Americans have been through any number of “this is the end” worries over the last few years from both the Left and the Right. The Left spent years selling books and making copy that warned of an impending theocratic, illiberal police state with intolerant citizens, and now the Right warns of an impending bureaucratic police state with impoverished citizens. I’m not interested in the relative merits of the warnings: I’m all thumbs with the subtleties of political discourse; and an honest view of both claims would probably show them both to be a mix of insight into real danger, misplaced but correct concern, and pure hype.
The truth of the claims doesn’t interest me, but a psychological fact that comes along with hearing them. There is a clear desire on all sides, and I can feel it also in myself, to just let the crisis come. In all of the endless cycles of NEWS CRISIS SPECIAL REPORT there is an undercurrent of the death wish. In our honest moments, we fear more that the cataclysm won’t come. The Right has its own way of venting this death wish (the appeal to moral hazard in the face of economic crisis, fantasies about guns and rugged living) and the Left has another (media and movies that fantasize about corporate conspiracy, whitechristianguy intolerance, a pristine environment without people, and the Big-Brother federal surveillance state) but both involve a venting of the pressure built up by the death wish (notice I don’t say they are this venting – it’s just an aspect of them) and living, by anticipation, in the world that comes after death.
But to call it a death wish is to name it after what is most dramatic in and not what is most real. Nature doesn’t think about death, and our desire doesn’t terminate in it. We want the new birth on the other side of the collapse. This desire for a new birth has been building at least for the last century, and it is most apparent in our contemporary art. We have spent the last century trying to destroy the very idea of art. Warhol’s soup can or Duchamp’s urinal are brilliant pieces of art, if reckoned according to their goal, which was to infect the popular imagination with the idea that art was anything you called art – in other words, that there was no art. Taken as pure nihilism, both are trite and pointless, but they are more than that, which is why they fascinate. The desire is to kill art altogether, all the way down to its foundations, so that we might come out on the other side with a clean slate and a pristine consciousness. The civilization has grown tired. Let’s burn down the forest to clear the path and fertilize the earth. Philosophy has run on a path similar to art – we have destroyed all the systems by critique, and we strive to deconstruct and complicate thought to the point where the life of the mind stops altogether. All the sciences and humanities strive to complicate, to befuddle, to leave anyone who wanders into them in a complete state of bewilderment. The degree of truth in all fields is measured by the degree of specialization, and the degree of specialization by the extent to which no one can understand what you are saying – including yourself. It would be one thing to say that all of this just happens – there would be nothing confusing in that. But we want this to happen, and are horrified that the whole thing might not hit its consummation. Why?
In treating of the question why there are many different things in the universe, St. Thomas answered that God was infinite, and that matter could only imitate this infinity by giving rise to a multiplicity of forms. One such imitation is “static”, that is, we can consider the multiplicity of forms at one given time. But the changes in matter also give rise to time, and so there should also a temporal multiplicity of one form following upon the next. Death does this in one way, and factors like natural selection and genetic drift do it in another (this latter way is a more perfect way of bringing about the telos of multiplicity over the whole of time). But man is an infinite spirit too, and so there is an identical impulse for multiplicity in the things that owe their existence to his will: art, culture, society, governments, etc. This impulse arises from the nature of the infinite giving rise to a finite good, and so there is some necessity of death – and even of the goodness of the death itself. Anyone can see in music or architecture that one style goes from freeing in one generation to being a straitjacket in the next, even if it is always beautiful. Mozart and Chartres will always be beautiful, but it would be insipid to simply imitate them forever – or even for more than a generation or so (various styles last more or less, but it is a matter of when and not whether they should die.)
Culture or government, in their concrete expressions, are styles too. Like all art, they also have a natural and timeless element, but this is not what the death wish works on. There are signs that we want a change in a rather far-reaching style – given the thought of the last 100 years, it looks like we want a death of the West. This desire is obvious in the university, but it has had great popular success and has been widely adopted in elementary and secondary schools; and we must always remember that ideas do not catch on like an infection, but because they are persuasive. The multi-culti desire to liquidate the West speaks to a need in Western persons. It had to come sooner or later, and by “had to” I mean it is good that the death of all our artifacts come at some time or another, even if the artifacts themselves have permanent value. This does not make apathy some sort of wisdom – as though we can content ourselves smugly to wait for this all to come crashing down. One is not heroic for abandoning a lost cause (just ask the soldiers at Thermopylae).