Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

During the week I was discussing with a young colleague at work the preparation of a briefing. I gave them some guidance and some encouragement: the briefing did not need to be long, but the words ought to be carefully selected and focussed on what was most important. After all, I said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

To my surprise, my young colleague, who is aged somewhere in the late 20s and had studied journalism and international relations at university, said he liked that phrase, and had not heard it before. Taken aback, I confirmed with him that he was serious, and in truth had never heard the phrase.

This incident was a minor example of the impoverishment of the cultural commons we are witnessing today. How can it be that two university educated people from the same city, although not the same generation, do not share knowledge of this basic cultural reference, Shakespeare’s widely repeated and evergreen advice to any writer?

The cultural commons is being impoverished by cultural fragmentation, which in turn is generated by the profusion of wealth, self-expression, image-making and identity-formation in our affluent societies. Our garden is overrun with the sprawling higgledy-piggledy plants more and more of us have planted. We can no longer see the shapes and beds of the garden’s early design, and some of the more precious heritage plants are being smothered and deprived of light.

The fragmentation of the culture is not wholly a bad thing. Cracks of freedom open up. New voices emerge. Terrible new beauties are born. The art of living is rethought and remade. Like the breaking up of Pangea, new continents, new ecosystems of cultural forms, drift apart and forget the times when they shared a common identity. The fundamental processes of differentiation and development take hold, and, within the broken continents of a once shared culture, new dramas are performed in old theatres.

It is perhaps a fanciful, nostalgic dream to imagine that our cultures –  in today’s conditions of more highly educated people than ever before with more time, freedom and widely available means to produce, share and consume cultural artefacts – could ever be bounded by a single book of common prayer.  Noone in these conditions can stand against the forces of continental drift. The historical forces of divergence and convergence in our cultures are very strong and very deep. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has argued that these antagonists have long fought their subterranean battle through the deep history of the world. Writing against a backdrop of political enthusiasm for globalization and its discontents, Fernandez-Armesto pointed to the long, deep history of divergence in human cultures which turned, around 1492, towards a history of convergence for another 500 years. Yet beneath the superficial unity of a world brought together in the name of Western culture, new dreams of differentiation were emerging:

“If recent history has a lesson, it is that whenever a big state is nestled, smaller-scale identities and political aspirations incubate under its shell until eventually they poke their beaks through the cracks and take flight.” Millenium (1995), p 704

I am perhaps a member of those dying generations who imagined a reforging of myth, tradition and culture through the 20th century practice of modernist bildung. I can see that this dream of a shared culture is impossible in today’s conditions. There is too much to read. There are too many human possibilities to explore and to encompass within any one story, without a constriction on freedom. The institutions of education have been overrun by commerce and new philistines. The great words are repeated incessantly by fewer and fewer of us; fewer seek the company of cold skulls over the frisson of the pumped up dance floor. There is a proliferation of cultural communities online, and yet no shared embodied customs: no church in which we stand to hear the common prayer; no university in which we practise bildung, rather than vocational learning. The besieged city has lost its theatre, which stands in broken, neglected ruins. Yet still, strange flowers grow among the ruins, and throughout the city small groups come together to create the rituals of new cults. Perhaps these new cults and strange flowers will sustain the generations to come?

I recognise the reality of these conditions, and still I mourn what we have lost. To echo Ezra Pound from last week’s post, I can only put my faith in the love of my true heritage, and trust that what I lovest well shall not be reft from me.

One thing we have lost amidst our cultural fragmentation, and which I encounter most days in my day job as a government bureaucrat, is a civic culture of governing. Our political communities have been shattered. We are riven by identity politics and hyper-partisanship. We fight culture wars and proclaim fluid fissured identities that separate us from traditions of civil dialogue. We have lost the art of talking to strangers, and working across the aisle. Government has become a  theatre of activists, spin-doctors, marketers of political brands, “social innovators” and a new mercenary class of political condottiere and consultocrats. This new class has colonised the institutions of government, and suborned once strong autonomous institutions, which through their autonomy had created traditions of value and their own esprit de corps – to the fractious, factionalised, fickle, impatient, self-absorbed purposes of this new nomenklatur.

