When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur, it is a technical label. . . . [Decadence] implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility. --Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence
The point is that decadence is not a moral term denoting failure; it's a neutral, descriptive one. Decadence occurs when a cultural impulse has grown moribund. We're in such a period now. It's much like the dark, chaotic 14th century Barbara Tuchman talks about in her book A Distant Mirror. The 1300s were a time in Europe during which the medieval impulse, which had reached its high point in the 1100s & 1200s, withered. But in Europe, as bad as the 1300s were, the 1400s was a time of rebirth. The key to the Renaissance was a rediscovery of what had been lost and forgotten. My hope lies in that somehow, sooner rather than later, we will be able to effect a similar "remembering" of what was rejected during the modern period as "premodern." I talk about what I mean by that in more detail here.
So like Barzun, I do not use the term 'decadent' to indicate moral failure. I see it as a purely descriptive word that describes a culture that has lost its vigor. It describes an in-between time, a time during which we live with old mental habits for want of others, but which are barely adequate to help us navigate in the new situation we haven't the habits of mind yet to understand. In such a time we need to develop a mental discipline that refuses to panic in the face of seeming chaos, and to live in hope that something new will be born. Fear-driven thinking tends to make things worse; it too often leads to unnecessary disasters and needless suffering.
And when finally we feel the energy of the new thing, the zeitgeist changes and it gives the culture a sense of meaning and purpose that it simply does not have now. During a decadent period, because it is a time by definition in which we have lost a sense of future possibility, a culture-wide, future-oriented sense of purpose is absent. But at the beginning of the cycle its presence is strongly felt by the era's great personalities. Artists and poets in Italy felt such an energy in the late 1400s and 1500s. The Protestant reformers of the early modern period felt it. The scientists and explorers who were their contemporaries felt it. It was an exciting, dramatic time, full of struggle and conflict, but a time during which anything seemed possible. It was an energy that defined the age. By contrast there are no great personalities during a decadent period. Can you name anyone born after WWI in the developed world who has the stature of DaVinci, Galileo, Bach, Kant, Beethoven, Dostoyevski, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, to name but just a few? There are famous people, but no truly great ones. There are technical prodigies, but no one who has real greatness of soul in the old sense.
And the optimism that was born during the Renaissance carried through until the end. It was a powerful spiritual impulse toward freedom and individuality that germinated, grew strong, and blossomed during the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, and started to wither during the 19th century into a desiccated form of Victorian formalism, rationalism, materialism.
Toward the end of the 19th century and in the runup to World War I, there was a late-Victorian attempt to resurrect the more soulful, Romantic side of the post-Renaisance impulse, and it was called 'modernism'. It manifested especially in the arts and in progressive politics that we now think of as the early avante-garde. The key to this late modern impulse was its anti-traditionalism; it's belief that all the world's problems were rooted in obsolete, stuffy institutions and worn-out traditions. These early modernists still shared a great sense of optimism about progress and future possibility, an optimism that history is a movement toward a better future for all--if only the dead weight of ossified cultural forms could be thrown off. Avant-garde modernism was relentlessly anti-traditionalist, and vestiges of its mindset still shape the mindset of the cultural left.
These modernists were the late-19th/early-20th century impressionists, symbolists, futurists, etc. in the arts, and they were the muckrakers and progressives in politics influenced to varying degrees by Marxist ideas. As such they were usually supportive of anything “revolutionary” or anti-traditional and anti-conventional. They saw the great enemy, especially in Europe, as the lingering medieval institutions like the church and the landed aristocracy, the class system, and the bourgeois materialist philistinism that kept progress from progressing. But that all changed after World War I. Modernism went into a second phase that is really the beginning of what we now think of as the postmodern.
I see these pre-WWI modernists as working from the same impulse as the earlier generations of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Romantic moderns, but in an industrial-age key. Their sense of meaning and purpose came from fighting against entrenched cultural and political establishments in the hope of giving birth to a future utopia imagined in any of a number of ways, but its central impulse was "liberation". This fight against what they saw as an oppressive traditionalism has lingered into the late 20th century in the developed world as seen in the civil rights movements that fought an entrenched apartheid system in the South, and feminists and gays who fought traditionalists ideas about sex roles and sexual behavior. But it's an impulse that, while it lingers on the left as a kind of old habit, is for the most part exhausted in the West. LGBT taboos compose the last wall for the modernist liberation impulse to knock down, and that is all but a fait accompli.
The forward-looking optimism that characterized earlier generations was mortally wounded by the devastating impact of World War I, and slowly gave up the ghost as the twentieth century played out. If it flourished, it did so mainly in still premodern, third-world countries which clumsily embraced modernist Marxist ideas as an expedient ideology around which to organize to throw out the European imperialists and to effect their passage into the modern world. But in the developed West the left is driving on fumes. There is some vestige of leftist rhetoric, but there is very little coherence, organization, and will to act.
