Things Lost

Reflections on an Empty Time

November 26, 2007

A conceit of our age is that we are the apex of civilization, having advanced beyond all others, these latter amounting by comparison to mere foreshadowings of Us. In the sciences and their rampaging child, technology, we are as remarkable as we think we are. Yet it is as if all our mind and heart have focused on these, leaving nothing for other endeavors. Among civilizations we are as specialized as Sparta, an idiot-savant.

The United States holds three hundred million souls, or people anyway, enjoying an historically high degree of wealth, leisure, and access to universities, or to places called universities. All that is needed for a truly Florentine flowering of the arts, of thought and culture, of manners, we have. Yet by most measures of cultivation, the country is a desert. A literate Florentine of the fifteenth century would regard it with horror. I suspect that he would regard Florence with almost equal horror. The buildings remain, but the spirit has flown.

The barrenness is not unique to the United States, but seems to be a correlate of techno-industrial civilization.

Consider the things that have been occupations of elevated societies from Fifth-Century Athens onward. What do we have? Almost no poetry worthy of the name exists, and no readership for it. As recently as the nineteenth century, a new book of verse from Byron became instantly what we today call a best-seller.

Symphonies die, regarded as elitist, which is thought to be a bad thing. The culture produces little music suitable for other than tailgate parties; most that is good comes from blacks, who are least under the spiritual dominion of the sciences. Sculpture means absurdities designed for sale to bureaucratic committees charged with beautifying malls. Curiously, excellent painters abound, but the public takes no notice. Architecture means cubes to contain cubicles. Theater lies insipid and unattended.

How many play an instrument? If philosophy exists, it hides. Apart from immigrants, the number of people who have mastered another language verges on none. Few understand why one might want to. Isn’t Seinfeld in English?

We have become a gilded peasantry, gurbling about laugh-tracked sit-coms, jiving to the ill-tempered barking of rap. Why?

I suspect that banality and emptiness go inseparably with the kingship of scientism, which is the application of the scientific tenor of thought to realms in which it does not belong. In part the reason is the wider distribution of greater wealth, in many but not all respects a good thing. When a hundred million of the gravely unschooled can afford SUVs, they become in effect the patrons of the arts and, as patrons usually do, they get what they want. Instead of Ludwig II nourishing Wagner, or Frederick the Great, Bach, we get Warner embracing Eminem. Art follows money. And so universal enrichment means universal impoverishment.

But there is more to it than this. The scientific habit of mind has killed off both religion and the spiritual wonderings behind so much of art. Thought has become purely materialistic in the philosophical sense. Today among the nominally educated it is regarded as uncouth to mention death or to wonder what might lie beyond. Among many of the less educated a hard and sterile Protestant fundamentalism flourishes, but it is an embittered, brainless thing. One does not easily imagine Jerry Falwell sculpting David or writing sonnets. The Catholic Church of Renaissance Italy was corrupt and venal, but it was magnificent and able to ponder things not expressible in equations. Perhaps it didn’t have truth, but it had style.

Writing a Wagnerian score requires (I think) a sense of the transcendent. To write The Lord of the Rings or to paint Leda and the swan, one need not believe in Norse gods raging in battle against chill skies, or a muscled Zeus throwing thunderbolts, or Pan leering from darkling forests. You need a mind that doesn’t smell of electrical insulation. This, few now have. The sciences are remorselessly literal. They do not admit of transcendence, wonder, or magnificence. People today drink this terrible narrowness with their mother’s milk and seldom get beyond it. They do not know what they have lost.

Thus a desert sunset is not a vast expanse of molten dunes on some unimaginable shore, stretching away in cascades of failing colors to the blue-black of the coming night and hinting of…what? That is the question. What is the wind saying?

No. A sunset is differential refraction, roygbiv, lambda equals, dispersion, water vapor, thermal upwellings caused by….

Scientism is of course utterly materialistic, having no way of dealing with (and therefore not admitting the existence of) anything other than space, time, matter, and energy. However, the sciences have been enormously successful in doing what they do. Thus we have airliners and curious pronged boxes crawling about on Mars. These are impressive, which gives to them overwhelming moral authority. They do not deserve it.

Scientism and religion are brothers in intent; they have just chosen different roads. Both are evasions.

Religion sees life as a passage, scientism as a condition; religion as a moral order, scientism as a material order. Thus the religious person thinks we come into this strange world (from where?), reside briefly, and leave for somewhere else (where?). Death seems to him a fact of some interest. It is a leaving. Often it is frightening. He makes up stories to relieve his unease. He may believe that a loving god put us here and awaits us, despite an immense lack of evidence.

The adherent of scientism comforts himself by insisting that the questions don’t exist. We didn’t come from anywhere and aren’t going anywhere. We are just momentary arrangements of matter, like bubbles in a test tube. The bubble bursts, the ripples subside, and we are simply…gone. There is no evidence for this either.

Finally, we have divorced ourselves almost completely from the natural world, and even more for respect for it. Once we were specks on the landscape. The mountains were vast and forbidding; one walked in them with a sense of awe, or at least of being small in a large place. You could lie beside a brook babbling through a forest and reflect that the world contained things other than the trivialities of human existence. This produced I think a tranquility that made for contemplation, a frame of mind conducive to what we call tiresomely “creativity.”

Now we are become a blight on the earth, with the tinker-toy minds of chemists, rushing about in noisy machines and leaving beer cans everywhere. I do not see how a Vivaldi or Corot or Milne can exist under such conditions. And they don’t.