Part I: where American conservative Charles Murray’s scientific assessment of periods of cultural greatness is held up to a closer scrutiny than he would probably care for.
The further Murray’s essay goes on, the more his conditions for cultural greatness fall into a deeper and deeper murkiness. At one point he sets up a hypothetical comparison between two cultures with an equal number of potentially brilliant artists, with one culture being animated by a sense of purpose and the other in thrall to nihilism. This is another case where an either/or comparison is so simplistic as to be meaningless.
In which culture would you put Kafka with his often crippling doubt, or Baudelaire, who also bounced back and forth between a sense of artistic purpose and its darker opposite. What about Melville for that matter? Granted these writers come from the last two hundred years so maybe Murray isn’t counting these relative newcomers. And just how far back he places his artistic Pollyanna becomes clear when he writes “the artistic elites have been conspicuously nihilist for the last century, and the rest of the culture has recently been following along.”
Cue the maniacal laughter: “Curses, he’s hoping to foil our secret, deliciously diabolical plan for global nihilism!” As for “the rest of the culture” I can only confirm this grim prognosis. At my recent High School reunion formerly happy-go-lucky cheerleaders went on and on about the utter futility of existence while the captain of the football team mispronounced ennui and stared fixedly into the spiked punch bowl as if he were planning to drown himself in it. (Okay, only kidding. I actually wasn’t invited to my reunion).
In order to confirm his distrust of modern art dating all the way back to the middle of the 19th century Murray cherry-picks a few quotes to show a cynical anti-artistic priority of modernity, such as Apollinaire saying that modern painting “wants to visualize beauty disengaged from whatever charm man has for man.” I get the feeling that his reading of Apollinaire didn’t go beyond the selected quote to his actual poems, which like much of modernist art, attacks an outmoded, clichéd ideal of the beautiful in order to reestablish a beauty with substance.
His analysis becomes increasingly laughable as he typifies postmodernism with two favorites of that perennial man of the arts Jesse Helms (Mapplethorpe and Serrano’s Piss Christ for those too young to remember that golden age of American open-mindedness). To further cover his bases he admits that there are exceptions, but neglects to mention what they are.
From there it’s all downhill, with my favorite part being Murray’s coining of the term Europe Syndrome, one of the characteristics of which is the firm belief that “Humans are not intrinsically better or more important than other life forms, including trees.” (Like Americans, Europeans continue to chop down trees, though the death penalty has been outlawed everywhere on the continent except Belarus).
He then goes on to present another rigged comparison of the scarcity of great European art after World War II with the previous two hundred years. For Murray it’s obvious that the reason for this scarcity is Europe’s increasing secularism and couldn’t possibly be due to the tens of millions of deaths from the war or the fact that after the war half of Europe lived under the usually severe constraints of communist censorship. Would he seriously maintain that Jewish cultural contributions in postwar Europe were diminished by secularism? Again, Murray doesn’t name names so we don’t know what exceptions he would allow, and at what point these exceptions might actually prove a rule that some postwar art was superior to his idealized past.
It is easiest for Murray to condemn visual art (though not film) based on his outright rejection of abstract art. Where his generalizations don’t work at all is in literature, where secular postwar Europe and the places where its godless influence has remained strong, such as in Latin America, has seen enough greatness that it stands comparison with the greats of the last 200 years.
For example, I would bet that Murray doesn’t know the names of any pre-war Polish poets with the possible exception of Mickiewicz. But I can’t imagine that Nobel Prize winners Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, along with the great Zbigniew Herbert, represent the kind of decline Murray pins on modern art and literature. Besides the cinematic masterpieces that came out of secular Europe after the war you could add Czech novelists, Paul Celan’s poetry, Lampedusa’s The Leopard, the brilliant postwar novels of Iceland’s Halldór Laxness (though conservatives tend to dislike any form of laxness, all the more when it’s attached to a former communist sympathizer blacklisted in the US), and a host of other names that Murray not only doesn’t know but actively doesn’t want to know because they don’t fit his generalization.
Murray’s secular vs. religious society comparison fails even more if you look at the reality on the ground. Where are you more likely to see a film that aspires to artistic greatness as opposed to box office figures, in the American Bible Belt or a godless European city? Why doesn’t the increased religiosity of the more religious areas of the US provide any of the artistic advantages that Murray would claim for them? Is there a renaissance we all are missing?
At this point Murray’s anti-European bias pushes his essay into the realm of stand-up comedy:
“The advanced welfare state drains too much of the life from life. When there’s no family, no community, no sense of vocation, and no faith, nothing is left except to pass away the time as pleasantly as possible.” (and to think that the European stereotype of Americans is that they sit in front of their TV watching reality shows and stuffing themselves with fast food – which I suppose could be described as passing away the time as unpleasantly as possible).
Another zinger is the following: “When I have spoken in Europe about the unparalleled explosion of European art and science from 1400 to 1900, the reaction of the audiences has invariably been embarrassment. (That honestly doesn’t surprise me, as in, “Did I really buy a ticket to see this guy? I hope no one I know saw me here”).
Murray’s big closing crescendo comes back to his belief that “religiosity” plays a central role in artistic greatness and that today’s supposed secularism is an anomaly. At the opposite extreme I recently saw Hanif Kureishi speak at the Prague Writers’ Festival and say how much he looked forward to the end of religion and its often pernicious influence.
This makes me think of Kafka again and his relation to religion and religiosity. Kafka was part of a generation that was becoming far more assimilated and secular than most of their grandparents could have ever imagined. And while the benefits were obvious (though sadly only temporary) – in Kafka’s case, being able to write fiction in German, to feel a part of the great literary tradition that included Dostoevsky, Flaubert and Cervantes – there was also an acute sense of what had been lost. Kafka wrote about this disconnect explicitly in his Letter to His Father in referring to the traces of Judaism his father retained but which were empty formula by the time they passed on to Kafka’s generation.
This in-between status, this sense of being told of beliefs that had become inaccessible, the regret (even if imaginary) of losing something vital, of being cut off from truth, informs all of Kafka’s work and is just as incompatible with the religiosity Murray prescribes as with the irreligious attitudes Kureishi maintained. The intellectual moment Kafka and many of his generation experienced could never be achieved on purpose. There’s no way to socially engineer the tensions and forces that brought Kafka into being and that caused him to write the way he did.
Photos – 1) The Boy Nihilist, by Allan Arnold in Pluck and Luck June 16, 1909 2) Nihilist eagle cheerleaders demoralizing the troops and all the while smiling as your sense of goodness evaporates into the air 3) montage en rouge : Arthur Rimbaud et éruption volcanique by PRA (in other words, one of the founding
godfathers godteenagers of nihilist elitism 4) Franz writes his famous “Letter to His Father” Prague, November 1919 (Kafka-Borges Biennale, 2012)