The Age of Decadence

Time to start reading real books again.

I have just been reading about a Queer Studies Conference hosted at UCLA which seems to have come straight out of Jonathan Swift’s “A Voyage to Laputa” or Petronius’ Satyricon, works that anatomize the pretentious folly of intellectually decadent societies. The blatant contradictions, sheer delirium and rancid jargon-fat on display in the UCLA colloquium must be read to be believed—though, palpably, not understood.

One conferee’s research consisted of several weeks working in a bar. Another delivered a paper with the loopy title “On the (Im)possibility of Queer Translatabilities and the Formation of Gender Identities in Post Civil-War Beirut, Lebanon.” A third proposed the establishment of a new State of Sodom. In a blaze of mathematical wizardry, we are informed that “There are three types in the world…men, women, homosexuals, and lesbians.” It seems a good time was had by all, especially as the event concluded with a musical performance by one Vaginal Davis.

The unmitigated drivel and sanctimonious dementia passing for intellectual discourse exhibited here—at a major American university—has become ubiquitous in the postmodern liberal academy—that is, when professors are not busy indoctrinating students with anti-American tripe or discharging anti-Israeli bilge into the troubled waters of contemporary politics. The scope of the ludicrous “explored” by the modern academy has grown humongous and called its good faith and intellectual credentials into critical doubt. Indeed, the liberal university, overloaded with suspect cargo, has not slipped so dangerously beneath the scholarly Plimsoll line since its pro-fascist 1930s.

The decay of intellect starts in the university but spreads throughout the culture like another Black Plague, this time affecting not the physical body but the very mind and soul of an entire civilization. The evidence is all around us. Seriousness has become play and facility has turned into facileness. The idea of moral authority and the belief in universal values are regarded with patronizing insouciance. Intellectual discipline has been gradually but remorselessly displaced by earnest frivolity. We spend our time exchanging idle stories about a world we no longer understand or are willing to come to grips with, like characters in a latter-day Decameron. Most damagingly, what we used to call “truth” is now a deprivileged category of verbal exchange, a mere notion with no greater validity than any other.

According to the reigning school of academic thought, loosely known as post-structuralism, truth is only a species of “interpretation” that depends on one’s ideological predispositions or power base—what that admittedly brilliant dufus Michel Foucault in The Order of Things called the “episteme.” Except, of course, if one inhabits the conceptual realm of the left where the truth, in defiance of the postmodern dogma that there is no such thing, apparently resides. The inconsistency, or rather, the hypocrisy, of the university-sponsored left, which has conquered the intellectual citadel of the culture and controls the terms of our conversation with one another, boggles the unadulterated mind.

The erosion of the concept of truth has come to mean that one can lie with impunity and in this way the moral and intellectual structures at the foundation of communal life have been radically undermined. The result is that we now inhabit a civilization on the skids, one in which the lie is no better than the truth, democracy is no better than tyranny, the sham is identical to the real, a fabricated area of study can replace an authentic discipline, rhetoric trumps substance, and surface is infinitely preferable to depth. It is a kind of cognitive regression we are experiencing or, if one likes, a celebration of the duck-billed platitude as our totemic insignia.

The extent of our present degradation owes its initial impetus to the universities of the 1960s. As Allan Bloom lamented in The Closing of the American Mind, the universities taught and graduated a vast cohort of “spiritually detumescent” students, who eventually rose to occupy the seats of authority and influence, training their successors—those who are calling the shots today—in the arts of reductive thinking. Perpetuating an “organized system of grievance,” they “have no idea of evil,” choose the wrong role models, and trade in “clichés, superficialities, the material of satire.” They have infected the minds of two generations of students with factoids and gross distortions while amping up a collective attitude of unmerited self-esteem. In a nutshell, we have been taught to speak the mind we no longer have. Bloom has been considered by many as a rigidly classical humbug, but the sequel has clearly proven him right.

The world situation has deteriorated markedly since Bloom wrote. The luxury of indifference, thoughtlessness or self-indulgence has become contra-indicated. Threats to our security and perhaps to our survival multiply on the horizon and we no longer enjoy the leisurely option of relying on emotion, partiality and pseudo-scholarly hijinks in the act of informing ourselves about domestic and international affairs. We live in an Age of Decadence, an epoch which, as Bloom points out, derives its worldview ultimately from Rousseau’s Confessions, intended to show that there is no such thing as original sin and that man has been corrupted from “the good,” as opposed to Augustine’s Confessions with its doctrine of inherent evil and the necessity for reflection, discipline and moral integrity to realize our human potential.

We need not convert to Christianity, as did Augustine, or to any other religion, to discover how to think. But we do need to take his counsel seriously, to listen to the voice he heard in the garden, tolle et lege, “take and read,” that is, to learn how to educate ourselves once again. Since it is highly unlikely that the Humanities departments of the modern university can be abolished, it seems we must educate ourselves outside the confining gates of an institution that has grown as corrupt as it is absurd. Perhaps an autodidact body of students and parents, as they are prompted to adopt what David Horowitz’s Freedom Center calls “dissenting books,” may even begin to incrementally recuperate what has been taken from us.

“The true canon,” Bloom writes in the subsequent Giants and Dwarfs, “aggregates around the most urgent questions we face…If we allow ourselves to be seduced by the plausible theses of our day, and turn our backs on the great dialogue, our loss will be irreparable.” What Bloom and important conservative intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Russell Kirk, Theodore Dalrymple, Bruce Bawer, Victor Davis Hanson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, David Horowitz, Andrew Bostom, Roger Kimball, and others who qualify as Bloom’s epigones tell us is that we have little choice but to become an informed citizenry, if we are ever to resist the intellectual and spiritual degeneration of the times and the sinister effect of the modern liberal university.

The theme song of the Sixties was “We shall overcome,” and in a thoroughly  unexpected and destructive way, that is precisely what has happened. Today, the need to re-overcome, to overcome the overcoming, cannot be evaded. It doesn’t look good and it may well be too late. But there is no alternative. We need to establish a counter-counter-culture to repudiate and undo the effects of the counter-culture of the Sixties that has wrought so much harm. “Pretend I’m dead,” says the glutton Trimalchio in The Satyricon, “and say something nice about me.” This is perhaps the only condition under which we can say something nice about that epicurean period whose legacy continues to afflict us.