As far back as I can remember, I had the feeling that I had been born some time after the end of everything that mattered. Yes, there was still an abundance of material comforts and some vestiges of marriage and religion, but vanishing before our eyes—like the stars in the sky faded by street lights—were the customs and institutions that made a common life worth leading: peaceful solitude that one did not have to fly around the world to find, the simple courtesies by which one pretends not to put one’s self at the center of the universe, and, of course, everything that has to do with arts and letters, with civilization, with all that is meant by that dreadful word culture.
In my later teens I bored parents and friends, telling them that my generation was fortunate in witnessing the end not only of a civilization that stretches back over 3,000 years but of everything that human beings have ever valued. This was not a dark age we were entering, but a black hole in which every moral and aesthetic standard is disappearing.
When my father dryly observed that philosophers since Socrates had been mourning the degeneracy of the times, I wondered why he thought Socrates and his successors were wrong. What if, in fact, our civilization, since the Peloponnesian War, has actually been in a steady decline, punctuated by a few brief periods like the ages of Augustus or Elizabeth or Louis XIV? Greek classical sculpture and the plays of Sophocles were solid evidence that, in some areas of human endeavor at least, our race had only gone backward.
I was to some extent merely joking and soon learned to take refuge in the usual diversions proper to youth—wine, women, and song (and ancient Greek). But there was a grain of truth in the adolescent pose. From at least the outbreak of the Great War, the 20th century took a terrible toll on minds that aspired to anything beyond comfortable footwear and heated bathrooms.
Ezra Pound predicted that the art of poetry would be dead by the year 2000. He might have been more inclusive: Not just poetry but fiction and drama, the essay and philosophy, are all more or less dead, unless Dan Brown can count as a novelist and the stuff churned out by Harvard and Chicago Ph.D.’s has something to do with philosophy. There are still a few good novelists, poets, and essayists, but they seem to disappear among the masses of mediocre scribblers—writers of free verse that no one but a foundation would pay for and producers of murky prose and predictable platitudes. Our culture is at the ecological dead end of an American city, where only English sparrows and starlings (unattractive aliens both) will survive, as one by one the beautiful and useful species disappear: first the Carolina parakeet and passenger pigeon, then the finches and cardinals, and finally even the wrens and robins.
No one knows exactly why the passenger pigeon died out. One theory is that after their populations had been so reduced by mass slaughter the few tens of thousands that were left could not find each other to reproduce. Whatever the case of the pigeons, the endangered subspecies of literate writers is too thinly distributed to influence the next generation. You could scan the best-seller lists for years, peruse every literary article in The New Yorker and Harper’s, study the catalogues of Simon & Schuster and Random House for decades, and still never hear even a rumor of a poet or serious novelist worth reading.
This is not the first Dark Age: It has happened before, though to a lesser degree. The Greek genius declined from Sophocles to Apollonius Rhodius and Callimachus, but Apollonius and Callimachus were fine craftsmen who still give pleasure to educated readers. The more derivative Roman genius was subsiding by the second century into a mediocrity that would only be elevated by Christianity: From Augustine to Boethius, educated Christian writers poured their heady new wine into the sturdy and graceful bottles of antiquity.
The German conquerors put an end to that early Christian renaissance. Boethius was brutally executed by Theoderic (c. 525), and his clumsy-tongued successor Cassiodorus thought it enough to copy books and teach spelling. Two centuries later, there may still have been literate and competent writers in Italy and France, but when Charlemagne assembled a literary court, he had to content himself with Alcuin of York and Paul the Deacon—worthy men, doubtless, but their uncertain versification and fragmented narrative style put Carolingian writers at a distance even from sixth-century hymn writers like Venantius Fortunatus.
