Is everything going to hell in a handbasket? Down the tubes? Into the crapper? Or is life getting better every day in every way? Do you believe in progress or regress?
What, exactly, does your handbasket look like?
The older I get the more interested I am in people’s convictions about the directionality of culture.
I have been told that there were times when the doctrine of progress was in the ascendant, when millions of people believed that society was moving inexorably toward utopia. But every time I investigate such a period, I find contradictory evidence. For example, some point to the time after World War I when the Russian Revolution and the League of Nations offered hope. But in that time I also note the rise of existentialist despair and the popularity of Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Some people believed in Up, some in Down.
My guess is that most people are inclined to pessimism—after all, it’s the realistic view. The notion that things are in dangerously steep decline transcends party lines. Is there much difference between the conservative who believes that freedom and enterprise and family values are being slowly but inevitably eroded and the liberal who believes that freedom and the environment and civil rights are on their last legs?
Sometimes I want to ask some of the most fervent believers in decline to step up to a white board and draw a graph of Western history. How would they plot the lines? There are some who think it’s all been downhill since the Middle Ages. Would that be a 45-degree angle? Any upward bumps at all? Shakespeare? The U.S. Constitution? Indoor plumbing?
Perhaps I’m being overly facetious but it does seem at times that declinism has itself become a problem.
Raised as a conservative, I once envisioned myself as the scourge of a decadent world; I would be the tragic hero working tirelessly to stem the onrushing tide of Communism and Socialism.
But then Communism and Socialism were more or less soundly thrashed, with a few eccentric exceptions. Yet this historic turning of tides had little effect on my conservative friends, who managed to be just as obsessed with decline as ever.
I still love the prophetic voice—the religious or artistic figure who can open our eyes to injustice, narcissism, and pride. And I remain a fan of satire, that stinging form of humor employing irony and absurdity to hold up the mirror to our culture’s follies and vanities.
But in my late twenties I realized that I would never be a prophet or a satirist. Nor could I sustain a life on the basis of unrelenting criticism.
Though I’ve always been a pretty sturdy fellow, I think it’s fair to say that I went through something of a breakdown at that point. Out of that crisis came two convictions. First, that I could no longer confidently determine exactly how to draw the line on the graph of history. Yes, I could chart many dark declivities in recent times, but I had begun to notice some modest, but significant breakthroughs, recoveries, and revivals, too.
Second, I felt an urge I hardly understood, but which seemed to amount to this: the need to build, rather than tear down. Suddenly it became more important for me to search out and celebrate the good rather than castigate the bad, to promote the original creative voice rather than negative, polemical voice.
I don’t wish to see all criticism cease. There are many vocations in the world of culture and ideas, and I am not narrow enough to believe my choice is the only valid one. But I do worry that declinism is so pervasive, that it has given rise to so much anger and frustration and negativity.
One could write books about the role that religion plays in the business of Up or Down. But lately I’ve been thinking that faith ought to make us feel less dominated by decline, rather than more, despite the drubbing that religion has taken among the intellectual classes of the West since the Enlightenment. Faith ought to help us to live in hope, to live in the Now rather than become obsessed with Past or Future.
And so I leave the last word to a wise woman, Annie Dillard, who writes in For the Time Being:
“Is it not late? A late time to be living? Are not our heightened times the important ones? For we have nuclear bombs. Are we not especially significant because our century is? —our century and its unique Holocaust, its refugee populations, its serial totalitarian exterminations, our century and its antibiotics, silicon chips, men on the moon, and spliced genes? No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times, a slice of life like any other….
“There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death. It is a weakening and discoloring idea, that rustic people knew God personally once upon a time—or even knew selflessness or courage or literature—but that it is too late for us. In fact, the absolute is available to everyone in every age. There never was a more holy age than ours, and never a less. There is no less holiness at this time—as you are reading this—than there was the day the Red Sea parted, or that day in the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as Ezekiel was a captive by the river Chebar, when the heavens opened and he saw visions of God…. In any instant the sacred may wipe you with its finger. In any instant the bush may flare, your feet may rise, or you may see a bunch of souls in a tree. In any instant you may avail yourself of the power to love your enemies; to accept failure, slander, or the grief of loss; or to endure torture. Purity’s time is always now.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.