THE RECKONING

 

"What, in a nutshell, is modern diplomacy with the East, Near or Far, all about but an attempt by the West to stave off the possibility of a third world war for as long as possible, so that people like us can continue to absorb as much of our cultural heritage as possible?" the journalist Julian Brown was saying to Timothy Young, a long-term friend of his."All this frantic rushing around Europe, all these urgent trips to various museums, galleries, cathedrals, etc., in which people like us tend to indulge, how symptomatic it all seems of our desire to see as much as possible before the great cataclysm erupts and we are all ploughed under!And not only us, but our bloody cultural heritage as well!"

††††† "There was and continues to be a great deal more to modern diplomacy than that!" Young retorted to the middle-aged man beside him, who still seemed to be wrapped, despite the collapse of Soviet Communism, in the wintry embrace of the cold war."But I grant you it's in our interests to preserve ourselves for as long as possible.Whether the great cataclysm, as you mysteriously put it, will erupt this century, next century, or in two or more centuries time ... is anyone's guess.Though, if recent diplomatic bunglings are anything to judge by, we needn't be surprised if something analogous erupts sooner than later, and not necessarily in consequence of war, either!"

††††† "And that may well be before you've had an opportunity to visit all of the major cultural centres of Western Europe," Brown rejoined, his facial expression darkly tinged with ironic concern."Just think of it, all or most of the great churches and cathedrals raised to the ground, all or most of the contents of our national museums pillaged or destroyed, all or most of those wonderful Medieval and Renaissance paintings likewise pillaged or destroyed, all or most of the great sculptures ..."

††††† "Oh, Julian, do spare us the sordid details!" Bridget Ryan protested, turning a quite peeved expression on the face of her latest boyfriend, who sat in-between."Here we are, in one of the prettiest parks in London on one of the warmest days of summer, and all you can talk about is the hypothetical future overcoming of Western civilization by some hypothetical barbarians from the East!Really, you are the limit!Anyone would think you actually wanted it to be overcome."

††††† Her boyfriend gave vent to a short sharp burst of cynical laughter.Poor Bridget, she could never face-up to the nuclear and biological threats of the contemporary world, not even in the heart of summer.She preferred to ignore them, to pretend that they would disappear if one chose not to dwell on them, and to see in every temporary or expedient change for the better which the East or some other godforsaken part of the world underwent, an irreversible change for the best.And yet, she was by no means untypical in that respect.Almost everyone had an optimistic streak in him these days, though it didn't necessarily require Glasnost and Perestroika to bring it out."Yes, to some extent I suppose I do want it to be overcome," he gravely admitted."To some extent, I think we all have a little suicidal demon egging us on, reminding us that our civilization is fundamentally moribund, that there's no possibility of our being able to reverse time and restore it to anything like its former glory.One need only view the latest examples of modern art, or listen to the latest examples of modern music, or read the latest examples of modern literature ... to realize that we're fast drawing to a close.We have 'had our day', if you'll forgive me the expression, and all we can do now is await the end, await the death and destruction that the uncivilized enemy or accident or whatever will mete out to us all in due course.After all, could one really expect it to be otherwise?Hasn't every civilization worthy of the name, from the ancient Egyptian and Chinese to the slightly less-ancient Greek and Roman, had its allocated time-span?Is there any reason for us to assume that we're an exception?No, not the slightest!Only fools and ignoramuses are convinced that the West, conceived in traditional civilized terms, has a long and glorious future ahead!"

