Friday, December 12, 2008


Reading Morris Berman's almost unrelievedly pessimistic--and, tragically, almost completely convincing--volumes of social criticism, The Twilight of American Culture (2000) and Dark Ages America (2006), I feel as though I'm being infected by Berman's hopelessness, his too-compelling vision of an America already too far gone to avoid cultural death. Surely he's being too pessimistic, focusing too much on the very dark 'dark side' of contemporary America while not recognizing that he can only make his case with information gleaned from the works of those who represent another side, one he slights, the embattled and marginalized but still active left-liberal side of the American sociopolitical spectrum. (Berman would doubtless counter that he doesn't ignore this side at all, that in fact he's a charter member of it.) Also, for all of Berman's pessimism, he still seems to hold onto one last metaphysical guarantee: a dialectical theory of history which ensures that a New Enlightenment will eventually come, a guarantee that ultimately justifies the work of his "new monastic individuals". But what if his structural analysis is wrong and we are in fact just whistling into an endless dark, our best works destined to become exhibits in the Deng Xiaopeng Memorial Museum of Western Decadence (est. 2143)?... The best we can do, I guess, is work authentically for our own sakes and for the work's sake--which is exactly what all artists worthy of the name have always done. Anyway, although I fear Berman is right, I hope he's wrong and that the current darkness will end sooner than he thinks... At least there's this modicum of hope: even when we can't see the light, we can still be the light. (I know, it sounds like Jesse Jackson, but I think W.H. Auden would probably agree with it.)

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