State of the Culture Feed

What Is Actually Happening: 2023

The collection of writings by Alfred Delp, S.J. which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago has a long introduction by Thomas Merton. I'm not a Merton enthusiast, having found what I've read of his work (not all that much) a somewhat mixed bag, but this essay, dated October 1962, is excellent.

Fr. Delp reminds us that somewhere in the last fifty years we have entered a mysterious limit set by Providence and have entered a new era. We have, in some sense, passed a point of no return, and it is both useless and tragic to continue to live in the nineteenth century.... [T]here has been a violent disruption of society and a radical overthrow of that modern world which goes back to Charlemagne.

Now, sixty years after Merton wrote this, roughly eighty years since Delp wrote, the truth of these words is hardly arguable. The end of the Christian era and its impending replacement by something yet to be known had already been a frequent topic of notice and speculation since sometime in the 19th century and has continued ever since, so neither Delp nor Merton can be credited with any unusual insight on that point alone. The difference between them and, say, Matthew Arnold ("two worlds, one dead") or Yeats ("what rough beast") was that they were seeing the likely shape of the new age: violent totalitarianism.

Delp was, naturally, speaking mostly, and with the utmost personal concern, of Nazism and the devastating war it had brought upon the world. And much of Merton's essay takes up a similar theme. After quoting Delp that "Modern man is not even capable of knowing God," Merton says:

In order to  understand these harsh assertions by Fr. Delp we must remember they were written by a man in prison, surrounded by Nazi guards. When he speaks of "modern man," he is in fact speaking of the Nazis or of their accomplices and counterparts.

Delp and Merton both feared that violent totalitarianism might be the most characteristic face of the new age, though both were wise enough to see that it was only the face, and that the inner nature of the thing involved, in fact required, a revolution in the idea of what human life is, what it is for, and what it can be. 

The Soviet Union continued to carry the totalitarian banner until 1990. And when it fell there was a sigh of relief: that danger had been quashed, maybe or even probably forever, and modernity, understood as a general application of classical liberalism, was free to continue on the wide bright road illuminated by the twin beacons of Science and Freedom. But liberalism had either turned into or been replaced by something else: the same philosophical or religious disease that had produced fascism and communism, the faith and hope that mankind (or, in the case of fascism, a certain subset thereof) can achieve self-salvation by transforming the immanent world.

This involves the liberation of mankind, either collectively or individually or both, from the limitations which thwart us. It requires, first, liberation from God, who always in one way or another says "Thou shalt not" to something that man deeply wants to do. And then it involves all other constraints once thought (still thought by many) to be an essential part of the way things are, not subject to removal. These include, especially include, physical reality. As for moral reality--well, is there any morality apart from that which produces a result which makes us happy? And don't trouble yourself too much about analyzing the nature of happiness: how can it be anything but a condition of comfort in both mind and body? And every person will have his own view of what that entails.

In apparent, but not actual, contradiction, this total liberation requires molding and controlling people to make them fit inhabitants of the new age. If it doesn't begin with explicit totalitarianism, it eventually arrives there, because people won't naturally become what the ideology requires that they become. The fanatical progressivism that has seized so much of our culture is of this cloth. At bottom it's of a piece with fascism and communism, in that it is an attempt to create a new humanity. It isn't very violent now and may never be, because it exercises so much power without violence, and is steadily gaining more. If it can, for instance, close off certain important lines of work to anyone who dissents from its program, or shut down the public expression of dissenting views, it doesn't need violence. (If you think it isn't working on those and achieving some results, you aren't paying attention.)

I'm hardly the first or only person to make these basic observations. I'm working up to saying two things:

1) We can now see pretty clearly the shape of the new ideal of civilization that is replacing the Christian one. And we can see that it is in essence a product of the same force that produced fascism and communism, even though progressivism, loathes the former and doesn't take the crimes of the latter very seriously, and in principle abhors violence. But compulsion may be exercised without violence. Relatively non-violent totalitarianism--"soft totalitarianism," as some have called it--may succeed where violent hard totalitarianism failed.

