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Title:Decline & Blumenthal.
Subject:POPULAR culture
Source:American Scholar, Winter94, Vol. 63 Issue 1, p7, 8p
Abstract:Discusses various declines, including declines in liteary standards. Typographical errors; Poor craftsmanship and bad service; Theories by which declines of the past have been explained; Views of Justus Liebig; More.

Magazine: American Scholar, Winter, 1994

Section: Life and Letters


When a friend asked me what I was writing, I replied that I was planning an essay I intended to call "Decline and Bloomin' Fall." "That's interesting," she said, "but tell me, who is Blumenthal?" I have known no Blumenthals but two Blumenfelds in my life, both men: one is now in his eighties and in the jewelry business; the other is someone with whom I went to high school, who later went on to medical school, after which he repaired to Texas and, far from declining or falling, so far as I know has risen and continues to ascend. Still, "Decline and Blumenthal," which ought to be the title of a good Bernard Malamud story, is too fine to toss away, and so I shall retain it. Besides, it has just the right jauntiness for an essay on a subject that can use all the comic relief it can get.

Not long after the gift of this lovely title, I came across a piece of Australian slang that I had not previously heard: "He's lost the plot." I gather you say about someone who has gone off on a fairly long tangent, or who is just plain nuts, that he has "lost the plot." Something very useful about that phrase; something much better than the simpler "He's lost it" or other ways of suggesting that the next fellow is of course quite mad. Since the plot here has to do with a little entity called Western civilization-"Western Civ," as college students call it-and is a pretty complicated story, I suppose it is fairly easy to lose. If after reading this you think I've lost the plot, please send, in my name, a pint of Play-Doh and a thousand-piece puzzle of a serene landscape to your local insane asylum.

Let us begin with typographical errors, of which I hope none has cropped up thus far in this essay. In my last essay such an error appears in my penultimate paragraph. Four people proofread this essay, I among them. In an essay of mine in another magazine, the word the appears twice in a row. In the postscript to a friendly letter, a correspondent notes that on page two hundred and something of my most recent book the word shear appears where sheer is wanted. Since I am one of the most fallible of proofreaders, I hire--and share the cost with my publisher for--the services of a professional proofreader. Not to sufficient avail, apparently.

I once heard it said that the National Geographic has never had a typographical error in its entire history. I heard this nearly twenty years ago. Not a regular reader of the magazine, I cannot say if the record is still intact. But if it was true then, I hope it's still true now, for every other magazine I read contains typos, as they are called in the trade, and so do most books, even from old and once-reliable English firms. Many writers, editors, and publishers blame this on the new computer printing. I am myself inclined to think otherwise. I am inclined, in fact, to agree with Evelyn Waugh, who once said that, now that they no longer defrock priests for sexual perversities, one can no longer get any decent proofreading. What Waugh meant, of course, was that there were no longer people around with both the learning and the intellectual conscience to get such small but crucial details as proofreading absolutely correct. Decline, alas, and Blumenthal.

One run down in the ninth, we have men on first and second with no outs. The man at bat earns an annual salary of $2.6 million, not counting, I am sure, bonuses. He is at the plate with instructions to bunt-a sensible act that will send the men on base down to second and third, making it possible to score the man on third with a sacrifice fly that will tie the game. Except that the man at bat, who is probably earning more for this afternoon's work than one of Evelyn Waugh's defrocked priests earned for a year of proofreading, immediately demonstrates that he hasn't a ghost of a hint of a clue about how to bunt. That laying down a bunt is something every boy in every schoolyard in America was once expected to know how to do and is one of the fundamentals of the game is probably not an argument that would be especially cogent to this guy. Learning a small but essential self-sacrificial act such as bunting is not, in any case, how he came to be earning $2.6 million a year. So on his second inept attempt at a bunt, he pops the ball up to the pitcher, who easily doubles the already running man off second. The next man up hits the requisite fly ball to left-a fly ball that might have tied up the game and taken it into extra innings-which depressingly ends the game. Our $2.6-million-dollar man will probably get a salary increase next year, bringing his earnings up, I should estimate, to not less than $3.5 million. Decline, I say, and Blumenthal.

I not long ago went with a friend to buy clothes at a store where I have shopped since college days. I had taken my sons to shop at this same store-not literally at the same store, but the same store in its previous location. My old salesman at the old location died, and I never go into the store without thinking of him: a beautifully turned out man with white hair who lived for trips to Paris, where one of his children resided. My new salesman is a man who looks to be in his late sixties. I find him simpatico also. He once told me, not without chagrin, that he has a grandson of twenty-five who doesn't know how to knot a necktie. I suggested that he needn't worry, since most men of his grandson's generation will doubtless be buried in denim wearing baseball hats turned backwards. "Please," he said, "don't get me started." He is obviously a man with a decline-and-fall essay of his own that awaits writing.

My friend bought a suit, a sports-jacket, and two pairs of trousers at this store. His bill came to a little more than $1,300. As I recall, they charged him extra for alterations-something I never remember happening in the past. When my friend gave his American Express card in payment of his bill, they ran a check on its validity in front of him. When we came back two weeks later, we discovered that none of the trousers was property tailored and the suitcoat rode badly on my friend's shoulders. Another trip, two weeks after this, revealed that they still hadn't got the trousers right. My friend agreed to take the sports-jacket but asked for his money back on the other items. He was told that he couldn't have it just then, but that he could either wait for a check to be issued out of the firm's headquarters in New York or return later in the week and late in the day when they could reimburse him with cash. Four disappointing trips-having to pay parking-lot fees each time-for a single sportsjacket, and one that, I am told, is not wearing all that well. I neglected to mention that this store had some years before been taken over by a famous firm of English discounters, whose name isn't but perhaps ought to be Decline and Blumenthal.

Typos, bad bunting, poor craftsmanship, wretched service-I am trying to start small here so as not to lose the plot. If one wishes to chronicle a decline and fall, how much better to be able to start as Edward Gibbon did: "It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October, 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started in my mind." It was at Wrigley Field, at Brooks Bros., while proofreading that the idea for "Decline & Blumenthal" came to me. Unlike Gibbon's, mine is scarcely an original idea. Nearly everyone I know lives with the sense of serious decline if not impending fall. Our gain-chiefly in technology, medicine, and science-all seem so uncertain, our losses so absolute. Or so, when queried, do most people feel.

No, it is not at all easy to keep the plot straight. Apologies to Professor Heisenberg, but we have here a subject in which uncertainty becomes almost a principle. For one thing, in claiming a decline I have to consider my age-fifty-six as I write-and whether good traditional old-timer's solipsism hasn't kicked in. No longer a "sprung chicken," as an immigrant woman I know once put it, am I seeing nothing more than my own decline writ large in my society and in all of Western civilization? Certainly, I would not be the first person to have done so. 'The decent pleasures of life," H. L. Mencken wrote in his sixty-sixth year, striking the characteristic note, "have all diminished enormously in my time." At the close of Before and After Socrates, F. M. Cornford writes: "Then nothing remains but the philosophy of old age, the resignation of twilight that deepens over the garden of Pleasure and the hermitage of Virtue." I read that and wonder, Is England ever again to produce another scholar with the deep lucidity of F. M. Cornford? Seems, alas, unlikely.

Reading David Cannadine's study of G. M. Trevelyan, one discovers that Trevelyan himself had fairly early got into the decline-and-fall mood. Trevelyan's dates are 1876-1962, but as early as the end of World War I, not yet fifty, the historian writes: "I don't understand the world we live in, and what I understand I don't like." In his British History in the Nineteenth Century, Trevelyan, getting into the swing of things, noted: "In the seventeenth century, Members of Parliament quoted from the Bible; in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from the classics; in the twentieth century from nothing at all." In the late twentieth century, it probably wouldn't surprise Trevelyan to learn, most politicians not only have ceased quoting but have had others, alas, compose most of their written and spoken utterances. (I see that I have already used up the legal limit of alases in this essay.)

