This is Part 3 of "'I See Further Than Others': Reflections On Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and The Hour of Decision", a serial essay by Steve Kogan.
In translation, “the decline of the west” recalls Edward Gibbon's “the decline and fall of the Roman empire,” but “der untergang des abendlandes” projects an image of time and space in the decline of "the evening lands," hence the "twilight of the west" (1). To visualize the title in this way is to prepare oneself for what follows, for it is not an introduction to a narrative or a theory of history but an image that evokes a particular region at a particular time of day, and it expresses an entire world view by association with the earth and sky. Myths are made of such stuff, as Spengler underscores in his many discussions of the early high cultures, and they are also the key to his "soul-portraits" of history, which he depicts in view of Nietzsche’s writings on the Olympian myths and the mythopoeic imagination.
Spengler's poetic cast of mind owes much to Goethe, but his understanding of the character and power of myth is epitomized in the opening lines of The Birth of Tragedy:
We shall have gained much for the science of aesthetics, once we perceive not merely by logical inference, but with the immediate certainty of vision, that the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollinian and Dionysian duality . . . The terms Dionysian and Apollinian we borrow from the Greeks, who disclose to the discerning mind the profound mysteries of their view of art, not, to be sure, in concepts, but in the intensely clear figures of their gods.
By extension, Classical mythology speaks in shapes and symbols that condense life and thought into "a concentrated image of the world." In a comment on the unparalleled clarity of Homer's imagery, Nietzsche states that, "For a genuine poet, metaphor is not a rhetorical figure but a vicarious image that he actually beholds in place of a concept." The world as history appeared to Spengler as just such a vision of life in all its vividness and transience, in which he saw "the decline of the west" as one instance of “an ordered and obligatory sequence” common to all the high cultures and indeed to all living things, for which the words “birth, death, youth, age, lifetime are fundamentals.”
Spengler reminds us more than once that time is that ambiguous “something” through which life flows inexorably forward in "the becoming," hardens into "the become," and is the actual medium of history, “the course of human events,” in Jefferson’s excellent phrase. It is the realm of happenings, which are ever-new yet trace a recurring path for which history provides decisive lessons:
As then, at the commencement of the Imperium Romanum, so today, the form of the world is being remoulded from its foundations, regardless of the desires and intentions of “the majority” or of the number of victims demanded by every such decision. But who understands this? Who is facing it? . . . Life in danger, the real life of history, comes once more into its own. Everything has begun to slide . . .
For Spengler, therefore, “the twilight of the west” is an image of "the becoming" in our time, in which old forms and certainties dissolve among the lengthening shadows, and the west increasingly loses the sense of stability that it possessed as late as the decade before World War I. Orwell’s novel Coming Up for Air (1939) is an elegy on this loss:
Christ! What's the use of saying that one oughtn't to be sentimental about "before the war"? I am sentimental about it. So are you if you remember it. It's quite true that if you look back on any special period of time you tend to remember the pleasant bits. That's true even of the war. But it's also true that people then had something that we haven't got now.
What? It was simply that they didn't think of the future as something to be terrified of. It isn't that life was softer then than now. Actually it was harsher. People on the whole worked harder, lived less comfortably and died more painfully. . . . but what they didn't know was that the order of things could change. Whatever might happen to themselves, things would go on as they'd known them. . . . Their good and evil would remain good and evil. They didn't feel the ground they stood on shifting under them.
Had Orwell known the works of Spengler the way he knew his Dickens, Wells, and Kipling, he would have seen in Spengler’s “We stand, it may be, close before a second world war” a mirror of England's own anxieties scarcely three years after Spengler's death:
War is coming. 1941, they say. . . . I'll tell you what my stay in Lower Binfield had taught me, and it was this. It's all going to happen. All the things you've got at the back of your mind, the things you're terrified of, the things that you tell yourself are just a nightmare or only happen in foreign countries. . . . The bad times are coming, and the stream-lined men are coming too. What's coming afterwards I don't know, it hardly even interests me. I only know that if there's anything you care a curse about, better say good-bye to it now, because everything you've ever known is going down, down, into the muck, with the machine-guns rattling all the time.
