In the first two essays in this sequence, I sketched out the framework of Oswald Spengler’s vision of the process by which great cultures rise, work through their possibilities, and fossilize once those possibilities have been pushed as far as they can go. That vision of history pretty reliably generates a profound unease among people raised in Western industrial societies, for those societies—the heirs of what Spengler named Faustian culture, the great culture that emerged in western and central Europe starting around the year 1000, and holds temporary dominion over the globe—prefer to see history in a different and far more simplistic way.
In the Faustian worldview, it’s inconceivable that the world’s cultures each have their own possibilities, their own values and insights and ways of understanding the world, which cannot be reduced to any single trajectory. In the Faustian worldview, there is only one range of possibilities open to human beings, the one set out by Faustian culture; all other cultures can be seen only as inadequate attempts to attain the Faustian model. There can be no different but equally valid sets of values and insights and ways of understanding the world; there is simply the Faustian way, which is self-evidently true, and every other way, which is superstitious, benighted, and obviously wrong. (Watch today’s ideologically correct literary critics denouncing the writers of past generations for not sharing the values of today’s elite Western culture, and you can see this sort of giddily self-centered thinking in full and inglorious flower.)
In exactly the same way, it’s unthinkable to the Faustian mind that history might consist of a sequence of different trajectories of rise and fall. There is only one trajectory, the one that begins in the squalor and ignorance of the caves, fumbles its way through various cultural forms that can be judged and found wanting on the basis of their difference from ours, and then finally figures out the one true way of progress and goes zooming confidently upwards toward its supposedly inevitable destiny out there among the stars. Thus it’s not at all surprising that Spengler’s ideas reliably generate the same sort of nervous laughter followed by angry pushback that you’ll get if you point out, among a group of middle-aged people frantically trying to cling to the waning phantasm of youth, that every one of them will soon grow old and die.
The difficulty faced right now by true believers in the Faustian vision, in turn, is precisely that the world no longer caters to their dreams. While a few narrow fields of technology continue to advance, working through their own possibilities, most of the artifacts of contemporary life in the Western world follow patterns laid down a century or more ago, a pervasive decline in real standards of living has been under way for decades, and some of the most heavily ballyhooed triumphs of the recent past are already slipping out of reach. We can expect plenty of self-congratulatory handwaving next year, celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the first human landing on the Moon; I wonder how many people will remember that the same year will be the forty-fifth anniversary of the last human bootprints on lunar soil, or notice that since that time no human being has even gone beyond low earth orbit.
All the recent rehashes of the typical future-fantasies of the mid-twentieth century—the faux-confident chatter about space travel, flying cars, robots replacing human jobs and other gewgaws which featured so heavily in the comic books and pulp entertainment of my childhood—thus can be seen as the cultural equivalent of comb-overs, facelifts, Viagra and Botox, the increasingly frantic attempts of the aging to cling to the scraps of a youth they no longer possess and pretend that old age is solely for other people. It’s the same motive that leads universities to abandon the study of the artistic and cultural heritage of Western civilization: compare these to their recent epigones, and it’s uncomfortably clear just how absurd it is to insist that Andy Warhol and John Cage represent any sort of advance over, let’s say, Rembrandt and Bach.
Get beyond the facile and fatuous insistence that the grand march of progress is still plodding away toward the stars, despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary, and Spengler’s vision offers a more meaningful way to make sense of the far future. Like the other classic writers on the cyclic nature of history—Giambattista Vico and Arnold Toynbee—he holds up the past as a mirror in which the future can be glimpsed: a future marked by the exhaustion of creative potentials; the winnowing of the past to produce an enduring canon of scientific, literary, and artistic achievements; the coming of irreversible economic and political decline, and the rest.
