I was intending to wait until this time next week before having a little rant about Season 8 of Game of Thrones. It seemed only fair – if, somehow, the finale offers a meaningful conclusion, I can at least mention it alongside the inevitable copious complaints. However, on the major current point of debate – a certain character, a certain dragon, and a certain city – my hand has been forced, so to speak. Robert Farley, a military strategist, has an article over at Slate, looking at Episode 5 in some detail.
I do not challenge Farley’s interpretation of the actual military situation. Rather, I think he’s stretching his political arguments to breaking point, attempting to find method in madness when no such method exists. Hence my post today.
GAME OF THRONES SPOILERS
To appreciate what happened to King’s Landing, we need to move beyond the tactical and operational levels and think strategically. At the Army War College we think about strategy within an “Ends-Ways-Means” framework. Team Dragon’s Means include the army and the dragon; its Ways involve a siege or assault to destroy Cersei’s forces. But its Ends are not just the capture and defeat of Cersei Lannister: They are installing Daenerys Targaryen on the Iron Throne and giving her the ability to rule all of Westeros.
On this particular point, I agree. Daenerys’ aim is Queen Daenerys I Targaryen seated upon the Iron Throne – defeating Cersei is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Political considerations necessarily infuse strategic calculations. For Queen Daenerys Targaryen, seizure of King’s Landing and the deposition of the usurper Cersei no longer cuts it. Aegon Targaryen (Jon Snow) has a better claim to the throne; he has a base of operations, a narrative of legitimacy, and his own army. Even if Jon doesn’t want to be King, people who dislike Daenerys will fight in his name. Dany is no longer the presumptive Targaryen heir and can no longer rely on her family’s right to the throne.
She can rely on Drogon, however. Her claim to the throne rests on demonstrating the power of her dragon. With Rhaegal—the dragon Jon had ridden—dead, she is uniquely capable of making such a claim. Daenerys need not be “mad” in order to see political value in burning King’s Landing to the ground. We impute a desire to burn things to hereditary mental instability in the Targaryens, but rational political calculation can lead her (and perhaps her Targaryen forebears) to the same conclusions. In terms that Thomas Schelling would surely appreciate, the destruction of King’s Landing represents a message of commitment on the part of Daenerys Targaryen to the Seven Kingdoms. It also represents her political maturation insofar as she is willing to do to King’s Landing what she could not imagine doing to the slaver-cities of Astapor and Yunkai.
This is the section of Farley’s article I disagree with. He is imputing a rational strategic motivation to Daenerys’ act of lunacy, when in fact her actions in Episode 5 were an unmitigated disaster as far as Westerosi politics are concerned.
Farley’s point is that Jon Snow is a political threat to Daenerys that needs addressing, and that the burning of King’s Landing represents just such an addressing.
In reply, I would cite Niccolo Machiavelli:
“Men love according as they please, and fear according to the will of the prince. A wise prince should establish himself on that which he controls, and not in that which others control. He must endeavour only to avoid being hated.” (The Prince, Chapter XVII)
Daenerys’ problem as of Episode 5 is that she has become more than just feared. She has broken Machiavelli’s Golden Rule, and allowed herself to become hated. Far from addressing the shadowy threat of Jon Snow, Daenerys has driven potential allies, including Jon himself, into opposition to her. Not publicly, of course – no-one wants to be cooked alive – but one suspects few will now mourn if Daenerys ends up poisoned or assassinated in her sleep, two situations where the might of Drogon is utterly useless. If Daenerys were simply engaging in a bit of raw imperial conquest, a la Genghis Khan, that would be one thing. The problem is that she wants to be Queen of the Seven Kingdoms. Exterminating the inhabitants of the realm’s capital city – inhabitants that Daenerys actually wants to live among and rule – is, well, madness. Queen Daenerys will now have to take Drogon with her wherever she goes, and with both Rhaegal and Viserion dead, we – and her Westerosi enemies – know that Drogon is decidedly mortal. A Daenerys without Drogon would be finished, with any other form of legitimacy and loyalty going up in smoke along with King’s Landing.