Spengler could not have said it better. “It’s all going to happen” is Orwell’s colloquial equivalent of Spengler’s “mighty destiny,” whose portents he recognized in “The Fascist formations of this decade.” He had felt it coming in the early 1920s, and by the time he wrote The Hour of Decision he was convinced that the fate of the west would depend as never before on men with "strong instincts" and a "superior eye for the things of reality," as Hitler's first great nemesis, Churchill, proved to be.
In the aftermath of the Great War, whose "profound shock" left a "spiritual chaos in its wake," Spengler's most troubling question concerned the stunted character-types that were increasingly taking center stage, and he wondered if there were any statesmen who could see "beyond their time, their continent, their country, even the circle of their own activities," especially since "the raison d'être of grave questions is precisely that they should call forth the best efforts of the best brains. And when we see how, all the world over (2), they are whittled down, lied down, to the level of small fictional problems, so that small men with small ideas and small expedients can make themselves important . . . then may we well despair of the future."
Spengler’s career, like Nietzsche’s, was marked by a deep aversion to “small men with small ideas,” and, from the beginning, both men followed their own path, as their revered Goethe had followed his. One measure of Spengler’s creative intellect can be found in the analogies that he draws between his work and the Renaissance treatment of space, for it was his ambition to see into the future as the Renaissance masters had discovered the art and science of portraying distances in depth. Elsewhere, he remarks that he is reading the “signs and symbols” of history in order that we may chart a course into the unknown, as the Vikings sailed into the stormy distances of the North Atlantic.
When he undertook his epic project, Spengler was living in poverty and obscurity in Munich, yet he was inwardly atune to his age. He identified with Nietzsche's lonely struggle against "a prevailing formlessness" (3) in modern life, and, in the aftermath of the First World War, the forebodings of other nineteenth-century thinkers and writers reached an even deeper level of intensity in such works as Cendrars' The End of the World Filmed by the Angel of Notre Dame (1919), T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), Franz Kafka's The Castle (1926), John Dos Passos's Orient Express (1927) and U.S.A. (1938), and T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), in particular the concluding scenes of the Turkish hospital in Damascus and the Turkish army's collapse, a narrative structure that recalls Thucydides' concluding chapters on the plague at Athens and the defeat of the Sicilian expedition. In many ways, the true home of The Decline is among these works. It was neither written for professional historians, nor does it rest comfortably in their midst. Spengler particularly admired the historical novels of Stendhal and Sir Walter Scott and frequently refers to the writing of history as a literary art, noting that Ranke, a master of empirical research, "is credited with the remark that, after all, Scott's 'Quentin Durward' was the true history-writing" (4).
In keeping with this premise, Spengler declares in his preface of 1922 that The Decline is "intuitive and depictive through and through, written in a language which seeks to present objects and relations illustratively instead of offering an army of ranked concepts." Given this unambiguous and accurate portrayal of the work, Heller's image of Spengler's "marching orders" is especially unfortunate, not only because Spengler refuses to deploy "an army of ranked concepts" but also because he calls upon our affective faculties so that we may experience for ourselves the "word-sounds and pictures” of his prose. This capacity, which is exercised in the reading of poetry and imaginative prose, is a defining trait of Nietzsche's "aesthetic reader," and, like his mentor in The Birth of Tragedy, Spengler insists that it is equally necessary for the cultivation of a historical sensibility. He even describes the conception of The Decline as a moment of poetic illumination, in which "historical relations and connexions . . . presented themselves" to him in the form of "symbol and expression." In Chapter I, he provides an aesthetic context for his vision and observes that "the organism of a pure history-picture, like the world of Plotinus, Dante and Giordano Bruno, is intuitively seen, inwardly experienced, grasped as a form or symbol and finally rendered in poetical and artistic conceptions."