On the far side of that trajectory lies the emergence of new cultures with their own values and insights and ways of understanding the world. Thinkers over the last century or so have pointed out that two of these will likely emerge in parallel regions to east and west of the European homeland of the Faustian culture: in European Russia, and in particular in the Volga river basin; and in eastern North America, and in particular in the region that includes the Ohio River basin and the Great Lakes. To my mind, it’s worth thinking about these, and trying to glimpse the shapes of these unborn great cultures.
There are some remarkable parallels between America and Russia, balanced by equally important differences. Let’s start with the parallels. Both came into being in the borderlands where expanding Faustian cultures confronted tribal cultures with much simpler technologies and much more stable relationships to the natural world. The tribal cultures of North America and Siberia are related genetically and culturally by way of the vanished Bering land bridge, and their impacts on the expanding cultures that partly supplanted them and partly absorbed them had important parallels. What’s more, the experience of the frontier, the encounter with vast spaces inconceivably larger than anything the limited horizons of Europe could offer, shaped both cultures in similar ways.
At the same time, a crucial difference marks these two encounters, and the broader histories in which they have so important a place: a difference of time. Russia’s great era of frontier expansion took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; America’s took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More generally, Russia has been a coherent cultural entity much longer than English-speaking North America has. Russia is old enough to have received its first great wave of cultural influence from abroad—its first pseudomorphosis, in Spengler’s terms—from the Magian great culture o the Middle East by way of Byzantium, and got its second from the Faustian culture of western Europe right about the time that the European colonies on the Atlantic coast were first getting past the subsistence stage. America, by contrast, is still in the waning days of its first pseudomorphosis and likely has some centuries to go before its second pseudomorphosis kickstarts the emergence of its own unique cultural forms.
That difference of time is mapped onto a wider difference, which has to do with place. One of the things that Spengler’s analysis stresses—and one of the aspects of his work that tends to offend Faustian sensibilities most strongly—is the way that specific great cultures are bound to specific regions of the world, and never quite manage to transplant themselves successfully to other lands. The home ground of Faustian culture is western and central Europe, for example, and whenever it has established its cultural forms or political control outside that region, the result is inevitably a layer of Faustian elite culture over the top of a very different cultural substrate. You can see this at work in both the protocultures we’re discussing; in New York and Saint Petersburg, the intelligentsia and the privileged classes go through the motions of European culture; away from the centers of power, in farm towns along the banks of the Ohio and the Volga, the European veneer is very thin where it exists at all, and something rooted far more deeply in the soil (and the soul) of the countryside comes close to the surface.
In his brilliant and neglected study God is Red, Native American philosopher Vine Deloria Jr. wrote at length about the spiritual importance of place. That’s something that Magian culture understood implicitly—notice the way that Magian religions inevitably orient themselves toward specific, geographically unique centers of pilgrimage—but that Faustian culture can’t grasp at all. To the Faustian mind, the landscape is a blank slate waiting to be overwritten by the creative will of the heroic individual whose deeds are the bread and butter of Faustian mythmaking. Note the way that Faustian cultures prefer to talk, not of place, but of space: not of localities with their own character and qualities, but of emptiness that, at least in our imagination, can be put to whatever sequence of temporary uses we happen to have in mind.
Every culture has its blind spots, and this is one of ours. Carl Jung, while traveling in America, happened to see workers streaming out of a factory. To his European eye, many members of the crowd looked distinctly Native American, and he was startled when his host insisted there was probably not one Native American there. Both men were correct. The land—any land—puts its stamp on the bodies, the actions, and the thoughts of the people who are born and raised there; the American who tries to be European has been a butt of edged humor in Europe for centuries now, because the result always rings false to European ears. Exactly the same thing is true of the Europeanized Russian, though the details of the mismatch are different, since the Russian bears the imprint of a different land.
It’s because of this imprint, reflected in details of history and culture, that it’s possible to glimpse a little of the shape of the two great cultures we’re discussing.
