All ‘progress’, I was thinking this morning, seems to involve diminution. It’s something that’s perhaps seen clearest in modern architecture, where all – or almost all – ornamentation has been stripped away, and buildings are minimal boxes with windows in them. Or just glass boxes, with even the walls stripped out. And inside them, the interiors are equally devoid of ornament, with plain walls – usually white – and plain floors, and plain chairs and tables. And if there is any art inside these interiors, it is increasingly abstract and minimal and monochromatic: a green square with a red dot on it.
If the process continues, we may expect that architecture will completely vanish, and buildings will become invisible.
The same thing has been happening with clothing, that other form of architecture. Clothes have become simpler. And people wear less of them. Eventually, perhaps they will wear nothing at all.
A few days ago I saw a TV set which actually had vanished, and become a transparent sheet of glass when not in operation. Perhaps the final stage of this evolutionary process would be that it would remain transparent even when in operation: the minimal TV set would not only be invisible, but there would be nothing to see on it.
Perhaps the entire thrust of Western civilisation has always been one of simplifying and diminishing and minimising. Modern science attempts to explain the world with the fewest possible concepts – mass, length, and time -, and in so doing replaces elaborate systems of religious belief with something abstract and minimal.
And smoking bans entail a further diminution, entirely in keeping with the minimalist direction of progress. Smoke was another inessential item that could be stripped out, and so it was. In time, no doubt, they will also strip out the inessential wines and beers and spirits as well. And the music. And the quite unnecessary conversation. And finally they will dispense with all the inessential pubs and bars and cafes themselves. They will vanish.
Contrast that with the architecture of the Parthenon, with its sculpted frieze (now held in the British museum), or the Temple of Amun at Karnak, with its numerous sculpted gods and pharaohs, every inch of it covered in hieroglyphs. In the past, simplicity was only to be found in peasant dwellings and clothes: the rich wore elaborate costumes, and lived in sumptuous decorated palaces.
But as the inessential and unnecessary is stripped away, meaning is stripped away along with it. Modern art and architecture is increasingly meaningless, faceless, devoid of content. Smoke-free pubs lose their ambience.
So do smoke-free cinemas. Cinemas used to be social places in which people talked animatedly between shows, and ate and drank and smoked throughout, with the projection lights shining through a haze onto the screen. I stopped going to cinemas when, long before pub smoking bans, they introduced cinema smoking bans (and probably alcohol and talking bans). Cinemas were stripped down to their barest essential purpose, of watching movies. Everything else, including the slight thrill of anticipation that accompanied seeing any new movie, was excised.
Political progressivism also entails stripping away the inessential, and creating an administrative state in which people are simply kept alive, with the bare minimum of food and shelter and clothing. Our lives must be stripped of inessential tobacco, alcohol, fat, sugar, salt. We will live on bread and water in barren rooms inside faceless buildings. We will be prisoners.
What’s probably most disgusting to progressives about someone like Donald Trump is that he is quite unnecessarily rich, and flaunts his wealth in huge buildings, and large private jets (why can’t he have a little Lear jet, like other rich people?), and sprawling golf courses. He wears ties that are two unnecessary inches longer than everyone else’s. Most of the rich have learned to keep their wealth respectably out of sight, and to live lives as apparently minimal as everyone else’s. Not The Donald. He is a living affront to the ascetic minimalism of this progressive era.
But is this sort of ‘progress’ really progress? Isn’t it more like being gradually returned to a state of poverty? Isn’t wealth naturally expansive and loud and decorative? If we really were rich, wouldn’t we live in buildings as elaborately decorated as the Parthenon or the Temple of Amun, and wouldn’t we wear elaborate costumes, and eat and drink and smoke the widest variety of substances? Isn’t all wealth inessential? It is as if, as Christianity has lost its institutional hold over us, we have been invaded by a new army of secular, self-flagellating, self-denying monks preaching vows of poverty and chastity and silence.