Spengler restates an ancient principle when he writes that "Poetry and historical study are kin" and that, in the end, one must examine "History poetically" (5). Although standards of objectivity must prevail in "the science of historical spade-work," the material itself remains quintessentially human and expressive and therefore cannot be delved without the help of an "intangible sensitive faculty within." Defining “true history writing” by the light of his own "poetical and artistic conceptions," he proceeds from facts and impressions to the “collective biography” of a culture, whose inner life can be traced in its outward features, as Shakespeare could sense "a world-secret" in a plot and as Rembrandt's portraits are character studies that convey the weight of a life in a single image, "history captured in a moment."
Thus, the writing of history for Spengler is an art, not a science, and the "spade-work" of research on "facts . . . and figures only a means, not an end." Once we approach "real historical vision," however, we enter "the domain of significances," the world of meaning and expression, in which the crucial words are not "'correct' and 'erroneous' but 'deep' and 'shallow.'" Empirical evidence only takes us to the beginning of historical insight, which he sees as a glimpse into the forces "at work in the depths." Since everything historical for Spengler represents "the expression of a soul," the study of history is ultimately an exploration of intangibles that lie beyond the strict bounds of "Reason, system, and comprehension," which "kill as they 'cognize.'" In his notebooks of the early 1870s, Nietzsche said the same in different words when he defined concepts as "the graveyard of perceptions," and related oppositions appear in the works of nineteenth-century thinkers and writers from Goethe to Dostoevsky: witness Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, who kills "for a theory" and is reborn in prison only after great mental suffering, when he is no longer "consciously reasoning at all; he could only feel. Life had taken the place of logic and something quite different must be worked out in his mind."
In an extended discussion on Dostoevsky, Spengler remarks that “his passionate power of living was comprehensive enough” to embrace his “two fatherlands, Russia and Europe”; and this same comprehensive energy is at work in Spengler’s philosophy of “the becoming,” which embraces not only the past and present, but also the future, whose shape he foresees through his own passionate life-sense of where we are heading:
I see, long after A. D. 2000, cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants, spread over enormous areas of country-side, with buildings that will dwarf the biggest of to-day's and notions of traffic and communication that we should regard as fantastic to the point of madness.
Global wars, fantastical cities, and miraculous machines: Spengler’s world-picture was indeed "only in a limited sense" the property of its author, for his futuristic visions have their parallels in countless films and novels of the time, notably Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, published in the same year as The Hour of Decision.
Given the nature of the work, The Decline could not help but appeal to artists and writers, since every chapter is filled with vivid impressions of the tangible surface of history, whose intangible "life-feelings" and "form-languages" require "the eye of an artist” to be understood,
and of an artist who can feel the whole sensible and apprehensible environment dissolve into a deep infinity of mysterious relationships. So Dante felt, and so Goethe felt. To bring up, out of the web of world-happenings, a millenium of organic culture-history as an entity and person, and to grasp the conditions of its inmost spirituality - such is the aim. Just as one penetrates the lineaments of a Rembrandt portrait or a Caesar-bust, so the new art [of "physiognomic" analysis] will contemplate and understand the grand, fateful lines in the visage of a Culture as a superlative human individuality.
I once asked a historian friend of mine at NYU what he thought of Spengler, to which he replied that he had once been attracted to him but had long outgrown his heady speculations. Spengler would have said that his youthful excitement had been trained out of him and that the "the eye of an artist" was the last thing that his teachers would have required. There is no getting around the divide between Spengler and his critics, who see errors in his work and a flawed theory of history, whereas he takes them to task for what he regards as their poor judgment, lack of psychological and aesthetic flair, and above all superficiality.
