December 31, 2003

NRO Column

Derbyshire has some interesting things to say in his year end column:
I am not very confident of my own abilities in the punctuation area... Commas are themselves a vexation, and I blow hot and cold on them. One week, I'll put a comma, after every third word; the next I'll write a thousand-word book review without a single comma in it anywhere regardless of whether there ought to be one or not and without the least consideration for my reader's patience and perseverance. The semicolon is another enemy.
The actual direction my thoughts drifted was towards Charles Murray's new book Human Accomplishment...In his penultimate chapter, Murray discusses the issue of whether the rate of great achievement in the arts and sciences, allowing for population, is declining, and he comes to the conclusion that it is. Furthermore, he locates the point at which the decline began: in the middle and later decades of the 19th century.

This is one of those things that is obvious once you have been told it, even if it never occurred to you before. Just look at The Nutcracker, first staged 1892. What can our generation offer to compare with it? And look at the bourgeois values that radiate from the stage in the opening scenes: the stern Papas and stately Mamas, the kids on joyful vacation from their Latin verbs and piano lessons, the servants in their livery and pinafores, the hierarchy and order and confidence. Sure, there was another side to that world — my own ancestors were digging coal for a dollar a day while Tchaikovsky was writing out his score. In the matter of great accomplishment, though, Murray has got it right: We just don't measure up. Going down into the Chancellery bunker near the end of WWII, Joseph Goebbels took a look around at the burning wreckage of Berlin and exulted to his diary: "These flames are consuming the last of 19th-century bourgeois civilization!" He got that right; and look at what was left when the flames had done their work.

The 19th century was the greatest of all centuries for the human race, and the 20th simply didn't compare.

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