Charlie's Blog: Stagnation Nation


Stagnation Nation

The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their faith, and their ignorance without their virtues; he has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions, without understanding the science which puts it to use; and his selfishness is no less blind than was formerly his devotedness to others. If society is tranquil, it is not because it is conscious of its strength and its well-being, but because it fears its weakness and its infirmities; a single effort may cost it its life. Everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure. The desires, the repinings, the sorrows, and the joys of the present time lead to no visible or permanent result, like the passions of old men, which terminate in impotence.

I was struck with a thought some time ago, but it won't leave me. It was simply a question. Why does no one really care about any of the new music of Paul McCartney? No, seriously, this was the question on my mind. Why is a 70+ year old man condemned to performing songs he wrote in his twenties and thirties? And if he is a Beatle, why doesn't he keep turning out the same caliber of music he did in his younger days? Certainly, maturity must count for something. Yet, what has McCartney achieved beyond age 40?

I contrast McCartney with another songwriter--Ludwig von Beethoven. That man seemed to get better with age writing some of his best and most loved works when he was an old and deaf man. Why has McCartney stagnated where Beethoven flourished? I think I have an answer to that question, but I will save it for the end. I must first go on a bit of a rant about the stagnation of our modern times.

The new Star Wars movie has come out, and the criticism I hear most frequently about it is that it is little more than a repeat of the original movie. In short, it is a remake of A New Hope except with the politically correct token black guy and a female lead. Beyond that, there is nothing new about The Force Awakens. This is not surprising since most of what is coming out of Hollywood are sequels, remakes, and reboots. That town is deep in creative stagnation. Perhaps the big budgets make producers and directors skittish about taking gambles on fresh creative visions, but I don't think that at all. I think they have reached creative exhaustion. The movies merely reflect the wider culture where new cars look like old cars, and people wear the same fashions from 20 years ago.

This is the generation of the reboot, the rehash, and the recycled. Let's give it a name--the Recycled Generation. The twenty first century still feels firmly like the twentieth century, and this would be the 1960s for the most part. No one seems interested in dressing like people from the Roaring 20s or donning the dapper gear of the 1930s. And why the 1960s? The answer should be obvious. The answer is rock and roll.

Rock and roll was born in the 1950s and reached its zenith in the 1960s. I can date this zenith. It was June 1, 1967. This was when the Beatles released their Sgt Pepper album. The Beatles were the greatest act in rock and roll, and Pepper was their greatest work. You can see where the Beatles and others built up to that moment with previous works like Pet Sounds from the Beach Boys, and you can see where it was immediately copied by the Stones with Their Satanic Majesties Request.

Both of these events are watersheds because they mark the high point and the immediate low point of rock and roll. We can debate the merits of the Stones vs. the Beatles, but one thing is clear. Rock and roll began to copy itself almost immediately. I would argue that it has done that ever since. Nothing new has come in rock and roll that wasn't there with the Beatles and even the Beatles were never really the Beatles again.

The conventional wisdom is that rock and roll is a young man's game. Granted, there are plenty of old timers still rocking like the Rolling Stones, but they are stuck playing songs crafted in their youth. They are nostalgia. Younger generations are stuck with copying their fathers and grandfathers. And let's admit it. Most of it is pathetic and sad.

Other forms of music do not have this prejudice for youth. You can be an old country singer. You can be an old composer of classical music. I compare Paul McCartney with composer Ennio Morricone who in his eighties has seen no diminishment in his creative powers. Even Paul McCartney's orchestral works are superior to his latest rock/pop efforts. Rock and roll is always faced with a vexing and damning question. Is rock and roll dead?

The answer to that question can be found in Nietzsche. Nietzsche wrote a profound work known as The Birth of Tragedy where he delineated two categories known as the Apollonian and the Dionysian. I can only give you a Cliff Notes version of his theory. Here's the gist of it. The Apollonian is art that is ordered and beautiful reflecting the god Apollo. When you think of Apollo, think Michelangelo, classical music, and monarchy. Then, there is the Dionysian which is chaotic, frenzied, mad, and exciting like you would expect of the god of wine and revelry. When you think of Dionysus, think Picasso, rock and roll, and revolution. Nietzsche said that great art was the combination of both of these elements.

Nietzsche's theory has had great influence on my thinking, but I firmly believe that there are no new truths. There are simply old truths said in new ways, and those new ways may obscure the nature of these old truths. This is what Nietzsche did in The Birth of Tragedy. I will now make clear what he obscured.

Dionysus is simply Satan. Apollo is Christ. Rock and roll is an inherently dionysian form of music which is why it is exciting at the beginning but dies of exhaustion. This is because all of the Devil's creative capital is borrowed capital. The Devil is not the original. God is the original. The Devil is just a copy. His own glory was reflective of the greater glory of God. Deprived of God and the beatific vision, the Devil fell left with what he had--a dying ember of his former greatness.

Rock and roll is like this because it borrowed from other musical forms. This is why rock was at its greatest in the sixties and at its worst today. Its creative capital has been exhausted. It has nothing new to feed it, so it feeds on itself. This same auto-cannibalism has spread out to other areas like movies, television, fashion, architecture, and the like. The stagnation has occurred because of the deadening nature of secularism. Even Nietzsche admitted that the Dionysian needed the Apollonian to survive. But does the Apollonian need the Dionysian to survive? Of course not.

Rock and roll may be exciting at first, but it becomes mere noise at some point. This is all that a non-Christian art form can be. It must shock to make you feel alive, but a shock can only rouse the living. It cannot raise the dead. Rock and roll is out of shocks, and this is true for the rest of American culture. We are living in the nation of stagnation.

The new Star Wars film captures this stagnation perfectly. What made the original Star Wars triology so great was that it was essentially Christian in its story. It dealt with evil being overcome by good. The Dark Side is tempting because it is powerful, exciting, and quick. Yet, those characters on the Dark Side had a peculiar habit of looking like living death.

This is the face of stagnation. It is the exhaustion of borrowed capital. Likewise, the franchise is exhausting its borrowed capital. We can apply this same dynamic to Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, secularism, democracy, and what have you. They all steal from the wellspring of life and then try to erase the source.

The source of all truth, goodness, and beauty is God Himself. God is the source of life. Those art forms that know this and recognize this remain vibrant and alive. Those artists that remain in contact with this source remain alive and do not stagnate. This is why an almost 90-year-old composer of classical scores can remain relevant while the 70-year-old rocker is pathetic. And the reason our culture keeps going back to the 60s  or a movie from the 70s is because that was the last time there was still some life in those art forms. Yet, if they go a little further back, they will find what they are seeking which is not the imitation of life but life itself.

The irony of it all is the Dionysian seems to offer the promise of the new, but it dies. The Apollonian seems stuck in conformity to old standards, yet it is the only thing that remains alive. If you doubt this, watch jaws drop on one of those talent shows when the talent sings opera. It is like seeing the dead come back to life.

Cultural renewal will only come when our culture returns to the source of its life which is the Christian faith expressed in its fullest in the Catholic Church. People will call this high art. This would be Dante and Shakespeare. This is Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. This is Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Bernini. This does not mean that all music must be classical in order to be beautiful or that all words should be written in iambic pentameter. It does mean recognizing God as the source of all that we hold to be beautiful, true, and good.