Cen­tury that changed mankind

The Herald - Arts - - PAPERBACK - John Higgs Weidenfeld & Ni­col­son, £9.99 ALAS­TAIR MABBOTT

IT’S not just the world around us that changes, ob­vi­ously, but the way we make sense of it. The fact that peo­ple of dif­fer­ent eras have re­lated to their world in dif­fer­ent ways is hardly news. But the 20th cen­tury is a spe­cial case, mark­ing prob­a­bly the great­est shift in per­spec­tive ever ex­pe­ri­enced – so much so that even their im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sors, the Vic­to­ri­ans, would have found the in­hab­i­tants of the 20th cen­tury strange and baf­fling crea­tures.

John Higgs asks at the out­set of this en­joy­able and in­for­ma­tive his­tory, “What the hell hap­pened, at the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, to the hu­man psy­che?”

The an­swer is var­i­ous un­con­nected developments which had one com­mon fac­tor: rel­a­tiv­ity.

Freud’s pres­ence in Stranger Than We Can Imag­ine is au­da­ciously low-key, and Marx doesn’t even make the index.

It’s Al­bert Ein­stein who is the fa­ther of the era. His dis­cov­ery that there were no ab­so­lutes in physics, only how things ap­peared rel­a­tive to the ob­server, was quickly matched in art, phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics.

Jasper Johns spoke of Duchamp’s “per­sis­tent at­tempts to de­stroy frames of ref­er­ence”, and that’s the pre­vail­ing theme of the early 20th cen­tury, ex­press­ing it­self in Cu­bism, atonal mu­sic, The Waste Land, even the cin­e­matic de­vel­op­ment of mon­tage. And along with it came the rise of in­di­vid­u­al­ism.

Higgs notes how the end of the First World War also marked the end, vir­tu­ally overnight, of the age of em­per­ors. With the fixed cer­tain­ties of the im­pe­rial age gone, the door was open for the “mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives” of democ­racy.

This, in­evitably, had its dark side. Mus­solini was a self-de­clared rel­a­tivist who con­cluded that, since there was no one true ide­ol­ogy, it was the lux­ury of the most pow­er­ful to be able to im­pose their own ide­ol­ogy by force. Hitler, Stalin and every mur­der­ous dic­ta­tor who fol­lowed in their wake, couldn’t have agreed more.

Higgs fol­lows these cur­rents through modernism, ex­is­ten­tial­ism and its lazy emo brother ni­hilism, but finds to­wards the end of his jour­ney the in­ter­net in­tro­duc­ing “feed­back loops” into our lives which seem to be point­ing our col­lec­tive con­scious­ness in a new, more co­op­er­a­tive di­rec­tion.

This is all ma­te­rial that could make for a heavyweight tome, but Higgs writes in a light, con­ver­sa­tional style, us­ing in­creas­ingly friv­o­lous ex­am­ples to il­lus­trate his points, a ten­dency which reaches its peak when he ex­plains the weird­ness of quan­tum the­ory by ask­ing us to imag­ine Vladimir Putin box­ing with a kan­ga­roo.

Hav­ing pre­vi­ously writ­ten books on the KLF and Tim­o­thy Leary, Higgs is com­fort­able with weird­ness (he seems to be a man who knows his Alan Moore and his Doc­tor Who as well).

He’s the Hob­s­bawm you could geek out with, even draw­ing an un­ex­pected but pleas­ing com­par­i­son be­tween Ulysses and Grand Theft Auto V.

Although J.G. Bal­lard gets short shrift, and there’s no men­tion of Philip Dick or Brian Eno, ei­ther of whom would have been apt in­clu­sions (con­sid­er­ing how much space Aleis­ter Crow­ley gets), these are just quib­bles.

In a cen­tury of “count­less iso­lated in­di­vid­ual per­spec­tives”, some are bound to fall by the way­side.

Al­bert Ein­stein’s dis­cov­ery that there were no ab­so­lutes in physics, set alight the worlds of art, phi­los­o­phy and pol­i­tics

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.