In that Dark Age, however, educated people did not spend their lives burning the remnants of classical literature or teaching the arts of torture and assassination. Instead, manuscripts were copied, a few good books were read seriously—Vergil, Ovid, and Statius never disappeared from the curriculum—and a decent, workmanlike Latin was in common use. After the initial shock of the barbarian conquests, the European mind and body underwent a long period of convalescence in which sufficient strength was recovered to produce Thomas Aquinas and Dante.
We, though our age is far sicker than even the darkest days of the eighth and ninth centuries, insist on dosing ourselves with quack nostrums that poison and fad diets that starve the body, much like the cancer patients who go to Latin America for a cure concocted out of apricot pits that are rich in cyanide. Hardly a month goes by that we do not hear of some new movement in the arts, some “new paradigm” in political thought that is going to change the world. From abstract expressionism and the Black Mountain School to William Burroughs and Andy Warhol, to Installation and Multi-Media Arts to Deconstructionism, Metafiction, and postpostmodernism, fad follows fad, attracting a dwindling audience of less and less educated poseurs. I listened recently to an interview with Neil Gaiman, who not only had nothing to say but could not say it without the adolescent hyperbole that makes everything really great, amazing, fantastic. Four years of tough Latin would not, automatically, have made Gaiman an effective writer, but it would have disciplined his mind and honed his tongue.
Throughout the 20th century, literacy and critical intelligence were warred upon, principally by the hostile forces of mass education—public schools and elite universities—and commercial publishing. At the end of World War I, simple Americans were reading Booth Tarkington, Joseph Conrad, and Henry Adams, none of whom, arriving on the scene today, could be published, even if he were willing to reduce his vocabulary to the level of George R.R. Martin or Neil Gaiman.
Though it has taken several centuries for this to become clear, commercial publishing was a bad idea from the start. The ancients had no such thing. A man wrote a book or a play, word got out, and his friends began to pass around copies. The works that won the most favor with educated people would eventually be preserved in libraries and used in schools. Some bit of a book trade did develop in cultivated cities like Athens, Alexandria, and Rome, but it had little or no influence on what people wrote or read.
In the Christian (or Medieval) Age, the Church played a major role, but there was no book trade as such, and books circulated from hand to hand on word-of-mouth recommendations. Even the invention of the printing press did not immediately commercialize the literary business. Most of the earliest printed publications were either editions of the Latin and Greek classics or else works of scholarship.
In England, the first printers, instead of competing with continental printers for the classical market, created a niche for themselves. William Caxton specialized in English translations or adaptations of French romances. Wealthy gentlemen writers like Thomas Wyatt and Philip Sidney circulated their works in manuscript form: The first print edition of Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella was pirated and published after Sidney’s death. Less well-to-do gentlemen like Spenser published their own works and kept the profit, but no printer had the power to decide whether or not The Faerie Queene would be circulated.
It was very difficult, even in the 17th century, to earn a living by writing. Shakespeare made money as an actor and partner in the company that put on his plays, but less fortunate scribblers were reduced to churning out pamphlets and taking modest payments for their plays. Patronage and dedications, humiliating as they were, constituted a significant source of revenue for writers not possessed of independent means. And, while the business changed over the years, a Dryden or a Pope or a Johnson was eager both for the patronage of wealthy noblemen and for subscriptions to large works like Dryden’s Virgil or Johnson’s Dictionary.
The democratic revolution in publishing was the result of the rise both of a semiliterate reading public and of industrialized printing methods, which developed to satisfy the need for books that entertained without requiring too much effort. Writers churned out the multivolume best-sellers that enriched—and empowered—the publishers. Thackeray and Trollope, Dickens and Wilkie Collins, the unspeakable Mrs. Humphrey Ward and the vile Marie Corelli, though they appealed to different audiences, were all producers of commercial goods for a market controlled by the same sorts of publishers and editors as controlled the newspapers. As servants of this racket, Thackeray and Trollope both were able to write enduring masterpieces, and they were even bold enough to mock the pretensions of both newspaper editors and book publishers, but Trollope’s The Last Chronicle of Barset, as much as Collins’ The Woman in White or Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan, was a product written for a market controlled by people who care very little for literature. Nearly 100 years ago, Ezra Pound summed up the truth: “We see τ? καλ?ν / Decreed in the market place.”
