Now and then I think about what to post here on Svenssongalaxen. This thinking is mostly done at 9 PM, after I've put out the lights and try to sleep. And now, after some deliberations, soul-searching and meditation, I've decided to give you this piece on Oswald Spengler's relevance today. I concentrate on Spengler's views on culture and art. Moreover I discuss "the city" rather a lot, the way the image of the modern city tends to symbolize Spengler's view on the fate of our civilization.
Oswald Spengler was a German scholar. About 100 years ago he wrote about the collapse of civilization in ”The Decline of the West” (1918-22).
So what, indeed, was Spengler? Just another Grand Old Man saying Profound Things on How Bad Things Are Today? -- I'd say he is grand. And worth listening to. Oswald Spengler’s ideas on the lifecycles of cultures with birth, blossom and death is highly relevant to our age. I’m telling you the truth: this is no mere Untergangsromantik, no indulgence in dark forebodings, although there might be a risk to read him that way too. It’s said that the Right have a tendency to dwell on pessimistic subjects, to secretly rejoice in the death and destruction of a society gone wrong, and maybe Spengler’s book caters to that urge somehow.
Be that as it may. All I can say is: with the help of Spengler we can face the transforming of civilizations. What we need is sobriety in our outlook, all in order to understand ourselves and the world. And in our culture, in the current international world-city civilization we have, as Spengler says, passed the apex. What’s left is reruns, recycling, parodies and copies. No-one takes anything seriously anymore. All that is left is consumerism, populism and panem et circensis. Nietzsche’s ”Last Man” rules supreme.
We’re at the end of a great era. Spengler says that our culture, the West, the faustic confluence, stood at its height around 16-1700. Since then we’ve mostly seen degeneration, the repetition of styles, dilettantism. The artist of the good old days – masters like a Bach, a Rafael, a Milton – created with good measure (Greek metron), learning his craft and confidently producing work after work. The artist of a later, romantic era for his part had to go beyond that, he couldn’t just repeat the Greatness of Old. But in so doing he had a tendency in trying to reach the unreachable, often failing in the task. See here for instance Ezra Pound’s outcry about his "Cantos" cycle: ”I can’t make it cohere!” That never happened to the masters of the great era.
This is a clever observation by Spengler. He for himself exemplifies with Wagner. Neither Wagner can really make it cohere. I myself love Wagner but I admit that the crevices and paddings show in his Great Work. It's somewhat devoid of measure -- metron.
Spengler is right in his critique on romantic fausticism. But otherwise you shouldn’t read him all too programmatically. I mean, if everything in the West after 1700 is Entartung and degeneration then for example Spengler's own work, ”The Decline of the West” from 1922, can't be taken seriously...! So let’s not focus solely on the decline-element. And Spengler himself privately admitted after his work had been published and Europe and the West gathered strength after WW1, that the title of the book should have been ”The Triumph of the West”. For through all the analyses of his work, his constructs by which the pattern of rise-blossoming-decay is to be proved, runs a great admiration of the west and its culture. It is the faustic culture, symbolised by Goethe’s Faust who wants to do everything, know everything, experience everything. It’s a veritable praise of the faustic world, of its geniuses in their cells probing the depths of existence, its explorers mapping every white patch of the globe, its inventors inventing previously unseen things, its schoolboys drawing dreamcars with a view to drive them along never-ending highways: I’m heading out to the highway… Roll on down the highway… Midnight on a never-ending highway…
The West: it’s the architecture where the front necessarily has to express something. That’s a typical western trait. We don’t always notice it since we’re born into it. But: ”Christian temples speak loudly about their interior, Muslim temples remain silent about it, antique temples doesn’t even think about it.” Spengler concludes that the cathedral starts from within, the antique temple from without; the mosque for its part both begins and ends in its interior, in its gilded, arabesque-fretted grotto. Few other scholars can make such succinct, symbolically telling summaries.
The West: it’s about central perspective and analytical languages, about a marching, drum-induced pace along boulevards that seemingly lose themselves in the hazy distance à la Champs Elysée, Unter den Linden, Valhallavägen and Sunset Boulevard. The symbol of the West is the plain, that of the Middle East is the cave.
