Century that changed mankind
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