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Morris Berman's The Twilight of American Culture

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The Twilight of American Culture

Berman, Morris. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. 225 p., $23.95, hardcover. ISBN: 0393048799.

Thinking about some of The Twilight of American Culture's major points, I might -- at first glance -- have seemed the ideal reader for this book. In it, Morris Berman discusses the decline in American life, evidenced by growing class inequities, the deterioration of literacy, and the pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism -- all ideas that I consider extremely important. In his discussion of the effects of standardization on consciousness and identity, Berman even cites one of my favorite novels, Don DeLillo's White Noise, for its representation of "a busy commercial culture that is riddled with purposelessness and paranoia" (5). Moreover, I was intrigued by Berman's startling argument that current American society is eerily paralleling (in its class differences and anti-intellectualism) the state of the Roman empire before its fall. Furthermore, Berman tells us, all is not lost, as the monastic preservation of culture during the early Middle Ages can provide some inspiration from which today's concerned individuals can learn. Describing people he has identified as "new monastic individuals," Berman demonstrates how individuals today -- through small, independent actions -- might have a long-term, historical impact on cultural preservation (Michael Moore being one of his examples).

The convincing parallels Berman draws between modern-day America and ancient Rome are particularly engaging and impressive. In addition, I agree wholeheartedly that the problems he describes need urgent attention, and I enjoyed learning from his multiple (and varied) sources. And yet, despite such appreciation, my positive reception of the book was impeded by what seemed to be several implicit assumptions that, in the end, greatly weakened Berman's arguments for me.

First, the book assumes that its reader will agree with the idea -- touted perhaps by many a reminiscent folk, but by no means universal among all those concerned with the direction of culture and society -- that "life would be better if everyone just studied the classics." In one example, the book describes something called the "Clemente Course in the Humanities," founded by a man named Earl Shorris, who offered a free course in the great books for the disenfranchised, including ex-cons and homeless people. The spread of learning and cultural capital does seem wonderful, yet there is a disturbing undertone in the book's discussion of the course. Berman writes that "it is encouraging to note that Shorris took the attitude that political correctness is completely misguided" because the "true division in education [is] between a market-driven culture and the humanities, not between an Asian poem and a European one" (148). Berman then includes a block quote by Shorris that: "The humanities will always be influenced by the work of the dead white men of Europe, for they have been history's troublemakers, the fomenters of revolutions and inventions, the impetus of change...No other great body of work invites criticism or denies loneliness to the same extent" (148).

If Berman believes that the classics are far superior to all other texts and wants to argue it in his book, then I would have disagreed but at least found the argument itself to be provocative. However, the book does not bother to argue this because it seems to view this as needing no justification. Berman's unstated agreement regarding "no other great body of work" struck me as incredibly troublesome. The book purports one of the main problems with culture today is a mind-numbing lack of thinking, yet it provides no critical thought or analysis to explain why he considers the great books as so much more important, or what about political correctness "is completely misguided."

Perhaps Berman would just view my criticism to be the unfortunate result of the "politically correct" thinking that students are often exposed to in today's academy. In particular, Berman criticizes postmodernism and deconstruction. Paraphrasing a memoir by Alvin Kernan, Berman talks about the old university as able to "construct a total model of society" that has been replaced by such works as musicologist Susan McClary's feminist readings of Beethoven. He considers McClary's work to be both "intellectual failure" and "moral failure," as if her scholarship were responsible for ethical failings in society (51). Later, Berman does admit that Kernan himself saw that "texts do lend themselves to more than one interpretation" (52) and that "multiple viewpoints and interpretations [are] often possible" (178). But while postmodernism did bring a positive legacy to "beware of fixed forms," he quickly adds that, "it was a sledgehammer to crack a nut" (178). He does not, however, elaborate on why he thinks it to be a "sledgehammer," as if he assumes the reader to agree with him on this point. In his slight caveat, Berman also writes that, "the concerns of women and minorities had been excluded from critical consideration" (the italics are his), implying that they no longer are excluded, as if this were a definite, known fact, not something he needs to elaborate on or argue (52).

Possibly, the book does not address these points because Berman is writing only for those who already do agree with all his assumptions. After all, the book at one point discusses how intellectuals and anxious citizens shouldn't let the masses of people make them feel like problematic elitists, as a "healthy elitism" is actually just "quality" (178). While concerned about problems that the book addresses. I suppose that I am simply not part of Berman's (apparently small) elite. In general, while worried about the country as a whole and such macro-level things as systems, societies, and histories, this is a book that considers any sort of mass movement or mass organizing as an unlikely solution, and that focuses on the fact that it is only a few individuals who will, as "the purist embodiment of the human spirit," live Berman's monastic option and perhaps (though he admits it depends a lot on chance) make a long-term difference (138). In some ways, this might seem inspiring -- the noble, monastic individual lives the best life s/he can and, in the process, helps preserve culture -- but a lot of it also seems rather alienating and exclusive. The last page of the book includes Berman's statement that "Our job is only to give it our best shot" (183). Yet the "our" is not a collective group but a conglomeration of individuals, and one that most people (especially postmodernists, deconstructionists, and the "politically correct") might not have the understanding for which to qualify for true membership, and (in such a case) would probably not even receive an explanation from the book as to why they did not.

Melanie Ho