Caesarism & Modern Arts

15 Nov

Spengler makes some fascinating, and ominously prescient remarks about “the coming Caesarism” in the second volume of his masterwork [1]. His comments ought to be valid for aspects of culture besides politics, indeed, for all facets of culture or, as he explains, “civilization” Europe having passed the threshold from culture to civilization in the 1790s, the “revolutionary decade.”
However, surveying the arts we do not find this to be so. Schoenberg and Stravinsky radically changed innovation in Western music so much so that it became decadent, its place taken by the non-music termed ‘rock ‘n roll,’ a dumbed down Dionysian inducement that anesthetizes and conditions people. ‘Rock’ is an instrument of social control, part of the industry of social control but it hardly registers as music. It is a series of tag-lines (“hooks”) and cliches that serve notice to us of cultural morbidity: we live in a culture without a vibrant musical tradition. We have wonderful museum pieces and re-constructions but no life. Spengler also explained this in terms of a “second religiousness,” a recycling of cultural products during the era of petrifaction and megalopolis.

Perhaps Wagner might be considered the early Modern Caesar of music with his ‘musical dramas’ or total art works. But his operas were a radical break with instrumental music and a reduction of drama too, as Nietzsche shows at great length: it was a triumph of acting over music and of gesture or image over drama. It was an art of the ICON, an attempt at cultural re-definition. Wagner’s oeuvre as a whole was a form of the second religiousness, of nostalgie, archaism and the desperate spiritual void they reveal.

Literature has numerous great figures, few of whom are uncontested. One might make a case for Milan Kundera as a master of formalist innovation and elegance and for a rich renewal of the broad sweep of novelistic conventions: the meditative and symbolic episode; mastery of the bildungsroman (“Life is Elsewhere”), even of the novel as disguised confession, a climax of a distinctive mode of the past two centuries. Of the realist novel Solzhenitsyn and, in its popular form, Robert Stone are masters and there are the several masters, all English, of dystopic visions: Huxley, Orwell and Burgess. But one towering, unsurpassed and acknowledged figure, a ‘Caesar’ there is none as there were a handful in socio-politics. If one speaks of poetry, Wallace Stevens and Yeats stand out to this writer; others like Roethke and Frost wrote significant works. A diminishing band would point to the influence, as opposed to the output, of Ezra Pound. But only for Yeats is there substantial kudos of mastery and his great works ceased in 1935. The fact that he, like Stevens, was great as an imagist points to the greatness that distinguishes our era: the triumph of the image.

Only in painting was there one master of surpassing ability and impact whose talents, as opposed to taste, none could dispute: Pablo Picasso. By the age of fourteen his mastery of composition, drawing, color and conventional motif was clear. He spent the rest of his life playing, with varying degrees of success and force with the elements of his medium.

Picasso’s dominance and his dissipation are suited to his art, painting and his genre matches our cultural period as one which will produce a dominant figure. Modernism and still more postmodernism are the eras of the image, of the triumph of the image over life, of the displacement of reality by virtual reality. Thus it is in the realm of image-making, whatever degree of abstraction, that the essence of our civilization, a realm of the spectacle expresses itself through a dominant personality or Caesar.

As the oligarchy that directs Western and world civilization increases its mechanisms and degree of control it is likely that popular distress and the sense of being deceived and powerless will express itself in demands for a ‘strong man’ of the old school. The oligarchy will produce endless simulacra of same. It is unlikely that the genuine article will arise until the “great petrifact” completes its management of generic human inventory and of the social machine and then itself begins to fragment and die from rigidity. To this some look forward with a mixture of dread and hope.

1, Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (Alan Helps one-volume English addition from the translation of the two-volume original by Charles F Atkinson), chapters 18-20. The first volume was published in 1917; the complete set in 1922.

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