2) The thing that I refer to as a "force" is the spirit of Antichrist. I've never been one, and still am not one, to make judgments about whether we are or are not in the end times. Maybe we are, maybe we aren't. And I don't claim that we are now or soon will be under the rule of the Antichrist. What I think is pretty clear is that the spiritual driving force of the current effort to remake humanity is the same one that will become or will produce, if it hasn't already, the Antichrist. "You will become as gods." It may not be the regime of the actual Antichrist, but it is of the Antichrist.

Rod Dreher recently quoted a letter of Pope Benedict

We see how the power of the Antichrist is expanding, and we can only pray that the Lord will give us strong shepherds who will defend his church in this hour of need from the power of evil.

In short, this is What Is Actually Happening, and it's important that Christians recognize it and have no illusions about it, especially as the humanitarian aspects of the Antichristic spirit are often superficially similar to Christian ethics. The essential difference is that the former always points and leads away from God, where the latter always points and leads toward him.

*

These thoughts were provoked not only by Delp and Merton, but by a remark in a fascinating book which I recently began to read: Jacques Barzun's history of the modern world, From Dawn to Decadence. This was another case when I picked up a book from the library discard shelf, let it sit around for a couple of years, and then, when I moved recently and had to pack up the books, considered giving it back to the library. But I leafed through it, read the opening pages, and decided to keep it.

The book begins with the Protestant revolution. In discussing Puritanism, Barzun says this:

Revolutions paradoxically begin by promising freedom and then turn coercive and "puritanical," to save themselves from both discredit and reaction.

Is that the meaning of the frenzied efforts by fanatical progressives to restrict any and all speech that contradicts their views or even causes them distress? Many institutions and areas of life are now well under their control, but there is certainly reaction. Maybe the intensity of the effort to suppress it is indicative of a grip not yet as tight as it wishes to be.


Carl Trueman: The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

Subtitle: "Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution"

It's always true of human societies that serious and seemingly, perhaps actually, insoluble problems exist, but there are degrees, and it's more the case now than ordinarily. It's not always the case that an entire civilization plunges, as ours has done, into ideas and behavior that are obviously self-destructive and can only result in decline, possibly collapse. In some ways these are even manifestly crazy, in the sense of being fundamentally at odds with reality.

Those who recognize and are properly alarmed by this are frequently engaged in a somewhat desperate search for a solution, usually at least partly political, because our culture is now very heavily politicized. But I don't think our problems can be solved in any decisive way. I don't see how the plunge can be stopped, because the most powerful elements of society are passionately committed to it. We'll just have to ride it out and hope that it won't be fatal (whatever that might mean).

Obviously there is much that can be done here and now to slow it down, at least, and to ameliorate the harm being done. And I admire those doing the difficult work of--to choose one example--resisting the teaching of sick ideologies to school children. Nor is the organized political opposition insignificant or (entirely) ineffective, flawed though much of it is. More power to all of them.

But I've lost much if not all of my interest in talking about solutions. What interests me more now is the question of how we got here. Or, more accurately and importantly: where the hell are we? What exactly is going on? Philip Rieff's Triumph of the Therapeutic shed a great deal of light on those questions. In this book, Carl Trueman brings Rieff's insights, published almost sixty years ago, and those of others into the present. The others are, principally, Alisdair Macintyre and Charles Taylor. And now I'm going to have to read them, too.

If you want to understand why this thing that we call the culture war is so intractable, you might read part 1 of Trueman's book. (It's probably in your local library, as it's in mine and I live in a fairly small town.) There he lays out the situation: the fundamental difference is between those who view the human situation as fundamentally a matter of finding and accepting one's place in an objective external order, usually (maybe necessarily?) a sacred order, and those--the more representatively modern school--who see the individual as more or less creating or inventing himself, and, as a natural corollary, wishing or demanding that the world accommodate, or be subjected to, the self. When the two parties disagree, as they now do

...there is no real argument taking place. There is no common authority on which they might agree to the terms of debate in order to determine exactly what it is they are debating. The one looks to a sacred order, the other to matters that do not rise above the concerns of the immanent order.

If there is no reasoned debate, there can be no reasoned compromise, only a stalemate of warring armies. And that's probably the best we can hope for in the near future.

