Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last.
— John Ruskin
There is an ongoing debate as to whether we are living through the Golden Age of Television — aka Peak TV or Prestige TV — perhaps even the second or third such age if you’re feeling nostalgic toward signature programs of the 1950s or the late ’80s/early ’90s.
As a Wikipedia entry on the subject explains:
The contemporary period is generally identified as beginning in 1999 with The Sopranos, with some dispute as to whether the age ended in the mid-late 2010s or early 2020s, or remains ongoing.
It is believed to have resulted from advances in media distribution technology, digital TV technology (including HDTV, online video platforms, TV streaming, video-on-demand, and web TV) and a large increase in the number of hours of available television, which has prompted a major wave of content creation.
Golden Age or not, there is no doubt that anyone with a subscription to Netflix or rival streaming services such as Amazon Prime Video, Disney+ or AppleTV+ now has access to the richest, most diverse abundance of television documentary series that has ever existed.
Even limiting the field to traditional public broadcasters like PBS, Discovery Channel and British Columbia’s Knowledge Network, viewers have been treated to superb chronicles of American culture and history by the great Ken Burns, miraculous BBC nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough (The Blue Planet, The Life of Mammals, Planet Earth, Blue Planet II), NOVA’s spectacular Universe Revealed, perceptive art series by the likes of Waldemar Januszcak and Andrew Graham-Dixon, Brian Cox’s mind-blowing Adventures in Space and Time, and a dozen more any curious viewer with a basic cable subscription could reel off with a moment’s thought.
Regrettably and inevitably, a few of today’s series are as deceptive, dishonest and dangerous as was Erich von Däniken’s bestselling book and companion series Chariots of the Gods? back in the late Sixties. Von Däniken, a fraudster, embezzler and high-blown bloviator who wrote one of his books in prison, hoodwinked a massive audience (including the teenage me) and made a shitload of money with preposterous, racist and mostly cribbed claims about extraterrestrial influences on early human culture.
Journalist Graham Hancock’s emetic pseudoscience series Ancient Apocalypse, currently one of Netflix’s biggest hits, has been taking gullible conspiracy theorists even deeper down the “free thinker” rabbit hole with its disingenuous, easily disprovable thesis that archeologists routinely suppress evidence that an advanced ice-age civilization was wiped out in a giant flood brought about by comet strikes 12,000 years ago. Deceiving the public is precisely what those furtive practitioners of Big Archeology would do, of course. Bloody Freemasons. F*** Trudeau.
Those liberal elites are always lying to us, as podcast devotees of The Joe Rogan Experience, where Hancock is a frequent guest, regularly attest on counterfactual fan-fic message boards of the type that spawned QAnon. (See Breitbart News, Newsmax, Alex Jones’s InfoWars and, of course, Fox News for the latest misogynistic, xenophobic and racist updates.)
Sadly, what astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan — whom we’ll get back to a minute — had to say about von Däniken in his foreword to The Space Gods Revealed, Ronald Story’s 1976 book debunking Chariots of the Gods?, applies with even more urgency today in a tetchy Pizzagate world where Biden stole the election, Sandy Hook and Charlottesville were false-flag operations, the Jan. 6 rioters were patriots, and Alex Jones and Joe Rogan pass in calamitous covfefe circles as public intellectuals:
That writing as careless as von Däniken’s, whose principal thesis is that our ancestors were dummies, should be so popular is a sober commentary on the credulousness and despair of our times. I also hope for the continuing popularity of books like Chariots of the Gods? in high school and college logic courses, as object lessons in sloppy thinking. I know of no recent books so riddled with logical and factual errors as the works of von Däniken.
Imagine what Sagan would have had to say about the state of public discourse in his country today. Isaac Asimov nailed it in 1980, at the dumbed-down dawn of the Reagan Revolution:
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
The advent of social media, creating a critical nexus of village idiots and enhancing the ability of bad actors to spread misinformation while sowing distrust in democratic and academic institutions, has turbocharged this cult of unknowing.
The people slouching toward Bethlehem at Trump rallies remind us of the ever-percipient Erasmus’s description of fired-up Protestants in a letter written half a millennium ago: “I have seen them return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. The faces all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.”
