December 5, 2004
The best book-related show on American TV, Booknotes, is ending. The host, Brian Lamb, says that he has been spending 20 hours a week, for the past 15 years, reading the books that are discussed on the show, and he’d like to do something else with all that time. One wishes that he would hand the reins to someone else (or to a team of interviewers), instead of discontinuing the show. Lamb is starting another interview show (“Q & A”) in the same time slot (Sunday night at 8, on C-SPAN). I might mention in passing that there’s a famous book show on French TV — it’s called “Apostrophe”, if I’m not mistaken — and that show is continuing.
As I was writing the above paragraph, I visited the Booknotes website, and stumbled into a preview of a wonderful interview with an English professor named Mark Edmundson, who has just written a book called Why Read? The Edmundson interview airs tonight at 8. You can find the Edmundson interview, and many other interesting interviews, on the Booknotes website. Booknotes is ending, but the archive lives on — and a wonderful archive it is.
After I watched the Edmundson interview, I did some research on the Internet, and I discovered that Edmundson isn’t the obscure professor that I thought he was, he’s well-known. I also discovered that he shares many of my views, including my dim view of deconstruction (and other contemporary literary theories). Here are some comments on Edmundson’s book that I gleaned from Amazon:
It appears that Edmundson is the Allan Bloom of our time. While Bloom was a fan of Plato, Edmundson is a fan of Emerson. Edmundson believes that Emerson speaks to the individual, inspires the individual, changes his life for the better. Edmundson speaks respectfully of Nietzsche, but Bloom has a negative attitude toward Nietzsche (Bloom was a Straussian — a disciple of Leo Strauss — and Straussians want moral absolutes, and abhor moral relativism à la Nietzsche). In short, Bloom is a fan of old classics, while Edmundson is a fan of new classics, 19th-century classics. I feel closer to Edmundson than to Bloom.
A writer is often enthusiastic about his most recent writings. The possibility of publishing my book (Conversations With Great Thinkers) in Brazil inspired me to revise and expand it. (The Brazil project has been delayed, but will probably come to fruition in 2005.) I’m enthusiastic about the new version of my book; I think it’s significantly better than the earlier version. I sent it to publishers in 12 foreign countries (Japan, India, South Korea, Serbia, Argentina, Ireland, Italy, Russia, Egypt, France, Poland, and Thailand). I told these publishers that the book sold well in Taiwan, was published by two Beijing publishers, and was accepted by the first Brazil publisher who looked at it. And since it’s now a bigger and better book, it should do better than it did previously.
So far, only one foreign publisher has responded — an Irish publisher, who said that they published academic/scholarly works, and weren’t interested in my book. But I haven’t lost hope that at least one foreign publisher will be interested. Meanwhile, I’m starting to explore the American market. (Although no man is a prophet in his own country, I don’t want to completely ignore the American market.) I called the owner of a bookstore (the store where we have our book discussion group and our Socrates Café), and asked her if she knew any publishers or literary agents. She referred me to an agent who specializes in non-fiction books. I called the agent. The agent said she’d look at some sample chapters, and she said that I should write what’s known as a “proposal.”
I had never heard of a proposal, but now I realize that it’s an important part of getting a non-fiction book published. (There are even books devoted to the art of writing a proposal, such as Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why.) There are three key elements in a proposal: Market, Competition, and Promotion.
I regard my book as a literary-philosophical work, and such works aren’t designed to fill a need, aren’t designed for a market. In fact, in an earlier issue of Phlit, I poked fun at the notion of a market for philosophy. But since a proposal seems to be a necessity, I gritted my teeth, and wrote a one-page proposal. I started with the title: Conversations With Great Thinkers: New Paths in Philosophy. (I like this title because it suggests that the book is both a discussion of the classics and an original work.) Then I reviewed the book’s publishing history (Taiwan, China, etc.); I think it’s important to argue not only that the book can sell, but that it already has sold. Finally I discussed the three elements that I described above:
I sent this proposal to a literary agent, along with sample chapters, etc. I’m awaiting a response. If an agent sells a book to a publisher, they get 15% of whatever money the book earns. If you decide to look for an agent, experts say that you should use word-of-mouth (as I did), or look at a book that’s similar to yours, and see if the agent is mentioned (this also applies if you’re looking for a publisher/editor). Experts say that using a big directory, which lists thousands of publishers/agents, isn’t the best way to find a publisher or an agent (it’s too impersonal, and too many writers are taking that approach). I plan to look at Mark Edmundson’s book, and see who was the publisher/editor/agent.
