My favorite chapter in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength is “Banquet at Belbury,” when God removes the gift of language from N.I.C.E. and it immediately hurtles towards catastrophe. Lewis writes on Wither’s reflections during the banquet,
“We shall not,” Jules was saying, “we shall not till we secure the erebation of all prostundiary initems.” Little as he cared for Jules, a sudden shock of alarm pierced him. He looked around again. Obviously it was not he who was mad–they had all heard the gibberish. Except possibly the tramp, who looked as solemn as a judge. He had never heard a speech before from one of these real toffs and would have been disappointed if he could understand it.
I very much identified with the tramp as I read Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Here I was, tackling one of the great historical tomes of the 20th century. Here I was, understanding very little of it. Both things were as they should be.
Spengler makes me nervous, partly because he is leagues smarter than I, partly because I often don’t understand him, partly because of the occasional racial undertones of his work (thankfully not much in evidence in this book, I don’t think, though certainly present in others).
But I confess a certain sympathy for Spengler. I think of Longstreet’s comment in Gettysburg, “We Southerners like our generals religious and a little bit mad.” My favorite historians have a touch of madness about them. They try to have a grand unified theory. They try to make history matter. Today, for example, I picked up a thick book on the Plantagenets that looks promising in its details. The preface shows that the author has a good idea of cause and effect within a certain time frame, but in the end, one thing just leads to another. And if that’s all you have — in the end, who cares?
Still, I would have liked to have understood Spengler more. Large chunks of this work remain unintelligible to me. Apparently he was a recluse, and I have the impression that he wrote for himself more than the public. I open at random (honestly) and see this sentence:
In both cases we have in reality an outbreak of deep-seated discordances in the culture, which physiognomically dominates a whole epoch of its history and especially of its artistic world — in other words, a stand the soul attempts to make against the Destiny that it at last comprehends.
He writes like one of those German operas where something is always burning and people are always dying (taking quite a bit of time doing so to boot). For me, it’s just too much.
But this should not deter anyone. Despite his eccentricity, real gold can be gleaned (all I say next has the caveat, “if I understand him correctly”).
Spengler challenged received opinion magnificently. For him, Egypt was superior to Greece, and Renaissance art can’t equal either the Gothic or the Baroque. Rome’s empire came much more easily for them than for others.
Most challenging for our time, he viewed the health of a culture by its inner life. So things such as technological innovation and expansion have no real bearing on the health of a civilization. Both constant innovation and physical expansion for Spengler probably serve as hints of decay. It is the bored civilization, he writes, that thinks primarily in terms of economics.
He has moments of great precise insight. For example — we automatically think of the Greeks as the founders of history as a discipline. But he argues convincingly that the Greeks lacked an historical mind. He cites a few details to support this but the crux of the argument comes from Greek funerary practices. They cremated, while Egypt embalmed. The Egyptians knew everything about at least their official past, but the Greeks focused too much on absolutes to care about particulars. They loved Homer, but never bothered to dig at Mycenae as Schliemman did 3000 years later. They never bothered with the notion of Agamemnon as fact. Myth mattered to the Greeks, but little else. When we see this, so much of their literature, architecture, and even politics makes more sense.
Throughout Spengler urges us to see civilizations as a whole. We can’t take Roman sculpture and separate its time and place. Therefore we should approach mimicry of the past with fear and trembling, as we may get more than we bargained for. Along those same lines, culture can’t create out of a vacuum. We have no Beethoven now because our culture couldn’t possibly make one. But that’s not our “fault” anymore than we should blame 19th century Germany for not having a John Coltrane.
This is enough to encourage me to read again in the future. For now, if anyone understands the chapter on the meaning of numbers, or the physiognomic, or many other such parts of this book, please let me know.