The ascendancy of this new nomenklatur – which one day I will find a better name for – is only possible in the conditions created by the breakdown of civic culture and cultural fragmentation. They are the bandits who emerge when the city lies in ruins. It is the common complaint of these bandits that the people are fickle, have “expectations” that cannot be delivered, and lack trust. As the OECD says:

“Trust in government is deteriorating in many OECD countries. Lack of trust compromises the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies and contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.”

Foolish citizens and business: they do not respond to public policies in the ways desired by the new nomenklatur.

In truth, the problem of declining trust in political institutions, is better conceived as the collapse of authority of the new nomenklatur in liberal democracies. And that, I hypothesise, has its roots in the disintegration of the civic cultures that these elites attempt to govern. But the further exploration of this hypothesis will have to wait till my next post.




Cantos from a cage

Cantos from a cage
What thou lovest well remains,
                                                  the rest is dross
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs
                                            or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
        Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell,
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee
From Ezra Pound Canto LXXXI
If modernism was a kind of Renaissance of this last century, as the critic Peter Craven intimates, then Ezra Pound is surely one of the greatest and most troubling figures of these dying generations, this botched civilisation.
His poetry reaches across cultures and centuries like a prophet in a tower. He is the great progenitor, whose heritage is stained by both his politics and his madness.
Overshadowing his poetic achievements – and the magnificent difficult music of the Cantos – are his failures as a man of judgement. Broadcaster for Mussolini. Convicted traitor, but spared by a sentence of insanity. Caged outside Pisa, where in the arid ruins of Europe, he sang the broken magnificent threnodies, the defiant laments of Canto LXXXI: what thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee.
Here is Pound himself reading from this most enduring Pisan canto. Unlike so many poets, Pound’s voice gives an extraordinary timbre to his lines, a shaking echo of suffering.
And then there is the great controversy of his stay in St Elizabeth’s lunatic asylum. Was he mad? Was he bad? Was his poetry the mind of poison or of greatness? Strange that Pound should not be a symbol of the language of madness in Foucault’s histories. Was the salon he kept an indulgence? Were the poets who gathered around him, and forgave him his misjudgements, naive fools, willing traitors, unwitting collaborators with the atrocities of antisemitism?
What do I learn from Pound? Neither acclaim nor ostracism can extinguish the voice. Neither tradition nor its breaking can constrain the voice. Neither madness nor politics can define the voice. Out of the cages of our lives, we sing our greatest cantos.

But the beauty is not the madness
Tho’ my errors and wrecks lie about me.
And I am not a demigod,
I cannot make it cohere.
If love be not in the house there is nothing.

Ezra Pound from Canto CXVI

EP & White Cat_edited

Axel’s Castle, a mirror and an encyclopaedia

Axel’s Castle, a mirror and an encyclopaedia

When I was about fifteen, I found Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle in a library. It was my introduction to literary modernism, and their progenitors, the French symbolists. Over time I would read most of the authors to whom Wilson was my accidental host: Yeats, Joyce, Proust, Valery, Eliot, Stein. In time, I would find other guides to the great modernist canon. But the symbol of Axel’s Castle would remain as a ghostly survivor of my initiation into high culture.

