"The Young in History's Stream: Generation X and the Survival of Tradition"
by Robert Fulford

(Conference: The Closing of the American Mind Revisited, University of Chicago, May 16-18, 1997)

About twenty years ago, in a synagogue in suburban Toronto, I watched a man in his seventies carefully hand the Torah scroll to his middle-aged son. The son then handed it to his son, who was thirteen years old. For most of the people in the synagogue, there was nothing new in this, but it happened to be the first bar mitzvah I had attended, and the symbolism struck me with great force. It occurred to me then (and the same thought returns whenever I see that drama re-acted) that this ceremony embodies a crucial element of civilization.

This is what we are required to do--in matters of the mind and spirit, this is our main task, to pass the Torah or its equivalent to the generations that follow. In the 1980s, when I read The Closing of the American Mind and met Allan Bloom, I realized that the transmission of culture ("the old books," as he liked to say) was essential to his idea of himself, and that this self-assigned responsibility reached far beyond his own subject. He quickened with pleasure, for instance, when he mentioned a letter one of his students wrote from Florence to say, in effect, "Now I see what you were talking about."

He wanted his students to enter a conversation with history and feel at home in the past. Many teachers hope to have that effect, and without question some achieve it. But for a variety of reasons it seems harder to accomplish now than at any previous moment in remembered time.

In the humanities, reaching this level of learning involves not only patience on the student's part but also the suspension of judgement--or, rather, the temporary handing over of judgement to the teacher or the curriculum. The student must approach material that at first appears incomprehensible or boring, and trust that it will turn out to be so enriching that the effort made to assimilate it will be justified, even if no professional advantage can be anticipated. What I'm describing is a form of humility. An attitude of humility is essential to study of the humanities; but humility is precisely what the contemporary world opposes. The very tone of our lives (partly the tone of the media, but not only that) actively discourages it.

The advantages of humility are not something we find easy to explain to the young. For one thing, we are often too busy flattering them. Advertising and the media flatter the young in order to profit from them. Educators flatter the young in order to win their attention. We tell the young that self-esteem is a human right, whether earned or not, and that one person's opinion is as good as another's. Our culture encourages everyone to be assertive, to speak out, but those who enthusiastically accept this advice may find themselves unable to respond attentively to culture. When confronted by some aspect of the world that is hard to understand, their impulse is not to search for the way to understand it but either to reject it outright or to demand that the world make itself simpler. Even when the work being studied reveals itself as comprehensible and interesting, it may still demand a surrender of the self that the young are not necessarily willing to attempt. Solipsism, a view of the self that mass culture implicitly supports, stands as a formidable barrier to understanding. C. S. Lewis wrote, "You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaen chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an Eighteenth Century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work 'in the same spirit that its author writ.'"

What Lewis describes is the effort of will by which we can sometimes overcome our provincialism in time, our dense involvement in the present, and move ourselves into the past. To do that we need to think our way into a tradition. This, too, means a temporary surrender, or sharing, of power. Tradition implies recognition of the significance of earlier generations--again, a matter of some humility. G. K. Chesterton said, "Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes--our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around."

But tradition, considered as anything more important than intellectual decor, has become unpopular. The once-powerful sense that the past mattered, the assumption that we were required to understand history so far as possible and use it as reference in argument and discussion--this sense appears to be slipping away from us, and seems almost alien to many members of Generation X. The anecdotes pour in from despairing teachers, about bright-eyed and eager students who somehow haven't heard of the Garden of Eden, or Helen of Troy, or Julius Caesar. Pondering these stories, and examining the mass media from which the young acquire much of their knowledge, we sense that a large part of North American society now lives almost exclusively in the present tense.