Although I look gloomy, by nature-you're going to have to take my word on this-I am not. I don't think of myself as having much taste for declines or falls. I'm not a Wagner, Mahler, Hieronymus Bosch, Nietzsche man; I'm a Mozart, Ravel, Matisse, William James man. Where my taste runs to pessimists, it is the laughing pessimists I prefer: Karl Kraus, justice Holmes, Mencken. I like a good joke maybe even a little better than the next fellow.

I'm an Apollonian kind of guy. I can't bear to think of those four horsemen of the apocalypse; I prefer instead the prospect of prancing pinto ponies wearing red cockades and ridden by smiling multiracial kids. joy, not sorrow, stimulates my imagination. A picnic lunch on the grass with friends, not solitary confinement in a Kafka novel, is my notion of a swell afternoon. I hope I haven't lost any standing in thus admitting to being, in effect, the intellectual equivalent of a Rotarian, but I feel the need to establish my bona fides in making plain that decline and fall is emphatically not my idea of a good time.

One day over the food of my people (Chinese), I asked my lunch companion, a retired businessman perhaps eight or nine years older than I, whether he thought we are living in an era of decline and fall. Lowering his chopsticks, he replied, "Well, look at it this way. When we were in high school, the great problems were gum chewing, talking or clowning in class, and (rarely) absenteeism. Today the problems are drugs, possession of guns, the safety of teachers, and teenage pregnancy. Yes, I'd say the argument for a decline can be made without too much trouble."

Of course, such horrendous behavior chiefly takes place in schools in the worst neighborhoods, and there are many-some would say too many-explanations for it. Over the course of twenty years of university teaching, I have not found the quality of my own students to have fallen off greatly; on good days, when these students and I are truly humming, I actually think students are getting better and smarter. But then I am not shocked to learn from studies of student cultural ignorance that only a minuscule portion of seventeen-year-old students have read Tess of the D'Urbervilles; at fifty-six, I haven't yet read it myself.

I teach at what is reckoned to be an elite school, so my perspective may not be trustworthy. Might it be that things are declining, not as is usually the case, from the top down but from the bottom up? Charting a decline can be a complicated business, and some people might not be convinced by words alone. I may need some visual aids here: a pointer, a couple of bar graphs, a few multicolored pies, three or four Miro drawings, a Himalayan sprinkling of eraser dust on the shoulders of my teaching blazer. But the fact is-perhaps it would be more correct to say "the fact isn't," since I don't have many hard facts to present-that decline is something one feels in one's bones.

The omnipresence of crime and social sadness has had a good deal to do with this feeling. Big-city life now brings with it the distinct prospect of random death, and if that doesn't get you down, nothing much will. We may, in Daniel Patrick Moynihan's phrase, have "defined deviancy down," but we cannot convince ourselves that it is not a dreary part of all our lives. The daily press, the nightly news, our own eyes are there to remind us that we are living with major social problems from which perhaps protection but no real hiding is possible. In the past, people such as I believed that all was rectifiable by better education, social patience, and goodwill all around. It is becoming harder and harder to believe this and easier and easier to believe that we shall eventually be swamped by our ghastly social problems-it is becoming easier and easier, in other words, to believe we are living in a period of staggering decline.

The late Arnaldo Momigliano, in a brilliant essay entitled "Declines and Falls" (AMERICAN SCHOLAR, Winter 1979/80), quickly surveyed some of the theories by which declines of the past have been explained. Justus Liebig, for example, had the notion that societies declined when the mineral constituents of their soil were exhausted; Cesare Lombroso argued that great historical changes, declines among them, are brought about by madmen; Otto Seeck felt that social struggles, wars, and religious persecutions used up the best men, leaving opportunists and the dregs of societies to survive and help bring about decline. Other historical explanations for decline that Momigliano mentions include race mixture, climate change, body exhaustion. Spengler, Toynbee, & Co., partial though they were to cyclical theories of history, tended to feature decline.

