“The Wreck of Western Culture” by John Carroll

Book Title: The Wreck of Western Culture

Author: John Carroll

Analyzing the progress or lack of progress of Western culture is a daunting task and only the brave would attempt such a mission.

John Carroll, however, a sociology professor at La Trobe University, attempts such an analysis but wisely narrows his field down in an effort to make sense of the rise of humanism in the West.

Carroll, unlike the great Enlightenment thinkers, sees no great salvation in humanism. On the contrary, he views it as one may an aging prizefighter – initially holding much promise but ultimately continuing to disappoint. He charts humanism’s progress through the 18th century to the present and mentions what he feels to be the importance of understanding the Western reaction to the events of September 11, 2001.

Carroll cites the impact of individuals and their work on the West, and examines not only humanist thinkers, but the impact of those whose ideas influenced the West before humanism, as well as those who resisted humanism.

As wide as his net is, encompassing not only painters like Caravaggio and Velasquez, philosophers like Kierkagaard, Kant and Nietzsche, religious luminaries such as Martin Luther; the first psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud and even John Ford, the filmmaker; one nevertheless comes away from Carroll’s work feeling that the gallery of players which he has chosen to add weight to his thesis, are chosen rather arbitrarily. It is that disturbing feeling which haunts and makes one come to believe, that the thesis preceded the evidence by so much, that the evidence was carefully selected to advance the idea.

It is reminiscent of the budding scientist/sadist who concludes that a parrot has its sense of hearing in its legs as when asked to “jump” it successfully performs the task but is unable to after its legs are removed. The theory appears to be provable but ultimately rests on a false thesis.

Carroll could have made his overall argument tighter also, by stressing how important the image of the painter and the work of Caravaggio, is to his overall premise. Granted it does occupy much of the 5th chapter of the book but when Carroll resurrects mages in the final chapter and intimates that particularly, the Ashdod boy of the painting has centrality of importance in advancing his ultimate hypothesis; the reader is somewhat ill prepared for this reiteration of an earlier image.

One is certainly surprised when learning that the Ashdod boy of artist, Puisson’s The Plague of Ashdod (1631) is the symbol that Carroll sees as primary in indicating the lack of success of enlightenment thought which he sees exemplified in his reading of the child’s rejection of humanism and embracing of a new way.

Doubtless there are levels of meaning in all great works of art, but there are also readings of works which betray more about the critic than they reveal about the work itself. In many ways, at least in the case of Poussin’s, Ashdod boy and its significance, Carroll appears guilty of this. That it is so much at the hub of what The Wreck of Western Culture uses as the crux of its argument; fatally weakens the edifice on which it is built.

The Wreck of Western Culture by John Carroll is published in Australia by Pan Macmillan Australia.