The narrow light of Experience
December 31, 2011
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I’ve been watching these days Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation series, BBC (1969). Its basically a history of western civilisation taught through the history of art, him being a curator. Although Clark also makes the occasional comment on culture, from his aesthetically traditionalist angle. Its normally just a short remark on how 1960s hippies are tasteless, or how the Reformation was little less than mass peasant histeria. But in the end of the 8th chapter, The Light of Experience, which is about the 17th century, he makes this long, very charged comment.
Between Descartes and Newton, Western man created those instruments of thought that set him apart from the other peoples of the world. And if you look at the average 19th century historian (…), you’ll think that European Civilisation seems almost to begin with this achievement. The strange thing is that none of these mid-century writers (except for Carlyle and Ruskin) seemed to notice that the triumph of rational philosophy had resulted in a new form of barbarism. If, from the balcony of the Greeenwich observatory, I look beyond the order of Wrens’s hospital I see the squalid disorder of industrial society. It has grown up as a result of the same conditions that allowed the Dutch to build their beautiful towns, to support their painters, to print the works of philosophers: fluid capital, a free economy, a flow of exports and imports, a belief in cause and effect. Well every civilisation seems to have its nemesis, not only because first, bright impulses become tarnished by greed and laziness, but because of unpredictables. In this case the unpredictable was a growth of population.The greedy became greedier, the ignorant lost touch with traditional skills, and the light of experience narrowed its beam, so that a grand design like Greenwich became simply a waste of money.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the roots of leftism, and how its not a clear cut good/evil story. This comment is food for thought. I’ll try to follow up and make a post on it next year.
Happy new year to everyone. 2012 promises to be a most interesting (in the Chinese idiom sense) year. Let us have clear heads, and wish misfortune to our enemies.