The context for Momigliano's observations was a reconsideration of Gibbon's own views about the decline and fall of Rome. Cutting through all sorts of theoretical niceties, Momigliano maintains that "ultimately Rome fell because it was conquered. German tribes took over the Western part of the Empire. If we want a cause, this is the cause." But he then goes on to say that we do not want that cause "because we rightly feel that it does not make the situation meaningful; it is too obvious or too trivial really to explain what happened.... Anything which makes a situation meaningful can be turned into a cause, either in isolation or in conjunction with other elements." What made Gibbon so penetrating, in Momigliano's view, was that, in charting the decline and fall of Rome, he grasped, through the grandeur of his perspective, "that late antiquity meant the replacement of paganism by Christianity." Less interested in assigning causes, Gibbon understood an underlying situation.

One can assign causes aplenty to the feeling of decline in the air just now, almost all of them tenable, but none convincing unless tethered to a proper description of the general situation in which they are taking place. Why is it, for example, that I do not believe that men of the combined learning and good sense of Arnaldo Momigliano are likely to walk the earth soon again? Why am I dispirited at reading that, in a small Texas town northwest of Houston, not only are four of fifteen of the local high school's cheerleaders pregnant, but the school board feels it would be legally hazardous-it fears litigation from women's and civil liberties groups-to ask them not to perform their cheerleading? My spirits aren't exactly lifted when I learn-thanks to the New York Times Magazine-- that "kids know the names of more models than ex-presidents." But then an ad in the same paper carries a blurb for a novelist that reads, "Imagine Kathryn Davis as Henry James, only witty," which, since Henry James was probably the wittiest American who ever lived, causes me only to mutter, "Decline, my dear Blumenthal, everywhere decline."

"Gosh, honey," as Adam said to Eve on their way out of the Garden of Eden, "I guess we're living in an age of transition." Is there, in this feeling of decline I sense so poignantly, nothing more than the sense that the old world I loved is dying and a new world is aborning? How, after all, do I know that this new world isn't likely to be superior to the world it is replacing? If a new world is truly struggling to be born, ought not one--oughtn't I?--do one's best to help it along? What good does my complaining do? This past summer, outside the ballpark, the man from whom I usually buy my $2 bag of peanuts asked me how I was doing, and when I answered "Could be better," he shot back: "How bad can things be when you're able to get away on a beautiful afternoon in the middle of the week to watch a ball game?" I told him he had a point, neglecting to add that I had tickets between home and first base precisely eight rows off the field.

No point in pretending that we have all only recently left Eden, even though those of us who are old enough can distinctly recall what we think was a splendid prelapsarian time. Real improvements have come about in my lifetime. I find no difficulty in coming up with a list of material items, from gym shoes to the most intricate surgical procedures, that have made life better. I once heard a story about a man, a Southerner whose family owned a vast cotton company, who on the night of Neil Armstrong's landing on the moon, asked his father if he thought he would ever live to see such a thing. "Son," his father is said to have replied, "I never thought I would live to see the day when I could relieve myself in my own house."

On the spiritual side, I can think of only a single item of improvement, and it is not a small one: the world seems more tolerant-or at least officially tolerant, and official is a lot of minority groups of all kinds than it did when I was young. But this toting up of material and spiritual progress is apparently an old game. In France, Fin de Siecle, Eugen Weber makes the point that, in his investigation of the end of the nineteenth century among the French, "the discrepancy between material progress and spiritual dejection reminded me of our times. So much was going right, even in France, as the nineteenth century ended; so much was said to make one think that all was going wrong."

A historical cliche has it that a century's end-any century's end-brings on a wave of general malaise, that old fin de siecle feeling. As Professor Weber writes: "The notion of end, somehow, goes with thoughts of decay and diminution."

It is the fin de siecle, the fin de siecle, Ah life, where is thy snap, thy pop, and thy crackle?

A natural end-of-the-century tendency, too, is to see decadence on every hand. A critic of Rodin's sculpture of Balzac noted that people who see it "can know to what perilous degree of mental aberration we sank at the end of our century." Artists evidently felt differently. John Richardson, the biographer of Picasso, notes that the painters of Barcelona tended to believe "that the [new twentieth] century about to dawn would see the emergence of a glorious new art and the coming of a Messianic artist: a Nietzschean superman with a Dionysiac style." Leaving aside the question of whether that artist ever arrived-was he, as Richardson suggests, Picasso?-I think it fair to say that no one, among artists or anyone else, is expecting anything like such an artist to arrive in the twenty-first century.

