Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Age of Decadence?

Here's something Mrs. Salamander and I have talked about a few times over the last half-decade

With one Wee Salamander in college and the other in high school, I think back to when I was there in the 1980s. There really isn't all much difference between the decades. Some things have improved, some as gotten worse, but on balance - fairly close.

Then I think back to when my parents were in high school and college in the 1950s, and they were in the 1980s where I am now. 

What a HUGE difference between 1955 and 1985. Different worlds. 

In that respect, we are in perhaps a better place. Our kids, maybe not, but from a parenting point of view - and the ability to at least get a view of our kids' culture - sure. I take that as a plus. 


This constancy may not be a good thing, at least from this perspective.
And then there’s pop culture itself. In the original Back to the Future, Marty McFly invaded his father’s sleep dressed as “Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan.” Thirty years later, the biggest blockbuster of 2015 was about . . . Darth Vader’s grandchildren. It is directed by a filmmaker who’s coming off rebooting . . . Star Trek. And the wider cinematic landscape is defined by . . . the recycling of comic-book properties developed between the 1940s and the 1970s.

Even fashion shows a similar repetition, as Kurt Anderson pointed out in Vanity Fair several years ago: Not long ago
. . . I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the Ur-boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards. . . . Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier — from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively — it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world.
Global politics since the Cold War feels stagnant as well.

We might have expected that by now we’d be locked in a race with China or Japan to colonize Mars — if, that is, we weren’t recovering from the Eugenics Wars that the original Star Trek expected to arrive sometime in the 1990s. Instead, we’re dealing with issues (from an aggressive Russia to, yes, Libyan-linked terrorist groups) that Marty and “Doc” Brown would recognize immediately. (Though in fairness, we do make movies about colonizing Mars, and the special effects are excellent.)

The word for this kind of civilizational situation is “decadence.” Not the decadence of pure debauchery — there’s some of that available today, but public morals in the West probably hit bottom in the 1970s, not in our own era of stagnation.

Rather it’s decadence as defined by Jacques Barzun: All that is meant by Decadence is “falling off.”
. . . The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.
Barzun wrote these words in the late 1990s; today it’s hard to imagine a better distillation of our situation. And pace the doomsayers, decadent periods need not give way swiftly to declines and falls: They can last — especially in a society protected by oceans from the mass migrations presently yanking a decadent Europe back into history — for generations, until some external threat or internal revival finally ushers in a different, more dynamic age.

Which suggests an irony for Western and particularly for American conservatives. In a less decadent era, our forefathers hoped to stop the march of history, to redirect its rushing course. In our era, history seems to have slowed to a depressing, repetitious crawl, and it might be our mission to start it moving once again.
Still waiting for my hoverboard.

1 comment:

glad2meetyou said...

How were our morals at rock bottom in the 1970s? How are our morals now better than they were in the 1970s?