Friday, August 17, 2012

Prime Passages: Kenneth Clark & Henry James on Civilization

From Civilisation, the illustrated companion book to Lord Kenneth Clark's 1969 BBC documentary of the same name:
What is civilization? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms—yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it, and I am looking at it now [Paris].
… At certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself—body and spirit—which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection—reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium. He has managed to satisfy this need in various ways—through myths, through dance and song, through systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the visible world. … However complex and solid [civilization] seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed. What are its enemies? Well, first of all fear—far of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that makes it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees or even planting next year’s crops. And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren’t question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence. And then exhaustion, the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people even with a high degree of prosperity. There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack the city. Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved; but the people are disappointed; it would have been better than nothing. Of course, civilization requires a modicum of material prosperity—enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers. … People sometimes think that civilization consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilization, but they are not what make a civilization, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid. So if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted. And the first invaders of the Roman empire became exhausted too. As so often happens, they seem to have succumbed to the same weakness as the people they conquered. … These early invaders have been aptly compared to the English in India in the eighteenth century—there for what they could get out of it, taking part in the administration if it paid them, contemptuous of the traditional culture, except insofar as it provided precious metals… Civilization means something more than energy and will and creative power: something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence. (Civilisation; pp.1-14)
 From The Master, Volume 5 of Leon Edel's towering biography, Henry James: A Life:
New York had created not a social order but an extemporized utility-life that substituted the glamour of technology for the deep-rooted foundations of existence. … Man could create so blindly and so crudely the foundations of inevitable ‘blight.’ … Civilization meant order, composition, restraint, moderation, beauty, duration. It meant creation of a way of life that ministered to man’s finest qualities and potential. Using this standard of measurement, James found America terribly wanting. It was founded on violence, plunder, loot, commerce; its monuments were built neither for beauty nor for glory, but for obsolescence. It put science and technology to the service of the profit motive, and this would lead to the decay of human forms and human values. Older nations had known how to rise above shopkeeping; they had not made a cult of ‘business’ and of ‘success.’ And then James hated the continental ‘bigness’ of America. Homogeneity, rootedness, manners—modes of life—these were his materials, and everywhere James looked he found there had been an erosion of the standards and forms necessary to a novelist, necessary also to civilization. The self-indulgence and self-advertisement of the plunderers was carried over to the indulging of their young. Americans had interpreted freedom as a license to plunder.
(The Master: Henry James, Vol.5, pp.291-317)