Worth the Price?

I have spent the better part of my adult life defending Western Civilization against the postmodern attacks from within the Academy (especially) that would bring it down about our ears. Those attacks, I have been informed, began in the Modern era with writers such as Nietzsche, Sir. James Frazer, Kafka, Joseph Conrad, and Freud — among others. The “revolution” in the 1960s was just an outward expression of the revolt that had already begun. Indeed, an essay written by Lionel Trilling in 1961 that focuses attention on modern literature asks us to question whether or not it would be better if civilization as we know it were to succumb to the attacks of those who find it a painful burden. Trilling makes his point at some length and asks us to ponder the imponderable:

“. . .the historic sense of our literature has in mind a long excess of civilization to which may be ascribed the bitterness and bloodiness both of the past and of the present and of which the peaceful aspects are to be thought of as mainly contemptible — its order achieved at the cost of extravagant personal repression, either that of coercion or that of acquiescence; its repose otiose; its tolerance either flaccid or capricious; its material comfort corrupt and corrupting; its taste a manifestation either of timidity or of pride; its rationality attained only at the price of energy and passion.”

This is one of the most powerful passages I have read in many years and it demands that those of us who would defend civilization against various attacks from within and without search our souls for an answer. It would appear that the postmodern attack, so-called, is merely the latest version of an attack that has been going on since the latter part of the nineteenth century. And that attack has been increasingly effective, as I have noted on numerous occasions.

Trilling suggests that in Civilization and Its Discontents Freud is one of those, following Nietzsche closely, who raises deep questions about whether the price we have paid for what we call “civilization” is worth it. To be sure, that price is suggested in the words I have quoted above, and we must ask whether the “contemptible,” middle class existence that we have all grown comfortable with is indeed the highest expression of the struggles of humankind with its baser instincts. In Freud’s view, civilization demands restraint, the repression of our baser instincts, sublimating them into creative and imaginative outlets that we label “art,” “philosophy” and “science.” Has the “cost of extravagant personal repression” been too great?

On the face of it, the cost is minimal. After all look where science has brought us, along with an economic system that promises the average person a higher standard of living than the kings enjoyed during ages past. But that is precisely the question: has the repression of our baser instincts been worth the prize? And, more to the point, what effects might there be if we decide all of a sudden that the cost is too great and it is time to turn loose the demons that reside within each of us?

It is the fear of those demons that has triggered my defense for so many years in the things I have thought, taught, and written. But I must now ask whether the demons are indeed more frightful than the effects of those restraints that civilization demands that we place upon them, including the worst features of a greedy capitalism and such things as slavery, deprivation, and colonization. Is Trilling correct in insisting that the complacent middle class life we have come to embrace in the name of Western Civilization can be described as “contemptible,” “otiose,” “flaccid,” “capricious,” “corrupt and corrupting,” “its rationality attained at the price of energy and passion”? Are we to prefer instead a world in which the depraved Kurtz, the protagonist of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, is a prototype of what we might hope to become?

I suggest that there is considerable truth in what Trilling says. And that’s deeply disturbing. But it is perhaps only a half-truth. Because, as noted, civilization has also brought about the highest expression of the human spirit in the form of its art, philosophy, literature, and science. If we have allowed our civilization to reduce itself, as Trilling suggests, to “bitterness and bloodiness,” it may not be the result of repression and the restraint that civilization and high culture have demanded. It may be the fault of people who have allowed themselves to become lulled into a false sense of their own superiority and a dulled sensibility to human suffering, those who have enjoyed the fruits of civilization without understanding what the cost has been and what debt we owe to those who have gone before us.

Civilization demands restraint. What is not clear is that this restraint has brought about repressions that have diminished the human soul or whether those restraints have, rather, made possible the “best that has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold would have it. I prefer to think the latter, and as I look about and see what seems to be happening as civilization comes unraveled and a new age of barbarism dawns, how humans behave to one another when given free rein, I worry that we have decided as a race that the cost has been too great and it is time to let go completely. Heaven knows ours in not a society known for its restraint! Great minds have suggested it is time, perhaps they even pointed the way, and many within the academy today are teaching their charges that change is long overdue. And the young listen eagerly as they hear the siren sounds of a call to release the demons so long locked up.

But I find this worrisome, to say the least — and certainly food for further thought.

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