Written by: Wendell Krossa
How to summarize the rest of Herman’s book? I’ll pick a few strands of thought here and there for some flavour.
Facts do not matter to a pessimist, because he scorns rational empirical science as part of the Enlightenment brood of traditions that have ruined the more pure, more powerful and vital past. This primitive past was rural based, agrarian oriented, simple, low consumption, technology free, and in harmony with nature.
In chapter 9 Herman orients the reader to the Frankfurt school of pessimism with its core assumptions that mass democracy corrupts true political freedom, that technology and positivist science degrade the human spirit, and industrial capitalism tears the social-cultural fabric of community, and all these bring an erosion of vitality and a decadence. Over this period of the early 20th century, there is more merging of cultural pessimism with Marxism; both see the degeneracy in capitalism; the degradation of the vital human spirit. Man is fallen more and more over time as civilization progresses.
This is the incredible denial of pessimism – that all progress is evidence of decline. Alice in Wonderland thinking. But its not about facts or evidence.
Now just some quotes from here and there –
“The Nazi program of genocide represented an extreme solution to what seemed an extreme crisis: the threat of Jewish pollution and racial catastrophe. The Holocaust is implicit in every theory of racial pessimism”. This becomes more clear in eco-pessimism where drastic action, and even violent action, is demanded to avert catastrophe.
So behind every prophet of decline lurks a vision of progress (salvation), according to Herman. Violent Salvationism.
He moves on to France and declinist thought there.
Thomas Sheehan’s fascination with Heidegger comes under scrutiny, given Heidegger’s central thought and interests, and his association with Nazism. Herman makes some sense of Heidegger’s ‘Being And Time’ as man throwing himself into life, being plunged into the reality of our own time and place. But Heiddegger shares with declinists the apocalyptic belief in modernity as a darkening of the world. There is a lot more detail here on Heidegger.
There is also a lot of dense material here revealing the declinist/pessimist’s obsessive rant against modernity, urbanism, progress, technology, humanity, humanism, decency, and so much more that we value from our progress. Cultural pessimism is most essentially anti-civilization, and Herman does a good job of exposing this anti-civilization focus.
He moves on to show how multi-culturalism is part of this mess of cultural decline or pessimism. Cultural pessimism is hysterically anti-Western. The non-Western peasant or ghetto dweller is the new noble savage – compassionate, stronger in mind and body and spirit ,and with more energy and integrity than his degenerate Western counterparts.
Also notable in cultural pessimism is a strong orientation to collectivism and against individualism (hence the easy association with Socialism/communism). Disconcerting is the easy association with violence to achieve ends; the vitality of violence. Writers like Norman Mailer get interesting coverage here. Also, the line of thought that native cultures are superior to Western civilization.
His last chapter is Eco-pessimism. He says, “The idea of decline makes its latest appearance as modern environmentalism”. This movement intensifies cultural pessimism’s beliefs that civilization is destructive and to be violently opposed. Here Herman returns to thinkers like Haeckel, the first ecologist. This is all about back to nature or back to primitivism. Again the Nazi leadership in early environmentalism is brought forth. They were very much early pioneers of return to the soil, organic farming and protecting animal life. Hitler’s SS saw organic farming as part of the Aryan tradition. The SS held a reverence for animal life that was “near Buddhist proportions”. Even as euthanasia was compulsory for ‘useless mouth’ among humans; modern environmentalism shares this hatred of humanity while reverencing all other forms of life.
In environmentalism, primitive and precapitalist societies are the new model for the future. Private ownership, competitive commerce, trade, profit-making and so on are all part of the destructive civilization that must be brought to an end. Primitive man is the sophisticated and advanced race that must replace modern industrial man who has become a cancer on nature; human progress and improvement is destructive.
Monism is central here – that the whole alone is valid and each species hold equal place in the overall. Herman notes that the assumptions of environmental pessimism have become very widespread in modern public consciousness. Humanity alone is the intrusive latecomer that does not belong in pure nature. Al Gore’s extremism gets more treatment here.
A few more quotes: “praise of violence is not unknown to political movements springing out of cultural pessimism…man it turns out, is the only creature who is not rooted on the planet..man is the ultimate stranger…the unwanted latecomer…a parasite, a locust-like blight on the planet”.
Herman ends, noting that the very things modern society does best – providing increasing economic affluence, equality of opportunity, and social and geographic mobility – are systematically deprecated and vilified by its direct beneficiaries”. Modern films and music promote the themes of this dark cultural pessimism; that rational industrial society is a source of corruption, exploitation and death.
He then ends on this positive note that society and civilization are not driven by destructive forces, but that the real forces for change are in the choices we make as individuals; the actions those choices set in motion, and their consequences for others. The most characteristic product of the Western humanist tradition is the free and autonomous individual who is also the cultural pessimist’s worst enemy. The genius of the Enlightenment is that society is not an organism with a predetermined course and lifespan, but is made up of individual organisms each with the power to more or less shape his own destiny. Society’s future is not the product of some inevitable law of progress, but is what society’s members make of it. At one stroke, says Herman, the cycle of disillusionment and despair is dispelled – not out in the world, but where it actually exists, in the minds of men and women.
This scattering of comments and quotes does not do remote justice to Herman’s detailed and thorough coverage of his main theme of Cultural Pessimism. This is a very worthwhile read to understand something of the dominant human perspective today. This is the dominant narrative governing human consciousness today.