I was visiting Christopher Middleton, the English poet now in his 86th year, and he remarked that he’d recently had a telephone conversation with a contemporary writer friend in France who had said that our generation of old writers comprised the last witnesses — meaning that in this, the second decade of the 21st century, we are the sole surviving witnesses of the end of a form of western civilization which for at least two millennia has generated progressive political institutions and produced an advanced culture in which art of a very high aesthetic quality has flourished.
As inheritors of that culture, we did our utmost to preserve it by attempting to create new work that drew its inspiration from the best that tradition had passed down to us. But now that it’s our turn to pass on the baton, the next generation is not even present on the track in front of us, and we’re left witnessing an abrupt end to our race in an empty stadium. It’s sad to be the only surviving witnesses of the end. When our ageing generation is no more, there will be no one to observe the corruption of values because the generation following us has become disconnected from our ideals, and consequently future generations, raised to think of mediocrity as high art, will not even have an awareness of the precious treasure they have lost.
Decadence has done its job — so the argument goes with us old writers: people today would rather see a third-rate movie than read a book. Or, if they read a book, it is more likely to be some gossipy memoir than a work of some literary significance. Besides, who reads books? Everywhere nowadays you see young people walking with their heads bowed, or sitting in a café, eyes glued to the screen of their iPhone or iPod, their fingers busily dancing on the tiny keyboard to text some frivolous message to a person who, for all they know, so absorbed are they in their social networking, might be walking or sitting right next to them and very possibly texting them. And so the sad truth is repeated when we old men get together and tragically shake our heads that the youth of today does not have the serious intellectual interest and love of art that we had when young.
But wait a minute, I say. Have I not heard this sort of mournful lamentation before? Yes, of course! Chekhov pointed this out over a hundred years ago when he commented on Tolstoy’s writing on art: “Old men have always been inclined to envisage the end of the world and say that morality had fallen to its lowest level, that art had degenerated, had played out, that people had become feeble, and so on, and so on. In his book, Tolstoy wants to convince us that art has now entered its final phase and is in a blind alley.” (Letter to A. I. Ertel, April 17, 1897).
Chekhov gets it exactly right. Surely, old men — excuse my political incorrectness, but as an old man I cannot presume to represent the views of old women — express their deep pessimism about the world’s future because very soon the world will literally have no space for them; and psychologically it must be more gratifying to see the world as a rotten place not worth living in any more instead of seeing it as an earthly paradise in which wonderful new inventions are making life so interesting that it will be sad to be excluded from an exciting extension of life.
Faced with the imminence of that eternal exclusion, it is a consolation to believe that the people who will have the misfortune to live after us will have to endure a wretched existence in an increasingly violent and morally degenerate world empty of anything beautiful, a world which mercifully we will not have to witness. Images in stories and movies representing apocalyptic reality show it to be ugly, filthy, smelly and unimaginably vile, and we old men are comforted by the conviction that this is what the future has in store for the unfortunates who will survive us.
Oh, yes, let’s face it: there’s no denying the contemporary decadence, for as another old writer states, “we have sold our souls for profit at any price, slaves that we all are to our greed,” and adds: “what wastes the talents of the present generation is the idleness in which all but a few of us pass our lives”. Now, as they say in Texas, isn’t that right on the money? The rest of this author’s book is extraordinarily enlightening, too; he couldn’t be more correct about art and what his pathetic contemporaries are doing to it.
But hold on, wait another minute! Who is this writer moaning about the present generation, accusing it of suffering from heavy-duty greed and laziness? He’s old, no doubt about it, he’s really old. The quotation is from a book titled On the Sublime, and its author is known simply as Longinus (one of two: Dionysius or Cassius), and were he alive today he would be about 1,700 years old.
The French have a phrase for the temporal illusions that confound the human mind: Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose — the more things change, the more they stay the same, and, as Gibbon wrote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it is ever “the propensity of mankind to exalt the past, and to depreciate the present,” for each succeeding generation thinks the past it has been privileged to experience has been incomparably superior to the abject present to which the next generation has been condemned.
What the elderly do not appreciate, however, is that what gives the next generation its intellectual vigour is the belief nature instills in the minds of the young that they are supremely gifted to effect radical change, that it is their destiny to shape a glitteringly beautiful new reality.