The West: in Spengler’s vein it’s about the city, the faustic city with its fountains, squares, parks and boulevards, unique elements in a unique creation, living with it and dying with it. But as long as it lives we can walk in these megacities and feel sentimental over the beauty of these fronts with their cranea, volutes and gargoyles, over these interiors with their galleries, exedras, cupolas and pilasters, their halls and marble tables with gold inscriptions like these:
If in Infinity the Self forever flowsThis poem by Goethe ("Wenn im Unendlichen") was something of a Leitmotif for Spengler’s work: it was the cyclical, recurring pattern in the development of cultures that he wanted to capture. There were other Goethean influences – Faust of course, and the tendency to see history and indeed every aspect of human culture (cities, countries etc) as an organism and not a mechanism. Other than that Spengler was formed by Nietzsche, and here primarily by his Dionysean thought, his vision of the archaic, pre-classical antiquity. Archaic times had a more dreamlike quality, people then living in trance-like states with intuition to the fore, as compared to the late classic times where sobriety, transparence and analysis came to dominate. Spengler then saw the same pattern repeat itself in early European times with the Edda being sung in misty German forests, exuding a dream-saturated, adolescent power that slowly matures in the city culture (= civilization) and becomes overripe in the world city, the phase we now live in: international world-city civilization.
repeated endlessly in endless repetition
so arch the sure and numberless porticoes
upon themselves with force and impartition;
from everything out-surges love for life,
from vastest star to smallest kernel
and every pressure, agony and strife
is in the Lord our God but rest eternal.
Eulogies for the West aside, we now live in end times and we have to see the signs, read the writing on the wall. And reading papers and watching TV makes it clear that today’s pundits don’t see these signs. Instead, they believe in a never-ending liberal utopia just around the corner, coming real if we only increase this and that aspect (education, free markets, growth) in quantative fashion. So a Spenglerian analysis comes in handy here. Why, exactly are we running out of steam, why is our current culture lacking vigour?
As intimated, the Faustian culture emerged in medieval days and blossomed around 16-1700. Barring some good works of art after this in general it’s a dismal time, a time of decadence. One of these is the cult of the novel, the long, the longer than long prose narrative as the optimal expression of literature. Gone is the archaic, noble héroïde sung in metric stanzas; instead we get bourgeois classics, urban narratives about shopkeepers, dandies, criminals, demimondes and liberated women: ”The latter-day epic focuses on the doings of a Nana, a Bel-Ami, a Hertha, and they’re all sterile.” The modern novel is a product of the city and will have nothing to say mankind of the future – to future man who will live in a more authentic, but not 19th century-like, culture. Instead it might, using Guillaume Faye’s concept, become an archeofuturist world.
Coda: The City
As mentioned the civilization of today is an international world city culture. We're governed by an elite traveling from mega city to mega city; they feel lost in the nearest countryside. Spengler stated this in 1922 and it’s still viable. It’s in the chapter ”The Soul of the City” and here we get his critique in a nutshell. The city is born as an extended village, grows in medieval times around a castle or a dome, blossoms in early modern times and declines successively ever after – declines, not on the surface that gets shinier than ever, but essientially since nothing new is created and everything is a repetition of styles, nostalgia and romanticism.
That the current times are a time of repetition and recycling, of pastische and parody and remakes, is clear to everyone. Everything is basking in the glory of past masters, making covers and commentaries, mimicking the originality of true creators. The demand for ”originality” is long gone. The words cultural fatigue spring immediately into mind.
Spengler is pointing these things out for us. He may be making too broad generalisations sometimes. And he's too pessimistic. I for one don't think that all is lost. Individuals, "aristocrats of the soul" can survive the decay by their erudition and willpower and thus become the leaders of a new era. That said, on the whole Spengler's work is truly enlightening. He learns us to see, to think in greater terms than the ”eternal development, eternal progress” of the liberal mind. After blossoming comes decay, after decay comes interregnum, and after interregnum comes a new dawn with a new birth. Exactly how the New West would appear he didn’t say, he believed that as westerners all our traits and characteristics would disappear and then a totally new culture would arise on top of the rubble. Spengler didn't sketch the next phase too clearly, adhering to the motto: ”It doesn’t pay a prophet to be too specific”, as Samuel Pepys said. To us who will live to see the fall of the West Spengler’s book however is a good companion, the educated man’s guide to the crumbling of the current civilization.
[Note: Oswald Spengler lived 1880-1936.]
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Top image, Stockholm City. Bottom image, from Härnösand's library