Saturday, June 13, 2009

Some of My Very Ambivalent Views on Oswald Spengler

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) has fascinated and annoyed me for a long time. Der Untergang des Abendlandes,his magnum opus, was one of the first books I bought in Germany. I can't remember whether I bought it during my first visit to a German bookstore, a little shop near Studentenwohnheim Tannenbusch II, the enormous prefab-concrete dormitory on the western edge of Bonn into which I'd just moved. I rmember quite clearly that I bought Kant's Kritik Der Reinen Vernunftand Kritik Der Praktischen Vernunftduring that first bookstore visit; I either got Spengler's War and Peace-sized paperback at the same time or very soon afterwards. That's almost 20 years ago now, and I've been wrestling with the damn thing ever since. The thing is, I find a lot to admire and a lot to object to in this book, whose title is generally translated into English as The Decline of the West. My objections have been great enough that several times I believed that I was done with Spengler. Now I don't think I'll ever be done with him. His fascination for me is too great.

Spengler's thesis is that cultures are living organisms which pass through a vigorous youth into maturity, eventually changing from cultures into civilizations, and that then they grow old and die. He felt that the West, in the early 20th century, had just entered its final stage, had just become a civilization, and that in a few more centuries it would be dead.

Foremost among my objections to Spengler is that he was racist. Not in the crude and violent way of the Nazis, whose party he was invited to join, although he declined. A more apt comparison would be Rudyard Kipling. Kipling was not a hater, but he did believe that humanity was divided up into races, and that these divides were impossible to cross, that the foreign could never become familiar. "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet," Kipling asserted flatly, no doubt in his mind about it. Spengler agreed. I disagree. I believe that there is a common humanity the world over much more profound than the differences between, say, Europeans and Asians, or between Asians and Africans. I believe that a white man can master Japanese calligraphy as profoundly as any Japanese person, and that a Japanese woman can conduct an orchestra playing a symphony by Beethoven as well as anyone else. Kipling and Spengler would've disagreed with me there, and talked about how such things are "in the blood." I think such things are learned, just as differently languages are learned, and that a person's culture can be changed every bit as much as his clothes.

Spengler's racism shows when he insists that Spinoza's philosophy is characteristically Jewish, that it has a fundamental kinship to Jewish authors like Moses Maimonides, while its relationship to European philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz is superficial and illusory. It shows when he discusses the theory of relativity dismissively while refusing to so much as mention Einstein's name, and when he mentions just about every prominent German poet of the 19th century with the exception of Heine. Karl Marx gets a pass from this treatment, for some reason, and is classed by Spengler among the leading dozen or so geniuses of the 19th century.

Spengler says, quite flatly, that race is something that you can feel. (With your "blood." You can "hear" the "voice of the blood.") I disagree, but I think that it's quite easy to feel the presence of racism and to hear the voices of racists, and that they are quite simply mistaken.

Out of Spengler's convictions about race comes his conception of cultures as biological entities, with limited lifespans. I think of cultures as mass behaviors. I believe that we humans can change our behavior as we please, that we can reject this culture and adopt that one, or choose not to identify or ally ourselves with any mass movement, or pick and choose elements from different cultures. I see this sort of change and choice becoming ever more prevalent all around me.

Still, a century ago, during Spengler's lifetime, views like his about "race" and "blood" were much more prevalent than today, at least in the West, and centuries before Spengler they were more prevalent still. And so his opinions about the birth and youth and maturity and death of cultures have a lot to say, I think, about Western attitudes in earlier times, if about nothing else.

And now to what I like about Spengler: he seems to have read an enormous number of good books, and despite the great flaw of his racism, they seem to have taught him a lot. He knows a vast number of fascinating details about the artistic, political, economic and social life of people all over the world over the entire course of the five thousand years since people began to write, and a considerable bit more about the biology of our planet going back millions of years, and is constantly pointing out fascinationg parallels and differences between this time and place and that. When I study Spengler's fat book I'm constantly marveling at his brilliant insights and constantly wincing at his prejudices.

Spengler has annoyed a lot of people besides me. Thomas Mann, for example, dismissed Spengler as a snob and as "Nietzsche's clever monkey." ("Nietzsche kluge Affe.") The latter remark has an extra, amusing layer of meaning in the original German: "Affe" or "monkey" associates itself in the mind with the verb "nachaffen," which is similar to the English "to parrot:" it means: to mindlessly repeat what someone says, without necessarily comprehending it. Spengler declared that he was a follower of Goethe and Nietzsche; by calling him "Nietzsche's clever monkey," Mann was asserting that Spengler was merely repeating Nietzsche's phrases without having understood them. Nietzsche objected strongly to racists and nationalists claiming to be his followers. Goethe, too. There were both dead when Spengler claimed to be following them and so could not object specifically to him.

Still, as with Kipling, so with Spengler the shortcomings of bigotry are far from the whole story.

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