THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL: Theodore Dalrymple looks at the decline of both England, and the West’s art, and morality in the 20th century:
When exactly did this downward cultural spiral begin, this loss of tact and refinement and understanding that some things should not be said or directly represented? When did we no longer appreciate that to dignify certain modes of behavior, manners, and ways of being with artistic representation was implicitly to glorify and promote them? There is, as Adam Smith said, a deal of ruin in a nation: and this truth applies as much to a nation’s culture as to its economy. The work of cultural destruction, while often swifter, easier, and more self-conscious than that of construction, is not the work of a moment. Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day.
In 1914, for example, Bernard Shaw caused a sensation by giving Eliza Doolittle the words “Not bloody likely!” to utter on the London stage. Of course, the sensation that this now-innocuous, even innocent exclamation created depended wholly for its effect upon the convention that it flouted: but those who were outraged by it (and who have generally been regarded as ridiculous in subsequent accounts of the incident) instinctively understood that sensation doesn’t strike in the same place twice, and that anyone wanting to create an equivalent in the future would have to go far beyond “not bloody likely.” A logic and a convention of convention-breaking was established, so that within a few decades it was difficult to produce any sensation at all except by the most extreme means.
If there was a single event in our recent cultural history that established literal-minded crudity as the ideal of artistic endeavor, however, it was the celebrated 1960 trial of Penguin Books for the publication of an obscene book, the unexpurgated version of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The trial posed the question of whether cultural tact and restraint would crumble in the absence of legal sanctions. For, as the much derided prosecutor in the case, Mervyn Griffith-Jones, understood only too well, and specifically advised the government of the day, if the publication of Lady Chatterley?s Lover went legally unchallenged, or if the case were lost, it would in effect be the end of the law of obscenity. To adapt slightly Dostoyevsky’s famous dictum about the moral consequences of the nonexistence of God, if Lady Chatterley’s Lover were published, everything could be published.
I’m currently reading (and very much enjoying) Thomas S. Hibbs’ 1999 book, Shows About Nothing, which analyzes Nietzsche’s prophesies concerning nihilism, and then illustrates how they apply to the pop-culture world of TV and the movies in the 1990s. Dalrymple’s article flows very nicely into Hibbs’ book, and both illustrate just how far our culture has defined deviancy down (to coin a phrase) over the last 40 years.