Mystical flirtation and the decline of civilization

Civilizations do not crumble in a moment, an hour, or because of an event of one day. Like all decaying things it is a process, in this case driven by the gradual and cumulative effects of mankind’s compromise with the mystery of evil.

It is said that on the 9th of August, 378,  on hearing the news that the barbarous, invading Goths had defeated and overthrown the Roman legions in the battle of Adrianople, leaving the body of the Emperor Valens mutilated on the battlefield,  St. Jerome dropped his pen in despair and abandoned the chronicles in which he was recording the history of mankind from earliest times.

That was then. This is now.

Joan Didion’s The White Album is a short collection of reflective journalism published in 1979. In it she chronicles and observes events in the late sixties and early seventies. Most of what she writes is set against the background of life in California, the vortex around which the helter skelter world of those years revolved. Its title of course suggests that iconic Beatles album of the same non-name. It constitutes a kind of snapshot of that time, in many ways with darker shades than our rose-tinted nostalgia bestows on it.

Popular imagination deludes itself in thinking this hectic and dreamy era was a liberating one. Didion’s ironic observations, written as it unfolded, lay bare much of that illusion.

Her essays reflect the character of the Sixties, hopeful but hopelessly and dangerously naïve. The cultural climate which we saw forming before our eyes in that decade, and the handful of years in the decade that followed, was anything but a harbinger of peace and love for western civilization. Didion, in this book and in her other collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, chronicles the highs and lows of the hopes and follies of those years. From them we can trace a line of descent to the ills and woes of the early 21st century.

Didion writes about the moment when the culture of death, which now has the official stamp of practically every state jurisdiction within what we call the  Civilized Western World slouched out of the Californian desert on August 9, 1969, like the Beast of the Apocalypse. Allowing for calendar reforms, an interesting coincidence of dates in 378 and 1969?

She writes of how people in Los Angles, looking back, believed that the Sixties ended on that date. The tensions which people felt ended; the jitters they were experiencing morphed into some kind of equilibrium – now there seemed to be some explanation of what was going on. But that didn’t help. Things in fact got worse.

That day might not look like more than a symbol for the levels to which our race has sunk in the decades which followed. It can serve as such. But it is more. The forces – diabolical but also driven by hedonistic and corrupt multiple visions of what mankind is – behind that act were also the forces which were being let loose in a benighted military operation in South-East Asia. They were also the forces being let loose at home by the dark, dark reasoning of the American Supreme Court judgment in the case of Roe Vs Wade. That judgment in effect falsely elevated the pursuit of pleasure, the cult of individualism and crass materialism, to the level of a compassionate principle. It has resulted in a blind acceptance of a totally false vision of what human compassion and true freedom are, leading us deeper and deeper into confusion with each decade that passes.

Didion described what those times and that day in August 1969 was like for her – how it was so ordinary and yet strange, how it ended in a nightmare.

“We put Lay Lady Lay (Bob Dylan) on the record player, and Suzanne (Leonard Cohen). We went down to Melrose Avenue to see the Flying Burritos. There was a jasmine vine grown over the verandah of the big house on Franklin Avenue, (where she, her husband and their little girl, lived at the time). I imagined that my own life was simple and sweet, and sometimes it was, but there were odd things going around town.

“There were rumors. There were stories. Everything was unmentionable but nothing was unimaginable. This mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’— this sense that it was possible to go ‘too far’, and that many people were doing it – was very much with us in Los Angeles in 1968 and 1969. A demented and seductive vortical tension was building in the community. The jitters were setting in. I recall a time when the dogs barked every night and the moon was always full.

“On August 9, 1969, I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills when she received a telephone call from a friend who had just heard about the murders at Sharon Tate Polanski’s house on Cielo Drive. The phone rang many times during the next hour. These early reports were garbled and contradictory. One caller would say hoods, the next would say chains. There were twenty dead, no, twelve, ten, eighteen. Black masses were imagined, and bad trips blamed.

“I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly, and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.”

The Cielo Drive murders orchestrated by Charles Manson were a symptom of a wider malaise which had gripped the culture of a generation. This malaise is our sad inheritance from that time.