Farley ignores the fact that there are a number of political ways of dealing with Jon Snow that do not involve burning a capital city to the ground:
Moreover, if Daenerys wanted to use Drogon to make a point to the Lords of Westeros, there was absolutely no need to destroy the entire city – especially a city that had surrendered. Flying directly to the Red Keep, and incinerating the Lannister Queen (plus Qyburn and Gregor) would have been quite sufficient, without the war crime to go with it. As it is, everyone bar the Unsullied and the Dothraki now consider Daenerys a greater monster than Cersei ever was, which means that her days are numbered. Does anyone realistically imagine her surviving the series finale? I, for one, do not.
Myself and some other Dunedin writers, in Thursday’s edition of The Star:
On the off-chance any of you are in Dunedin on 7th May, I will be doing another public reading at the Public Library…
Fantasy and Sci-fi authors: RL Stedman, Carolyn McCurdie, Debbie Howell, Daniel Stride, Mark McCabe and Kura Carpenter read a bite-sized taster from their novels.
Audience Q&A to follow – a great chance to meet a LOCAL author and pick their brain!
A book sales table will be available (cash sales only). Plus the opportunity to win FREE books on the night!
RSVP advised: 03 474 3690 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information: https://dunedinspeculativefiction.co.nz/
Tuesday 7th May, 5.30pm
Dunningham Suite, 4th Floor, City Library
Oh dear. The Penguin thinks he is so clever sometimes. Today is 1st May, International Workers’ Day – though not in New Zealand, where our Labour Day falls in late October. Farrar has responded by portraying the Left in general (and the more radical Left in particular) as bloodthirsty monsters – the implication being that rather than celebrating the long struggle for workers’ rights, we ought to tar that entire struggle with the more sinister activities of those claiming to act on behalf of workers. It is altogether rather like the French Reactionaries two centuries ago, who would equate democratic government with the guillotine – because, of course, one must imply the other. Never mind that the Rosa Luxemburgs of the world were critiquing Lenin’s methods long before Stalin got his paws on the wheel.
There are really two parts to Farrar’s post. The first is his statement that the first of May was chosen by “communists and socialists” to commemorate an act of violence (the Haymarket Affair). Because the Penguin wants to smear Socialism as one big orgy of violence – as the online wing of the New Zealand National Party, it’s a representation he wants perpetuated, while carefully omitting references to violence going in the other direction. The truth, as ever, is more complicated.
As per a quick glance at Wikipedia:
Popular pressure continued for the establishment of the 8-hour day. At the convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in 1888, the union decided to campaign for the shorter workday again. May 1, 1890, was agreed upon as the date on which workers would strike for an eight-hour work day.
In 1889, AFL president Samuel Gompers wrote to the first congress of the Second International, which was meeting in Paris. He informed the world’s socialists of the AFL’s plans and proposed an international fight for a universal eight-hour work day. In response to Gompers’s letter, the Second International adopted a resolution calling for “a great international demonstration” on a single date so workers everywhere could demand the eight-hour work day. In light of the Americans’ plan, the International adopted May 1, 1890, as the date for this demonstration.
A secondary purpose behind the adoption of the resolution by the Second International was to honor the memory of the Haymarket martyrs and other workers who had been killed in association with the strikes on May 1, 1886. Historian Philip Foner writes “[t]here is little doubt that everyone associated with the resolution passed by the Paris Congress knew of the May 1 demonstrations and strikes for the eight-hour day in 1886 in the United States … and the events associated with the Haymarket tragedy.”
So the primary purpose of focusing on 1st May was an international demonstration in support of an Eight Hour Working Day (something New Zealand, at least partially, had already had for decades). I can’t imagine why the Penguin might want to ignore the role of the Eight Hour Working Day as a focal point for commemoration, what with the National Party’s hostility to organised labour in its very DNA…
But, yes, a secondary purpose for 1st May was commemoration of Haymarket. Which Farrar is implicitly suggesting was a monstrous act of left-wing terrorism. The truth is murkier. The police tried to forcibly disperse a peaceful workers’ protest in support of the Eight Hour Day. Someone threw a bomb – the actual culprit never being brought to justice – there were gunshots, and a number of people were killed and injured. The upshot was that a group of German Anarchists were arrested, forced before a kangaroo court on flimsy evidence, and executed. Hence the quote in the above article referring to the “Haymarket martyrs” – the Left at the time considered these men to be victims of social prejudice and unfounded accusations, and as such, wished to pay tribute to them. There is not even a hint in Farrar’s post that 1st May might be a commemoration of the victims of a miscarriage of justice. It just doesn’t fit with his insinuation that the Left loves itself some violence (bonus points for the fact that he does not even use the word ‘Anarchist’).
