Notes on the Twentieth Century
It was the bloodiest ever, but still some surprising good has come out of it
THE fate of the twentieth century was largely forged in the West. It may be the last century for which this will hold true. Inventions have changed our ways of doing most things, but the greatest changes have taken place in our way of looking at ourselves and at life. I want to focus on that, on the human condition, and on the Western world.
I have lived through most of this century and I have traveled to the four corners of the globe. I do not think I am stuck in a white U.S.-European viewpoint: I know how it feels to be an underdog. I have been in various jails as a political protester, and during those five medieval years when the Germans occupied the country of my youth, Holland, and most of Europe, I was a fugitive and a "terrorist."
In the Western world the century began with great expectations. The early years became known as La Belle Epoque, and if one focused on New York's Park Avenue and London's Mayfair and the 8th and 16th arrondissements of Paris, one found indeed a unique concentration of chic women and dashing men in private mansions and Delahaye convertibles, all in an atmosphere of total self-assurance. None of them doubted that they represented a progress that was to continue from strength to strength. The white race took it for granted then that it was meant to rule the earth; the rest of the world, Kipling's lesser breeds, largely took the whites at their own evaluation and timetable. In E. M. Forster's A Passage to India the Indian doctor Aziz tells his English friend, "If it's fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you." Twenty-five years after those words were written, the British Raj was gone.
It was a time in the West when violent death had become rare. Train wrecks and conflagrations and the sinking of the Titanic stood out shockingly and became engraved in national memories. It was a time filled with whispering about sex and about syphilis, which was the AIDS of those days but which few newspapers cared to mention. Eugenics was one of the century's prescriptions for progress: it worked well for horses and dogs, and professor Cesare Lambroso, of Turin, could already tell from a child's ears and skull whether he would turn out a criminal. A lessening of nationalism would end the wild military spending. "The coming nationality will be essentially a matter of education and economics," the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica announced in 1910.
Neither the earth nor even the sun was in the center of the universe anymore, but as Queen Victoria's chaplain, Charles Kingsley, had earlier written, "The railroad, Cunard's liners, and the electric telegraph are ... signs that we are, on some points at least, in harmony with the universe; that there is a mighty spirit working among us ... the ordering and creating God." Men and women, more than ever before or since, felt at home on earth and in control of their destiny. The natural demons of the past had been banished by reason and electricity, and the human demons of the new century were still hidden.
We do not need to be jealous of all this certainty. It masked another world, of exploitation, racism, colonialism, class arrogance. Coolies had to tap rubber for fifty centimes a day, miners had to breathe coal dust and gases until their lungs were used up, chimney sweeps died before they were eighteen, housemaids were fitting subjects for seduction jokes -- all this injury and insult to maintain the civilized society that knew how to appreciate an entrechat royal, a new tenor, a new school of painting. And thus many people became enemies of the world they lived in. They, too, believed in the historical certainty of progress, but they felt it would enter on its proper path only after a great revolutionary turnabout.
In Le Destin du siècle (1931) the French historian Jean-Richard Bloch called Napoleon "the first modern man." The modern age, he said, was defined by its unlimitedness, its concept of power without religious or moral counterweight. Napoleon was its isolated first modern practitioner, and Nietzsche (who died in 1900) was its first prophet: the idea was in the air by then, but he put it into words. Presently -- to be precise, in 1914 -- the Western world would start sailing under that flag. Fate, destiny, tragedy, all became "politics," thus destroying a belief in the sense of history, in justice ultimately governing human affairs.
THE last white war: in 1895 Winston Churchill traveled to Cuba, where the Spanish were fighting the Cuban insurgents. He wrote that he just had to witness this, because it would be the last war ever in which whites fought whites. (The mistake of seeing contemporary events loom so large is a great stumbling block for futurists.) Churchill needn't have fretted himself. He got the greatest white-on-white war ever at his doorstep on the sunny Saturday of August 1, 1914, when the German infantry crossed the border of Luxembourg. That day we entered the modern age, and war became its expression.
