Authors: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Categories: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
You sometimes hear people say, with a certain pride in their clerical resistance to the myth, that the nineteenth century really ended not in 1900 but in 1914. But there are different ways of measuring an epoch. 1914 has obvious qualifications; but if you wanted to defend the neater, more mythical date, you could do very well. In 1900 Nietzsche died; Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams; 1900 was the date of Husserl Logic, and of Russell's Critical Exposition of the Philosophy of Leibniz. With an exquisite sense of timing Planck published his quantum hypothesis in the very last days of the century, December 1900. Thus, within a few months, were published works which transformed or transvalued spirituality, the relation of language to knowing, and the very locus of human uncertainty, henceforth to be thought of not as an imperfection of the human apparatus but part of the nature of things, a condition of what we may know. 1900, like 1400 and 1600 and 1000, has the look of a year that ends a saeculum. The mood of fin de sie¨cle is confronted by a harsh historical finis saeculi. There is something satisfying about it, some confirmation of the rightness of the patterns we impose. But as Focillon observed, the anxiety reflected by the fin de sie¨cle is perpetual, and people don't wait for centuries to end before they express it. Any date can be justified on some calculation or other. And of course we have it now, the sense of an ending. It has not diminished, and is as endemic to what we call modernism as apocalyptic utopianism is to political revolution. When we live in the mood of end-dominated crisis, certain now-familiar patterns of assumption become evident. Yeats will help me to illustrate them. For Yeats, an age would end in 1927; the year passed without apocalypse, as end-years do; but this is hardly material. 'When I was writing A Vision, ' he said, 'I had constantly the word "terror" impressed upon me, and once the old Stoic prophecy of earthquake, fire and flood at the end of an age, but this I did not take literally.' Yeats is certainly an apocalyptic poet, but he does not take it literally, and this, I think, is characteristic of the attitude not only of modern poets but of the modern literary public to the apocalyptic elements. All the same, like us, he believed them in some fashion, and associated apocalypse with war. At the turning point of time he filled his poems with images of decadence, and praised war because he saw in it, ignorantly we may think, the means of renewal. 'The danger is that there will be no war... Love war because of its horror, that belief may be changed, civilization renewed.' He saw his time as a time of transition, the last moment before a new annunciation, a new gyre. There was horror to come: 'thunder of feet, tumult of images.' But out of a desolate reality would come renewal. In short, we can find in Yeats all the elements of the apocalyptic paradigm that concern us.

Frank Kermode
We now know the basic rules governing the universe, together with the gravitational interrelationships of its gross components, as shown in the theory of relativity worked out between 1905 and 1916. We also know the basic rules governing the subatomic particles and their interrelationships, since these are very neatly described by the quantum theory worked out between 1900 and 1930. What's more, we have found that the galaxies and clusters of galaxies are the basic units of the physical universe, as discovered between 1920 and 1930... The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern 'knowledge' is that it is wrong... My answer to him was, when people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together. The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that 'right' and 'wrong' are absolute; that everything that isn't perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong. However, I don't think that's so. It seems to me that right and wrong are fuzzy concepts, and I will devote this essay to an explanation of why I think so. When my friend the English literature expert tells me that in every century scientists think they have worked out the universe and are always wrong, what I want to know is how wrong are they? Are they always wrong to the same degree?

Isaac Asimov
Consider the great Samuel Clemens. Huckleberry Finn is one of the few books that all American children are mandated to read: Jonathan Arac, in his brilliant new study of the teaching of Huck, is quite right to term it 'hyper-canonical.' And Twain is a figure in American history as well as in American letters. The only objectors to his presence in the schoolroom are mediocre or fanatical racial nationalists or 'inclusivists, ' like Julius Lester or the Chicago-based Dr John Wallace, who object to Twain's use-in or out of 'context'-of the expression 'nigger.' An empty and formal 'debate' on this has dragged on for decades and flares up every now and again to bore us. But what if Twain were taught as a whole? He served briefly as a Confederate soldier, and wrote a hilarious and melancholy account, The Private History of a Campaign That Failed. He went on to make a fortune by publishing the memoirs of Ulysses Grant. He composed a caustic and brilliant report on the treatment of the Congolese by King Leopold of the Belgians. With William Dean Howells he led the Anti-Imperialist League, to oppose McKinley's and Roosevelt's pious and sanguinary war in the Philippines. Some of the pamphlets he wrote for the league can be set alongside those of Swift and Defoe for their sheer polemical artistry. In 1900 he had a public exchange with Winston Churchill in New York City, in which he attacked American support for the British war in South Africa and British support for the American war in Cuba. Does this count as history? Just try and find any reference to it, not just in textbooks but in more general histories and biographies. The Anti-Imperialist League has gone down the Orwellian memory hole, taking with it a great swirl of truly American passion and intellect, and the grand figure of Twain has become reduced-in part because he upended the vials of ridicule over the national tendency to religious and spiritual quackery, where he discerned what Tocqueville had missed and far anticipated Mencken-to that of a drawling, avuncular fabulist.

Christopher Hitchens
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