The second part of the Penguin’s little smear is his reference to the victims of Communism, with his list of alleged deaths. It’s a smear because, in context, he’s really insinuating that the Labour movement has the blood of millions on its hands. Why else cite the victims of Stalinism and Maoism on International Worker’s Day, rather than, say, 7th November, the anniversary of the October Revolution? Because beneath the surface, he’s not really talking about self-professed Marxists, but the entire Left – though he dresses it up as a comment on self-professed Marxists. The Penguin works by insinuation and implication, then lets the attack dogs in the comments section do the rest.
Funny thing though – Farrar does not cite his source for the listed death toll figures. But it is quite clear where he got them, namely, libertarian dingbat, Rudolph Rummel, otherwise best known for advocating the Democratic Peace Theory, aka the No True Scotsman Theory of International Relations. Farrar separates out 1918-1922 Russia (3.3 million alleged deaths) from the USSR (58.6 million alleged deaths) – but combined, they give Rummel’s total of 61.9 million alleged deaths in the Soviet Union. So, yes, Farrar is using Rummel.
Rummel (a Political Scientist by area) is considered a bit of a joke by Historians. Quite apart from his somewhat unique methodology in terms of defining what counts as state murder, he is also notable for not using actual primary sources, preferring instead to make estimates based off secondary sources. I would just cite this interesting reddit comment on Rummel’s Soviet figures:
For the Soviet Union Rummel’s estimates for ‘democide’ are grossly inflated, to the point of absurdity. He claims 61 million excess deaths for the Soviet period, the vast majority of which being pre-1953. (And this is the ‘probable estimate’, the ‘high’ figure is 115m… over two thirds of the USSR’s 1926 population!)
During the 1980s and 1990s there were fairly bitter disputes within academia as to the number of victims repression victims. Thankfully Rummel’s estimates lie so far beyond the pale that I don’t need to recap on these. There are a range of estimates out there for the Stalin period but the ‘high’ limit (Robert Conquest, The Great Terror) is around 20m and the ‘low’ limit (say, RW Davies, Economic Transformation of the Soviet Union) about half that at 10m. The archive evidence tends to support the lower figures, which are themselves heavily comprised of famine deaths.
Rummel provides a figure of 50m for the same period. Where he’s conjuring that from I do not know. Similarly, I have no idea where he discovered 15m deaths in the period 1945-53 that no one else knew about.
But, frankly, totting up death tolls is quite passé these days. The difference between five and ten million doesn’t change the fundamental nature of a regime. Hence the real value that the archives have provided lies in telling us more about Soviet institutions and experiences. For example, after the Cold War ended we learnt that the Gulag was not the death sentence that had been assumed – the flow through the system was higher and the mortality rate lower than expected (Getty, Victims of the Soviet Penal System). Instead of a 10% survival rate (Rummel) you end up with an average <10% mortality rate (Wheatcroft, Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Mass Killings). A large number of people went in for relatively short stints of time.
This is the sort of insight that Rummel’s figures can’t provide and, indeed, aren’t interested in providing. Rather than saying anything about the Soviet Union, his inflated numbers are there simply to bolster his polemical claims of ‘democide’.
The best that can be said about his Soviet work (Lethal Politics) is that it made it into Jonathan Smele’s Russian Revolution and Civil War Annotated Bibliography, which is my bible for the early Soviet years. Thankfully Smele’s description is as fitting as it is pithy:
A poorly researched, obsessively anti-Soviet polemical general survey.