I have nothing to say against popular literature. T.S. Eliot enjoyed mystery novels (as do I), but popular books, whatever the author’s talents or inclinations, are written for a market controlled by the drab and tawdry drudges known as editors. To appreciate the decline in American magazine editing, consider only the descent from Harold Ross to William Shawn to Robert Gottlieb to Tina Brown to David Remnick. Remnick was actually named “editor of the year” by Advertising Age! As mass-market publishing and government schooling lowered the tastes, the business has gone from promoting Rex Stout and Josephine Tey to touting Stephen King, Clive Cussler, and the fabricators of the graphic novels we used to call comic books.
Considering the sorts of people who control the publication of books, magazines, and newspapers, we have reason to celebrate the demise of print, though perhaps it is too early to uncork the Taittinger. Optimists will tell you that the internet has opened new avenues for education and literature, and while that is certainly true, it is hardly good news. Overall, I should prefer to speak with an illiterate than with someone who gets his information from Wikipedia.
Wikipedia, like other information websites, has no critical standards, because high standards would be undemocratic. Somehow spontaneous truth will sort itself out, much as in Friedrich Hayek’s myth of spontaneous order. Alas, the reverse is true. Some competent graduate student in, say, French history might contribute a sound mainstream piece on Philippe Auguste, which before too long will be contaminated by insertions made by zany feminists and homosexualists, to say nothing of monomaniacs. Some featherbrain has gone through French history articles with a Mongol obsession, hence the frequently occurring sentence, “So-and-so had no known contact with the Mongols.” Then along comes someone who has read and probably misunderstood some popular account. Distortion multiplies distortion, and before too long glaring errors of date and geography sit side by side with known facts. When some misguided pedant tries to straighten out the article, he is denounced for violating the democratic principles of the great god Wiki.
Why should one expect anything better from a website set up by an uneducated money-grubber named Jimmy or “Jimbo” Wales? If I were inclined to conspiracy theories, I would denounce Wikipedia as a conspiracy to keep Americans stupid and misinformed, but that would be too easy. Wikipedia is more the product than the cause of American ignorance. It is, of course, possible to find sources of reliable information on the internet, but Wikipedia is drowning them in a sea of blissful ignorance. Bad information drives out good, not in the sense of Gresham’s Law—no one is hoarding truth—but in the sense that when only counterfeit coin is being circulated, people forget there ever was such a thing as gold. This observation is even more depressingly accurate when applied to literature. E-books, by and large, are mass-market books too stupid to be accepted by Simon & Schuster (now a division of the CBS Corporation and formerly a division of Gulf Western) or, at best, books on which a mass-market writer hopes to make more money than he can get from a conventional contract.
There is, however, one great cause for hope in e-publishing, at least for the time being. For very little money, it is now possible to publish good books, old and new, books that would fill today’s book editors with horror. If I wanted, for example, to publish a translated volume of Charles Maurras, whom Eliot always saluted as his master, it would not be a major undertaking. If an American poet wanted to pick up the great tradition of sonnet-writing abandoned since the modernist revolution, he could probably find a bigger readership than he would gain from an academic press’s print run of a few hundred copies.
If the tiny remnant of serious writers and editors can make use of e-publishing to find an audience for real literature and for ideas that have been taken off the table by the intelligentsia, a literate and intelligent counterculture might quickly emerge, one that does not depend on the approval of people like Tina Brown and the Podhoretzes. I do not have much hope for this development, but good books are almost always exceptional. We may not be on the verge of a Golden Age or even a Silver Age, but as the duopoly of the hatemongering intelligentsia in the academy and the schlockmeistering vulgarians in the publishing industry breaks up, a few bright young men and women might take heart of grace and write something worth reading. A man can dream.