Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

"All things fall and are built again"

Anyone who chases the muse with energy ends up on a narrow, solitary path. Long ago, I slowly grew to understand that I was opposed to a good deal in contemporary work and the realm of the avant-garde. Then a clearer sense of what I desired to do emerged, in part from rejection of certain books and choices; in that I was no different from any other writer.

My little row of books stands in peaceful opposition to an arts culture that has--in my opinion--embraced quite a few false gods of late. These idols include: a clinging to the ever-diminishing returns of Modernism, once forceful and alive; money as the prime measure of artistic success; decadent, feeble content, often deliberately destructive and scornful of past folk and fairy tales and literary heritage; nihilism; irony; personal navel inspection; popularity as more important than achievement; the stripping-away of vital subject matter and soul; a kind of fascinating tedium; an insistence on so-called "progress" in art, as though art meant merely the advancement of factual knowledge; the radical breakage and abolition of traditional forms; groupthink; the replacement of art and thoughtfulness by relentless entertainment.

Are false culture-gods new?  No, though I think we may have a few extra packed in our bags.

This morning I read Robert Merry's article, "Spengler's Ominous Prophecy." I recall seeing The Decline of the West in my academic father's office when I was child, but have never read Spengler. I found Merry's summation and analysis interesting, in light of our current military forays around the world and domestic events at home, and for what it says about the arts and the flowering and fall of cultures. It is well worth a little rumination, though one may not agree with his conclusions.

My response was mixed; Spengler is inspiring on spatial and mathematical issues and how they relate to a given culture and result in certain kind of architecture, stance, etc. In fact, his ideas about the unity of ideas in a culture fascinate. Was he a pessimistic sort, a melancholic, though? He certainly sees no avenue for escape from his wheels of fate. And as a mother of three children and a writer, I am one small argument against his ideas about the modern "Ibsen woman." His healthy culture seems to be populated entirely by figures like Cather's Antonia, robust peasantry with many children. I rather doubt that his larger argument is built entirely on rock--do we not know a great deal more about the civilizations he studied a century ago? How does new knowledge shake his argument?

As a thinker, he is as mythic as Yeats in his view of history, and as Romantic. His refusal to be sad about what he sees as inevitable decay also reminded me of Yeats and his gyres and his bold world-rebuilders. I found it curious to look through Spengler's Romantic time-telescope. Do I believe him? Sad as I am about some recent world and national events, I have a mustard seed of faith in renewal and rebirth and grace and so identify with the phoenix.

We have yet our beautiful liberty to act.

Artists are likewise, and must preserve their freedom to go a singular way. All quests involve a choice and have a price that must be paid. All things worth doing involve phoenix-like rebirth. And "All things fall and are built again," as Yeats wrote.

Here's a Merry-sample:
The passion for creative expression and new strains of culture knowledge runs on for centuries, generally a thousand years or more unless interrupted by external forces. But eventually it peters out. Then begins that civilizational phase, characterized by the deterioration of the folk traditions and innocent enthusiasms of the culture. Its cultural essence, once of the soil and spread throughout the “mother-region” in town, village and city, now becomes the domain of a few rich and powerful “world-cities,” which twist and distort the concepts of old and replace them with cynicism, cosmopolitanism, irony and a money culture.  
Thus, Spengler draws a sharp distinction between culture and civilization. The former is the phase of creative energy, the “soul” of the countryside; the latter is a time of material preoccupation, the “intellect” of the city. As Hughes elaborates, “So long as the culture phase lasts, the leading figures in a society manifest a sure sense of artistic ‘style’ and personal ‘form.’ Indeed, the breakdown of style and form most clearly marks the transition from culture to civilization.”

6 comments:

  1. Marly,
    My first visit to your blog and I got a big bite of food for thought! Thank you! I was too sunk in the everydayness of everything this Saturday morning in Montgomery, AL. You helped shake me loose! Looking forward to more. I'll be meditating on the differences between culture and civilization now -- and might just check out Spengler, too! I know one thing -- an over load of current civilization has had a detrimental effect on my writing lately...time for some examination of that.
    Best,
    Jeanie

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  2. Refreshing post! I'm pretty sure I haven't (yet?) earned the right to think of myself as an artist, but YES to artists like yourself who preserve their freedom and respect their own singularity.

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  3. Jeanie,

    Yes, I think the past year has been a bit of an overload of civilization and work for me!

    Somebody else just sent me a poem in response... I like surprises like that...

    Thanks for leaving a note--life is so busy, I appreciate it!

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  4. Lee,

    You seem very much yourself! And call yourself what you like--writer, artist, author. You're doing the work...

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  5. A thoughtful blog posting, this. It has me thinking.
    Civilization is essentially a 'committee' created thing. Laws are made; protections for the individual and the society are established; 'norms' take root and are championed.
    Such 'norms' may be based on religious morality and on interpretations of 'ethics'. What civilization does with those things is 'standardize' them.
    Culture, on the other hand, whist integrated with civilization, requires traditions, mores, and expressions that sometimes conflict with social expectations.
    Yes - I believe you are right, Marly. When civilization standardizes everything culture suffers.

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  6. Well, here we are to take our small, valiant stand!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.