So Farrar citing Rummel – without acknowledgement, which makes it doubly amusing – is basically a case of one right-wing propaganda merchant citing another right-wing propaganda merchant. This is not to say that Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China were anything other than nightmarish places, but honestly, the truth is bad enough without having to make stuff up to suit a particular agenda. And quietly insinuating, as Farrar does, that all this bloodshed is really an integral part of Socialism, is just nasty, on this of all days (‘Socialism’ is one of those words that can mean whatever you want, of course. It’s the old equivocation tango. The Labour Party is officially a democratic socialist party, so let’s tie that to negative connotations of the word by bringing in the old Communist scare. Not explicitly, of course – leave that for the comments section. It’s all in the insinuation, isn’t it, Mr Farrar? So much said with so little).
I have somehow managed to get through that without trying to apply Rummel’s methodology to capitalism – I doubt either he or Farrar would like the result there, what with the very, very creative use of state violence definitions. But I will leave that for forum rebuttals of Rummel – it smacks too much of whataboutery for my tastes.
One thing you will notice about avid readers is a preference to read books unabridged – full and uncut, as the author intended. It’s a sentiment I generally share myself, and, all things being equal, I will seek out the unabridged text over a shortened version. However, I think this viewpoint can be taken too far. It is one thing to prefer an unabridged book, and quite another to query why abridgement exists at all, as though it were literary vandalism needing to be stamped out in the name of purity. A bit of perspective would be nice. Abridged works are not Satanic monstrosities: they actually serve a purpose. Indeed, it is often a necessary purpose. Today, I thought I would explore a couple of circumstances where abridgements might… actually… be worthwhile.
(1) Multi-volume non-fiction
A number of grand, old, and thoroughly groundbreaking, non-fiction texts are multi-volume beasts. That poses a problem on two fronts.
The first is the expense. If you are locating physical copies of, say, the unabridged version of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Edward Gibbon, a set of all six meaty volumes does not come cheap. Sure, one could read them via electronic format, or through the library (I do want to read the unabridged Gibbon at some point, definitely through a library), but those options carry downsides as well. Physical books are so much more fun (and dare I say authentic) than electronic or online text, and the library option means having to return them – one cannot keep a copy for personal reference. An abridgement solves all these problems, as well as the not-insignificant matter of shelf space.
The other issue is the length. Now, it is all very well to harp on about authorial intent, but in the case of non-fiction, the intent is to present facts and reasoned argument, not to tell a story. If the length of a text is detrimental to the argument, if one is forced to wade through many thousands of pages for intellectual payoff, then abridging in the name of accessibility actually makes sense. Never mind unabridged Gibbon – around 4000 pages, if I recall correctly – imagine the thirteen volume third edition of The Golden Bough, by Sir James George Frazer, which totals around 6000 pages. If one just wants to read Gibbon and Fraser for their arguments, a thousand page single volume abridgement is the way to go. The alternative is no-one reading Gibbon or Fraser at all, which would be a crying shame – they may be obsolete in many respects, but they ought to be engaged with.
(I actually have a morbid curiosity to read the unabridged Golden Bough. Electronically, of course – I could never afford the physical version. If I ever do, I’ll see if I can write a review of it).
(2) Inaccessible Classic Fiction
This one is more debatable, and generally what people who hate abridgements are referring to. The great literary classics… how could anyone presume to butcher them? They must be read as the author intended, no more, no less!
It is a sentiment I fully understand, of course. As I have mentioned, I prefer unabridged myself. But before we write off abridged fiction, I think we need to take a step back, and ask why we are reading these books in the first place.
Is it for pure personal enjoyment? If so, who are we to presume to judge someone for preferring an abridged version? There is only so many hours in the day, and someone might want to read a book without going on strange tangents about Parisian Gothic architecture. Is it to better appreciate references to the work in popular culture? If so, having a shorter, more accessible form of the work is perfectly acceptable – and certainly preferable to potential readers, especially younger ones, being scared off classic literature altogether. Is it, as Mark Twain once suggested, a case of classics being a work everyone wants to have read, but no-one wants to read – or less charitably, because people want to sound smart by having read something? If so, one needs to look in the mirror. Classic literature as an intellectual fashion accessory strikes me as one of the weakest reasons for reading a work imaginable. Honestly, read for the fun, read for the stimulation, read for the self-challenge, read for the curiosity, but don’t read because you are worried what other people think of you. In that light, opting for an unabridged text might well be a recipe for unhappiness, boredom, and not finishing the book at all.