We confront the possibility of a pastless culture, or a culture in which the past has no more meaning than a tapestry hung in a forgotten corner of a museum. If this is the case, it surely represents a bizarre paradox. After all, we live in the great era of research and libraries, of preservation and conservation and restoration, a time of unprecedented riches in information; if we wish, we can know more of the past than our most learned great-grandparents dreamt of knowing. And yet many of the young appear to have no connection with that past, and appear to want none. Their teachers often agree, sometimes replacing the study of history with "social science." There are even teachers who raise the question: what good is it to know about history? And not all of them are invincibly ignorant. I like what Clifford Geertz says on this subject:

"It is difficult to know what to do with the past. You can't foretell the future from it, you can't draws laws out of it ....About the only thing it seems useful for (besides, that is, and perhaps primarily, the sheer appreciation of it as what people have gone through) is perceiving, a bit less blankly, what is happening around one .... Of all the bromides about the past, that it is prologue, that it is a bucket of ashes, that is another country, that it is not even past, that if you don't remember it you are condemned to repeat it...about the only one that comes to much as usable truth is Kierkegaard's, 'Life is lived forward but is understood backward.'"

If we are to ask young people to understand that principle, we must also ask whether we have made such understanding possible. After all, the way we have organized society will mean more than our words of advice. And this society, for all its resources, lacks the structures of thought and learning that would give meaning to Kierkegaard's backward understanding--give meaning to it, and, ideally, take it for granted. For example, we now have no central book that points us toward a study of history. Once we had the Bible, and once many among us had the work of Karl Marx. The Bible and Marx both drew authority from their adoption as the principal documents of certain societies, but they had an even more notable quality in common. They suggested that we do not live in an eternal present, that one thing leads to another, that we all swim in history's stream, and that therefore the study of the past will somehow repay us, if only in self-understanding. Until fairly recently, that belief played a vivid role in public life. Now it seldom appears at all. Politicians and journalists still speak of the judgement of history, but few seem to have any idea what history means or how its judgements are made. In the United States, Harry Truman was, so far as I know, the last president who liked to exhibit his sense of the past and saw himself as an actor in a history he believed he understood.

We would be mistaken to place the blame for this change on post-modernism, tempting as that might be. True, post-modernism does all it can to dissolve our most valuable traditions while labeling them "imperialist," "Eurocentric," etc. But unless we define "post-modernism" so broadly as to make the term meaningless, we are forced to acknowledge that cultural traditions are the victims of forces far larger than academic theory. For forty years or more, we have been weakening or abandoning crucial elements in our collective life, elements not universally embraced but nevertheless broad in their effects on our language and our view of the world. We have (for reasons I want to discuss in a moment) altered the place of individual artists in society, in a way that makes their example less powerful and instructive. At the same time, we have remade crucial institutions, draining them of their value as carriers of history and culture. These institutions were not created for the purpose of maintaining civilization, but that was one of their most significant effects.

The obvious case is the Latin mass. Until the 1960s, hundreds of millions of Roman Catholics around the world worshipped precisely as Chaucer and Monteverdi had worshipped. The Latin mass was a road winding through history toward the individual. It brought the weight of history into the present moment. However urgent, exhilarating or troubling the present became, the past in the form of the mass was still there, waiting, undeniable and apparently immune to the pressures of the moment. But in fact it was not immune. Since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Latin has been largely abandoned and the service rewritten. Whatever the effect this has had on the propagation of the faith, there is no denying the fact that a connection with the past has been ruptured.

In the Anglican and Episcopalian churches, the Book of Common Prayer was a similarly powerful institution. This has not been banned, like the Latin mass, but it has vanished from many churches, with sad results. As Iris Murdoch wrote some years ago, "The loss of lively and natural access to the Authorised Version of the Bible and Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer is a literary loss comparable to losing touch with Shakespeare...." The King James Version of the Bible had a binding effect on much of English-speaking civilization, and a powerful influence on prose style as well. This was the first great book in the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, and James Baldwin, and we can hear its cadences echoing through their work. Today the Bible remains available, of course, but it is no longer civilization's steady companion and has become instead a set of books we can embrace or not, as we choose.

