A Melancholy Calculation
Pictured above: Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee
Nothing is too big to fail, including civilizations, and ours is no exception. The decline of the West is historically inevitable, subject to the universal principle of entropy that functions on every plane of natural existence, including the cultural. The agencies by which it works on this level are readily isolated: the endemic vices and pathologies of human nature (greed, resentment, hatred, envy, sloth); the tendency to take for granted the benefits, rights and privileges that have been painfully won in the past and gradually squandered in the present; the eclipse of historical memory and the concomitant exhaustion of mental vigilance. Whether decline can be retarded is, of course, an open question, but one thing is certain: pushback is futile absent the recognition of the symptoms of decay.
Perhaps the most evident sign of civilizational devolution is the inability or unwillingness to acknowledge reality, to come to terms with things as they are, and to oppose the suppression of objectivity and its substitution by fantasy, illusion and wish-fulfillment. The resonating dictum of the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Parmenides from his fragmentary poem On Nature—variously translated as what is, is, and what is not, is not!—sounds like an empty tautology. But it has relevance for our present historical moment, with respect to the cultural and lexical inversions of contemporary thought and discourse. Apart from its metaphysical implications, which we won’t go into here, the Parmenidean maxim expresses the criterion for survival, the need to separate truth (aletheia) from opinion (doxa) and to recognize things as they are if an individual, a culture, a people is to transact successfully with the existing world. But when thought and action come to be governed by the anarchic principle that what is, is not and what is not, is, a process of social, political and epistemological disintegration invariably sets in. This is the condition in which the West finds itself today.
At every turn, the real is conceptually abolished by a cult-like mindset that vitiates the social and cultural life of a people by performing, as David Mamet points out in The Secret Knowledge, an act of sacrifice on the altar of superstition and willed ignorance. The new observances, he writes, “must absolutely repudiate the old,” a form of disavowal especially typical of the Left which is in the process “of sacrificing production, exploitation of natural resources and an increasing standard of living” in order to propitiate its gods and ensure the preservation of a global hallucination, a pervasive climate of doxa.
It is as if the Soviet pseudo-scientist Trofim Lysenko has risen from the grave and, by a mordant historical irony, infected not the burgeoning Russian empire but a weak and decadent West that has succumbed to a sterile and perilous sort of intellectual vernalization—a term glibly misused by Lysenko to describe the process, mistakenly thought heritable, of forcing winter cereals to behave like spring cereals. As plant biologist Richard Amasino writes, Lysenko’s belief that vernalized transformations could be inherited “fit the Marxist ideology that…a Marxist society could produce heritable changes in attitude, and, thus, if the proper environment was provided, future generations would consist of improved citizens. Lysenko's efforts,” he continues, “to obtain or fabricate results that supported a political ideology…had disastrous consequences for Russian genetics.” Where the speculative and the real are in flagrant contradiction, the results are almost always catastrophic.
The West is now busy at work across the entire field of social, cultural and political life promoting its own version of Lysenkoism, a misconceived exercise of supposedly vernalizing reality by transforming fact into fantasy and truth into lie for the purpose of creating the perfect society and the redeemed human being, transferable across the generations. Its assumptions about the world are guided not by common sense or genuine science but by the precepts of ideology and political desire.
Examples abound of the ubiquitous tendency to replace ontology with myth, the determinate with the fluid and the objective with the delusionary. A modest inventory of such noxious miscontruals would include:
- Biological sexual differentiation must yield to voluntary gender identity.
- A cooling climate is obviously warming.
- The demonstrable failure of socialism wherever it has been tried is proof that it has not been properly implemented.
- Democratic Israel is an apartheid state.
- Islam with its record of unstinting bloodshed is a religion of peace.
- Illegal immigrants are undocumented workers.
- Terrorism is workplace violence.
- A child in the womb is a mass of insensible protoplasm.
- The killing of the old and the ill is merciful, even when the recipient of such tender concern is not consulted.
- There is no such thing as truth, an axiom regarded as true.
- Green energy is a social and economic good irrespective of crony profiteering, exorbitant cost, wildlife devastation, and unworkability in its present state.
- Storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, tsunamis and mortality itself are natural phenomena, but Nature, which cares nothing for human life, is nonetheless sacred, vulnerable and at the mercy of human indifference.
- Women are disadvantaged in the workforce, academia and society at large despite the fact that high-end hiring practices, legal judgments, custody protocols and university appointments, as well as student enrollment, wholly favor women to the detriment of men.
- An enemy is a friend.
- Criminality is innocence.
- Losing is winning.
- Prosperity is avarice.
- Redistributing wealth, i.e., robbing the affluent and productive, is a form of compassion and basic justice.
- Those who claim victim status are always credible.
- Accumulating debt is an economic stimulus.
- Big government is a boon to mankind.
- War is passé (so 19th century).
- Diplomacy and talk—the higher Twitter—will prevail over barbarism.
- The most gynocentric society ever created is a rape culture.
- Palestine is a historically legitimate nation.
- Uniformity of thought and action equals cultural diversity.
- An exploded lie merely confirms what it lies about (e.g., Rigoberta Menchu).
- Morality is relative.
- Merit is an unearned distinction.
Or in other words, what is, is not, and what is not, is.
Let us hope that sociologist Emile Durkheim was right when he wrote: “There is a limit to the quota of abnormality which the collective mind (the public) is capable of perceiving.” But the prospects are not encouraging. This species of Orwellian inversion, supplanting the real by the imaginary, is now an intrinsic component of the Western psyche and firmly embedded in what French thinker Pierre Bourdieu in his influential treatise Distinction calls the social habitus— a system of norms, usages, taboos and conventions that steer thought and behavior in certain approved directions and from which individuals should strive to emancipate themselves. Of course, Bourdieu’s notion of “social emancipation” remains solidly in the camp of Leftist mischief and he would likely approve of the “misrecognitions” (his term) listed above. The current habitus is most conspicuous in the repressive operations of political correctness and the canard of “social justice.”
The celebrated 1920 print Angelus Novus by Paul Klee (pictured at top of article), now in the collection of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, foretells and encapsulates the degradation of Western civilization. The work represents a premonitory and grieving angel blown by the winds of Time backward into the future while gazing upon the detritus of the present and the past. In the words of philosopher and critical theorist Walter Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History from Illuminations: “This is how one pictures the angel of history….Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” Or, rather than “progress,” in the sulphurous light of ongoing Western dereliction, one might more aptly say “progressivism.”
When a civilization, or its cultural and intellectual curators who wield the instruments of power and authority, re-interprets reality as merely discretionary, decline and eventual extinction are guaranteed, and the Angel of History will preside over the ruins. When pretending becomes believing, and believing becomes mandatory, and calling out the naked emperor is punishable by law or fine or ostracism or loss of employment or worse, and when the scale of such abuses becomes effectively global, the “lifeworld,” or communal nature of daily life, as we have known it has ceased to exist.
Biology, Nature, economic forces and human nature are not disposable artifacts, fashion accessories or hypothetical creations of unanchored will. They can be investigated, plumbed, to some limited degree modified and harnessed to advantage, but they cannot be turned into something they are not or conveniently abolished without unleashing tragic consequences. As Ludwig Wittgenstein disarmingly put it in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, channelling Parmenides, “The world is whatever is the case” and “the totality of facts determines what is the case, and also whatever is not the case.” The implication is that reality is an unforgiving taskmaster. It is oblivious of civilized—and indeed, human—life, despite the confidence of those for whom reality is only a “social construct” (or in updated jargon, “socially determined”) or a pliant servant of ideological conviction. Such hubris exacts its price and it is one we cannot afford to pay.
The only sensible response to the collapse we are experiencing is probably terminal depression. Yet what choice do we have but to persist in trying to beat back the flood of cultural desuetude and personal despair, as at the end of Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable:
You must go on.
I can’t go on.
I’ll go on.
Notwithstanding, perhaps in the long run the only way to beat the cultural odds is to let the culture crash of its own accord, as it most likely will, and hope against hope that a viable replacement, a new and better form of civilized life, will rise Phoenix-like from the ashes. A melancholy calculation indeed.
(Artwork created using multiple Shutterstock.com images.)