That blind, unthinking obedience to dogma also obtains on the left today, as writer and academic Michael Lind protested last year in “The End of Progressive Intellectual Life,” an essay in Tablet, an online magazine focused on Jewish news and culture:
The centralized and authoritarian control of American progressivism by major foundations and the nonprofits that they fund, and the large media institutions, universities, corporations, and banks that disseminate the progressive party line, has made it impossible for there to be public intellectuals on the American center-left. This is not to say that progressives are not intelligent and/or well-educated. It is merely to say that being a progressive public intellectual is no longer an option, in an era in which progressivism is anti-intellectual.
If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star. That’s because, in the third decade of the 21st century, intellectual life on the American center-left is dead. Debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police. The space to the left-of-center that was once filled with magazines and organizations devoted to what Diana Trilling called the “life of significant contention” is now filled by the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds.
Montaigne’s sixteenth-century warning about what Yeats later described as the worst being filled with passionate intensity still applies: “In trying to make themselves angels, men transform themselves into beasts.”
But I digress. The point I want to make is that for the increasingly small portion of the public willing to invest in them, creative, informed and well-presented documentaries are a welcome panacea for the gormless credulity, sloppy thinking and scrappy discontent of our times.
There are other worthy early candidates — Alistair Cooke’s 13-part America: A Personal History of the United States, first broadcast in the U.K. and North America in 1972, and James Burke’s 10-part 1985 series The Day the Universe Changed spring readily to mind — but to me four productions serve as the enduring model for (and remain the gold standard of) what a documentary series should be. Taken together, they imparted far more knowledge, wisdom and entertainment than any typical boilerplate college or university baccalaureate program, then or today:
Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, a 13-episode, 1969 BBC series written and presented by the pontifical British aristocrat, an aesthete equally renowned for his tentacular awareness of art history and his inadvertent testimony to the notoriously bad British dentistry of his day. More Austin Powers than Terry-Thomas to my way of thinking, baby.
The Ascent of Man, a 13-part BBC/Time-Life series written and presented in 1973 by Polish-British mathematician and historian of science Jacob Bronowski.
The Music of Man, a CBC series presented in 1979 by acclaimed American-born violinist and conductor Yehudi Menuhin, co-written by producer and series creator Curtis Wheeler Davis. (A frugal eight episodes were made by the cost-conscious Mother Corp., rather than the 13 then considered the canonical number for a television series.)
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, a 13-part 1980 PBS series presented by astronomer Carl Sagan and written by him, wife and director/producer Ann Druyan, and astrophysicist Steven Soter.
All four presenters are dead white men, the least woke thing (in every sense) you want to be these days. I’m at least halfway there myself, so perhaps I am deluded in thinking I learned anything valuable from them in those halcyon days when aesthetic value was not viewed as emanating simply from class struggle, when art could be valued for its own sake and not judged on the basis of whether it promotes social justness and improves the world.
Nonetheless, I hereby cheerfully contend that I spent an edifying holiday season rereading the companion books that were issued to coincide with the original airing of the four series, and emerged with a deeper faith in beliefs that, as Clark acknowledged in his conclusion, “have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time.”
I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history.
History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters.
Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society which makes their existence possible.
Substitute meticulously honed for God-given, and Clark — derided by many even to this day as an effete, arrogant snob — has enunciated a credo to which the other three doc presenters I am celebrating would have happily subscribed.
The question they pose is: Do Enlightenment values still count for anything? In an age of rigidly enforced orthodoxies on both the left and right, can the people once quaintly considered public intellectuals still speak to us? What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?
Let us go then, you and I. The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherized upon a table. Let’s take a tumble through what archaeologist Neil Oliver, a welcome presence whenever he pops up on the screen these days, has called “the jumbled bedclothes of time.”
The first thing to say about Civilisation (sticking with the British spelling), as Clark himself lamented, is that a more accurate title — one that might have stuck had it hit the bestseller lists in the eighteenth century — would have been: Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised Life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day.
