While trying to follow one of Eschaton's links, I suddenly found myself reading a column by Camille Paglia, in which she weighs in on Mitt Romney and atheism (picture a hummingbird's feather settling onto a truck scale, minus the sense of cosmic drama).
Without getting sidetracked by her miserable prose and appalling personality, it's worth looking at a couple of her assertions in (relative) depth...not because they're hers, but because she's plucked them whole from the thicket of essentially bourgeois received wisdom that she routinely mistakes for her own hard-won insight.
[L]iberals must start acknowledging the impoverished culture that my 1960s generation has left to the young. Atheism alone is a rotting corpse. I substitute art and nature for God -- the grandeur of man and the vast mystery of the universe.One could argue that replacing religious faith with some vague aesthetic sense of the numinous is a way to enjoy sanctimony without the distractions of commitment and responsibility. One could possibly even argue that this, rather than "atheism alone," is the aspect of our impoverished culture for which Paglia's 1960s generation, with its mix-and-match approach to "hip" (i.e., exotic) religions, might be blamed. (That said, I have to give her some credit: this is the first time I've ever seen it implied that the hippies were insufficiently Spinozan.)
She goes on to say that "without spirituality in some form, people will anesthetize themselves with drink or drugs." Which is a bit like claiming that spirituality, in whatever form, will ultimately lead people to torture or even kill their children. (Hey, it's happened before!)
This perfectly superficial notion of "spirituality" - which bathes everything from (talking about) reading Proust to (talking about) experimenting with the Kama Sutra in the same holy light that Thomas Kinkade manufactures by the metric assload - has nothing to do with ethics, and a great deal to do with competitive consumption and what Adorno called "the jargon of authenticity." As such, it's the opposite of serious philosophy, atheistic or otherwise, which John Caputo eloquently defines as "a work of ceaseless critique of our capacity to deceive ourselves."
Our alleged deafness to the clarion call of "spirituality in some form" is linked, somehow, to the alleged decline of Great Art after (post!) modernism:
Europe, which has settled into a comfortable secularism, is no model for the future. The great era of European achievement in arts and letters seems to be over. There are local luminaries but no towering figures any longer of the stature of James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann or Ingmar Bergman.The curious process by which a figure manages to "tower" isn't addressed, which is yet another example of Paglia's slavish subjection to received wisdom. Picasso towers because he's great, and he's great because he towers. He innovated, he shocked people, he painted Guernica, he liked to fuck, he paid for meals by doodling on bills. His like will not be here again!
There may've been a few "luminaries" around the European art scene in recent years...W.G. Sebald, perhaps, or Anselm Kiefer or Bela Tarr. But are they equal to towering immortals like Mann, Picasso and Bergman? They're not, because asserting that they are would require a leap of faith - a commitment - much like the one Paglia refuses to make in the spiritual realm (which is pretty sad, given that she'd hoped to replace God with art). It could also require giving up her safe position - safe now, thanks to years of antlike labor by thinkers almost as unimaginative, stolid and resentful as Paglia herself - as the arbiter and defender of "meaningful" (i.e., polemically useful) art and spirituality.
I'm not really a fan of Sinclair Lewis, but I think this quote sums up Paglia's intellectual tradition pretty well:
The men leaned back on their heels, put their hands in their trouser-pockets, and proclaimed their views with the booming profundity of a prosperous male repeating a thoroughly hackneyed statement about a matter of which he knows nothing whatever.(Illustration: "Nigredo" by Anselm Kiefer, 1984.)