Declining Fortunes: Home Thoughts from Within

A feeling of cultural homelessness, of accelerating decline and imminent ruin, appears to have overtaken many people today. Some do their utmost to cover over a deep intuition of anxiety. Others are prone to a spirit of gloomy resignation. Perhaps a majority are content to live in the short term, relying on the quarterly return, as it were, putting long-term viability out of mind. Some work to hasten the debacle. A committed minority are engaged in the Sisyphean labor of political and intellectual restitution. But “the sense of an ending” is unmistakable, when time, to quote Julian Barnes in his novel of that title, “really does go missing, never to return.”

As I wrote in The Big Lie, we seem to be facing the irrevocable and destructive assault of historical forces which thinkers and historians like Polybius, Ibn Khaldun, Giambattista Vico, Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, and Arnold Toynbee spelled out for us. Each in his own way elaborated the idea that all civilizations go through predictable and identifiable phases of development, flourishing, decline and collapse. In particular, Spengler’s notion in The Decline of the West of historical “contemporaneity” as involving “corresponding phases” and “chronological parallels” may be appropriate here. In this sense we would be contemporary with late fourth century-early fifth century Rome, a civilization, as Spengler wrote, “los[ing] its desire to be, and… wish[ing] itself out of the overlong daylight and back into the darkness.…”

Even modern cosmology seems to concur. In Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, Charles Seife points out that since life and consciousness run on energy, and the supply of energy in any finite system is constantly decreasing, “civilization slows down more and more, thinking less and less, until it ceases entirely.…Some would say the process has already started.” Seife does not indicate whether cosmologists mean civilization in general or a given civilization in the course of its particular trajectory, or both -- but if each civilization is considered as a finite system containing a discrete amount of “thought energy,” we might argue that what we call “Western civilization” is fast approaching a state of entropic dispersion. It certainly appears to be “thinking less and less.”

This is, no doubt, an unduly dramatic way of formulating a personal premonition, but even the merest survey of various desultory aspects of the culture, taken together, leads to the suspicion that we are presently, to quote Conor Cruise O’Brien, “on the eve of the millenium.” What we once regarded as “home” is now infested by colonies of termites eating away at the joists, beams, and supports. Indeed, even the idea of “home” has undergone a process of banalization, for which we have our elite class of misbegotten intellectuals to thank. These thoughts were brought “home” to me with renewed vividness when I recently came across a typical piece of turbid writing and muddled thinking in yet another university-spawned treatise whose abject irrelevance is matched only by its dismaying influence.

I refer to Karen Warren’s anthology Ecological Feminism, in which she defines the concept of home in an “ecofeminist sense” as “a house, intentional community, and bioregion were one’s individually and mutually satisfying basic needs and life-affirming and sustaining values are met. These are values that take into account both human and nonhuman environmental concerns and are satisfied in respectful and ecologically sustainable ways.” Warren’s basic notion is utterly ludicrous, something only an academic could think up: home is an open field accessible to the elements which it binds in a kind of airy eclogue of reciprocal harmonies, rather than, as traditionally construed, a dwelling for a mother, a father, kids, and perhaps a trained pet or two. The popular inscription one finds embroidered on ornamental cushions, “A house is not a home without a cat,” contains far more in the way of descriptive aptness than Warren’s sophistical gobbledygook. One recalls Christopher Lasch’s critique in The Minimal Self of feminist psychology as “a narcissistic symbiosis with nature.”