, which accounts for the major scientific breakthroughs of the modern era, a stellar literature and grand historiographic projects that attempt to probe and comprehend the vast currents of world events. In the course of time the quest inexorably begins to undermine its own foundations, finding that truth is asymptotic, ultimately inaccessible or even non-existent on the one hand, or on the other, that it demands ever-prolonged investigation either because it is insolubly complex or because the seeker subjectively fears the consequences it entails.

The result is a kind of intellectual embolism, a clotting of the arteries of thought. The modern Oedipus concludes that the truth is that there is no truth—this is the nowhere land his inquiries have taken him to. His conduct is thus based on whim, appetite, fantasy or ungrounded hope and usually culminates in disaster. The modern Hamlet refrains from proceeding in order to avoid compromising himself or losing the perquisites he may have to surrender by committing to a distinct and irreversible course of action. His condition of lassitude or paralysis also tends to culminate in disaster. And this is pretty well where the West finds itself today, between the Scylla of nihilism and the Charybdis of passivity.

If I am not mistaken, this is the brunt of Mansur’s thesis. And he would likely agree that, barring a far-reaching cultural reorientation, there is no way out of this dilemma—in the “true” etymological sense of the word. What would be needed is a genuine educational revolution, a neo-Enlightenment, in which the twin vices of hubris and lethargy are eradicated and the twin virtues of humility and courage could take root: the humility to acknowledge that there is such a thing as discernible truth existing outside the narrow and confining circle of rampant subjectivity, and the courage to act decisively when circumstances leave us no plausible alternative.

Perhaps only a profound crisis or debacle, a calamity we cannot escape in which our lives and our society are threatened with collapse or military defeat and we are brought to the brink—perhaps only this can issue in the restoration of common sense and a determination to retrieve what made us great. Perhaps only the advent of catastrophe can rescue an Oedipus gone awry or a Hamlet gone rogue, one having gone too far and the other not far enough.

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David Solway is a Canadian poet and essayist. He is the author of The Big Lie: On Terror, Antisemitism, and Identity, and is currently working on a sequel, Living in the Valley of Shmoon. His new book on Jewish and Israeli themes, Hear, O Israel!, was released by Mantua Books. His latest book is The Boxthorn Tree, published in December 2012. Visit his Website at www.davidsolway.com.
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