Here, at Sarah Hoyt’s blog, we have her as-usual well-articulated musings about those folks who, confronted with a leaking roof, conclude that the remedy is to start jerking stones from the building’s foundation walls as fast as possible. And here we have a searching inquiry into what Oswald Spengler, a German writing during the Great War, may have to say about how 21st Century Americans understand themselves. These two posts remind me of each other, and I’m sure it’s because they both have a tie-in to the Great War, which is among my particular fetishes.
Mme. Hoyt is a writer, science fiction I gather, and so her post has a heavily literary cast to it. She also was born and brought up (as we say around here) in Portugal — admittedly a very socialistic Portugal, but no one gets all that far above his raisin’, not societies and not their members. So I’d wager that a good deal of the Portugal in which she grew up fairly resonated with, and way down deep in her bones she can still feel, the tugs of Iberian heritage, not least of which would be the restless gaze of Henry the Navigator (even perhaps more than England, where no spot of dirt is more than 90 miles from salt water, I just don’t think you can grow up Portuguese and not have the enormous Fact of the ocean soak into your pores). That would of course mean that she’s got some coils that are still tuned to a European frequency (never met the ol’ gal, but I don’t get any points for figuring that out; she’s forever pointing out how tiresomely conventionally leftist are the standard bearers of today’s American Deep Thinkers; “been there, done that, you might take a look at how it’s workin’ out in Europe” is a big theme in the blog posts of hers I’ve read). Portugal did fight on the Western Front. Fact. Didn’t take quite the killin’ that the other Allies did, but in a country the size and population of Portugal it wouldn’t have taken a very large number of corpses to hit the point at which the entire populace internalizes the war’s trauma.
We Americans forget what a catastrophic event the Great War was, at every level, for the peoples caught up in it. We got into the war, legally at least, in 1917. But even comparatively late into 1918 we still didn’t have a whole lot of doughboys on the front. Beyond Belleau Wood (look: I like Marines, even though I’m ex-navy, but you can’t read how clumsily that battle was fought and not want retroactively to court-martial the commanders; they were fighting in 1918 using essentially the same tactics the Brits used at Loos in 1915, viz. march lines of infantry across open ground against concealed machine guns, and with very predictably similar results) and the Meuse-Argonne — another badly botched battle, from the commanders’ perspective — we just didn’t really get into it. As a professor of mine in college pointed out, the principal effect on American consciousness of World War I was the fact that before the war the only interaction most Americans had with their federal government was the local post office. All that changed, radically, in consequence of the mobilization effort. My professor pointed out how many of FDR’s socialistic New Dealers had cut their teeth in 1917-18; Jonah Goldberg provides a very helpful exegesis of the extent to which Wilson looked upon the exercise as an opportunity.
For Europeans, the Great War was the End of the World. I mean, Serbia lost 16% of its gross pre-war population. Huge slices were taken from the British and French male populations of service age. And that’s just the dead; it doesn’t count the maimed, or those so wounded in spirit as to be dead losses to society for, in some cases, decades. Phrased in terms of Hoyt’s and Merry’s respective posts, there was legitimate reason to look about oneself and ask, if We, where “we” is Western Civilization, had done this — to ourselves, no less — were we at the end of the line?
Mme. Hoyt makes her central point: “World War I was terrible, and for many reasons, including the prevalence of pictures and news, the fratricide/civil-war quality of it, the massive number of casualties. It shocked an entire generation into … writing an awful lot about it, and into trying to tear down the pillars of civilization, believing that Western Civilization (and not human nature, itself) was what had brought about the carnage and the waste. * * * So, I say – break the cycle. Speak real truth to power. Write of war and evil, sure, but as human ills, and not as the result of the unique badness of Western Civilization (or civilization) or capitalism, or affluence, or industrialization. Dare point out that while humanity has had savages aplenty, few of them were noble. Dare point out that while civilized man can be conventional, conventional behavior is often decent and moral and better for everyone.”
Hoyt’s post is mostly about how the Deep Thinkers “throw off” on Agatha Christie and Robt Heinlein, for their supposed . . . well, because they just don’t seem to have had the right villains, or their characters don’t Think Correctly or don’t want the Right Things, as far as I can tell (I don’t read fiction as a general rule, and when I do it seems it’s either Kafka or Wodehouse, so I’m just dead-reckoning from Hoyt). Their communists and fellow-travellers are depicted as “poseurs” and charlatans (compare Charlotte Corday Rowbotham, anyone?). Today’s (very conventional, always very conventional, and predictable) lefties just get all of a twitter that they didn’t think of it first. And if they didn’t think of it first, it means they’re . . . well, they’re maybe not so special as they demand to be treated, maybe? The personal is political, and vice versa. The failure of one’s politics to be accepted in toto is not just verification that lot of folks don’t think like I do. No, failure is a total rejection of oneself. Not acceptable, in other words.
