Ross Douthat seems to have discovered that time runs like a programmable treadmill. Sometimes it goes really fast, and sometimes it slows to a crawl. Between the late sixties and 2010, it ran really fast. There were all kinds of developments: space achievements, drug discoveries, computers for all, the internet, GPS, smartphones, Trader Joe’s, …. But things have slowed down again (or we’ve grown accustomed to high intensity). Innovations seem fewer and more strained. It makes some think we have come to The End. His book The Decadent Society is an analysis of the stagnation period he thinks we’re in. Suffused with decadence.
The book devotes an entire chapter to his endless attempt to define decadent. Douthat cites all manner of authors, scholars and others on its varying definitions and aspects. By the end of the chapter, I had no idea what Douthat would settle on for the rest of the book. I can tell you what mine is: selfish, thoughtless, excess consumption beyond needs. It can apply to overspending, pointless consumerism or ruining the ecological system. This might be too simplistic, but it’s always in mind when reading this book, since no clearer message comes from the author.
Douthat then proceeds to mount his horse and ride off in all directions.
He lists his Four Horsemen of Decadence, each with its own chapter. They are Stagnation, Sterility, Sclerosis and Repetition, which are pretty self-descriptive, though Douthat insists on explaining in great detail.
He thinks we’re stagnating. After all the excitement of the very inventive period we’ve just come through, any pause in the action could be so characterized if one is in the midst of it. Like China’s growth being down to “just” 6% after years of double-digit increases. Some think it spells The End. But it can’t always be so relentless. One of my favorite stories Douthat could have benefited from is that the American government considered closing the US Patent Office at the turn of the last century, because everything worth inventing had already been patented and there was nothing left to invent. And the Gilded Age was the poster child for decadence. But we survived. And thrived.
The book is chock full of pop culture references, showing how very much with it Douthat is. Star Trek is mentioned prominently, and a lot of ink is devoted to Michel Houellebecq, a Belgian novelist who recently won top honors in his field. There’s also Oprah and Chopra, Pinker, Musk, Chesterton and Stephen King, to give you an idea of the range. The name dropping comes to a peak in the chapter called Repetition, in which Douthat fills pages with television series, singers, authors, films … everything to show how flat and dull, derivative and repetitious it has all become. At least from Douthat’s own prime years. It goes on for endlessly, to what point I could not determine.
When he wanders aimlessly through geopolitics, he really shows the superficiality that underlies everything here, especially as I had just reviewed Disunited Nations, a masterly analysis of exactly where every major country in the world is headed, and why. Douthat has done none of that legwork, and his predictions seem facile.
He says the essence of the book is supposed to be that decadence does not necessarily mean The End. Decadence might be sustainable, or it could just be a phase leading to a new acceleration of some kind. That’s all Douthat really had to say. It’s a perfectly reasonable theory, impossible to prove though it might be. This book certainly does not prove it.
I do like Douthat. I read his editorials all the time. I look forward to them. But this book is a disappointment. As a book, it would make a lovely editorial.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. He is the author of The Straight Dope or What I learned from my first thousand nonfiction reviews. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.