In addition to trying to publish my book, I also applied for grants from four foundations, including the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation (every public library has a book that lists foundations and grant-makers, and I got addresses from this book). I began my pitch by saying “I’m writing to inquire about whether my project is of interest to your foundation.” Then I described my literary work, and finally I concluded by saying, “A grant from your foundation would allow me to put more time and energy into my writing, which I believe is of value to readers both here and abroad.” It seems that most foundations are trying to support specific causes or regions, hence I think it’s unlikely that a freelance writer like me can find support for a literary work. Many foundations make grants only to organizations, not to individuals.
When I expanded my book, I created two new chapters, “Modern Times” and “Physics”. I published my thoughts on Physics in an earlier issue. Here’s the other new chapter, “Modern Times”:
A. After a Long Sleep A century or two ago, many people in the Western world were highly educated. They knew Greek and Latin, as well as some modern languages. They studied ancient literature and modern literature, the humanities and the sciences.
Some people thought that there was an excess of learning, that creativity was being stifled by learning. Lichtenberg was one who took that view; writing in 1775, Lichtenberg argued that the culture of his day needed, “the invigorating hibernation of a new barbarism.” Nietzsche also thought that creativity was being stifled by learning; in 1878, Nietzsche spoke of an “oppressive cultural burden” and argued that there wouldn’t be a second Renaissance until this burden was removed.1
Since Lichtenberg and Nietzsche made these remarks, the age of vast learning has given way to an age of moderate learning, and the age of moderate learning has given way to an age of almost no learning at all. Since the contemporary world pays little attention to literature, there is reason to fear that the West is losing contact with its literary heritage, and is slipping back into barbarism, into another Dark Ages. But there is also reason for hope: modern culture has done what Lichtenberg and Nietzsche prescribed, it has freed itself from excessive learning. After a long sleep, we will wake up refreshed and invigorated. We can rediscover the classics as if for the first time, just as the Renaissance humanists rediscovered the Greek and Roman classics. We’re poised for a second Renaissance.
B. Angry Isolation What’s remarkable about the golden age of Greek culture is that its best writers and artists were in harmony with the culture of their time; they were carried to greatness by the culture of their time. When one looks at the age of Pericles, one doesn’t notice outstanding individuals, one notices the high level of culture in general.
What’s remarkable about nineteenth-century culture is its outstanding individuals. The great writers of the nineteenth century weren’t in harmony with the culture of their time, they angrily rejected the culture of their time. They insisted that to attain greatness in the modern world, one must isolate oneself.
What’s remarkable about twentieth-century culture is that it combines a dearth of outstanding individuals with a low level of culture in general; twentieth-century culture has neither the virtues of Greek culture nor the virtues of nineteenth-century culture. The only hope for culture in our time is that a few individuals will be able to isolate themselves from contemporary culture, work in solitude, and draw strength from contact with earlier cultures. The best model for us to emulate is the individuals of the nineteenth century, not the high level of culture in the Periclean age. There’s no hope for an improvement in the general level of culture; the general level of culture is far lower now than it was during the nineteenth century, and it’s likely to decline still further.
C. Modern Art Every artist works within a religion, a world-view, a philosophy. In the late nineteenth century, the Western world-view was shaken by the decline of traditional religion and traditional morality; this decline is apparent in the philosophy of Nietzsche. The Western world-view was shaken further by World War I and World War II, which made people think that civilization was bankrupt and the future bleak. Thus, the West fell into a deep spiritual crisis, into nihilism, and this crisis is reflected in Western art. As Solzhenitsyn said in 1993, “Our whole world is living through a century of spiritual illness, which could not but give rise to a similar ubiquitous illness in art.”2
The modern artist is confronted by a world that seems devoid of meaning, and also devoid of beauty and poetry. Cities have lost much of their former beauty, and the countryside has been taken over by sprawling suburbs. The aristocracy, the leisure class, has disintegrated, and now everyone must work, everyone must earn money, everyone must do what it was once thought dishonorable to do. The splendor of the monarchy is gone, the lofty idealism of religion is gone, the glory of military service is gone, the simple life of the farmer is gone.
