It is received wisdom that the velocity and superficiality of modern life have resulted in a deterioration in the quality of our thinking and means of expression. A combination of technology, social permissiveness and sheer fecklessness has wrecked our capacity to reflect calmly and lucidly on our common human concerns, the argument runs: our cultural triumphs lie in the past, and are unlikely ever to be surpassed.
The cheerful meliorism that has guided past accomplishments – a fundamental belief that life does and will get better – has been replaced by a gloomy cynicism, or at best a respectful ritualisation of our decline: dressing up in sombre outfits to watch sombrely dressed orchestras play the complicated soundtracks of our golden age; queuing round the block to study the tortured brushstrokes of bygone eras, and finding genius in their pain.
The collapse (or prolonged stay in intensive care) of two Messianic systems, those devoted to God and Marx, has left us floundering for conviction, while the damage done to the western psyche by the past century’s wars is deep-lying. For a while we had faith in science, but the wounds inflicted on our planet smart ever more insistently. Disease still kills, but we celebrate the further slimming of our MP3 players with near-hysteria. Our minimal attention-spans fatally prevent us from engagement with profound concerns.
But what if we turn that tired argument on its head? What if all that past greatness, those bombastic symphonies and meticulously drawn landscapes, were regarded as monstrous acts of self-indulgence rather than the acme of human achievement?
Yes, to immerse yourself fully in Wagnerian opera is to surrender to an intensity of artistic experience, but it is also to withdraw so deeply into yourself that it becomes easy to lose your moral bearings. Before you know it, it seems like a good idea to annex the Sudetenland. Perhaps the deepening, and the atomisation, of culture has not necessarily led to better culture. Perhaps a better time is now, with our myriad distractions and ability to hyperlink from topic to topic making us more supple, more responsive, and more human.
These thoughts occurred as I listened to a podcast from that excellent website philosophybites.com, an interview with the radical theologian Don Cupitt on his belief in a non-realist God. I have followed Cupitt’s brilliant thinking ever since the local newspaper on which I trained, the Cambridge Evening News, ran an interview with him in the early 1980s and festooned the city centre with the splendid billboard: “There is no God – city vicar claim”, causing, as I remember, no little anxiety among tired commuters, not to mention the Church of England.
In the podcast, Cupitt outlines the need for Christianity to dispense with the imagery and myth-making that served it so well for many hundreds of years, but which is distressingly at odds with modern sensibilities. These days, Cupitt, says, he finds the words “God” and “life” to be virtually coterminous. Anything that speaks of life is Godly, and there is no greater indicator of God’s existence than a life lived well.
The substance of the podcast was one thing, another was its form. I listened to it on an iPod while travelling on the London Underground on my way to work. It took 15 minutes, the length of all philosophybites interviews, and it stayed with me the whole day – a day typically filled with tedious chores and niggling lack of coherence. This was how I liked my philosophy, I decided: sprinkled in short doses as part of my lived life. And the 3m people who have downloaded from the website obviously agree. It made me think of the agora or market place of ancient Athens, where you were as likely in your perambulations to pick up a Socratic quip as a kilo of lentils.
This is a little like the world we live in now, fast-moving, interlinked and demanding of minds that can absorb new information quickly and uncomplainingly. The best of our culture reflects this: it is edgy, provocative, mired in ambiguity, and happily dispensible – pop-up art for popular times. The issue of accessibility is no more. It is as easy and cheap to download the careful exposition of a moral dilemma as the new Girls Aloud single.
More received wisdom: we get the culture we deserve. Cultural pessimists see the insubstantiality of today’s offerings and conclude that we are somehow being punished for our inability to concentrate properly. But think about it this way: the closer we come to a truly inclusive, all-embracing culture, art that unifies all of us, the less time we have for those rarefied, introspective meanderings that once passed for genius. Art and philosophy bite harder today. Get used to it.