The title was more or less an accident:
The BBC wanted a series of colour films on art, and thought that I would be able to advise them. But when David Attenborough, then responsible for BBC 2, asked me to do so, he used the word Civilisation, and it was this word alone that persuaded me to undertake the work. I had no clear idea what it meant, but I thought it was preferable to barbarism, and fancied that this was the moment to say so. In very few minutes, while the lunch of persuasion went cheerfully on around me, I had thought of a way in which the subject could be treated, and from that first plan I departed very little.
It was concerned only with Western Europe. Obviously, I could not include the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Syria, Greece and Rome, because to have done so would have meant another ten programmes, at least; and the same was true of China, Persia, India and the world of Islam. Heaven knows, I had taken on enough.
So right off the top, the charge that Clark’s work is Eurocentric and thus, inherently a colonial perspective, is valid but unhelpful. Of course it is. The same applies to a greater or lesser extent to the other three series I intend to examine in subsequent essays (which I promise will meander less and take up fewer brain bytes).
Clark explores, in a way any intelligent layperson can understand, “great works of genius, in architecture, sculpture and painting, in philosophy, poetry and music, in science and engineering. There they are; you can’t dismiss them. And they are only a fraction of what western man has achieved in the last thousand years, often after setbacks and deviations at least as destructive as those of our own time. Western civilisation has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves.”
I won’t try to provide the full series outline — there’s a good summary on Wikipedia if you’re interested — but just by way of example: The theme of episode 1 is how European art and thought survived “by the skin of our teeth” after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Clark examines the Dark Ages while travelling from Byzantine Ravenna to the Celtic Hebrides, from Viking-era Norway to Charlegmagne’s chapel at Aachen.
Every episode has a theme: The second one tells of the reawakening of Europe from its slumber in the 12th century, which Clark traces from Cluny Abbey to the building of Chartres Cathedral early in the 13th century. Subsequent shows take us through the late Middle Ages (think courtly love and St. Francis of Assisi, Giotto, Dante and Pisano); the Renaissance; the masterpieces of sixteenth-century papal Rome; the Reformation; the Counter-Reformation; Dutch realism and developments in science, philosophy and architecture in the seventeenth century; the complex symmetries of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart and their reflection in the design of Rococo churches and palaces; the Age of Enlightenment; the nature worship of the Romantics and the decline of Christianity; the French Revolution and the disillusionment of the artists of Romanticism; the industrial landscape of nineteenth-century England, and the achievements of engineers and scientists in building cities like New York in the twentieth century.
As an art historian, Clark’s footing is surest while waxing brilliantly on the dazzling summit of artistic achievement represented by the likes of Van Eyck, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo, Dürer, Titian, Bellini, Rubens, Bernini, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Watteau, David, Constable, Turner, Ingres, Delacroix, Rodin, Van Gogh, Renoir, Manet, Monet, Seurat … all the usual suspects until he throws up his hands in bewilderment at “the chaos of modern art.”
Even Picasso barely warrants a mention. All the colour has leached out of Clark’s palette by the time he’s done with the Impressionists: “I know next to nothing about science, but I’ve spent my life trying to learn about art, and I am completely baffled by what is taking place today.”
We’ll revisit that perplexity in another piece when we get to Yehudi Menuhin’s equally tin ear for the pop music of his time, but first let’s get a sense of the mellifluous prose of a more confident Clark, feet planted securely on a metaphorical scaffold of close observation and studious erudition while describing one of the most ethereal scenes any of us will ever see: Michelangelo’s iconic fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel:
Its meaning is clear and impressive at first sight, and yet the longer one knows it, the deeper it strikes. Man, with a body of unprecedented splendour, is reclining on the ground in the pose of all those river gods and wine gods of the ancient world who belonged to the earth and did not aspire to leave it. He stretches out his hand so that it almost touches the hand of God and an electric charge seems to pass between their fingers. Out of this glorious physical specimen God has created a human soul; and it is possible to interpret the whole of the Sistine ceiling as a poem on the subject of creation, that god-like gift which so much occupied the thoughts of Renaissance man. Behind the Almighty, in the shadow of his cloak, is the figure of Eve, already in the Creator’s thoughts and already, one feels, a potential source of trouble.
Here’s part of his meditative take on Leonardo da Vinci, whom Clark considers “the most relentlessly curious man in history.”
