The New Dark Ages

Dad29's comment below points to this essay on the collapse of civilization, which dovetails with another piece I was reading today. Here is the substance of the complaint:
Ours will be a stranger Dark Age than the old one. Our peasants brush their teeth and wash, imagine themselves of the middle class, but their heads are empty.... they do not quite burn books but simply ignore them....

Yet ours is a curious bleakness. Good things of everywhere and all time lie free for the having. When I was a child, you went to a library for books and the libraries often didn't have many. Today you can get even the Chinese classics, or those of Greece and Rome, or almost any book ever written in any language, from the web in five minutes. Do you want Marvin Minsky on finite automata? Papinian and Ulpian on Roman law? Balzac? Raymond Chandler? Tolkien? All are there. The same is true for any music, any painting, any movie, almost any historical curiosity: Ozzie and Harriet, Captain Video, Plastic Man. You can have cultivated friends in Kanmandu or Yuyuni in the Bolivian alitplano, and talk to them face-to-face with Skype.

This is a point that Eric Blair makes from time to time, and it's a good one. We have access to wonderful things; yet somehow the culture worsens rather than improves. The greatest music ever composed or performed is available almost free, or entirely free if it is on YouTube; and yet the music that fills the public space is among the worst. It is not that the subject matter is so often sexual, as some of the greatest poetry or plays are erotic. It is that they are banal. If they bother to attempt any actual poetry in their lyrics, it is unimaginative and dull. Only sometimes is there a melody, and if there is it shows no novelty (indeed, it is often sampled from some other song that the 'artist' happens to know). If the singer bothers with a melody, they certainly don't bother to hit the notes: that is done digitally. Increasingly they seem to try to cover the poverty of the music by trying to be flashy and transgressive with the visuals. 'Transgressivism' as a movement in the arts is a single joke with a single punch line. It might startle the first time it is encountered, but any repetition is grating rather than shocking. At this point it isn't even shocking the first time, because it has become so normal to have so-called artists insisting on trying to shock you. Here is the other article, which has to do with the 100th anniversary of the Loeb Classical library.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, one of the most remarkable publishing projects in modern history. Yet as with everything book-related in the year 2011, the Loeb centenary carries with it a touch of wistfulness, and an uncertainty about the future. For the Loeb classics are the monument of a book culture that now seems on the wane -- a culture that prized the making and owning of physical books, not just for the pleasure of turning the pages, but from a sense that the book was the natural, predestined vessel of every expression of human thought....

Over the years, the Loeb as physical object has become instantly recognizable to bibliophiles: uniform, small-format hardcovers, with green covers for the Greek titles and red for the Latin. So familiar and covetable are the Loebs that Harvard University Press recently marked the 100th anniversary by inviting readers to send in photographs of their collections. What makes such images tantalizing is their promise of completeness. There are now 518 volumes in the Loeb Classical Library -- just enough to make the idea of owning and reading them all seem an attainable challenge. The earliest authors in the Loeb catalog, Homer and Hesiod, wrote in the 7th century BCE; the latest, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, wrote in the 7th century CE. Here, then, is 1,400 years of human culture, all the texts that survive from one of the greatest civilizations human beings have ever built -- and it can all fit in a bookcase or two.

I own several of these facing-page editions, which are wonderful for those who still wish to learn Greek or Latin. (Greek, alas, is quite beyond me -- I can only recognize certain words, so that I can distinguish which concept is being translated as "knowledge" or "spirit" or "soul," for example.) If you can pick them up cheaply, which is not so hard at a college bookstore that sells used books, it is usually worth doing. So we have these amazing treasures. How do we teach people to be interested in them? Does it matter that they are not?

1 comment:

Eric said...

You are assuming that the 'public space' is what it used to be. It is not.

Here in this virtual hall is *your* public space, and really, you wouldn't have it any other way, would you?

I am increasing of the opinion that what is supposedly filling the 'public space' really isn't being listened to in the way you think. I suspect people aren't really listening to it at all.