One of the things that most strongly sends the decline vapors wafting into the air is what seems the absence of first-class men and women in positions of leadership. In this century we have known first financial and now human inflation. This is true not of America alone"Europeans Fear That Leaders Are Not Equal to Their Task" ran a recent New York Times headline-but seems a worldwide phenomenon. I recognize that my plaint here about giants having walked the earth when I was young is scarcely a fresh notion. Tacitus, at the beginning of the Annals, speaks of the disappearance of "the fine old Roman character" of the kind found under the Roman republic. Yet the absence of serious people to fill serious jobs has never, at least to me, seemed so striking. A friend not long ago remarked to me that the newly appointed president of a university of great reputation was a man who, in the old days, would have made a middling-quality high-school principal. What applies to university presidents applies to cabinet officers, poets, baseball commissioners, novelists, and maitre d's. Only athletes, auto mechanics, and maybe some chefs seem to have improved.

Part of the problem may be that there are men and women now in positions of real power who are younger than I, and they seem to me the thinnest of reeds. I know of men and women holding important judgeships, heading large federal agencies and billion-dollar foundations with whom I wouldn't even care to have to a cup of coffee. Perhaps there is nothing new in all this. As early as 1884, when he was forty-one, Henry James noted that "imbeciles [were apt] to be in very great places, people of sense in small." While on the speaker's platform, on a panel, on some academic board, or on the Council of the National Endowment for the Arts, I have thought of that deft Jamesian phrase and wondered if I myself had not become one of those imbeciles, even though these places are not all that great.

In an old joke, a successful young Englishman, wishing to thank his immigrant Jewish father for helping to put him through Oxford, arranges to have a splendid suit made for the old man at one of the best tailors in London. Two, three, four fittings, and the suit, a work of great elegance, is finally completed. The old gentleman puts on this magnificent garment, and straightaway begins to weep. "Papa," asks his son, "Papa, what is wrong? Are you crying because you are so touched by my gift?" "Not at all, my boy," the man says. "Now that I'm in this wonderful suit, I'm crying because we've lost our empire."

In connection with my own feelings about the decline, I find myself a bit in the old gentleman's condition. I don't bemoan the loss of the British Empire so much as the enfeebled condition of Britain that followed from it. Owing to the splendid bravery of the English in World War II, which occurred during my young boyhood, I was an Anglophile right out of the gate. With the exception of its food, England stood for superiority on every front: ties, shoes, umbrellas, tennis racquets--everything English was of the best quality. G. M. Trevelyan, writing about England during the reign of Queen Anne, noted: "What men that little rustic England could breed! A nation of five and a half millions, that had Wren for its architect, Newton for its scientist, Locke for its philosopher, Bentley for its scholar, Pope for its poet, Addison for its essayist, Bolingbroke for its orator, Swift for its pamphleteer, and Marlborough to win its battles, had the recipe for genius." It would be too cruel to adduce contemporary counterparts to those names. The classicist Jasper Griffin, a man of my generation, has averred that an intensive education in the classics of the kind he received as a boy is no longer obtainable in England. Material things, spiritual things, nothing in England seems as good as it once was: the books, the clothes, the cars, not even the eccentrics, nothing compares well. All that is left to the poor English, it seems, are actors, journalists, and heavy irony. Thus it takes an Englishman, Alan Bennett, to remark, in his play Forty Years On: "Standards are always out of date. That is what makes them standards."

If England is no longer a model of much that is superior in life, the vistas are no brighter on the Continent. As a young intellectual and aspiring writer, I often found myself looking to Europe, with what I now think a useful feeling of cultural inferiority, for intellectual and artistic figures more impressive than those I thought our country could turn up. No longer. No Andre Malrauxs or Albert Camus, no Arthur Koestlers or Marguerite Yourcenars, no Ignazio Silones or Primo Levis currently reside in Europe. The United States now exists on a level of at least cultural parity with Europeans, which is not at all comforting, for it only means that Europeans are nowadays quite as unimpressive as we.