The rest of the book traces the development of this contemporary concept of the self, and the social and political implications of it. First came Rousseau's assertion that man is "born free but everywhere in chains," the chains being or at least beginning with the degrading and corruption influence of Society. From there to the sexual revolution and its current phase is a grimly fascinating story, running through Freud, Marx, and 20th century figures such as William Reich and Herbert Marcuse, and summarized in these two passages:

...the rise of the sexual revolution was predicated on fundamental changes in how the self is understood. The self must first be psychologized; psychology must then be sexualized; and sex must be politicized.

To follow Rousseau is to make identity psychological. to follow Freud is to make psychology, and thus identity, sexual. To mesh this combination with Marx is to make identity--and therefore sex--political.... To transform society politically, then, one must transform society sexually and psychologically....

"The personal is the political," said the feminists. I always took this to mean that, for instance, when a husband leaves his socks on the floor, and his wife picks them up, a significant political event has occurred. And I think they did mean that. But Trueman demonstrates that it also means something much larger, something absolute, something bigger than anything else in the minds of the sexual revolutionaries (a category which includes a large subset of progressives but not all). This is the long-developing revolution which became a truly mass movement in the late 1960s, and is now, as is often observed, in effect a militant religion. Its strictures were foreshadowed by Reich, who believed

...that the state must be used to coerce families and, where necessary, actively punish those who dissent from the sexual liberation being proposed. In short, the state has the right to intervene in family matters because the family is potentially the primary opponent of political liberation through its cultivation and policing of traditional sexual codes.

All this seems to me essential for understanding what's happening, which is to say that this is an essential book if you want that understanding. It is not the only pathology at work, though. Trueman does not deal with directly political problems, chief of which in my opinion is the mysterious apparent death wish of a large segment of Western culture, the hatred and repudiation of its own past and ferocious denunciation of those who persist in valuing its traditions, especially of course its religious tradition, and who refuse to make the expected acts of repudiation. There is probably a connection between this and the hypertrophied narcissism described by Truman, but I'm not sure what it is.

Trueman-RiseAndTriumpOfTheModernSelf

*

I was going to say more about Vatican II and the article by Larry Chapp to which Marianne linked in the comments on the previous post, but I'm in the process of moving (not far, still same locale) and both time and internet access are limited. Next week....


Nietzsche, The Atheist Who Didn't Flinch

...the Enlightenment effectively tore out the foundations from under the polite bourgeois morality that it wished to maintain. You cannot do this, says Nietzsche. You have unchained the earth from the sun, a move of incalculable significance. By doing so, you have taken away any basis for a metaphysics that might ground either knowledge or ethics.... The cheerful and chipper atheism of a Richard Dawkins or a Daniel Dennett is not for Nietzsche because it fails to see the radical consequences of its rejection of God. To hope that, say evolution will make us moral would be to assume a meaning and order to nature that can only really be justified on a prior metaphysical basis that itself transcends nature, or simply to declare by fiat and with no objective justification that certain things we like or of which we approve are intrinsically good. 

--Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self

I haven't finished this book yet, and will probably have more to say about it. But it's actually better than I expected--not that I didn't expect it to be good, but it's both wider and deeper than I thought it would be. 


I Really Don't Understand Halloween Mania

Not that there's anything wrong with Halloween. But the way some people plunge into it now strikes me as a little crazy. 

A couple of blocks away from my house there's a yard which features a werewolf sort of thing that must be eight feet tall. And a life-sized witch, and a few other things which I haven't gotten close enough to identify. At night there's a lot of spooky purple lighting.

This is not so very unusual. But what is unusual is that this display has been up for at least two weeks: i.e., it went up in mid-September. When I first saw it I had a moment of confusion about the date of Halloween: wait, Halloween is at the end of October, right? Is it at the beginning? Am I forgetting what month we're in now? By the time Halloween actually arrives, these props will have been in place for a month and a half. 

This seems to be a relatively new thing. I knew a family back in the '90s who went to a huge amount of trouble and expense to decorate their house for Halloween. As far as I recall that was the first time I ever encountered that kind of zeal. Since I grew up in the country I may have missed some of it, but I really don't think many people in the '60s or for the next decade or two went in for it with this kind of zeal. I don't remember it happening where I lived in the '80s but maybe I've just forgotten, or didn't pay attention.

