I am currently reading A Terrible Beauty by Peter Watson. Not a great book by any means, it is superficial and rather slick, but that’s part of what I’m reading it for. It provides an overview of the developments in arts, science, philosophy, archaeology, psychology, literature, politics, etc etc through the twentieth century. If you know anything of the area in question, you’ll learn nothing here. But where the book wins is in presenting the coincidences and parallel developments and links that tie unlikely strands of thought together.
For instance, I’ve just finished a chapter that covers an odd hodgepodge of ideas and events during the 1920s. He starts with the publication, in 1920, of a book by the historian J.B. Bury called The Idea of Progress, moves on to Howard Carter’s excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamen, goes on to the excavations at Ur and Ras Shamra, covers the invention of dendrochronology, and ends with the publication, in 1931, of Herbert Butterfield’s book on The Whig Interpretation of History. All in the space of 11 pages.
Actually that’s a pretty coherent chapter compared to some. But what comes over at the end of it is the notion that people felt they were filling in the gaps in the story of humankind. This, in turn, implies that people felt there was a story which, outside the Bible, was not a commonly held position before this. Bury’s book argued that, before the French Revolution, the commonly held position was that civilisation had achieved its greatest perfection during the classical age and that, as Rousseau put it, civilisation was a degenerate, retrogressive process. Between the French Revolution and the middle of the 19th century, the period of the Industrial Revolution, there was a feeling that science and technology would transform society, ease poverty, reduce inequality. But following the publication of The Origin of Species things had become more ambiguous, the idea of evolution more and more becoming confused with the idea of progress (Social Darwinism). But in Bury’s view the very notion of progress could have affected the bloodiness of the First World War, as Watson puts it:
Progress implied that material and moral conditions would get better in the future, that there was such a thing as posterity, if sacrifices were made. Progress therefore became something worth dying for.
Meanwhile, Middle Eastern archaeology was unearthing previously unknown and (apparently) pre-literate civilisations that had connections with what was found in the Bible and also what had already been discovered, by Evans and others, in Crete. While all this was going on, Andrew Douglass was an astronomer investigating sunspots who hit on the idea of looking at tree rings as a record of weather patterns associated with sunspots. It was as an almost casual by-blow of this research that he happened to be able to tie together, chronologically, two Aztec sites in New Mexico that had not previously been connected.
The effect of all this, as Watson puts it, was to place “yet more of man’s history on an evolutionary ladder, with ever more specific time frames. The evolution of writing, of religions, of law, and even of building all began to slot into place in the 1920s, making history and prehistory more and more comprehensible as one linked story.” The whig interpretation of history, that everything was a simple linear progression of great events and great men, was becoming more and more complex and unsustainable. Instead history was a big story of ordinary lives linking together in ways that had not really been understood before. This wasn’t progress towards an inevitable great end, this was evolution, as prey to false starts and unexpected directions as it was in nature.
Things would change of course, other insights would be developed, other ways of interpretation would arise, other discoveries would be made. But I find this emergence of a view of history not as something that rises towards this moment but as something that swirls past this moment and on into the future fascinating. And I wonder whether it is entirely coincidence that, in the next decade, science fiction writers would begin to develop vast and ambitious ‘future histories’?