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A Relative Century

I have just finished reading A Terrible Beauty by Peter Watson, a book I’ve been working my way slowly through for the last several months. It is a history of the twentieth century, but as a history of ideas. Not, I have to say, an especially good book: much of the writing is journalistic, ideas and careers are elided, where I know about a topic his summation is not unfair but by no means a full account which means that it is not totally accurate. I assume the same holds true of the things I don’t know. There are also worrying omissions and partialities, some acknowledged (the book is almost entirely Western in its focus) some not (his view of culture is limited to high culture only, in a work of some 800 pages the Beatles do not rate a single mention), and he is clearly opposed to any Grand Scheme (Freud seems to have been the worst thing that happened to the twentieth century, with Marx not far behind). Nevertheless, if you take it as no more than a primer, a very basic introduction to the ideas, science, philosophy, economics, sociology, arts and so forth, that shaped the century, it works extraordinarily well. Because, despite some of the clunkiest links I think I’ve ever encountered, it provides a refreshing overview of how developments in one area were coincident with developments in another, and it acted as an introduction to some areas I previously knew little about (economics, for instance). What I found most interesting, though, was the way it provided a focus for a number of thoughts, on a quite different topic, that have been bothering me for the last few years.

When I was asked to contribute a chapter on contemporary fiction to The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction I began my essay by declaring that the literature was ‘forged in the rationalist revolution of the Renaissance and tempered in the secularist revolution of the Enlightenment’. It is a view I still hold, but it is one that has become more problematic over the last 15-20 years because of the extent to which God has become a character in the fiction. It is not just notions of transcendence (always a part of the genre) but of characters able to defy/ignore the laws of Nature, and increasingly God not as an object of worship but as an active player in the drama.

Having spotted this trend in the genre, I started to notice analogous changes elsewhere: the role of religion in American politics and more recently in British politics; the increase in the number of faith schools; more strident demands that groups be allowed to institutionalize prejudice against women, gays, others because it is sanctioned by their religious beliefs. And on and on and on. Traditional religious behaviour, such as church going, may still be in decline (I haven’t seen any recent figures one way or the other), but religion, or let’s be more general, belief systems, seem to be playing a more prominent part in social, policy and behavioural matters.

Watson’s book doesn’t address any of these matters directly. But as you read through you begin to get a sense of the rational part of human thought, science and its adjuncts, appearing increasingly less rational. Just look at the most significant developments in one area of science over the century: relativity, quantum physics, uncertainty, chaos, complexity. By the time we get to things like string theory, then, as Watson puts it, the metaphors break down: what is being understood in cosmological terms cannot be explained in comprehensible terms, only using a form of mathematics that many mathematicians find difficult. And in mathematics we get things like Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem which demonstrates that there are mathematical truths that cannot be proved by maths. Alongside this, analytical philosophy began the century in a positivist vein, but by mid-century had rejected positivism. Karl Popper argued that scientific theories cannot be conclusively proven, only falsified. It is a sensible approach to the business of experimentation, but to anyone not versed in such things the more or less coincident arguments of Godel and Popper together suggest that there is no such thing as scientific truth. And later theorists have gone even further along this route, it is now common (though this doesn’t make it into Watson’s book) to view scientific theory as a narrative, and like all narratives it is open to external influences such as the character of the narrator. If you are affronted, frightened, disturbed or merely uncertain about the findings of science, it is getting easier to dismiss them.

And if science has led us away from confidence, then what about European strands of philosophy that have led, from Kant and Hegel and Marx to existentialism, deconstruction, and the works of Foucault, Derrida and their like, as difficult for the layman to understand in their way as string theory is. In literature the old realist notions that the world can be described have been undermined by modernism with its Freudian emphasis on the uncertainty of the individual and then by postmodernism which adds to the mix an uncertainty in the provenance of the world.

The public intellectual has become a university specialist, because the workings of science, philosophy, economics, sociology, even literature have become so abstruse that they can only be comprehended by concentration on their complexities to the exclusion of all else.

