The Age of Anxiety: Europe in the 1920s (1)
At its start, the Great War of 1914-1918 was a popular war. The war was even blessed by those thinkers and artists who were non-violent by nature. The war, many people sincerely believed, would be quick and glorious. The war soon gave way to bitter disillusionment. This bitterness is illustrated in the film Paths of Glory (1957) as well as in Erich Marie Remarque's novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929). The stupidity of the war became apparent to all those men who fought for their nation. On the home front, of course, the story was a bit different. But when soldiers, lucky enough to still be alive returned home, it was to a land which knew nothing of the Somme or Verdun. "A land fit for heroes"? Perhaps.
It was William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891) who remarked, in 1879, that "war is at best barbarism . Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, more vengeance, more desolation. War is hell." But it was the British poet Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) who added, "war is hell and those who initiate it are criminals." This was the final verdict of the Great War, especially among the Anglo-French. "The Old Lie: Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori." The initial "vision of honor and glory to country" faded quickly and was replaced by sorrow, pity and cruelty. For the BRITISH WAR POETS, the whole affair ended in bitterness. People felt betrayed by those men who were "running the war."
The horrors of the trench -- rotting horseflesh, mud, poor food, weapons that would not fire, poison gas and the sheer terror of waiting for death -- these were the images and experience of the Great War. It was the Big Lie. There was no tangible enemy, except the one the popular press could fashion. The soldier looked across the parapet and saw himself. The insanity of it all! This partially explains the Christmas truce. Or the scene at the end of Paths of Glory: as the young German girl sings, the French soldiers join in, tears in their eyes. A bond is created between the soldiers who fought the war, a bond the General Staff could neither understand nor accept. No, the war was insanity, irrationality and the triumph of unreason in a world taught that reason was the guide to the good life. What had happened?
Soon the soldiers began to despise the people back home. They had no idea what the war was like. They knitted socks and sang patriotic songs. They were the "little fat men," as George Orwell was to call them. Men who made decisions carried out by wooden headed generals. The soldiers were drawn closer to one another by the common bond of experience. They were closer in spirit to the enemy than to those they left behind. "The immediate reaction of the poets who fought in the war was cynicism," wrote Stephen Spender in The Struggle of the Modern (1963):
There's no doubt about it: war was horror, terror and futility. The romance of war had been taken out of warfare forever. The 19th century ideals of warfare -- Napoleonic ideals -- were no match for the new weapons of destruction which the Second Industrial Revolution had helped to make a reality. Technology was supposed to be the servant of mankind -- liberation would result from more technology. What World War One showed was how quickly this new technology could be put to use. In the end, it was the European idea of progress which became the victim of "improved technology." The rules of warfare had changed -- and with this change the 20th century plunged into what one historian has called, "the age of total war."
Immediately following the end of the war, one of France's literary giants called attention to the very clear fact that a crisis had now overtaken the European mind in the 20th century. Paul Val�ry (1871-1945) brooded on both the greatness and decline of Europe in his essay THE CRISIS OF THE MIND (1919). Of the greatness of Europe, Val�ry had no doubt. Europe was "the elect portion of the terrestrial globe, the pearl of the sphere, the brain of a vast body." Europe's superiority, according to Val�ry, rested on a combination of various qualities -- imagination and rigorous logic, skepticism and mysticism, and above all, curiosity. "Everything came to Europe," he wrote, "and everything came from it. Or almost everything."
"-- until recently." The Great War had made Val�ry ponder the utter fragility of civilizations, that of Europe, as well as Babylon, Nineveh and Persepolis. Europe's decline had begun, as Val�ry saw it, long before the outbreak of world war. By 1914, Europe had perhaps reached the limits of modernism, which was characterized, above all, by disorder in the mind. By disorder Val�ry meant the lack of any fixed system of reference for living and thinking. This lack he ascribed to "the free coexistence, in all her cultivated minds, of the most dissimilar ideas, the most contradictory principles of life and learning. This is characteristic of a modern epoch." The decline also owed much to politics which had never been Europe's strong suit, a weakness for which the continent was now being punished. The export of European knowledge and applied science had enabled others to upset the inequality on which Europe's predominance had been based. For these and other causes Europe as well as European man had finally succumbed to anxiety and anguish. The military crisis that was World War One might be over, but the economic crisis remained, as did above all "the crisis of the mind," which was the most subtle cause of all and the most fateful for literature, philosophy and the arts.
