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5 May 2021

The fall of the intellectual

Where have all the great thinkers gone?  

By Ross Douthat

In the month before it was pulled by its publisher because of its author’s alleged sexual predations, Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth produced an outpouring of terrifically entertaining reviews in the literary pages of East Coast periodicals – the New Republic, Bookforum, Harper’s and the New Yorker. The essays were a lot of fun; they were also implicitly nostalgic for the novelistic world that Roth so egomaniacally bestrode. At Toni Morrison’s death in 2019 I suggested in the New York Times that she might be the last “Great American Novelist”, meaning not the last good novelist (good novels are still regularly published) but the last writer who “made novels seem essential to an educated person’s understanding of her country”. That might be premature – Cormac McCarthy is still living, after all – but in the sheer energy and delight of the Roth reviews you can feel a cultural pulse that contemporary fiction rarely stirs, unless it is getting adapted by HBO or being considered (with the Roth biography itself) as a candidate for cancellation.

In my Morrison column I blamed readers more than writers for this shift: the experience of reading on the internet has been particularly hard on novel-reading as a pastime, and the combination of golden-age TV and now peak TV – the first the high-quality taste, the second the more adulterated addiction – has captured a lot of the audience for extended, novelistic stories.

But the novel’s apparent cultural diminishment is also connected to deeper forces of intellectual torpor and repetition, our long captivity to boomer culture, the sclerosis of Western institutions (which affects master of fine arts (MFA) programmes no less than Congress and the European Union), and other subjects that are treated in my recent book The Decadent Society (2020).

In that vein, here is an extended provocation from Tanner Greer’s essay, “Where Have All The Great Works Gone?” (January 2021), on Oswald Spengler, the German historian and original prophet of Western decadence, and his attempt to identify the world-historical thinkers of what was then Europe’s very recent past:

… Spengler gave himself a fairly difficult task. It is easy to pick out the most significant figures of ancient history – say, Socrates or the Buddha – and pronounce that these were comparable figures of similar historical weight… But how do you pick out which of your contemporaries deserve that honour? One day a few men of your generation may be vindicated by history. But that history has not happened yet. Humility demands that we decline to declare what only time can prove.

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Spengler was not so humble. He repeatedly describes Tolstoy (d. 1910), Ibsen (d. 1906), Nietzsche (d. 1900), Hertz (d. 1894), Dostoevsky (d. 1881), Marx (d. 1883), and Maxwell (d. 1879) as figures of defining “world-historical” importance: in other words, as working on the same plane as Plato, Archimedes, Ovid, Shakespeare, and Newton. He does not argue their merits; to him it is obvious that these are the men who deserve to be thought of as “world-historical” figures, and it is clear from the way he makes his arguments that he expects that his own readers already agree with him.

Ponder that! Spengler began writing Decline of the West in 1914. Tolstoy was only four years dead when Spengler started his book; Marx was only 30 years deceased. But Spengler could state, with the full expectation that his audience would not question him, that these men belonged in the global pantheon of humanity’s greatest figures. But Spengler was hardly alone in this sort of judgement. Ten years later John Erskine would teach his course on the great works of the Western tradition – which was the granddaddy of the Columbia Common Core, the St John’s curriculum, and the Great Books of the Western World series – and it included all of the names mentioned above as well. To this Erskine would add the names William James, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Darwin.

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Could any would-be Spengler today, Greer wonders, make the same kind of confident claim about anyone who died in the past decade? The past 30 years? “Or is there anyone at all who is still living today that might be described this way?”

Perhaps among scientists, he suggests – “but in the world of social, historical, ethical, and political thought, no one comes to mind”. The prominent “Great Books” programme at St John’s College in Maryland recently added Wittgenstein and De Beauvoir to its reading list, but its most famous works are 70 years old. “Michel Foucault is the next obvious candidate, and he died 37 years ago.”

Greer is slightly more favourable towards recent novelists, listing Samuel Beckett, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel García Márquez, Morrison, Kazuo Ishiguro, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as possible avatars of Spenglerian-defined “greatness”. And I might actually go further than he does and argue that the novel has been a significant outlier to the general trend, surviving the film and television age and coming through the torpor of the last half-century with a lot more vigour than other forms of art.

