© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.
I have been viewing again some DVDs about the course of Western Europe’s cultural history since the fall of the Roman Empire; I bought the set a year ago. They constitute the 13-part documentary titled Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, which was produced by BBC-2 back in 1969. While still a graduate student at SMU, I enjoyed the series when it came to the U.S. the following year. The personable, humorous and brilliant Kenneth Clark immediately became my newest hero.
My description of this Scotsman, Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), contains the adjective “humorous”, but I don’t mean by that that he was a comedian or even that the primary tone of Civilisation is light-hearted: it is in fact often melancholy, even at times somberly prophetic, for the theme of the narrative is how the trend of civilisation in Europe has not been an unswervingly upward slant but has declined several times since 476 C.E. (the generally accepted date of Rome’s conquest by the Germanic chieftain Odoacer) and has even slipped into darkness once for several hundred years. Nonetheless, Clark’s comments frequently are interlarded with understated wit, a quality which has characterized many British intellectuals over the centuries.
But wry wit is not my theme: rather I want to align myself with Clark’s emotional concern about the impending fate of the West today—Europe’s of course but America’s as well. During at least two of his presentations (or lectures, if you prefer), Clark alludes to the very possible extinction of what he chose to call today’s “civilisation”. (This spelling, by the way, is not a typographical error; the British spell “civilisation” with an “s” while we in the United States spell it with a “z”; I have elected to employ the British spelling throughout this essay.) Without being specific, Clark alludes to recent events as portents of another dip in humanity’s cultural development. I still don’t know what he could be referring to: the Cold War? modern art? mechanization? materialism? political corruption? Here and there in the episodes he mentions all those and other fault-lines, as well as the constant, congenital “fragility of civilisation”. But if there is any single danger to current civilisation that he considers our immediate nemesis, I am not certain which it is.
Early in the first episode of Civilisation, Clark conceded that he couldn’t define civilisation…“yet”. Then, playing on the cliché about the philistine who at first demurs when asked what to him is “fine art”, Clark adds “…but I know it when I see it.” He later makes the same remark about “barbarism”. Soon thereafter, however, he lists several attributes of his subject: “intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality”. Still further on in the series, Clark adds stability, confidence, prosperity, order, and broad participation in society. And even further on, Clark describes a civilised society as “intelligent, creative, orderly, and compassionate”; but these latter qualities are not simply what create civilisation, they are also what are necessary to sustain it. Nomadic peoples, such as the Vikings for instance, although supremely confident and adventuresome, could not develop a civilisation, according to Clark’s definition, because they were unstable and saw no value in maintaining anything other than their tools for survival: in the case of the Vikings, their ingenious ships. And the highly cultivated society of 17th century France could not last because the portion of the population which participated in it was too small.
I perhaps should mention “light”, since Clark asserted that light “can be seen as the symbol of civilisation.” He is referring to the light of reason, education and accumulated knowledge as well as to the light that was so typical of Dutch painting during the 17th century and to the light studies in 19th century French Impressionism. His appreciation of light is almost mystical.
Although Clark does not name any singular major threat that confronted mid-20th century Western Europe, he does specify what caused the luster of previous cultures to fade: fear of war, plague and the supernatural; boredom; exhaustion; and insularity.
At the end of Clark’s cultural tour he confesses himself to be a “stick-in-the mud”, by which he means that he holds onto several values and beliefs which have been abandoned by some other modern intellectuals. Peace, he says, is preferable to violence, and knowledge is preferable to ignorance. He adds that he cherishes courtesy and compassion. And above all he advocates for the recognition that we humans are a part of Nature’s big picture, not separate from it, and that we should view other animals as our brothers and sisters, much as Saint Francis of Assisi did.
Now, to the present. I have my own personal issues with which to cope, issues that no one other than I can resolve. But I also share in many, and in some ways starker, issues that confront Americans as a whole and others that are faced by everyone on this planet, whether they are aware of them or not. What makes these problems seem especially intractable is that they are typified by paradoxes and dilemmas.
Recently, for instance, I heard an interview on National Public Radio in which the interviewee was author of a book about the psychological disturbances that afflict many military service people when they return home from places like Viet Nam and the Middle East. These disturbances we have classified as “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”. The author, who is himself a veteran of the Iraq conflict, claimed, however, that that classification is inaccurate, at least in his case. He said that the problem evolved not from having been in a combat situation but from leaving it. Coming home to a “stable” environment had made him feel marooned, so to speak. On the battle field he had been in the company of men who depended on each other every second for their survival; when he got home, he felt isolated because of the separateness and indifference he saw all around him. In another NPR interview, a woman who had survived the horrors of the ethnic war in Bosnia during the 1990’s said she was ashamed to admit it, but she now yearns for those days because people cared for each other at a very deep level. During that same interview, mention was made of how the murder and suicide rates in New York City steeply declined immediately after 9/11.
I cannot accept the notion that the cohesion of society—of civilisation—depends upon war and other calamities.
For any of you who are interested, you can view Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View documentary on YouTube…at least as of May 29, 2016.