Understanding an Earlier Age

Spengler is pessimistic, although he himself shows that with an effort it is not impossible:
When the West cared about Christianity and its paradoxes, it couldn’t take its eyes off Tirso’s villain. By the time Byron wrote his eponymous epic, Christianity had faded from the culture and with it the public’s interest in Don Juan. Without Mozart, he would be forgotten. My daughter had attended a seminar on Mozart’s opera, and we had discussed Tirso’s theological joke beforehand. She called me crestfallen afterwards: most of the students wanted to know why Don Giovanni’s behavior was a problem in the first place. Wasn’t it a lifestyle choice?

Over coffee before curtain time, I offered that people in the past had different concerns than ours — for example, the Catholics of Spain at the height of the Thirty Years’ War, when Tirso published his play. “What are people concerned about today?” my daughter asked. I took a long time to reply. “I’m not sure they give much thought to big questions any more.” “That’s right,” she said. “This is a thoughtless age.” The lights darkened at the Repertorio Espanol, and the cast appeared onstage to twerk through a Caribbean pop number by way of overture. It was idiotic. We left after the first act. It’s hard to find a rendition of classic theater uncorrupted by postmodern directorial whim. Neither performers nor audience has any idea what the work is about, so it doesn’t much matter.

We can no longer teach Mozart, let alone Tirso, to undergraduates. We cannot place ourselves among the passions of Spain’s Golden Age, when the literary giant Lope de Vega wrote sonnets caricaturing Cervantes as a dirty Jew for lampooning the chivalresque pretensions of the Spanish nobility in Don Quixote. The great artists of the Golden Age were also soldiers and statesmen, important players in the prolonged wars that utterly ruined the Spanish Empire. In a post-Christian world we cannot understand what the Spanish were on about.


Eric Blair said...

Yeah, Spengler don't get it. Spain's literary "Golden Age" was an age of decline and disaster--from the Armada at one end to Rocroi at the other, with about a dozen bankruptcies in between.

Certain Catholics in Spain may have been concerned with theological jokes in the 1630's but the great mass were concerned with much more basic needs, like getting enough food to eat.

Spain almost broke up in the 1640's, Catalonia revolting for about 5 years requiring a very bloody suppression.

And again Mozart wasn't writing for you he was writing for people long dead, and that we can hear his music played today is a happy accident.

Thoughtless age? How thoughtless was it to burn down Germany for 30 years?

Tom said...

He wasn't arguing that Spain's Golden Age was good. He was just saying that if we don't understand historical Western culture, such as Christianity or the ancient Greek writers, and take it seriously, then we can't understand the art, literature, or (more to the point of his epithet) the thought that came out of it.

douglas said...

-to tack on- ...and therefore we begin losing every advantage their efforts and realizations gave to their future generations- namely, us.

Soon, we'll be re-inventing the wheel, at this rate.

Eric Blair said...

The wheel has been reinvented before.

The only reason we understand a lot of ancient history is that a bunch of guys in Renaissance Italy thought that it would be good to read that stuff again.