Elie Faure in a Declining Empire
Michael T. Young
When I read a book, I don’t want to simply be entertained, I want to be fed. For years I had a copy of Faure’s Art History: Renaissance Art on my shelf and I finally took it down and feasted on it. I was nourished by its depth and insight. But what struck me as peculiar is that as I read Faure—a French writer born in the 19th century and writing about Renaissance art—what struck me is that I was constantly reminded of and thought about contemporary America.
Faure writes in his introduction, “The acquiring of riches destroys a people by raising up around it organs of isolation and defense which end by crushing it. The only real wealth of mankind is action.” I thought of America, devouring most of the earth’s resources though housing less than five percent of its people. We have exported our manufacturing to other places that will do it far cheaper than here: to Mexico and China, so we can live off the labor of others. Later Faure writes of the decline of Venice and states, “After having lived by her work, she lived from her income—that is to say, from the work of others. No society, no civilization can endure that.” Think of those workers in China or Mexico, or our prison culture (with more people in prison per capita than any other developed country in the world), which has worked on assembly lines for everything from cruise missiles to Hot Pockets.
Our isolation is writ large. Our cultural activities are colossal and fragmented at the same time. Two people on opposite sides of the continent might watch the same television show with thirteen million other viewers and chat about it on Facebook while probably not knowing the name of their respective neighbors. This is a deep cultural fragmentation. I might have more in common with someone in a different time zone than my neighbor who shares with me the same air and sunlight on any given day. This kind of colossal fragmentation can be traced in nearly every cultural outlet. For example, in poetry there are so many factions it’s impossible to keep up with them. Poets don’t speak for the community in which they live, they only speak for themselves and the few remote readers scattered throughout the continent. This state reminds me of Faure averring of France at a certain period that “The voice is weak because it is isolated, but it is pure.” Or another context in which Faure writes of a period in Venetian art, “It is an art of poverty, thin and threadbare like themselves, but it is alive and that is the essential thing.” This is what we need. We are in a declining empire and only our small fires will matter as the darkness comes on.
In 2004, New York Times reporter Ronald Suskind was interviewing a top advisor to President Bush and that advisor said, “We’re an empire now.” George Kennan, a political advisor and diplomat wrote in a post-World War II State Department policy planning document: “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population … In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives … We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” This is the language and motive of empire. And what role is there for a poet in a declining empire but to keep the small fires alive secretly away from the halls of power that Kennan talked about?
The parallels of our culture with the decline of Rome are a commonplace. Yet, it is sobering to outline them as Morris Berman did in his book Dark Ages America where he points out (and here I quote reviewer George Scialabba summing it up), “By the end of the empire . . . economic inequality was drastic and increasing, the legitimacy and efficacy of the state was waning, popular culture was debased, civic virtue among elites was practically nonexistent, and imperial military commitments were hopelessly unsustainable. As these volumes [Berman’s 3 books] abundantly illustrate, this is 21st century America in a nutshell.”
A friend in an online conversation asked if the isolation I mentioned could be broken using social media like Facebook. Some felt optimistic about this possibility. However, another peculiar thing to empires is they confuse spectacle and art. Art takes us into ourselves and refreshes the bonds between reality and the inner recesses “where the meanings are,” but spectacle takes us out of ourselves so we can forget for a little while the reality that pains us. Art is clarifying even if in only a rarefied way, spectacle is nebulous, at best, in its relationship to reality. Rome, in its decline had the gladiators to distract the populace from the immense economic disparities and scarce food supplies. America has Hollywood. What the Roman poet Juvenal wrote of the Roman people in his 10th Satire could be said of contemporary Americans,
Ever since the time their votes were a drug on the market,
The people don’t give a damn any more. Once they bestowed
Legions, the symbols of power, all things, but now they are cautious,
Playing it safe, and now there are only two things that they ask for,
Bread and the games
(Lines 78 – 82, translated by Rolfe Humphries)
The prelude to these days is the days in which art is understood as a luxury and is subject to the powers of wealth. Faure spoke to this as well, pointing out elsewhere that “In reality, the relationship which certainly exists between luxury and art has given to wealth the advantage of a role that it has never possessed. The intellectual forces of a people are born of the effort from which spring, with these forces, the wealth of individuals, the power of radiation, and expansion of the collectivity.” Going on, he writes, “If the aristocracies of wealth avail themselves of the flowering of literature and more especially of painting, it is also they who bring the arts into contempt.”