Everything he saw made him ask why and how. Why does one find sea-shells in the mountains? How do they build locks in Flanders? How does a bird fly? What accounts for cracks in walls? How does one stream of water deflect another? Find out; write it down; if you can see it, draw it. Copy it out. Ask the same question again and again and again. Leonardo’s curiosity was matched by an incredible mental energy. Reading the thousands of words in Leonardo’s notebooks, one is absolutely worn out by this energy. He won’t take yes for an answer.
As a bit of a polymath himself, Clark makes fascinating connections I hadn’t appreciated among writers, philosophers and visual artists. For example, he links English romantic poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, on the one hand, with landscape painters Caspar David Friedrich and John Constable on the other.
He argues suggestively that French philosopher René Descartes’ determination to “cut away all preconceptions and get back to the facts of direct experience, unaffected by custom and convention,” finds a parallel in such works as Vermeer’s View of Delft and Girl Reading a Letter.
Like Leonardo, Clark’s curiosity is infectious, though any project like the one he dared to undertake would of course be open to quibbles and grumbles, cavils and academic tut-tutting from all sides.
A patrician knighted at the unusually young age of 35 and made a life peer shortly before the first airing of Civilisation, surtout a grateful citizen of his precious stone set in the silver sea, Clark admitted to unease “at my treatment of Elizabethan England. To bring in Shakespeare simply as the great pessimist, the culminating figure in a half century of necessary doubt, is obviously absurd. But to pad out the programme with a few commonplaces about A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Romeo and Juliet, would have been worse.”
He also admitted to an omission “of which I am ashamed,” albeit a deficiency partly due to the format:
Even the most rapid survey of civilisation should have said more than I have done about law and philosophy. I could not think of any way of making them visually interesting. This defect is particularly serious in my treatment of Germany. I talk a lot about Bavarian Rococo, and hardly mention Kant or Hegel. Goethe, who should have been one of the chief heroes of the series, makes only a brief appearance, and the German romantics are left out altogether.
Fifty years on, editorial regrets like these strike most contemporary viewers as inconsequential niggles compared with some rather glaring exclusions and dubious declarations.
For example, in the immortal words of Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles: Where da white women at? Or any women at all, other than as subjects/objects for male artists or serving as gracious salon hostesses (like the celebrated Madame du Deffand and Madame Geoffrin) for gatherings of the European intelligentsia in the 18th century?
The only time Black women are mentioned, in relation to Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s ceiling masterpiece at Würzburg, Clark refers to them as “disdainful negresses.” The less said about that the better.
Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Mary Cassatt, Hilma af Klint, Georgia O’Keeffe, Augusta Savage, Frida Kahlo, Louise Bourgeois … you’ll search for them in vain in Civilisation. Ditto for any women writers.
In the twentieth-century art milieu in which the Lord Clark had made a name for himself, running two important British galleries in the 1930s and ’40s before coming to wide public notice on television, the work of great female artists was diminished as a matter of course beside the achievements of their male peers.
That pesky Eve. Always making trouble.
Clark, two months shy of his 80th birthday when he died in 1983, positively exudes the patriarchal, patronizing attitude of mid-century London high society when speaking of how “a sudden consciousness of feminine qualities” advanced civilized life in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. For that was when men went from depicting women as “the squat, bad-tempered viragos that we see on the font of Winchester Cathedral” to the “embodiment of chastity” presented in the delicate figure of St. Modeste on the north porch of Chartres Cathedral.
May I have the scented handkerchief, please.
Speaking later of eighteenth-century France, Clark opines: “I think it is absolutely essential to civilisation that male and female principles be kept in balance.” Men, of course, being strong, aggressive, bold and creative; women polite, accommodating, tactful and nurturing helpmates.
To modern ears in these enlightened times, this is not the incantation of a master communication magus. But that was then.
Today it’s an article of faith in all but white supremacist, Proud Boy-type circles that if white male artists still dominate the western literary canon, the greatest art galleries, the honour rolls of the greatest scientists, architects, engineers and builders, this is because women and “racialized” people have long faced carefully constructed, rigorously maintained barriers to achievement, recognition and acclaim that have begun to fall only in recent decades.
