Monday, November 17, 2008

Book Review: The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman

"History repeats itself" is a well-known aphorism, one which Morris Berman would agree with only in part. When history comes full circle, the rebound would more closely resemble a helix, a bit more complex than a simple replay of the past. Each time a culture rises to power, a decline is inevitable but seeds of rebirth lie within that cultural decay. Like the mythical phoenix bird, new life may emerge from the ashes.

The book The Twilight of American Culture details author Morris Berman's thoughts on the decline of America, how this decline mirrors that of great civilizations of the past, and his projections (not predictions) of what type of society might spring from the ashes of America the Beautiful.

"As the twenty-first century dawns, American culture is, quite simply, in a mess. Millions of Americans feel this, if only on a subliminal level, while a few hundred write books and articles about it, documenting the trends and analyzing causes. (snip) It doesn't take an Emerson or an Einstein to recognize that the system has lost its moorings, and, like ancient Rome, is drifting into an increasingly dysfunctional situation."

People who would choose to read a book by this title probably don't need to be convinced that our society is in a state of decay. Regardless, Berman catalogues the signs of impending culture death evidenced in the mindless media, consumptive corporate world, sick entertainment, and declining literacy. Faced with this litany of depressing facts, I felt a little overwhelmed at our downward spiral. There was a little comic relief when I read that a university graduate thinks the Gettysburg Address is "an address to Getty." But maybe I should be crying because this kind of widespread illiteracy portends a cultural collapse of huge proportions.

As might be expected, Berman reaches back into history in order to compare America's decline with that of Rome and other ruined civilizations. In reaching back, he "pulls out a plum"-- a little gem of an idea on which he chooses to base the theme of this book:

the monastic option.

"....civilizations rise and fall, and a class of 'monks' is always necessary to preserve the treasures of the dying civilization and use them, like seeds, to impregnate a new one. In the process, they create an authentic life for themselves' the personal benefits of such activity are as important as the possible historical outcome."

The lens through which I view life is Biblical, so these thoughts readily stirred to my remembrance the many times the nation of Israel was reduced to a "remnant," a small nucleus of people who were faithful to preserve scripture, tradition, and culture on behalf of future generations.

Berman does not write from a spiritual perspective, and his worldview is different from mine. Still, I find his thought intriguing. He says,

"One of my intentions in writing The Twilight of American Culture was to create a kind of guidebook for disaffected Americans who feel increasingly unable to fit into this society, and who also feel that the culture has to change if it is to survive. (snip) I have argued that we are in the grip of structural forces that are the culmination of a certain historical process, so a major change is not likely to be quick or dramatic; but individual shifts in life ways and values may just possibly act as a wedge that would serve as a counterweight to the world of schlock, ignorance, social inequality, and mass consumerism that now defines the American landscape. At the very least, these 'new monks,' or native expatriates, as one might call them, could provide a kind of record of authentic ways of living that could be preserved and handed down, to resurface later on, during healthier times."

The "new monks" that are spoken of in the above quote are, of course, not religious in any sense of the word. They are only monk-like in that they preserve and transmit culture as did the Irish monks after the fall of Rome. Berman sees them creating "zones of intelligence" in private, local ways. Notice the word private; they are not in this for recognition or to be in the limelight.

What types of activities might these new monastic individuals (NMIs) engage in ?

  • craftsmanship- bucking the trend of buying imported, cheap junk and opting instead to create and invest in quality.
  • preserving scholarly works* more on this later
  • exercising stewardship over the environment~ could include gardening or agrarian pursuits
  • rejecting consumerism- perhaps opting for a simple Christmas celebration?

Berman admits that there are no guarantees that these NMIs will succeed in their endeavors, however, that individual will reap great personal rewards in putting forth the effort to contribute to the future. He states,

"You and I can lead the 'monastic' life, and we can start to do it right now. And don't worry about being marginalized; this is good."

If Berman had stopped here, I might have closed the book encouraged, but his final chapter is entitled "Alternate Visions," in which he explores the could-be's of the future. This presented a fork in the road for me, because his plausible scenarios leave out one very important truth: there is a God who is Sovereign over the affairs of man. Knowledge of Him, and intimate knowledge of His Word enables me to face the future with hope.

I acknowledge that there may dark days ahead, but choose to believe that history is linear and will culminate in the wonderful events outlined in scripture. Monastic individuals such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and John the apostle get some of the credit for preserving those wonderful words of life.

As I grow older, I become more and more cognizant of the fact that my life has a very small sphere of influence. But it is a sphere and I do wield influence, and that should not be negated.

*My husband and I started collecting old books early in our marriage. At first it was just a hobby, but as time goes by we have both begun to feel that this little treasure cache is not just for us. There will be, perhaps, someone who will value them long after we are gone.

I get goosebumps when I open a well-preserved, old volume and read the inscription written on the flyleaf in loopy, intricate handwriting:

"To my Colorado Sweetheart. Christmas 1920"

Whose hands lovingly held this same volume? What did it mean to them? Will someone yet unborn hold it at some future date and count it as precious as we have?

Some of the antique books that we have collected have brought to light a practice that I find distasteful. Modern publishers will sometimes reprint a vintage gem, but will leave out whole chapters. I presume this is because they want to eliminate controversial subject matter in favor of securing more sales. My "monastic" instinct tells me this is wrong. I want to see the author as he really is, not how someone else dresses him up (or down) to be.

Berman makes note of the fact that individuality is under fire in a declining culture. The chapters that are expurgated from books are usually the very ones that define the individual and set him apart from the pack. Society loses its vitality when individuality is quenched.

I think we all have an inborn need to feel that our life pursuits connect us to something much bigger than ourselves. We all need to feel there is a place in history for "little me." I'm thankful that my Christian faith allows for that individuality, while at the same time connecting me to a great cloud of witnesses who have shared the passion for truth that will set apart a certain percentage of people of EVERY generation.

"LORD, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born,
Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting,
Thou art God." Psalm 90:1-2

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