The Magazine

Remains of the Day

A post-mortem on the 'great five-hundred year Humanist experiment.'

Jun 1, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 35 • By CHRISTOPHER BENSON
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The Wreck of Western Culture

Humanism Revisited

by John Carroll

ISI, 275 pp., $28

John Carroll belongs to that now common guild of writers--the Intellectual Undertaker.

The Undertaker has an overdeveloped olfactory organ, acutely sensitive to the putrid smells in our culture. His writing announces The Death of "fill in the blank": Satan, Protestant America, character, tragedy, adulthood), and the urgent business of burial means there is no time for maudlin theatrics and interminable nuance. Solemn readers gather round the gravesite of his work; they watch the ritual with memories of what is past and curiosity about what is ahead.

The Wreck of Western Culture ends with these words:

Our story is told. Its purpose has been simple, to shout that humanism is dead, and has been so since the nineteenth century. It is time to quit it. Let us bury it with appropriate rites, which means honoring what was good, and understanding what went wrong and why. We do not want to fall for its charms a second time.

Why has the corpse of humanism remained unburied for so long?

Its rallying illusion is bred deeply into us by now--that knowledge will make us better and happier, and that we are free, free to improve ourselves.

Carroll, professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne, distinguishes himself among undertakers.
He is a kind of performance artist who favors a hauntingly imaginative, improvisational style of expression, liberated from cumbersome footnotes and academic obscurantism. A rotten corpse has left him playfully ironic but also deadly serious. His book--the burial rite of "the great five-hundred year Humanist experiment to found an entirely secular culture on earth"--features pugnacious prose, expository skillfulness, transgressive wisdom, and mental verve.

Over a century ago Nietzsche discerned that "we belong to a time in which culture is in danger of being destroyed by the means of culture." Carroll picks up where Nietzsche left off, praising humanism for succeeding "brilliantly at the material level" and "partly in the moral sphere," but censuring it because the "cultural consequences were ruinous." Why did culture become a danger to itself? Here, Carroll parts company with Nietzsche. His thesis, more likely from a theologian than a sociologist, runs against the grain:

Humanism sought to turn the treasure-laden galleon of Western culture around. It attempted to replace God by man, put humans at the center of the universe--to deify them. Its ambition was to found an order on earth in which freedom and happiness prevailed, without any transcendental or supernatural supports--an entirely human order.

The Wreck of Western Culture is a four-part drama: Foundation, Middle Acts, Fall, and Death Throes. If you relish the masterpieces of the modern West because they reveal "the deepest truths of their time," then you will welcome this study because Carroll unapologetically "seeks the best, and neglects the rest."

The foundation of humanism is the Renaissance, and its hero Shakespeare's Brutus. According to Carroll, he marks a dramatic shift from the ideal of piety to the ideal of honor, from the saint to the gentleman, from derived authority to autonomous authority. Regicide is coronation. By killing one sovereign (Caesar) he enthrones another (reason and free will). Before the death of Jesus, Pilate declared: "Behold the man!" After the death of Brutus, Mark Antony eulogized: "This was a man!" Brutus, then, is not an anti-Christ so much as a surrogate Christ, obeying his own higher law.

Does this gentleman-hero possess enough gravity to stand on his feet? Through incisive analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Holbein's The Ambassadors, Carroll concludes: "Without God, without a transcendental law, there is only death." In both the play and the painting, he notices how the sinister entrance of the skull terrifies the hero, flattening his intellectual aspirations and stealing his volitional power.