Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Woolf in Sheep's Clothing

Das Rheigold, the first opera in the Ring Cycle (or, to be pedantic, the Prelude to the three operas) begins tonight at 6:30. Radio Two frequencies across Canada are here, or you can just listen from your computer from here.

Now then, on to a couple of things.

For those of you still wedded to the notion that the CBC only favours the likes of Noam Chomsky and Fidel Castro, you would have been overjoyed to have heard the patrician voice of Theodore Dalrymple (it's a pen name) talking about the decline of British civilization being the result of, wait for it, liberalism.

A quick googling of his name reveals that he's well published in conservative circles, and he's an articulate voice who I, tree-hugging, identity-politics loving prole that I am, actually found enjoyable to listen to and to read.

Did I buy a word he was saying? Well, sort of, until I stumbled on his article blaming Virginia Woolf for the decline of Western Civilization. Yes, you heard that right - those damn Bloomsburians screwed it all up for us.

I think his appeal is that he, like so many conservatives, plies his trade on the myth of the decline, and that we need to recover those old values to save civilization. This is why someone like Woolf could be a target, because she didn't support her man and pop children from her womb like a just-filled Pez. Instead, she made love to women and wrote difficult modernist fiction.

It's not just conservatives who buy into this myth - it has wide appeal across the political spectrum. But I believe the myth of the decline is essential to a particular strain of conservative thought, and it also happens to be the one that, when properly tapped, gets conservatives elected.

The golden era usually called to mind is the 1950's, a time when huge numbers of men had just returned from Europe having seen friends blown to bits, and the reality of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust behind them. Has anyone ever considered what kind of an effect that, in addition to their military training, led to the creation of a highly organized, stratified society in the immediate aftermath of the war? Or that this is what, if nothing else, people wanted projected back to them by their mythmakers in the media?

I know it's an armchair theory, easily refutable, but the notion of decline is so pervasive that it's worth taking a moment to wonder if there are any explanations for this myth. Again though, it's those "elites" according to Dalyrmple who've screwed everything up for the rest of us, and ruined the lives of the common people.

I actually agree with his sentiment that there's something fishy about someone who wants to spend enourmous amounts of tax dollars feeding and clothing the poor yet can't stand to look at them on the street, contempt worn on their faces like a new suit.

However, I would argue that there are a whole vast class of "elites", or which Dalrymple is most certainly one, all with different needs and interests and beliefs about the world and its people, who don't make up any kind of homogenous unit, who frame and dictate the terms of many of our political and intellectual debates. These people are to the right and to the left of us, and the struggle for power is still, to a great extent, their struggle.


On a completely different note, while Toronto (and by extension, Canada) waits for the Ring, it seems to have escaped the English media, with the exception of Paul Wells, that Montréal shut down, pealed bells, and generally made a big deal of the fact that their main orchestra, the OSM, had a new conductor. They showed us Torontonians what city pride can be about, celebrating yet another of Canada's myriad "cultures".

Here my friends, is the difference between us Anglos and our Gallic cousins - they don't appear get all hostile and resentful about so-called high culture. Reading Le Devoir on Saturday, with it's unabashed Culture section, as opposed to the mashed up high and low culture sections of most English dailies, was also a treat. Here's to keeping those worlds apart, each with aspects to enjoy and savour, but rarely placed on the same table for comparison.

Yet another thing we can learn from the French...no wonder everyone resents them.

You can listen to the OSM concert performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony here (English CBC take note - please follow the lead of Radio Canada and the BBC and start to leave concert performances up for a little while)


Sylvia said...

I was also seduced by Dalrymple's romanticism for the way things used to be. Funny he should mention Woolf. I read her biography "Flush" (of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog!) and it describes the slums of London quite vividly, including the bad behaviour of the people who lived there. Perhaps we should blame it on those uppity Brontës...

Conrad H. Roth said...

"It's not just conservatives who buy into this myth - it has wide appeal across the political spectrum. But I believe the myth of the decline is essential to a particular strain of conservative thought"

My favourite is Richard "Ideas Have Consequences" Weaver, who blamed Western decline on the triumph of the nominalists in the 14th century--or again, Babbitt, who blames everything on Rousseau--or even Spengler, for whom everything just went downhill after Pythagoras.

Otto van Karajanstein said...

HA! I personally hold Father Time himself responsible the decline of civilization.