In general Halloween seems to have become a major thing for a lot of people, which must surely have some social significance, but I don't know what it is.  


More Rieff (3)

A brief but telling few paragraphs on the situation of Christianity in the new culture:

What, then, should churchmen do? The answer returns clearly: become, avowedly, therapists, administrating a therapeutic institution--under the justificatory mandate that Jesus himself was the first therapeutic. For the next culture needs therapeutic institutions.

After quoting a writer of the time, John Wren-Lewis, who dismisses all the actually religious aspects of religion, Rieff continues:

[Wren-Lewis] understands that churchmen will be able to become professional therapeutics "only if they break away radically from almost all, if not all, of their traditional religious pursuits." Here speaks the therapeutic, calmly confident that community life no longer needs "some supposed plan underlying experience," that is, no longer needs doctrinal integrations of self into communal purposes, elaborated, heretofore, precisely through such "supposed plans."....

Both East and West are now committed, culturally as well as economically, to the gospel of self-fulfillment. Yet neither the American nor the Russian translations of the gospel can be transformed into a spiritual perception.

Nor does the present ferment in the Roman Catholic Church seem so much like a renewal of spiritual perception as a move toward more sophisticated accommodations with the negative communities of the therapeutics. Grudgingly, the Roman churchmen must give way to their Western laity and translate their sacramental rituals into comprehensible terms as therapeutic devices. (p. 215)

That was 1966. The so-called "spirit of Vatican II" and many other developments would soon prove Rieff's prophetic insight. Clearly a great many Christians, clergy and other, have taken this path toward the therapeutic, not so much by a conscious decision as by having absorbed the view of the surrounding culture, that Christianity is essentially a sort of local  or specific implementation of a presumed general drive toward self-enrichment. 

Wren-Lewis took an interesting turn later in life after a near-death experience, becoming a believer in a kind of transcendent consciousness. 


More Rieff (2)

To end the spiritual impoverishment of Western culture, Jung recommends the following: that the rationalist suppression of myth and of other manifestations of the unconscious need mitigation, but not by a new theology or new dogmas; rather, by a therapeutic release of the myth components from the collective unconscious. The neurosis of modernity is defined by Jung as the suppression of precisely those irrational components. Therefore, Jung is recommending an essentially private religiosity without institutional reference or communal membership for the individual in need of an integrated symbolism....

In other words, "spiritual but not religious." In essence, this is a fairly common observation, though we usually hear it praised rather than viewed with Rieff's dry skepticism, and where it's criticized, not so precisely. What follows, though, is a little surprising:

This, then, is a religion for heretics in an age where orthodoxy no longer serves the sense of well-being. Jung's is a literary religion that demands more imagination than faith, more magic than science, more creativity than morality. Jung never analyzes the social structures within which all creative symbolisms occur. Indeed, he seems unaware of social structure. His psychology of the creative unconscious is remarkably old-fashioned, a secular version of the theology of the Creative Person which forms the central pillar of the huge and variegated growth we know today as Protestant theology. (p. 114)

My emphasis. I assume he's referring there to liberal Protestantism. It certainly doesn't seem to describe fundamentalist-evangelical Protestantism, at least not of Rieff's time. But I have the impression that the therapeutic mentality has made great inroads there in recent years, in what's been called "moral therapeutic deism." 

Oh look: MTD has a Wikipedia page


More From Rieff (1)

...the kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called "spiritual"--because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from its hard external crust of institutional discipline. Yet a culture survives principally, I think, by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood--with that understanding of which explicit belief and precise knowledge of externals would show outwardly like the tip of an iceberg....  Having broken the outward forms so as to liberate, allegedly, the inner meaning of the good, the beautiful, and the true, the spiritualizers, who set the pace of Western cultural life from just before the beginning to a short time after the end of the nineteenth century, have given way now to their logical and historical successors, the psychologizers, inheritors of that dualist tradition which pits human nature against social order. (p. 2)

The systematic hunting down of all settled convictions represents the anti-cultural predicate upon which modern personality is being reorganized.... (p. 10)

