Wherein I Read a Twilight Book

I’ve never been an enthusiastic participant in pop culture.  So when the Twilight rage hit, I was unmoved.  A friend tried to persuade me to borrow her book.  “Carol,” she promised, “after you’ve read Twilight I guarantee that you will want you very own vampire.”  I perfected my noncommittal hmmmm.  No. That’s wrong.  I laughed “I’m having difficulty even imagining that!” So why did I read a Twilight book?

Because it was Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture. Published in 2000, this book describes what he calls a cultural massacre.  Berman’s antidote is a way of cultural preservation he calls “the monastic option”.  Stick with me. The idea isn’t to become a monk, but to act like the monks by holding tight to the treasures and exposing the emptiness of the corporate/commercial, prefabricated way of life.

What Roman culture had discarded,
these monks treated as valuable;
what the culture found worthwhile,
they perceived as stupid or destructive. p.8   

Berman outlines four factors that are present when a civilization collapses.

1. Accelerating social and economic inequality
2. Declining success of organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems.
3. Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding and general intellectual awareness.
4. Spiritual death–the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing (or repackaging) of it in formulas–kitsch, in short.
The exploration of kitsch, its definition, and its pervasiveness in our culture was the theme I most enjoyed reading.  Berman defines kitsch :”something phony, clumsy, witless, untalented, vacant, or boring that many Americans can be persuaded is genuine, graceful, bright, or fascinating.” (p.33)  In contrast, quoting Todd Gitlin,

Amid the weightless fluff of a culture of obsolescence,
here is Jane Austen on psychological complication,
Balzac on the pecuniary squeeze.
Here is Dostoevsky wrestling with God,
Melville with nothingness,
Douglass with slavery.
Here is Rembrandt’s religious inwardness,
Mozart’s exuberance,
Beethoven’s longing.
In a culture of chaff, here is wheat.

I was put off by Berman’s focal point of the Enlightenment as the locus for cultural renewal. While he admires the preservation of culture found in medieval monasteries, he completely misses the fact that their work was a form of worship.

If you find yourself a bit of an oddball, one who resists the passive acceptance of consumerism around you, if you care about craftsmanship and critical thinking, I recommend this book.  Favorite quotes:

Our entire consciousness, our intellectual-mental life
is being Starbuckized, condensed into a
prefabricated designer look.


I’m not talking about putting
Great Books on the web,

because the Great Books program
is really a way of life,

not a database.

America has become a gigantic
dolt-manufacturing machine.