Each great culture, Spengler showed, has what amounts to a distinctive theme, a core concept from which that culture extracts the problems it considers important and unfolds the resources it will direct to their solution. The central theme of Faustian culture is infinite expansion. Notice the way that any Faustian thinker who comes up with a new political cause or a new diet instantly assumes that everyone, everywhere ought to embrace the cause or take up the diet; notice the way that so much of our technological prowess has focused obsessively on the quest to erase distance. From square-rigged ships to trains to cars to airplanes to rockets, from semaphore to telegraphy to radio to television to the internet, it’s all about extending a straight line to infinity, which is not surprising in the only culture in history to use linear perspective in its art.
Compare that to Magian culture, the great culture that rose, ripened, and settled into its enduring forms many centuries earlier in the Middle East. The central theme of Magian culture is the relationship between the human community and God. Where Faustian culture faces outward toward infinite space, Magian culture turns inward, forming an attentive circle around a unique human being whose words and deeds communicate an equally unique revelation from on high. Think of Jesus in the midst of his apostles, or Muhammad in the midst of his companions, and you’ve got the basic image; you can find that reflected in such classic products of the Magian pseudomorphosis as the Arthurian legends, with Arthur in the midst of his knights as a lightly secularized reflection of the theme. Even there, you can catch the first stirrings of the Faustian spirit as Arthur ends his days, not in a tomb that serves as a site of pilgrimage—the usual destiny of the Magian central figure—but vanishing across the western sea. “Not wise the thought, a grave for Arthur,” says an old Welsh text, and Tennyson echoes the same theme a thousand years later: “From the great deep to the great deep he goes.”
Every other great culture has its own central theme, its own basic image of existence. Those of my readers who are interested in these can find the details in Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Let’s turn toward the future, though, and try to grasp the central themes of the Russian and American great cultures to come.
A caveat is of course needed here. I’m not Russian; my sole exposure to Russian culture comes from three years of high school classes in the Russian language, followed by a fair bit of sympathetic reading in Russian literature and history. I’ve never been there, and whatever whispers come with the winds off the great Eurasian steppes to the Volga valley are outside my experience. Fortunately there have been a number of thoughtful Russian writers who’ve grappled with the question of the shape of a future Russian great culture, and their take is that its central theme is best described by a term that has no exact equivalent in English: sobornost.
If I understand the concept—and I’ll happily accept correction from my Russian readers if I don’t—sobornost is a collective identity that arises out of shared experience and shared history. It’s not defined from above, like the community of the faithful that provides Magian culture with its basic theme; rather, it ripens organically in individual lives, as the natural fulfillment of individual identity. In a culture of sobornost, what lies at the heart of each person is not some unique essence, but a link with the whole. It’s for this reason that traditional Russian villages were arranged in a series of concentric circles with a holy place at the center, houses around that, gardens around that, fields further out, and the forest sweeping away into the distance beyond: each part of the village has its place in a pattern that makes it formally equal with the others.
The first stirrings of the American great culture are fainter at this point—not surprising, as its flowering will likely be quite a bit further in the future, and we have a second pseudomorphosis to get through first. One measure of that faintness is that there isn’t yet a good clear English word for the theme that already differentiates American culture from those of other societies. Since the land keeps radiating its basic influence while peoples come and go, I’ll borrow a term from Chinook jargon—the old trade language of the northwest quarter or so of native North America, which was once spoken from northern California to Alaska and from the Pacific Ocean to the eastern slopes of the Rockies—and speak of tamanous.
Tamanous—that’s pronounced “tah-MAN-oh-oose,” by the way—is the guardian spirit of the individual, and also his luck and his destiny. In a great many Native American cultures, finding and establishing a sacred relationship with one’s tamanous, via various traditional practices, is the primary religious act a person can engage in, an essential part of achieving adulthood and thus something that most people do as a matter of course. The result is a religious vision unlike any other, in which the personal relationship between the individual and an equally unique and individualized spiritual power takes center stage.