By 1914 the concept of warfare, in Europe as in the United States, was quite positive, perhaps more positive than it had been since the heyday of the Roman Empire. Jules Verne, the futurist writer, predicting a warless century ahead, had a twentieth-century man say, "Our bellicose notions are fading away, and with them our honorable ideas." Lack of fear and a peculiar idea of manly honor had become political qualifications, meant to prove that the ruling classes and the white race itself were willing to pay the price for their right to run the world.
A handful of officers commanding native troops could keep vast colonial possessions in bondage because they were, supposedly, always ready to die, whereas the native populations weren't even ready to kill. In that 1910 Encyclopaedia Britannica a British officer wrote in the article "Egypt" that the Egyptian peasant would make an admirable soldier "if he only wished to kill someone." Professional soldiers held civilians in contempt, and to them the nonwhite races were civilians twice over. It never dawned on them that it isn't race but cause that makes people soldierly or not.
As for the United States, which had been a haven for thousands of draft dodgers from Europe, it had no military caste but its ideas of true manliness were not very different, and a successful general always had and still has a shortcut to the presidency.
Because of the positive concept of war, the generals running the show in 1914 were not appalled by the massacres caused by their tactics. On the contrary, when the planned and often already announced breakthroughs did not materialize, the massacres became the reason for their tactics. This was called attrition of the enemy. Newspapers, everywhere interfered with by governments, played along and continued describing trench warfare in the words of a cricket match. Life within the warring countries returned to near normalcy; it was just that there was a line between them along which young men were told to kill one another with every conceivable means, stopping at nothing. Twenty thousand British and Canadian soldiers were routinely killed on single mornings just by being sent out of their trenches at the Somme River. At Verdun on the first day of their attack the Germans fired one million shells on the French lines. Not until the war was almost over did the hopelessness, the criminal uselessness, of all this penetrate the populations at large. Then, finally, the truth began entering the despised civilians' minds that so many had been killed and gassed and maimed only through the self-satisfied obtuseness of their officers, and "pacifism" ceased to be a dirty word.
The bitter irony was that when the second installment of the thirty-year white civil war began to loom, this changed climate of opinion blinded most politicians to the threat. Neville Chamberlain was not stupid; he was simply one of the many who literally refused to believe that it could happen all over again.
Had there been an alternative? If we turned the clock back to the Battle of Waterloo, we might construct a more peaceful twentieth century for Europe, but with the cards distributed as they were in 1914, it's hard to see how things could have gone otherwise. The ten years of warfare separated by a twenty-year armistice have pressed their deadly stamp on this century, but we may call ourselves (all humanity, that is -- including the Germans) lucky that it ended the way it did. The men ruling Germany in 1914 were determined to make their country a world power or, better, the world power: "Am deutschen Wesen wird die Welt genesen" ("Germanness will cure the world") was their slogan that year. Diplomacy or Gandhism could not have stopped them, and victory, even by the soberer German government of 1918, would have made the planet a very uncomfortable place for the rest of us. As for the German government of 1945, Western civilization would have been destroyed by its victory. Let me cite an incident that may still be less than well known. In occupied Holland some Jewish families tried to save their young children by putting them out as foundlings on church steps. In answer the Germans ruled that every abandoned infant was to be assumed Jewish and hence sent to the gas ovens.
One can but hope that the ruins of the Holocaust and of the cities and towns of 1945 have erased the concept of der frischfröhliche Krieg, "the fresh and jolly war," for a long time to come, although the goings-on in what was Yugoslavia may raise doubt about that -- and, indeed, doubt about the redemption of the human race. I for one have at times nursed the theory that evolution, or fate, or God, wants to get rid of humanity in order to save life on the planet, and that in the absence of another species that could get the better of us, we have been programmed to take care of it ourselves.
