Morris Berman. The Twilight of American Culture. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000. Paperback, xiv + 205 pages.
I have been a fan of Morris Berman’s writings ever since reading his first book, The Reenchantment of the World. The present work somehow escaped my notice until recently. It confirmed my first impression, namely that we have in Berman one of the most articulate, readable, and intrepid social critics of our era.
He starts his book with a perception that I, unfortunately, share wholeheartedly: “American culture is, quite simply, in a mess . . . and, like ancient Rome, is drifting into an increasingly dysfunctional situation.” Many Americans are dimly aware that there is a problem with their culture but prefer not to think about it, or are incapable of doing so. Sadly, they are unlikely to read Berman’s book. He knows this of course and observes that his writing is for “oddballs, for men and women who experience themselves as expatriates within their own country.” I am such an expatriate, even though my alienation extends pretty much around the globe, which, with perhaps a few niches, has been discolored by Western (American) culture.
Berman asserts that America’s alleged vitality, contrary to popular belief, is more like nervous tension and a sign of cultural collapse. He is philosophical about this curious moment in history. After all, civilizations are invariably destined to decline and collapse. He identifies many of the problems that are integral to the syndrome of disintegration. One of them is what he calls “spiritual death”: the subjugation of what were once great moral values to a bland and ever-expanding consumerism eagerly embraced by the masses, leaving everyone but a few brave souls inwardly destitute.
What is to be done in the face of inevitable civilizational collapse? Berman goes on a long excursion into the Middle Ages to retrieve what he feels are valuable lessons, if not a viable solution. When the Roman empire collapsed and the cultural light went out in Europe, yesteryear’s monastics busied themselves with preserving the knowledge of the great minds of their time, while at the same time cultivating a morally sound life. Berman proposes that, unless we want to resume where the Neanderthals left off, we too ought to follow suit.
He envisions a contemporary monasticism that is build around a sturdy individualism rather than an institutionalized effort, which is bound to be manipulated and controlled by the powerful interest groups, lead to little more than an information tyranny. The task before the new monastic class, as he sees it, is not necessarily to pile up all available knowledge and somehow preserve it (which is already being done via the Internet, CD compilations, etc.). Rather the new monks and nuns are called to embody a sound way of life, that is, the preservation of knowledge through sane living and the rejection of kitsch, whether material or intellectual and emotional.
He speaks of creating “zones of intelligence,” which would flourish more or less underground. Berman quite obviously loathes formulas and quick-fix lists, and so he is not particularly forthcoming on the precise practical steps to be taken. We can, however, infer a great deal from what he deems unviable.
Fully acknowledging that history is inherently unpredictable, Berman expresses a modest hope that we might culturally survive the present crisis. He paints various scenarios of the future, but wisely avoids the slippery slope of prediction. He does, however, express his sense that we will not be rescued by any “new consciousness” or “new spirituality”—a comment we must view in conjunction with his pronounced dislike for pop movements like New Ageism.
Perhaps more than his previous works, the present volume contains an undertone of irritation, which suggests the urgency of the problems discussed by Berman. He regards his book as “a kind of guidebook for disaffected Americans,” and, hopefully, there will be millions of them before the time of reckoning arrives, which, if we can believe the British cosmologist Sir Martin Rees, might be sooner than we think.
Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
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