Yes, I am always the first to join in laments about the demise of the great cultural traditions. Be it the eloquent laments of George Steiner or Harold Bloom, who either with resigned fascination or with doom-spelling wrath denounce the wanton rejection by current generations of a whole canon of literary masterpieces.
Or be it the moving Nobel-prize acceptance speech (1) of Doris Lessing, deploring, with a note of uncomprehending despair, how the respect for learning and for the great store of literature has all but vanished. Or as Bloom states wryly “what has been devaluated is learning as such, as though erudition were irrelevant” (1)
So yes, as to the mourning for discarded cultural canons, you can count me amongst the grave septua- and octogenarians. Not that I can pride myself on much classical learning, being a bit of a failed erudite. But despite not being able to live up to it myself, I’ve always cherished this ideal of a humanist, cultivated person who loves and respects the great cultural artifacts of this world.
No doubt it is typical for a melancholic nature to find comfort in the relative permanence of the great works and documents of humanity. Their durability taken as a barricade against human futility, as proof that “human records don’t age” and that there is an accumulation of wisdom and beauty to accompany us during our short stay in this world.
It’s almost pathetic how I can get personally anguished by this contemporary iconoclasm that consists not of any violent smashing of statues, but rather of a disparaging indifference (equally destructive) towards the traditions in the humanities and the arts. I remember wandering about in the ancient art rooms of a museum, basking in their aesthetical delights, when a forty-ish couple sailed by, sniggering at those 14th century panels. With a loud and contemptuous “all that old crap”, they left the room, shattering my illusions of shelter.
And yet, I certainly wouldn’t advocate a return to an era of elitist culture, snobbishly abused by people wanting to distinguish themselves socially (what Hannah Arendt called the "educated philistinism" of snobs). Nor would I promote a sterile academism that stifles creativity and shuns all contemporary relevance. By no means I’d want to disparage contemporary art (which I need, living here and now). This is merely a plea against the reckless dumping of “old-fashioned humanist education”, a plea for appreciating and understanding the beauty and wisdom brought into the world by previous generations.
So I can completely relate to Doris Lessing’s mournful denunciation: “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women who have had years of education, to know nothing about the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some specialty or other”.
And she continues: “[…]the new internet, which has seduced a whole generation into its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging and blugging etc.” (3) (4)
Now here I do beg to differ! I don’t think Internet is the enemy …. quite the contrary, it may well be the redeeming feature of our unmoored global civilization. Internet does empower – giving people previously unavailable opportunities for creativity and communication. It has led to a resurgence of letter-writing (what else is emailing about? ) and of the gentle art of diaries (yes, Mrs Lessing, that’s what’s blogging about). It allows likeminded people to connect, whether they live in Taipei, New Delhi, Singapore, Brussels, New York, Paris, …
And maybe, if we do have to accept the irreparable “break in tradition and the loss of its authority”. If “the thread of tradition is broken, and we must discover the past for ourselves” (5) , maybe the Internet then is the best store, however unlikely, of traditions we dispose of. Because the Internet at least offers new (though indeed perhaps fragmented) ways to access those traditions. Any lover of art history , will appreciate how almost any painting can now be studied on-line. Any lover of old books will appreciate how even obscure out-of-print- titles can be hunted down on the net. Any lover of Nobel Prize speeches will be delighted to find them all within clicking distance….
So while Steiner mourned in 1971 that “The major part of Western literature, which has been for two thousand years and more so deliberately interactive, the work echoing, mirroring, alluding to previous works in the tradition, is now passing quickly out of reach” – it may now be that Internet has restored some sort of interactivity, has restored this access to the past, albeit in a different, fragmented way.
Even non-specialist art and literature lovers can now use Google or any other Net-Art-Search-resources to look up authors, texts, to search for forgotten contexts of half-forgotten quotes…
The internet does not destroy the traditions, but perhaps it transmutes them, helps them to come back in another form, by holding them available for any latter-day “pearl diver”. (6)
Nevertheless, I do also fear the sheer transience of Internet (those bits and bytes – their electronic storage so vulnerable, so far removed from the appeasing solidity of monuments, or even from the worldly presence of libraries and weighty books), and I do at times find its infinite virtuality anguishing…
But still, the Web is a great multi-faced author of stories. A great Web of texts linked to each other.
And as Lessing concluded: “It is our stories, the storyteller, that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix (7) , what we are at our best, when we are our most creative”
cherishing the great tradition of footnotes:
(1) Harold Bloom: The Western Canon
(2) “Tout ce vieux brol”
(3) Can anyone tell me what “blugging” is?
(4) Lessing’s Nobel Prize Lecture
(5) Hannah Arendt
(6) “Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made,
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange”
(The Tempest, I,2)
(7) By way of ultimate proof: it’s even possible on the net to aptly choose “phoenix” as alias!