Not only our Western culture but every system of integrative moral demand, the generative principle of culture, expressed itself in positive deprivations--in a character ideal that functioned to commit the individual to the group. Culture was thus the establishment and organization of restrictive motives. Men engaged in disciplines of interdiction. The dialectic of deprivation and remission from deprivation was in the service of those particular interdicts by which a culture constituted itself. The analytic attitude does contain a certain time-element of asceticism, but it points toward a character ideal that is in principle anti-ascetic and therefore revolutionary if viewed from perspectives formed in the inherited moral demand system. The dialectic of perfection, based on a deprivational mode, is being succeeded by a dialectic of fulfillment, based on the appetitive mode. (p. 40)

That last sentence is an adequate summary of the condition(s) analyzed in the book.

The "spiritualizers" in the first quotation appear to be the Romantics in particular, though the general cultural drift they represented was not confined to them. One might think, in argument to that general point, of the many instances in Christian scripture and thought in which we are admonished to attend to the spirit and not the letter. And the "spiritualizers" do, too. But their mistake is to suppose that the spirit need not be, in fact should not be, embodied, that to give it a body is an unacceptable limitation. Jesus himself tells us that the law is to be made alive, not done away with. 

What immediately strikes the reader of our time is the apparent paradox in which the destruction of all settled convictions has turned into an extremely rigid heresy-hunting orthodoxy. But it's only apparent. What we call "society" is as intrinsic a part of being human as is the individual. And every society has, also intrinsically, its expectations of conduct, its standards by the light of which some things are acceptable and some are not. Or, to use Reiff's terms, its controls, or interdicts, and remissions.


Rieff Was Right

I'm finally reading The Triumph of the Therapeutic and find myself thinking that Philip Rieff was the smartest person of the 20th century. But I revise that thought immediately: "smart" is not the best word, suggesting mere intelligence, a high score on an IQ test. "Wisest," "'most perceptive," "most prophetic" would be better. He was the most accurate and profound analyst, from a somewhat detached, observational, semi-scientific point of view (he was a sociologist), of the cultural revolution (his term) which took place in western civilization over the past several centuries. Notice the past tense: in Rieff's view the transformation has been accomplished.

The book is subtitled "Uses of Faith After Freud," which only hints at the magnitude of its achievement, which is to name and explain the type of civilization which was coming into being after the long twilight of Christian civilization, described by Matthew Arnold as one in which we are

Wandering between two worlds, one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
("Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse")

Arnold is in fact referred to in the second sentence of the book. And Yeats's "The Second Coming," which unfortunately has now been overused in politics but remains as vivid and significant as ever, is its epigraph.

I'm not qualified to write a broad analysis or critique of the book. It's difficult and in some ways simply over my head. Among other things, Rieff was deeply knowledgeable about Freud and Freud's psychoanalytic procedures, and the greater part of this book is about Freud and his wayward disciples or successors: Carl Jung, Wilhelm Reich, and D.H. Lawrence. I've read some Lawrence, a bit of Jung, no Reich at all, and as far as I remember no Freud. (I hedge that last one slightly because I may have read some excerpts from The Future of An Illusion in a religion class in college.) And sometimes Rieff is, for me at any rate, simply obscure. He is, by the way, a superior prose stylist.

Fortunately, there is this appreciation by Jeremy Beer. It was published in The American Conservative in 2006 and is included in the contemporaneous edition of the book published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Here is a taste, and that's really all it is:

Rieff now worried that, though Christian culture had been all but entirely shattered, nothing had succeeded it; there were therefore no extant authoritative institutions whose demands and remissions (the culturally regulated relaxation of those demands) could be internalized, thereby acting to “bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs.” This failure of succession was no accident but rather the explicit program of the “modern cultural revolution,” which was deliberately being undertaken “not in the name of any new order of communal purpose” but for the “permanent disestablishment of any deeply internalized moral demands.”