Another essay in the book illustrates more of this effect. She describes the cult following by young adolescents of the Hell’s Angels movies of the time – where pillage, rape and murder were presented for purposes of entertainment and excitement. Human life was routinely expendable. Didion clearly shows what was at its heart. Her words are full of apprehension about the future.

In a later decade an iconic pop star was to take the name of Manson, much as a Christian or Muslim might take the names of the saints who populate their faiths’ histories. A meaningless gesture? No.

In yet another essay, on the Women’s Movement, she touches on other effects which have flowed from the “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’”.

The Women’s Movement for her was essentially Marxist, redefining as it did human nature in purely materialistic terms. While on its popular surface it might just look like a reworking of romanticism, it was anything but romantic. Many movements rife with erroneous readings of our human nature do have an up-side. They point to real problems and injustices and move us to correction. This, however does not negate the inherent dangers in their errors. Of the feminism of this movement, she writes:

“Something other than an objection to being ‘discriminated against’ was at work here, something other than an aversion to being “stereotyped” in one’s sex role. Increasingly it seemed that the aversion was to adult sexual life itself: how much cleaner to stay forever children.”

Or, might we add, forever childless? A “woman’s role” had nothing to do with what “real women” are, want or need. It was all a construction imposed on them. It was the work of their enemy.

 “The transient stab of dread and loss which accompanies menstruation simply never happens: we only thought it happened, because a male chauvinist psychiatrist told us so. No woman need have bad dreams after an abortion: she has only been told she should.”

Feminism, in this reading, was turning the male per se into the enemy – or at best, the heartless manipulator – of his life partner, the female. Out of all this came ultimately the denial and attempted obliteration of the real natural distinctions between male and female which we see all around us today.

Didion foresaw this:

“All one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it – that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that dark involvement with blood and birth and death – could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.

“One was only told it, and now one is to be reprogrammed, fixed up, rendered again as inviolate and unstained as the ”modern” little girls in the Tampax advertisements.”

The aftershocks and echoes of the event of August 9, 1969, no more than the events of September 9, 2011, or May 25, 2018, when Ireland went the way of Roe Vs. Wade, continue to reverberate around our world – be it in massacres in school classrooms, mosques, Christian churches or synagogues.

The Roman Empire and the civilization which it had embodied struggled on in a decaying state for a another couple of centuries after Adrianople. To St. Jerome the butchered body of Valens was but a powerful symbol of the terrifying truth that a millennium-old civilization was in terminal decline. In those centuries after 378, however, a new light was already shining. That Light, picking up the remnants of that dying culture, cleansed them and revitalised them. Eventually a new civilization emerged, which we now know as the Christian civilization of the High Middle Ages.

If we accept the butchery of August 9, 1969, as a symbol of the sad decline of our own brilliantly scientific and technological – but artistically, philosophically and morally decadent era – to where can we look for a light to lead us out of this darkness? Where else but to that self-same regenerative power which led our forefathers out of their desert?

What then is the lesson we might glean from observing our record of folly and evil? It is that we should call evil what it is and that we resist the temptation to indulge in “mystical flirtation with the idea of ‘sin’”. Christians recognize a Revelation which assists them in this battle. The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us wisely:

“Only the light of divine Revelation clarifies the reality of sin and particularly of the sin committed at mankind’s origins. Without the knowledge Revelation gives of God we cannot recognize sin clearly and are tempted to explain it as merely a developmental flaw, a psychological weakness, a mistake, or the necessary consequence of an inadequate social structure, etc. Only in the knowledge of God’s plan for man can we grasp that sin is an abuse of the freedom that God gives to created persons so that they are capable of loving him and loving one another.”

Edmund Burke may or may not have said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Nevertheless, the idea is right. It is certainly true that unless common sense and decent humanity, both of which are highlighted in Joan Didion’s writing in these times, gets a chance to express itself in this world, and unless more of us pay attention to the timeless truths about ourselves, we are destined to continue down this vortex in which human lives are distorted and destroyed in multiple ways.

