June 17, 2010

Eastern Europe more soulful because of greater violence?

If I'm right in the idea being pursued here for awhile about the relationship between the level of violence and how petty vs. grand the culture is, we can make a prediction for cultures outside the original list that inspired the idea.

To re-cap, when the level of violence starts to steadily rise for awhile -- not just a blip -- people start to discount the future more and feel a greater need to band together or help each other out against whatever common menace threatens them. They could perceive this threat as another nation, as criminals, as witches, as the devil or other disembodied but influential spirits, etc. Feeling death near, they focus more on the big themes of human nature -- love, trust, betrayal, revenge, man's fallen state, sacred rituals, mortality, and so on -- rather than dither the hours away sniping at one another in trivial status-seeking turf wars, which would only pay off after a long career in social gamesmanship. They find less comfort in reason and enlightenment values, turning more to mystical and supernatural views.

This idea is based on the history of Western Europe and the U.S., which have seen falling homicide rates since roughly 1500 or 1600 (depending on the country), with several notable exceptions -- most of the 14th C., ca. 1580 to 1630, ca. 1780 to 1830, and the recent mid-to-late 20th C. crime wave. Aside from the culture made during the Trecento, the Elizabethan period, the Romantic era, and the wild ways of the 1960s through the '80s, much of Western culture appears to have moved away from The Big Questions and more toward, e.g., "the woman question."

On that basis, what if we found a group that was somewhat similar to Western Europeans but did not experience a secular decline in violence for the past 500 years? One that has a homicide rate not last seen in Western Europe since 1600 or 1700? We'd predict that the culture that this group makes would not have undergone such a strong process of trivialization of concerns or religious secularization. As discussed before about whether more violent societies make more desirable women, Eastern Europe has remained fairly dangerous by Western European standards up through today. It is not a matter of being Slavic, as the Western and Southern Slavic groups have low or moderate homicide rates, while the non-Slavic Baltic states are up there with Russia. And it is not a "legacy of Communism" thing for the same reason.

To compare Eastern European culture to Western, it's probably best to focus on Russia, as they were and are the most economically advanced region, the most politically powerful, etc., and thus the one that could best support a community of artists, intellectuals, and so on. The record of their high and folk culture is certainly richer than for other Eastern European areas. I won't go into too great detail, mainly because I'm not an expert, but also because the broad pattern looks pretty clear. Overall, it does seem that Russian culture has remained more like the culture of Western Europe during the Elizabethan or Romantic periods. Some examples:

- After the Romantic era ends, the rest of the 19th C. culture continues the religious secularization trend that began during the Age of Reason. I don't just mean the growing religious doubt or proto-Existentialism, but turning away from the entire religious way of seeing, thinking, and acting. If you wanted something on the timeless and universal themes of all human art and folklore, you likely had to have it imported from Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. During the even more atheistic 20th C. in Western Europe, Solzhenitsyn was just about the only major literary figure whose worldview held that man was inherently imperfect, his fallen nature led his reach to exceed his grasp, and that the present-day hell he finds himself in could only be left behind by leading a more religious life that would check our natural tendencies toward pride, vanity, and so on.

From the Russian lit course I took in college, I remember the affected nonsense word-game poetry, Zola-esque social realism, and the Modernist stream-of-consciousness odyssey throughout Petersburg. So it's not as though the two cultures were completely different. Still, it's hard not to conclude that Russian lit remained more spiritual and tragic as Western lit grew more materialist and trivial in its subject matter.

- Western Classical music more or less gave up trying during the early 20th C. and by 1952 had sunk to laughable performance art with John Cage's 4'33". Just about the only major composers keeping the spirit alive by then were Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev. Not to mention Russian ballet. The country may now be the only place where straight athletic men still find figure skating a noble pursuit.

