Top positive review
Ross is bored.
Reviewed in the United States on March 3, 2020
So what is decadence? It is not simply gorging ourselves on gout-inducing sweetmeats as we jerk on Princess Leia's chain and contemplate our mountainous accumulation of fat. It is the sense that we have come to the end of something important, that music, art, architecture, thought, imagination were once great and are now repetitive, stagnant and mediocre. It is the sense that nothing important is happening and that we are so hungry for authentic drama that we are at the point of risking catastrophe in order to obtain it.
RD's new book is a long reflection on this phenomenon, on its etiology and on the possible ways in which we might be released from it. Some of the book is strong cultural history. For example, the birth rate in the west is precipitously low. This may be a symptom of our anomie but it is also traceable to a number of obvious factors—the so-called sexual revolution, the women's movement, the broad availability of pornography, the cost of housing and other elements of family formation, the omnipresence of video games and so on. A world in which individuals do not marry, or marry later, or have fewer or no children leads to loneliness, both for the individual in early adulthood and in late middle age, when the absence of siblings and other familial relatives takes its toll. This is very important and the development of sex robots is not a hopeful sign.
Other parts of the book are more imaginative/speculative. For example, just how important was the space program and its diminution in recent years? How important is it that we go to Mars? Why? There are certainly societies to which we might point as warnings (the nature and extent of pornography in Japan) and others (well, one) to which we might point for hope—Israel, where there is a solid birth rate, great science and religious fervor.
The final segment of the book looks at ways in which we might become freed of our decadence. These are wild and woolly: a link between Catholic Africa and Christian China that helps leads to a new great awakening; increased space travel; a special revelation from God, with an intervention in human history . . . .
The book is never dull, but it is often frustrating. Covering virtually all of human history, particularly since the enlightenment, and ranging across all of human experience, we enjoy watching a nimble and informed intellect at work, but the subject is so vast that we see the special pleading implicit in the selection of specific cases. The discussion of economics and recent presidential administrations, e.g., is constantly open to question because of, as Bob Seger would say, what was left in and what was left out. RD is a NYTimes 'conservative', which is to say he is at the center and strays center-right from time to time but feels comfortable straying center-left as well. Think of the sometimes genius, sometimes whackiness of David Brooks in this regard.
In some ways this is essentially a think piece, not a book that argues a thesis. It doesn't say, "This is where we are and, hence, this is what we must do." It is rather one that says, "This is where we are and I feel the need for change. This could happen . . . that could happen . . . this might occur . . . this could change . . . . " I might encapsulate it as being an extended response to Fukuyama's notion of the end of history. RD does not want history to end because it would simply be a kind of giving up, a wasting of the human intellect and human capacity . . . and it would be boring. The fact that so many options are presented (including an extension of an Islam that would be more faithful to the middle-age modernism-accommodating Islam rather than its more reactionary, fundamentalist, contemporary incarnations) is a somewhat odd 'program' coming from a practicing Christian. It suggests the lukewarmness to which he is, at other points, opposed and infers that any break from our current boredom would be preferable to that 'decadence'.
It would take another book or two or three to offer alternatives, but the incremental growth rooted in tradition but also traditional values that we associate, e.g., with Edmund Burke, is an obvious choice. Many of our current problems can be traced to precipitous changes whose dire side effects were not anticipated. How can we roll some of those back? How can we ameliorate our current condition without profoundly disrupting it (again and again)? This is what I would have expected from a center-right Christian thinker.