Why Western Culture Will Decline- Right Now
by Sam Buntz | Dartmouth College
Recently, I watched the movie Piranha 3D. I didn’t see it in 3D so maybe I missed something, but one scene moved me enough to believe that Western Culture is in not only permanent but also swift and imminently catastrophic decline. The “Myth of the Great Western Butterslide,” as Northrop Frye sarcastically called it, is now cemented in my mind as a palpable reality. The particular scene ran thusly: the piranhas begin to attack, and they bite off everything under the belt of one of the principal characters—a guy who is clearly meant to be Joe Francis, the creator of Girls Gone Wild. The camera then films Joe Francis’s male member as it drifts downward and is eaten by a piranha who then promptly vomits it out, leaving it to continue its descent to an un-mourned aquatic grave. If I had seen this in 3D, it would not likely have changed my bemused, though disapproving, reaction.
I decided things were over at that point, which actually puts me at odds with a baffling mood of optimism I find in the constituents of Generation Y or the Millennials or whatever we’re being called now. I mean, everyone is pessimistic about the economy, wars, terrorism—except for a few irrepressibly bubbly spirits. But I sense that aside from myself and a few stalwarts like my hero, Harold Bloom, most of “us” are really revved up about the internet and Twitter and web comics with hyper-text. I actually love the web and constantly read it for news, poems, and essays, and watch movies and TV on it through Netflix. But, when I contemplate the phenomenon as a whole, it doesn’t really make me feel that people will choose the pleasures of Dostoevsky or Jane Austen or Wallace Stevens over Piranha 3D (or over a porn version of Piranha 3D). It makes me feel like greater and greater numbers are going to flock to see total crap and numb their minds by having cybersex with Anime characters (or whatever it is sex addicts do on the internet). But this pessimism begs me to second-guess it. Before I really embrace this view, I need to consider the way culture has shifted in the past.
In the early part of the 20th Century, great thinkers and writers were extremely enthusiastic about the progress of history. Preeminent men of letters like G. Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells had faith that a worldwide socialist utopia was inevitable and that a powerful “life force” was persistently driving evolution in the direction of greater goodness and ultimately, perfection. This informed their writing and permeated the culture at large. But if one looked back a mere fifty years earlier, one would find that Darwin’s revelations about evolution were not greeted with enthusiasm—poets and critics like Alfred Lord Tennyson and Matthew Arnold accepted the theory of evolution, of course, but it seemed horrifying to them. They thought that it made might the only right—“nature red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson famously put it—and demolished long-held ideas of divine creation and order. But within half-a-century, evolution had completely morphed into a symbol of unbounded optimism.
And then, when World War I happened, the culture quickly swung back to a position of total pessimism. Thereafter, writers like T. S. Eliot and James Joyce wrote about the malaise and spiritual dryness experienced by the members of that “Lost Generation.” (Also, as another example of the failure of such too-easy optimism, Stalin’s own favorite scientist embraced the idea that the “Life Force” was propelling evolution onward to better things—which, when applied to Soviet agriculture, was one of the factors that led to massive famines). And then in the fifties, the mood became a little more optimistic, before plummeting into the chaos of the sixties and seventies, recovering uneasily in the eighties, and gradually regaining lost ground in the nineties. Yet people who cling to the same faith in the scientific progress that Wells and Shaw manifested—and tie it into cultural progress, which is mainly what we’re discussing—strike me as being either invincibly naïve or desperate.
Now, despite the sundry horrors of the most bloody of centuries, we are back to the position where we are expecting great things from technology. Yet, is culture at the same place it was in Eliot’s, Joyce’s, and Woolf’s time? Do we have anything that can really compete with the best jazz of the mid-20th Century? Or with the glories of Mo-Town? You may be expecting me to embrace a position of total pessimism at this point. But that is actually something that I am not going to do. Clearly, time is not an arrow. But if time is not an arrow, dipping downward or upward, then it must be a wheel going round and round. And if we can be desperate about the cultural present, we can also anticipate reaching the rock-bottom that will propel us upward again, though God knows what that will be.
In Man vs. Superman, G. Bernard Shaw writes, “An epoch is but a swing of the pendulum; and each generation thinks the world is progressing because it is always moving…Where you now see reform, progress, fulfillment of upward tendency, continual ascent by Man on the stepping stones of his dead selves to higher things, you will see nothing but an infinite comedy of illusion.” Shaw himself disagrees with this statement and puts it in the mouth of the devil. But, one wonders whether he doesn’t half-believe it himself, since he is able to word it so powerfully. At any rate, I do agree with the devil, whom I feel stakes out a very clear and carefully considered position that completely avoids the pitfalls of cultural pessimism and optimism.
So, I lied when I said things are in permanent decline, though I was serious when I said “swift” and “catastrophic.” But maybe the worst of it is over, dubious as that sounds. Maybe things can’t get worse—which is, probably, a signal for things to immediately get worse and prove exactly how bad they can be. But hopefully, the pendulum can start swinging back in the other direction and the muddle of things to celebrate and deprecate can proceed again, tilting just a little more toward the benevolent. We are about due for another world-shaking artist or another genuine scientific astonishment, akin to nuclear power. It may be a cliché to quote the old adage, “The light is darkest just before the dawn,” but that is precisely what I just did.Sam Buntz is a member of the senior class at Dartmouth College and will be graduating in June, 2011 with a major in religion. In the fall, he will begin pursuing a master's degree in religious studies at Harvard Divinity School.