Of the two sides, Spengler has had the better argument, for his detractors have been tone deaf to the precision of his prose, have never adequately explored his nineteenth-century background, and lack his eye for the determining facts of our time. Heller may be the most gifted reader of them all, yet even he gets it wrong when he writes that Spengler's key to "our historical Destiny" is "absolute engineering," for he not only ignores Spengler's accurate picture of the developmental process at the heart of modern industry but also avoids the crucial question that he raises about the potential limits of this "Destiny":
As the horse-powers run to millions and milliards . . . these machines become in their forms less and ever less human, more ascetic, mystic, esoteric. They weave the earth over with an infinite web of subtle forces, currents, and tensions. Their bodies become ever more and more immaterial, ever less noisy. The wheels, rollers, and levers are vocal no more. All that matters withdraws itself into the interior. . . . There have been fears, thoroughly materialistic fears, of the exhaustion of the coal-fields. But so long as there are worthy technical path-finders, dangers of this sort have no existence. When, and only when, the crop of recruits for this army fails . . . then nothing can hinder the end of this grand drama that has been a play of intellects, with hands as mere auxiliaries.
Casting a backward glance, Spengler sees another limit to the "intellectual intoxication" of the machine culture and "the miracle of the Cosmopolis":
But always the splendid mass-cities harbour lamentable poverty and degraded habits, and the attics and mansards, the cellars and back courts are breeding a new type of raw man - in Baghdad and in Babylon, just as in Tenochtitlan and to-day in London and Berlin. Diodorus tells of a deposed Egyptian king who was reduced to living in one of those wretched upper-floor tenaments of Rome.
What makes these parallels all the more telling for Spengler is that they appear in the same age-phase of each culture's “collective biography" - Classical, Gothic, Middle Eastern, Egyptian, Asian, and Central American - "an immense wealth of actual forms - the Living, with all its immense fullness, depth and movement." There is no "pessimism" here, and even when he writes of "the hard cold facts" of modern life he evokes the same vibrant sense of an age that he sees in his earlier seasons of history.
When Spengler speaks of the biography or portrait of a culture, he has in mind a specific orientation to individuality that is for him west-European in origin, beginning with the voyages of the Vikings and later followed by the sky-reaching thrusts of the Gothic cathedral, which he sees as prime expressions of a soaring sense of self and hunger for the limitless, comparable to the journies of "the heroes of the Grail and Arthurian and Siegfried sagas," who are "ever roaming in the infinite." Faustian "life-feelings" pervade the cathedral's interior as well, not only in its vast recesses but also in the "space-commanding" sounds of the organ and the use of the incorporeal light-world as a medium of art through sheets of stained glass windows, with their representations of the human drama in subjects taken from secular and Scriptural history. A corresponding drama in stone appears in the expressive faces of the sculptures that rise above us at the very portals of the cathedral. It is an altogether singular art in the world of sacred architecture, as painting became in the frescoes of Giotto, who abandoned the stylized forms and ornately transcendent visions of Byzantine art for religious narrative cycles of extraordinary intimacy and emotion. It is but a step to the great age of western portraiture, which extends from Bellini, Raphael, and Titian in Italy to Hans Holbein, Dürer, Velasquez, and, in Holland, Franz Hals and, above all, Rembrandt, the epitome of soulful seeing into the human face.
In the northern sagas, Spengler also sees a uniquely western world view of landscape and solitude that comes to fruition both in western landscape art and literature, notably Shakespeare's King Lear and in quintessential form during the Easter scene in Goethe's Faust, in which an experience of intense yearning ends in a moment of discovery in the midst of limitless space:
A longing pure and not to be described
drove me to wander over woods and fields,
and in a mist of hot abundant tears
I felt a world arise and live for me.
For Spengler, the storm scene on the heath in King Lear represents the prime western embodiment of the infinity-feeling in the sphere of tragedy, in which Shakespeare unfolds "the destiny of King Lear" through a swirl of action that gradually reveals a network of
dark inner relationships. The idea of fatherhood emerges; spiritual threads weave themselves into the action incorporeal and transcendental, and are weirdly illuminated by the counterpoint of the secondary tragedy of Gloster's house. Lear is at the last a mere name, the axis of something unbounded. This conception of destiny . . . touches the bodily Euclidean not at all, but affects only the Soul. Consider the mad King between the fool and the outcast in the storm on the heath, and then look at the Laocoön group; the first is the Faustian, the other the Apollinian way of suffering.
