Belloc on the Present Age

“There has not ever been, nor, I suppose, can be, any prolonged phase of society not morally stable. But though the present chaos will pass, we do not know how long it will take to pass.”—Hilaire Belloc

I just finished an essay by Belloc on art, following another piece by him on books and reading (both are found in the 1955 anthology One Thing and Another, ed. Patrick Cahill). The essay touched on the same cultural themes that I came across in Kierkegaard’s treatise On the Present Age, though frankly it offered a much better analysis of contemporary society.

The English writer acknowledges that by the twentieth century many creative people had given up traditional religious and moral beliefs. Yet this fact has often been overstated by the irreligious crowd, and when compared with the history of western art in general, Belloc notes that it remains an exception to the norm. I have no doubt that there are plenty of artists today who are not shrill atheists and decadents. But we do not hear about them. The reason is simple:

The novel rapidity of communication in ideas, as in things, has forced the control of fame into few hands and has given to the few controlling centres a power of mechanical publicity…. Any name and any achievement, or lack of achievement, can be presented in a moment to half the world, and can be hammered in with such persistent and unchanging repetition as makes its effect fixed by torture. Let the main newspapers of a dozen capital cities follow such a “boom,” and the trick is done. The kind of people who want fame of that sort are… fifth-rate: incapable of doing anything worth doing, and negligible.

Our decentralized alternative media has changed this somewhat. Still, the establishment’s anti-cultural vision continues to be imposed by the overwhelming quantity (rather than quality) of its distractions and “entertainments.” Belloc says that the identities and abilities of modern artists may be totally ephemeral; they are disposable and mass produced. Even if their fame endures only a few Warholian minutes, the system manages to keep up a steady assembly-line flow to maintain its facade of counterfeit grandeur.

There is more at work in this cultural rot than the mere tyranny of information. After all, great autocrats like Louis XIV were patrons of much art that was undeniably good. Nevertheless such men, for all their vanity, were not yet so omnipotent and audacious as to try to supplant the old creeds with flagrant worship of themselves. That would come a bit later. As Belloc explains there is another factor at work besides the manipulation of mass communications. He speaks of “the anarchy of standards” which is “due to the absence of a common and positive philosophy sustaining society.” The only consolation we can take from this is that such abnormality cannot last forever.

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