"Public Schools Are Failing Gifted Students, Study Says"-a characteristic headline over a characteristic newspaper story about a characteristic failure to cultivate the brightest kids in our schools. Two, perhaps three stories about the failure of education seem to find their way into the press every week: this or that collective test score is lower than last year's, Johnny can't write, spell, read, spit, you name it, poor damned Johnny, that knucklehead. Describing the great slide in education, these stories reinforce as strongly as any other kind of story one's belief in the decline of our civilization.

Because these stories are reported in the media, one is naturally dubious of them. With the exception of obituaries, nothing that appears in the newspaper, one assumes, can be wholly true. But in this realm, anecdotes from friends make one doubt even one's normal dubiety. Years ago a friend, asked to write a college textbook about modern art, was told that the word bourgeois was too complicated for undergraduate readers and that he should remove it from his text. (Instead he removed himself from the project, and a fine book went down the tubes.) A man with whom I exchange letters has recently reported to me that he has had to withdraw a manuscript he had submitted to a small university press because "a new editor there ... eliminated very large chunks of it and rewrote the rest into language geared to retarded ten-year-olds." Such stories are becoming less and less uncommon, and in fact there is now even a name for the impulse at work behind them: it is called "dumbing down." You dumb down something by making sure it is accessible to the least intelligent portion of its potential audience.

This is not my memory of how education worked, or was supposed to work. As best I can recall, my teachers, far from dumbing things down, were regularly smartening things up on me. When I was a student at the University of Chicago-which, I am grimly pleased to discover, was recently named last in a list of schools where a lively party life and fun generally are to be had-I regularly felt out of my depth, over my head, intellectually about to drown. I sat in class worrying about humiliating myself by mispronouncing Thucydides' name: Suckadydes? "Bored and belittled," the story about the public schools failing gifted students reports, "the gifted students underachieve." "Frightened and embarrassed," might run a story about my own experience of education, "the underachievers become a bit gifted fairly fast."

But nowadays where are the teachers to come from who are capable of smartening up the curriculum? I haven't the least notion. The most serious teaching takes place in grade and high schools-there, as they say of surgery, is where lives are saved. In days of yore--excuse the archaic locution, for the time I am about to describe sounds as if it took place when Robin and his merry men roamed Sherwood Forest--the best grade- and high-school teachers tended to be women. Without a doubt, many of them took up such jobs because little of a putatively higher kind of work was available to them. These women are no longer available for essential work of this kind-and for this no one can, or I suppose even should, blame them. Modern feminism, I sometimes think, is about the right of women to spend their lives just as mediocrely as do men.

Here is what I meant when I wrote earlier that our gains in contemporary life all seem so uncertain, while our losses seem so absolute. The bright woman who fifty, forty, even thirty years ago taught school is now instead a lawyer, or a psychotherapist, or a freshly minted M.B.A. with a managerial job. Whether the world needs more lawyers, therapists, corporate managers is a question I am ready to leave open. That it needs more talented men and women teaching in the trenches is not, and I just don't see where we will find them.

I have of late had a certain amount of medical business in the city of South Bend, Indiana ("South Bend, sounds like dancing," says Katharine Hepburn to Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story), and could not help but notice the extraordinarily high quality of nursing care available in that modest-sized town. Some of these nurses have been men, but most have been women. The reason South Bend has so many good nurses, I have concluded, is that it is a small but not especially thriving city without lots of the false work that a larger city provides. Bright young women there do not have so many opportunities to do public relations or interior decorating, or to run fat clinics. The result is that many bright women go into such useful work as medicine.

People may argue about what is or is not useful work, but I, in my own social life, know almost nobody in the United States who makes anything. I exclude here the making of deals, or poems, or successful arguments. I mean palpable things: objects, products, commodities. Almost everyone I know is a lawyer, university teacher, writer, physician, broker, editor, or shuffler of one kind of paper or another. At a dinner not long ago, I met a man who actually makes and sells pajamas and robes. I told him I found this startling. As a boy, driving up Western Avenue in Chicago, I saw a street filled with makers: tool and die, sausage, awning, and many other kinds of manufacturers. The sons and daughters of the men who owned these businesses are today probably sociologists, commodities traders, or psychiatric social workers. Is this progress, or is it decline? You tell me, my dear Blumenthal.