Confronted with a world in which there seems to be neither meaning nor beauty, a world in which nothing is glorious, and in which there are no heroes, modern artists have chosen to concentrate on the process of artistic creation. Instead of representing the world and glorifying the world, as artists often did in the past, modern artists turn their backs on the world, as if to say, “the world is ugly and depressing; I don’t want to concern myself with the world; I want to concern myself with paint and with wood and with the process of artistic creation.” Because it’s concerned with process, modern art appeals only to a few initiates; it baffles and angers the layman. The layman says, “when I see something that prompts me to ask, ‘what the hell is that?’, then I know it’s modern art.”
Until recently, art always followed certain conventions and stayed within certain boundaries. The poet, the sculptor, the painter — all had to practice and study for years before they mastered the conventions of their art, and only after they had mastered these conventions could they call themselves artists and attempt something original. Modern art, on the other hand, has done away with all conventions and rules, and thus it has become possible for anyone to create something bizarre and then pretend that he’s an artist, an original mind, a genius. Solzhenitsyn spoke of the “empty pursuit of novel forms as an end in itself.”3 Modern artists, knowing that many famous artists were controversial in their time, assume that controversy is a sign of originality, and strive to create something controversial themselves. Modern artists often remind one of people who run down the street naked in order to attract attention, and create a stir.
Kafka called one artistic movement (Dada) “a crime” and he said, “The spine of the soul has been broken. Faith has collapsed.”4 The current state of the fine arts is one of the clearest signs that Western civilization is in a crisis.
D. Imitation of Genius Two characteristics of genius are that it draws on the unconscious and that it creates something new, something original. Modern art makes a deliberate attempt to draw on the unconscious, and it makes a deliberate attempt to be original. The disorder, the chaos, the madness of modern art stems, in part, from the insistence on expressing the unconscious, and the insistence on being original. What the genius does naturally and spontaneously, the modern artist does deliberately and by choice. Modern art is an imitation of genius.
During the Middle Ages, no one aspired to be a genius, because everyone felt themselves to be part of a larger whole. Nowadays, however, everyone aspires to be a genius, because no one feels himself to be part of a larger whole. Modern society is like an army made up entirely of generals.
E. Swan Song There are four kinds of cultural decline: psychological decline, spiritual decline, environmental decline, and biological decline. Psychological decline is an unconscious condition, a temporary weakening of the will to face life, a temporary decline of the life-instinct. Even the healthiest cultures experience psychological decline periodically. Psychological decline is the least serious kind of cultural decline.
While psychological decline is unconscious, spiritual decline is conscious. Spiritual decline is the erosion of the prevailing belief-system, the prevailing religion. If psychological decline is a synonym for decadence, spiritual decline is a synonym for nihilism. Mankind has passed through numerous periods of spiritual decline. Just as psychological decline usually leads to a fresh outbreak of energy and health, so too spiritual decline usually leads to growth and progress, to the construction of a new belief-system that improves on the old belief-system.
Environmental decline is a social environment that isn’t conducive to culture, a low level of popular culture, and a lack of healthy cultural traditions. Environmental decline is more serious than psychological decline or spiritual decline.
Biological decline is the extinction of genius, a society’s inability to produce geniuses. Just as the existence of mankind on earth is an accident, and is neither a necessary nor a permanent feature of the universe, so too mankind’s ability to produce genius is an accident, not an essential attribute of human nature. Biological decline is as serious as environmental decline.
Western culture now suffers from a combination of psychological, spiritual and environmental decline. Psychological decline never lasts forever, and the more extreme it is, the sooner it will turn into its opposite, a healthy, renaissance-type culture. Hence the West has little to fear from psychological decline. Nor does the West have much to fear from spiritual decline. The current spiritual decline of the West is gradually passing away as the West replaces traditional monotheism with new approaches to religion.
What is most threatening to the West is environmental decline: a low level of popular culture, an absence of healthy cultural traditions, a mode of life that consists of the feverish pursuit of wealth, and an educational system that is moving from bad to worse. But the West is not yet threatened by biological decline. During the last two centuries, the West has given ample evidence that it’s capable of producing geniuses.
