On Ross Douthat's "Decadence and the Intellectuals"
I recently read Ross Douthat’s post on Decadence and the Intellectuals. Riffing on recent reviews of the new Philip Roth bio, Douthat says he detects a nostalgia in them for a time when novelists were more heroic, cutting more dramatic figures both in pose and prose. (Not for nothing, but I actually think Christian Lorentzen’s review, maybe the funniest and the saddest of the lot, makes the case that Roth’s obsessive careerism marks the beginning of the end for the grandeur of the literary figure. But maybe it also admits there’s still something kind of heroic there, too, just like Roth finds something admirable even in his most refractory protagonists, no matter how debased or perverse they might appear.)
But anyway, Douthat goes on to meditate on the pervasive decadence in our society. He even wrote a book about it. What does he mean by this? Basically, that we can’t accomplish anything great anymore. He bemoans with a certain resignation (the surefire sign of decadence, in his book) the absence of a Marx, a Tolstoy, a Du Bois, a Kierkegaard. In one of his moments of winning self-deprecation, Douthat notes of contemporary intellectuals that, “Many are journalists, in practice or in spirit — an important occupation, but maybe not the ideal one for generating great works.” I just want to say, and not just to puff up my own vocation either, that this rings false to me. Marx, Du Bois, and even Kierkegaard all engaged in what we’d now recognize as journalism. Du Bois was a magazine editor. One of Kierkegaard's best essays (somewhat about cultural decline, incidentally) was originally part of a book review of a (now forgotten) contemporary novel. Marx earned a living from journalism when he could. In fact, I’d argue that Marx’s best work, at least from a literary perspective, is The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, a work of political journalism. Some of the best books are collections of more occasional writing and many of the novels we think of now as classics were serialized. I think it’s also worth noting there was a time when the world-wide renown of a bohemian Jew radical journalist would’ve probably been seen as indicating the height of decadence, now it’s a bygone relic of a Golden Age. As the historian Michel Winock observes, “People can always find new verses to put to the tune of ‘decadence.’”
Suffice it to say, I’m a little suspicious of the narrative of decadence, not the least of all for its implicitly or explicitly reactionary politics, but I admit I’m also attracted to the idea. I’ve always loved cyclical theories of history that propose periods of civilizational senescence and renascence, even though I think it’s not quite real on some level. It’s quite Romantic. Or it’s a continuation of Romanticism by other means: it takes all the mundane, boring, exhausted experiences of everyday life and puts them on stage with the drama of civilizational decline and downfall; everyday life becomes a little bit more Wagnerian. In other words, it quickly does a lot of literary and imaginative work. I think it also rings true as a critical category, sometimes, too. Let’s compare, say, pop cultural ideals of masculine heroism from the movies: the lean, wiry cowboy with just a six-shooter on his horse, or a lone, scruffy samurai with only his sword, and then the weird, muscle-bound commando figures that toughs emulate today: part ninja, part android, bristling with all kinds of absurd assault weaponry and tactical gear. You have to wonder then if some sense of elegance hasn’t genuinely been lost. People often seem like they are trying too hard to prove something. It also seems like those who are most frightened of decadence (the perceived decline of manliness in this case) become its most glaring exemplars.
One particular account of decadence and decline I really loved and recently remembered because of Douthat’s piece is in Vico’s New Science:
The “barbarism of reflection” is a great phrase and imagery is fantastic. The story Vico tells about the course civilization goes roughly like this: people are isolated self-serving brutes, then form communities and states, learn virtue and manners, become over-civilized and self-interested, and return to a state of barbarity through their very sophistication. It’s appealing and sort of plausible narrative: there is a lot of fear of narcissism and the selfishness of others, to borrow the title from Kristin Dombek’s essay. We fear the plots and intrigues of others against our happiness and fulfillment, not just our lives or livelihoods. The idea that cities have returned to being “forests” and “lairs” is also a compelling one in our current state of atomization. The part about inevitably coming out of the “barbarism of reflection” into a new virtuous state rings less true, which, to be fair, is sort of the point Douthat is making about us being in a prolonged state of stagnation and decadence.
I joked on twitter that Douthat, for his devout Catholicism, his reserved and pitying resignation to the existence of a democratic republic, his rather spotty memory of certain episodes of the right wing past, and his obsession with the theme of decadence, is the most French of American conservative intellectuals. It seems like having one of the major conservative writers being preoccupied with decadence is another bit of evidence for the relevance of the Third Republic, whose right wing was famously concerned with that problem. Robert Paxton writes in his classic work on Vichy France, “Everything done at Vichy was in some sense a response to fears of decadence.” The founding of the parliamentary republic and the modern market economy, the rise of a militant and successful left, the introduction of immigrants and “foreigners” into society were all felt to be weakening the moral core of French society. The defeat to Germany was blamed on the decadent situation of France. Of course, this was a bit of an alibi: how could the responsible elites do anything else, since France’s strength had been so sapped? It’s worth recalling, Vichy, the answer to decadence, is not remembered as a period of restoration of French purpose, but as that nation’s most shameful and craven episode.
I don’t wish to imply there’s something essentially Vichy and therefore odious about Douthat’s indulgence in the decadence theme, as I freely admit it’s attractive and maybe even useful, but I think I have to agree with Michel Winock when he writes, “the discourse on decadence is never innocent” either. Here is the complete passage from his Nationalism, Fascism and Antisemitism in France:
Decadence’s aesthetic attractions and its political problems are intertwined: the very thing that makes it a satisfying and attractive story,—it has a beginning, a middle, and, eventually, an end, it has people longing for rebirth and corrupt forces holding it back—makes it reactionary; it’s inevitably a myth of the wrong-turn, and someone or something, or someone who represents the something, is held to be responsible for the problems. It unfortunately only becomes political useful when decadence can be embodied in some sort of concrete villain. It is inevitably elitist and undemocratic: democracy and its contamination of everything is either cause or the consequence of decadence, depending on the variant of the story. It’s also an abrogation of responsibility: Why try anything if we are in a hopelessly decadent state? I mean, if we’re just laboring to produce more mannered trifles, after all. Why defend a country or its institutions if they’ve become hopelessly corrupt? It can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy and a morbid obsession with gloom that’s sort of sexy but also dulling to the spirits. It views social problems as intractable consequences of the spiritual condition of the nation. We just have to await a providential solution, something dramatic and grand. There’s no way around it: it’s itself very decadent, grandiosity and languor all at once.
It’s also maybe a kind of second-rate aesthetics. It offers a kind of cheap grandeur, which makes sense for something that sees the world in civilizational sweep but also doubts the possibility of action or change. Oswald Spengler is a fun curiosity, but he is not on the level of Marx or Tolstoy. To Spengler, the life of civilization is an organism, like a plant, and plants are nice but maybe not the most interesting thing in the world. Most of the greats that Douthat feels are absent today are poets of new beginnings in some way or another. Dante emerges from Inferno and Purgatorio into Paradiso, he invokes a “New Life;” Marx envisions a struggle for a better society, in turns savagely satirical, tragic, and even momentarily heroic; Kierkegaard proposes a kind spiritual integrity that can be won by any individual in the midst of a fallen society. The aesthetics of decadence, like most things that make a type of froideur their ultimate value, are ultimately about trying hard not to try hard; Sort of an interesting exercise, but ultimately probably a waste of time. Why bother?