Even though the pillars of millennia of what we used to call male chauvinism were crumbling all around them like the British Empire, this seems to have occurred to startlingly few men of Clark’s time and station in life.
Which brings us to the other elephant in the room in any discussion of the merit of Clark’s ideas and approach: class.
He was born in 1903 in Edwardian London to a family that had grown fabulously wealthy from its business, the Clark Thread Company of Paisley, whose roots went back (like a lot of his tastes) to the eighteenth century. As philosopher/writer Morgan Meis noted in a 2016 essay in The New Yorker, Clark used his inheritance to become a great aesthete:
His aesthetic life began in earnest with a trip through Italy during a summer break from college, at Oxford, in 1925. In Italy, Clark met Bernard Berenson, the legendary specialist of the Italian Renaissance. Berenson took an immediate liking to Clark, and offered the student a job helping to prepare a new edition of his book “Drawings of the Florentine Painters.” Soon afterward — and thanks partly to his relationship with Berenson — Clark, at just twenty-eight years old, was made keeper (i.e., director) of fine art at Oxford’s venerable Ashmolean Museum. Two years later, he became the director at the National Gallery. Then George V asked Clark to assume the position of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures. Clark declined, at first, and so the King came to see him personally, as James Stourton chronicles in his new biography, “Kenneth Clark: Life, Art and Civilisation.” The King persuaded Clark to take the job, and in the years to come Clark went on to take several other high-level positions that he believed would advance the cause of art in his country. He helped save the British art collection from the Nazi Blitz, by loading the art into trucks and driving those trucks to caves in the Welsh mountains. He wrote influential books, such as “The Gothic Revival” and “The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form.” Most famously, he recorded dozens of television programs about art.
It surprised no one more than Clark himself that he would end up making his greatest mark as a television personality. He did not own a TV. Many who met him found him to be, as Stourton notes, a “grand mandarin” and a “rich dandy” — not the sort one would expect to enchant millions through mass entertainment. But Clark recognized, early on, that the new medium of television was going to play a major role in forming and shaping the minds of those who watched it, and he cared a great deal about this. He was even, during a brief period in the mid-nineteen-fifties, the chairman of Britain’s Independent Television Authority. That job was dissatisfying to Clark in many ways, but it raised an important question in his mind: how to fuse his erudite tastes in art and culture with the reach and power of broadcast television? In some respects, that remains a quixotic project. And yet Clark managed to pull it off, in ways that still seem surprising and even a little mysterious.
Fast forward to the 1966 lunch with Attenborough and the rest is history. Meis echoes the words of the late British poet laureate John Betjeman, describing Clark as “the man who made the best telly you’ve ever seen. … Scholars and academics had their understandable quibbles, but for the general public the series was something like a revelation. Art-museum exhibits in both England and the U.S. reported a surge of visitors following each episode.”
Civilisation attracted unprecedented viewing figures for a high art series: 2.5 million viewers in Britain and five million in the U.S. Clark’s accompanying book has never been out of print, and the BBC issued the series on DVDs which continued to sell thousands of copies every year. …
There have been complaints in recent times that by focusing on a traditional choice of the great artists over the centuries – all men – Clark had neglected women, and presented “a saga of noble names and sublime objects with little regard for the shaping forces of economics or practical politics.” His modus operandi was dubbed “the great man approach,” and he described himself on screen as a hero-worshipper and a stick-in-the-mud. He commented that his outlook was “nothing striking, nothing original, nothing that could not have been written by an ordinary harmless bourgeois of the later nineteenth century.”
That’s all perfectly true, but it’s a mistake to suppose Clark didn’t anticipate criticism from what irascible literary critic Harold Bloom grouped in his book The Western Canon as the School of Resentment. As an aficionado of “the great man approach,” Clark would likely have agreed with Bloom’s counterattack on cultural materialists (Neo-Marxists), New Historicists (from Foucault on down), death-of-the-author Barthes clones and other sophists intent on reducing the aesthetic supremacy of artists like Shakespeare to “social energies” of their time.
