The Barbarian Incursion

O gentlemen, the time of life is short;

To spend that shortness basely were too long,

If  life did ride upon a dial’s point,

Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

Shakespeare: Henry IV

Jacques Barzun, the great humanist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, told us more than 50 years ago to lock up the treasures of the West because the barbarians were about to take over our world. He was a bit premature. It didn’t happen quite as fast as he thought it would, but it certainly has happened, though the barbarians didn’t attack from without: we bred our own. You can recognize the new barbarians all around you by their boorish behavior, the loud music emanating from their cars as they pass by and their halting speech patterns, piercings, and tattoos. They also come armed with their iPods, iPads, iTunes, iPhones, Xboxes, Walkmen, smartphones, and an occasional concealed weapon. But their takeover is not a violent one, for the most part, though it is loud and unsettling.

In any event, contrary to Barzun, I would judge that the treasures of Western civilization are probably not threatened by this takeover, because these barbarians couldn’t care less about them! The treasures will not be destroyed; they will simply wither away because the young are otherwise occupied — listening to their tunes, earphones clamped securely to their heads;  gazing at their handhelds; and generally ignoring the world around them as they focus on electronic communications with their friends. Books and works of art don’t interest them in the least. They boast of the fact: they have other fish to fry and seem to have complete confidence in themselves and their abilities to catch and fry those fish. But it is sad, because what they are unaware of is that they don’t even know where the fish are hiding or what bait to use. In any event, they will no longer pick up thick books, like George Eliot’s magnificent Daniel Deronda, where they might read this sublime passage about the need for roots and the benefits of a geographical and psychological center to our lives:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as the sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality, and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin is a type of the way the body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

And, irony of ironies, Eliot might have been describing one of the new barbarians when she describes her spoiled, self-involved heroine Gwendolen Harleth who, despite the havoc of Civil War across the Atlantic and the suffering of her fellow countrymen due to the loss of imported cotton, can think only of herself:

“Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant? — in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely: when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was waking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.”

Indeed, it may well be that even if the young people of the present and the future had the least desire to read the elegant prose of a writer such as George Eliot (which, admittedly, takes time to read and savor), they would not understand whereof she speaks and writes. They have no idea what they are missing, which seems to be the heart of the matter. She was an eminently wise woman, but her wisdom would be lost on those who will not, or can not, listen or read her words.  It is just possible, also, that even if they did read and comprehend the meaning of her words they would have no idea what she is referring to since so many of these young people, immersed in themselves and enslaved to their digital toys, do not realize that they, too, may well lack consistency and rootedness in their lives and lack a place to call “home” — this “blessed persistence in which affection can take root.”