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History and Decadence: Spengler's Cultural Pessimism Today (part 2/2)

Even with their eulogy of universalism, as Serge Latouche has recently noted, Westerners have, nonetheless, secured the most com¬fortable positions for themselves. Although they have now retreated to the back stage of history, vicariously, through their humanism, they still play the role of the undisputable masters of the non-white¬-man show. "The death of the West for itself has not been the end of the West in itself," adds Latouche.1 One wonders whether such Western attitudes to universalism represent another form of racism, considering the havoc these attitudes have created in traditional Third World communities. Latouche appears correct in remarking that Eur¬opean decadence best manifests itself in its masochistic drive to deny and discard everything that it once stood for, while simultaneously sucking into its orbit of decadence other cultures as well. Yet, although suicidal in its character, the Western message contains mandatory admonishments for all non-European nations. He writes: The mission of the West is not to exploit the Third World, nor to christianize the pagans, nor to dominate by white presence; it is to liberate men (and even more so women) from oppression and misery. In order to counter this self-hatred of the anti-imperialist vision, which concludes in red totalitarianism, one is now compelled to dry the tears of white man, and thereby ensure the success of this westernization of the world. (41) The decadent West exhibits, as Spengler hints, a travestied culture living on its own past in a society of different nations that, having lost their historical consciousness, feel an urge to become blended into a promiscuous "global polity." One wonders what would he say today about the massive immigration of non-Europeans to Europe? This immigration has not improved understanding among races, but has caused more racial and ethnic strife that, very likely, signals a series of new conflicts in the future. But Spengler does not deplore the "devaluation of all values" nor the passing of cultures. In fact, to him decadence is a natural process of senility which concludes in civilization, because civilization is decadence. Spengler makes a typically German distinction between culture and civilization, two terms which are, unfortunately, used synonymously in English. For Spengler civilization is a product of intellect, of completely rationalized intellect; civilization means uproot¬edness and, as such, it develops its ultimate form in the modern megapolis which, at the end of its journey, "doomed, moves to its final self-destruction" (2:127; 2:107). The force of the people has been overshadowed by massification; creativity has given way to "kitsch" art; geniality has been subordinated to the terror of reason. He writes:

Culture and civilization. On the one hand the living corpse of a soul and, on the other, its mummy. This is how the West European existence differs from 1800 and after. The life in its richness and normalcy, whose form has grown up and matured from inside out in one mighty course stretching from the adolescent days of Gothics to Goethe and Napoleon - into that old artificial, deracinated life of our large cities, whose forms are created by intellect. Culture and civilization. The organism born in countryside, that ends up in petrified mechanism. (1:453; 1:353)

In yet another display of determinism, Spengler contends that one cannot escape historical destiny: "the first inescapable thing that confronts man as an unavoidable destiny, which no thought can grasp, and no will can change, is a place and time of one's birth: everybody is born into one people, one religion, one social status, one stretch of time and one culture."2 Man is so much constrained by his historical environment that all attempts at changing one's destiny are hopeless. And, therefore, all flowery postulates about the improvement of mankind, all liberal and socialist philosophizing about a glorious future regarding the duties of humanity and the essence of ethics, are of no avail. Spengler sees no other avenue of redemption except through declaring himself a fundamental and resolute pessimist:

Mankind appears to me as a zoological quantity. I see no progress, no goal, no avenue for humanity, except in the heads of the Western progress-Philistines. (...) I cannot see a single mind and even less a unity of endeavors, feelings, and understandings in these barren masses of people. (Selected Essays 73-74; 147)

