Spengler on translating the old to the new

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dipping again into Spengler [The Decline Of The West]. There is something critically important here, but in mind-cracking-ly hard to get. Once I get it, I’ll be a different person. Oh! Gentlemen, let me talk to Oswald Spengler, please.

Mr. Spengler, I address you across a gulf of time, language, and culture. Can I still connect with your thought? What is the key that I need to understand what you are saying?

You have come into the world knowing that history is for you your true environment, and the truer history you are gradually coming into, not the more superficial forms you had to learn as preparation.

In history is one clue to the inner soul of culture. In that inner soul is the key to the story of your time, even more than mine. For, you stand at the turning point, as you well know. Change comes ever faster, as your time culminates and bursts forth to give birth to the next culture. This is no trivial or ordinary moment. As culture changes, the human self-definition changes, and neither half of the statement is to be taken to be cause or effect one to the other. The very definition of human is changing before your eyes and you are left behind because only one trained in the old ways can possibly record the coming of the new. It is because you do not participate in the new culture that you can still describe it from the outside.

Now, you have thought of yourself as belonging to the new culture, but consider the technology and the accepted ways of being that you reject for yourself – twitter, cell phones, Facebook, all that; 24-hour news and entertainment both personal (continuous accessibility via electronics) and impersonal (500 channels, news alerts, etc. by computer and other PDAs). You are not participating in the change; this allows you to see it clearly.

On the other hand you are sort of recapitulating one phase of the older culture passing away: You are the mostly solitary man ranging through time and imagination at your prompting, and that of “external” promptings, touching the limits. You can translate not so much the new to the old – you won’t be much good at that! – as the old to the new. You are very good at that. And why? Precisely because you do not stand at the moment but are rooted firmly in the past. Or perhaps we should say, you are the present moment’s recapitulation of the past.

Things reveal themselves passing away, Yeats said, and this is true. This is what you are doing. To do so, you must have been led down different paths than your contemporaries, or you would have had no difference to allow you to do so. You understand the essence of past attitudes to religion – why is that? So that you can by inference and difference show contemporary man – but, more importantly, man-coming-into-being – the bias of your age.

Thus, shamanism in the modern age is not shamanism as practiced and experienced in other cultures. How could it be? But neither is it a dead end for your time. Rather, it is a way forward, for it helps undermine the assumptions that support your age. Only – be clear. There is no point in becoming a pretend-native any more than in becoming a pretend-Indian. That would – does – have its own consequences, but it would not, cannot, lead where you are going. You are recapitulating as preparation.

This is what the Renaissance did. It recapitulated a civilization by then lost to them, and in reshaping the elements it thought it was recapturing, it developed what it was to become.

You see?

I think I do. A new thought, that I am not so much leading into new ground as recapitulating the old so as to prepare the way for the new – but as soon as said, understood. It resonates. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.