What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The Iconography of Late Liberalism

Each society, having attained an indeterminate, though critical degree of sophistication, develops and elaborates characteristic modes of aesthetic expression. In healthy, integral societies, these modes are disseminated throughout; though there may be higher and lower expressions of these forms - as with the relationship of classical music to various folk traditions. Seen under another aspect, these aesthetic forms are not separate from life; they do not confront members of a healthy civilization as an otherness to which one repairs in order to escape from a discontinuous and ostensibly hideous and impoverished reality. Art may express the sense of the transcendent - indeed, it cannot but do this on some level - but it is not regarded as salvific.

Hence, each society develops an implicit iconography, a series of images, tropes, and forms which constitute a sort of natural sacred, which disclose in sensory forms the religious ethos of that society. Without words, these may direct even the unlettered as to what, and to whom, reverence is owed. Communist societies, such as the Soviet Union of my wife's youth, for example, merely substituted for icons of Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints images of communist personages; and one might even suggest that socialist realism developed a sort of cycle of images, an obvious analogue and replacement for cycles of sacred images. Constructivism added further grotesqueries to the iconography of communist society, and socialist realism itself easily descended from the heights of hagiographic excess to the bathos of simple propaganda. And this is not to slight the monumental sculpture of communism, which, in its brutal modernism, perfectly embodied the essential inhumanity and violence of communism, theory and practice.

Liberalism, or better, late liberalism, since liberalism's now-characteristic iconography manifestly portends the very nadir of decadence and degeneration, has settled upon an aesthetic mode eminently suited to its sensibilities, to the cultural atmosphere it so assiduously cultivates: pornography. Transgressive artist John Currin, whose works combine the subjects of pornography with the stylistic modes of Renaissance masters, says, in a New Yorker profile (sadly, on dead tree only), that he views his art as part of the struggle against Islam in Europe. His 'elegant smut' is a weapon in what he regards as a war for the tolerant and permissive values of Europe. But that does not exhaust its significance. When pressed by author Calvin Tomkins to elaborate, Currin

...talked about low birth rates in Europe, and people having sex without having babies, and pornography as a kind of elegy to liberal culture, at which point I lost the thread. “I know how right wing this sounds,” I recall him saying, “but I was thinking how pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race.”

A superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race, indeed: the infecund, uncreative, negational gods who first whispered to man, "You shall be as God, knowing for yourselves good and evil."A pornographic culture is a culture experiencing death, a culture which almost literally worships death, abhorring the giving of life and favouring those acts which alienate the subject from the perpetuation of life.

But what more can be said? On empirical grounds alone, pornography has become the iconography of self-conscious liberalism, as liberalism attains to that perfection only in its contemplation of the impending abyss.

Comments (8)

maximos, an interesting post which reflects and infers unmentioned historical/cultural movements. Such was a nascent 18th century romanticism which flowered in the 19th, the liberating influence of which spawned more unsavory elements, and continues to do so to the present time.

The putridness of too much of what, in a loss for words, people refer to as culture is descendant from separate but related transgressions, all deliberate and fully conscious. Decadence wasn't a description, it was a movement, not just a turning away, an exploration, but a willful denigration of the past conceptions of form, discipline, and a retained and memorialized beauty. It was intentionally antagonistic and at it's worst, destructive.

Humankind is a curious beast. Taken at large a social animal but with the implication and possibility of more than mere connectedness and relation. An unthinking receptivity, part sloth, part ignorance, with an inclination to the compression, the simplifying of concepts, ideas, and even perceptions, he is given or even seeks the path of least resistance, or is it effort. So a door is opened over time to the new, the eventually habitual, and standards become ephemeral and then forgotten.

I think perhaps you're giving liberalism more credit than it's due, if that's possible.

At the root of the modern progressive rebellion in the 1960s, a lot of people simply chose to ignore cultural taboos and do whatever they liked. They talked a lot about beauty and love and dignity, but at the root of it all, they just wanted to copulate and do drugs without anybody telling them "no."

Now that the individuals and the movement have matured, there's just not a whole lot left for them to express. Having thrown away the lessons learned by hundreds of generations of ancestors, they have no context other than their own experiences to interpret their world, no wisdom to express, no valid experience to share. They're thrown back to the point of their rejection, and have nothing left but the lust they chose.