There was nothing in the outward circumstances of my teenage life that would have led me to value the pursuit of writing as a form of symbolist transcendence of mundane reality.  My parents were primarily interested in science, but with an occasional indulgence of Rilke and Hopkins. I spent much of my childhood reading Wisden, and playing cricket, in the forlorn dream of overcoming my physical limitations to become a professional cricketer. My maths teacher at school, impressed with my talent with trigonometry, algebra and arithmetic, urged me to become an actuary. I had no literary friends – few friends really – except perhaps two girls, whose literary tastes involved a love of Leonard Cohen songs, which I could not share, and who I have never seen again since high school

But inwardly, as the pain of my family breakdown, my mother’s madness, my father’s greed and grandiosity compounded, I grasped for the symbols of inner experience beyond the real. So, Axel’s Castle became my symbol of a higher inner life. But it was and has long been an oppressive illusion because I could never live like the disdainful aristocrats of the soul imagined in Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s lonely, isolated tower: “Living? our servants will do that for us.” Nor could I ever bring together around me the salon of the spurned genius, Mallarmé, who puffed smokescreens between himself and reality, and engaged in the most radical experimentations with the limits of poetry, its incarnation in the letter and its instantiation by chance.  And Nerval’s ecstatic transportation into madness frightened me, as for years I would help my mother find her way to treatment amidst her hypomanic fantasies. The dream of Axel’s Castle took me on a night journey of enriching torment, but left in my catatonic fear of its denouement: the suicide pact and the renunciation of life.

The lonely, gothic occult tower took me down a path with many waystations of self- destruction; but ultimately it was a path that opened into a clearing, where I learned to write in my own way. And now that I have shaken off its magic, it is time perhaps again for me to walk with my pen into the great forest again.

The strange thing too, as I write these words of reflection prompted by this persistent memory, is that I have begun to doubt whether I ever read Axel’s Castle at all. Certainly I have never read Comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Axel, from which the archetype that has ruled my literary life was born. But now I wonder if it was only ever in a footnote reference in a compendium volume of studies on modernism, edited by Malcolm Bradbury, which was really the book I acquired at fifteen from the library, where I was captivated by the symbolism of Axel’s Castle. So all that I imagined in that title truly only came from my preexisting imagination, and I have long imprisoned myself in one of my own illusions.

It is like the Borges story, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, that labyrinthine story, in which the narrator tells of the history of Tlön which he discovered – through the “conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopaedia” – in a single edition of the Encyclopaedia of Tlön. Except that he reveals in his narrative, no-one else can find this edition of a book to which he has devoted much of his scholarly life.

already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty – not even that it is false…. A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopaedia of Tlön. (Borges, Labyrinths pp. 41-42)


A thousand thanks

A thousand thanks

Some time in the last couple of weeks the counter on my wordpress visitor stats clocked over one thousand.

So this is a short post to say thank you to all those readers – presumably not one thousand readers, but one thousand visitors.

When I commenced this blog back in July 2015 – nearly three years ago – I did not imagine I could reach such an audience, modest though it is – very much in the small long tail of the distribution of blogging site stats. I had written a blog previously, but had done so anonymously. That blog – the happy pessimist – was about politics, and my read of political events in Australia. It was part medicine, part poison for me. I vented there and nursed grievances. I responded to the strange years of political crisis in Australia from the fall of Kevin Rudd to the fall of Tony Abbott. It rarely found readers, except an occasional, enthusiastic anarchist who egged me on in my more poisonous state of mind. I kept it going for maybe three years, and then took it down in fear of reprisals against public servants speaking their mind. I downloaded all my posts and put them into a scrivener file. Maybe one day I will use them again somehow. But I never put my name or any clearly identifying information to my posts. It was all done under the avatar of Antonio Possevino – a Jesuit priest and diplomat of the 16th century, who himself published a number of political tracts under pseudonyms.

This blog, The Burning Archive, marked a new path for me, and a new kind of personal courage. I wrote not about my daily worlds of politics and policy, but my night journeys through culture and symbols. And from early on I wrote in my own name. I began the blog in the depths of a personal crisis, and it took a couple of months before I resumed regular postings. Initially I posted mainly on historical and large political topics. But after a while I freed myself to write on culture, literature, writing, my personal story and, of course, poetry. I probed my losses to bear them with more dignity. I explored the unique paths my life has travelled, without concern to compare myself with others.  I rediscovered my life of the mind and found at last courage to speak in my own voice.

