In other words, the sins of Western culture could be criticized in the highest tones of moral outrage because few readers doubted that Western culture was called to something higher. Our failures could be mocked with the most vicious comedy because those failures were perceived as actually failures, as authors and their readers alike knew. Confidence in the general frame of culture allowed a useful, socially advancing complaint about the ill-fit and corrupt elements held within that frame. The novel was a device for understanding and improving ourselves within an accepted cultural setting of belief in the possibility of understanding and improvement. And when we turned, as many artists did, to an unconfident critique, criticism of the setting itself—when we turned, as many artists did, to a desire to smash the frame—the novel in its social aspect ceased to be as useful as it had once seemed.
All this is testimony, I think, to the current problem of culture’s lack of belief in itself, derived from the fading of a temporal horizon. As I said in The Decline of the Novel, we walk with our heads down. History appears to have no discernable aim, and culture no visible end. Without a sense of the old goals and reasons—a sense of the good achieved, understood as progress—all that remains are the crimes the culture committed in the past to get where it is now. Uncompensated by achievement, unexplained by purpose, these unameliorated sins must seem overwhelming: the very definition of the culture. For that matter, without a sense of the old goals and reasons, why should we strain for the future? Why, indeed, should we write or even read book-length fiction for insight into the directions of the culture and the self?
And so, generally speaking, we don’t bother much with those books anymore. We don’t teach them in college in any systematic way. We don’t expect that even the educated will have a sure sense of the form. The local libraries have given up on acting as repositories of literary history, moving a few copies of Dickens and Hemingway to the “Young Adults” section and pulping the rest. Although their positions in universities derive from the prestige that literature once possessed, literary scholars now study, for example, the dated pornography of naughty French postcards with the same tools and the same enthusiasms they once used for the novel; the typical English department in the United States has more professors with a specialty or subspecialty in movies than in anything else.
The newer arts rise and fall faster, lacking the 300 years of the novel or classical music. Television went through something like a new golden age in the early 2000s, but the impetus appears to be dying out. Movies, too. Video games. Comic books and graphic novels. The failure of the culture’s metaphysical sense is killing them off, and in a way that can be easily discerned. In the absence of a sense of a supernatural order, the only external reality that can be seen is the political. Art is always defined by its relation to the real beyond the self. In previous ages, that was a relation to such things as an enduring human nature, God, and beauty. In the current age, the relation is to political causes. All art is political, we’re told—and rightly so. For what else is there?
In many ways, the communists anticipated this. The most fascinating question of the Moscow Show Trials of the 1930s is how some of the accused came to believe in their own guilt, even when they knew they had not committed the acts for which they were accused. As writers from Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Arthur Koestler saw, their confessed guiltiness was not particularized but general: They had become symbols of counter-revolution, and thus their best service to the revolution would be to confess as repentant counter-revolutionaries.
In the summer of 2018, The Nation published “How-To” by a poet named Anders Carlson-Wee. The poem offers advice to panhandlers on the best way to wheedle cash out of the passersby: “If you’re crippled don’t / flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough / Christians to notice.” The Twitter mob quickly turned on the poem, declaring it offensive in its “ableism” and use of what they claimed was “black voice” by a white poet. Within a month, The Nation had removed the poem from its website and posted in its place an apology and promise to do better from the editors.
The incident was, in some ways, a typical caving of an institution to what it perceived as overwhelming popular anger (though the numbers involved didn’t reach more than a few hundred). The parallel to the Moscow Show Trials came when the poet himself apologized for the poem. The poem had become a lightning rod for complaint about oppression of minorities, and for that he was guilty, even though he had never intended to oppress those minorities. In fact, he thought he was attacking the right object: white Christians with money.