Were he living today, Spengler would find ample confirmation that our "historical becoming" still bears the impress of the prime western drive into "the unbounded," as in today's world-wide systems of travel and communication and deep probings of cosmic and sub-atomic space (6).
Hence, we are not the "pupils and successors" of the Classical world but "simply its adorers"; for, in all that we have absorbed of antiquity, we have remained entranced by the one culture most nearly opposite to our own in its striving for the corporeal clarity of "the near," whose embodiment of "the pure Present . . . so often roused Goethe's admiration in every product of the Classical life," sculpture in particular (7). Both in two and three-dimensional Euclidean figures, for example, parallel lines remain as equidistant from each other in extension as they are directly before our eyes (8); yet, in the Faustian interpretation of space, they come together with equal inevitability in the perspective grids of western landscape art, where the play of light and color enhances the effect of infinite distance through aerial perspective. For Spengler, the greatest symbol of "the optically definite, the comprehensible, the immediately present" in Classical art is the Doric column, whose equivalent spirit in mathematics is expressed in the mastery of finite magnitudes, in "history-writing" in the "fine pieces" that "set forth matters within the political present of the writer," and in the restrictions of time and place in drama, in which events unfold like "beads on a string," while "The Greek scene is never a landscape; in general, it is nothing, and at best may be described as a basis for moveable statues."
Picking up the Lear theme in a later chapter, Spengler contrasts Classical stasis with "Faustian soul-space," which he calls a "drama of perspectives" both in painting and literature:
In Shakespeare, who was born when Michelangelo died and ceased to write when Rembrandt came into the world, dramatic infinity, the passionate overthrow of all static limitations, attained the maximum. His woods, seas, alleys, gardens, battlefields lie in the afar, the unbounded. Years fly by in the space of minutes. The mad Lear between the fool and the reckless outcast on the heath, in the night and the storm, the unutterably lonely ego lost in space - here is the Faustian life-feeling!
Spengler's passages on Lear rank with the best in Shakespeare studies and shine with the precision of a poet's gift for thinking through images “in place of a concept." What he calls "prime symbols" are simply his most concentrated images of the cultures, as G. Wilson Knight speaks of the "extended metaphors" in Shakespearean drama that are particular to the character and plot of every work.
Echoing his many references to Classical and Shakespearean tragedy, Spengler sees history itself as "the drama of a number of mighty Cultures," each with "its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death." In an essay that foreshadows Spengler's fate among later historians, R. G. Collingwood accuses Spengler of insulating cultures from one another (Fennelly calls them "water-tight compartments"), but these images, like Heller’s “marching orders of the spirit,” reduce a vision to a system and his cultures into rigid constructions, no matter how often Spengler insists that the terms "Euclidean," "Magian," and "Faustian" are to be understood as symbolic representations of once-living and now ultimately unknowable worlds. As close as we may come to understanding them, at their core there will always be an incommunicable experience that we may intuit but never fully comprehend. Goethe grounded his philosophical reflections in the related belief that wonder is the highest form of perception, and Nietzsche continued this line of thought in "Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" (1873) when he remarked that nature "is acquainted . . . only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us." Hence the inescapable presence of the intangible in every "perceptual metaphor," which is "individual and without equals and is therefore able to elude all classification."
Der Untergang des Abendlandes thus presents itself on every page as a picture of history conceived by a "philosopher-artist" (9), which Collingwood and others were incapable of discussing except as a construct. Spengler, however, explicitly states that his vision of cultures as separate organisms is itself symbolic and represents an early "winter" expression of a western orientation to life, through which he sees every culture, like every individual, developing in existential solitude. So too, in Shakespeare's tragic figures, "We are sensible of the immense inner distance between the persons, each of whom at bottom is only talking with himself. Nothing can overcome this spiritual remoteness." As Melville richly observed of the dramatist himself, what "makes Shakespeare, Shakespeare" is precisely "those deep far-away things in him; those occasional flashings-forth of the intuitive Truth in him; those short, quick probings at the very axis of Reality" (10).