Thus Val�ry, along with many of his contemporaries, announced the beginning of a new Age of Anxiety in European history. Despite his pessimism, Val�ry would have been the first to say that Europe's greatness persisted, though not without signs of diminishment, through most of his lifetime. He died in 1945. It is true that 20th century Europe lived, to a large extent, on the accumulated intellectual capital of past centuries. Some of its chief luminaries in science and in philosophy, for example, were born and educated in the 19th century and did a great deal of their important work before 1914: Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), Max Planck (1858-1947), Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), Carl Jung (1875-1961) and Albert Einstein (1879-1955).
But along with European greatness came decline and anxiety, as Val�ry suggested. Not outsiders but Europeans themselves invented the expression Age of Anxiety to describe what they thought was happening to them in the twentieth century. They dwelt increasingly not on the growing enlightenment of their times, as so many had done in the 18th and 19th centuries, nor on Europe's continued greatness, but on the anxiety they felt about their existence, their culture, and their destiny. "Today," said the Protestant theologian-philosopher Paul Tillich at mid-century, "it has become almost a truism to call our time an age of anxiety." Tillich believed that anxiety infected even the greatest achievement of contemporary Europeans in literature, art, and philosophy. Europe, according to his account, had entered its third great period of anxiety, comparable in intensity to that of the ancient world and the Reformation.
The special form of anxiety that Tillich identified was the ANXIETY OF MEANINGLESSNESS. He traced it to the modern world's loss of a spiritual center which could provide answers to the questions of the meaning of life. Suffering is the result of living without purpose or faith. The knowledge that man was alone caused anxiety because the responsibility for making whatever values there were came entirely from man. Man was free -- free to choose without reference to God or an ideal world of essences -- but his freedom was a dread freedom, involving crushing responsibility and the eternal threat of non-being.
The death of God, announced first perhaps by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) in the last quarter of the 19th century (see Lecture 2), was not the only observed cause of anxiety. Also cited were the death of man and the death of Europe; in fact, the death of all the great modern idols: God, man, reason, science, progress and history. The external events of 1914 to 1945 obviously had a great deal to do with the fall of the idols, and so with anxiety as well. However, it is interesting to notice that contemporary writers frequently used the fall and the anxiety to explain the events. Tillich did so, for instance, in his explanation of the success of fascism. In a time of "total doubt" men escaped from freedom to an authority that promised meaning and imposed answers. "Twentieth century man," wrote Arthur Koestler in 1955,
Anxiety, then, was thought to be generated by that "crisis of the mind" that Val�ry had detected in 1919 but that had been also brewing for decades.
When we turn our attention to European culture after the war we are struck by two things. First, this sense of despair, bitterness and anxiety. Second, we can detect the maturation of the modernist movement. A literary revolution burst upon the general public in the 1920s. Although they had established themselves and their careers before 1914, writers like James Joyce (1882-1941), D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Marcel Proust (1871-1922) and Ezra Pound (1885-1972) emerged as the new giants. Collectively they are referred to as "the men of 1914." This was the "LOST GENERATION" -- artists who rebelled against the senseless slaughter that was the Great War. They had no interest in defending either the world or the values of their fathers.
In Paris in 1919, a group of writers and artists launched a protest against everything. They named it Dada ("hobby horse" in French). Everything was nonsense: literature, art, morality, civilization. Action is vain, art is vain, life is vain, everything is absurd. Or, as Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) announced:
DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING
The activities of the dadaists were an expression of post-WWI bitterness. Without WWI as a backdrop, there may have been no dadaism at all. "In Z�rich in 1915," wrote Hans Arp,
The dadaists held public meetings at which poets made brash statements about art, literature and a hundred other things. Sometimes, whole manifestoes were read by ten, twenty thirty people at once. Here's a sample:
One audience, there to see Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), left the hall in the dark, after having thrown coins at the readers. Later, audiences replaced the coins with eggs. Such a gala effect! One journalist, an adversary of the dadaists, described a show of Max Ernst's (1891-1976) collages in the following way:
Tristan Tzara, one of Dada's Swiss founders, made poetry by clipping words from newspaper articles, putting them in a bag, shaking them up and then taking them out at random. Here's the result of one such exercise:
A poem such as this does have some charm. What it doesn't have is much meaning. Dadaism was a thing of the moment -- but in the 1920s it became the vanguard of another artistic and literary movement -- surrealism.
