Civilisation (1)

Confined to my bed for a day with a stinking cold, I thought I would console myself by reading the original text of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, which has been the subject of so much discussion and debate in recent weeks and which, although it was kept in my parent’s glass-fronted bookcase along with other family treasures, I’m not absolutely convinced I ever actually read, although I watched the original series, and have watched some episodes since. What struck me immediately is not the confidence and intellectual arrogance which some found so off-putting in Clark as the extreme sense of anxiety and pessimism about the fragility of what he finds it hard to describe as ‘Civilisation’. He describes his enterprise in an ironic, eighteenth-entury way as Speculations on the Nature of Civilisation as illustrated by the Changing Phases of Civilised life in Western Europe from the Dark Ages to the Present Day. He belonged to a generation who felt, rightly or wrongly, that the values of civilisation as they had been brought up to believe in had been at risk of being swept away during the second world war and were still at risk, so worth trying, however inadequately, to define. I think it’s this which gives the book, and presumably the programmes, their moral urgency, which the current programmes, with their much greater generosity of spirit to other cultures, maybe lack.

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