Yet we are now sending out troops not to conquer but to restore peace, and if this piousness of politicians has to be taken with great cynicism, still there is something new here. Surely oil interests are at play, and spheres of influence, and all the rest of it, but this is the germ of an idea that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. It may have come too late. Our stopping at nothing is what made us lose our credibility as a white civilization in the van of progress. When we in the West handed out our T-shirts saying MY COUNTRY, RIGHT OR WRONG, we were taken at our word by the rest of the world. Governments have a talent for forgetting their own misdeeds and then expecting everyone else to follow suit, but peoples, and the people, have a very long memory. A black Sorbonne graduate told me over a glass of French wine in a bar in Dakar that once Africans get the atomic bomb, their first one will be dropped on Liverpool, the slave port of their diaspora. Why doubt him? Will the newly armed nations have to go through the same bloodstained school the West did? The year 2000 will be the year 1420 in the Muslim world. In Europe's 1420 England and France were only two thirds of the way through their Hundred Years War.
OUR fears: in the early years of our century fear here in the West had become a private emotion. The mass fears of the past which had swept Europe at various times were relegated to the hysteria or superstitions of a dark age, together with the fear of witches, ghosts, werewolves, haunted houses, and cursed crossroads. Our self-assurance made it easy for us to feel contemptuous not only of other races but also of our own ancestors. Traditional and ritual ways of doing things, often tied to long-forgotten mythical origins, were abandoned -- which left those who had not kept up with the times without a sense of control. Our fears but also our acceptance of mystery were diminished, and our concept of nature made a full turn. From dark adversary nature became first our handmaiden, ready to do our bidding, and then increasingly our victim.
That fear of nature had been a noble one. It was awe. The adventure stories of my childhood were mostly about confrontations between brave men or brave children and savage nature, with its wild animals and wild "natives." I clearly recall how often my schoolmates and I had dreams of being pursued by wolves or tigers. Whatever Freud would have made of that, it was a stimulating fear, and when we were taken to the zoo, we shivered pleasantly while watching them safe in their cages. The most admired men then were the white hunters who left our safe cities and voluntarily sought out such dangers. I remember a Marx Brothers movie in which Groucho gains the homage of everyone, including the rich lady he is wooing, with his fantasized white-hunter adventures. Wild animals were called "vermin" in those days, and in my Amsterdam grade school we had colored plates on the wall of "useful animals" and "wild animals." But in the later years of the century we saw man becoming not "a wolf to man" (as Plautus had it in Roman days) but far more brutish than any wolf or other animal ever was. I assume that most of us nowadays would rather come upon a wild animal on a lonely road than upon a strange man.
We fear the stranger, "the other": We feel we don't really understand him -- he has come out of the forest (literally in Italian, in which forestiere means "stranger"). Or we may know him only too well and he may hate us for reasons we choose to forget. Chickens come home to roost, as Stokely Carmichael said. Our children are inheriting a world of locks and alarms, telephone booths without doors, and waiting areas without seats (the message being "Buzz off"), a world in which it may be worth their lives not to ring the doorbell of a lonely house when the car has broken down. A present-day airport departure, with its general atmosphere of grim suspicion, says it all. Compare it with the jolly shipboard farewells I remember.
None of this is trivial. That privatization on which many governments seem keen extends to the very quality of life now to be found in a private acquiring of "stuff"rather than in an enrichment of the commonality. Public space in America is left to wilt, while our homes aren't just castles but castles with moats and the drawbridges raised. We are still social animals, though, and behind the locked doors our lonely fears burgeon.
The great private fear is death. Before 1914 death was kept out of daily life and became an unmentionable in "polite" society, just like sex. Then came the Great War, with its millions of deaths, but after victory the Allied countries tried to encapsulate and neutralize and finally exorcise them with thousands of monuments. The names of the war dead were perpetuated everywhere in bronze letters, as if that would keep them almost present. (There is a haunting scene in a French film about that time, La Vie et rien d'autre, in which the mayor of a village without casualties begs for some of the dead from a neighboring community for his monument.) But for the maimed veterans panhandling in the streets death remained familiar -- indeed, perhaps thefamiliar. In the West maimed veterans no longer need to beg, but a new class of the disinherited and the locked-out (les exclus, as the French call them) has taken its place in the streets, and we will never understand the violence of its members if we do not realize just how familiar a figure death is to them.
