restricted access Civilization: 1928 Model. A review of Civilization: An Essay, by Clive Bell
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[ 479 Civilization: 1928 Model1 A review of Civilization: An Essay, by Clive Bell London: Chatto & Windus, 1928. Pp. ix + 257. The Criterion: A Literary Review, 8 (Sept 1928) 161-64 Mr. Bell’s book has been ably reviewed in several places, and the excellence of the matter written about it is a token of the excellence of the book.2 The book is one which would be called “provocative and stimulating”; which means that the author has dealt with questions of general interest in a lucid style and with an honest mind, and that he has been clever enough not to sink too deep into these questions. Having chosen one of those subjects which are the food of interesting and lively conversation, Mr. Bell has wisely avoided the profundity of treatment which would have destroyed it. It is a subject for a symposium, “good talk” with no conclusion but a distribution of wreathes and drinking cups; and Mr. Bell is consistent with his point of view in assuming the existence of a small audience which will argue the matter with him. Mr. Bell presumes that the word civilization has some meaning, and that some things have been associated with the meaning which are not essential to it, and that perhaps others have been associated with it which are positively hostile to it. No one will disagree with that, or with his protest against the confused thinking (at best) of those publicists of 1914 on both sides who asserted that the War was being fought for civilization. Had the Greeks been defeated by the Persians the history of civilization would certainly have been different. But in any case these are problems for historical retrospect; and when men find themselves obliged to fight they are too busy defending their lives and homes and what they believe to be their material interests to bother whether these lives and homes and interests are civilized. Mr. Bell further invokes our sympathy in advance by his prudent limitations upon the word Civilization, and indeed expends a good deal of time in clearing up superficial misunderstandings as to what civilization is not. He avoids the error of those who, being convinced that civilization must be the highest good, therefore conclude that what they believe to be absolute goods are essential to civilization. It is common to declare roundly 1928 480 ] that motor cars, gramophones and central heating are not essential to civilization (although I am not sure that machinery has not now become so much a part of us, as to be virtually essential to any civilization that we can conceive). But a more subtle fallacy is to suppose that Art (creation not appreciation) is identical with civilization – that, in some way, Alaskan or Solomon Island wood carvers were more “civilized” than the workmen and workwomen who turn out the bibelots of Woolworth’s. The same process of reasoning would make us affirm that the ages of highest religious development were thereby more “civilized” than our own. Mr. Bell disposes very ably of several fallacies of this sort. I suspect that he disposes of them only to bury himself in a deeper fallacy of his own; but the critic cannot approach Mr. Bell’s fallacy without being careful to state in advance that the theses which he attacks are those commonly held, and against the theses commonly held, Mr. Bell is always right. Here, I think, he has been a little misunderstood, particularly by those who perceive the defects of the civilizations he holds up for admiration: the Athenian, the ItalianRenaissance,andtheFrench(andpartlyEnglish)EighteenthCentury. It is quite true that all of these civilizations had characteristics which we should immediately denounce as barbarous: and truly we want no other civilization than our own, but want our own to be as good as it can be of its kind. I do not think that Mr. Bell is unaware of these considerations, nor do I think that those who object to his indifference to religious values have read his book carefully enough, for he has taken pains to make his restrictions clear. But beneath such instinctive protests there is, I believe, a legitimate objection. Mr. Bell is out to find “distinctive characteristics” of civilization; “characteristics which are common to all highly civilized societies and which savages are without” [15]. And he proceeds to find them. But the question is whether, when he has found them, we are not left with merely an empty shell, a kind of categorical imperative. It...