HOLDING THE CENTRE
Modernism as the confident belief in reason and progress has been on the retreat for over a century. Religious Faith has been on the retreat for much longer. In 1851, well before Nietzsche, Mathew Arnold composed his famous poem “On Dover Beach”, in which he expressed his sad feelings about the retreat of religion as the meaning of life, can now be quoted as applying to the similar ebbing of modernist certainties.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Ridicule was extensively used to put belief in religious “superstition” to flight. Sceptical atheism is not new, but in the Nineteenth Century unquestioning belief in Science replaced Religion as the ideology whose institutionalisation through education would lead mankind into a secular kingdom of heaven, a utopia of health, wealth and happiness. This was completely original.
Now everywhere we look we see the collapse of the modernist certainties based on the Enlightenment and its belief in Reason. The Great War, which led to the collapse of the religious monarchies and to the totalitarian left and right wing secular political ideologies that replaced them, led in turn to the Second World War. The world was then dominated by the Cold War which ended with the triumph of the USA whose ideology of progress with economic growth as an absolute value led to global Consumerism and a world economy based on irresponsible manipulation of the so-called free market. The consequence is that the entire world is fast moving towards the disintegration of all stable cultures and social structures including the family, together with the impending collapse of the biosphere. We are now hearing “the melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of the Sea of Reason!
Accompanying this approaching Armageddon, religious institutions turn their frightened faces away and cease believing in good and evil and instead concentrate on unthreatening humanist concerns like poverty or gender issues already being dealt with by the secular welfare state, or revert to angry totalitarian fundamentalism.
From the late Sixties onwards universities have boomed in size and have been transformed into degree factories adopting high-school teaching methods of continuous assessment and losing their professional ethics of independence to become more and more financially dependent on the state. Now they are largely devoted to turning out skilled employees for the welfare state or for the military industrial complex. The fast-growing multinational corporations need huge numbers of lawyers, economists and business administrators who are now dominating the campuses. They too have turned their faces away like the schools in the compulsory secular education system who have mostly ceased teaching religious values to replace them with political correctness, training for jobs in industry, sex education and the new compulsory belief system of utilitarian, reductionist science.
The mass media become a monopoly of fewer and fewer press and TV organisations and are now little more than sensationalist bad news or light entertainment designed to carry the advertisements that provide their all-important income.
The plastic arts reject both realism and enchantment which are replaced by sensational novelty in the form of highly elitist conceptual art where the concepts expressed are shallow, old-fashioned, politically-correct ideals of gender, racial and political egalitarianism or pure meaningless novelty for its own sake. Theatre is dominated by depressed and destructive anti-heroes, only in novels and films which depend on the financial support of the public are there still narratives which reach deeper than irrational disenchantment and poisonous “ressentiment”.The poem which describes the situation best today is “The Second Coming”, written in 1919 by the poet and magician, W.B.Yeats.
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.