Culture and its enemies

Culture, mass culture or mass hysteria
Strange bedfellows: culture, mass culture and hysteria

Richard Hoggart died recently, aged 95. He was the author of The Uses of Literacy (1957), one of the most influential books published in the decades following the Second World War. It was a study of working-class culture and the impact of what could be called the Cultural Revolution – not Mao’s monstrosity – which followed that war in the 50s and 60s of the last century. For Hoggart, however, there was within this Cultural Revolution a large helping of what he saw as monstrous as well.

As the Daily Telegraph noted in its obituary of Hoggart, “In the 1950s it had become fashionable to argue that a newly affluent worker was emerging who was becoming middle-class in lifestyle and political attitudes. Hoggart saw the cultural impact of such developments as almost entirely negative.”

Hoggart’s view and apparent pessimism were disparaged by many and mocked by others. However, in the month in which he died another fierce critic of aspects of our contemporary culture described the world in which we live now in terms which can only serve to make us see Hoggart’s words as profoundly prophetic.  David Bentley Hart, in his First Things withering assessment of Adam Gopnik’s now famous article on religious belief in The New Yorker, sees the current vogue in atheism as partly derived from some of the same things which Hoggart railed against. In Hart’s terms,  this is “the assumption that all cultures that do not consent to the late modern Western vision of reality are merely retrograde, unenlightened, and in need of intellectual correction and many more Blu-ray players.”

Hoggart was a scholarship boy, orphaned at eight years of age, who came from a very poor family in Leeds in England. In The Uses of Literacy he described how the old, tightly-knit working-class culture of his boyhood — of stuffy front rooms, allotments, back-to-back housing and charabanc trips — was breaking up in the face of an Americanised mass culture of tabloid newspapers, advertising, jukeboxes and Hollywood. “The hedonistic but passive barbarian, who rides in a fifty-horse-power bus for three pence, to see a five-million dollar film for one-and-eightpence, is not simply a social oddity; he is a portent,”

Was he a portent of what Bentley Hart was to describe this month? Perhaps.

“Everything,” Bentley Hart writes…  “is idle chatter—and we live in an age of idle chatter. Lay the blame where you will: the internet, 940 television channels, social media, the ubiquity of high-fructose corn syrup, whatever you like. Almost all public discourse is now instantaneous, fluently aimless, deeply uninformed, and immune to logical rigor. What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best. Principled unbelief was once a philosophical passion and moral adventure, with which it was worthwhile to contend. Now, perhaps, it is only so much bad intellectual journalism, which is to say, gossip, fashion, theatrics, trifling prejudice. Perhaps this really is the way the argument ends—not with a bang but a whimper.”

For Hoggart, ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties popular culture was not some kind of new Renaissance but was “full of corrupt brightness, of improper appeals and moral evasions”, tending towards a view of the world “in which progress is conceived as a seeking of material possessions, equality as a moral levelling and freedom as the ground for endless irresponsible pleasure”.

He railed against that icon of the age, “milk bars”, probably the Anglo Saxon equivalent of the “drug store” hangout of the Jets and the Sharks of West Side Story. These he saw as inducing “a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk”. The manipulation of generations by those he called he called “the mass publicists” was so all-pervasive that genuine native popular culture was destroyed by the toxic confection produced by these.

Hoggart wrote in the 19th-century Arnoldian tradition of radical idealism, with its strong sense of moral values. He was passionate about culture but disdainful of modern mass culture – which for him lacked the essential humanist ingredients of genuine culture. He believed in the transformative value of great literature but held that for that to thrive: “In a democracy which is highly commercialised you have to give people critical literacy. If you don’t do that, you might as well pack it in.”

His thought in some respects might be echoed in the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI on the evil of relativism. Relativism for Hoggart “leads to populism which then leads to levelling and so to reductionism of all kinds, from food to moral judgments”. In Hoggart’s judgement, those who might argue that the Beatles and Beethoven could occupy the same plane of appreciation represented a “loony terminus”.

Perhaps the irony inherent in the life’s work of Richard Hoggart is that in his attempt to correct the evils he saw overtaking our cultural life, he pioneered the discipline of “cultural studies”. He is seen by many as the father of this discipline. This was then taken over by the theorists of mass culture who proceeded to install the Goddess of Relativism on the high altars of all our universities and thus created the very desert which David Bentley Hart describes.