In the locust years (Churchill's term) between the two great wars the embittered or revolutionary veterans of the defeated nations dealt with death by making it their ally. They manned the dehumanized state machines that created their "New Order," an order that was meant to overcome chaos but only camouflaged it. It was a chaos not found in All Quiet on the Western Front and other famous anti-war novels, but it is on every page of Kafka, who barely mentioned the outbreak of the 1914 war in his diary. It was the chaos of the art and music of the time, of the surrealist poetry, and of the Spanish Fascists who took as their battle cry "Long live Death!" These New Order men claimed to be unafraid of death as of life; they were rücksichtslos (Hitler's favorite word) -- that is, forever ready for an action that stopped at nothing.
Such was their proclaimed policy, their "Myth of the 20th Century," which is the title of the Nazi catechism written by the party theoretician Alfred Rosenberg, who was hanged at Nuremberg in 1946. It was less a myth, though, than a pseudo-scientific harangue, a mixture of Aryan Blood-and-Earth racism, megalomania, and Valhalla-colored death wishes. But when the Allies knocked it out of existence in May of 1945, those of its apostles who were still around decided that South America looked after all more attractive than a Wagnerian tomb.
AFTER 1945, in America as in England and France, the postwar world did not have the brittle and cynical gaiety of the post-1918 years. For one thing, there was no call for cynicism: far from being a senseless massacre, the fighting was understood to have saved us from a new dark age. And, also different from 1918, fear was not to be pushed this time into a shadowy background by flappers, the stock market, and the Charleston. On the contrary, it appeared that fear -- fear of an atomic holocaust -- had now become a permanence in our minds. Amazingly, people in general seemed able to put up with it and to go on with their lives as if it weren't there. Those of us who felt that nothing took priority over stopping the threat were seen as freaks or fellow travelers of the Communists, men and women on the fringe of normal society. (At an anti-nuclear sit-in in England, I was told by an onlooker, "Well, if God means to kill us by fire, don't you dare speak against it.") I think that our repressed fear, destroying one more illusion of humanity (its continuity), must have done great damage to our common psyche.
It made for an unsavory spectacle in those somber years of the Cold War, the scrambling around of politicians, in America as in England and Russia and China, either showing off their macho qualities by manifesting no awe at the idea of 100 million casualties, or taking the other tack and assuring us that with a spade to dig a hole and an old door to cover it, we'd be fine. The ensuing space race made human aggressiveness leak out into the heavens. It also helped to bankrupt the Soviet Union and it put some Americans on the moon. "We" -- that is, I and people I worked with ("Resist," in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in England) -- didn't think life was enriched by the Right Stuff; we thought it meant the militarization of space and saw it as a gimmick to distract us from the Vietnam War.
Now, for the first time in many years, no atomic missiles are targeted on American cities. Nevertheless, the scenarios by our thriller writers about nuclear blackmail and rogue nuclear attacks are becoming ever more plausible, and our realizing this must be one of the ingredients of an odd malaise that is in the air in these late nineties. (No one will ever think of our fin de siècle as a Beautiful Epoch. Among its other ingredients I would list aggressive individualism, which is maybe really a hidden and defiant loneliness; rampant egotism made only more obnoxious by guilt feelings; an absence of honor; an overabundance of bland lying.) Yet because our arrogance of a hundred years ago helped to lead to the bloodiest century in human history, one may always hope that fear and apprehension will help to make the next a better one.
Perhaps the Church was doing the right thing in trying to shut Galileo up! Humanity has not been the same since we learned that the earth is not the center of creation. Worse, we know that not God alone, or destiny, may spell our end but that we ourselves may do it. The universe has remained beyond comprehension, even if we are now able to count the number of electrons it holds, but a couple of Yalies with physics degrees, a ham politician with enough vanity to make it into the White House, and a desert oil colonel could all be heirs to the power to end human awareness of the universe.
