Darkness Visible

The Reenchantment of the World BY Morris Berman. Cornell University Press. Paperback, 368 pages. $24.
Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West BY Morris Berman. Seattle Writers' Guild. Paperback, 425 pages. $18.
The Twilight of American Culture BY Morris Berman. W. W. Norton & Company. Paperback, 224 pages. $18.
Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire BY Morris Berman. W. W. Norton & Company. Paperback, 400 pages. $16.
Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline BY Morris Berman. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. Paperback, 268 pages. $25.

The cover of The Reenchantment of the World The cover of Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West The cover of The Twilight of American Culture The cover of Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire The cover of Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline

IF A TREE FALLS in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Who cares? If a culture disappears and no one misses it, or even remembers it, does that make a tragedy? Hmm . . . surely a different, weightier matter? No, it’s not, say techno-libertarians. The market metes out our fates, and rightly so. Competition in the capitalist marketplace is the only fair and democratic way to determine which cultural practices will survive. Purchases are votes. If no one is reading War and Peace anymore, then it doesn’t deserve to be read. Whining about cultural decline is elitist; lack of effective demand is equivalent to a thumbs-down in the cultural colosseum. To such enthusiasts of market freedom, the idea that consumer choices are anything but free and unconditioned—that they are, as often as not, manipulated and needlessly impoverished—is authoritarian gobbledygook. Prophets of decline should lighten up and be better sports. You’ve lost, so just retool and get back in the game!

Of course, some prophets are beyond such appeals: They get branded as know-nothings, inveterate scolds, whimsical nostalgics, or ranters in love with the sound of their own voices. All these dismissals have been pronounced at one time or another (probably in Wired) about Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, Neil Postman, Sven Birkerts, and Jaron Lanier. Even crueler is to be ignored altogether, which has been the unmerited fate of Morris Berman.

Berman began as a historian of medieval and early-modern culture. His first two books, The Reenchantment of the World (1981) and Coming to Our Senses (1990), made the now familiar case that modern civilization has taken the scientific revolution too literally and too far, neglecting the wisdom embodied in premodern spiritual traditions. As the titles of those two books suggest, Berman still held out some hope for our culture’s eventual redemption, if we could transcend instrumental rationality and competitive individualism.

By the century’s end, that hope had faded. In three somber, sardonic books—The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011)—Berman piled up illustration after illustration of banality and phoniness, mendacity and callousness, tawdriness and greed in contemporary American life. He traced them to their roots in an all-pervading hucksterism, a culture of “hustling.” His range was impressive: Arguments about the psychology of consumerism, the effects of globalization, the dynamics of American foreign policy, even a detour through Civil War historiography, were astute and solidly documented.

But reviewers didn’t like Berman’s tone, especially Michiko Kakutani, whose savage New York Times review of Dark Ages in America (“a vituperative Spenglerian screed”; “an all-purpose rant against virtually everything American”; “sanctimonious, know-it-all condescension”) left Berman, at least temporarily, a voice crying in the wilderness.

Berman offered no remedies. What sustained Western civilization in the Dark Ages were the monasteries. Berman now hopes, faintly, that small communities and networks beneath the radar of the larger culture may preserve aesthetic and intellectual values through the coming dark ages. One would rather be a revolutionary than a monk, of course; but if Berman is right, many generations of monks may be necessary before the world is ready for a revolution. ­

George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? (2009) and For the Republic (2013; both Pressed Wafer).