"There Ain't Half Been Some Clever Bastards" - Ian Drury
For some reason, Sully linked to this preposterous piece by Charles Murray -- I suppose that is a tautology -- which posits, among other foolishness, that "religiosity is indispensable to a major stream of artistic accomplishment." Murray worries that in an increasingly secular world, great art will not be created because people will cease to concern themselves with the big questions about the meaning of life. In Murray's sclerotic world view, worthwhile art largely ceased to be made in the 19th Century as secularism and nihilism have stripped life (and art) of the possibility of transcendence. (I was amused to be reminded that Murray had put together numerical ratings of past human greatness in the arts and sciences in his book Human Accomplishment - a sort of Bill James Baseball Abstract of the western canon.)
Murray is also concerned that our lives are too long and cushy. As he puts it, "can a major stream of artistic accomplishment be produced by a society that is geriatric? By a society that is secular? By an advanced welfare state?"
Murray derides what he calls the "Europe Syndrome" and claims that post-World War II Europe is essentially devoid of meaningful artistic contribution:
What are the productions of visual art, music, or literature that we can be confident will still be part of the culture two centuries from now, in the sense that hundreds of European works from two centuries ago are part of our culture today? We may argue over individual cases, and agree that the number of surviving works since World War II will be greater than zero, but it cannot be denied that the body of great work coming out of post-war Europe is pathetically thin compared to Europe’s magnificent past.
Thus Murray writes off the works of writers like Primo Levy, Albert Camus, Milan Kundera, Graham Greene, Harold Pinter, Czeslaw Milosz, Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre -- none of whom evidently can compete with Homer or Virgil or Dante -- one gets the sense with Murray that literature effectively ceased before it began, as Goethe, who died in 1832, is the most modern writer to make Murray's list of top five writers in Human Accomplishment. He ignores as well as the amazing flourishing of post-war film and popular music in Europe. Is there truly nothing of lasting value in the works of Truffaut or Fellini or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones? One gets the sense that Murray's aesthetic are those of the perennial old fogey, a world in which all art has the musty smell of the museum piece.
Most disturbingly -- and it is something I have seen in the works of other reactionary thinkers -- is the notion that a long, secure, and pleasant life, blessed with abundance leads to an inherently trivial existence:
The indirect indictment of the Europe Syndrome consists of the evidence that it is complicit in the loss of the confidence, vitality, and creative energy that provide a nourishing environment for great art. I blame primarily the advanced welfare state. Consider the ironies. The European welfare states brag about their lavish “child-friendly” policies, and yet they have seen plunging birth rates and marriage rates. They brag about their lavish protections of job security and benefits and yet, with just a few exceptions, their populations have seen falling proportions of people who find satisfaction in their work. They brag that they have eliminated the need for private charities, and their societies have become increasingly atomistic and anomic.
The advanced welfare state drains too much of the life from life. When there’s no family, no community, no sense of vocation, and no faith, nothing is left except to pass away the time as pleasantly as possible.
I believe this self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When I have spoken in Europe about the unparalleled explosion of European art and science from 1400 to 1900, the reaction of the audiences has invariably been embarrassment. Post-colonial guilt explains some of this reaction—Europeans seem obsessed with seeing the West as a force for evil in the world. But I suggest that another psychological dynamic is at work. When life has become a matter of passing away the time, being reminded of the greatness of your forebears is irritating and threatening.
One is struck both by what a lousy and repetitive writer Murray is and the degree to which he is offended by the idea of people living pleasant lives. What becomes evident is that Murray, like many right-wingers, is opposed to genuine human freedom, especially the notion of lives where people actually choose whether to get married or to have children and they do so without the fear that not doing those things will lead to them starving in the streets in their old age. If people are embarrassed when Murray delivers his screeds about how they don't make writers like Shakespeare anymore, one gets the sense that they may be embarrassed for him and the vacuity of his numerical rankings for complex works.
Ultimately, it seems to me that anyone who has actually partaken of life -- even those of us who live in comparative ease and security -- are reminded often enough of our fragility and the contingency of our lives. Even in a society where most of us will live to see 80, enough of our cohort will fall by the wayside, victims of disease and caprice, that reminders of our mortality are never actually that far way. And for those of us who do not believe in an afterlife, there is the always serious question of how to live that one life that you have and to imbue it with meaning. Great artists have and will continue to explore these issues because there is no cure for our mortality. It is Murray's loss that he is unable to see the artistic greatness that has been out there in his own life time -- and it speaks poorly of him and his philosophy that he is filled with revulsion at the notion of ordinary people living pleasant and secure lives.