Saturday, April 22, 2017

Civilization and its Malcontents

This dude in the illustration run at the top of yesterday's David Brooks column ("The Crisis of Western Civ") is a Giant—extremely strong, in the ancient Greek cosmology, and maybe violent, but not huge in stature like Germanic giants—getting roughed up by a goddess, Doris, the consort of the sea god Nereus, in the colossal mythological battle of the Giants against the Olympian gods, the Gigantomachy, depicted in the frieze from the altar of Zeus of the Anatolian city of Pergamon, 2nd c. B.C.E., now at the Pergamon-Museum in Berlin, which was closed down when I was there a couple of years ago—I really wanted to go not so much because I knew what was there as because I love the sound of the name, and its hum of German classicalism. It's a huge moment in art history, though, of the transition between the calm majesty of the high Athenian moment and the violence and spectacularity of later Hellenism, like that from Mannerism to the Baroque in the 16h century.

The context in which the face is set can be seen below, from a somewhat different angle, where you can recognize the extent to which Doris (whose head has been lost over the millennia) is not simply pulling the unnamed Giant's hair, but has yanked his head back hard enough, maybe, to break his neck, and you can see the intensity of his pain in the way his eyes are rolled back into his skull as he tries desperately to pull her hand away:
Photo via Michael Lahanas.
What does any of this have to do with former New York Times columnist David Brooks? Darned if I know. The column tells the story of how humanities professors in American liberal arts colleges, through their heedless criticism, tried to destroy the narrative of Western civilization, as represented by the 11-volume history of the West composed by Will and Ariel Durant and published between 1935 and 1975, and ended up destroying Western civilization itself. No, really:

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.
It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.
Amazing indeed. (There's the 153rd career use of "amazing/amazingly", by the way.)

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.
Thanks a pantload, Herbert Marcuse and Noam Chomsky! You and your so-called criticism have gotten us Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and apparently Donald Trump in place of the cultured dictators of old (from Napoleon III to Idi Amin). I hope you're satisfied.

Actually, I happen to have Will Durant right here with me (thanks, Wikipedia!), and he seems to think the conflict between dogma and criticism goes on all the time, if not necessarily in conjunction with dictatorships, made inevitable by the "suicidal" refusal of religion to evolve alongside the growth of knowledge:
Religion begins by offering magical aid to harassed and bewildered men; it culminates by giving to a people that unity of morals and belief which seems so favorable to statesmanship and art; it ends by fighting suicidally in the lost cause of the past. For as knowledge grows or alters continually, it clashes with mythology and theology, which change with geological leisureliness. Priestly control of arts and letters is then felt as a galling shackle or hateful barrier, and intellectual history takes on the character of a "conflict between science and religion." Institutions which were at first in the hands of the clergy, like law and punishment, education and morals, marriage and divorce, tend to escape from ecclesiastical control, and become secular, perhaps profane.
After which a decline into "chaos" invariably follows:
The intellectual classes abandon the ancient theology and—after some hesitation—the moral code allied with it; literature and philosophy become anticlerical. The movement of liberation rises to an exuberant worship of reason, and falls to a paralyzing disillusionment with every dogma and every idea. Conduct, deprived of its religious supports, deteriorates into epicurean chaos; and life itself, shorn of consoling faith, becomes a burden alike to conscious poverty and to weary wealth. In the end a society and its religion tend to fall together, like body and soul, in a harmonious death. Meanwhile among the oppressed another myth arises...
Which all seems a little too schematic to me, one civilization at a time, as if these processes weren't going on in different phases simultaneously around the world, and at a micro level inside each civilization every day, and side by side where cultures interpenetrate, as they mostly do most of the time. But the secularization of American and European institutions started with very radical revolution around the time of the Durants' volume 10—the point where history ended for the first time, in Hegel's Prussia, would have come in volume 12—and it would make more sense to blame it on Montesquieu and Franklin, not Howard Zinn; and you should really blame it on the inflexibly dogmatic oppression of the clerical-aristocratic alliances against whom the secular thinkers of the Enlightenment were reacting back then.

I knew practically nothing about the myth of the Olympians and the Giants, I guess because its detailed versions arose pretty late, as Greece itself was in deep decline, after the collapse of the Alexandrine empire—it's not quite a part of the stories we all know from Homer through Euripides. But it's evidently a story of class oppression at some level; the Giants are the younger brothers of the defeated Titans, dispossessed sons of Gaia, the Earth, dressed in the iconography as hoplites or common soldiers, rapists or cattle thieves. And of course they lose, and the gods calmly reassert their power, and that's a very good thing from the standpoint of the ruling class. I think it's very interesting how much of a violent part the female Olympians, Athena and Doris, play in the battle itself, as if to assert that only their side is a civilization or a family, complete, while the wild Giants have no women of their own.

In Pergamon itself, it may have aligned with an idea of a struggle of civilization against barbarians. Scholars no longer claim with certainty that the altar commemorates the victory of King Eumenes II over the Celtic tribe of the Tolistoagians in 184 B.C.E. but it's a fact that the Pergamenes fought these and other Celtic wanderers a good deal in those decades. Wikipedia opines that the Gigantomachy as portrayed in the friezes
appears much rather to be a cosmological event of general ethical relevance. It can perhaps be interpreted in the sense of stoicism, and was certainly not designed without political considerations, as was the case with all artistic image metaphors depicting the struggle between the good and just principle — the Olympian gods and their helpers — and evil — the chaotic forces of nature in the form of the earthbound Giants. 
At the same time I wonder if there's something subversive and critical, 2200 years ago, in the depiction of that one Giant's agonized face, a bit of a protest against the cruelty and selfishness of the gods' triumph, a sculptor refusing to accept the official narrative and allowing himself to feel some pity for the savage enemy. Just saying.

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