In conclusion, the outlook for Western culture during the next century is bright. But the outlook for Western culture after the next century isn’t bright, since psychological decline will inevitably return, environmental decline will almost certainly continue, and biological decline may eventually set in. Will the next century be the swan song of Western culture?
F. The Revolt of the Masses In an earlier chapter, we discussed the current cult of leadership.5 This is the kind of leadership that one finds in corporations and schools; one might refer to it as “leadership by position.” This kind of leadership should not be confused with spiritual or intellectual leadership. A spiritual leader is one whom people look up to, one who provides people with a model or ideal.
In the last two centuries, many philosophers have argued that modern society has an aversion for spiritual leadership. This aversion for spiritual leadership is sometimes referred to as “the revolt of the masses.” The classic expression of this idea is in Ortega y Gasset’s book, The Revolt of the Masses.
Ortega argues that the majority should listen to the privileged few, but they no longer do, and this is a grave threat to civilization.
Ortega argues that ancient civilization perished because the masses attained power: “The history of the Roman Empire is also the history of the uprising of the Empire of the Masses, who absorb and annul the directing minorities and put themselves in their place.”7
The masses no longer look up to the gifted few, and no longer look down on themselves. Ortega writes thus: “The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.” The masses have not only ceased listening to the elite, they are often hostile to the elite: “The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.”8
Freud reached a similar conclusion independently of Ortega. Freud witnessed the transition from aristocratic culture to popular culture, and he was horrified by popular culture. Like Ortega, Freud believed that the revolt of the masses could be found in its purest form in the U.S.:
This quotation is from Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which was published in 1930, the same year as Ortega’s Revolt of the Masses. Freud’s argument did not influence Ortega. Who, then, influenced Ortega’s concept of “the revolt of the masses”?
The writer who influenced Ortega most was probably John Stuart Mill. Mill advocated individual liberty because it prevents the masses from suffocating the elite few, the few who think and act from their own mind, the few who are capable of innovations that will improve mankind as a whole. “These few are the salt of the earth,” Mill writes; “without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.”10 Government and society will stagnate in mediocrity, says Mill, unless the masses listen to the elite few:
Mill venerated Alexis de Tocqueville, and Mill’s On Liberty contains echoes of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Democracy in America was published in 1835, 24 years before On Liberty. Democracy in America is one of the earliest expressions of the concept of the revolt of the masses. In the U.S., according to Tocqueville, a writer can’t criticize The People, the majority: “No writer, no matter how famous, can escape from this obligation to sprinkle incense over his fellow citizens. Hence the majority lives in a state of perpetual self-adoration.”12
A discussion of the revolt of the masses would be incomplete if it didn’t mention Nietzsche, who spent much of his career attacking the egalitarian trend of his time. Nietzsche preferred aristocracy to democracy. He loathed Christianity because it was anti-aristocratic, and he loathed the French Revolution because it, too, was anti-aristocratic.
Nietzsche praised “those noble natures who do not know how to live without reverence.” Nietzsche excoriated modern man, democratic man, because he had lost the feeling of reverence. When a young person reveres a hero-figure, he looks down on himself, since he thinks that he is far beneath the hero-figure. Mass man (to use Ortega’s term) no longer reveres, and no longer looks down on himself. Nietzsche wrote,
John Ruskin is the most Nietzschean writer in the English language; in Ruskin’s work, one often finds the same ideas, and the same tone, that one finds in Nietzsche’s work. Both Ruskin and Nietzsche lapsed into madness in the 1890s, and both died in 1900. Ruskin and Nietzsche developed independently; they never mention each other, and almost certainly never read each other. Here’s a passage from Ruskin that is strikingly similar to Nietzsche:
So there is Ruskin, ashamed and miserable, loathing the masses because they’re neither ashamed nor miserable, but rather shameless and self-assured. If there’s any difference between Ruskin and Nietzsche, it is that Ruskin is more strident in his scorn for the masses, and more filial in his reverence for “the ancient masters of humanity.”
