Monday, June 16, 2008

'Postbarbarian' culture

In Barbarians Such as the World Has Never Known?, Anthony Esolen serves up some food for thought. Here's the beginning:

I hesitate to use the word "barbarian" to describe our current state of amnesia -- or, worse, our current pleasure in deriding our civic, intellectual, and spiritual forefathers. That's because barbarians did not do that. The change from nomadic tribesman to citizen does not mark the beginning of chronicles and memorials and feasts to honor the legendary heroes of one's people. What changes is the form of the memorial -- in stone, perhaps, rather than merely in orally bequeathed poetry -- and the reasons for celebrating the virtue; no longer mere courage in the battlefield, but courage shown for the sake of one's country. In other words, there is a fine continuity between celebrating the strength of Achilles and celebrating the bravery of Horatius at the bridge.

So how should we describe this new thing in the world, a people without roots, tumbleweeds that flit and float from fad to fad, attracted by bright toys and flashy sleaze? Postcultural, certainly, but also postbarbarian. The barbarian has not been civilized yet; but what we have now are people who used to be civilized, and that seems to me to be a different thing entirely. Right now I'm poking around in old schoolbooks, readers from the 1800's, for instance. The literary quality of the pieces included in Holmes' Fifth Reader is impressive (selections by Shakespeare, Dickens, Macaulay, Browning, Henry Clay, John Marshall, for example). Even the dated pieces by writers we no longer recognize are not all that bad. What strikes me most powerfully, though, is the assumption by the anthologist that the young reader will be edified, literally "built up," by his encounter with the great writers of England and America. The reader is expected to know, or to want to know, who General Anthony Wayne was, or what John Marshall was like in his personal habits, or how Henry Clay rose from penury and ignorance to his long career of service in the Senate. More than one kind of memory is exercised by these pieces; and it is not true that the students were encouraged never to question the complete wisdom of all those who came before them. That surely was not possible, two decades after the Civil War. Honor is not the same thing as supine submission.

I suggest reading the whole piece.

I also read old books and textbooks, and am continually amazed at the depth and substance of the older books compared to what is generally aimed at youth - or, for that matter, adults - today.

On the other hand, I've mentioned this before and I'll mention it again, the classics section and the history section at our bookstore get regularly depleted, mostly by teens and twenty-somethings who have become convinced (probably correctly) that they're intellectually malnourished and need a dose of something not handed to them in school. Rootlessness might be epidemic, but some of the victims are actively seeking a cure, in other words.

Ours is a store stocked mostly with used books. Try going into a store like that someday, and watching people grab onto books written before they were born, and then clutching them like treasure. Many of today's young folks get every bit as much pleasure in seeking and studying voices from the past as some of the rest of us, believe me. They, too, want to know where they came from, and what's better and what's worse about their cultural environment compared to what's been in place before.

I think C.S. Lewis hit it dead on when he said that every age has its blind spots. What makes us luckier than most folks in history is that we can learn from age upon age, culture upon culture - assuming, of course, that the locally operative 'powers that be' don't erase the past, or skew it out of all recognition and therefore rob it of all benefit as an example of real life, or smash people who go in search of alternatives to the party line, or...

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