††††† There ensued a period of solemn silence during which Timothy Young, profoundly bored by his friend's apocalyptic pessimism, reflected on his literary ambitions and brooded over his comparative lack of success.Like Julian, he was acutely aware of the feebleness and inanity of most contemporary artistic productions.Yet, unlike that forthright man, he had not been discouraged by it from pursuing a literary career, but had blundered on with his creative desires as though that was the most sensible thing to do.Preferring to believe that literature, no less than the other arts, still had a future, he had thrown himself into the production of novels which, by contemporary standards, were intellectually daring and ideologically precocious, only to realize, much to his dismay, that the reading public generally had little or no taste for such literature, being more attuned to the latest commercial fiction of what might be called the pro-filmic avant-garde.Unfortunately, his profound distaste for the equivalent commercial developments in art and music had sufficed to put him off the production of literary parallels, in consequence of which he now found himself faced with no alternative but to abandon his literary ambitions and follow Julian Brown into the philistine world of commercial journalism, which he still despised from an artist's standpoint, the standpoint, needless to say, of a subjective reinvention and reinterpretation of things.If the reading public had accepted his more philosophical approach to literature, all would have been at least relatively well.But his endeavour to bring literature to new conceptual heights had not met with a wide appreciation, obliging him to conclude that the genuine writer was as much out-of-favour, these days, as the genuine priest.Only the pro-filmic antiwriter, like the pro-cosmic antipriest, had a chance of surviving, of acquiring a sort of negative prestige.For at least he was relevant to the times instead of effectively anachronistic, and stood as both a chronicler and mouthpiece of the age.Unless one had the willpower to face-up to the creative requirements of contemporary Western society, and thus produced material of a cinematic nature, there was little place for one in the modern world.Like art and music, literature was essentially a thing of the past, and those who were well-versed in it and genuinely appreciative of its true nature could hardly be expected to take a leading role in the furtherance of the materialistic productions which had come to supersede it at the behest of the market.With very few exceptions, anyone who, because of his creative endeavour, considered himself an artist ... was simply deceiving himself.Artists, like the works they produced, were also a thing of the past, an outmoded species of man for which the age had no real use.Strictly speaking, there was no 'modern art'.If one didn't like the works of the pro-photographic anti-artists, that was too bad.One had to lump it.The 'Call that art?' mentality was simply ignorant of the current position of cultural activities in the Western world, as, for that matter, were those who replied with a 'Yes' to their detractors.

††††† This period of solemn silence was eventually broken, however, by the loud voice of Julian Brown, who expanded on his previous comments with a remark about the likelihood of various important art treasures being saved from martial destruction either by judicious underground storage or timely transportation to remote places, in the event of the great cataclysm eventually breaking out; though he thought it unlikely there would be time or inclination to store or transport that many."And yet, I dare say some Western art treasures would survive a third world war and be treated with respect by a future civilized people some decades or centuries after the Atilla-like purge on Western institutions and cultural creations had run its demented course," he added wistfully, turning first towards Timothy and then towards Bridget.

††††† "What makes you suppose the West would come off worst in any such hypothetical nuclear war?" the latter asked, still impatient with her boyfriend's apocalyptic preoccupations, which struck her as symptomatic of the pessimistic imagination of a petty-bourgeois intellectual who refused to accept the inexorable march of proletarian history, as bearing upon the arts, so that he had a sort of blind sport for cinema and photography.

††††† "Simply knowledge of the fact that Western civilization is dying," Brown irritably replied."Whether the enemy would be vanquished along with us or come out victorious, we cannot of course be certain.But, either way, the outcome could only be bleak for the West.You see, the enemy is ideologically opposed to our religious, political, economic, social, and cultural traditions.He has assumed, consciously or unconsciously, a raison d'Ítre of opposing the West, and this seems to accord with historical precedent, with the inevitability, almost, of a barbaric opposition to tottering civilizations, in order that the ground may be cleared, as it were, for subsequent cultural development.You couldn't have expected decadent Rome to pull down its own pagan temples for the sake of a future religious development called Christianity, and neither, it seems to me, can you expect the decadent West to destroy its own Christian churches, the very symbols of its cultural integrity.Too many vested interests are at stake and, besides, what would be the point of destroying that which purports to offer one Eternal Life?No, that is only likely to be done by barbarians, by a strong outside power, corporation, industrial conglomerate, or whatever which, in opposing Western civilization, may succeed in sweeping it into the rubbish bin of history.And, believe me, our civilization may not have much longer to go before that happens!"

