This is a text about Spengler and his magnum opus, "The Decline of the West". Now, it has to be stressed that I, Lennart Svensson, do not envision decline, doom and gloom. As an Actionist I strive for viable, constructive visions. However, Spengler was a smart man and his magnum opus is worth reading for many reasons. This, I show in the text below, focusing on Spengler's views on culture and art. Moreover, I discuss "the city", the way the image of the modern city can symbolize Spengler's view on the state of our civilization.
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, all told, he is
grand. And worth listening to. Oswald Spengler’s ideas on the lifecycles of cultures with birth, blossom and death is rather, more-or-less, kind of relevant to our age. I mean, Spengler's work 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, in many respects and 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 – a Bach, a Rafael, a Milton – created with good measure (Greek mêtron
), 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. Sometimes, as in the latter stages of The Ring, Wagner can't 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 -- mêtron.
Spengler is right in his critique of 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 element of decline. 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 are to be proved, runs a great admiration
of the West and its culture, even after the supposed apex of the 17th century. It's the Faustic culture, symbolised by Goethe’s Faust who wants to do everything, know everything, experience everything. Spengler sings 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 ourselves 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 don’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, these halls and marble tables with gold inscriptions like these:
If in Infinity the Self forever flows
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.
This 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 influenced by Nietzsche, and here primarily by his Dionysean thought, his vision of the archaic, pre-classic 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.
Eulogies for the West aside, we now live in more-or-less decadent 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 quantitative 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
A future for the West is possible, like if you apply Rudolf Steiner’s longer periods of cultures. For instance, Steiner meant that the Antique, Greek/Roman culture started in 700 BC and ended 1400 CE, giving it about 2,100 years of life. With the same periodicity, applied by Steiner in all cultures after the fall of Atlantis, our culture, the Faustian, began around 1400 and will end only in about 3500. And that end will not be with a “bang” but simply mean a transformation into something different.
I have spoken of general decadence. However, I don’t see Spengler as an infallible prophet in every word. Rather, I hold that a future for the West is more than possible – like, if you apply Rudolf Steiner’s longer periods of cultures.
For instance, Steiner meant that the Antique, Graeco-Roman culture started in 747 BC and ended as late as 1413 CE, giving it a run of 2,160 years. With the same “astrological era” periodicity (applied by Steiner on all cultures after the fall of Atlantis), our culture, the Faustian, took up the fallen mantle of the Graeco-Roman culture in 1413, and is set to last until 3573.
The exactitude of the dates given may astound you, it may seem too pat -- but, there are indicia of them actually being watershed years. Like 1413 being the year when Jeanne d’Arc appeared, this spiritual beacon for European renewal when she burst onto the scene and in a few years liberated her land from foreign occupation. And more nationalists followed: Hus, Engelbrekt. At the same time we had a cultural explosion beginning in Italy ("The Renaissance"). And European sea-farers went out to discover the world. All told, this was a new era -- the Faustian era.
And this current, Faustian culture will – as intimated by Steiner – only end in 3573. This gives us plenty of time to remedy the decadence of today.
In comparison, Spengler had a too narrow outlook. The lifespan of his cultures – 1,000-1,500 years – is too short.
Conversely, the Steiner pattern (2,160 years) gives us more room to maneuver.
Spengler is a born pessimist. “Optimism is cowardice” he for instance says in Man and Technics. Fight to the death against nature, and then finis. This is what the future of mankind brings.
This is where I oppose Spengler. Against this another outlook, like the one proposed by Steiner, might be needed. A cosmic pattern giving room for a continued striving, a continued existence for man – especially, for Faustian man.
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” of his magnum opus 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 essentially since nothing new is created and everything is a repetition of styles, nostalgia and romanticism.
That the current era is a time of repetition and recycling, of pastiche 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. As intimated, 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 rather enlightening, teaching 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 transformation of the West Spengler’s book, however, is a good companion, the educated man’s guide to history at large.
[Note: Oswald Spengler lived 1880-1936.]
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