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The big story

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’?

4 thoughts on “The big story

  1. I saw a great quote this weekend, by the photographer Richard Sommer, delivered in 1972 at a memorial for his fellow photographer Richard Nickel. Some context: Nickel tried to prevent the city of Chicago from tearing down various Louis Sullivan buildings (the Garrick Theater, the Stock Exchange) in the 1960s and 1970s. (The city went ahead and bulldozed them anyway, to make beautiful and useful things like parking lots.) Along with others (including Aaron Siskind and John Szarkowski), Nickel photographed many of those buildings—and even died while trying to rescue fragments from the Stock Exchange as it was being demolished:


    Anyway. The photographer Frederick Sommer said this when Nickel died:

    When the single masterpiece is struck down, the act is attributed to the madman, but when the coherence of an entire society is vandalized, the destruction is viewed with proud arrogance as evidence of progress.

    The history of the US 1950–2000 (to randomly pick dates) has been a history of utter madness, all justified in the name of progress. Much of the work that Americans now need to do is undoing the damage that “progressives” like Dwight Eisenhower, Ray Kroc, and Robert Moses did.

    …For anyone in Chicago, some of Nickel’s photographs—along with others from the Sullivan rescue group, and some of Sullivan’s drawings—are currently on display at the Art Institute:


    …and there’s a sister exhibit at the Chicago Cultural Center:

    Louis Sullivan’s Idea (June 26–November 28, 2010) […] in which Chicago artist Chris Ware and cultural historian Tim Samuelson present an installation of photographs, drawings, documents, and artifacts that portrays Sullivan’s life, writings, and architectural works in the context of his time and original creative intent.

    Must-see stuff.

    1. Progress and madness have a close relationship; there is always someone who will see one as the other. Personally, I have no great interest in progress, but I am fascinated by the idea of ‘progress’.

      Without in any way defending Moses and his ilk, I do wonder if Parisians might once have talked about Hausmann in the same way? (In Britain, by the way, we tend to talk of the urban vandals of the 1960s not so much as ‘progressives’, more likely they’ll be referred to as ‘modernists’ or ‘modernisers’.)

      ‘Must-see stuff’ indeed, except I won’t get to see it. One of the frustrating things about Big Other is the amount of exciting stuff you people talk about that I just won’t get to see.

      1. Of course everything’s contingent. But I think we now can view Moses et al as having destroyed much of the social, environmental, and civic fabric of the US. Five of the biggest problems facing the US these days are:
        . extreme environmental damage (climate change, a toxic environment, natural food source depletion, declining biodiversity);
        . the poor state of our national infrastructure;
        . fractured communities/increasing isolation;
        . endemic unhealthiness (sedentary lifestyles, poor diets, cancer, obesity lack of quality health care);
        . and our insane foreign policies that will have us tied up in the Middle East for forever and a day.

        Moses and Eisenhower and Kroc and their followers built the current US, a world in which everyone lives in a suburb and drives two miles to a fast food restaurant or big box store. They systematically destroyed public transit, subsidized the auto industry, paved over farmland to build suburbs and highways, and suppressed alternative energy developments—among other policies that I’d argue should be construed as crimes. They assumed that oil would always be cheap and available in the US, and didn’t consider its environmental drawbacks as costs. They were 100% wrong, and generations of US citizens (and people elsewhere) will pay for their mistakes. (Take a look at Detroit alone. For anyone who’s never been there, or even been to Michigan, visit sometime. It’s like another world.)

        …I’m somewhat prejudiced, being from Scranton, PA, the Eastern start of our nation’s Rust Belt. Scranton was once a thriving city with great inner- and intra-city public transportation, strong labor unions, and multiple strong communities. It’s near other major cities, and has river access. It should be a great city. But ever since the 1950s, it’s been a ghost of its former self, its population dropping from 140,000 to 70,000. Most folks who live there have little choice but to drive to Wal-Marts out on the highway. I love the place, I love Northeastern PA, but it’s difficult to live healthily there now. You can’t even take a train to Philadelphia or New York City, which are both under two hours away by car! And the train lines to NYC still actually exist—but they’ve been in disrepair since at least the 1970s. …There’s a reason why, when they ported The Office over to the US, they set it in Scranton. Our once-great mid-sized cities are now shells of their former selves, and the best anyone can do about it is laugh grimly.

