The Dying of Western Culture

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By Lev Navrozov

Lev Navrozov emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1972 He settled in New York City where he quickly learned that there was no market for his eloquent and powerful English language attacks on the Soviet Union. To this day, he writes without fear or favor or the conventions of polite society. He chaired the "Alternative to the New York Times Committee" in 1980, challenged the editors of the New York Times to a debate (which they declined) and became a columnist for the New York City Tribune. His columns are today read in both English and Russian.
Lev Navrozov

May 17, 2004

In the 1920s Oswald Spengler, a mathematician by education, a musician by vocation, and the last of the great German philosophers, became world-famous after publishing his book, the title of which was translated into English as “The Decline of the West,” but should have been translated more adequately as “The Dying of Western Culture.”

Spengler invoked the great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries: the Italian Scarlatti, who created “the true sonata form,” the Germans Bach, Gluck, Haydn, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, the Hungarian Liszt. . . . “Where are such great composers in the 20th century?” was the inevitable question.

American university professors of music have been answering that in contrast to Scarlatti, Schoenberg, a contemporary of Spengler, created not merely a new “sonata form,” but invented a new music, called “atonal.”

I use the word “invented” deliberately. In general, it began to be said at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe and in Russia that music, art, culture should be not created, but invented as a safety razor is invented by an engineer.

Yet there was one difficulty.

I have been listening for about 30 years to “the classical station of the New York Times.” The very phrase “classical music” was impossible in this sense in the 18th or 19th century in Europe and in Russia. Imagine Beethoven's concert announced as a concert of classical music. There was no “classical music” as the opposite of “pop music,” the word “pop” having appeared in English in this sense only in 1880. There was music. Period. True, Beethoven wrote a piece for a child, Elisa. But it was as much music as his “Eroica.”

The New York Times station broadcasts “classical music.” A tiny minority of Americans listen to “classical music,” and the rest to “pop music.” When by accident I turn the knob of my radio set just a hair's breadth right or left, I plunge into the quagmire of hundreds or thousands of “pop” radio stations, screaming, banging, thumping, and roaring like primitive tribes or like Neanderthals of the Stone Age. The bulk of programming of the classical station of the New York Times has consisted in these 30 years mostly of composers that Spengler invoked as great about a century ago. The station thus endorses Spengler's view about the dying of Western music since the early 20th century.

As for Schoenberg, I called the station and asked the programming director why they have not broadcast a single piece of Schoenberg's “new music” rather than a couple of his early compositions, which was still “the old music,” emulating Brahms, for example.

“Sir,” answered the director of programming, “We are a commercial station, and when we began broadcasting Schoenberg's new music, all listeners switched their radio sets off our station. We cannot afford it.”

Thank God, they are commercial. If they subsisted on grants they could play Schoenberg's new music that only university professors of music would listen to because they receive university salaries for teaching and writing books about how great Schoenberg is, but a century was not enough for the non-academic lovers of music to enjoy his “inventions.”

The trouble was explained by Ernst Radlov, a Russian art critic, at the beginning of the 20th century. He wrote that in science and technology, inventions and innovations have a definite scientific and/or technical purpose — for example, to make safety razors shave more safely and/or better. “Modern art” (striving to be “classical,” and not “pop”) consists more and more of inventions and innovations to no creative purpose—“the works of art” became safety razors that do not shave at all, whether safely or not.

One way of death of art is the replacement of creative genius with sterile “innovations” and “inventions.”

In the early 20th century a Pole named Kazimir Malevich exhibited at art shows in Petersburg and Moscow his “works of art”: a square canvas painted all black (“The Black Square”) and a square canvas painted all white (“The White Square”). “The Black Square” was thrown in Russia after 1922 as garbage (by Malevich himself), but “The White Square” is treasured in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as the first work of modern “graphic arts,” which later filled all art shows, galleries, and museums of the West.

