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The Age of Memory

Oswald Spengler, whose shade I have evoked several times already in these essays, is not the kind of philosopher that most intellectuals today find appealing. He had rather too much of the old-fashioned schoolmaster in him: precise, didactic, unsympathetic, dry. Worst of all, he had no patience with the fashionable logic that sees the present generation – or any other – as destiny’s darlings, to whom the lessons of history no longer apply. It’s no wonder that so few people read his books nowadays.

Still, these unendearing habits are among the reasons I find Spengler so useful as a guide just now. There are certainly times when the cultural pendulum has swung too far in the direction of logical rigor and cold analysis, when the disciplines of intellect need to be relaxed to make room for the life of the feelings and the play of the imagination. Still, I’m far from convinced that this is one of those times. Rather, it seems to me, we’ve approached the other end of the pendulum’s swing, the point when the world needs a reminder that a belief’s emotional appeal is no argument for its validity, and when what nineteenth-century writers liked to call “the heaving passions” – a phrase that seems rather too appropriate these days – have drowned out nearly everything else.

Now of course there are plenty of people these days leading the charge to flog what remains of reason out of our collective discourse about the future; it’s one of the finer ironies of cultural history that most of the people who think they’re rebelling against their culture are simply pushing its agenda a little further and faster than most of their contemporaries. This, again, is why I find Spengler so congenial. He matched up the twists and dodges of modern thought with their equivalents in the lives of half a dozen dead civilizations, and showed how those cultural factors most often claimed as evidence of progress nowadays are simply phases in a life cycle that is beginning to close in on its end. Like the poetry of Robinson Jeffers or the ethics of Epictetus, he has no time for our self-importance, and reading him clears the mind the way a bitter aperitif clears the palate.

Among his least popular arguments is the suggestion that modern Western culture – Faustian culture, as he called it – finished its creative age in the nineteenth century. Of course this is a generalization, as any statement about history must be; as generalizations go, however, it has quite a bit going for it. Take the arts as a test case: those that have their roots in the Faustian world, if they are still practiced at all, have either fossilized into repetitions of old forms, like classical music; turned for inspiration to the arts of other cultures, like popular music, which draws heavily from African music by way of the influence of blues on rock and jazz on nearly every contemporary genre; or become the self-referential concern of a narrowing circle of cognoscenti, like today’s avant-garde art music.

Similar patterns can be traced straight across the spectrum of the Western world’s cultural forms. Political thought across the industrial world, for example, is spinning its wheels in ruts laid down decades ago; a central reason why politics has degenerated into struggles over personalities and petty issues across the political mainstream, and into Utopian fantasies out on the fringes, is that nothing even approximating a new idea has entered the Western world’s political discourse since well before World War Two. (This applies to alternative culture as much as to the mainstream; nearly all of the ideas now being put forward as cutting-edge, avant-garde, New Age political ideas were already creaking with age when they were last recycled in the 1920s.) True to form, Spengler does not even give us the comfort of a good ringing denunciation of decadence. instead, he suggests that it is the natural fate of the cultural life form that sprouted in western Europe around 900, burst into flower at the beginning of the Renaissance, and has now gone to seed.

The botanical metaphor is one that Spengler himself would have appreciated, but I mean it in a slightly different way than he did. Spengler’s view of what he called civilization – the second half of a culture’s life cycle, when its creative possibilities have all been worked out – was largely negative. The ancient Egyptians, among others, would have disagreed strenuously; from their viewpoint, geared as it was to cultural stability and the preservation of traditional forms, what a Faustian mind necessarily sees as a creative period becomes a matter of blind groping in the dark, and what a Faustian mind sees as stagnation is the healthy balance of a successful society. Nor can the Egyptian viewpoint be dismissed out of hand; maintaining cultural continuity, a rich and tolerant religious life, and stunningly beautiful art and architecture as living traditions for more than three thousand years is not a small achievement.

Even within a Faustian perspective, the completion of the Western world’s cultural trajectory has potentials that need to be recognized. To return to an example I have used several times before in these essays, the sorting process that picked Aristotle’s Organon out from among scores of other Greek works on logic, and spread it throughout the Mediterranean world, happened long after the creative age of Greek philosophy was over. As culture gives way to civilization, a ruthless winnowing of cultural heritage typically begins, and those creative works and techniques that survive the process become basic to the arts, crafts, and sciences of the mature society. From there, they move past the periphery of the civilization and become part of the common cultural heritage of humankind.

This is the phase toward which Spengler saw the Western world advancing. Whether his scheme makes sense of the broader phenomenon of historical change he hoped to clarify, it provides a perspective crucial to our own time. The end of the age of cheap energy has many implications, but one of the most important – and most daunting – is that it marks the end of the road for nearly all the cultural trends that have guided the industrial world since the paired industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century. Those trends pursued greater size, greater speed, greater power; the replacement of human capacities with ever more intricate machines, demanding ever more abundant energy and resource inputs; an escape from the interdependence of living nature into an artificial world transparent to the human mind and obedient to the human will.

That way to the future is no longer open. The nations of the industrial world could pursue it as far as they did only because abundant reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources were available to power Faustian culture along its trajectory. The waning of those reserves and, more broadly, the collision between the pursuit of unlimited economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, marks the end of those dreams. It may also mark the beginning of a time in which we can sort through the results of the last three centuries, discard the ones that worked poorly or demand conditions that no longer exist, and keep what still has value.

One useful way to talk about this process, it seems to me, is to borrow a common habit of talking about history and put it to work in a new way. Not that long ago it was common to describe the medieval period in the Western world as the Age of Faith, and to contrast it smugly with an Age of Reason that was held to have dawned with the first stirrings of the scientific revolution, and come into its own with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Oversimplified though these categories are, they point up certain important distinctions between the phases of our cultural trajectory that were primarily guided by religious thought and those guided by the expansive Enlightenment belief in the limitless power of human reason.

That latter belief is on its last legs just now, because the effort to direct human behavior solely according to reason simply didn’t live up to its advance billing; the inevitable reaction is following. Thus the faith that unchecked rationality is a ticket to Utopia, or the only hope of the human future, or whatever other set of religious ideas might be assigned to it, is wearing very thin these days, and the decline of today’s technological infrastructure in the wake of peak oil may just put paid to it. Reason will doubtless retain an active role in our collective life, just as faith has done, but other forces will likely take the lead in the decades and centuries ahead of us.

Thus it may not be inappropriate to suggest that in a very real sense, the Age of Reason is ending. If Spengler is right, what will follow it is an Age of Memory, where the collective imagination of the West turns back to contemplate its own past and extract the most useful elements from a thousand years of innovation. The cultural conserver concept, which I introduced in an earlier post here, represents one workable response to that possibility. I plan on discussing that in more detail, and in more practical terms, in the weeks and months ahead – subject to the usual interruptions, of course.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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