By Daniel van Voorhis –
“On or about December 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910“- Virginia Woolf
Woolf was commenting on the world of speed, sex, spiritualism and the individual spirit embodied in the American public. Modern historians seem fascinated with both this quote and the idea that somewhere in the first decades of the 20th century, western civilization was forever altered. And probably for the worse.
On our podcast we spent the past month or so on the theme of “Fall” (episodes 1, 2, 3, and 4). If you’ve listened to the podcast you know my primary field is history, and I have spent more time in the early twentieth century over the past years than any other time period. Einstein blew up the world that Newton had made. Ford didn’t invent the car, but he got everyone into one. Oil, electricity, education as well as popular forms of entertainment created a culture that was more suburban, comfortable and centered on the self.
How did this affect the modern attitude in culture, manners, and style? It killed the philistine. And this is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of the change of which Ms. Woolf wrote.
What is a philistine? It is someone who is generally hostile or diffident towards culture and the arts. It implies more than just distaste for the finer things, but rather an acknowledgement of these finer things and (sometimes) a rejection of them.
And sometime in the first part of the last century, the philistine died. This does not mean there was a renewed interest in the arts, manners, and style but rather the opposite. Not only was there a lack of interest in what might be considered “high” culture, but a complete denial of any objective standard by which to judge one form as superior to another. To be a philistine, one must first recognize that some forms are more pure, elegant, sophisticated or beautiful. Once the philistine died, it was not that one simply preferred something more populist to refined (say burlesque to opera), but that they refused to make any distinction.
Before you criticize me as hopelessly rigid or elitist, I often prefer forms of mass culture and do not claim to understand opera, ballet, or staples of elite culture. I understand that what Beethoven is doing is aesthetically superior to Beck, but I am currently listening to Beck because I am in the mood for his brand of 90’s slacker pop. I am wearing jeans and an old t-shirt with slippers because I am at home, but I would not go to the store without at least putting on some proper shoes. I understand that the comfortable and worn clothes are often as appropriate to a situation as a pair of pressed slacks and sport coat. I don’t eat expensive hors d’oeuvres when I watch football, nor do I insist on freshly roasted and recently ground single origin estate coffee when I fill up a mug at the office.
These are all rather extreme examples. There are gradations; a tuxedo is about as far from business casual as steak tartare is also from McDonalds (for the record, I don’t own a tuxedo nor have I had steak tartare more than maybe three times in my life).
Am I being hopelessly western, middle class, and white in my ranking of the “finer” things? I am western, middle class, and white. I’d invite you, if you are not, to think of a different ranking of things based on your own culture. I doubt there are any that do not recognize the verities of cultural expression.
Back to my main point: with the death of the philistine we have created a world without any recognition of proper times, occasions and seasons for various things. We want to judge for ourselves and, more importantly, will not recognize that a discussion might be worthwhile. I invite criticism of my rankings, and want to ask you about yours. But as the modern world has created silos, we have unfortunately rejected even the conversation or recognition that some things might be superior or more appropriate.
It is the mark of decadent society when standards aren’t simply eschewed but when we refuse to believe in any standard. I’d love a full -throated debate about the merits of Beck and Beethoven as well as Crème Brule to M&M’s. For each there is a time.
Plastic spoons vs. Salad forks. Picnics and dinner parties. You get it.
The philistine only preferred the base, but understood there was something else for which they simply did not care. The death of the philistine has led us all to believe that no standards exist. And thus, each defiantly and with smugness does what they want. Let’s disagree, but a false premise that no standards exist deprive us of the conversations about style, manners, and culture that have been a staple of fruitful conversation for centuries.
All the Best,
The Man About Town
Written while listening to: Beck “Odelay” (1997)