Sunday 16 February 2020

The Decline of the West

"The greatest (and yet mostly unremarked) sociological change in America over the past 50 years is the collapse of membership in mainline Protestant churches — from around 50 percent of Americans in 1965 to under 10 percent today. This collapse removed a central support of American identity. Though others were welcomed, on and off, we understood that we lived in essentially a Protestant nation. The dominant churches were the cultural Mississippi pouring through the center of the nation’s self-understanding. When that well-spring dried up, the old culture died in the hard-baked mud. As the theological foundations decayed, so did the cultural institutions built on those foundations, including the novel.

"...From the 18th century through the 20th, authors produced fiction unlike anything the world had read. They did so because the civilization needed them to. Rewarded them for doing so, too. Of the authors who have published novels since the early 1990s, none is mandatory reading. This lack of cultural centrality is not necessarily the authors’ fault — we just don’t read novels the way we used to. The great ambitions have dwindled, and the engine of the art form sputters on the last fumes of its old fuel. Modernity’s metaphysical crisis was not solved — by the novel or anything else. Consequently, we are overtaken by a second crisis, one debilitating for art, as the culture loses its horizons and its sense of purpose."

These two paragraphs are from a great article on the decline of the American novel, by the curiously named Joseph Bottum, in the US edition of the Spectator (not to be confused with the American Spectator, which is also a very good magazine). 

The novel is a form in decline because of films, television and the internet. So is poetry and the theatre. But there is more to the story than just creative destruction wreaked by the internet.

I see that others are noticing that we are living in a civilisation in many ways in decline. 

This goes back long before the internet and television cannot be blamed either. In fact there have been no great men or women in any  of the arts, philosophy, economics, psychology or other domains since roughly the middle of the twentieth century. Who is there, outside hard sciences and technology, that is a big historical figure to compare with  Freud, Jung, Keynes, Joyce, Lawrence, Picasso, Miro or Chagall - add to taste? 

Fortunately, we have also been spared evil geniuses like Lenin and Hitler, though the influence of these two is still immeasurable, in the latter's case via usually maladroit and often misconceived attempts to be as different from him as possible.


  1. 'Who is there... to compare with Freud, Jung, Keynes, Joyce...'

    Sora, Plesu, Liiceanu, Boia, Cartarescu, Patapievici.

  2. 'The Decline of the West'

    My Lord, it is a subject of awful meditation.

  3. Who is there... to compare with Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and W.C. Fields?

  4. The novel, or at least the literary novel, was a remarkably short-lived artistic form. It seems to have been purely a product of a brief period of western history. I suspect it was modernism that killed it, rather than movies, television and the internet. It was killed by writers like James Joyce.

    Nobody wanted to read modernist novels, apart from literary critics and literary theorists.

    The literary novel was dead by the mid-20th century. The novel of entertainment, genre novels, continued to flourish. Mainly because genre fiction rejected modernism.

    You could argue that painting as an artistic form was also killed by modernism, rather than by photography. Painting was killed by painters like Picasso. Painting as high art was dead by the 1920s. No normal sane person wants to look at modernist painting. Commercial art (everything from book cover illustrations to advertising art to pinup art)
    continued to flourish because it rejected modernism.

    Ordinary people detested artistic and literary modernism. Modernism killed art and literature for everybody but critics and theorists.

    Architecture was killed by modernism as well. Modernist architecture is architecture that fills normal sane people with horror and despair.

    I don't think technology has been the crucial factor.