A Return to Culture after Losing It Is Possible Only at a Post-Apocalyptic Point of the Future

We see a historical archetype – after all the barbaric excesses of the Ancient world Christianity seemed to be the way out. After Christianity deteriorated into excesses of obscurantism the Renaissance and later Enlightenment became a way of hope. After WW1 a cultural and humanistic-scientific resurrection made its attempt at living but was not able to prevent WW2. The flowering of Democracy after 1945 was shattered by the mass-cultural assault (reinforced by money obsession) on democratic culture and humanistic knowledge and values. Every time when the socio-cultural situation frustrated the human longing for unity between spiritual aspirations, satisfaction of material needs and moral desire for decent treatment of other human beings – for existential fullness and meaning of life, the basic reason has been a broken rapport between cultural tradition (that became too rigid, dry and authoritarian) and the young generation which has been kidnapped either into militarism, political utopianism and religious fundamentalism, or into fight for success and retreat into vanity.

Recent deterioration of democracy into a right-wing military and financial hooliganism (with its ability to recruit not educated and credulous young people as its hurrah- supporters) is indirectly (unintentionally) addressed by de Chirico in this painting of 1922 – he positioned the return of a Prodigal Son at some “abstract” post-apocalyptic point in future (the moment of retrospective understanding that easy – hurrah-ways of acting out are counter-productive and dangerous). This impossible attempt of a Prodigal Son to return to the time when he was not yet corrupt signifies in the painting the endless historical periods of cultural and existential collapse (following the times of mass disregard for humanistic education and spiritual values). In this sense de Chirico’s painting is not only a historical document but also a clairvoyant prediction of what happens when culture (fathers) and young generation (sons) are separated by social adventurism and epidemics of vanity and/or violence.

Giorgio de Chirico "The Prodigal Son" 1922
Giorgio de Chirico, “The Prodigal Son”, 1922

Of course, in today’s world the Prodigal Sons, the younger generations are not always physically disappearing from their country like our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan many of whom return crippled and psychologically traumatized – their radical separation from culture for the sake of the vanity of consumerism, entertainment and profit-making takes place within their own country. And, of course, most fathers today are themselves the Prodigal Sons of culture (running away from humanistic knowledge). Today the majority of Prodigal Sons’ trips are flight into mass culture of materialism that transforms the human body into a mannequin for sports and bodybuilding and human soul into a calculating- or gluttonous-for-pleasure-machine. The young Americans today are kidnapped from (serious) culture either by militaristic bombastic propaganda or by chasing after money and success (when the compulsive desire to become rich goes out of the control of psychological and cultural telos/wholeness).

Leaving home motif of Prodigal Son archetype for us today takes the form of leaving the home of democratic culture for the sake of cheap satisfaction through military victories, social success and profit- and consumption-worshipping). The moment of returning home “too late” which is registered in the painting, didn’t happen yet in American reality – several more years of economic collapse, catastrophically destructive wars, farther pollution of the environment and farther deterioration of the psychological condition of rich people (who yearn for more money) and the poor (who are in desperate need to self-aggrandize and to scapegoat to restore self-respect), and another conservative (executive) administration, and then the moment de Chirico’s painting depicts (of the return of the fallen and exasperated generation to culture when it is too late) will come.

When it will happen the younger generation will look like the Prodigal Son in de Chirico’s painting, and humanistic culture like the ghost of the old father.

The painter emphasizes a combination of crippled-ness and athleticism of the son. His figure is robotically artificial. It looks strong, but he himself is empty. Because of serving the external powers the son is transformed into a mannequin for devastating rituals invented by other people. Son’s sexual organs (the symbol of human fertility and reproduction of values from generation to generation) are covered by the sea shell: they are transformed into a mollusk – the body part that has lost its connection with the psychological whole and became dehumanized. The father (humanistic culture) without contact with the younger generation is transformed into a ghost statue. He is still able to recognize the remnants of his son and step down from his pedestal to meet him, but the only possible thing between father and son is nostalgia (the memories of childhood and fatherhood) – there is no energy left for a productive and creative rapport.

In the painting the open space dominates the human living space, and we can physically sense the winds going through the buildings. There is no warmth in father-son embrace, only a melting shadow of life. When adventurism and vanity has destroyed the unity of present and future, when father-son (democratic culture – democratic citizens) relationships are impossible anymore, when people don’t have a reliable universe and a stable life any longer, we have a post-apocalyptic situation where humanistic values cannot be transferred to the next generation and spiritual devastation takes charge.