††††† Both Bridget Ryan and Timothy Young knew that, fundamentally, Julian had a point, though they also knew that one couldn't make a point of being overly concerned about it, since, to all appearances, Western civilization had already been swept away by the world barbarism of the proletarian arts, including film and photography, and was only hanging-on in the background, as it were, of its religious and cultural traditions.And for those who valued such traditions, the great art treasures of Europe were there to be visited and viewed as frequently as possible.Another decade, another two decades, and the works of Crevelli, Tura, Mabuse, Mantegna, Bellini, Botticelli, Tintoretto, and other such religious masters might be beyond one's grasp, shut out for ever from the admiring eye, banned or destroyed.The great galleries might be blown to smithereens, the great cathedrals, museums, libraries, and stately homes along with them.Then Western civilization would truly be dead.At present, however, it was still there, a sort of death-in-life traditionalism which had been effectively eclipsed by the vigorous modernity of world barbarism, a barbarism which shone with a vibrant light from every cinema screen, camera lens, TV screen, light bulb, flashbulb, colour magazine, and rock stage in the country, and which only those marooned in bourgeois culture could be expected to regard with a condescendingly critical and even aloof eye.Clearly, Julian was one such person, and so too, up to a point, was Timothy Young.Though Bridget fancied herself to be more in-tune with proletarian modernity, and thus effectively an enemy of the very civilization for which Julian Brown appeared to be standing up, despite the fact of his never having contributed anything particularly original to it himself.In fact, the thought of this caused her to laugh outright, and when asked by her tetchy companion exactly what she found so amusing, she simply replied: "The prospect of you two idiots traipsing round Europe like a pair of cultural dinosaurs, in search of dead culture upon which to feast your cadaverous imaginations!"

††††† "Oh," said Julian, who blushed with shame in realizing that Bridget held him in such low esteem, "then it doesn't matter to you what fate befalls the cultural masterpieces which our civilization has produced over the centuries?"

††††† "Not in the slightest," said Bridget, to her boyfriend's further dismay."The only thing that matters to me is that I should continue to live and be able to experience the culture of my time, no matter how barbarous it may be in relation to what you choose to regard, in that finicky way of yours, as civilized.For the only way to the future is through the present, not the past, and if you had an ounce of real imagination and courage, either of you, you'd drop the culture of the past and concentrate on living in the present or, better still, find some way to overhaul and transcend it in the interests of a more civilized future!

††††† "I can't deny there's some truth in what you say," Young conceded, frowning with what seemed to Bridget like an overly sententious solemnity."But, frankly, I don't see how that can be done, especially when you've been accustomed, like me and Julian, to an academic background."

††††† "Quite," the latter seconded, nodding in the process."Timothy and I are too fixed in our ways to be able to change now, and, besides, what would be the point?We'd never succeed in becoming anything but second- or third-rate punks."

††††† "Then you really are a pair of cultural dinosaurs," said Bridget.

††††† "Who deserve to perish, is that it?" he angrily rejoined.

††††† "By my reckoning, you're already dead," she retorted."For the longer you live off the art of the past, the more dead you become to the present, and the less chance there is that the future will revive you.Your physical demise will simply be the culmination of a process which began on the spiritual plane several years ago."

††††† "Better to die in civilized conceptualism than as a perceptual barbarian," Young somewhat sententiously opined.

††††† Bridget smiled wearily before concluding, as she rose to go, that although there may be some truth in such a statement as far as he was concerned, Julian, with his professed love of art, was more orientated towards the perceptual in any case, and therefore doubtfully civilized in regard to that criterion.

††††† "Oh, don't be so pedantically paradoxical!" he exclaimed, not fully understanding her."I'm as civilized as I damn-well want to be and in the way I want to be, and that's all."

††††† "You said it!" laughed Bridget, walking away.

††††† "Better luck next time," Timothy said to his friend, who just shrugged in exasperation and cried: "Women!"