It's truly that banal, and that simple. They left the road while adolescents, and they're stuck there. They have nothing to say other than "Let's party."

"pornography could be a superstitious offering to the gods of a dying race."

The "transgressive artist" knows first-hand; no love, no life. Just pretend mating with the anonymous images served up for our perpetually unfulfilled pleasure and distraction.

Muggeridge nailed it 30 years ago:

"When the devil makes his offer (always open incidentally) of the kingdoms of the earth, it is the bordellos which glow so alluringly to most of us, not the banks and the counting-houses and the snow-swept corridors of power . . . Sex is the mysticism of a materialistic society - in the beginning was the Flesh, and the Flesh became Word; with its own mysteries - this is my birth pill; swallow it in remembrance of me! - and its own sacred texts and scriptures - the erotica which fall like black atomic rain on the just and unjust alike, drenching us, stupefying us. To be carnally minded is life!"
Malcolm Muggeridge

Plumb Bob, much as I agree with your analysis of the 60's it didn't come like a bolt out of the blue nor was it original or even rare. Such things have pedigrees and the love children were only one manifestation and variation on an old, noxious strain.

The decadents, avant-garde, nihilists, revolutionaries, etc and nauseatingly so on, have some common roots, both ideological and psychological. It's not an accident that the so called love children displayed anarchistic/socialist tendencies, that force was more of a factor than a cleansed new history would care to admit. They were the spawn of previous generations of malcontents and in part, in this to a degree, life imitated art.

Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn mentions de Sade as a precursor of this new age, just one of many, but interesting given the stress on eroticism and the uninhibited will, the hyper-reformist, at best, passions so familiar to us now.

I don't mean to imply that liberalism, so different from it's 19th century meaning, is the locus or the historical grounding of what you and I fault. To be clear, and to the extent that it's energies find outlet in excess, it is a subsidiary and one heir to a long and unhappy series of deviations through time barely mentioned here. You touch upon this in your comment on ancestors, well taken. Today an ancestor is only somebody to be looked up on a family tree, not a mentor from past ages.

Kevin, thanks for reminding me of Muggeridge. I haven't read him in a while & he is pertinent to both our problems and so our time.

Plumb Bob, much as I agree with your analysis of the 60's it didn't come like a bolt out of the blue nor was it original or even rare. Such things have pedigrees and the love children were only one manifestation and variation on an old, noxious strain.

Of course the 60s have a pedigree, but it's more incidental than it is direct. I'll accept your assessment of the source, but the truth is, we weren't thinking about much, and most of those stuck there still aren't, and can't.

I think a confluence of cultural strands reached their weakest point all at the same time, and created an agar that might have fed any contrarian specimen that might have gotten planted on it. The education system had weakened for nearly a century, and was full of Scientific Materialism and Relativism; child-rearing had weakened, and was full of permissivism; the Depression and the war had created a generation eager to overprotect and spoil their children. It took only a few grains of Marcuse and Weber to grow a promiscuous culture of "I'll do whatever I like," and "whatever I like" will only go a few, predictable directions when all boundaries are torn down.

So I guess I'm agreeing that the various 18th & 19th century errors found their way into popular culture through the education system and are bearing their sour fruit, but I don't think the fruit is a generation actively processing those errors to their natural, logical conclusion; I think the fruit is a generation that's simply not capable of assessing the world at all.

It's one of those ironies of sin -- any truly wrong idea carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, and in the generation where the brunt is felt the worst, those most severely affected are incapable of carrying anything forward. The future, as always, belongs to the righteous.

johnt & Pluumb Bob,

"I don't mean to imply that liberalism, so different from it's 19th century meaning, is the locus or the historical grounding of what you and I fault."

"Of course the 60s have a pedigree, but it's more incidental than it is direct."

Both the locus and pedigree seem pretty identifiable. The sixties, and everything that has followed, appear as inevitable stages within the Liberal Tradition. For four centuries it built towards the cultural archtype of the autonomous, self-created individiual. Sexual liberation is no longer a cause, it's simply the context for most entertainment and acts as a helpful hook for peddling consumer goods. The barricades of '68 have been abandoned for boardrooms and corporate suites. The tents of Woodstock have been upgraded to sprawling McMansions and former draft-dodgers preside in our nation's war-rooms. The revolution goes on.

Plumb Bob & Kevin, noted and thanks for the response. It is an almost inexhaustible subject, but there will be for another time.

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