These changes, while superficially unconnected to culture, have contributed profoundly to the erosion of culture. So have changes in the university--what we might call the secularization of the university, its steady conversion to wordliness. It has been one of the university's historic roles to sit in judgment on the world around it, and that role is far from abandoned. In everything from medicine to economics, we continue to recognize the university as the storehouse of that indefinable but desirable and increasingly rare attribute, authority. But in matters of cultural tradition, the university has faltered. In this sphere it seems plain, despite some notable exceptions, that the university cannot help but mirror the civilization that has created it and constantly reshapes it. If other forms of authority still reside within the walls of the university, cultural authority apparently does not. Around the middle of this century the standard rhetoric of university presidents emphasized the university's role in the humanities. This was seen to be the centre of the university's authority, though there was some doubt about which faculty carried the main burden. In the 1950s, many tried to locate the centre of influence in the English departments, though today one seldom hears that idea. At worst, literature departments are now staffed by theorists who speak a private priestly language and spend their most earnest efforts in the production of more theorists. But in literature or elsewhere, it is now difficult to imagine the university recreating or reviving tradition. Professors and students, while pursuing their own interests, look out helplessly upon a decentered world they can hardly hope to influence.

In roughly the same years that brought these changes to the university, we have also watched the erosion of one of the major organizing forces of culture and tradition, the individual genius-artist, the hero of culture. Practitioners and critics in most of the arts have discussed this change as it applies to their own separate worlds, but few have noticed that it has reached across all the arts. A few years ago the design critic of the New York Times wrote:

"Where architects once drew meaning from being part of something larger than themselves, many now derive it from the distance they can place between themselves and their contemporaries. Certainly there has been no shortage of architectural movements since 1968....But these movements have tended, on the whole, to splinter architecture rather than unify it."

He's describing a phenomenon much larger than architecture. In fact, it can be seen in all the arts, and it amounts to a fundamental change in the ways we understand culture. It is as surprising as any cultural event in our time. The genius, that central figure in the history of culture for 200 years, is no longer among us. I'm not referring to the quality of art made in this period. Posterity decides such questions, and on that issue we can't know as much as our great-grandchildren will know. What we can see, what has become increasingly obvious in the last few decades, is the disappearance of the artist-titan the great visionary who presides over an age and defines its possibilities, the towering and unassailable hero of culture.

Often certain god-like characteristics were ascribed to these figures; sometimes the phrase "divine talent" could be heard. But they were humans, they did dwell among us, and their existence affected everyone's thinking about culture. They provided reference points, a kind of geography of culture. For the young in particular they were crucial. They pointed the way into history's stream. Absorbing their work or rejecting it was a necessary part of maturation. Studying them, one could grasp certain principles; one could see how history produced them and how they in their turn shaped history. Even those who were once called revolutionaries, perhaps especially those, carried the past with them.

Those who grew up in the middle of this century took it for granted, I believe, that these figures would always dominate culture. We assumed that when the giants of culture died, they would in the natural course of things be replaced by others, of equal power and authority. That did not happen. Instead, we began to live with a remarkable absence. When I first felt the change, I discounted my own views, as those of someone approaching middle age and unable to feel that sense of awe that I felt when, as a young man, I contemplated Matisse or Stravinsky or Frank Lloyd Wright. After all, people one's own age will never seem quite so impressive as those a generation or two older. Later I began to understand that what had disappeared was not greatness itself, necessarily, but the dominant, shaping role played by personal greatness in culture and in thought.

For about two centuries, art drew much of its strength from the individuals who transcended the limits of ordinary mortals and acquired mythological status. Their position, and their aura, were product of the romantic era and the emphasis on individualism. Great artists were admired much earlier, but the romantic age transformed admiration into something far grander.