Some have found a substitute for the loss of our unique place by accepting, against very large odds, that only our earth holds conscious life. It may be a comfort. It may also make the fragility of our future the more appalling. We have come down a long and painful road since the English bishop James Usher figured out that the world was created in October of the year 4004 B.C. There is no returning to that innocence, and we have to bear it like men and women. The more ephemeral that humanity appears sub specie aeternitatis, the more essential it becomes to make this a just world. Right now a lot of people are more bent on making themselves feel better about the world, by looking at it through Prozac eyes, than on improving it.
SOME deep fears were gotten rid of, though, in an important part of our world. In Western Europe (and to a lesser degree in Canada and in Australia) the fear of poverty, poverty through disease or through old age, is gone. In 1900 this was already the most prosperous part of the world (along with, of course, the United States), but poverty was far from banned. "Poverty" is a relative term; the poverty of 1900 in prosperous Western Europe is hard for a modern person to fathom. Within that poverty it made economic sense for a farm woman to spend days in the fields, bent over, picking up wheat stalks left by the reapers and coming home after twelve hours with an apronful. Families saved the equivalent of a dime a week to assure themselves decent funerals, and it made economic sense for the insurance firm to send someone around every week to pick up the dime. In my Amsterdam childhood everybody who worked for the town or the state, even as a street sweeper, was considered privileged, because he or she could look forward without fear to old age with a guaranteed pension. A streetcar conductor made a very eligible bachelor.
In these countries, after the trauma of war and occupation, time stood still for one beat in 1945. There was room to think and a need to think things over. Governments owed their people, having let them down and failed to protect them, and having demanded and gotten appalling sacrifices from them in order to make up for the governments' shortcomings. This had already happened once, in 1918, when they reneged on their promises. They could have again but did not in 1945. In that climate a body of law was created to abolish poverty and its discriminations. A completely original framework for human interaction was built, and its influence on daily life was huge. It was at that point that the social environment of the United States clearly diverged from that of Western Europe. An American in Amsterdam or Oslo may remain unaware of it, since there is no ideology attached that would visibly change public activities.
The change was not about equalizing incomes. It was in the first place about sharing, about building public space -- hospitals, schools, universities, parks, sports centers, libraries, and all the rest -- that is freely shared by people with incomes high and low. The idea was to create an environment "without poor" -- a welfare state. This was indeed achieved, if only up to a point, because the vast immigration from the Third World created a new proletariat and a new division. We in the United States are now regularly informed that the Europeans have realized they cannot afford their welfare states and are busy dismantling them. This is not true. I have followed the lives of friends and relatives in Holland and France through times of personal crisis, and I feel certain that an abandonment of the system is inconceivable. Yes, it is being trimmed everywhere, as it must be to survive in the present economic jungle. But the basic principle is not threatened -- not even in Britain, where it survived eighteen years of Tory government.
Contrary to what Europeans may think, the poor in the United States are not abandoned to their fate; when all is said and done, almost everyone gets fed here, and everyone gets some kind of medical-emergency assistance. But it's done in a nineteenth-century-charity sort of way, rather than by giving everyone access to the same amenities -- amenities paid for by taxes, of course, but otherwise free to the user. I must add that the Department of Motor Vehicles atmosphere of shabbiness that supposedly hangs over the European welfare state is an American political myth. Precisely because the system has no means-test approach, governmental waiting rooms and offices are filled not with the usual suspects but with average citizens. The wait for a free Dutch doctor is not longer than the wait for a hundred-dollar doctor in New York.
These aren't small matters. Welfare systems have made people notably less aggressive (from another point of view, less businesslike and enterprising). Everyone who lives under an assured roof, with assured meals, education, and medical care, starts to act differently all along the line. The Swedish suicide rate, which is regularly quoted to me as proof that people do not want all that security, has at times been close to the U.S. rate -- which in this decade has floated around twelve per 100,000 (and Sweden is one dark country).
