Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Awfully Thin and Precious

R.R. Reno recalls the work of recently deceased cultural historian Jacques Barzun to help understand how we got to where we are today. The Lexicon of Pussyfooting:

Because these words were written in the late 1950s, they help us see that the 1960s was not the result of a youth movement. It is best understood as an abdication of the elders, a renunciation of responsibility by the adults. The Bourgeois Era ended because its intellectual project crumbled. The guardians of Western culture determined that they were custodians of inhumanity. Barzun pictures for us the forward-thinking man of the late 1950s, wearing a suit, going to the tastefully decorated offices of the Ford or Rockefeller Foundations. “He may be a minor foundation official living rather comfortably off some dead tycoon, but he talks like Baudelaire.”

This image of the foundation official circa 1957 tells the tale. The children and grandchildren of the old bourgeois elite decided to throw their lot with the bohemian project. We are to live as we wish, and the primary intellectual project these days is to beat down whatever remains of the old bourgeois forms of sacred order. Repressive! Patriarchal! Logocentric!

Barzun is not happy about the change. By his reckoning, the modern bourgeois form of intellectual self-discipline and honesty “is a broom with which to clear the mind of cant.” This tradition of reflection helps us avoid “trumpery art,” “ideological drugs, “facile enthusiasms,” and a simple-minded worship of science. Intellect encourages what Barzun calls “fineness” and “virtuosity.” One does not just have opinions or commitments. One has a fabric of considered views that are woven from the threads of inherited traditions. They are nuanced, tenuous, and shaded with all manner of uncertainty, but even so, for the bourgeois intellectual, considered views have the serious weight of truth, a weight that gives shape to one’s sense of self.

And the bohemian project? It retails itself as the royal road to self-discovery through the alchemy of self-expression. It promises a more “real,” more authentic, and more individual existence. As Barzun suggests, the claims are hollow. The emerging Bohemian Era will be anti-intellectual: characterized by an externalized and collective sense of purpose (politics ├╝ber alles) and an undifferentiated, amorphous inner life (the empire of desire).

Barzun was right to view the future with foreboding. Our Bohemian Era is and will be crude and thoughtless. All you need to do is go to P.S. 1, the contemporary gallery run by the Museum of Modern Art in Long Island City. It is full of flat, ideological gestures and great gushers of the id. But Barzun was also naive. The Bourgeois Era ended because so many came to feel it as a lifeless, artificial posture. “Fineness” and “virtuosity”? They seem awfully thin and precious. And what, exactly, do they serve? Without the commanding voice of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, perhaps it was only a matter of time before Western culture lost is ability to claim our loyalty. A soul-shaping demand shorn of divine sanction can easily come to be seen as an inhumane invasion.

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