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Postmodern barbarians
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst
April 19, 2012

Originally published June 17, 2004

In this essay, I discuss some psychological similarities between Postmodernism and barbarism. Both seem to inflict some of the same kinds of torments upon the mind. I shall contrast these miseries with the joys of a high culture.

Modernism and primitivism

By an irony of history, men of the French Enlightenment began the cult of "progress" at the same time they began to idealize the "noble savage." This curious paradox occurred in the middle of the eighteenth century. Interestingly, the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau provided a stimulus for both seemingly contradictory things.

The fascination with primitivism has continued through the modern and postmodern eras. Modernism was disconnected from the great ideals of the classical civilization of Europe — which I like to call Baroque Civilization. In spite of this detachment from the old ideals, Modernism profited greatly from the western cultural heritage. It constantly drew from this heritage in spite of its irrational ideological insistence that the past was "darkened," the present day is "enlightened," and the future will be glorious.

There was a Romantic reaction against Modernism in which Classical and Medieval revivals in the arts and architecture occurred. Some critics have pronounced these Victorian styles to be "decadent." (This kind of decadence is not to be confused with the fin-de-siecle decadent art which was pornographic.) Pitirim Sorokin said that Victorian classicism was "overripe."

Some sensitive artists and scholars revolted against this overripe decadence and reached towards primitivism. Gauguin, a French post-impressionist painter, traveled to Tahiti to celebrate primitivism in his art and in his experience. Picasso's transition from Neoclassicism to abstract expressionism began as he obsessively stared at an African mask. Margaret Mead traveled to Samoa seeking a rationale for a liberation from the Victorian "sexual repression" which Freud warned about. She sought an example of sexual liberation in primitive Samoa. Her game of pseudo-science has long since been exposed and discredited. But the myths she created are still in circulation among postmodern liberals. The myths are going strong in the cult of Multiculturalism and in the delusions of the sexual revolution.

In our popular culture, the longing for primitivism and barbarism can still be heard in the primitive beat of much of hard rock music, in cartoonish movies such as 1982's Conan the Barbarian, and in the clownish exhibitionism of public wrestling.

The fallacies of barbarian fantasies

Kenneth Clark made short work of the Romantic nostalgia for barbarism. "People tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilization. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial....they are bored with civilization; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater. Quite apart from discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope. On one side the sea battering away, on the other infinite expanses of bog and forest. A most melancholy existence!" (Civilization, by Kenneth Clarke)

Clarke pointed out that the Anglo-Saxon poets had no illusions about barbarism.

"A wise man may grasp how ghastly it shall be/ When all this world's wealth stands waste/ Even as now, in many places over the earth,/ Walls stand wind beaten,/ heavy with hoar frost; ruined-habitations.../The maker of men has so marred this dwelling/ That human laughter is not heard about it/ and idle stand these old giant works."

"These fragments have I shorn up against my ruin." (T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land) Eliot's gloom sounds a little like barbarian melancholy. He was an intelligent modern looking over the brink at Postmodernism. The existential despair which was shortly to follow Eliot's time would be even more forlorn in its message. The liberal Postmodernism of our day is one further stage of retreat from hope.

Postmodern counter-culture

Postmodernism is not decadent. It is counter-cultural. Decadence (from the root word decay) is a debasement of aging cultural forms. A counter-cultural revolt is a rejection, not an inferior imitation of the forms' cultural heritage. Postmodernism involves an utter renunciation of the Western cultural heritage. As a result, Postmoderns not only cherish cultural primitivism, as did their decadent Modernist forbears; they suffer from some of the pathologies which the barbarians used to suffer — boredom, fragmentation, hopelessness, and melancholy.

I would also add claustrophobia. Postmoderns do not suffer the claustrophobia of living at close quarters in a mud hut. I think they suffer from a mental claustrophobia of thinking within the closed system of cultural determinism. It is as though their minds are trapped in an endlessly repeating loop of a computer program. As their thinking has become compressed, they have become prone to narrow ideologies, ideological myths, the terrors of ideological bogeymen, and cartoonish interpretations of the world. The Postmodern renunciation of reason has turned their minds into a shadowy underground cavern in which all the exits are blocked. Such may be the fate of those who turn away from reason and from high culture.

Barbarism is filled with myths and taboos. The politically-correct speech codes of Postmodernism are also full of taboos. A barbarian will kill you if you violate a taboo. A Postmodernist will demonize you if you violate a taboo, will try to block you from speaking, and will prevent you from getting tenure if he can.

The torment of barbarism

Those who are tormented by bitterness are the most wretched of people. Barbaric tribes seem to be especially prone to the family vendetta and the clan feud. When one's mind is compressed into a small scope, one cherishes petty personal idols — which could be some small possession or badge of status or object of fancy. Petty things loom large in a small closed world. The theft or destruction of a petty idol removes the treasure and leaves an empty space — an unbearable vacuum in a relatively empty life. A bitter fretting over the loss may go on for years and breed incredible malice and vindictiveness.