I realize that the European systems wouldn't work well here. We do not have the homogenous substructure, with a population counted and accounted for in great detail. We don't have the solidarity that Europe acquired only after the devastations of this century. We have had plenty of wars, but they were far away, and we did not go through any "stop-time." Perhaps 1932 came close to being just that, and thus made possible the New Deal, which was decried by big business as un-American and then saved the day for it. A transition from unenlightened self-interest to enlightened self-interest is not as painful as business once more seems to assume.
WHEN I entered the British Army, in 1943, one could tell a private soldier and an officer apart even if they'd both appeared in regulation nightshirts. They were like different species: privates as a rule were shorter, looked older than their age, and had bad skin and terrible teeth. During the ensuing war years those differences became less and less, and the same held for civilians. War rations for the poor classes meant not less but more and healthier food. Now, after half a century of free medicine, that glaringly different look of people from different classes has vanished.
During this century the art of medicine has progressed at a fast clip. The famous British surgeon Joseph Lister announced around 1900 a "foreseeable end" to human disease. Unfortunately, he was wrong, and hosts of viruses have taken a new lease on life (our life), helped along in their travels by our own frantic flying all over the globe. Wilhelm Roentgen's x-rays, which won the first Nobel Prize in physics, in 1901, got us off to a splendid start; the gap between the old and the new medicine can be measured by contemporary comments that it might become possible to photograph the human soul. It didn't, but by 1950 x-rays had saved the lives of some 30 million children, according to the estimate of a later Nobel-winning physicist, Arthur Compton. Sulfa drugs came around 1940, followed by penicillin and other antibiotics and the present armory of electronic and chemical tools to fight afflictions that earlier could be mitigated but not cured. The increase in life expectancy tells it -- from forty-nine years in 1900 to seventy-five years or more in the late 1990s. The effect on individual adults is less startling, because the drop in infant mortality in the West is the primary cause of the increase. (It has dropped from one in ten to less than one in a hundred during the first year of life.) But a man of forty will live about five years longer now than he would have in 1950, and he is healthier all along. The state of health of an eighty-year-old man now is comparable to the state of health of a seventy-year-old man twenty years ago.
What all this is doing to our perception of life is not yet clear. According to a 1995 French report, the increasing rarity of death among friends and colleagues "affects people's religion and their artistic and general look at life. It gives them a certain feeling of immortality." But, the report says, "they fear the idea of death the more, as it is less present in the collective imagination and seen as an abnormal and resistible phenomenon." Oddly enough, this is a sort of return to a pre-1914 mentality. I don't know if in the United States we feel this rarity of death, as we focus so much on criminal violence. And the report does not deal with the appearance of AIDS, which has renewed our acquaintance with the deaths of young people, such as we knew early in the century from tuberculosis.
If in those early days much sickness was incurable, the relationship between doctor and patient (if not a very poor man or woman) was personal, and emotionally very supportive. In biographies and novels of the time we can read how it felt to be gravely ill in the early 1900s and how much a doctor could help to keep people going in some fashion. Ignorance could indeed be bliss in the days when a doctor prescribed a daily glass of red wine or a course of sea baths. Our modern, ever fancier means of treatment of course cost ever more money, and I hope that if and when a lack of resources makes triage unavoidable, as once among the wounded on the battlefield, we would never accept the morality of basing it on a person's wealth -- with maybe a black market in which criminals offered organs or whole bodies. Then we would have to make an end to that unlikely mixture of profit-making and lifesaving and lift the whole mess out of the realm of politics.
THE century has given each of us (on average) not only extra years but also extra time within those years. In 1900 the average industrial worker worked half his waking hours and had about 10 percent of them as free time. Now it is about 30 percent work and 50 percent free time. Here in the United States the picture is less clear, because we are not after shortening the work week to cut unemployment, as in Western Europe. On the contrary, employers cut social cost to themselves (and increase social cost to the community) by firing some people and putting the rest on ever more overtime. But the average employee may work about 2,000 hours a year and have 3,000 hours a year (for less than fifty working years) of free time. So much leisure was predicted by the futurists: in 1931 Aldous Huxley, in Brave New World, was struggling with the way people would fill those extra hours. Who could have guessed that they would be totally eaten up by looking at a little screen? We actually have less time for civic and communal activities than we did in our pre-TV past; we are now supposedly "bowling alone," as the sociologist Robert Putnam calls it in his attack on TV -- which he feels killed America's civic sense.