Dada deranged meaning. It also held out the possibility of violent and disruptive political protest. Surrealism was all this plus more. The surrealists borrowed from Freud and later Carl Jung, the idea that in dreams the mind is freed from the tyranny of reason. The result would most certainly be fresh and authentic symbols. And these symbols were necessary for surrealism in art meant imagery based on fantasy. The term surrealism, was first coined by the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) in 1917 but the artistic movement itself came into being only after the French poet Andre Breton (1896-1966) published his DECLARATION. Breton suggested that rational thought repressed the powers of creativity and imagination and thus was a hindrance to artistic expression. A Freudian, Breton believed that contact with the hidden part of the human mind could produce poetic truth.
Surrealism became a kind of mysticism -- its practitioners tended to tap sources of inspiration beyond the realm of rational concepts. They played with time, space and speed. "From around 1880 to the outbreak of World War I," writes Stephen Kern in his wonderful book, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983):
For instance, we have the novels of the French writer, Marcel Proust (1871-1922). Proust was born in Paris in 1871, the elder son of a wealthy Roman Catholic doctor and his cultivated Jewish wife. The young Proust was coddled by his mother but it was his younger brother Robert, who remained closer to his father and who later became a doctor. Extreme sensitivity and a Jewish background separated Proust from his schoolmates, and early in life he sought to leave his solid, middle class life for the world of aesthetic sensation. Never of sound health, Proust suffered from asthma from the age of nine. He spent nearly all his time at home where he was pampered by his mother. His was a cloistered and morbidly self-centered existence. Nevertheless, Proust was an excellent student and eventually mastered law and political science as well as literature.
In 1905, his mother died and Proust undertook his greatest challenge. He also withdrew from society. He had the walls of his room lined with cork to shut out light and sound and there he retreated to think and to write, sleeping during the day and venturing forth at night. He recorded his thoughts. He recorded his processes of thinking as well as his dreams. Again, the Freudian elements ought to be clear here. All this introspection gave way to a suspension of time. Proust came to recognize that the memory has a life all its own, independent from that life to be found outside the soundproofed room. So Proust used this stream of consciousness approach to write his eight volume novel, Remembrance of Things Past. When Proust died in 1922 the novel was 4000 pages long and, according to Proust's account, only two-thirds finished! Proust's novel concerns the narrator's attempt to recapture the past through a sustained effort of memory, whose recreations of experience are based on trains of association sparked by chance events.
When we turn to the works of the Irish author, JAMES JOYCE (1882-1941) we find another twentieth century literary giant whose novels were experimental. They were also daring and controversial. For instance, his novel Ulysses, published in 1922, was banned in both Britain and the United States until the 1930s. Joyce has been recognized as the writer who gave the novel a new subject and a new style. The author of Ulysses is not a narrator describing a subject outside himself. He is instead a recorder of what is sometimes called "the stream of consciousness" -- the haphazard progress of reflection, with all its paradoxes, irrelevancies and abrupt shifts of interest. By this means Joyce made his characters the authors of his work while, as creator of both them and their thoughts, he viewed their actions down the long perspective of history and myth, imposing structure on what, at first, seems merely random.
Above everything else, Joyce always thought of himself as a poet. While he was a student he composed numerous poems and prose sketches which he called "epiphanies." An epiphany, literally, a "showing forth" of inner truth, Joyce hoped to portray the nature of reality so faithfully as to reveal its significance without further comment. This was an extreme form of naturalism that Joyce had already detected in the works of Flaubert and Ibsen. Ulysses was the culmination of Joyce's early career. It was the fulfillment of the pledge made by the character Stephen Dedalus at the end of the Joyce's novel, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: "to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race." Through his work with epiphanies, Joyce had regarded this task as a long encounter with reality, the literal texture of Dublin life. So it was that Ulysses, which relates the events of a single day in the lives of two Dubliners on June 16, 1904, makes Dublin as familiar a place as the London of Charles Dickens. Joyce visited Dublin for the last time in 1912.
And finally, there was D. H. LAWRENCE (1885-1930). Over a period of twenty years, Lawrence published more than forty volumes of narrative fiction, poetry, criticism, travel writing and social commentary. It's been said that Lawrence probably did more than any other write of his time to alter the course of the English novel. His importance depends less on his technical accomplishments than it does on his choice of subject matter and intense personal convictions. The son of an illiterate coal miner and schoolteacher, Lawrence was born in the Nottinghamshire village of Eastwood in 1885. He attended Nottingham University, qualified as a teacher in 1908 and worked in a London school until 1912. In that year he met Frieda Weekley, a married woman who left her husband and three children to live with Lawrence. Their eventual marriage in 1914 exemplified many of Lawrence's concerns in his novels: the breakdown of social barriers, the flouting of moral convictions, and the conflict between the psychological and physical needs or men and women. Lawrence and his wife left England in 1919, returning on several occasions. They traveled throughout Europe and Australia, spent a long period in New Mexico and died it Italy in 1930.
