12. Oswald Spengler – The Decline of the West (1926)
Burroughs read Spengler during his Columbia University years. Kerouac remembers him carrying a copy of Decline of the West around with him and saying with awe: “it’s ALL in here!”
Kerouac’s implied response was the same as mine; to presume that Burroughs had in some way found the answer in this book.
As Spengler, like Nietzsche, has been imaginatively associated with the Nazis (despite vigorously disparaging both Hitler and anti-semitism in his work), there is something threatening about Burroughs’ appearing to have found “everything” in this text.
Having now read Spengler, I better understand both his actual philosophy and Burroughs’ statement about it. When Burroughs says it’s “ALL” in there, he means it quantitatively, not qualitatively: Spengler’s historical breadth is unbelievable!
We start with broad comparisons between mathematical developments across the Classical civilisation, ancient Egypt and the Maya. Egyptian religion is compared with that of the Gothic, and both of these with “Magianism” (the religions of the Middle East and Persia). Chinese political history is explored, with parallels to India and the Caesars. The American founding fathers are contrasted with Greeks and, in turn, with African tribal cultures.
No area of world history is off-limits to Spengler, and his whole thesis in Decline of the West depends on the vast panoramas of time and space available to him.
It really is ALL in there.
He is the father of cultural relativism. Far from it’s modern, “no judgement” incarnations (see Joe Biden writing off the Chinese Uighur camps as “a cultural difference”), Spengler is instead arguing for a more nuanced notion of our own limits and how these come about.
Societies are, for him, a mass organism. They have life cycles, just like individual organisms.
All begin as small-scale societies, and most remain there, struggling to survive, moving in no certain direction.
Some, due to a special combination of geographical circumstances and worldview, ascend to the level of a Culture. In a Culture, everything makes sense, everything has purpose, and decisions that are made today are considered of absolute importance and vitality for what that very Culture is.
The success of a Culture leads to the development of cities, and from cities come empires. This is the Civilisation stage. But, by this point, as Spengler points out, the original Culture has already crystallised. It is hardened: creatively dead.
It can metastasize and spread far and wide, engulfing many other Cultures and small-scale societies. And yet it is hollow. In time, it’s interior contractions (laid down in those heroic moments of its Culture’s conception) will lead to its decadence, its decline, and its collapse.
The fall of a Civilisation makes way for a new struggle between Cultures; one of which will rise to start the cycle anew.
Ancient Greece is the quintessential Culture. Rome is the model of a Civilisation rising and falling. Egypt and China are Civilisations crystallised; monumental and unmoving. Christianity is a new world rising from the old.
Spengler then attempts to tie every production of humanity back to these Cultures. He argues convincingly for architecture and politics, less so for music, art and literature, and unconvincingly for science, maths, and love.
It’s here, one senses, that Hitler and his goons made hay. When Spengler argues for Shakespeare’s individual genius being a product of his “racial” (meaning Cultural) Englishness, he both misunderstands Shakespeare and, seemingly, his own ideas about Culture.
Spengler falls afoul of a mental habit common among “continental philosophers” and pithily summarised by E.P. Thompson as a misapplication of macro analyses on the micro level.
When Spengler talks about monumental architecture, his analysis works. This is because architecture on the scale of the Egyptians developed over such huge swathes of time that no individual mind can be attributed with its creation. Rather, it springs from an overall “Civilisation”; a vast historical macro-organism defined by its traditions and axioms.
When you try and apply that style of thinking to an individual person, or event, or even stages within one person’s life, as Spengler does; then the conclusions must be intellectual contortions at best, downright misleading at worst.
Just because something works or is true on a macro level does not mean it can be applied in specific, individual, complex and nuanced micro circumstances. Spengler is not unique in this: sociology still makes these same mistakes today. What can be uniquely offensive, however, at least to the modern ear, is how his method can end up explaining things by “race”.
When talking macro, he uses “race” to mean culture, which is typical of that time. When talking personal, however, he relies on stereotypes, or else blunt oversimplifications, in a way that sounds a lot more in line with modern race demagoguery.
So what does all this have to do with Burroughs? Well, I feel there is a core of thought in Spengler’s work that, once encountered, is very difficult to break away from. The rise and fall of civilisations, finding patterns within huge historical spans of time; this, I have no doubt, is a driving force behind Burroughs’ own thinking on Mayans, Egyptians, apocalypses and viruses.
It also suggests a grim inevitability. No matter how perfect and “universal” your ideas appear, they will always ultimately prove hollow and your Civilised achievements will return to dust.
Food for pessimism, yes, but also for a Serialist view of time (time that is pre-recorded, like a tape, that is experienced as a playthrough but is in fact already complete), and methods of time travel as ways to transcend or escape these macro-organic seasons.
The Death Gods of the Maya, eating Death and growing fat on eternity.
An important book for this project, I believe. Although, in retrospect, I would have been quite happy only reading the first hundred pages.