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Remarks in Bologna, Italy, To the conference of “The Other Moderns”

I spent a lot of time last autumn in what we call the Sunbelt of America — Atlanta, Houston, Orlando, Florida. This was necessarily a very depressing project, because what we have achieved in American urbanism is what I like to call the National Automobile Slum. It’s all the same and it’s all terrible. The parking lots of Beverly Hills are not any more spiritually rewarding than the parking lots of the South Bronx. All Sunbelt cities in America look exactly the same — like UFO landing strips — and all of them are leached of the last drop of urban amenity. All the Prozac in the world will not avail to correct the situation — and that is our particular national tragedy.

To accessorize the National automobile slum we have invented an architecture of occult mysticism, based on the competitive contrivance of new metaphysics, the more incomprehensible the better. And these two cultural developments compliment each other. In both instances the losers are the people who have to live in America. The sad truth of the matter is that the United States is increasingly composed of thousands of places that are not worth caring about. The ultimate result will be a nation and a way of life that is not worth caring about or defending.

We have accomplished something really remarkable in America. We have perfected an individual trasportation system that can now take us with perfect comfort and ease to places that are not worth going to and certainly not worth living in.

This is the salient characteristic of the American town and city today. They are places with no sense of a future. What is the destiny of the K-marts and Burger Kings of Dallas? I ask myself this question often. It may lead to yet another branch of metaphysics.

We cannot blame places like Dallas, Texas, and Phoenix, Arizona, for having no past. This is self-evident. What is not so self-evident is that they should have been busy creating a past for themselves in the short time they have existed. But they will have none. American culture as currently constituted will not support the idea of a future connected to the past through the medium of a hopeful present.

This is what I think lies at the heart of the classical tradition — it is not a collection of motifs, not a menu of styles. It is an attitude toward the project of civilization, which is based on the idea that we are poised between memory and hope; that we have come from someplace memorable and are bound for someplace hopeful, and that the present time we occupy ought to be endowed with grace.

I, for one, am deeply grateful that the 20th Century is over. The world now has an excuse — if one is needed — to get on with the task of being human. Modern-ism — the notion that a particular time is exempted from history — is now itself an historical idea and, ironically, subject now to the terrible judgement of history. As I wrote in one of my own books, ridicule is the unfortunate destiny of the ridiculous.

We need an everyday world that is worthy of our affection, that is worthy of our aspirations, that is worthy of what is best in the human spirit, not what is worst, most antisocial, most paranoid, most destructive.

I congratulate you for choosing your heroic pathway in a difficult profession, and I hope you have a very successful meeting in this beautiful city.

About James Howard Kunstler

View all posts by James Howard Kunstler
James Howard Kunstler is the author of many books including (non-fiction) The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, Home from Nowhere, The Long Emergency, and Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology and the Fate of the Nation. His novels include World Made By Hand, The Witch of Hebron, Maggie Darling — A Modern Romance, The Halloween Ball, an Embarrassment of Riches, and many others. He has published three novellas with Water Street Press: Manhattan Gothic, A Christmas Orphan, and The Flight of Mehetabel.

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