        For anyone who can’t make it to the Chicago exhibition’s, check out John Szarkowski’s The Idea of Louis Sullivan.

  2. Also, Paul, you might be interested in Patrik Ouredník ‘s Europeana:


    Patrik Ouredník’s first novel to be translated into English is a unique version of the history of the twentieth century. Told in an informal, mesmerizing voice, Ouredník represents the twentieth century in all its contradictions and grand illusions, demonstrating that nothing substantial has changed between 1900 and 1999—humanity is still hopeful for the future and still mired in age-old conflicts. As he demonstrates that nothing can be reduced to a single, true viewpoint, Ouredník mixes hard facts and idiosyncratic observations, highlighting the horror and absurdity of the twentieth century and the further absurdity of attempting to narrate this history.

    An excerpt (the opening paragraphs, or I do forget myself):

    The Americans who fell in Normandy in 1944 were tall men measuring 173 centimeters on average, and if they were laid head to foot they would measure 38 kilometers. The Germans were tall too, while the tallest of all were the Senegalese fusiliers in the First World War who measured 176 centimeters, and so they were sent into battle on the front lines in order to scare the Germans. It was said of the First World War that people in it fell like seeds and the Russian Communists later calculated how much fertilizer a square kilometer of corpses would yield and how much they would save on expensive foreign fertilizers if they used the corpses of traitors and criminals instead of manure. And the English invented the tank and the Germans invented gas, which was known as yperite because the Germans first used it near the town of Ypres, although apparently that was not true, and it was also called mustard because it stung the nose like Dijon mustard, and that was apparently true, and some soldiers who returned home after the war did not want to eat Dijon mustard again. The First World War was known as an imperialist war because the Germans felt that other countries were prejudiced against them and did not want to let them become a world power and fulfill some historical mission. And most people in Europe, Germany, Austria, France, Serbia, Bulgaria, etc., believed it to be a necessary and just war which would bring peace to the world. And many people believed that the war would revive those virtues that the modern industrial world has forced into the background, such as love of one’s country, courage, and self-sacrifice. And poor people looked forward to riding in the train and country folk looked forward to seeing big cities and phoning the district post office to dictate a telegram to their wives, I’M FINE, HOPE YOU ARE TOO. The generals looked forward to being in the newspapers, and people from national minorities were pleased that they would be sharing the war with people who spoke without an accent and that they would be singing marching songs and jolly popular ditties with them. And everyone thought they’d be home in time for the grape harvest or at least by Christmas.

    Some historians subsequently said that the twentieth century actually started in 1914, when war broke out, because it was the first war in history in which so many countries took part, in which so many people died and in which airships and airplanes flew and bombarded the rear and town and civilians, and submarines sunk ships and artillery could lob shells ten or twelve kilometers. And the Germans invented gas and the English invented tanks and scientists discovered isotopes and the general theory of relativity, according to which nothing was metaphysical but relative. And when the Senegalese fusiliers first saw an airplane they thought it was a tame bird and one of the Senegalese soldiers cut a lump of flesh from a dead horse and threw it as far as he could in order to lure it away. And the soldiers wore green and camouflage uniforms because they did not want the enemy to see them, which was modern at the time because in previous wars soldiers had worn brightly-colored uniforms in order to be visible from afar. And airships and airplanes flew through the sky and the horses were terribly frightened. And writers and poets endeavored to find ways of expressing it best and in 1916 they invented Dadaism because everything seemed crazy to them. And in Russia they invented a revolution. And the soldiers wore around their neck or wrist a tag with their name and number and regiment to indicate who was who, and where to send a telegram of condolences, but if the explosion tore off their head or arm and the tag was lost, the military command would announce that they were unknown soldiers, and in most capital cities they instituted an eternal flame lest they be forgotten, because fire preserves the memory of something long past. And the fallen French measured 2,681 kilometers, the fallen English, 1,547 kilometers, and the fallen Germans, 3,010 kilometers, taking the average length of a corpse as 172 centimeters. And a total of 15,508 kilometers of soldiers fell worldwide. And in 1918 an influenza known as Spanish Flu spread throughout the world killing over twenty million people. Pacifists and anti-militarists subsequently said that these had also been victims of the war because the soldiers and civilian populations lived in poor conditions of hygiene, but the epidemiologists said that the disease killed more people in countries where there was no war, such as in Oceania, India, or the United States, and the Anarchists said that it was a good thing because the world was corrupt and heading for destruction.

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