Per Merry’s post on Spengler, some guy who took two shots to pass his university examinations (and you must understand how traumatic to a German is the experience of Not Passing one’s examinations; I have personally known German students who failed for a second time, and after seven years in college were faced with the alternative of starting all over in another field or crawling back home to be . . . well, whatever Failed People became in 1980s Germany) made some incredibly prescient observation about cultures in general and Western Civilization in particular. More particularly, from a reading of Spengler it seems that the question relevant to today’s Americans is whether we of Western Civilization find ourselves on a terminal glide path, and whether our (Americans’, that is) popular and political urges are symptomatic of imminent triumph or imminent catastrophe.
More to the point, Spengler it seems identifies certain phases or trajectories of major civilizations (or probably better expressed, civilizational families). Accordig to Spengler each goes through a period of genesis, of growth and development — self-actualization we’d most likely say nowadays — and then eventually decline and death (not merely eclipse, by the way, which implies some continuing existence, but extinguishment). One of the characteristics of the decline — what he calls the “civilizational” phase — is characterized by a “surge of imperial fervor and a flight toward Caesarism. Hegemonic impulses come to the fore along with forms of dictatorship.” One would have to be monumentally purblind not to see the implications of that observation for 21st Century America. Nation-building, anyone?
A couple of random notes. Robt Merry does not point it out, but in the German original, Spengler would have used the expressions “Kultur,” “Zivilization,” and “Bildung,” which do not mean the same things. Without going too deeply into it, for a German, and German understanding, the distinctions are fundamental and of extreme importance. See, e.g., Peter Watson’s German Genius, which I’ve linked to on this blog repeatedly and which has as one of its over-arching themes the societal and political play of the German distinction between Kultur and Bildung. So in any translation one might read, one must be careful to observe the fact that there may be points of distinction that lie outside the text.
Secondly, and of more immediate importance to us, American society was founded 400 years ago explicitly as the City on a Hill. Our zeal to project outward our image of ourselves is inseparable from the notion of Who We Are. Can America’s understanding of itself survive a Spenglerian filter? As Merry makes clear, the fundamental points of Spengler come down to the points that We Are Not Special. We are not universal. The universal striving towards commonly understandable human-centered goals is a pious fraud. We too are bound to the Wheel of Fortune (a concept which, as Barbara Tuchman points out, Medieval understanding would have grasped very quickly); the conceit of the “Idea of Progress” is traced to its first tentative beginning in the 13th Century, the bitter, bloody, fag-end of the Middle Ages.
Either we are or we are not on a trajectory that ends in a hillside. Either decline is a choice or it is not. Spengler wrote at a time when he had not the advantages of modern economic theory, modern game theory, modern data analysis tools. The Austrians and their progeny, Mises, Hayek, Friedman, and others, do extremely well explaining the past, accounting for the present, and thus far at predicting the future. But what if a great deal — at least insofar as I’ve been exposed to it, which is admittedly not comprehensively — of why their ideas seem to work so well is that what we’re looking at are essentially Western modes of existence, even in “non-Western” societies. What if those ideas have no application outside the confines of our own civilization? To phrase it in terms of mathematics, what if we’re exercising ourselves over Fermat’s last theorem, all the while we’re about to be swamped by a world in which 2+2>4?
Merry chides Spengler somewhat for being too “deterministic,” and identifies this as being a “philosophical” objection to his thesis. That is as it may be. But Spengler was looking at several thousand years of recorded human history (which is, by the way, only a fraction of its total history). To identify a pattern which holds true across times, places, and peoples who have nothing in common other than their physiological similarity is not to leap to a conclusion. If you look at groups of anything (whether it’s stars, or terrestrial species, or human societies) which start from different places, are exposed over their lives to very different stressors, evolve distinct internal rules of action . . . yet still end up following very similar upper-level pathways, does not that suggest that there is an element of commonality which transcends the specifics which we can observe on a ground-level basis?
And here we get to the concepts of metacognition and Heisenberg. As I understand the technical concept, “metacognition” may be described as the awareness of awareness. Heisenberg of course enunciated the principle of uncertainty, in that we can know a body’s location or its velocity, but not both simultaneously. The very act of observation alters at least one or the other. I won’t claim that today’s humans are the most self-absorbed creatures, ever, but if not we’re really in the running for it. We are intensely aware of what we are aware of; we study it, ruminate over it, argue over it constantly. And in our self-observation of where we are, do we or not alter our velocity (which has both amplitude and direction)?
May, in other words, our awareness of the truths as observed by Spengler enable us to confound them? Unless, of course, we indulge the puerile logic of the Deep Thinkers described by Hoyt.
I’ve not read Spengler, but by God I’m going to.