My children tell me that my negative attitude toward television simply demonstrates the generation gap, and, indeed, I cannot fathom how they or anyone else can sit there and tolerate the contempt shown to us, the public, in that slush of breathless "messages," trivial news, canned laughter, humorous weathermen, and all the rest. Part of the explanation must be that people of all generations had been bored, unspeakably and unnoticedly bored. (Wherever and whenever daily life in our more recent past became peaceful and not too hard, boredom became a philosophical motif. That goes back as far as Schopenhauer.) Images make an impact on even the most passive recipients, and thus we have come to exist within a snowstorm of images. Australian aborigines feared to lose their souls when photographed, and we suffer from the contrary superstition, that things don't really exist unless they're "imaged" -- the precise opposite of "imagined."
In July of last year The New York Times wrote about the "famous futurist" Esther Dyson, who had informed the nation's "computer elite" that "intellectual property is likely to lose a lot of its market value." Why was that? Well, because everyone could now put his or her book or essay or musical composition on the Web, and there would of a sudden be very much more supply than demand. The drop in market value would make "content producers go nuts," and they would have to go on public-speaking tours, and "go out and milk" their property, to make a living.
There is a nasty misconception here. Our century is ending in an abundance of new technology, but it is largely about sending, storing, and retrieving information at lightning speed, not about creating. We've always been buttonholed by people who would tell us "I could write a book" about whatever was occupying them, and thank heaven they didn't. Now they will, but the wisdom and creativity we need so badly will be as scarce as ever.
Few men and women over forty, or possibly of any age, are quite at ease in the present world. People at the start of this century were also living with an outburst of new technology, and the changes from horses and carriages to express trains and automobiles, from letter carriers to telegraphs and telephones, were as bedeviling as anything we have to deal with. But there was a big difference. Then everyone with a modicum of education could comprehend how these new things worked, if perhaps only in a vague way. Steam and combustion engines were contraptions working on simple principles, and once one had accepted that electricity somehow moves at an unimaginable speed, telephones and telegrams fitted in easily too. Semiconductors and microchips are a different kettle of fish. Their workings come from a world of advanced physics and mathematics, where there are no James Watts with tea kettles to illustrate what is going on. The mystery of mathematics is that although it predicts and explains happenings, these same happenings have nothing to do with the logic of daily life, and things might just as well be in a totally different way. The people who design this new technology know what follows what, but they cannot "taste" the logic of it, any more than an astronomer can conceive of "the universe" before the Big Bang. We live once more like Stone Age people in a world of mysteries we cannot apprehend, only this time the mysteries are not nature's doings but our own. The trick is not to let it overawe us.
We are an arrogant breed, reaching out from our little rooftop telescopes into a billion light-years of space; we talk about atoms and electrons as if they were pebbles instead of mathematical inconceivables. No wonder we get dizzy at times. We can tell ourselves, however, that Shakespeare understood much less of Copernicus than we do of Einstein, but it didn't prevent him from feeling that we are admirable, in action like an angel, in apprehension like a god.
ONE wouldn't want to make two lists for this century, of the good and of the bad, the way Robinson Crusoe did for his island: the bad has been too terrifying to measure it qualitatively against the good. My mother, who managed to get born just within the nineteenth century, taught me that "in the end it's all for the best," the basic credo of her time, and she managed to hold on to that attitude right through a rough life that included five years of German occupation. I have somehow managed to sail under that same flag. I'm not trying to recommend it as a belief to anyone else; accepting it is probably more a matter of one's genes than of its merits. But if we don't believe it, where do we turn?