No one analyzed the revolt of the masses in a more penetrating manner than Soren Kierkegaard, perhaps because no one had such a painful experience of it.15 Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard makes frequent use of the French term ressentiment, meaning resentment or envy. Kierkegaard argues that the masses feel ressentiment toward anyone who is distinguished, who is above them, and they try to drag down anyone outstanding, they try to level.
As one reads these words, one thinks of the brash, coarse behavior that has become popular on American television. Though we may believe that the greatest danger to mankind is terrorism or nuclear weapons or pollution, Kierkegaard believed that the greatest danger to mankind is the revolt of the masses, the leveling process, which he calls “that self-combustion of the human race.”
The idea of “the revolt of the masses” has a long history, beginning in the early 1800s with Tocqueville and Kierkegaard, continuing in the late 1800s with Mill, Nietzsche, and Ruskin, and culminating with Freud and Ortega in the early 1900s. In the last fifty years, however, few writers have discussed “the revolt of the masses,” perhaps because it is so much a part of modern life that people are no longer aware of it (people are only aware of transitions, not of steady states). No one alive today has seen an aristocratic culture with their own eyes, hence no one notices “the revolt of the masses.”
G. Other-directed The idea of “inner-directed, other-directed,” which was first set forth by the sociologist David Riesman in 1950, resembles the idea of the “revolt of the masses,” and makes our picture of modern society more complete. Riesman argues that, in our time, people are “other-directed,” that is, they take their cues from the people around them. In an earlier time, people often had an inner ideal, a hero-image in their own mind, and they would take their cues from this ideal; they were “inner-directed.”
The inner-directed person has an “internalized set of goals,” goals that are often instilled by books. The inner-directed person often keeps a diary in which he records whether his behavior lives up to his ideals.
The other-directed person is molded by the peer group, and is “sensitized to the expectations and preferences of others.”17 An other-directed person is chiefly concerned with people — not with God, not with lofty ideals, not with great men from previous centuries. Education, which once consisted of Reading, Writing and Arithmetic, is now concerned with how the child gets along with other children, and how the child listens to social cues. As education has changed, so too has work changed; the economy is now a “personality market.” While the inner-directed person was concerned with self-improvement and character-building, the other-directed person is concerned with relating to others. As Riesman put it,
The phrase “almost but not quite indistinguishable contemporaries” reminds one of Nietzsche’s comment, “everyone wants the same thing, everyone is the same.”
Although the trend toward other-direction is still strong, some contrary trends have emerged since Riesman first published his theory. There is a trend toward introspection and stress-reduction; meditation and yoga are popular. An aristocratic culture may be a thing of the past, and “the revolt of the masses” may be here to stay. But the “inner-directed” personality may not be a thing of the past. Though modern man doesn’t match himself against heroes and Great Men, he may listen to what his own soul and body are telling him.
|1.|| See The Lichtenberg Reader, “1775” (Boston: Beacon Press, 1959), and Nietzsche, Human, All-Too-Human, §244 (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1959, trans. M. Faber with S. Lehmann). back|
|2.|| “The Relentless Cult of Novelty and How It Wrecked the Century,” New York Times Book Review, 2/7/93 back|
|3.|| ibid back|
|4.|| Conversations With Kafka, by Gustav Janouch back|
|5.|| see ch. 10, #12 back|
|6.|| The Revolt of the Masses, ch. 1 back|
|7.|| ibid, ch. 2 back|
|8.|| ibid, ch. 1 back|
|9.|| Civilization and Its Discontents, ch. 5 back|
|10.|| On Liberty, ch. 3 back|
|11.|| ibid back|
|12.|| Democracy in America, vol. I, part ii, §7 back|
|13.|| Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Part I, “Zarathustra’s Prologue,” §5 back|
|14.|| see John D. Rosenberg, The Darkening Glass: A Portrait of Ruskin’s Genius, ch. 10 back|
|15.|| cf. chapter 8, #4 back|
|16.|| Kierkegaard, The Present Age back|
|17.|| David Riesman, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character, I, 1 back|
|18.||ibid, ch. 6, §2. Just as Kierkegaard noticed “the revolt of the masses,” so too he noticed the trend toward “other-direction”: “People’s attention is no longer turned inwards,” Kierkegaard wrote, “they are no longer satisfied with their own inner religious lives, but turn to others and to things outside themselves.”(The Present Age) back|