The Appeal of Cultural Decline

I don’t know why, but I seem to be a sucker for books on cultural decadence. Give me a provocative book showing that the Western or American Civilization has been going to hell in a handcart since the fall of Rome or the Reformation or WWII or the beginning of the Reagan era, and I’ll probably at least skim it. Tell me that we’re amusing ourselves to death, or dumbing down our educational system, or that we live in a vulgar, violent mass culture “rooted in the cash nexus of corporate capitalism” and I’ll probably be entertained for a while.

That last quote is from the Choice review of America’s Meltdown: the Lowest-Common-Denominator Culture by John Boghosian Arden. I know nothing about this book other than the table of contents and what I read on the website, so I’m not recommending it. I picked up for holiday reading while browsing the stacks this afternoon in the American culture section. I’m sure I’ll spend an enjoyable couple of hours finding out in more detail about the melting down of America.

Why the trope of cultural decline is so appealing, I don’t know, but I do know I’m not alone in this. This theme has been appearing in Western literature and literature that has influenced the West since there was such literature. By Homer’s day, men were not what they had been in the heroic age. Then Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Talk about cultural decline! Certainly some of these concerns have been realistic, no matter what one thinks of the particular cultures. Roman culture did in fact decline. Christendom did in fact disintegrate. The culture of the Old South of Gone with the Wind has in fact gone with the wind, whatever there was of it that really existed outside the nostalgic minds of unreconstructed Southerners.

Nostalgia is often an underlying motivator behind tales of decline. Back in the old days things were always simpler or cleaner or purer or calmer or safer. Locally, there’s no doubt this is true. Trenton, New Jersey, where I live, was most likely safer 60 years ago than it is now. On the other hand, the air and water in many factory cities in Britain are probably cleaner than they were 150 years ago. Protecting the environment requires eternal vigilance, but on the other hand it’s been a long time since the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Nostalgia is so untrustworthy, though. Nostalgics always seem to remember only what was good in the past and only what is bad in the present. Some parts of America might have been better to live in in the 1950s, say, as long as you were white and middle class. (That’s still true today, I suppose). But the conservative nostalgia for the fifties ignores the conflicts of the time as well as the potential for not being in the advantaged classes.

I certainly have my own nostalgic eras about which I like to read. There have been times when I felt more comfortable with 16th or 18th century literature than I do with that of my own time. Like the nostalgic, I can easily see what might have been appealing in any given celebrated era, the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, the supposed cultural and religious unity of the Middle Ages, the excitement of creating a native poetry in 16th century England. But I wouldn’t want to live in any other era. Issues of hygiene, health care, and indoor plumbing aside, it’s easy to forget that until very recently the lives of most people even in the best off countries were hard, short, and poverty stricken, just like the lives of billions of people today. Nostalgics always seem to think they would have been aristocrats with all the advantages of modern medicine and technology, just like those who claim to be reincarnated all seem to be reincarnations of famous people of the past. Everyone is a reincarnated Napoleon. No one seems to be a reincarnation of the guy who emptied Napoleon’s chamberpot.

Librarians in general don’t seem to be very nostalgic, at least about libraries. How many of us long to return to the innocent days of print indexes or card catalogs? How many of us would want to eliminate the Internet because of the information revolution it has created? I would no more want to get rid of the Internet than the flushing toilet, though I’m glad I don’t have to face that choice. And the day we manage to remove the card catalog from the choicest space in Firestone Library will be a day of celebration, for me if not for the likes of Nicholson Baker.

It would seem that one can enjoying reading about cultural decline without being particularly nostalgic, then. I couldn’t point to any era that I would rather live in. The past doesn’t seem like it was better, but the future still looks like it might be worse. The contradictions of the unnostalgic view of decadence. I suspect for many critics of decadence the feeling of decline is simply the juxtaposition between cultural ideals–Arnold’s “sweetness and light,” culture as the best that has been thought or said that leads us to perfection–and the mass culture around us, forgetting that, as far as I can tell, the mass culture of every era has similarly fallen short of any ideal. Our culture may be declining or disintegrating as the doomsayers chant, or it may be that the decadent interpretation of culture merely shows the health of our ideals. If we ever stop producing criticisms of the declining culture around us, that would probably signify the death of our cultural ideals, thus the irony that when we stop critiquing our declining culture it will be because the culture has declined so much that we are no longer capable of critique.

So because I want to encourage and celebrate the health of our cultural ideals, I’ll spend some time this holiday season reading about how our society is hopelessly corrupt and decadent, basking in the warm glow of knowing that someone, somewhere, still thinks there’s something worth saving.