Adams (Afterjoyce, Bad Mouth), emeritus professor of English at UCLA, has set himself to think about decadent societies, and...



Adams (Afterjoyce, Bad Mouth), emeritus professor of English at UCLA, has set himself to think about decadent societies, and our vulnerable one. It's a historical truism, he notes, that societies experience a rise and (relative) fall in strength or spirit over time. But unarguably weakened past societies do reveal patterns of decadence. A society can, like the Imperial Romans, turn its military power over to barbarians; it can cling to a ruinous, class-linked system of taxation like the French ancien regime; it can trust to the secret police to maintain a corrupt aristocracy, like the Romanovs. If it does any of these things, it is finished. Alternatively, a society can stumble along with relatively good intentions, as the British are seen to have done, and enjoy a brief, unpremeditated empire. Shorn of its colonies, observes Adams, Britain still possesses admirable cultural and political institutions--but there is nothing underneath to support them: British capitalism is at the mercy of the world economy, and barring some innovative impulse (not an impossibility), the specter of decadence may truly appear. Not Britain, however, but Byzantium is Adams' premier example of decadence forestalled. Through careful diplomacy that kept its challengers at odds, a military establishment that replenished itself from within, and prudence that made its economic weaknesses not immediately fatal, Byzantium managed to hang on for a millenium. America today, says Adams, is more like Britain and Byzantium than the others: there are signs of maturity everywhere, but signs of renewal too. The real danger, indeed, is not the decline and rise of regions, but development of a two-tier society, with technological illiteracy the benchmark. At the other extreme, the ""bourgeoisification"" of society carries with it an excessive malleability of beliefs and opinions that can lead to a kind of suicide. Adams ruminates, too, on whatever comes along: excessive litigation, ""narcissism"" (he regards Christopher Lasch's version as both myopic and overblown), education. His verdict tends to be ""maybe yes, maybe no,"" but the writing is relaxed and unpretentious. The conclusion? ""We may be on the verge of total collapse tomorrow, but it behooves us to live as if we were sure of another thousand years."" A choice item for contemplative sorts.

Pub Date: May 30, 1983


Page Count: -

Publisher: North Point

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1983