The titans who appeared in that era were often, like Beethoven, said to be divinely inspired. Sometimes, like Victor Hugo, they shaped the spirit of a nation: when Hugo left 19th-century Paris out of disagreement with the government of the day, and exiled himself to the Channel Islands, it was often said that the very spirit of France went with him, and resided in his island home until he deigned to return in glory to the welcoming arms of Paris, there to be revered as a demigod until his death. Something similar happened in this century with Thomas Mann. When he left Europe in 1933, and ended up in California, it was often said that the essence of German culture went with him. Hugo and Mann, in different ways, in different centuries, seemed each to hold the conscience of a nation in his hands. In a more specialized way, the many admirers of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe believed in the 1940s and 1950s that he had brought with him from Germany not an architectural style but the essence of modernism.

Through all the twists and turns of modern culture in the first half of this century, this idea of genius persisted, and for young people moving toward an understanding of the arts, whether they imagined themselves artists or connoisseurs, the genius seemed to be both the centre of art and a way of perceiving it. To a significant extent, it was this sort of genius who gave art its meaning.

And when Matisse died in 1954, Mann in 1955, Frank Lloyd Wright in 1959, Mies in 1969--why, it seemed natural that others would replace them in the pantheon. But while the world continued to produce art and ideas, similar titans failed to appear. There is no painter today who has the definitive power of Matisse, no architect whose stature approaches that of Mies. One could say the same in every other art form. Today those offices stand empty--and apparently will remain empty for as long into the future as we can see.

Those artists became celebrities of a superior kind, who stood for the qualities our civilization prizes: high achievement, originality, permanence. In this most obvious way, they inspired the young. When such artists ceased to appear, the arts lost a useful way of structuring themselves and the young lost a coherent view of culture. When acknowledged geniuses walked the earth, the young could study them, admire them, perhaps react vigorously against them, in this process coming to a certain understanding of culture. A few towering figures making great art provide a standard of achievement for all of us. But when a few great architects, for instance, are replaced by a few hundred good architects (which is the case today), then it's much harder to find your footing in the world of architecture. The arts become murkier.

If we understand that this change affects the young and their ability to join history, then we must wonder how it came about. The romantic era began as kings were being overthrown, but the mental habit of respect for authority lingered; Western civilization transferred some of its awe for royalty to a new kind of artist-prince. But in recent times we have lost much of our belief in authority, and a genius of this kind who lacks authority is an impossibility. A second reason is sex. As women began to appear more prominently in the arts, the old ideal of the genius began to appear part of a regrettable, patriarchal past. A third reason is the attempt to alter the style of culture from "Eurocentrism" to something like universalism. We may now be less willing to endorse a genius whose style and outlook are entirely Western. Long ago we spoke of great artists as "universal men" and "world-historical figures." We hesitate to use such terms today, because their meaning has changed. At the same time, the vast expansion of the arts has made intellectual consensus much harder to achieve. It's not that we know so much more; it's that what each of us knows is different. In this context, identifying a genius becomes much harder. And then, technology has changed our idea of the arts. Movies and television require the work of many hands, they are collaborations, and it's hard to identify genius in this world--though God knows, we try. Technology has also brought what we might call, paradoxically, "public intimacy." We have a new relationship with the great figures of our day, a seemingly more intimate relationship, created by television. This can only erode authority. Finally, we have to acknowledge the fundamental change in academic discussion of the arts. Post-modern criticism opposes monolithic cultures, dominant modes of thought, over-arching theories. It happily proclaims the death of the great author. Can those educated in this style appreciate a genius--or be one?