Of course, for every specialist there is another specialist who is going to disagree. That is a necessary part of the academic process, it is how ideas are tested. But if the ideas are not accessible in the first place then all that can be seen is squabbling on some esoteric plain, angels fighting on the head of a pin. Absolutism and confidence are out, relativism and uncertainty are in. Of course, if you are engaged in the project, whether it be science or literature or what have you, then such relativism can be exciting. But if you are not engaged in the project, it is undermining, confusing. Is it any wonder that people turn to the old and reassuring sources of confidence, the belief systems where truth is an absolute not some slippery relative term?

The reason Watson gives for the relatively small part that the African, Islamic, Hindu and Chinese worlds play in his story is that during the twentieth century the main intellectual endeavour in these realms was directed towards the defence of their older systems of thought from the undermining effects of Western modernism. To be honest I find this far too glib and partial a perception to be anything like the whole truth; in the world of ideas covered by this book I suspect that much work was and remains simply unseen in the West. Nevertheless, if it is even a partial truth we can see reflected in it the rise of fundamentalism (both Islamic and Christian) as a reaction against the unsettling notions of the modern world, and a return to simpler, more reliable, more absolutist ideas.

Which has taken me some way from my perceptions about the role of God in current science fiction, but since I believe science fiction is a good way of gauging the concerns of popular culture, it is all part of the same thing.

7 thoughts on “A Relative Century

  1. Thanks for writing this Paul.

    I’ll never forget this history professor telling me that all history books tell more about the time it was written in than the time it was discussing. Maybe it’s not so cut and dry, but what is?

    I wonder how future generations will write about this time? When one considers how the Middle Ages are sometimes viewed now, a roughly 1000 year swath reduced to the Crusades, the Black Death and a few other events, I wonder how 100 years of genocides, nuclear bombs, ending with celebrity worship (false idols?), technology in the name of commerce will hold up? Of course, I’m given to hyperbole, because, after all, this is the internet.

    It’s also interesting to think that one of the reasons the Renaissance occurred had to do with the weather shifting, it was supposedly very cold (and dark) during the Middle Ages. Here is some Guillaume de Machaut for an example of 14th Century music (my lutenist Uncle gave me a recording of his music about ten years ago):


    1. One of the interesting things about historiography is the way it changes. When I studied history at school it was all wars, politics and great men. Now it’s hard to find works of contemporary history that focus on those aspects of the past. Now we’re more likely to find microhistories, a history of the pencil or the potato or something like that.

      The other interesting thing is the way archaeology is creeping into history. The way archaeologists started looking at dating devices like tree rings, stratigraphy, and so on; then found that these devices were also telling them about weather patterns and so on. Now what the archaeologists started to discover about the way weather shaped the ancient world is being applied by historians looking at exactly the same thing.

      Then you find yourself looking at other things, the mini-ice ages of the 17th century, the patterns of plague (I’m sure it is within my lifetime that we’ve started getting social, economic and political analysis of the effects of the Black Death, which changed so much about the social mobility of the survivors, and also effectively ended the feudal system).

      (Another aside, a few years ago I attended a panel discussion by several American fantasy writers, all of whom used the European past as their model and all of whom claimed to be historians to some extent, and all of whom proclaimed that feudalism and the divine right of kings were the same thing. Even though feudalism had been dead for 200 years before the concept of the divine right of kings was formulated. Our understandings of history are so uncertain.)

      The voyages of discovery at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, for instance, were propelled by a curious mix of spurs: the increased mobility of people following the Black Death, shifting notions of kingship and sovereignty following the end of feudalism, needs for new resources, changes in marine technology. History is never simple. But then, that’s why it is so interesting.

      1. 1066 Battle of Hastings, beginning of Norman influence on England and English
        c. 1096 Oxford University founded
        1167 Oxford begins expanding
        1209 University of Cambridge founded
        1285 William of Ockham is born
        1288 first English clock tower put up, in Westmintser
        1292 clock tower erected at Canterbury Cathedral

        …As we know now—and as they knew then—a lot more was happening during the High Middle Ages than just the Crusades.

        What we teach and get taught in schools about a time period is usually mind-numbingly reductive.

