A New York Times columnist diagnoses the sense of futility that pervades the modern condition—how we got here, how long our age of frustration might last, and how, whether in renaissance or catastrophe, our decadence might ultimately end.
Douthat’s message is that we are indeed in an era of stagnation and paralysis on many fronts, but that does not mean that we are facing collapse ... reading The Decadent Society, I kept thinking that this conclusion, while not particularly exciting, likely has the virtue of being true ... The most interesting insight here is Douthat’s identifying individualism as 'the seedbed of stagnation' ... I wish Douthat had devoted more space to discussing the point that the outcast Savage makes in Brave New World: that the things that make existence sublime—art, poetry, religion, and so forth—are inextricably linked to suffering. That’s the only flaw I find in this otherwise excellent book. Some readers may not like Douthat’s refusal to predict the future with any confidence ... more discerning readers will find themselves pleasantly surprised to encounter a book so rich, intelligent, and shrewd, one that doesn’t seek to confirm their prejudices, but rather compels the kind of hard creative thinking that we’re going to have to do to find our way out of this dark wood ... this provocative book is evidence that no contemporary journalist has been thinking...as deeply or as fruitfully as [Douthat] has.
... clever and stimulating ... The title will mislead some potential readers into expecting a tired right-wing screed tracing all our sufferings back to a single cause, whether the Big Bang of the ’60s or the modern liberalism that allegedly threatens civilization. Douthat is too curious about the world and its contradictions to settle into that mode ... Inexplicably, the book has no endnotes, so it’s virtually impossible to double-check [Douthat's] claims ... Douthat’s chapters on stagnating innovation and institutional sclerosis as elements of our decadence are more conventional, though informative and well balanced. The least persuasive pages are devoted to pop culture, which he rightly sees as dull and repetitive, but whose significance he vastly overestimates ... Douthat is writing for Americans, which means that rather than simply stimulating readers to think harder about the present — which he excels at — he feels obliged to search for a redemptive happy ending.
... occasionally smart but mostly unhelpful ... The evidence marshaled for...claims is as familiar as the problems themselves. Douthat mainly does the work of yoking everything together in one narrative, though he does not claim that the problems he addresses share a single cause or solution ... There’s something for everyone to agree with, here, as well as to disagree with ... the political and economic sections are the strongest: big, serious topics get big, serious treatment. But they have the unfortunate effect of making Douthat’s treatment of culture look silly. His reading of literature is often shockingly bland and bereft of insight ... The whole section on culture fails in this way ... It gets us no closer to understanding why many of these societal problems exist, and certainly doesn’t help us find solutions to them ... If this kind of armchair chaos-theorizing tell us anything useful, or anything we don’t already know, it’s about the author. Not wanting to be proven wrong, Douthat anticipates everything and nothing. It’s the only option for a writer who wants to predict the future without looking stupid.