I have recently been reading The Chronicles of Wasted Time, the memoirs of the curmudgeonly British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. I was first introduced to Muggeridge over twenty years ago by my maternal grandmother, who lent me his Jesus Rediscovered a few months after I announced my intention to study theology. Muggeridge, who had been raised in an agnostic, socialist home – his father was a Labour MP – and who married into the leading family of the Fabian Left – his wife was the niece of Beatrice Webb – grew disillusioned with Marxism, seeing the reality of Stalinist state-terrorism first hand as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow in the early 1930s and later in life converted to Roman Catholicism. I picked up a copy of his memoirs in a used book store over ten years ago and was inspired to finally read them when I came across Anthony Powell’s recollections of Muggeridge in his own four volume autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling. In The Green Stick, the first volume of The Chronicles of Wasted Time, I found the following interesting observation:
As I see it, in the twentieth century the genius of man has gone into science and the resultant technology, leaving the field of mysticism and imaginative art and literature almost entirely to charlatans and sick or obsessed minds. The result has been that, whereas in the last half century more progress has been made in the exploration of man’s material circumstances, and in the application of the knowledge thereby gained, than in the whole of the rest of recorded time, the corresponding contribution to art and literature has been negligible and derisory. The circumstances of the age are just not conducive to such activities, and those who nonetheless pursue them tend to become unhinged or junkies or alcoholics, if not all three. (pp. 208-209)
Muggeridge does not elaborate further on this at any great length – unless the theme of belonging to a doomed civilization in its dying days that underlies his entire autobiography is regarded as such an elaboration. It seems to me that it is an observation that deserves further consideration.
There are those, of course, who would contest Muggeridge’s assessment of the state of art and literature in the twentieth century. I am not one of those, and would say that if anything, he understated his case and that in the twenty-first century in which we now live, things are abysmally worse. Consider poetry, as just one example. English poetry of all sorts and levels flourished in the nineteenth century. It was the century of Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, of Shelly, Keats and Byron, of Scott and the Brownings, of Swinburne, Macauley, and Tennyson. Kipling and Housman survived into the twentieth century, the early decades of which gave us Auden and Owen, Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Frost. Since World War II, however, English poetry has come to resemble nothing so much as the title of Eliot’s most famous poem, “The Wasteland”. The fact that the late Maya Angelou is today considered to be a great poet is all the evidence we need to show that English poetry has gone from its zenith to its nadir within less than a hundred years.
If man’s twentieth century achievements in the realm of science and technology are linked, as Muggeridge suggests, with the decline and degradation of arts and literature, the question that then arises is one of how the two are related to each other. Are science and art somehow mutually incompatible with one another? Are the mental facilities of man so limited as to allow him to only achieve in one of these two areas at a time?
I think that it is to be explained by the shift in the way the Western world understands civilization. Traditional Western civilization was built upon the idea that human activity is directed towards certain ends. Some of these ends are defined by material needs and desires such as the need for food, clothing and shelter. Others are goods which are transcendent, which exist in a higher realm beyond that perceived through the senses. The ends of human activity are not equal but arranged in a hierarchy of importance in which the transcendent goods – goodness itself, truth, beauty, justice, etc., are higher and more important than the lower, material goods. Therefore, whether a society is civilized or not, and the level of its civilization, is determined by the extent of its pursuit of these higher goods, of which its arts and literature are indispensable indicators.
The foundation of this way of looking at things – the idea that there is something beyond the world as perceived through the senses – has been subjected to a steady process of erosion for almost a thousand years beginning with William of Ockham’s denial of the reality of universals. The less men came to believe in a world beyond the material, the less important the higher goods became to them and the more important the lower goods. Hence man turned his efforts more and more towards science, the means whereby he gains knowledge of and mastery over the physical world and so obtains his every material desire.
In a very real sense, the eclipse of art and literature by science and technology represents the triumph of the spirit of the philistine. I do not mean philistine in the literal sense of the people that ancient Israel fought against but in the metaphorical sense. The metaphorical philistine is the man who looks for nothing in life, beyond material security, other than the comforts and amusements, themselves material, that distract him. He sees no purpose in schooling beyond getting a job, and no purpose in higher education beyond getting a better paying job. He sees no need for a higher life of the mind and spirit for himself, and responds to those who seek such for themselves, with scorn and derision.
In previous centuries, philistinism was associated with certain versions of Protestantism. The Protestant Reformation had begun with Martin Luther re-asserting the Pauline doctrine that salvation is God reaching down to man in Christ and giving us His grace to be received through faith. Some Protestants drew from this the conclusion that all human pursuit of higher goods was “religion” and offensive to God and sought to purge their churches and often their lands of it. English Puritanism, which cancelled liturgy, smashed church organs, and stripped churches of beauty and decoration in the name of “simplicity”, which judged art not by the standards of aesthetics but of a very Pharisaic morality, is an obvious example of this.
The basic essence of philistinism, however, is materialism rather than Protestant theology. That human intellect has been poured into science and technology in the twentieth century at the expense of the arts and literature represents the ultimate triumph of philistinism, its having conquered its ancient enemy, the life of the mind, and forced it to pay tribute. Meanwhile, the world of arts and literature has been taken over by those so aptly described by Muggeridge as “charlatans and sick or obsessed minds” as to make the philistine seem more appealing. While the man who sees no point in the paintings of Michelangelo, El Greco, Titian and Poussin, the plays of Shakespeare and Racine, or the verse of Donne, Dryden, Goethe and Baudelaire, and treats those who do as objects of ridicule, was obviously a fool, there is something to be said for the man who sees no point in trying to read the unreadable verse of Angelou, the woman who cannot sit through a production of an Ensler play, and the person, man or woman, who, unable to make the insane equation of nihilistic subversion with aesthetic value, walks away in disgust from most of which is produced as “art” today. So perhaps even the cloud of the triumph of philistinism has its silver lining.