The determinist nature of Spengler's pessimism has been criticized recently by Konrad Lorenz who, while sharing Spengler's culture of despair, refuses the predetermined linearity of decadence. In his capacity of ethologist and as one of the most articulate neo-Darwinists, Lorenz admits the possibility of an interruption of human phylo¬genesis - yet also contends that new vistas for cultural development always remain open. "Nothing is more foreign to the evolutionary epistemologist, as well, to the physician," writes Lorenz, "than the doctrine of fatalism."3 Still, Lorenz does not hesitate to criticize vehemently decadence in modern mass societies which, in his view, have already given birth to pacified and domesticated specimens unable to pursue cultural endeavors. Lorenz would certainly find positive resonance with Spengler himself in writing: "This explains why the pseudodemocratic doctrine that all men are equal, by which is believed that all humans are initially alike and pliable, could be made into a state religion by both the lobbyists for large industry and by the ideologues of communism" (179-80). Despite the criticism of historical determinism which has been leveled against him, Spengler often confuses his reader with Faustian exclamations reminiscent of someone prepared for battle rather than reconciled to a sublime demise. "No, I am not a pessimist," writes Spengler in "Pessimism," for "pessimism means seeing no more duties. I see so many unresolved duties that I fear that time and men will run out to solve them"(75). These words hardly cohere with the cultural despair which earlier he so passionately elaborated. Moreover, he often advocates force and the toughness of the warrior in order to stave off Europe's disaster. One is led to the conclusion that Spengler extols historical pessimism or "purposeful pessimism" ("Zweckpessimismus"), as long as it translates his conviction of the irreversible decadence of the European polity; however, once he perceives that cultural and political loopholes are available for moral and social regeneration, he quickly reverts to the eulogy of power politics. Similar characteristics are often to be found among many poets, novelists, and social thinkers whose legacy in spreading cultural pessimism played a significant part in shaping political behavior among European conservatives prior to World War II.4 One wonders why they all, like Spengler, bemoan the decadence of the West if this decadence has already been sealed, if the cosmic die has already been cast, and if all efforts of political and cultural rejuvenation appear hopeless? Moreover, in an effort to mend the unmendable, by advocating a Faustian mentality and will-to-power, these pessimists often seem to emulate the optimism of socialists rather than the ideas of those reconciled to impending social catastrophe. For Spengler and other cultural pessimists, the sense of decadence is inherently combined with a revulsion against modernity and an abhorrence of rampant economic greed. As recent history has shown, the political manifestation of such revulsion may lead to less savory results: the glorification of the will-to-power and the nostalgia of death. At that moment, literary finesse and artistic beauty may take on a very ominous turn. The recent history of Europe bears witness to how easily cultural pessimism can become a handy tool for modern political titans. Nonetheless, the upcoming disasters have something uplifting for the generations of cultural pessimists whose hypersensitive nature - and disdain for the materialist society - often lapses into political nihilism. This nihilistic streak was boldly stated by Spengler's contemporary Friedrich Sieburg, who reminds us that "the daily life of democracy with its sad problems is boring, but the impending catastrophes are highly interesting."5 One cannot help thinking that, for Spengler and his likes, in a wider historical context, war and power politics offer a regenerative hope against the pervasive feeling of cultural despair. Yet, regardless of the validity of Spengler's visions or nightmares, it does not take much imagination to observe in the decadence of the West the last twilight-dream of a democracy already grown weary of itself.

California State University, Fullerton, California


CLIO - A Journal of Literature, History and the Philosophy of History, Vol. 19, No 1, pp. 51-62, fall 1989

  1. Serge Latouche, L'occidentalisation du monde (Paris: La Découverte, 1989), 9; my translation. About Westerners' self-hate and self-denial, see Alain de Benoist, Europe, Tiers monde même combat (Paris: Laffont, 1986): "And whereas Christian universalism had once contributed to the justification of colonization, Christian pastoralism today inspires decolonization. This `mobilization of consciences' crystallizes itself around the notion of culpability." The colonized is no longer "a primitive" who ought to be "led to civilization." Rather, he is a living indictment, indeed, an example of an immaculate morality from whom the "civilized" has much to learn (62). See also Pascal Bruckner, Le sanglot de l'homme blanc. Tiers monde, culpabilité, haine de soi (Paris: Seuil, 1983), 13: for the bleeding-heart liberal Westerner "the birth of the Third world gave birth to this new category; expiatory militantism." My translations here. 

  2. Spengler, 'Pessimismus', Reden and Aufsätze (München: Beck, 1937), 70; in English, 'Pessimism?' in Selected Essays, 143. 

  3. Konrad Lorenz, The Waning of Humaneness (Boston: Little, Brown, 1987), 58-59. 

  4. It would be impossible to enumerate all cultural pessimists who usually identify themselves as heroic pessimists, often as conservative revolutionaries, or aristocratic nihilists. Poets and novelists of great talent such as Gottfried Benn, Louis F. Céline, Ezra Pound, and others, were very much inspired by Oswald Spengler. See Gottfried Benn, "Pessimismus," in Essays und Aufsätze (Wiesbaden: Limes, 1959): "Man is not alone, thinking is alone. Thinking is self-bound and solitary" (357). See also the apocalyptic prose of Ernst Jünger, An der Zeitmauer (Werke) (Stuttgart: Klett, 1959): "It seems that cyclical system corresponds to our spirit. We make round-shaped watches, although there is no logical compulsion behind it. And even catastrophes are viewed as recurrent, as for example floods and drought, fire-age and ice-age" (460-61). My translations. 

  5. Friedrich Sieburg, Die Lust am Untergang (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1954), 54. My translation.