Sunday, September 24, 2006

What would Mr. Spectator say?

While I am constitutionally incapable of not taking personally attacks on the culture, education, dress, eating habits, etc, typical of people of my type, I have always found it slightly ridiculous when people claim to wonder what George Eliot would have thought about MTV sorority girls or Mozart of the productions of Lynyrd Skynyrd, as if somehow their personal and direct denunciation of these things would have any more power to destroy them than the actual works they produced and the awesome iconography around their persons which very much exist. Nonetheless, as I was driving around the other day and that raunchy "London Bridge" song that is currently a hit came on the radio, I could not help thinking of the Spectator being transported to the psychic environment of modern London. Addison seems to be the sort of historical figure who would really be thrown into quite a state of discountenance by the scale of modern cultural collapse. I think this is because first of all he had not only a tremendous pride in his classical education, but an absolute faith in its authority as regarded wisdom, morals, virtues, and so on. Secondly, compared to a profound genius his grasp of the extent and latent force of human moral and intellectual depravity unleashed on a mass scale was limited. It is not clear that he could really imagine a society that was not essentially primitive in which liberally educated people on the classic model not only had no influence over the general culture, but were scarcely a perceptible presence in most schools and colleges. Such a society would not be a society, such schools not schools, such a culture no culture at all, and such human beings not human. I suppose this is a defining characteristic of classicism. These are exactly the sorts of observations which the brilliantly educated German emigrants of the Hitler era made upon their banishments to American universities of the native population and its institutions. These people had a similarly unshakeable pride and confidence in the thoroughness and authority of their humanistic educations (which of course, it should be noted, included mathematical and scientific instruction of an extent that we seem to consider impossible to impart to non-professionals) and when presented with a mass society almost wholly cut off from learning and genuine artistic sensibility, were unable to admit them the status of full human beings.

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