22 March 2012
It’s always good to remember that, whenever we’re tempted to lament the decline of the present age and the general lowering of standards.
And there’s no doubt that by many measurements, the present age is one of the best for humanity. Proportionally speaking, more human beings today live longer, healthier lives, and fewer die a violent death, than at any time in human history.
Still, there are ups and downs in history that are objective by any reasonable standard, and are not just the result of an old man’s yearning for the snows of yesteryear.
For example, Edward Gibbon was not self-deceived or merely nostalgic when the idea came to him of writing The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:
It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amid 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 to my mind.(1)
The ruins he sat among were real enough, and even if the barefooted friars were a decided moral advance over the gladiators, the crucifixions, and the palace poisonings of the early Empire, still Gibbon was right to be struck by what those ruins represented—the extinction of a great civilization and its long, painful rebirth many centuries later.
Even conservatively calculated—say, from the death of Boethius (c. 525) to the birth of Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033)—the period we used to refer to as the “Dark Ages” lasted for at least half a millennium. A not inconsiderable interlude, by anyone’s estimation.
So, there’s little doubt it is foolish to look upon history as a continuous upward arc aimed at us. The present order of things is not inevitable, and its improvement even less so.
But to speak of “improvement” in this context is already to assume that civilization is better than barbarism, and that what Boethius and Anselm were up to—the sort of activity mostly lacking in Western Europe during the centuries between them—is inherently worthwhile.
It is already to assume that vital statistics do not exhaust the balance sheet of human well-being, and that for the rational animal, literacy and learning are goods comparable—if not superior—to longevity.
This assumption is under attack in our time, and if there is reason to fear we may be on the verge of a new Dark Age, it is not just because new technologies have come along that are alienating the old from the younger generation—that is, from the future—but rather because digital technologies seem in some respects inherently hostile to civilization, especially when wedded to a relativist philosophy.
What we stand to lose, above all, in the dawning epoch of social media and the “hive mind” is the sense that books represent something more than a form of mass entertainment, but rather are the physical repositories of much that is most precious about us as a species.
Some recent essays by two very different writers—both of whom I admire tremendously—have set me thinking along these rather gloomy lines. Both authors have written on the importance of books in their lives, and I can’t help wondering whether, in another generation or two, anyone will be left with such experiences to recount.
In this piece, Wieseltier gives a quick, affectionate assessment of his library, identifying two important geological strata within it.
The first stratum consists of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century editions of Maimonides, Sir Thomas Browne, and others. Of these priceless works, Wieseltier remarks that he does not own them; rather, they own him:
Nothing elevates a room more than the presence within it of objects whose significance is in no way derived from oneself. These things are not mine; I am theirs.
This is exactly the right note to hit, in relation to the future of civilization.
The question is: Do young people today, unremittingly stuffed with self-esteem by their elders, retain the capacity to recognize something higher than themselves? The great works of Western Civilization are peaks of human thought, but is there any appetite left for mental mountain-climbing?
The other stratum consists of formative books Wieseltier has owned all his life, such as a tattered old paperback copy of The Portable Nietzsche that he picked up for a song as a teenager at a used bookstore in Lower Manhattan in 1969.
He tells an amusing story at his own expense about how he failed to appreciate the eminence of the teacher at the New School for Social Research who encouraged his adolescent interest in Nietzsche: the great phenomenologist, philosopher of biology, and moral philosopher, Hans Jonas.
But Wieseltier is gentle—as he should be—with the ignorant youth he was, noting that these first-loves among his books were the foundation stone upon which everything else was built:
But all the miles of shelves on all the walls of all the apartments and houses and offices in which I have lived and worked were erected on the foundation of that paperback, Viking Portable Library P62. This is the other variety of significance that attaches to books, the subjective sort, which transforms them into talismans. Many books are read but some books are lived, so that words and ideas lose their ethereality and become experiences, turning points in an insufficiently clarified existence, and thereby acquire the almost mystical (but also fallible) intimacy of memory. In this sense one’s books are one’s biography.
Once again, the question poses itself: In a world devoid of books, will personal spiritual growth still be possible?
Leon Wieseltier grew up in one of the intellectual capitals of the world. Marilynne Robinson grew up in the town of Sandpoint, population about 4,000 souls, on a former Indian reservation in the Idaho panhandle. Two more diametrically opposed natural and social environments could scarcely be imagined.