What about reading to understand a given book’s role as literature? Its importance to a genre? Its history? In that case, yes, an unabridged version would probably (but not always) be preferable. The same applies to the ‘bucket list’ idea of tackling unabridged Gibbon and Frazer – there can be a genuine sense of achievement at having completed such a challenge. I know I felt like a mountaineer scaling a Himalayan peak while working my way through the unabridged Oswald Spengler. But sometimes people don’t want to scale a mountain when reading a book. Sometimes people want to actually enjoy something more accessible – and that is fine (it’s also why abridged books are produced at all, because publishers know there is a market for it). Such people are not lesser readers or lesser people for choosing a version of the book they want to read, rather than choosing a version of the book they think they “should” read.
Reading abridged books is OK.
Completed reads for April:
The Spengler and the (topical) Hugo were unabridged – I generally prefer unabridged works, though I think there is a place for abridgement, especially in non-fiction. The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs was the William Morris and Eiríkr Magnússon translation, and Purgatorio was the Mark Musa translation.
I haven’t listed it, but I also read My Immortal this month. Truly, the Sistine Chapel of trolling.
As I remarked in a previous blog post, my reading earlier this month was largely defined by Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, an early twentieth century text that postulates cyclical history with individual societies functioning as (mortal) superorganisms. Such a provocative framework of cultural and civilisational development naturally lends itself to applications – it is, after all, a distinctive way of viewing the world, and, well, being a Tolkien geek engenders a curiosity about whether one can apply the Spenglerian model to Tolkien’s invented setting.
Notwithstanding that few people bother with Spengler today, it turns out that someone has beaten me to the punch here: Michael Potts’ ‘Evening Lands’: Spenglerian Tropes in The Lord of the Rings is a scholarly look at Spengler’s influence on J.R.R. Tolkien. It is a highly interesting article, and makes some decent points – I love the idea of Denethor as the Fisher King of Gondor’s Spenglerian Winter. Potts does, however, misrepresent the Decline of the West in other ways, which results in misapplication. Hence today’s post – after mulling the matter, I think Tolkien only coincidentally mirrors Spengler, and that, despite Potts’ arguments, the model is a poor fit for Middle-earth generally.
Recall the twin pillars of Spengler’s thesis: (1) all cultures have a deterministic lifecycle, from birth to death, a cycle that Spengler represents as Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter, and (2) cultures are relativistic expressions of a particular world-view. Potts, in applying this thesis to The Lord of the Rings, makes the following points:
In short, Potts presents us with a sort of Tolkien-Spengler synthesis, whereby there is tension between ‘healthy’ cultures (typified by Spring and Summer imagery, warm vitality, creation, connection to the land, anti-imperialistic nationalism, and nature-focus) versus ‘unhealthy’ cultures (typified by Autumn and Winter imagery, cold refinement, stagnation, disconnection with the land, imperialism, and technology focus).
It is an interesting idea pushed too far.
Certainly, the Gondor of the late Third Age mirrors a society in Spenglerian Winter, and Faramir’s description of “childless lords musing on heraldry” is just what Spengler had in mind – a Civilisation that has exhausted its creative possibilities, rendering it abstract, self-referential, and living in the artistic and intellectual shadow of its past. But to get to a Spenglerian Winter, a society must pass through Spring, Summer, and Autumn first… and that is a poor fit for Gondor. After all, this is not a new culture representing a distinct world-view, but rather a surviving colony of Númenor, which over three millennia (far longer than Spengler’s model suggests) has managed to capture some of the imperial glory of the Old Kingdom.
Maybe this is not the Spenglerian Winter of Gondor as such, but of wider Númenorean Civilisation? If so, Gondor’s entire history, from its founding in the late Second Age onwards, is itself a Spenglerian Winter – Ar-Pharazôn makes a passable stab at Caesarism and Empire, and from then on, the Númenoreans and their descendants are in post-historical stasis. Which does not gel particularly well with Potts’ point about Aragorn suddenly bringing Spring to this tired old Civilisation. If Aragorn brings Spring, it is not a Spenglerian one – it is a rejuvenation of Gondor as a political entity (and a revival of Arnor), but the ideas underpinning the culture have still run their course. This speaks to the differences between Tolkien (for whom the eucatastrophe at the end of Rings is a genuine rebirth) and Spengler (for whom grim determinist logic is inexorable. One cannot escape the cycle of history). Hence my suggestion that one must be wary of pushing the Spenglerian model onto Middle-earth – not all models of cyclic history are the same, even if they share surface similarities.