I once had the privilege of attending a religious ceremony at a Native American reservation north of Everett in Washington State. To the rolling thunder of drums, the participants—men and women of several related Coast Salish tribes—danced the dances of their tamanous. No two danced the same steps or made the same gestures; each, caught up by the power of the drums, expressed the nature of his or her own unique spiritual protector and the gifts it brought. That’s the traditional religion of the Salish—not a collective relationship with a single overarching power or a well-organized pantheon, but a dazzling flurry of individual relationships with spiritual beings, no one of which has any necessary relevance to anyone but the human and the spirit who share in it. Similar patterns can be found in many other Native American cultures.
Look at the history of American religion and you can see this same pattern taking shape out of the last scraps of the Magian pseudomorphosis. In traditional Christianity, the individual is a part of the universal Body of Christ that is the church, united by a shared doctrine and praxis. In America, even in Colonial times, that began to break down, to be replaced by a focus on the individual relationship with Jesus and personal insight into the meaning of Scripture. It’s the homegrown American versions of Christianity that call believers to take Jesus as their personal savior, through a process of personal transformation that, generation after generation, comes more and more to resemble a Christian vision quest—and is there really that much difference between a personal savior and a tamanous?
More generally, the fault lines that divide the first stirrings of a distinctively American culture from the Faustian culture of the West all involve conflicts between individual liberty and the will to power that pervades the Faustian mind. The mythic narratives of Faustian culture all revolve around the conflict between the visionary individual who knows the truth, and the ignorant and superstitious masses who must be forced to accept it. Where Faustian pseudomorphoses hold sway, as in Russia and America, that inevitably takes the form of an elite caste of educated intellectuals trying to bully and browbeat the recalcitrant populace into accepting whatever the latest fashionable ideology happens to be preaching this week.
In Russia for centuries now, such projects have run face first into the brick wall of sobornost, the patient and maddeningly irrefutable collective identity that shrugs off alien ideas in order to return to its own enduring patterns. If Spengler and the Russian thinkers mentioned earlier are correct, the time of the Faustian pseudomorphosis there is nearly over, and the next few centuries will see a newborn Russian great culture shake off or radically repurpose the inheritance of Europe in the service of a wholly different vision of humanity and the cosmos, in which sobornost will emerge as a central theme.
And America? We’ve got longer to go, and another pseudomorphosis to get through. Even so, the stirrings of the future American great culture can be tracked in our own time, as an intelligentsia with its head full of Faustian notions collides with a vision of humanity and the cosmos that’s just as frustratingly different as anything to be found on Russian soil. To those who want to claim the role of visionary individual revealing the truth to the benighted masses, the masses increasingly often are saying, “If that’s your truth, hey, by all means follow it. It’s not ours”—and “ours,” in turn, breaks up on closer examination into a crowd of dancing figures, no two of whom are taking the same steps or making the same gestures.
There is no one right way for everyone. That’s the message, or one part of the message, that the American land has been whispering to its human residents for a very long time. It’s not a message for everyone—again, each great culture has its own theme, and the core theme of the future American great culture is no more universal than any other. I suspect that a thousand years from now, the incommensurability between sobornost and tamanous will become the same kind of massive political fact that the irreconcilable conflict of basic themes between Magian and Faustian cultures was in 1600 or so. In the meantime, though, that message deserves attention here.
Between the lingering nostalgia for the one true faith of the Magian inheritance, and the Faustian insistence that any truth once discovered must extend its sway to the outer limits of the cosmos, it’s a very difficult message for many Americans to hear, but they’ve been hearing it more and more often for the last three centuries. As the Faustian pseudomorphosis in America breaks and rolls back out to sea—a process that seems to be reaching a critical stage just now—it seems to be sinking in that you can follow the promptings of your tamanous, I can follow the promptings of mine, and the fact that we’re not doing the same dance is of concern to neither of us.
That realization has immense political and cultural implications. I hope to sketch some of them out in the weeks ahead.