- As Western visual art sank lower and lower into absurdity, major Russian artists seem to have followed them but always seeking to imbue their works with spirituality and wonder. You'd have to ask them why they say this, as most lay people might not notice on first viewing, but commentators on 20th C. art (as I recall them) tend to refer to Malevich's sparse and geometric paintings as mystical (which I don't recall hearing about Western Cubists), to Chagall's paintings as more poetic or soulful than that of other avant-garde artists during the 1910s and '20s, and to Kandinsky's work as more spiritual than that of other purely abstract painters. (He also wrote Concerning the Spiritual in Art.)

Again, it's not as though we have two entirely separate worlds here, but overall the pattern does look like Russian culture resembled Western culture more from the atypical 14th C., Elizabethan, and Romantic eras than the larger trend in the West toward secular material values and petty cynical one-upsmanship. This confirms a nice "out-of-sample prediction" of the original idea based on Western Europe. I've only focused on Russia because there is so much more material to draw on, and more easily, than for other Eastern European countries, but I'll bet the same rough story is unfolding in Ukraine or Lithuania as well.

On a final fun note, while looking through early 20th C. Russian paintings, I found a piece of evidence suggesting that the Russian babe phenomenon is not so recent. Here's a self-portrait of the 24 year-old painter Zinaida Serebryakova.


  1. This is orthogonal to the discussion but you seem to speak highly of religious sensibilities, or at least lump religious sensibilities with other things you speak highly of.

    So I'm just curious if you are religious. Like I said, it has nothing to do with the topic at hand or your data, I'm just curious.

  2. I don't participate in organized religion, but I think a lot about the typical religious themes, especially mankind being in a fallen state right now, although having more to do with their social bonds and interactions than with drug use or promiscuity per se.

    I see rampant sarcasm or cynicism and flatlining trust levels and wonder if we're going to rise out of it. Probably, given how cyclical these things seem. Still you wonder when.

    Also starting in the 1990s and getting out of control in the 2000s was a contemporary version of the Tower of Babel. During the carefree times of the '60s through the '80s, people were humble and were content to just go with the flow, enjoy the ride, etc. When times are dangerous, you feel loss of control.

    Once society got a lot safer, everyone suddenly started patting themselves on the back about how awesome and clever they were. This was supposed to unite them in a common cosmopolitanism, but in reality they're a bunch of fragmented micro-niches.

    "Oh, you're into post-grind-core-tronica revival? Sorry, that stuff is for fags. Only the pre- revival shit for me."

    "Oh, you buy candles made from grass-fed beef tallow? And here I thought you actually cared about animals..."

    None of these losers can talk to the person right next door to them in cultural space.

    As a more concrete example, look at how everyone referred to Alan Greenspan as Maestro, priding themselves on having "tamed the business cycle."

    Except that Greenspan was really Doctor Faustus and ultimately the clock chimed for him, complete with devils ripping him apart, sort of.

    You never saw that level of hubris during wild times, even when Volcker crushed the early '80s recession. You have to go back to the previous era of safe times (1934 to 1958) to find that kind of foolish faith in social engineering -- namely the New Deal.

    Although I don't believe in god, I'd never align myself with most atheists because they're annoying and clueless. The ones who rail against the king, the pope, and superstition only come out when it's safe to do so.

    You didn't see Renaissance humanism continue during the Elizabethan period when the witch trials were reaching their peak, even though that's obviously when anti-superstition pamphlets were most needed. Then once that was over, they come out again during the Enlightenment.

    The "new atheism" has developed during a time when normal people have become incredibly more secular all by themselves. These shouting dorks are just jumping on the bandwagon when they know they'll get a warm reception.

    Real courage would require them to have fought this battle during the 1980s when televangelists and fear of Satanic cults were everywhere.

  3. Look at the "celebration" after the Lakers win last night. We want any excuse to destroy.

  4. Zinaida was a beauty, such life in her eyes in that portrait.

    For another Russian beauty, see the portrait of that name by Makovsky here:-



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