We have suffered the two most horrendous wars ever waged, plus a string of vicious smaller ones, plus the Holocaust -- and I include under that name the Gypsies and the Slavs and the political prisoners and POWs who lived and died together with the Jews. We continue thinking and writing about them, and this must indeed be the only way in which we can master all this in our conscience one future day. We have watched the chaotic undoing of the Russian Revolution, which promised even more than the French Revolution of 1789 and derailed as fatally, and this has lessened the real or perceived need for hypocrisy and expediency in our dealings with other nations. The stream of jingoistic exhortations to which our politicians expose us continues at full strength, however, as they attack the more thinking part of the population (now called "the elite" with a sneer) or, at the least, focus strongly on an uneducated sound-bite audience whom they think they are addressing. They aren't, because the men and women "in the street" are cleverer than they, and long ago tuned out politics. In the meantime a revolution of social-democratic responsibility and sharing is holding in a number of countries, from Norway to New Zealand.
Here we had the youth rebellion that went around the world, in which I was a combatant; but now, thirty years later, I fear that its final effect was negative -- disillusion on one side, persistent backlash on the other (but we had such high hopes). Yet it seems legitimate to say that we, the people, prevented Vietnam from being bombed into the Stone Age in the winter of 1971-1972, which surely makes it all "for the best."
We have, astonishingly, let ourselves be pushed into a new kind of feudalism, not of land but of real estate, and like the sharecroppers and serfs of old we bring half our harvest to the lord -- to the landlord, that is. Here is a great impoverishment of our lives: our children cannot set up house on their own; a city like New York is virtually closed to struggling artists and writers. Into the lives of every one of us near-anonymous forces enter across all borders, and the only place where they still sing "The Internationale" with conviction is the corporate boardroom. Some changes in the lyrics were unavoidable. Meanwhile, distanced as if on another planet, a Third and a "Fourth World" are drifting away in ragged wars without front lines, in chaos and pain.
We are lonely in the midst of this great anonymous busyness, and focus like idiots on our celebrities, real or so-called, for they seem the only ones both out there where it's happening and yet still living within that community of equals the rest of us long since lost.
Love is still the cement of the human condition, and if in 1900 there was too much discussion of the soul and the spirit in it, all under the flag of a quite hypocritical chastity, now there's an overabundance of mechanics. The term "love" in everyday use and in the popular media has become a code word for the hydrodynamics of the sexual organs. Confidential Agent, a 1945 film that reappears every now and then, ends with Charles Boyer kissing Lauren Bacall. He does not take his hat off for this kiss, let alone anything else, but he says to her, "You are restoring my faith." Those words, in that marvelous soft voice he had, carry more passion than the total crop of this year's sex-and-kill movies. Or so I think.
OF course, the division of time is arbitrary, and has as little meaning as a child's chalk mark on an endless road. A year as a unit of time has a natural significance only on our own planet. The decimal system has practicality because we have ten fingers, but there is nothing inevitable about it. Decades and centuries are just bookkeeping units that help us in our ordering and arranging.
Nonetheless, we can assign the twentieth century a visible face, a character. I know what I mean when I write that in 1900 the world was young. Indeed, humanity in our corner of the world has aged through the century -- aged by losing a chunk of its innocence and hope, aged also in the sense of matured, by having become wiser because of what we have gone through, less arrogant, less cruel, less biased -- if, often, only by being more conscious of how we should think and act.
How to wind up these random notes? By asking that we not look at the changes around us in the resigned manner of European peasants or Native Americans watching the railroads invade their lands. The changes presented to us, or put over on us, at the end of the century come from our near neighbors, our fellow men and women. They can be turned to the good or to the bad. They are not fated.
Their perimeters must be our common decision.
Hans Koning is the author of many novels, including The Petersburg-Cannes Express (1975), The Kleber Flight (1981), and Acts of Faith (1986), and of the nonfiction A New Yorker in Egypt (1976) and Columbus: His Enterprise (1991). Koning's new novel, Pursuit of a Woman on the Hinge of History, will be published in November.
Illustrations by Kamil Vojnar
The Atlantic Monthly; September 1997; Notes on the Twentieth Century; Volume 280, No. 3; pages 90-100.