I'm quite sure there is much in this book that I haven't clearly understood. But much of what I do understand is brilliant. What sets Rieff apart from others who have made similar broad observations is the depth of his insight into the nature and significance of the transition, and his deeply negative, but entirely unpolemical, view of it. Unlike, for instance, many Christian thinkers, he is dispassionate about the civilization which is ending and does not view its restoration as a possible solution, or even desirable. He is relentless in crushing the false hopes of Christians who believe that they can somehow preserve the faith by adapting it to the therapeutic culture, and in that respect he often seems to understand Christianity better than most Christians. Nor does he see any of the strategies and techniques proposed by Freud's successors as providing a solution, a way out of the crisis. The chapters on Jung, Reich, and Lawrence are essentially demolitions of their proposals. Freud, he seems to say, had only very modest expectations, and did not propose a grand solution, only coping strategies. 

Over the next few weeks I plan to pick out some specific passages and quote them, perhaps even venture to discuss them. Right now I have on my mind a notion sparked by this sentence, which is really just a passing remark: 

After all, Trinitarian Christianity is responsible for our present inclination to attribute an aura of divinity to the person as such--an inclination derived from the original attribution of personality to God.

Out of its context that may not strike you as so important or original, and the context is too extensive to quote. But in light of Rieff's overall effort to explain and justify his title phrase, and his treatment of the collapse of Christianity as a definer of culture, it jumped out at me. What he is pointing out is that in secular modernity, this "aura of divinity" has persisted alongside the quasi-scientific presumption of ultimate meaninglessness.

These two beliefs simply cannot be reconciled. The lame attempts to establish meaning as a purely subjective and temporary thing are only a temporary hedge against the reckoning. And (this is what suddenly struck me) the attempt to maintain both doctrines results in intense psychological conflict which I think is one of the drivers of the politics-as-religion phenomenon we're currently calling "wokeism." 

I know it's a cliché to point out that post-Christian civilization is carrying forward various features of Christianity, often in a distorted or corrupted form, but this is illuminating as a specific detail of that process. The "aura of divinity" becomes something to which the term narcissism doesn't quite do justice. The individual will is a sacred will, able not only by its own power, but by the permission and affirmation of (progressive) society, to alter reality--as long as, in the old classical liberal view, it doesn't hurt anyone else. And yet there is ultimately--I mean, ultimately--nothing essentially important or significant about the person as such: he is only an individual of an animal species not fundamentally different from any other, the result of random physical events. And according to current advanced thinking even his belief in his own conscious self is an illusion. 

If our future is to be defined by progressive ideas, this tension must eventually resolve itself, perhaps in a recurring tension and release, by means of some sort of scapegoating mechanism, perhaps in the age-old division of people into the significant and the insignificant. I'll leave the possibilities to your imagination.

TriumpOfTheTherapeutic

Yes, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn is Christopher Lasch's daughter, and the connections between the ideas of the two men are clear.

Now I have to admit that I have not actually read the entire book. It's not because I didn't try, but I have an odd problem. I've been reading a review copy of the book that was sent to me years ago when it was re-issued by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. (I'm sorry, ISI, that I never reviewed it.) I discovered that it's missing most of the Reich chapter (and shows a few other minor physical defects which I presume were corrected before a final printing).

So I ordered a new copy. It arrived on a Friday some weeks ago. I opened the package and laid the book on the dining room table. Early on the afternoon of the next day I went out of town for a night, returning late Sunday. A day or two later I looked for the book and it was not on the table where (I thought) I had left it. I have absolutely no memory of doing anything else with it. Nor does my wife. But I've searched the house, especially the bookshelves, and it hasn't turned up. I'm very much afraid that I did something one hears of old people doing: put it in some place where it doesn't belong, and forgot that I had put it anywhere at all. But if I did that, it must have been an obscure place. Yes, I looked in the refrigerator and the freezer and the pantry. And although I was pretty certain I had not taken the book with me on that overnight trip--I had consciously considered doing so, and decided not to--I had someone check the usually vacant family house where I had stayed. Not there either. And not in the car.

It still hasn't turned up, and my fear is that somehow it got put into the recycling bin, where a lot of paper on the dining room table goes, or the trash. Far-fetched, but if it were anywhere plainly visible I'd have seen it by now. I refuse to buy another copy (although that would probably cause the missing one to return) so I will have to live without the Reich chapter. I do have the first few and last few pages of it, and Reich is discussed along with the other two in an earlier chapter, so I think I got the general idea. I was a little surprised to see Reich taken so seriously, as I had the impression he was rather a nut. And apparently he was, but some of his ideas are quite prominent in our culture now.