And yet in her essay, “When I Was a Child,” Robinson recounts a youthful relationship to books not all that different from the one evoked by Wieseltier.(2)
In this essay, she tells us how she bestowed upon Ruth—the narrator of her first, great novel, Housekeeping (1980)—the blessing of a bookish girlhood much like her own:
In a way Housekeeping is meant as a sort of demonstration of the intellectual culture of my childhood. It was my intention to make only those allusions that would have been available to my narrator, Ruth, if she were me at her age, more or less. The classical allusions, Carthage sown with salt and the sowing of dragon’s teeth which sprouted into armed men, stories that Ruthie combines, were both in the Latin textbook we used at Coeur d’Alene High School. . . .
There are not many references in Housekeeping to sources other than these few, though it is a very allusive book, because the narrator deploys every resource she has to try to make the world comprehensible. What she knows, she uses, as she does her eyes and her hands. She appropriates the ruin of Carthage for the purposes of her own speculation. I thought the lore my teachers urged on me must have some such use.(3)
Thus, we are led to see as from the inside how a child uses the building blocks of culture put at its disposal to construct its own spiritual destiny, and how once upon a time those building blocks were considerable—even in far-off Sandpoint, Idaho.
As they were back in the 1950s in other remote outposts like Dallas, Texas, as I can personally attest.
There ought to be a monument to the legions of high-school Latin teachers who passed their lives expounding Ovid and otherwise fanning the flame of civilization in godforsaken towns and villages like Dallas and Sandpoint, and all the other countless places of exile that line the shore of the Black Sea.
But to return to the future:
The problem before us is this. When books are dead and everybody’s wired together and the world is the Cloud, there will no longer be any significant cultural difference between the capital and the provinces. Everyone will play the same videogames, follow the Twitter feeds of the same celebrity du jour, and deliver themselves equally crudely of the same narrow range of clashing but canned opinions. At that point, what civilizational flame will there be left to fan?
This question assumes that there is such a thing as civilization, that it is embodied in the technology of the book, and that it stands above mass entertainment and groupthink. Can this assumption continue to carry conviction in the Digital Age, which is also the Age of Relativism?
The grandeur of the Seder is owed not least to the intellectual confidence of its text. But such confidence is not to our liking anymore. We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong. We prefer questions. And we like commentaries to be comments. Yet riffing is hardly an adequate response to God, history, and freedom. There are some subjects that cannot be blogged. (Brevity has nothing to do with it: Once upon a time a philosophy could be delivered in a few words. But who any longer has a philosophy?)
In a hilarious—or is it tragic?—send-up of the New American Haggadah‘s effort to be with-it, Wieseltier parodies an essay in the volume by children’s author, Lemony Snicket, and then asks:
Is this the cry of a generation? A pitch for Zach Galifianakis? There is something sad about such a fear of adulthood. It is an Egypt of its own. . . .
It is not immodest to aspire to imperishability; that is how tradition grows and why writers write. Anyway, there is immodesty in the notion that newness, and one’s own signature, will suffice.
True, by many measures, we are living in the Golden Age of the Book right now. I can already—or soon will be able to—download practically any book that has ever been printed.
But the question is: Will anyone still want to do this in the years ahead? Will anyone still know or care about books? And if no one does, what will the consequences be?
To be sure, nerds will always be with us. They’ll be needed more than ever in the Digital Age. But nerds and bookworms are not exactly the same thing.
It is bookishness—a lifelong condition, often beginning in childhood, in which one’s mind and soul are nourished by reading—that is in danger of becoming obsolete, along with the technology of books.
Of course, when all is said and done, it’s not about books as physical objects. It’s about the Great Tradition. It’s about learning to appreciate all that’s high and best in Western Civilization, and indeed in human civilization generally.
It’s about the discernment of a nobler, more elevated state of mind (or soul or spirit) that one aspires to with every atom of one’s being, and the long, slow process of bringing that aspiration to fruition—what the Germans call Bildung.
But for many centuries, books have been the primary technology for realizing such aspirations. What will human beings be like when that they become well and truly obsolete?
What comes after the end of spiritual striving?
(1) Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life (Penguin Classics, 2006); p. 16. Originally published posthumously, and in expurgated form, in 1796.
(2) In Marilynne Robinson, When I Was a Child I Read Books (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012); pp. 85–94. For thoughts on another essay from this same collection, see my column, “Scientism as an Opportunistic Infection.”
(3) Ibid.; p. 86.
(4) The Haggadah is a collection of biblical passages to be recited during the Passover Seder.