The melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
Theodore Dalrymple has an excellent article in the March 1 issue of The American Conservative. It is titled “Suicide of the West; Will America follow Europe into anomie and atheism? ” His description of the lack of faith in the western countries is very compelling, even if a little too dark. It’s well worth reading. Here is an extensive quote from the long article.
The secularization of Europe is hardly a secret. Religion’s long, melancholy, withdrawing roar, as Matthew Arnold put it, is a roar no longer, and hardly even a murmur. In France, the oldest daughter of the Church, fewer than 5 percent of the population attend Mass regularly. The English national church has long been an object of derision, and the current Archbishop of Canterbury succeeds in uniting the substance and appearance of foolishness and unworldliness not with sanctity, but with sanctimony. In Wales, where nonconformist Christianity was the dominant cultural influence, most of the chapels have been converted into residences by interior decorators. Vast outpourings of pietistic writings molder on the shelves of secondhand booksellers, which themselves are closing down daily. In the Netherlands, some elements of the religious pillarization of the state remain: state-funded television channels are still allotted to Protestants and Catholics respectively. But while the shell exists, the substance is gone.
Perhaps it is Ireland that offers the most startling example of secularization because it was a late starter. Late starters, however, are often apt pupils; they catch up fast and even surpass their mentors. When I first went to Ireland, the priest was a god among men; people stood aside to let him pass. No respectable family did not count a nun among its members. As for the Archbishop of Dublin, his word was law; the politicians might propose, but he disposed.
In the historical bat of an eyelid, all that has gone, beyond any hope (or fear) of restoration. It would hardly be too much to say that the Church is now reviled in Ireland. I suspect that if you performed a word-association test using the word “priest,” it would more often than not evoke a response of “pedophile,” “child abuser,” or (at best) “hypocrite.”
The extremely low birth-rates in Spain and Italy, the lowest recorded in any modern society, suggest that the populations of these traditionally Catholic countries do not pay much attention to the teachings of their Church. Recently in Belgium, I saw an old convent where the remaining nuns were all in their eighties and would never be replaced. When they die, their convent will presumably be turned into luxury apartments for unwed professional couples with no children.
God is dead in Europe, and I do not see much chance of revival except in the wake of catastrophe. Not quite everything has been lost of the religious attitude, however. Individuals still think of themselves as being of unique importance, but without the countervailing humility of considering themselves as having duty toward the author of their being, a being inconceivably larger than themselves. Far from inducing a more modest conception of man, the loss of religious belief has inflamed his self-importance enormously.
For the person with no transcendent religious belief, this life is all he has. He must therefore preserve and prolong it at all costs and live it to the full. There are not many Hamlets who could be enclosed in a nutshell and count themselves kings of infinite space. For most people, living to the full means consuming as much as possible, having as many experiences as possible, and not only many experiences, the most extreme experiences possible.
But the problem with consumption is that it soon ceases to satisfy. How else can one explain the crowds that assemble in every city center every weekend to buy what they cannot possibly need and perhaps do not want? Will another pair of shoes supply a transcendent purpose?
The same might be said of the experiences that people feel they must seek if they are to live life to the full. Sports become more extreme in their competitive urgency, holidays more exotic, films more violent, broadcasting more vulgar, the expression of emotion more crude and obvious. Compare advertisements showing people enjoying themselves 60 years ago and now. Mouths are open and screams, either of joy or pain, emerge. Quiet satisfaction is not satisfaction at all; what is not expressed grossly is not deemed to have been expressed.
Of course, there might be transcendent meaning to life apart from that provided by religion. There is scholarship, but the infinitudes of learning cannot be suited to the great majority of mankind: not only would a population of scholars soon starve to death, it would not even be pleasant while it lasted. Transcendent meaning can also be sought in politics. Marxism might have been deficient as an explanation of the world, but for a time it gave people the feeling that they were contributing to the denouement of history, when all contradictions would be resolved, all desires fulfilled, and all human relations easy, spontaneous, and loving. It was obvious nonsense, but not more obvious nonsense than the religious ideas of those whose religious ideas we do not share. And while Marxism was discredited for all but a few aging faithful, the impulse transferred seamlessly to other causes—environmentalism, nationalism, animal rights, feminism.
But overall, most Europeans do not believe in any large political project, whether it be that of a social class, the nation, or of Europe as a whole. Most Europeans have no concept any longer of la glorie, that easily derided notion that can nevertheless impel people to the highest endeavor, to transcend themselves and their most immediate interests. Most Europeans now mock the very idea of a European civilization and therefore cannot feel much inclination to contribute to it.
This miserablism leads to a mixture of indifference toward the past and hatred of it. This is visible in the urban planning of Europe since the war. The monster Le Corbusier, whose main talent was self-promotion, wanted to raze the whole of Paris and turn it into a French reinforced-concrete Novosibirsk. This mania for destruction was by no means confined to France. Dutch Prime Minister Joop den Uyl wanted to pull down much of 17th-century Amsterdam, some of the most elegant domestic architecture in the history of the world, to build a highway and “socially just” housing projects.
Of course, too strong a sense of having inherited what is worth preserving can induce a paranoid defensiveness and incline you to see enemies everywhere; but too weak a sense inclines you to see enemies nowhere. And because of their history, or rather their obsession with the worst aspects of that history, Europeans do not feel able to admit that they wish to preserve their own way of life.
So what is left for Europeans? The present being all that counts, it remains to seek the good life, the enjoyable and comfortable life, for themselves alone. Europeans are fearful of the future because they fear the past; they are desperate to hang on to what they have already got, what the French call les acquis, because it represents for them the whole of existence. So important is the standard of living that they see children not as inheritors of what they themselves inherited, but as obstructions to the enjoyment of life, a drain on resources, an obstacle to next year’s holiday in Bali.”
The poem that he references in the second paragraph of the quotation is the same Matthew Arnold poem that I titled this blog after.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
If you would like to read the whole article by Theodore Dalrymple, here is the link: