I’ve written several posts over the years noting that modern art — at least the “shocking the bourgeois” brand of modern art — is a genre permanently trapped in the 1920s. Modern architecture often seems similarly trapped in the same decade, endlessly recycling the forms and styles created by Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier. Sarah Hoyt has an interesting post this weekend that describes much of today’s bourgeois intellectual life as permanently trapped in that decade as well, as a byproduct of WWI and its aftermath:
Like a child shocked by WWI and having both externalized the blame – Listen to a six year old, sometime “I didn’t break the vase. It was the cat.” Same thing “I didn’t cause death and carnage. It was capitalism and old white men.” – and misattributed it – states looking for resources and expanding their power through bureaucratic means was more important than competition for raw materials, whatever you heard in school – the idiot child that is Western civ continues rampaging through her room, tearing everything that made it comfortable and useful and a good place, and throwing it out the window.
No, of course I’m not saying everything about the early twentieth century was perfect. Yes, of course greater participation of women in both politics and work, a break down of social barriers and greater racial integration are a good thing. They’re also unique in the world today. Other than Western civilization and countries influenced by it, the evils of racism, sexism and rigid class (and tribe) structure are, if anything even more hardened than they were before.
That I’m saying is that Western civilization AND capitalism (particularly the greater affluence created by it) are what brought about the erosion of those ancient evils to which ALL OF HUMANITY is prey.
Blaming Capitalism or affluence or industrialization for those evils is like blaming the cat for removing the scones from the oven and eating them – with jam and cream, mind you. (Yes, younger kid did that. He seemed absolutely convinced it was true, too. He was four.)
And invoking to resist these evils the untamed primitive (No? “Smash capitalism” and well… OWS in general) which IS the found of these evils is not only insane, it is counterproductive.
It is also where our culture has been for the last twenty years, caught in a recursive loop where everything – such as the collectivist massacres and poverty around the world – that doesn’t fit the narrative is swept under the rug, and “shocking” things that shock no one are continuously hurled Tourette’s-like at the one civilization that COULD have been shocked by WWI or seen anything wrong with death on that scale. (Hint, other cultures BRAG of how many they kill/how many of them are killed in war.)
Which is why people like Christie and Heinlein are reviled. Because if you read them you might get the idea that well… there were people wanting to smash capitalism back in the twenties, and that they were poseurs and a little ridiculous. Or that women CAN be competent, brilliant and still wish to create a new generation of humans.
And then, where would we be?
The 1920s was the debut of the modern intellectual, as Tom Wolfe wrote in his essay “In the Land of the Rococo Marxist”:
After the First World War, American writers and scholars had the chance to go to Europe in large numbers for the first time. They got an eyeful of the Intellectual up close. That sneer, that high-minded aloofness from the mob, those long immaculate alabaster forefingers with which they pointed down at the rubble of a botched civilization-it was irresistible. The only problem was that when our neophyte intellectuals came back to the United States to strike the pose, there was no rubble to point at. Far from being a civilization in ruins, the United States had emerged from the war as the new star occupying the center of the world stage. Far from reeking of decadence, the United States had the glow of a young giant: brave, robust, innocent and unsophisticated.
But young scribblers roaring drunk (as Nietzsche had predicted) on skepticism, cynicism, irony, and contempt were in no mood to let such … circumstances … stand in the way. From the very outset the attempts of this country cousin, the American intellectual, to catch up with his urbane European model was touching, as only the strivings of a colonial subject can be. Throughout the twentieth century, the picture would never change (and today, a hundred years later, the sweaty little colonial still trots along at the heels of… sahib). In the 1920s the first job was to catch up with the European intellectuals’ mockery of the “bourgeoisie,” which had begun a full forty years earlier. H. L. Mencken, probably the most brilliant American essayist of the twentieth century, led the way by pie-ing the American version of same with his term: “the booboisie.” In fiction the solution was to pull back the covers from this apple-cheeked, mom’s-cooking country of ours and say, “There! Take a good look at what’s underneath! Get a whiff of the rot just below the surface!”-the way Sinclair Lewis did it in Main Street and Babbitt, for which he became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, and Sherwood Anderson did it in Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson’s specialty was exposing the Middle American hypocrite, such as the rigidly proper, sexually twisted Peeping Tom midwestern preacher. He created a stock character and a stock plot that others have been laboriously cranking out ever since in books, TV, and movies, from Peyton Place to American Beauty.
Similarly, as the late Allan Bloom wrote in The Closing of the American Mind, America in general transformed itself into the post-WWI-era Weimar Republic on a mammoth scale:
This popularization of German philosophy in the United States is of peculiar interest to me because I have watched it occur during my own intellectual lifetime, and I feel a little like someone who knew Napoleon when he was six. I have seen value relativism and its concomitants grow greater in the land than anyone imagined. Who in 1920 would have believed that Max Weber’s technical sociological terminology would someday be the everyday language of the United States, the land of the Philistines, itself in the meantime become the most powerful nation in the world? The self-understanding of hippies, yippies, yuppies, panthers, prelates and presidents has unconsciously been formed by German thought of a half-century earlier; Herbert Marcuse’s accent has been turned into a Middle Western twang; the echt Deutsch label has been replaced by a Made in America label; and the new American life-style has become a Disneyland version of the Weimar Republic for the whole family.
In Germany, Nietzsche declared “God is Dead” in 1882; in the States, Time magazine would attempt to confirm the diagnosis 84 years later, in 1966. David Frum’s history of the 1970s is essentially a book about America’s decade-long collective effort at discarding its puritan roots and becoming 1920s Weimar in polyester pants and a Disco Stu shirt. Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism approaches the same transformation, but over a much longer timetable.
So if we’re trapped in the Weimar Era Mobius Loop, can we head for the exits in a different and infinitely more peaceable fashion than Germany itself did? Sarah has a few suggestions at the conclusion of her post:
I’m not a psychiatrist, but I looked up what to do for someone who is caught in a neurotic recursive loop of counterproductive behaviors. Apparently one of the ways to fix this is to correct the misapprehension and projection at the heart of the loop.
So, I say – break the cycle. Speak real truth to power. Write of war and evil, sure, but as human ills, and not as the result of the unique badness of Western Civilization (or civilization) or capitalism, or affluence, or industrialization. Dare point out that while humanity has had savages aplenty, few of them were noble. Dare point out that while civilized man can be conventional, conventional behavior is often decent and moral and better for everyone.
Smash fake intellectualism. Speak truth to power. Dare write of individuals who can and do control their destiny and make things better (or at least try to.)
Administer shock therapy.
Write Human Wave.
If you’re good at it, soon all the “right thinking people” will hate you. What more could you want?
Seems like excellent advice.
Related: “The era of Western cultural health is dead, and it died pretty much as Spengler predicted it would. And no doubt his study of previous great civilizations did in fact accurately identify pressures and forces that emerge at particular points in civilizational development and push toward empire and Caesarism. This push can be resisted by a free people dedicated to the protection of their institutions of old. But they won’t be protected if events are placed on autopilot.”