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TAC Bookshelf: Ross Douthat’s Decadence

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Rod Dreher, senior editor: The novelist Walker Percy had a theory about hurricanes and human nature. He believed that people were secretly happy to hear that hurricanes were on their way (hurricanes, in this sense, being a metaphor for catastrophically bad news), because they shake us out of the crushing everydayness of life. In The Moviegoer, he writes, “The malaise has settled like a fallout and what people really fear is not that the bomb will fall but that the bomb will not fall.” And, therefore, that we will just have to muddle through.

I don’t know that Ross Douthat, the Yankee Millennial who writes a conservative column for The New York Times, has ever read the Existentialist Bard of the Bayou, but he’s certainly in deep Percy mode in his new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success. It’s Douthat’s best book yet, a work of deep cultural analysis, elegantly written and offering provocative thoughts on almost every page. It’s hard to think of a current book that is as insightful about the way we live now as is this one.

A problem for Douthat, though, is that most people want to hear that we are in the best of all possible times, or the worst. Douthat’s message is that we are indeed in an era of stagnation and paralysis on many fronts, but that does not mean that we are facing collapse. For compulsive catastrophists like me, this is not necessarily encouraging news, but reading The Decadent Society, I kept thinking that this conclusion, while not particularly exciting, likely has the virtue of being true. To paraphrase Samuel Beckett, we can’t go on, but we will go on.

When I told a liberal friend that I was reading Douthat’s forthcoming book on decadence, he rolled his eyes and said, “Just what we need, another right-wing denunciation of the modern era.” That is precisely not what Douthat’s work is. For Douthat, “decadence” is a descriptive term, referring to an era of “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.”

Here, simplified, is what he means: “A society that generates a lot of bad movies need not be decadent; a society that just makes the same movies over and over again might be.” Douthat writes in the spirit of W.H. Auden, who observed that the fascinating thing about the Roman Empire was not that it collapsed, but that “it managed to last for four centuries without creativity, warmth, or hope.”

Douthat devotes most of The Decadent Society to exploring the way decadence manifests in our economy, our politics, our family lives (the fertility crisis), and our art. We are creatively exhausted, and don’t produce much that is truly new or interesting. The most interesting insight here is Douthat’s identifying individualism as “the seedbed of stagnation.” We were at our most creative when we had something to rebel against. Now that seemingly every line has been transgressed, we are fading away into boredom.

Is this such a bad thing? In his 1966 book The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff—who, surprisingly, is not mentioned in Douthat’s pages—predicted the decline of our advanced capitalist order into a comfort-driven senescence. Yet he also asked, “But what apocalypse has ever been so kindly?” There’s a strong echo of Rieff in Douthat’s passages, pointing out that even as liberal predictions (an age of renewal and creativity once freed from the past) have not come to pass, neither have conservative forecasts of social collapse after we cast off God and traditional morality. We are, Douthat suggests, heading into a Huxleyan dystopia, which, whatever else you might say, is a lot better than the Orwellian police state alternative.

But it’s still a dystopia. I wish Douthat had devoted more space to discussing the point that the outcast Savage makes in Brave New World: that the things that make existence sublime—art, poetry, religion, and so forth—are inextricably linked to suffering. That’s the only flaw I find in this otherwise excellent book. Some readers may not like Douthat’s refusal to predict the future with any confidence. This is to be expected. Our time and place is so unsettled that anybody who claims to see what’s coming with clarity is to be doubted. Douthat offers a series of scenarios—some hopeful, others despairing—that could resolve the malaise by resetting the game board, so to speak. The fact that none seems especially more likely than the other only reinforces his point: that we are going around in circles. We have lost the sense that we are collectively traveling in a clear direction, either forward or backward.

That’s why conservatives and liberals who expect The Decadent Society to be a Bill Bennett-style jeremiad against liberalism and progressivism are going to be disappointed and maybe even frustrated. However, more discerning readers will find themselves pleasantly surprised to encounter a book so rich, intelligent, and shrewd, one that doesn’t seek to confirm their prejudices, but rather compels the kind of hard creative thinking that we’re going to have to do to find our way out of this dark wood.

The deep Percyan question at the heart of Douthat’s book: is the kindliness of this apocalypse good news or bad? I’m not sure Ross Douthat knows how he would answer it. After all, one man’s stagnation is another man’s stability. But this provocative book is evidence that no contemporary journalist has been thinking about it as deeply or as fruitfully as he has. Among his peers, the imperturbable conservative Douthat—a part-time professional moviegoer, in fact—is Binx Bolling, alone.

Addison del Mastro, assistant editor: Chesapeake Requiem, a 2018 release, is a book I’m also planning to fully review; its topic actually means that it gets better with age. At the risk of turning off certain conservatives, it’s a book about how climate change—manifesting as sea level rise—threatens to wipe out the small, scrappy Tangier Island, home of the Chesapeake Bay’s best crabbers.

Roger Scruton’s death has me thinking about his Greek-derived coinage “oikophilia,” roughly meaning “love of home.” Tangiermen are hard workers, but not highly educated; there probably isn’t a single person on Tangier Island who has ever heard that word, or would be able to translate it into English. But they love their home fiercely, and, to the U-Haul school of adaptation, irrationally.

Whether or not climate change is the culprit, there is no question that the island is in fact disappearing. It has been slowly shrinking ever since measurements began centuries ago. It is strange and sad to be an oikophile in such a situation. Mainlanders can remember when cluttered suburban highways were farms, or when an office park was a grandparents’ hand-built cottage. We can marvel at, and mourn, such changes, even as they are inevitable and in many cases salutary. But the land remains; it is still possible to stand in a gas station or a Walmart and remember what used to be on that ground.

On Tangier, the land itself is being swallowed up. Houses and graveyards alike have gone from land to swamp to sea floor. At the beginning of the book, the author and the wife of a crabber explore a vanishing portion of the island and find loose human bones, liberated from sunken coffins.

Can one love a land that no longer exists? Should one attempt to? How does one mourn such a loss? It is ironic that climate change—the quintessential global left-wing problem—raises such deep conservative questions. And it is tragic that they must be raised.

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