  2. Thanks for this post, Paul—lots of beautiful and thoughtful writing here that I’ll be mulling over this weekend. And I’m planning to check out Watson’s book, eventually. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    I’m curious to discover to what extent Watson focuses exclusively on the 20th century, and to what extent he examines older trends that influenced what we’re up to today (or were up to until at least yesterday). Having a decade ago come under the spell of the longue durée historians (e.g., Braudel), I increasingly believe it’s very difficult to understand any period all that well unless one looks at much of the history preceding it. To cite one example that’s lately been on my mind: 20th century English-language poetry was so shaped and influenced by late 19th-century French poetry that I can’t see how one makes much sense of it without knowing that history. Rock music, too, has been so influenced by Symbolism—indeed, so many contemporary ideas of what it means to be an artist were shaped by Baudelaire and Rimbaud et al. (The whole “30 under 30” concept—the cult of the decadently outrageous youthful artist, dead by age 27—is essentially a post-Symbolist idea. And Lady Gaga is a modern-day flâneur.) The more I study the 19th century, the more I’m startled by how little today is really all that new—rather, it’s old ideas being expressed in today’s materials. (And I’m sure that when I study the 18th century, I’ll feel the same way about the 19th. History really does repeat itself a great deal.)

    By the way, Curt White’s writing about the impact of Enlightenment thought, and the accompanying death of Rationalism that you note above, remains some of the most fascinating I’ve seen. See, for instance, his book The Spirit of Disobedience (2005, Polipoint Press). Curt’s project has long been to separate “good” enlightenment from “bad”—good being humanizing forces such as increased personal freedoms and critical thought vs. bad, dehumanizing forces such as technocratic bureaucracy and other disembodied, secular means of administering societies. (That’s a very hasty condensation.) In SoD he reads a particular strand of “good” enlightenment from Hegel through Thoreau and Blake into the more present moment, e.g. Whitman through to the Beats and then the Hippies. Ultimately he argues that there is a form of spiritual enlightenment that today’s progressives can claim, despite attempts by religious conservatives to claim all spirituality under the banner of fundamentalism, and despite attempts by many liberals to shed all spirituality in favor of complete rationality (e.g., the free market, big government, the military-industrial complex, the Culture Industry, etc).


    1. Adam, many thanks for the nod towards Curt White, whom I’d not come across before.

      What I’m increasingly feeling is that our old ways of dividing the world – left/right, authoritarian/liberal – really don’t work any more. Which may tie in with White’s good/bad enlightenment. Our spectrum now, I think, is more easily understood if we see it as stretching from absolutist to relativist, which may also be a spectrum stretching from those who believe the world can be understood, that there are truths, to those who believe that truth is a shifting quality and the best we can do is make sense of portions of the world. Though, of course, that opens the way for some new Heisenberg to come along and tell us the world is both absolute and relative (or is that just another form of extreme relativism?).

      Watson’s focus, by the way, is pretty fixedly on the 20th century (it was published in 2000, so nothing later than about 1996/7 gets into the story). He does refer back, of course, Kant and Marx get frequent mentions; but he really starts with 1900 and makes only passing reference to anything published or proposed before that date. Once a 20th century idea is in play, however, then he’ll keep referring to it. So we get a lot about how post-1900 ideas are influenced by other post-1900 ideas, but not quite so much about how they are influenced by pre-1900 ideas. As I said above, it is a partial and in many ways unsatisfactory book.

      1. Yes, Spirit of Disobedience is an attempt to look past the typical left/right divide. Curt’s argument is that there are enlightenment values—and therefore political positions—that aren’t claimed by either the fundamentalist Republicans or the technocratic Democrats (here in the States). Instead of getting bogged down in that knee-jerk divide (which was especially strong when he wrote it, c. 2003), he sketches out an alternative position that’s beyond right and left.

        I’ve been saying this to people for a while now: I want to see more small towns with strong local economies (i.e., less corporate influence), clean air, fresh food, parks, lots of non-car transit options, good schools, and lots of community interactions. …Is that a progressive dream or a conservative dream? Democrat or Republican?

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