Progress, degress this way to the egress. This Way to the Egress was the sign P. T. Barnum put up to get suckers out of his sideshows; they thought they were on their way to see an exotic bird. Nowadays one reads the metaphysical equivalent of the egress everywhere. One has the feeling of a world done in, used up, played out. In what seems an almost unexceptional statement, the novelist-critic-translator-librettist-screenwriter Anthony Burgess writes that "literature has had it. We have lost interest in language as an imaginative medium, and now we just write to communicate on the most basic possible level." The music critic Samuel Lipman asks, in an essay in the September 1993 New Criterion, "Who's killing our orchestras?" So much in contemporary visual art gives the feeling not merely of decline and fall but-I hope the phrase doesn't get around-of post-fall.

In politics, things are not much better. After winning the Cold War, we seem more depressed than exultant. Zbigniew Brzezinski writes of our suffering something he calls "the 'post-victory blues,'" adding that if they do not soon end, "the post-communist transformation will not only be much more painful and prolonged, but its outcome will be even more uncertain." We seem rather in the condition of the people in C. P. Cavafy's poem, "Waiting for the Barbarians." The barbarians never arrive; it would almost be a relief if they had: "And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians? / They were, those people, a kind of solution."

The pervasive feeling of decline and fall I have been attempting to describe is at bottom about demoralization. In good part, I believe, this demoralization is owing to the loss of belief in progress. The United States has always been a country whose underlying assumption has been that of progress-progress unstinting and unrelieved. I did better than my father, and my children shall do better than Ithis was the operating assumption. It no longer operates very successfully. For the first time, one hears talk of the downward mobility of children. There are many who freely acknowledge that they will never do so well in the world as their parents. Will people really be content with this arrangement? I wonder. I find I do not easily reconcile myself to it. Nor would I if I were young.

"I realized," wrote Mme de la Tour d'Auvergne in her memoirs, "that the Revolution was inevitable when I noticed that the patissier was putting less butter in the brioches." Might one say something similar about the decline being inevitable when one discovers British politicians putting less grammatical English in their speeches, American tennis players less sportsmanship in their matches, Hollywood screenwriters less wit in their scripts? (William Goldman reports that he was asked to take a America out of a screenplay because the producers were certain no one would understand it.) And what the devil is a brioche anyway?

Walking the streets of any large American city today one meets with the demented and with the hostile young, lending everything a heavy tone of sadness and menace. When I was in Baltimore recently, a city I have always greatly liked, my overriding impression was that the whole place could use a paint job. I have begun a quiet campaign to change the sobriquet of New York from The Big Apple to the more fitting The Big Crazy, after The Big Easy, which New Orleans is called. On the Chicago El one bright Saturday morning, I rode from the Loop with a carload of young, my guess is unmarried, mothers, youth-gang members, two men selling a newspaper to help the homeless, and a thin, middle-aged transvestite who, I do believe, winked at me as he departed the train at Clark and Division. On the Howard Jackson line, it was an A Train, but in such company the strains of Duke Ellington were not to be heard.

Twist the blinds, open the windows, for God's sake let in some air. All this depression is beginning to get even me, its dispenser, down. Decline and fall is, after all, only a metaphor. When it comes to that, we have probably been on a fairly steady decline since the fifth century B.C. in Athens. History might be, in Gibbon's famous words, "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind," yet along the way there have been delights, splendors, heroism, and much joyous laughter. If we seem to be living in the bodeful night, if the world seems to be losing its principle of existence, if everyone seems to be rushing to blow out the trembling match of less than a radical change of heart seems to be required to save us from further decline, then those who love life are under the obligation not to desert it-not yet anyway. Best not to concentrate altogether on the sycophancy, cowardice, and fraudulence of a society that feels as if it's in decomposition. Better to think instead of beautiful children in concentrated play, of Mozart's music for oboe and harp, of Winesap apples and cold green grapes, of largehearted men and women who refused to be daunted in much darker times than ours.



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Source: American Scholar, Winter94, Vol. 63 Issue 1, p7, 8p.
Item Number: 9401057564
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