Moreover, I feel that Potts is misrepresenting what Spenglerian cultures actually are. Spenglerian cultures are expressions of a world-view that is unique to them, and when they interact, the transmission of ideas ensures that those ideas mutate accordingly (Spengler, for example, details ideological differences between ‘original’ Middle-Eastern Christianity, and how the religion was later adapted in the West). When Faramir talks of the Rohirrim, he is not talking of a people with an alien world-view, he talks of them as kindred – a people who are a throwback to what the Númenoreans once were. Potts treats Gondor and Rohan as separate cultures, with one in its Winter phase and one in its Spring/Summer – and in Tolkienian terms, this is a valid distinction – but in Spenglerian terms, they are really the same culture. What Potts fails to realise, which is why Spenglerian analysis breaks down when applied to Middle-earth is that all Middle-earth cultures (save the Dwarves) are Faustian in Spengler’s eyes, or else ‘outside history’, like the Ents. This renders the seasonal metaphors pointless, unless you realise Tolkien was doing something quite different.
(A Spenglerian Middle-earth would have the Rohirrim with a fundamentally different way of seeing the world to Gondor, and neither side would truly understand the other, even if they were on friendly terms. The Rohirric elite might find themselves culturally shaped by their proximity to Gondor – a process Spengler terms pseudomorphisis – but if anything Faramir suggests that a sort of reverse is taking place, with Gondorians becoming more like the Rohirrim. Potts does not discuss pseudomorphisis at all).
I would further take issue with the way Potts treats the Shire in general (and Sam Gamgee in particular) as representative of Spengler’s Eternal Peasant. In contrast to Gondor’s decaying Empire, the Shire is deemed a “youthful culture-state”, still tied closely to the soil. The problem is that Spengler’s Eternal Peasant is outside history – hence “eternal” – and thus outside culture. Culture, in the Spenglerian sense, requires something more elaborate than a collection of rustic peasants tilling the soil unchanging. Culture requires change, and a superorganism needs to live and grow before it can die. Potts even recognises this by noting that Empires may rise and fall, but hobbits remain – which is all very well, but means that the hobbits are not a Spenglerian culture, youthful or otherwise, and as such comparing them with Gondor is a mistake. Regardless of whether or not Tolkien considered the Shire utopia (he didn’t), he is not calling for Gondor to return to the soil via the hobbit example.
There is a tendency for people – especially those with a vested political interest in the notion of a decadent West – to ignore the determinism of Spengler. A culture moves through the Spenglerian seasons, not because of external factors, but because of a natural aging process – a declining birth-rate is a symptom, not a cause, of Winter. Similarly, imperialism is a symptom, not a cause, of a civilisation that is coming towards the end of its lifecycle. I think Potts is stretching his analysis to breaking point by using the Elves as “anti-imperialist nationalists” (in actuality, the Elves have been in conscious post-historical stasis for millennia – they are hardly youthful – and notions of nationalism are an extreme anachronism). Applying Spengler, Gondor is in no position to opt out of imperialism, so if Tolkien does present other roads and other paths for his invented cultures, it is precisely because he is not Spenglerian! Which counters Pott’s thesis…
In discussing the final Potts point – that of the Faustian nature of Saruman and Sauron – I would say that Potts (ironically) does not go far enough. Certainly, desire for knowledge and control of the natural world is an attribute of Spengler’s interpretation of the West, but I feel that Potts overlooks that a Faustian Civilisation is more than technology. It is the relentless and futile pursuit of the infinite, a wholesale rebellion against limits. Spengler’s Faustians revel in dynamism and distance. As such, Potts ignores the clearly Faustian nature of both Tolkien’s Elves and his Men. A culture that produces the palantíri – defined by distance – and which defies the gods themselves is Faustian. A culture whose ships reach the ends of the earth, and which defies a ban in order to wrest immortality from the clutches of the gods is also Faustian (Spengler even explicitly notes that a Faustian Man fears Death as a limit). But if Feanor and Ar-Pharazôn share the same fundamental world-view in Spenglerian terms, if the Elves and Men are just as Faustian as Saruman and Sauron, then does the use of Spengler to critique industrialisation actually mean anything? One could say that these villains have their effect precisely because Elves and Men understand the temptation to strive for power and knowledge, but as a critique of industrialisation in general, I think Potts is in error to see it through the framework of The Decline of the West. If everyone is Faustian, then we lose the entire point of Spengler’s relativism.