[See also: This book has been cancelled]

Without their being placed quite as high as Tolstoy or Dostoevsky I think there is a continuum of greatness and near-greatness that extends well past the middle 20th century, encompassing international authors like VS Naipaul and WG Sebald and all-Americans like Morrison and McCarthy, and I can easily imagine a few contemporary working novelists eventually being ranked among the great – Ishiguro and Elena Ferrante, JM Coetzee and Marilynne Robinson, plus the famous chronicler of decadence Michel Houellebecq.

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So what has happened to the novel in my adult lifetime, the dip in sales and cultural momentousness, feels more like a particular problem of the internet era – with some MFA decadence and ideological straitjacketing worked in – than the inevitable conclusion of a much longer stagnation or decline.

But considering the novel’s relative resilience also makes it seem more clearly like an outlier. Questions of Tolstoyan greatness aside, novels have managed to sustain a large audience for what you might call the higher middlebrow or lower highbrow, which doesn’t really exist for other forms of art and entertainment. In the wreck of the academic humanities the novel is still the best available life raft if you don’t want to go in for pop culture studies; God help you if you’re trying to cling to the classics, or poetry, or fine arts or opera or classical music instead.

At the cinema, meanwhile, high middlebrow artists like Martin Scorsese, who makes what academic sophisticates once would have considered crass populist entertainment, are cast as either horrible film snobs or embattled aesthetes for issuing a few critical words about the Marvel juggernaut. Television, after a brief higher middlebrow moment that gave us The Sopranos and its successors, is now being drawn inexorably into its own Marvel-isation, a peak-TV variation on the pattern that the writer and academic Phil Christman describes as “lowbrow genres, done with middlebrow earnestness, in revolt against a thoroughly defunded highbrow regime”.

And then there are the intellectuals, where I think Greer’s analysis is all but inarguable. I can’t imagine anyone making a confident claim about contemporary philosophers, religious thinkers and would-be scientists of human nature that ranks them with Friedrich Nietzsche or Karl Marx or even Sigmund Freud, with William James or WEB Du Bois, with Søren Kierkegaard and John Henry Newman.

[See also: Browsing my children’s shelves, I understand how the books we read make us who we are]

Yes, maybe someone toiling away in academic or monastic obscurity today is actually Marx’s intellectual equal or superior. But intellectual greatness has to exist in some kind of relationship with one’s audience and times, and so Greer’s point about the broader public’s reception and recognition is important: if you’re looking for people to compare to Spengler’s list now, you would want figures who enjoy at least some sort of substantial audience and recognition.

And that means – well, you can make your own list, but if called upon to name the most important thinkers since the year 2000, assessed purely for their influence, with no comment on quality, I might list (working my way backward in time) Ibram X Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Jordan Peterson, Peter Thiel, Yuval Noah Harari, Steven Pinker, Tyler Cowen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, Slavoj Žižek, Andrew Sullivan, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Peter Singer, Samantha Power, my colleague Thomas Friedman… and now we’re back at the turn of the millennium. Religious thinkers? Well, Dawkins and Pinker and Kendi, of course – but OK, more exactly, perhaps James J Martin, Rod Dreher, Charles Taylor, David Bentley Hart and Timothy Keller. (In another ten years I might add a post-liberal Catholic, but not yet.)

Some of these writers are impressive; some less so. Many are journalists, in practice or in spirit – an important occupation, but maybe not the ideal one for generating great works. Will many of them adorn a Great Books curriculum in 2075, if such an antiquated thing exists? I’m doubtful.

In fairness, Spengler was looking backward across a longer sweep than 20 years. And to my mind the other distinctive thing about our own era is how many of its debates are still running along tracks established by intellectuals 50 years ago. Thus the left-versus-libertarian divide in US politics goes back to the philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. The language of critical race theory and intersectionality largely has its origins in the 1970s (though you might want to stretch forward to 1990 to encompass Judith Butler and Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw). The social and religious analysis of Christopher Lasch and Robert Bellah and Philip Rieff still applies two generations later. And the spirit of Foucault, Greer’s choice for a plausible world-historical figure, still broods over us all.

***

Similarly, in Roman Catholicism the key debates revived in the Pope Francis era are still the debates between the different 1970s-era schools of post-Vatican II theology, Joseph Ratzinger against the late Hans Küng – except now they’re mostly carried on by newspaper columnists and popularisers. (Without intending any disrespect to anyone on Wikipedia’s list of prominent Catholic theologians, when you get to the names born after 1940 a certain sense of… decadence sets in.)

So if you go back two generations you can at least find more important figures – perceptive, brilliant, dangerous, if not necessarily world-historical. But a 40- or 50-year period still feels like a long time to wait for their successors, and find ourselves stuck with popularisers and imitators and journalists instead.

Left-wing observers of these realities – would-be champions of the humane pursuits against repetition and pop mediocrity and the eternal return to 1975 – tend to stress inexorable economic and technological forces, late (or is it?) capitalism turning everything, intellectual life included, into a consumerist experience. I think there is clearly some truth to this: certainly the cultural language of our era, the way we talk about “streaming content” or “tentpoles” or the “ideas industry”, suggests how consumerism colonises the mind.

But as with other areas of Western life I think the left is a little too focused on accelerating forces in capitalism when recent deceleration is also such an important fact. Both the 19th and 20th centuries offered ample proof that arts and ideas could flourish amid creative and not-so-creative destruction – could thrive despite yawning inequities whose scale dwarfs our own – could coexist, however uneasily, with industrialisation and consumerism and mass democracy and all manner of technological change. So the shift to intellectual stagnation over the last half-century has to be more multi-dimensional than a simple “capitalism dunnit”.

My own favoured explanation, in The Decadent Society, is adapted from the American sociologist Robert Nisbet’s arguments about how cultural golden ages hold traditional and novel forces in creative tension: the problem for the Western world is that this tension snapped during the revolutions of the 1960s, when the baby boomers (and the pre-boomer innovators they followed) were too culturally triumphant and their elders put up too little resistance, such that the fruitful tension between innovation and tradition gave way to confusion, mediocrity, sterility.

***

In the Catholic experience, the story definitely applies. The editor of the conservative journal First Things, RR Reno, argued in a 2007 survey of the so-called heroic generation in Catholic theology that the great theologians of the Vatican II era displayed their brilliance in their critique of the old Thomism, but then the old system precipitously collapsed and the subsequent generation lacked the grounding required to be genuinely creative in their turn, or eventually even to understand what made the 1960s generation so significant in the first place:

… a student today will have a difficult time seeing the importance of their ideas, because the grand exploratory theologies of the Heroic Generation require fluency in neoscholasticism to see and absorb their significance. Or the theories introduce so many new concepts and advance so many novel formulations that, to come alive for students, they require the formation of an almost hermetic school of followers…In these and many other ways, the Heroic Generation’s zest for creative, exploratory theology led them to neglect – even dismiss – the need for a standard theology. They ignored the sort of theology that… provides a functional, communally accepted and widely taught system for understanding and absorbing new insights.

But I also think this frame applies more widely, to various intellectual worlds beyond theology, where certain forms of creative deconstruction went so far as to make it difficult to find one’s way back to the foundations required for new forms of creativity. Certainly, that seems the point of a figure like Jordan Peterson: it is not as a systematiser or the prophet of a new philosophy that he has earned his fame, but as populariser of old ideas, telling and explicating stories (the Bible! Shakespeare!) and drawing moral lessons from the before-times that would have been foundational to educated people not so long ago.

Likewise with the Catholic post-liberals, or the Marx reclamation project on the left. It’s a reaching backward to the world before the 1960s revolution, a recovery that isn’t on its own sufficient to make the escape from repetition, but might be the necessary first step.

Which brings us back to the question of traditionalism and dynamism, and their potential interaction: if you have had a cultural revolution that cleared too much ground, razed too many bastions and led to a kind of cultural debasement and forgetting, you probably need to go backward, or least turn that way for recollection, before you can hope to go forward once again.

Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist. His book “The Decadent Society: America Before and After the Pandemic” is published in paperback on 29 April

[See also: The contradictions of Edward Said

This article appears in the 05 May 2021 issue of the New Statesman, If not now, when?