Ironically, Malevich himself decided after 1922 that his “Squares” were garbage and he should become a “Soviet painter” in the spirit of “socialist realism.” But since he had no ability in painting, he “did not make it,” and hence died in 1935 in poverty and total obscurity, which has been represented in the West as the tragic end of an artist of genius, “the founder of modern art,” hunted down by the ignorant mediocrities to death. Actually, everything “invented” in the West in art in the 20th century on the inspiration of “The White Square” belongs where Malevich threw out “The Black Square” as garbage.

When Johann Sebastian Bach composed and played his music, there was, outside the church, folk music which was no less valuable than what Bach composed, but there was no “pop” music, that is, screaming, banging, thumping, and roaring, heard outside the classical station of the New York Times. Those unable to compose and play music like Bach or create folk music, were to listen, and not to scream, bang, thump, and roar by way of their own (or “pop”) music. In the 20th century this silence began to seem counter to “freedom and democracy.” Why are the many obliged to listen to the few and have no human right to make what THEY regard as music? Let us scream, bang, thump, and roar! We are many, they are few! Where is freedom and democracy?

“Pop culture” has become the culture of “the vast majority of Americans” and threatens to swallow the music of the classical station of the New York Times because “pop music” requires no education, no spiritual effort, no understanding, while “classical music” was at first incomprehensible to me, for example.

Yes, I was in mid-teenage when I bought at a Moscow flea market two gramophone records. I played them — and heard nothing except a meaningless noise. The matter might have ended then and there, and for the rest of my life I would be listening to “pop music.” But I was a son of a writer (he had been killed in the war), and I remembered that his brilliant friends listened to that incomprehensible music and despised “pop culture.” So I did not conclude that this music was incomprehensible gibberish — I concluded that I was defective, unworthy of my father and his friends, an ignoramus.

I read the labels of the records. Liszt's “Hungarian Rhapsody” and Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. I knew the names — I listened again. In that Rhapsody I now heard the rhythm of carts riding through the boundless Hungarian steppes. . . . It was beautiful! I listened again and again until every note became meaningful, like the words of a foreign tongue you know as to the language born.

My survey of culture would be incomplete without a glimpse into literature. Let us ignore “pop” (or pulp) novels, along with “pop movies.” In the late 1970s and the early 1980s I reviewed for “The Chronicles of Culture,” “The Yale Literary Magazine,” and “St. John's Review” such novels as the New York Times and the Washington Post approved as “classical,” that is, of the same value as the great literature of old.

Here is just one case. Published and staged in 1939 was Irwin Shaw's “The Gentle People,” which was still “classical literature,” that is, literature. But for my review I received Irwin Shaw's “The Top of the Hill,” pubished in 1979, forty years later.

I could not believe that the two books had been written by the same person. The Irwin Shaw of 1939 did not imitate Ibsen or Gorky or Chekhov — he was an AMERICAN writer of genius. The Irwin Shaw of 1979 is not a writer: he is one of millions of amateurs who clutter publishing houses in all countries with their witless, smug, and stupid hackwork. “The Top of the Hill” is below the worst Soviet propaganda hackwork in Stalin's Russia.

No doubt that such an amazing degradation of literature as evinced by the same person cannot but affect the general mental level, including perhaps even the level of science and technology. Einstein had developed the theory of relativity by 1905, but he was rooted in the “classical” culture, was a musician (like Spengler), and said that the writer Dostoyevsky “gave me more than anyone else, more than Gauss.”

In response to my review, Irwin Shaw called the editor of “The Chronicles of Culture” and made a row. He knew that what I said was true and publicly unanswerable. The publisher of Updike similarly attacked the editor of “St. John's Review.” Finally, “The Chronicles of Culture,” “St. John's Review,” and “The Yale Literary Magazine” were taken away from their editors who published my reviews. Our goal was to stop and perhaps reverse the regression of culture. But, of course, the best way to ensure further culture degradation it is to take away the magazines from all editors who let their reviewers criticize the current state of Western culture.

Lev Navrozov's (] new book is available on-line at To request an outline of the book, send an e-mail to

May 17, 2004

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