And thus we come full-circle: the problem with Potts’ thesis is that he is interpreting Tolkien and Spengler to fit his thesis, not to reflect accuracy (I note also that Potts uses the single volume abridged Decline of the West – maybe there was an issue with the abridgement?). When one actually considers the Spenglerian model, one is left with the conclusion that Tolkien’s Middle-earth is not fundamentally a Spenglerian place. There are some tempting surface similarities, but ultimately a shared fondness for cyclical history and seasonal metaphors is not enough to make the case. Notwithstanding that Tolkien was writing in a climate where Spenglerian ideas were commonplace – far more common than today – I think one ought to treat Tolkien’s Long Defeat notion of History more on its own terms.
After a good fortnight’s reading, I have finished the two volume, unabridged, edition of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918-1923). It’s not light reading, not at all, and the sheer size of the combined volumes makes it a proverbial door-stopper. But it is unquestionably interesting – arguably a forgotten classic – so I have decided to review a work few now bother with. In recent years The Decline of the West has even become strangely topical, but we’ll get to that.
As a background, Spengler was a German polymath, moonlighting as a school teacher. His interests were spectacularly broad, and he is not afraid to show it – The Decline of the West is not a history book in any conventional sense, nor is it even a philosophical text (though that is a better fit). It is nothing less than a monumental attempt at fitting the sum of human learning and experience into a single historical framework. A uniquely pessimistic framework at that, one inspired by Goethe and Nietzsche, and one best remembered for Spengler’s view that grim determinism will bring an end to Western Civilisation. Think of him as a dystopian conservative version of Karl Marx, and you would not be far wrong, though there is a strange poetry to Spengler that one rarely sees in such meaty works (the German title literally translates as The Going Down of the Evening Lands).
The Decline of the West was a best-seller in the 1920s, and one of the most widely discussed intellectual works of the inter-war era – there’s at least one academic article on Spenglerian influences in The Lord of the Rings. As late as the 1950s, The Decline of the West was a favourite of Jack Kerouac and the Beat poets (Kerouac took the word fellaheen from Spengler). But the latent pessimism – combined with some of the odder aspects of the book – put Spengler out of synch with later, more optimistic, social attitudes (the fact that he was an anti-democratic, anti-liberal reactionary with some weird mystical tendencies probably didn’t help either). Today, it seems the only people who bother with the book are far-right dingbats, who use him to buttress their notion of a decadent West under siege from Islam and cultural enemies – a situation that is criminally unfair. Spengler’s politics were old-school hard-right conservative, in the continental European sense, but he was no fan of Hitler’s National Socialism, which he did live to see. And, yes, his methodology is less standard history, and more something profoundly… odd, but it’s an interesting oddness, if nothing else.