Thus we have in America, as our highest art, the Hollywood spectacle, and, at the same time an almost superabundant flowering of poetry, a legion of poets but a legion that is fragmented and isolated. We are rich and poor at the same time, our voice “is weak because it is isolated, but it is pure.” Berman suggests our only hope as we walk into a new dark age is in “creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye.” That is really how all meaning is ever created. It is always local. Perhaps forgetting this truth is what creates empires and their inevitable deterioration in the first place. The desire to dominate the world is antithetical to a meaningful life. Or as the economist E.F. Schumacher put it in the 70’s, “people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups.”
That quote is from his 1973 book, Small is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered. The title says it all but Schumacher sets out in the book to show the dangers of endless growth and the necessity of reshaping our economic thinking to a smaller scale. He gives the lie to thinking in purely quantitative terms and shows the necessity in thinking in qualitative terms. As he puts it “Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. There can be ‘growth’ toward a limited objective, but there cannot be unlimited, generalized growth. . . Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitude.” The idea is true in all areas of life: culture, society, business, government. Uncontrolled growth is not healthy in anything, an organism or an organization. At some point the sheer size of the thing causes it to implode. That is, in many ways, what happened to the Roman Empire. In such times, what we need in all areas of our culture, our society, are small groups devoted to meaningful things. What Schumacher proposes is that we “learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small-scale units.” Or again he asserts, “The fundamental task is to achieve smallness within large organization.” Current thinkers in economics do realize this. They simply don’t get the press. For instance, in his article, “America’s Deficit Attention Disorder,” published on August 13th, 2012 at Common Dreams, Dr. David Korten asserts that one of the things we must do to stop the destruction of the planet to benefit the few wealthiest people is “restructure the global economy into a planetary system of networked bioregional economies that share information and technology and organize to live within their respective environmental means.” It is what is needed: an outlook that would solve small and large problems alike, a framework for local living within a context of national organization and international cooperation.
But I’m not hopeful. Our government is more obviously in the pocket of corporate money than it ever has been. Some people have marked the ever deeper reach of corporate money into politics from the 70’s, back when Schumacher was writing. Of course, that’s debatable. Others, like Berman, trace it back much further. Either way, economic prosperity is still calculated in terms of endless growth. That said, we can still—and must—organize the small units that will weather the storms that come from government and corporate follies. We need the poets, painters, carpenters, plumbers, farmers in their areas to work as small, meaningful communities. Schumacher also states that “man is destroyed by the inner conviction of uselessness. No amount of economic growth can compensate for such losses.” This harkens back to the Faure quote I started with, “the acquiring of riches destroys a people by raising up around it organs of isolation and defense which end by crushing it. The only real wealth of mankind is action.” Surprisingly, or maybe not so surprisingly, Faure’s insights chime with a late 20th century economist’s. But Faure was a man of profound insight. And from him I realized, the kind of poetry and art we need is a small light to illuminate just the portion of the path before us, and knowing we don’t need it to illuminate any more than that. We need an art like Elie Faure’s, one that nourishes us in small, meaningful ways.
Michael T. Young’s fourth collection of poems, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, will be published in 2014 by Poets Wear Prada Press. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Fogged Clarity, The Louisville Review, The Potomac Review, RATTLE, and The Same. His essays, reviews and interviews can be found on his blog, The Inner Music: http://inermusic.blogspot.com/.