It was one of these more personal adventures of my own mind that was shared by other bloggers and began to gain me followers and readers. This was a lesson to me – speak with vulnerability and authenticity, not behind masks of authority and power.

Too all you readers who have visited me on this journey: thank you. An especially big thank you to Daniel Paul Marshall whose comments and affirmations of the value of my writing have been especially kind and helpful for me. The strength you have given me will help me continue with this blog, and share more of my writing with the world. I plan to publish three books of poetry shortly, and have commenced work on an essay on the ordinary virtues of governing well. Three years ago, I could not imagine this day.  I have walked through the fires of the Burning Archive, and stand before my readers naked, unburnt and transformed.

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” The Burning Archive, July 2015

Fragments on tradition

Fragments on tradition

Today’s cultures are both disintegrating and proliferating. Any writer has to hand the near infinite profusion of symbolic thought of every culture across history. They are there to be used with the simplicity of an internet search. But their readiness-to-hand does not make them vital traditions, but cut and paste decorations of the modern soul in torment. The human symbolic inheritance becomes a storm of misunderstanding and not a guide to life. The writer is dazed and confused amidst this super-abundance of cultural inheritance; but the writer has no guide, no anchor, no institution of belonging and selection. There is no tradition except for those salvaged in flight from the ruins.


There is a paradox at the heart of today’s culture. We live in the most broadly educated societies ever, and yet our culture is imploding. Education has been prostituted to the pursuit of income and status, and lost connection with its true value, the transmission of our most valued traditions so that our characters may extinguish our petty selves.


And yet traditions survive. Deepak Chopra teaches deep fulfilment to millions with Sanskrit mantras inherited from the Vedas, knowledge itself. Nordic noir, like Midnight Sun, show the songs of the noadi of the Saami of the Arctic Circle, Sapmi and their persistent power in defining an undercurrent of spiritual law beneath the corruption of modern life. And a million bloggers, like me, like you, burst through the gates of the publishing industry, with its custodians of taste, status and commercial success, and call out their songs from their lonely hovels as they travel through the celestial internet on their long night journeys.


In the Uses of Pessimism, Roger Scruton writes:

“The true history of the modern artist is the story told by the great modernists themselves. It is the story told by T. S. Eliot in his essays and the Four Quartets, by Ezra Pound in the Cantos, by Schoenberg in his critical writings and in Moses und Aron, by Rilke in the Sonnets to Orpheus and by Valéry in Le cimetière marin. And it sees the goal of the modern artist not as a break with tradition, but as a recapturing of tradition, in circumstances for which the artistic legacy has made little or no provision.”

I would put this differently because I do not believe tradition can be captured and remain vital. When captured it becomes a market of success and status. All tradition truly needs is to be inherited, practised and handed on. Tradition is not recaptured. It is sung again.


Modern artists have a difficult obligation. They inherit plural traditions, and yet none of them whole, none of them pure. Modern artists must spend years in the wilderness finding the traditions to which they have an elective affinity, and then find a way to practise this uniquely defined tradition in a way that does not compromise authenticity. This is difficult in a world ruled by celebrity and commerce. And then the hardest task of all. The tradition that is not one must be shared – through words uttered into the vast empty silence of the internet – in the cherished dream that someone else in the world may speak these songs too. That is the work of the infinite conversation.


Image Source: Wikimedia Commons Friedrich Wilhelm Heine (1845-1921). – Wägner, Wilhelm. 1882. Nordisch-germanische Götter und Helden. Otto Spamer, Leipzig & Berlin. Page 47.

