Thursday, May 19, 2016


A Terrible Decline

Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977), Alms for Oblivion (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964), pp. 28-29:
Many people assume that one age is not worse than another, and that men are not more rigidly ruled by conscience in one generation than in succeeding ones. We have been witnessing a terrible decline in government, scruples, morals, and education. Who can compare the present men in Washington with Jefferson at Monticello, going about in a soiled dressing gown, and in rubbishy house-slippers, maintaining his residence only because his creditors were kind? What rough frontier Seneca can take the place alongside Andrew Jackson who returned to the Hermitage in Tennessee with ninety dollars in his wallet? God bless a humble, democratic indigence, for it is the parent of probity. We look in vain for a Cicero, a much-maligned Andrew Johnson, or even the terrible bigot of the reconstruction period, Thaddeus Stevens, who at least had character if not wisdom. What we require, as Kierkegaard wrote, is not a new form of government, but another Socrates.

The first thought that comes to mind is that a people who are continually demolishing old landmarks — the white farmhouse, the brownstones — where native genius and spirit once dwelt, are more prepared for war than for peace. No country has suffered so much from the ruins of war while being at peace as the American. There are Mexican laws forbidding avaricious and predatory realtors from erecting homes or offices or business places that do not conform with the character of the adobe dwellings in Taxco or in Cuernavaca. In Paris what an ease it is to memory, the heart's honeycomb, to see the many memorial plaques to Heine, to Berlioz, to Balzac, or the building where Strindberg once lived. At 137 Waverly Place, Poe composed some of his works. The rather dilapidated structure is occupied by a Mexican restaurant, and there is nothing on the bricks but grim vacancy. "Lo, the past is prophecy," said Herman Melville.

Students learn more reverence, homage, and courtesy from contemplating a house, a room, or a desk used by a Melville, a Whitman, a Poe, than from a congealed, academic reading of the Iliad, or "Ligeia." A nation that destroys old landmarks and sacral places eradicates love and learning.
Hat tip: Patrick Kurp.

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