In a nutshell, Spengler’s thesis is that all human cultures have a life-cycle, from birth to death – a predetermined cycle that works itself out over 1000-1500 years. As such, he believes that if you compare different cultures at different stages of development, one can discern similarities (or in the case of Western Civilisation, make predictions about its eventual fate). The Decline of the West is accordingly a gigantic analogy-making exercise, taking phenomena from Western Civilisation, and comparing them with Classical, Middle-Eastern, Egyptian, and Chinese equivalents (with occasional references in passing to India, the Babylonians, and the Aztecs). Remember, The Decline of the West is not a history book – it does not seek to detail events or explain them in their own terms, but rather it uses events to reinforce, cement, and justify the analogy the author is making. Nuance is sacrificed in the name of building this cathedral-like framework. Nor does Spengler content himself with massaging history for his own ends – he starts off the first volume by comparing Classical approaches to mathematics with those in the modern West, and over the course of the book he looks at comparative art, architecture, music, law, physics, religion, philosophy, linguistics, political science, and economics, amongst other subjects. Spengler had broad interests…
The secondary thesis in the book is that everything about a culture is determined by its defining “spirit”, meant in a highly mystical sense, where the soul of a people is rooted in the soil itself. Yes, this does seem creepy to modern eyes, but it is not as bad as it sounds. Spengler’s cultures are not biologically or ethnically based – he actually spends time attacking the ‘scientific racism’ of his era, and he uses the word ‘race’ in a completely different sense from every other commentator, then or now. Specifically, a Spenglerian culture is representative of a particular way of viewing the world. This world-view then manifests itself in literally everything a culture does, from its art, to its science, to its technology, to its spirituality, to its language. Spengler is an extreme cultural relativist – there are no universal human truths, even in science, and no human culture is superior to any other (who is doing the judging anyway?). Nor does he fetishise a cultural Darwinian struggle for survival. Different cultures have different ways of viewing things, which leads to misunderstandings, and concepts being twisted, but there is no inherent need for every culture to be at each other’s throat. Besides, the rise and fall of a Spenglerian culture is grimly deterministic, and there is nothing one can do to escape this societal life-cycle.
Spengler sees the defining trait of the post-1000 West as a restless and ultimately futile pursuit of the infinite – ergo, he refers to the West as the ‘Faustian’ Culture (Spengler was thinking of Goethe’s Faust, with the character’s commitment to endless striving, but the Marlowe Faust works too… a culture that sells its soul for temporal power). The Classical culture of Greece and Rome is, by contrast, labelled ‘Apollonian’ – and Spengler spends a lot of time, especially in the first volume, arguing that Apollonian and Faustian world-views are utterly different. Seriously: it is one of his intellectual pet-peeves that people consider the modern West a revival or continuation of Greco-Roman civilisation via the Ancient/Medieval/Modern division, rather than a completely different entity. The Middle-East (which includes Jews, Muslims, early Christians, and Byzantines) is categorised as the ‘Magian’ culture – and, incidentally, Spengler regards the correct analogy for the Prophet Mohammed as Martin Luther, not Jesus. All told, the Decline of the West is notable for some extremely eccentric terminology (don’t get me started on Spengler’s use of the word ‘socialism’), which does not help the book’s accessibility, when so much of it is already devoted to obscure analogies.
Now for the fun bit. As mentioned, Spengler uses his analogy system to compare the life-cycle of cultures. Specifically, he uses a seasonal metaphor, with Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Under his framework, the Faustian Culture (the West) has passed into Winter, and from his 1918 viewpoint, he makes predictions about the coming centuries in the West, some of which include:
Spengler sees the West in the twenty-first century as analogous to the Romans in the first century B.C.. He envisages a dysfunctional plutocratic democracy getting replaced by authoritarian Caesarism and ‘strong man’ figures (he even explicitly puts about two centuries between Napoleanism and Caesarism). Future centuries will see the system become ever more crudely despotic, with powerful individuals literally fighting it out for control of a stagnating Empire long since exhausted of ideas. Charming.
(He also suggests that the next great culture will arise in Russia at some point in the next five hundred years. Spengler puts Russia generally outside the West, arguing that leaders from Peter the Great to the Bolsheviks were imposing Faustian ideas on a non-Faustian people).
So yeah. Spengler’s The Decline of the West. A peculiar, highly idiosyncratic book that, whatever its flaws, is like nothing else I have ever read. Plenty of intellectual food for thought here, even if you regard his mystical methodology as hogwash, and one that will definitely affect the way in which you view the world. Somehow, I think Oswald Spengler would find the early twenty-first century most interesting.
I arrived home this afternoon to learn (belatedly) of the tragic fire at Notre Dame Cathedral, and have spent the last hour or so trawling the internet for updates. Luckily, the destruction does not seem as universal as first feared – the firefighters have saved the bell towers, the relics, and the main structure. From what I understand, the stained-glass windows have also been replaced over the centuries, and every fraction of the building has been extensively mapped out and recorded previously, so restoration is viable. It is going to take many, many years, however, before this landmark of Western culture is restored to its full glory.
The damaged interior is haunting, as befits an 850 year-old Gothic Cathedral.
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