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The Job of Cultural Preservation and Transmission in the Present Time
Brief thoughts on (and from) Morris Berman, Ray Bradbury, and François Truffaut
Welcome to The Living Dark. I’m Matt Cardin, and this is my blog/newsletter on waking up at the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture. You can subscribe by clicking this button:
Dear Living Dark readers,
Anyone who followed my former blog, The Teeming Brain, for any length of time—and I maintained that blog for a long time indeed (16 years)—knew that I was seriously engaged with notions and emotions of dystopia and collapse. This can be partly attributed to the historical-cultural context in which I conceived it. I launched the thing in 2006, in the midst of the American real estate collapse of the mid-aughts, in the middle of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and during the lead-up to the 2008–2009 global economic implosion.
I was also a long-time reader of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, and like so many Americans and others at that time, I found the archetype of apocalypse fully activated in my psyche. For some commentary on this, see my 2012 post “The Myth of an Ending: Apocalypse as a Spiritual Path.”
There was also the fact that two year prior to launching The Teeming Brain, I read and was deeply marked by Morris Berman’s 2000 book The Twilight of American Culture. It’s a book that I now return to from time to time, since Berman’s approach in it—which was to fuse reasoned scholarship and cultural analysis with the spirit of diatribe and polemic, and to offer an argument for American cultural collapse that dialogued openly with the tradition of dystopian literary science fiction and thus resulted in a book that feels like a nonfiction version of a dystopian novel—speaks to me like the voice of my own deep self.
I mention this today, in this short Living Dark post, to say that my interest in Berman, and in the heady thematic triumvirate of apocalypse, dystopia, and collapse, has followed me over from the Teeming Brain to the current publication, even though I don’t talk about it here as much (yet). Just yesterday, I updated the short description of TLD that appears on the welcome page to a new “kitchen sink” version that explicitly includes these things: “Dispatches from the intersection of creativity, writing, religion, horror, nonduality, apocalypse, dystopia, consciousness, and culture, by a horror author/scholar with a doctorate in leadership and a master's in religious studies.”
A day later, I now find my mind spontaneously serving up thoughts of Berman and his Twilight book, and also of Ray Bradbury and Fahrenheit 451, which figures highly in Berman’s argument.
I don’t know, maybe it’s because over at Twitter I recently talked about Aldous Huxley and the eerie prescience of his future dystopian vision in Brave New World, including the fact that these days, with the digital economy’s manipulation of our addictive impulses, it can seem as if we’re living out the implications of a dystopian equation: dopamine = soma for the age of surveillance capitalism.
Maybe it’s because yesterday the phrase “tuna, chicken, and whitefish in a decadent creamy broth” came into my life. Was it describing an item on the menu at a gourmet restaurant? No, it was printed on the front of a free cat food pouch that I received in the mail. Meanwhile, one of my cats was eating a dead mole on the porch. And I was left ruminating on the fact that the world of marketing and ad copy, which positively consumes our lives here in the U.S., has gone flatly bonkers.
Maybe it’s because today Twitter hid someone’s reply behind the “offensive language” barrier and required me to click through to see it. And what dastardly, awful, evil, wrongthinking message was revealed? A simple reference to Dostoevsky's The Idiot.
Maybe it’s because of some of the more serious indicators of political, economic, social, religious, spiritual, and cultural rot that are currently playing out in cities and families, and on television, computer, and phone screens all around this nation—and really, more broadly, of course, all around the world, even as we sit here in the aftermath of a global pandemic and a bizarrely conflicted collective response to it.
In any case, whatever the cause or causes, today I have Berman on the brain. So I thought I would foist him off on you.
And actually, honestly, there’s more of a long-game intent at work in this post than the last sentence above might have let on. You may remember that I have twice previously mentioned Berman’s concept of the “monastic option.” He introduced this term in the Twilight book and defined it as the deliberate choice to commit oneself and one’s life to some form of cultural preservation in the face of a rising dark age. The concept struck a chord deep within me and has continued to smolder in my psyche for the past eighteen years. I harbor plans to talk about it at greater length in future TLD posts. So why not start now?
For today, for the moment, here is a key passage from The Twilight of American Culture in which Berman links the monastic option to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and provides more detail about what exactly he means by the term, so as to delimit what it encompasses. I end this post with this quoted passage. I offer no concluding thoughts to debrief you, dear reader, the way I was taught to do in college and grad school where my professors always said such commentary and cleanup is mandatory in the aftermath of an extended quotation. I even taught the same rule to my own high school and college English students. But today I would rather ignore all that, because I would like to leave you with Berman’s words resonating in your mind.
Also be sure to watch the clip below the quote. It’s from the concluding “book people” sequence in director François Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, to which I have added captions for your convenience.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451—later made into a movie by François Truffaut—which depicts a future society in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with screens (referred to as “the family”) and taking tranquilizers. Today, nearly five decades later, isn’t this largely the point at which we have arrived? . . .
True, the story does contain a class of “book people” who hide in the forest and memorize the classics, to pass on to future—and this vignette does, in fact, provide a clue as to what just might enable our civilization to eventually recover. . . .
The job of preservation and transmission in the present time . . . consists of creating “zones of intelligence” in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye. This is not about “fifty ways to save the earth,” “voluntary simplicity,” or some program of trendy ascetic activities. Nor does it involve anything showy and dramatic, and virtually anyone reading this book is capable of making an effort in this direction. As Ray Bradbury has one of the “book people” in Fahrenheit 451 say, “The most important single thing we had to pound into ourselves is that we were not important. . . . We're nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.” There should, in short, be nothing heroic about the monastic option.1
And the thematically related and resonant scene from Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451:
A REMINDER: Preorders are open for the Kindle edition of my second volume of personal journals. The paperback and hardcover versions will become available on publication day (June 30). If you’d like read the introduction to the combined two-volume set, click here.
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Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), 42, 134.