Perhaps there is no place at the centre of modern culture for a genius, not because genius is scorned but because there is no centre. What Lionel Trilling named "the adversary culture" has moved to the foreground of popular expression in the arts. The sideshow has taken over the main tent. Lenny Bruce, considered an outrageous comedian in the 1950s, now has hundreds of imitators dominating American night club and TV humour. The dark, angry vision Nathanael West outlined in his novels of the 1930s seemed for many years to be an affront to American culture; but now precisely those attitudes are replicated everywhere from the creative writing classes to the pages of The New Yorker. In journalism we can see this played out in the "style" pages of the New York Times, which are eager to surrender to every fad that presents itself--or, more tellingly, in the Henry Luce publications. Under their founder, from the 1920s to the 1960s, those magazines constantly (if not always successfully) sought the moral and cultural centre of society; today they pursue every fleeting fancy. On television we can watch a debased form of the adversary cultures in a program like The X-Files, whose producers assume the audience will agree that the worst conspiracies in the world originate in dark corners of the U.S. government. But of course this cannot truly be an adversary culture, since an adversary culture requires an established culture to oppose; and the established culture, so far as one can learn from the mass media, has more or less dissolved. The young, at whom much of popular culture is principally directed, understand this on some level; the result is that they learn to see almost everything in culture as ironic, and to judge almost everything as a form of entertainment.

If we decide that the loss of tradition in culture is a tragedy, and set out to rebuild the bridges destroyed over the last few decades, we are likely to be frustrated. In this regard, architecture is the obvious demonstration model. In architecture, as nowhere else, the rupture of tradition by modernism was forceful, intentional, swift, and carried out across the West. And in architecture, the attempts to revive and rehabilitate tradition, making it available for use in the present, have also been more extensive than elsewhere. The results, to this point, are not encouraging. Historicist architecture has produced some pleasant buildings, but they tend to be charming and whimsical, not persuasively related to their surroundings, and, above all, self-conscious. No matter how accomplished the designer, historicist architecture lacks authority, which we might define as a shared conviction that key aspects of the work are inevitable and undeniable. With historicist architecture, all elements become arbitrary, and the past becomes a book of design ideas. The experience of architecture in the 1980s and 1990s seems to demonstrate that a tradition which is self-conscious has ceased to be a tradition. On the other hand, we have models for personally reclaiming and rewriting tradition; one of the most impressive comes to us from 19th-century America.

We now use the word "multicultural" loosely, and sometimes with disdain, but there is a clear and optimistic way of defining it: multiculturalism implies a firm grasp of one's own culture and the ability to understand other cultures on an imaginative level. In that sense we can call Emerson the authentic American multiculturalist, an inheritor of the Christian and English traditions whose imagination encompassed Buddhist, Hindu and other strains of thought, all of which he in turn used as foundation stones of transcendentalism, an American tradition.

Remarkably, there are places where a sense of tradition still flourishes and receives institutionalized encouragement. Let me speak about the most impressive one, the one centered on the performance by young people of music, that vast international network of high-school and university courses, conservatories, private tuition, and music camps. Those who care about cultural tradition could do worse than study this remarkable enterprise. It differs from almost every other aspect of contemporary education. For the millions of young people who inhabit this world for a part of their lives, the 17th and 18th centuries are alive in the work of Bach and Mozart and their contemporaries, and of course the 19th century forms the bulk of the repertoire. Through musical performance, students can begin the delicate work of placing themselves in history. At the same time, they can learn other elements of the tradition, above all the truth known to every good musician, that only a high degree of discipline makes freedom and originality possible. The musical world, unlike most of education, is capable on its best days of transcending identity politics. And this is one place where technology and business collaborate with culture. Since the development of the LP record in 1948 and the compact disc in the 1980s, an unprecedented range of music has become broadly available. The chances for musical experience are broader than we imagined a few decades ago, and the music schools have broadened them still more by bringing within the curriculum the rich jazz traditions of America. In my opinion, friends of tradition will do all they can to ensure that this musical enterprise persists and flourishes.

What else can we do? Understand what has happened to us, explain it to our successors as well as we can, pass on cultural traditions to the extent that the contemporary world allows, and (as Auden says) "Show an affirming flame."

Return to the List of Robert Fulford's Lectures

Return to Robert Fulford's Home Page
typewriter image