“The Sunset-Drowning of the Evening Lands”
I’d planned to devote this week’s Archdruid Report post to the fine and practical art of composting, and for good reason. It’s one of the most important and least regarded techniques in the ecotechnic toolkit, and it’s also a near-perfect model for the way that today’s mindlessly linear conversion of resources to waste can be brought back around in a circle, like the legendary ouroboros-snake that swallows its own tail, to become the sustainable resource flows of the human ecologies of the future.
Still, that profoundly worthwhile topic will have to wait a while. Even the most mercenary writer is now and then at the mercy of his muse, held hostage by some awkwardly timed bit of inspiration that elbows other projects aside, and I think that most of us who write for a living learn sooner or later to put up with the interruption and write out what has to be written. If this sudden veering from the pragmatic issues central to the last few posts needs a justification, that’s the only one I have to offer.
Well, maybe not quite the only one. The holiday season now lurching past is not a time I particularly enjoy. Our solstice ceremony a few days back was a bright spot, mind you; midsummer is a more significant occasion in my Druid faith, but it’s as pleasant as it is moving to gather with local Druids in the circle of the sacred grove to light the winter solstice fire and celebrate the rebirth of the sun in the depths of winter. Nor do I find anything in the least offensive in the Christian celebrations of the season. As human beings, we’re all far enough from the luminous center of things that we have to take meaning where we can find it; if someone can grasp the eternal renewal of spirit in darkness through the symbol of the midwinter birth of Jesus of Nazareth, I can’t find it in myself to object. From my perspective, though not from theirs, of course, we’re celebrating the same thing.
Nor, for that matter, do I turn Scroogelike at the thought of gifts, big dinners, and too much brandy in the egg nog. I can’t think of a human culture in the northern temperate zone that hasn’t found some reason to fling down life’s gauntlet in the face of winter with a grand party. Whether it’s the Saturnalia of the ancient Romans, when cold grim Saturn turns back just for a moment into the generous king of the Golden Age, or the Hamatsa winter dances of the Kwakiutl nation of Canada’s Pacific coast, when the cannibal giant Baxbakualanooksiwae, “Eater of Men at the River Mouth,” is revealed as the source of mighty spiritual gifts, this sort of celebration reflects a profound set of realities about our life in the world. Besides, I’m fond of brandy, and egg nog, and a good party now and then, too.
No, what makes the midwinter holidays a less than rapturous time for me is the spectacle of seeing the things I’ve just listed redefined as artificial stimulants for a dysfunctional economy supported by nothing so straightforward as honest smoke and mirrors. When front page news stories about Christmas center on whether consumer spending this holiday season will provide enough of an amphetamine fix to keep our speed-freak economic system zooming along, I start wishing that Baxbakualanooksiwae and his four gigantic man-eating birds would consider adding corporate vice-presidents and media flacks to their holiday menu. And that, dear readers, is what sent me for refuge to Oswald Spengler. A mild depression can be treated with Ogden Nash poems and Shakespeare comedies, but when things get really grim it’s time for the hair of the dog; the same effect that leaves the soul feeling oddly lighter after taking in a Greek tragedy, or listening to an entire album of really blue blues, hits a history geek like myself after a chapter or two of Der Untergang des Abendlandes.
I insist on the German title, by the way. The splendor of Germany’s literature and the curse on its history come from the same source, the brilliant but sometimes misleading way the German language naturally expresses abstract ideas in concrete, sensuous terms. Untergang, which gets turned in English into the anemic Latinism “decline,” is literally “going under,” and calls to mind inevitably the last struggles of the drowning and the irrevocable descent of the sun below the western horizon. Abendland, the German for “the West,” is literally “the evening land,” the land toward sunset. Put them together and the result could be turned into a crisp line of iambic pentameter by an English poet – “the sunset-drowning of the evening lands” – but there’s no way an English language book on the philosophy of history could survive a title like that. In German, by contrast, it’s inevitable, and for Oswald Spengler, it’s perfect.
Spengler has been poorly treated in recent writings on the decline and fall of civilizations. Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Compex Societies, for example, takes him to task for not providing a scientific account of the causes of societal collapse, which is a little like berating Michelangelo for not including accurate astrophysics in his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Spengler was not a scientist and never pretended to be one. He was a philosopher of history; in some ways, really, he was an artist who took the philosophy of history for his medium in place of paint or music. This does not make his contributions to our understanding of history less relevant. It’s only in the imagination of the most fundamentalist kinds of scientific materialism that scientific meaning is the only kind of meaning that there is. In dealing with human behavior, above all, a sonnet, a story, or a philosophical treatise can prove a better anticipation of the flow of events than any scientific analysis – and the decline and fall of our present civilization, or any other, is preeminently a story about human behavior.
