Thursday, May 7, 2009

Empire, Confidence, Culture

Earlier today I was reading Bryan Appleyard's always-interesting blog, and I came across this:

There is a future danger that America may lose its distinct identity and become just another nation that believes nothing, though I don't think Obama embodies this danger. Relative decline may turn out to be the real culprit. It will be a sad day when - if - it happens.

Appleyard makes this point by way of contrast with his native Britain, where the Prime Minister never speaks with "a certain high solemnity and grandiloquence when addressing national issues," a country that no longer has a "destiny-laden sense of self."

It's indisputably true that America has a (to put it mildly) confident image of itself, and the most fervent of our nationalists make a fetish of outright America-worship. The US has always had a messianic self-image, and it's only inflated in the last few decades due to our economic and military pre-eminence. It does offer quite a contrast to post-imperial Britain, the culture of which has been marked by a sense of diminishment and depression ever since the end of the Empire in 1945. Britain's lack of self-belief permeates, probably excessively, quite a lot of the culture it's produced in the postwar period: Appleyard himself has written a great attack on Philip Larkin, a talented but imaginatively provincial poet that Appleyard thinks was grossly monumentalized to suit Britain's morose self-image. I tend to agree with this assessment, by the way. The best poets of Britain's post-imperial phase have, so far, kept faith with the best of British artistic traditions (the long march of English poetry, the painting of Constable and Turner, the visionary element in Blake, the Brontes, and Dickens) while cultivating an outward-looking, expansive aesthetic and attitude the polar opposite of Larkin and co.'s petty insularity. Examples: Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, Ted Hughes, Kathleen Raine, Hugh MaDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Lawrence Durrell...

It's strange, though, that Brits and others associate the loss of empire with a loss of confidence and vision. This has been the case with Britian (though periods of cultural effervescence like the 60s contradict this self-image, and it's more or less fallen apart lately in the more open and cosmopolitan years under New Labour), but it hasn't been the case with every country that's lost its empire.

Spain, for instance. After a couple of centuries of relative cultural stagnation, the final blow to their empire in 1898 (delivered, of course, by the United States in its inauguration of its own empire) coincided with an explosion of great poets, painters, essayists, novelists, and film-makers that lasted up until Franco closed the lid in the late 1930s. There is even a group of poets, essayists, and novelists known as the Generation of '98; it includes classics like Antonio Machado, José Ortega y Gasset, and Miguel de Unamuno.

They were followed by the talented of the first Spanish generation to grow up without an empire: Pablo Picasso, Federico Garcia Lorca (born in 1898), Luis Cernuda, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Rafael Alberti, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí, and many others.

This level of greatness shouldn't be cause for national self-flagellation along the lines of postwar/post-imperial Britain. No one knows how America will respond when its empire dissolves, with a Spanish-style explosion of creativity or with British mortification. At least history shows us that a total breakdown in cultural confidence isn't inevitable. This is especially heartening to someone like me, who opposes America's ruinous and criminal imperial projects but worries about a possible loss of creative power in American culture.

Not that empire = cultural confidence. The migration of the collective creative impulse is a mysterious thing; who would have thought that tortured, powerless, downtrodden Poland--stuck between two murderous totalitarian systems--would produce many of the best writers of the 20th century?

Even the colossal stagnation that occurred on the Italian peninsula after the fall of the Roman Empire was pretty much made up for--very much so--a thousand years later by the imaginative genius and visionary hope of the Renaissance. I look forward to America's disintegration into dozens of distinct city-states...

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