Spengler's hundreds of references to figures from every field of history should have alerted his critics to his parallels between the soul-types of a culture and cultures as spiritual biographies, whose expressive features can "tell us of themselves how much lies hidden there." The image of Goethe is present even in these thoughts, in the sense that Goethe meant, "as he avowed himself," that his works were "only fragments of a single great confession." In Shakespeare's Lives, Samuel Schoenbaum refers to the Goethean model and traces a line of nineteenth-century thought in which Shakespeare's literary development was similarly regarded as a figurative biography of an inner life. Keats' remark that the plays are comments on his life of allegory is a concise expression of this view, which was later extended to include the developmental character of "the Shakespearean moment," as Patrick Crutwell has described the English Renaissance in its transition from Elizabeth to James I.
To repeat, for Spengler the decisive moment in the life of a culture is the birth itself of a new "world-soul," whose deepest meanings are revealed in its "springtime" myths, epics, and religious architecture. For Nietzsche, the birth of Greek tragedy was just such a creation, in whose decline he saw parallels to the increasing formlessness of modern life. Spengler, on the other hand, drew inspiration from the "Faustian" origins of the northern European world, and he believed that it still had the potential to tap into its passion for long-range exploration and discovery to foresee its "landfall in the future."
(1) Fennelly combines both in the title of his book on Spengler, Twilight of the Evening Lands.
(2) Including Japan, whose once "splendid State" now appears to have been "poisoned by the Democratic and Marxian decaying forms of the White nations," The Hour of Decision, pp. 65-66.
(3) In "Nietzsche and His Century," available online at Philweb: The Oswald Spengler Collection. My references to "Prussianism and Socialism" and "Pessimism?" are also taken from this site.
(4) Spengler took his stand in a major debate on the writing of history that was taking place on both sides of the Atlantic and not in the academy alone. See Theodore Roosevelt's "History as Literature" (1913), in which he demonstrates a respectable knowledge of the great cultures and a surprising appreciation of Goethe, whom he calls "as profound a thinker as Kant." It is impossible to imagine any political leader today who is even remotely comparable to Roosevelt either in thought or prose.
(5) "For history has a certain affinity to poetry and may be regarded as a kind of prose poem." Quintillian, Institutes, in Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's "Histories": Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, Methuen & Co Ltd., 1964, p. 27. Campbell notes that in the Renaissance classical rhetoric "influenced the concept of history as a form of creative writing, opposed to the idea of history as a set of records."
(6) In a letter to Eduard Spranger (April 5, 1936), Spengler remarks that "Culture is for me an inward form of historical 'becoming' and not a sum of similar objects." It is a key principle of The Decline, yet Collingwood erroneously insists that "what [Spengler] called a 'culture'" was only "a constellation of historical facts . . . in which every detail fitted into every other as placidly as the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle lying at rest on a table." An Essay on Metaphysics, Oxford University Press, 1940, p. 75.
(7) With regard to the Classical temple, Spengler notes that "direction in depth is eliminated" through its many subtle curvatures and "a carefully toned-off ratio" in the variation of "swell and inclination and distance" from "corners to the centres of the sides," so that "the whole corpus is given a something that swings mysterious about a centre." Hence, "While the Gothic soars, the Ionic hovers," I:177.
(8) In "Symbolism and Space," Spengler reflects at some length on the Euclidean "structure of Classical corporeality" in relation to "the pure space-feeling" of our "group of geometries," I: 176n.
(9) Nietzsche, "The Philosopher" (1872), Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche's Notebooks of the Early 1870's, ed. and trans. Daniel Beazeale, Humanities Press International, Inc., 1979, p. 15.
(10) Melville, "Hawthorne and His Mosses" (1850), in Moby-Dick, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1967, p. 541.