Tainter’s critique also fails in that Spengler was not even talking about the fall of civilizations. What interested him was the origin and fate of cultures, and he didn’t mean this term in the anthropological sense. In his view, a culture is a overall way of looking at the world with its own distinct expressions in religious, philosophical, artistic, and social terms. For him, all the societies of the “evening lands” – that is, all of western Europe from roughly 1000 CE on, and the nations of the European diaspora in the Americas and Australasia – comprise a single culture, which he terms the Faustian. Ancestral to the Faustian culture in one sense, and its polar opposite in another, is the Apollinian culture of the classic Mediterranean world, from Homeric Greece to the early Roman empire; ancestral to the Faustian culture in a different sense, and parallell to it in another, is the Magian culture, which had its origins in Zoroastrian Persia, absorbed the Roman Empire during its later phases, and survives to this day as the Muslim civilization of the Middle East. Other Spenglerian cultures are the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Mesopotamian, and the two great New World centers of civilization, the Mexican-Aztec and the Andean-Incan.
Talking about the rise and fall of a culture in Spengler’s sense, then, isn’t a matter of tracing shifts in political or economic arrangements. It’s about the birth, flowering, and death of a distinctive way of grasping the nature of human existence, and everything that unfolds from that – which, in human terms, is just about everything that matters. The Apollinian culture, for example, rose out of the chaotic aftermath of the Minoan-Mycenean collapse with a unique vision of humanity and the world rooted in the experience of the Greek polis, the independent self-governing community in which everything important was decided by social process. Greek theology envisioned a polis of gods, Greek physics a polis of fundamental elements, Greek ethics a polis of virtues, and so on down the list of cultural creations. Projected around the Mediterranean basin first by Greek colonialism, then by Alexander’s conquests, and finally by the expansion of Rome, it became the worldview and the cultural inspiration of one of the world’s great civilizations.
That, according to Spengler, was also its epitaph. A culture, any culture, embodies a particular range of human possibility, and like everything else, it suffers from the law of diminishing returns. Sooner or later, everything that can be done from within the worldview of a culture – everything religious, philosophical, intellectual, artistic, social, political, you name it – has basically been done, and the culture fossilizes into a civilization. Thereafter the same things get repeated over and over again in endless combinations; disaffected intellectuals no longer capable of creativity settle for mere novelty or, worse still, simple shock value; artistic and intellectual traditions from other cultures get imported to fill the widening void; technology progresses in a kind of mechanical forward lurch until the social structures capable of supporting it fall away from underneath it. Sooner or later, the civilization falls apart, basically, because nobody actually believes in it any more.
What made this prophecy a live issue in Spengler’s time was that he placed the twilight of Western culture and the beginning of its mummification into Western civilization in the decades right after 1800. Around then, he argued, the vitality of the cultural forms that took shape in western Europe around 1000 began trickling away in earnest. By then, in his view, the Western world’s religions had already begun to mummify into the empty repetition of older forms; its art, music, and literature lost their way in the decades that followed; its political forms launched into the fatal march toward gigantism that leads to empire and, in time, to empire’s fall; only its science and technology, like the sciences and technologies of previous cultures, continued blindly on its way, placing ever more gargantuan means in the service of ever more impoverished ends.
Exactly how the Faustian culture would metastasize into a future Faustian civilization he did not try to predict, but one element of the transition seemed certain enough to find its way into his book. The society that would play Rome to Europe’s Greece, he suggested, was none other than the United States of America. In the brash architecture of American skyscrapers and the casual gesture that flung an army across the Atlantic to save France and England from defeat in the last years of the First World War, he thought he saw the swagger of incipient Caesarism, the rise of the empire that would become Faustian culture’s final achievement and its tomb.
It was a common belief at that time. Interestingly enough, it also shaped the thought of Spengler’s counterpart and rival, the British historian Arnold Toynbee, whose ten-volume A Study of History stands like hoplites in a Greek phalanx not far from the couch where Spengler and multiple cups of good oolong offered some consolation for the wretched orgy of economic excess and hallucinated well-being playing itself out outside my windows. For Toynbee, who shared Spengler’s cyclical theory of history but rejected all his philosophy and most of his conclusions, the natural next step in the unfolding of history was the transition from a time of troubles to a planetary empire, and like many English intellectuals in the twilight of the British Empire, he expected an alliance between the United States and the British Commonwealth to become the seed of that empire-to-be.
As it turns out, though, this plausible and widely held belief was quite incorrect, and the actions taken by three generations of politicians and intellectuals in response to that belief are all too likely to play out with disastrous results in the fairly near future. We’ll discuss that in next week’s post.