Cultures of Everything and Nothing

OXFORD: In the late 1960s Yehudi Menuhin dedicated a performance of Beethoven's violin concerto to "the indomitable and defiant spirit of man." Do we still look at the arts in that way? To be sure, the paperback, the cd, the technical quality of art reproduction provide millions of people with entry tickets to Malraux's musee imaginaire of all culture. But as the inhuman tenor of this century comes to condition our feelings, the terrible impotence of culture stands naked.

More than arguably, European civilization will not regain its truth or vitality until the causal implications of Christianity, of its founding doctrines and institutions thereafter, in the 20th century catastrophe, are faced up to unequivocally. Vast lies and strategic amnesia have hollowed out the heart of Europe since 1945. Of that emptiness may come the monstrous, witness the former Yugoslavia.

It is not, as Auden bitterly observed, that "poems make nothing happen". It is that we now know of the neutrality of art in the company of barbarism, of the capacity of people to appreciate music, art, poetry, profoundly in the evening, and then to proceed to bestiality the next morning. One need only listen to the pellucid wonders of Furtwangler's concerts in the 1940s or recall that it was under the Occupation that French drama -- Claudel, Sartre, Montherlant -- reached new heights, to experience the paradox. Great art, indeed, has not only co-existed with political madness, it has adorned and celebrated it.

Personally, I cannot shake off the intuition that minds and sensibilities shaped by aesthetics, by their identification with fictions, by their enchantment with the past, may be inhibited from any active, concrete involvement in the anguish and demands of the present. The cries of Lear may blot out those in the street outside our window; concert-going may make it impossible to hear the terror, the thirst of the victims on the way to Dachau in the Munich suburbs. As the millennium comes to its close, the Periclean, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment identification of excellence in the arts and in their reception with political-social decency and progress looks to be dubious.