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Cowen and Woolf on Cultural Pessimism

Tyler Cowen convincingly warns against warnings of cultural demise. (See especially his books, In Praise of Commercial Culture, and Creative Destruction.) Tyler’s argument is full of both theoretical insights and detailed history. He doesn’t claim that cultures can’t and don’t ever deteriorate from being rich and glorious to being depraved or decrepit or just bland. But he does show how and why many cultural pessimists miss the larger picture, predicting cultural demise when the culture is actually thriving.

One of the ways that the typical cultural pessimist misses the larger picture is by comparing the full range of cultural offerings in his time with the cultural offerings of past generations. Because much of what is unworthy of past-generations’ offerings has been forgotten, the cultural offerings that we inherit from the past tend to be the finest that the past produced. Comparing only the finest of the past with the full range of today’s offerings creates a bias against today’s offerings – for what will turn out to be unworthy of today’s offerings have yet to be sorted out from the best of today’s offerings.

Other factors are at work to foster cultural pessimism. But I thought of the one explained above as I read the following passage from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando.

In it, the protagonist, Orlando (whose inspiration was Woolf’s lover, Vita Sackville-West) is in Elizabethan England, despairing of his abilities to become a great writer. Here’s part of a conversation that Orlando has with a Mr. Nicholas Greene, a writer alleged to be very famous during Shakespeare’s time. Greene is trying, in a roundabout way, to ease Orlando’s concerns that competing against the likes of Shakespeare, Jonson, and Marlowe is futile.

No, he [Greene] concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan was inferior in every respect to the Greek. In such ages men cherished a divine ambition which he might call La Gloire (he pronounced it Glawr, so that Orlando did not at first catch his meaning). Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell.

The conversation is fictional, of course. But it’s quite likely that such conversations did indeed take place in Elizabethan England. They take place today, too – and, clearly, they took place in 1928, the year Orlando was published.


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