Postmoderns are prone to bitter political ideologies and are often extremely vindictive to those in opposing factions. The politics of rage and bitterness is characteristic of postmodern factions. Postmodernism resembles barbarism in the personal torment of living in a state of constant bitterness.

High culture and barbarism contrasted

I have chosen the poet Dante Alighieri as my archetypal representative of high culture. I chose him because during his life, the unifying ideals of the West had not yet broken down. The world view of European Christendom was still largely unquestioned during the early fourteenth century when Dante lived. Dante's mind was a synthesis of all the knowledge and mythology of the classical past and the whole theology and all the Romantic ideals of the medieval Christian world. Although I do not literally believe in the classical mythology and disagree with a number of the particulars of medieval theology and the fancies of medieval romanticism, I find in Dante a perfect embodiment of a high culture and a robust exemplar of a long and rich cultural heritage. There is no tension between him and his culture. He lived entirely within his culture. He had absorbed and integrated a high culture into every particle of his being. Thus, in Dante I find the polar opposite of a barbarian and a postmodern.

In his epic poem The Divine Comedy, he describes himself traveling through the Inferno (hell), the Purgatorio (purgatory), and the Paradiso (heaven). Dante introduces us to his cosmos in the course of his journey. It is a huge and complex system — which has a place for everything and puts everything in its place. No fragmentation here. Everything is harmoniously integrated. All of life and the afterlife are included. Every kind of person is there.

As we read, we feel none of the claustrophobia of a cramped closed system. We feel we are stepping up into a larger world. During Dante's journey, the landscape keeps opening out into new vistas. Even amidst the horrors of the inferno, we are never suffocated by claustrophobia and we are never bored. We are too busy being surprised and startled. There is no existential dreariness in Dante's Hell. Dante had no conception of dreariness. Even the wretched ascent up the spiral road of Mount Purgatory does not seem monotonous. We are too busy being filled with wonder. When we soar with Dante up to the celestial spheres of Paradiso and hear the music of the spheres, we feel the elation of breaking free of gravity and entering the infinite spaces of the transcendent realm. During the long journey, Dante pours out much of the treasury of the classical inherence. To understand Dante to the full is to have a classical education.

The one area where Dante falls short is vindictiveness. He relished placing people he resented and members of opposing political factions in hell. Dante's Europe was extremely war-like and very violent by modern standards. Does my model of high culture fail in these tests? Yes and no. Yes, civilizations are more humane and less cruel than barbarism on the whole — and the high Middle Ages were a rubust civilization. No, you can't rely on high culture to cure bitterness and to teach men to forgive and love. Only the cross of Christ and the spiritual powers of grace can do such things.

And yet, when a writer like Dante lifts me out of a narrow place and sets me into a larger world, I sometimes feel my cramped personal history and all its grievances are being left behind. In the larger world created by the magic of great literature, my mind is opened and freed to consider great issues like how the world is knit together, the nature of harmony and beauty, and the wonder of love.

A summation: polar opposites

In summation, consider the polar opposites. Instead of Postmodern claustrophobia, Dante opens new vistas at every turn. Instead of a world of vendetta and bitterness, we enter broad panoramas and forget our petty malice for a little while. Instead of dreariness, staleness, and monotony, Dante gives us drama, suspense, vivid colors, refreshing contrasts, and the most delectable harmonies — harmonies in endless variety. Instead of moral confusion and moral denial, Dante gives us crystalline clarity in his personifications of good and evil. We receive a moral education as we learn about every type, flavor, and gradation of good, and every category of wickedness ranging from the common vice to the fiendish monstrosity. No shade of insight and meaning are neglected. Instead of cramped ideological myths, Dante opens up a magical kingdom that stretches our imagination to its uttermost limits. Instead of wretched fragmentation, Dante presents us with a splendid whole world — completely assembled.

In conclusion, Civilization is better than barbarism. A high culture is better than decadence and counter-cultures. A rich cultural heritage is better than the myths and illusions of Postmodernism.

I must believe that God did not create Man to be a barbarian or a counter-cultural beatnik or subversive. I suspect that God built into the design of man's nature the potential for cities, and for literature, drama, art and poetry. These grace notes of civilization can cause us to blossom and bring us out of our petty little lives and open our petals to the glory of creation and the wonderful works of God. This is what the great classics of art, music, and literature can do. The self-absorbed horrors of Postmodern art and literature do just the opposite — they wrap us deeper into ourselves and into our cramped world of self-pitying misery.

Let us cast aside the shroud of Barbarism and shun the evil Postmodernism that tries to scrap the great classic works of the West. Let us return to the wonderful cultural heritage that God has given to us.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at

© Fred Hutchison


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