domingo, 29 de enero de 2017

In comparison with the pop music of today, The Beatles almost do seem like Monteverdi. Almost.

An update on the culture wars

by Roger Kimball

Moral virtue is the quality of acting in the best way in relation to pleasures and pains, and vice is the opposite.
—Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

We have witnessed what amounts to a cultural revolution, comparable to the one in China if not worse, and whereas the Chinese have to some extent overcome their cultural revolution, I see many signs that ours is getting worse all the time… . I do not know what the future will bring, and my expectations are rather grim not only for our education and scholarship, but also for our economic, legal, and political future.
—Paul Oskar Kristeller,“A Life of Learning” (1991)

A year or two ago, The New York Times reported in its science pages on the unhappy fate of one Phineas P. Gage, a foreman for the New England Railroad. In 1848, Gage was helping to lay track across Vermont. His job involved drilling holes in large rocks, into which he would pour blasting powder and lay down a fuse. He would then cover the explosives with sand, tamping it down with a long metal rod. One day, he inadvertently triggered an explosion. The metal rod went hurtling through his skull, entering just under his left eye and landing some yards away. Amazingly, Gage survived the assault. He was stunned but able to walk away. And although he lost an eye, he seemed otherwise to recover. It soon became clear, however, that Gage was a diminished man. His intellectual powers were apparently intact; but what the writer for the Times called his “moral center” had been destroyed. Phineas Gage had become a moral cripple, utterly unable to make ethical decisions.

Pondering the state of American cultural life today, I have often had occasion to recall the sad story of Phineas Gage. Like him, our culture seems to have suffered some ghastly accident that has left it afloat but rudderless, its “moral center” a shambles. The cause of this disaster was not an explosion of gunpowder, but the more protracted and spiritually convulsive detonation of what the eminent philosopher Paul Oskar Kristeller has rightly called America’s “cultural revolution.” As anyone familiar with the culture wars now raging throughout American society knows—and who can have entirely escaped the spectacle?—it is a revolution whose effects are still very much with us. In his reflections on the life of learning, Professor Kristeller was concerned primarily with the degradation of intellectual standards that this cultural revolution brought in its wake. “One sign of our situation,” he noted, “is the low level of our public and even of our academic discussion. The frequent disregard for facts or evidence, or rational discourse and arguments, and even of consistency, is appalling.” Who can disagree?
The frequent disregard for facts or evidence, or rational discourse and arguments, and even of consistency, is appalling.
As Professor Kristeller suggests, however, the intellectual wreckage visited upon our educational institutions and traditions of scholarship is only part of the story. There are also social, political, and moral dimensions to America’s cultural revolution—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the spiritual deformations we have witnessed are global, and affect everything.

The movement for sexual “liberation” (not to say outright debauchery) occupies a prominent place in the etiology of this revolution, as does the mainstreaming of the drug culture and its attendant pathologies. Indeed, the two are related. Both are expressions of the narcissistic hedonism that was an important ingredient of the counterculture from its earliest beginnings in the 1950s. The salon Marxist Herbert Marcuse was not joking when, inEros and Civilization (1955)—one of many inspirational tracts for the movement—he extolled the salvific properties of “primary narcissism” as an effective protest against the “repressive order of procreative sexuality.” “The images of Orpheus and Narcissus reconcile Eros and Thanatos,” Marcuse wrote. “They recall the experience of a world that is not to be mastered and controlled but to be liberated: … the redemption of pleasure, the halt of time, the absorption of death; silence, sleep, night, paradise—the Nirvana principle not as death but as life.” The succeeding decades showed beyond cavil that the infantilizing pursuit of sexual perversity that Marcuse advocated was really a form of death-in-life, not “liberation.” But of course this was something that neither this guru of liberation nor his many followers ever acknowledged or perhaps even recognized.

One of the most conspicuous, and conspicuously jejune, features of the culture wars has been the union of such hedonism with a species of radical (or radical chic) politics. This union fostered a situation in which, as the famous slogan put it, “the personal is the political.” The politics in question were seldom more than a congeries of radical clichés, serious only in that they helped to disrupt society and blight a good many lives. In that sense, to be sure, they proved to be very serious indeed. Apocalyptic rhetoric notwithstanding, the behavior of these “revolutionaries” consistently exhibited that most common of bourgeois passions, anti-bourgeois animus —expressed, as always, safely within the swaddling clothes of bourgeois security. As Allan Bloom remarked in The Closing of the American Mind, the cultural revolution proved to be so successful on college campuses partly because of “the bourgeois’ need to feel that he is not bourgeois, to have dangerous experiments with the unlimited… . Anti-bourgeois ire is the opiate of the Last Man.” It almost goes without saying that, like all narcotics, the opiate of anti-bourgeois ire was both addictive and debilitating.
...the opiate of anti-bourgeois ire was both addictive and debilitating.
The effect of these developments on cultural life has been incalculable. One of the most far-reaching and destructive effects has been the simultaneous glorification and degradation of popular culture. Even as the most ephemeral and intellectually vacuous products of pop culture—rock videos, comic books, television sit-coms—are enlisted as fit subjects for the college curriculum, so, too, has the character of popular culture itself become ever more vulgar, vicious, and degrading. A watershed moment came with the apotheosis of The Beatles in the mid-1960s. The literary critic Richard Poirier wasn’t the only academic to make a fool of himself slobbering over the Fab Four; but his observation that “sometimes they are like Monteverdi and sometimes their songs are even better than Schumann’s” in the Partisan Review in 1967 did establish a standard of fatuity that has rarely been bettered. Unfortunately, the more popular culture has been raised up— the more vigorously it has been championed by the cultural elite—the lower popular culture has sunk. In comparison with the pop music of today, The Beatles almost do seem like Monteverdi. Almost. At the same time, though—and this is one of the most insidious effects of the whole process—the integrity of high culture itself has been severely compromised by the mindless elevation of pop culture. The academic enfranchisement of popular culture has meant not only that trash has been mistaken as great art, but also that great art has been treated as if it were trash. When Allen Ginsberg (for example) is taught beside Shakespeare as a “great poet,” the very idea of greatness is rendered unintelligible and high art ceases to function as an ideal.


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