Idealism, concerning which one struggles not to be ironic, is now the fashion in our schools and colleges, where all aesthetic and most intellectual standards are being abandoned in the name of social harmony and the remedying of historical injustice. Pragmatically, the expansion of the Canon has meant the destruction of the Canon, since what is being taught includes by no means the best writers who happen to be women, African, Hispanic, or Asian, but rather the writers who offer little but the resentment they have developed as part of their sense of identity.
I deemed Bloom’s tone a tad hyperbolic when I first read this in 1994, but in retrospect it might have been more prophetic than diagnostic. To rejoin Lind in that aforementioned essay in Tablet:
Open any center-left journal at random and you will find the likes of this, from a recent interview of an academic named Wendy Brown in Dissent: “It is also important not to stay inside our tiny circles because most of our inherited traditions of political theory, including critical theory, have in them the masculinism, the whiteness, the colonialism, and, above all, the anthropocentrism that have brought us to our current predicaments with racism, with the planetary crisis, with democracy, with gender, which is still always a secondary consideration.” The only ingredient lacking from this NGO word salad is crunchy croutons, in the form of the acronyms that stud post-intellectual progressive discourse: DEI, CRT, AAPI, BIPOC, LGBTQ+. Wokespeak is Grantspeak.
Well alrighty then. This is the flip side of Jan. 6 insurrection rhetoric, which devolves into — in Clark’s memorable phrase for the same kind of rigid, unthinking doctrinairism that turned the French Revolution into a bloodbath — “a kind of communal sadism.”
In July 1792 the Committee of Public Safety had officially proclaimed La patrie en danger — “the country in peril”; which was followed by the usual corollary: Il nous ont trahis — “there are traitors among us.” We know what that means.
It means hang Mike Pence. Fuck the patriarchy. Lock her up. Defund the police. Bring on the September Massacres. The next Bonaparte watches in the wings and waits for his cue. Truth, as Orwell warned, is treason in the empire of lies.
Clark believes in the great man theory because most of the men he is talking about were absolute, off-the-charts superstars at their chosen professions, however detestable some of them were as human beings and however much they were the beneficiaries of inequitable social, class, racial and economic systems.
In his examination of seventeenth-century Amsterdam as the first centre of bourgeois capitalism (about the time Rembrandt was depicting the sober, affluent businessmen of his time in such paintings as “Staalmeesters”), Clark readily admits:
I don’t say much about economics in this book chiefly because I don’t understand them — and perhaps for that reason believe that their importance has been overrated by post-Marxist historians. But, of course, there is no doubt that at a certain stage in social development fluid capital is one of the chief causes of civilisation because it ensures three essential ingredients: leisure, movement and independence.
It might strike us as a bit, how you say, rich that a man who never had to worry about paying the mortgage or coming up with a pittance for the scullery maid couldn’t be bothered to think about where his money was coming from; even a bit intellectually bankrupt that a man with an abiding interest in cultural history was apparently never much interested in cracking the pages of an Adam Smith or a David Ricardo, a Thorstein Veblen or even an influential older contemporary like John Maynard Keynes.
But Clark did have a theory about the corrosive influence of having too much treasure, making an observation just as true in this gilded Kardashian, TicTok influencer epoch as it was in the days of the pharaohs, the Caesars and the early Hollywood moguls:
A margin of wealth is helpful to civilisation, but for some mysterious reason great wealth is destructive. I suppose that, in the end, splendour is dehumanising, and a certain sense of limitation seems to be a condition of what we call good taste.
Like all the curmudgeonly old-poop snobs we fondly remember from our childhoods, Clark delighted in dumping on other curmudgeonly old-poop snobs (Babbitt-brained critics of Rodin, for example) and “all those forces that impair our humanity: lies, tanks, tear gas, ideologies, opinion polls, mechanisation, planners, computers — the whole lot.”
Not sure how many people still consider Rodin a swindler, or consider him at all, but it goes without saying that with respect to “the whole lot,” Clark has been as unheeded as Cassandra or Jeremiah.
Nonetheless, as English, classics, philosophy and other traditional arts and humanities departments are replaced on campuses everywhere by squadrons of cultural studies of various stripes, all with politicized curricula, DVDs of Civilisation remain a welcome escape hatch for anyone who simply digs art. And knowledge. Even hits of wisdom.