Regaining time

Regaining time

The other evening, I pulled from the shelf the sixth and last volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or to use the Scott-Moncrieff translation, still evocative across the Anglophone countries with their Shakespearean heritage, Remembrance of Things Past. This volume, Finding Time Again, in the awkward 2002 translation of Ian Patterson, or Time Regained, still so in my mind from Scott Moncrieff’s 1920s translation, is the culmination and summation of Proust’s long circumambulation through the illusions of society, friendship, love, introversion, aestheticism and misguided ways through literature. It is in Time Regained that Proust makes his ultimate discovery within himself, within his own experience, of his redemption through literature, memory and the synthesis of subjective perception with the sensual world.

“Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artists. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it… Thanks to art, instead of seeing only a single world, our own, we see it multiplied, and have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, all more different one from another than those which resolve in infinity and which, centuries after the fire from which their rays emanated has gone out, whether it was called Rembrandt or Vermeer, still send us their special light.” Proust, Finding Time Again, p. 204

This identification of life and literature occurs as a consequence of the realisation of time regained through the involuntary memories that transport the narrator beyond the constraints of past and present. The narrator stumbles on the cobblestones as he leaves his coach, and he regains the sensation and perception, enclosed within a memory, of his past and ever-changing self, searching the streets of Venice for the experience of John Ruskin’s ideas of beauty. It is the turning point that allows Proust or the narrator of In Search of Lost Time to put aside his doubts about his literary ability, his many diversions, his weak will grounded in the indulgence of his mother, and set down to write.

But it is not an aestheticization of life so much as inundation of literature by life. The processes of perception and symbolisation that Proust recreates throughout In Search of Lost Time are not those of writers or artists alone. They are processes available to all ordinary people. They are ways of seeing, and moral challenges – to see life aright, finally uncovered and clarified – we all know, even if we all do not give ourselves over to the vocation of documenting the unique tapestries of experience, symbol and mind that is great literature.

“The book whose characters are forged within us, rather than sketched by us, is the only book we have.” p 188.

Why did I choose to pull Time Regained from the shelf now? The death of my mother has prompted reflection on memory, old age, death and the disappearance of treasured worlds – and these are all themes in the great coda to In Search of Lost Time Proust composed in Time Regained. I recalled, as I read the book again, the sunny, spacious room in a Victorian terrace, with a rush mat floor and a view onto nothing but another terrace’s wall, in which, in my early twenties, I read all of Proust with the fervour of seeking an aesthetic philosophy of life, just as perhaps Proust sought in Ruskin. All that was so strange and unfamiliar for me in Proust – the life of the French aristocracy in La Belle Époque, the flowers and landscapes of Europe, the Romanesque churches and the travel to Venice, the Dreyfus Affair and the demoralisation French society by world war onecreated a beautiful pageantry for me, but the heart of the drama was the long delayed realisation of the vocation of the writer.

For years I have felt – like Proust’s narrator in the time before he enters fatefully he Guermantes library, and conceives the great artwork he will live and die for – that:

“I now had proof that I was no longer good for anything, that literature could no longer bring me any joy, whether through my own fault, because I was not talented enough, or through the fault of literature, if it was indeed less pregnant with reality than I had thought.” (Time Regained, p. 174)

And when I pulled Finding Time Again from myself, I recreated Proust’s own act of taking from the shelf of the Guermantes library Georges Sand’s Francois Le Champi, which his mother had read to him long into the night to soothe his anxiety, and recovered the magic of art and story-telling and memory within the deep mind of the house of culture.

Poem: the tethered mind

Poem: the tethered mind

The tethered mind

The mind prowls, tethered to its past.
An unknown unknown rises from
An unclaimed grave of awkward glances.
The waves come for the fallen swimmer

Again and again. They roll fast.
They suck his feet into the undertow.
A macadamia tree in a shadowed grove,
Where dreams were made,

Rots and blackens, drowned below
The lipping murk of Brisbane’s spill.
Something else happened there.
Something I cannot sit with.

Cannot say, not even now, not at all.
Only the leather, chafing my neck in thrall.


Jeff Rich

Image Source: MEE/Sebastian Castelier