Better Call Saul, The End

I'm having an unusually busy week, so instead of posting something more substantial about this great show, the last episode of which appeared on Monday night, I'll repeat what I said on Facebook after watching it:

So Better Call Saul comes to an end, and joins Breaking Bad and The Wire among great American novels on video. It's some compensation for being alive while the republic comes apart.

And this, which I said, also on Facebook, to a friend who said he'd never seen any of the three and wasn't much interested in doing so:

Personal taste is personal taste, but I think you're missing some great stuff. I'm far from alone in thinking these are the best work ever done specifically for television. I don't say "great American novels" idly, as I do think they bear comparison to great literary works in their exploration of character, and of good and evil. They're Dostoevsky-class in that respect.

Saul is a "prequel" to BB but mostly a very different kind of story, and it's pretty amazing that the producers and writers were able to produce something as good as BB.

All that said, I always warn people that BB has some very violent scenes and is generally a very dark and painful story in which some bad things happen to some good people. And some worse things to worse people. As much as I admire it, I don't really want to watch it again.

Perhaps I'll regret that Dostoevsky comparison someday. It strikes me now that I didn't say, in making the comparison, that, unlike Dostoevsky's work, the TV shows do not directly engage religious matters--not at all, as far as I can remember. And that is a major difference. For Dostoevsky, Christian belief was very much a live question, its decline a matter of grave concern, and hope for its renewal a significant element in the novels. In contemporary America as seen in the three shows I named, that struggle is over, and the characters are flailing around in a godless universe. That is not of course true of the actual America, but it's the culturally predominant worldview.

And of course it's not the exploration of big themes that makes great art--it's the skill with which the exploration is done. And it's the artistry of these shows--writing, direction, cinematography, and acting--that makes them great. If they are great. 


Trainwreck: Woodstock '99

I'm about two thirds of the way through this three-part Netflix documentary on the 1999 attempt by some of the original Woodstock promoters to revive, twenty-five years later, the glory that was Woodstock in 1969. I was vaguely aware of the 1999 festival, saw news reports that it had not gone very well, and that was about the extent of my notice of it. But apparently it was much worse than I had realized. 

I have a pretty jaundiced view of the original, and am of the opinion that Woodstock was not really Woodstock until the movie and the soundtrack album came out. My college roommate at the time had attended, and had no particular illusions about it: "A lot of people doing drugs in the mud and listening to music coming from a distant stage." According to him, it was not the hippie bands that got the most enthusiastic reception, but the good-time funk of Sly and the Family Stone. The movie made the myth. But though it may not have been the dawning of the Age of Aquarius (or maybe it was, and maybe that's not necessarily a great thing) it was not a trainwreck. 

The further I get from the '60s counter-culture, the more negative my view of it has become. How dense did one have to be to believe that peace and love are the natural and probably inevitable result of  turning people loose to do what they really feel like doing? The film features interviews with promoters, employees, and attendees who emphasize that the whole thing was badly planned from the beginning. And I have no doubt that it was. But the explanation for the fact that things turned so dark has to take into account the change in American culture, particularly in pop music, over the thirty years between the two Woodstocks. 

It seems to me that this is a much meaner country than it was in the late '60s. I won't explore that question in detail at the moment, but I think it's a valid generalization to say that although there was certainly plenty of meanness prior to 1970, it was not as generally diffused and intense as it is now. The political and cultural polarization which are so much a part of life now was just taking shape at the end of the '60s. And there is no question that by 1999 there was a whole lot of violent rage in popular music that was not there in 1969. 

In 1999 various forms of extremely angry metal or metal-influenced music were quite popular--nu-metal bands like Korn and Limp Bizkit. If you've never heard these bands, or, even more convincing, seen them perform, watch this clip of Limp Bizkit's Woodstock '99 performance. You won't be the least bit surprised that the festival ended in violence. This was the only the second day. Things would get worse. 

There is no pleasure to be had from watching this documentary, but as a cultural artifact it's fascinating. I don't think the particular kind of rage on exhibit here is still as much a part of pop music as it was then, but from what I occasionally hear it doesn't look as though the change represents anything I would call progress.