If that’s not enough, check out the compelling nine-episode sequel to Clark’s series titled Civilizations, presented by Mary Beard, David Olusoga and Simon Schama. Released by BBC in association with PBS in 2018, it departs from the original mainly by also exploring Graeco-Roman and non-European cultures. (The PBS version features narration by actor Liev Schreiber.)
I want to finish with a quick word about those very non-European cultures, because I think Clark’s attitude toward them — of which we are afforded glimpses, despite his stated determination to remain within the lanes of European history — lays bear the colonial attitudes bred in the bone of any man born into his world. More important, they expose a fundamental contradiction in his understanding of the nature of civilisation of which he was uncomfortably aware but grudgingly willing to accept.
Unspool Neil Oliver’s suspended, weighted thread of time and we’re back in the aftermath of the French Revolution, with Napoléon mounting his steed. Writes Clark (note especially the reference to Russia that feels depressingly contemporary):
With the appearance of General Bonaparte the liberated energies of the revolution take a new direction — the insatiable urge to conquer and explore. But what has this to do with civilisation? War and imperialism, so long the most admired of human activities, have fallen into disrepute (except, I suppose, in Russia), and I am enough a child of my time to hate them both. But I recognise that together with much that is destructive, they are the symptoms of a life-giving impulse.
See here, my boys, see what a world of ground
Lies westward from the midst of Cancer’s line,
Unto the rising of this earthly globe;
Whereas the sun, declining with our sight,
Begins the day with our Antipodes …
And from th’ Antarctic Pole eastward behold …
As much more land, which never was descried,
Wherein are rocks of pearl that shine as bright
As all the lamps that beautify the sky!
And shall I die, and this unconquered.
How many great poets, artists and scientists could have spoken these words, that Marlowe put into the mouth of the dying Tamburlaine. In the field of political action they have become odious to us. But I have an uneasy feeling that we cannot have one thing without another. Ruskin’s unwelcome sentence, “No great art ever yet rose on earth but among a nation of soldiers,” seems to me historically irrefutable — so far.
And there it is again — like a lava-encrusted wall hanging chewed by a long-dead dog in Pompeii — that hoary chestnut linking artistic creativity to the male principle of death, destruction and dominance.
Can this be reconciled with preferring gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta as defining earmarks of civilisation? Can the circle be squared?
Clark recognizes that even hundreds of years ago, spurred by Montaigne’s essay On Cannibals and Rousseau’s romantic conception of the “noble savage,” educated Europeans ashamed of the squalor and brutality of their societies were beginning to question “whether the word civilisation was more appropriate to the uncorrupted islanders of the South Seas than to the exceptionally corrupt society of eighteenth-century Europe.”
Some such idea was put to Dr Johnson in 1773 by “a gentleman who expatiated to him on the happiness of savage life.” “Do not allow yourself,” he replied, “to be imposed on by such gross absurdity. It is sad stuff. If a bull could speak he might as well exclaim: ‘Here am I with this cow and this grass; what being can enjoy greater felicity!’ ” Without going as far as Dr Johnson, who, in his hatred of cant, had momentarily forgotten the Christian doctrine of the soul, the student of European civilisation may observe that Polynesia produced no Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton or Goethe; and although we may all agree that the impact of European civilisation on places like Tahiti was disastrous, we must also allow that the very fragility of those Arcadian societies — the speed and completeness with which they collapsed on the peaceful appearance of a few British sailors followed by a handful of missionaries — shows that they were not civilisations in the sense of the word which I have been using.
All honour to all the great men and women of history, but we might also allow that the colonial plundering of the rest of the world raises rudimentary questions about whether European powers were ever civilisations in the deepest sense of the word.
Peaceful, my ass.
Like the Visigoths and Vandals who sacked Rome, Bloom’s marauding academic rabble of the last three or four decades might be clueless about what art is for (hint: it’s practically useless) or why rights to free speech and independent thought should be considered sacred. But they’re correct, I think, in concluding that Ruskin came down on the wrong side of the existential fulcrum.
It’s not by the book of their art and not by their words that great nations write trustworthy autobiographies, but by the book of their deeds.
Which is what gave birth to the School of Resentment in the first place.