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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Spengler Exposé

Several times in this blog, I have taken on Spengler's writings as inspiration for my own. David P Goldman, a religious American Jew writing under the pseudonym Spengler for Asia Times Online, recently lifted his veil after a decade of closeted commentary.

For all his controversial, incendiary and often conceited opinions, it is not surprising he chose to remain anonymous. As a result, I've been criticized for springboarding off his work while leaving unchallenged his opinionated world view. Most recently, my post on Spengler's take on American Idol has ruffled some feathers and deserves better exposition.

This post is dedicated to conveying why I have not directly challenged Spengler's presuppositions about American Idol. In short, it is beyond my ability to do so. What I have attempted, however, is to challenge his conclusions in the only way that I am capable, namely on the basis of intuition.

I have never read anyone with whom who I agree and disagree so strongly before, often at the same time. Perhaps it is this paradox that gives Spengler his allure, and why I read his columns extensively. He is not the typical, simple-minded ideologue. Rare among his peers, especially in right-wing opinion these days, Spengler has developed a rather unique, cohesive, and cultish system of thought in which his opinions are bred.

Conceptually, I find that refreshing, compelling, and inspirational, even if I don't consider myself adherent to his world view.

I once read that one measure of a person's intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in their mind at the same time. I don't remember who said that, nevertheless I have taken those words as a vow, a challenge with which to discover my own sense of integrity and intellectual congruity. I am a long, long way from that journey's end but frankly, I know of no other way to go about it.

What began as a simple plea for support from my friend Steve, turned into an expository essay on the world that is Spengler's. While I understand Spengler on an intuitive level, I lack the ability to efficiently verbalize what Steve has done here. What would have taken me months to compose, Steve completed in the span of an hour or two without batting an eye. Thanks man!

For those interested, here is Spengler's world as channeled by Steve, one who has ruminated through his writing for years uncounted. Though it may not seem so at first, Steve will steer his narrative back to American Idol ere the end to great effect.


So this is just me, chiming in on Spengler and what he has to say about American Idol. I want to do this because I think Spengler is worth it, and that the things that make him worth understanding are precisely the things that make him difficult to understand, particularly when you take his work column by column, isolated utterance by isolated utterance. Spengler is one of the few truly systematic thinkers writing about politics and culture for an audience of layman today. It is difficult to explicate his work because it is one integrated system. It's hard to know where to begin.

One good starting point is with his discussions of paganism. Paganism is a central concept in understanding his critique of Western modernity and of the fraught history of Abrahamic monotheism. He ascribes a deep significance to the worship of a totally abstract, transcendent deity, and the otherworldly religiosity that attends it. Christian otherworldliness devalued the actual world. To become a Christian meant being severed from your old life and old self, to cut your roots and enter unto a new life. Life in the Christian community meant experiencing death, and become a new person.

By contrast, paganism elevated the self image of human beings into the order of the cosmos. The pagan god was an expression of narcissism, with every people, every ethnicity having its own pantheon of gods. The Abrahamic god was totally transcendent and could not be represented by images; such a god cannot be represented by physical, external reality but can be felt as an internal presence. Where the pagan god was a narcissistic reflection of the self, the Abrahamic god was an absolute other.

So according to Spengler, the conversion of the West to Christianity was incomplete; the latent paganism of the barbarian peoples of Europe never completely disappeared. Much of the history of the west can be understood as a consequence of this incomplete conversion. One must ask whether a complete conversion could ever occur. Christianity is an extremely difficult religion to follow, for it asks us to believe, to really and sincerely believe, that 2000 so years ago, God, the lord and omnipotent master of the universe, became a lowly carpenter in ancient Palestine who was willingly crucified out of love for humanity. One who believes must place all of his faith in the otherworldly love of God, and of eternal life. Naturally, this is an impossibly high standard.

What happened to Europe was that it found it could not believe in eternal love and salvation, and so looked instead to a modern form of idolatry, that is, ethnic nationalism. The idea that one's culture and way of life will continue long after one dies is the only form of immortality that modern man believes in. With the collapse of religious belief, man has looked to new gods.

Now, on to a discussion of Spengler's ideas about music. For Spengler, the glories of Western culture are a direct result of Christian spirituality. In particular, he sees the soaring, transcendent achievements of Western classical music from Bach through Beethoven as being the highest expression of Christian spirituality. The total transcendence of the Abrahamic god was an impetus to Western composers to express the inexpressible reality of God's sublime being. In this, I am somewhat inclined to agree with him. Anyone familiar with the history of Western classical music knows how bound up with sacred music and the musical setting of liturgical texts that history has been.

Now what does all of this have to do with American Idol? I am sorry to be roundabout about things. American Idol. Idol, idolatry. I can see why the show would be such a tempting target for him. I wanted to give you some idea of the complexity of Spengler's thought, and of how it all hangs together. I think Spengler views popular culture as another expression of paganism. He reiterates this idea over and over again, that people would rather listen to music produced by people much like themselves and that doesn't force them to stretch themselves. For Spengler, the collapse of Christian religiosity was a cultural catastrophe, because with it went the belief that people needed to look beyond themselves for a standard of value. For modern man, the self is the measure of all things. They no longer even aspire to learn about and equal what is great. Not only that, but today people increasingly feel only confusion and resentment towards the great achievements of the past. In other words, Spengler sees the egalitarian, populist strains in American culture, its more democratic aspects, as being deeply destructive, even decadent in many ways, and that much of this because, at its base, is resentment of whatever makes us feel bad about ourselves. Feeling bad about ourselves is, of course, the beginning of aspiration.

Now, do you see why Spengler detests American Idol, and why I do not have the facility to challenge him?