I often ask my students why the 20th century, and now the 21st, produced no great epic poems. I have yet to receive an answer, any answer. After 30 years of such questioning, I suspect I never will.
So here, in desperation, I do what I seldom do: I give them the answer they never gave me. It is not my own; it comes from Russell Kirk, as does so much that explains what’s wrong with the world.
Great literature, Kirk insists in his “English Letters in an Age of Boredom,” habitually hovers around four enduring themes: religion, heroism, love, and human variety.
But, he says, a society, like ours, which has lost its religious convictions and its piety, denies itself the first theme. A society that denies and denigrates true greatness denies itself the second. A society that takes love for nothing more than carnal gratification denies itself the third. A society that conceives of humans as little more than accidental, soulless, interchangeable, cogs in a mechanistic and economic nexus denies itself the fourth. “The springs of the imagination thus are dried up,” he pronounces truly, tragically, and finally. In that springless desert, not even satire can long exist, for with the loss of the great themes and of imagination comes the loss even of mockery.
There, in one paragraph, is why great literature died in our hands. We stopped believing the right things. In our hands, even the perennial issues and the perennial questions to which they gave rise all died. We have the opposite of the Midas touch. What we handle turns not to gold, or even to garbage, but to ghosts.
You can expect nothing else from the culture of death.
No cure for it can be found, save the Word of Life, which we have banned from the public square, the academy, the laboratory, and the arena.
Wyndham Lewis, it turns out, despite his pessimism and complaints, was too optimistic. He thought human reason might save us. He never asked what, or Who, might save reason.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.