As suggested above, the post-WWI modernism in the developed West was really the beginning of the postmodern, a new frame of mind defined by its no longer being able to take seriously the optimistic, progressive, Enlightenment-rationalist frame of mind. It's the modern impulse without the sense of future possibility; it is, in other words, decadent modernity. Of course, modernist optimism has lingered into the postmodern period in some quarters, just as the medievalism lingered into the modern, but the postmodern is about the loss of hope in progress, in order, in anything making any sense. It’s a loss of common sense. It’s a movement that is shot through with anxiety and cynicism. The left has become associated with this decadence, but it's not the Left's fault.
Because for the left, just as for everyone else, there is no longer a sense of future possibility--no robust sense of common cause. We're in an era in which nobody--especially on the left--believes the same thing as anybody else. And yet subjective belief is the only thing anybody has, and so almost anything is believable, because what standard is there to evaluate whose beliefs are more truthful than anyone else’s? It’s all a subjective, surreal dream, and a sense of objectivity, of there being any absolute truth, is considered naïve if not dangerous. It's hard to get organized if that's what you really believe. And if you don't get organized, it's easy to be manipulated by skillful propagandists who have no compunction about telling Big Lies.
Post WWI Modernism (or what I call postmodernism) is about the re-assertion of the irrational—the precocious postmodern Nietzsche’s will, Heidegger’s pre-ontological worlds, Freud’s libido, Jung’s collective unconscious, Picasso’s dissociated cubism, the subjectivism of Derrida, the relativity and uncertainty principles in physics. It is Romantic subjectivity without the optimism. It’s about fragmentation, disintegration, radical subjectivity, radical individualism, loss of community and loss of a sense of belonging to something larger. It’s about living in a world in which nothing is given and everything is chosen, where freedom of choice is the one sacred value about which there is no dispute. And it’s about the panic reaction of people who find they cannot cope with the uncertainty and chaos of all that. W.H. Auden called it the "age of anxiety." And it's this vulnerability to panic, this free-floating anxiety that poses the most significant challenge to those who must live during a decadent period.
Because in such an anxiety-soaked dreamscape the political leader who dominates is the one that weaves the most compelling dream. Hitler & Goebbels were master dreamweavers in this sense, and as such the first major postmodern political leaders, and WWII was the first postmodern war. When we look at political figures like Cheney & Rove, let's be clear: they are not conservatives; they are men of the Right, and for the Right power is the value that trumps all others, and Rightists regard the rule of law as a quaint "liberal" nicety for those naive enough to think that law is strong enough to constrain the will of the powerful. Cheney & Rove are rank amateurs compared to the founders of postmodern right-wing politics in Germany, Italy, and Spain; nevertheless, they are swimming in the same pond. Men of the Right feed on resentment and anxiety, and the endless War on Terror is tailor-made for exploitation by such politicians who seek to weave delusionary, anxiety-driven dreams that provide the narrative for their ambitions.
This is, as I see it, our predicament. If there is an optimistic, future-oriented alternative to the fear-sodden, right-wing nightmare, it hasn’t emerged yet. Leftist politics are too much a function of discredited pre-WWI modernist optimism, and in this country politically Leftist ideas are considered flaky by all but a few powerless intellectuals. I am amused when I read conservatives and right-of-center moderates fulminating against the threat posed by the Left. Please, as if the Left has any political power these days. Anxiety about the great red peril is part of the fabricated nightmare woven by the right-wing dream machine. The chaos and confusion is real, but they are not caused by the left; they are the natural consequence of the dying of the age. Cosmopolitans on the cultural left are better adapted to navigating in a decadent culture, but that does not mean that they caused it. The political left is impotent, and the cultural left is either a spent liberationist impulse or an expression of the nihilism that typifies a culture in a decadent phase.
And that's why the threat posed by the Right is so much more potent. The nostalgia- and anxiety-driven right wing faces no vigorous opposition anymore, and won’t until some sense of plausible future possibility can be imagined and a broad consensus developed around it. The reasons for my concern lie in the peculiar vulnerability of decadent societies like ours to the seductions of the Right. If it is not possible to dream of a better future, we are seduced by those who tell us we must return to a fantasy past. But this is a past animated by an unwholesome zombie traditionalism I referred to in my posts on that theme. (See here, here, and here.)
If we have anything to fear, it's what a fear-driven society might do to itself. If the last six years have proved anything, it's that the resiliency of the American electorate and the system of checks and balances is a myth. The latter is there in form, but not in substance. And the former is as easy to manipulate as any frightened population in the history of politicians manipulating their populations. Authoritarians in the future will have as little resistance to jettisoning the constitution article by article "for reasons of national security" as they had in jettisoning Geneva article 3 and habeas corpus last week when it passed the Military Commissions Act. There are always good reasons for doing the wrong thing, and those moderates who "lack conviction" are too likely to see merit in those reasons. And the country needs moderates, the presumably sensible people in the middle, to stop being so realistic and reasonable. They need to learn what it means to resist.
And so we must all be vigilant and not give way to any of the fear mongering fomented by the Right. We must hold fast to everything we have gained, and fight every attempt to take it away. But in this decadent time there new initiatives are all but impossible; at best we muddle through as well as we can and do what we can to prevent the crazies from doing too much damage.
[Ed this post first appeared in 2006, under a different title, the week after the passage of the Military Commissions Act.]