Darkness falls

Cultural Pessimism: narratives of decline in the postmodern world

Oliver Bennett <em>Edinburgh Uni

In his suggestive little book, Oliver Bennett analyses four strands of cultural pessimism - what he calls narratives of catastrophic environmental, intellectual, moral and political decline. He argues that acceptance of these narratives depends on three intellectual tendencies: generalisation, an attachment to the negative and a demand for certainty. These predilections, it turns out, characterise the "negative cognitive shift" which, psychologists have shown, accompanies pathological states of anxiety and depression.

Bennett does not, however, psychologise in order to dismiss. He suggests there are good reasons for believing that this negative cognitive shift (which has accompanied rapidly increasing levels of depression and anxiety disorders in both advanced and developing nations) is taking place for reasons that are themselves central to the narrative of decline. Increasingly aggressive global capitalism, he writes, causes "learned helplessness"; unrealistic media images of beauty and success cause habitually "maladaptive social comparison" and lead to "ritualised submission" (associated in primates with lowered levels of the feel-good chemical serotonin). Meanwhile, divorce and social atomisation are the cause of an increasing prevalence of anxious attachments, as more and more children are raised by unresponsive non-maternal carers (mother is out at work making a living and/or proving her social worth) or depressed maternal carers (mother is staying at home to look after the kids and feels socially devalued).

Perhaps for fear of being seen to have created a new narrative of decline of his own, Bennett avoids explicitly drawing the conclusion at which his discussion hints: that our enhanced health and affluence have succeeded only in making most of us increasingly unhappy. In this respect, if in no other, the narratives of decline are correct.

John Binias's most recent novel is Loco (Macmillan, £9.99)

This article first appeared in A plan for the world

2001-10-22