From his first novel, The White Peacock, published in 1911, through Lady Chatterley's Lover, published in 1928, Lawrence was constantly prosecuted for obscenity. He dared utter the word orgasm in his novels. Worse still, he acknowledged that women, in fact, had orgasms. This got him into trouble with a rather prudish English audience, still reeling over the effects of late 19th century Victorianism. But Lawrence pressed on and an entire generation of young writers saw in Lawrence the attempt to interpret human emotion on a deeper level of human consciousness than that handled by his contemporaries The problem with some of his novels lay in his frank approach to human sexuality and the use of words not permitted in polite discourse. Nineteenth century taboos were still strong. But Joyce and Lawrence were bold enough to write about women who indeed had orgasms, and they were bold enough to express their thoughts on sexuality.
For Lawrence, sex was important because it was part of nature and hence, part of life. Only those who truly live know also how to truly love. Sex was the key to creativity -- it was the source of energy, beauty, religion and everything wonderful. The very clear fact that Freud had made sex one of the centerpieces of his psychoanalytic theories made sex a prime topic of conversation and discourse among a new generation of writers. As one historian has noted: whereas the problem of the 19th century had been religion, the 20th century turned to the new problem of sex.
The excitement produced by the new literature of the men of 1914 tended to probe the inner world in all its irrationality, its emotionality, its nastiness and vibrant realities. With the novels of Lawrence, we are drawn into the characters. We don't simply "relate" to them -- Lawrence makes us be his characters as the struggle with their lives. Their struggle is our struggle. Overall, there is a genuine excitement and creativity at work here. At the same time, however, much of this enthusiasm led to a rejection of public life.
In the Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) novel, Mrs. Dalloway� the main character, Mrs. Dalloway, cannot endure her life as the wife of a leading politician -- the whole thing simply bores her. The new artists saw Europe now plunging into total decadence, a decadence worse still then the one identified by Nietzsche and other thinkers a generation earlier. When civilization is in the process of decay, the only recourse of these writers was in artistic endeavor and not politics or public life. "I hate politics and the belief in politics, because it makes men arrogant, doctrinaire, obstinate and inhuman," wrote Thomas Mann. The English writer, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) added, "I have to recognize that I don't care a penny for political principles." And the German Expressionist, Ludwig Marcuse, wrote, "I don't remember if I voted in those years -- certainly not for whom." It was the Age of the Common Man -- but for the troubled intellectuals of the post-war generation, the common man was a sad joke, democracy a farce and politics became the enemy of culture.
The inter-war years also brought a new architecture and a new music. In Switzerland, Le Corbusier (1887-1965) led a whole school of architecture that denounced the 19th century style of eclecticism and demanded instead, buildings for the machine age. Buildings must be functional: "form follows function." In Germany, Walter Gropius (1883-1969) created the Bauhaus movement. Located at Weimar, Bauhaus was a community, an art school and a place for creative design to flourish. The hope was that art could transform society and so it was social art. Architects and artists like Gropius, Mies van der Rohe , Paul Klee (1879-1940) and Vassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) created a style suitable for the twentieth century: it was urban, industrial and technologically modern. With the rise of Adolf Hitler in 1933, Bauhaus was closed and its members brought their genius to England and the United States in a massive wave of emigration often referred to as the Great Sea Change.
In music, atonality or the abandonment of rules of tonality, was the counterpart of cubism and surrealism in art and the functionalism of Bauhaus. One had to escape what was called the "Beethoven century" in order to really accomplish something different. Already in May 1913, Igor Stravinsky's (1882-1971) ballet, The Rites of Spring, had led to riots in the theater as the dancers danced flat footed and their toes pointed inward.
In all these movements -- in literature, in art, in music -- the post-war theme is similar: abandon tradition, experiment with the unknown, changes the rules, dare to be different, innovate, and above all, expose the sham of western civilization, a civilization whose entire system of values was now perceived as one without justification. This was modernism: a reaction against the conventions of liberal, bourgeois, material, decadent western civilization. It's what we might call the avant garde, or bohemian or abstract today. But for the lost generation of post-war Europe, it seemed to be the only way out of either depression or suicide. In a world now proven to be without values, what else was left but what had not yet been tried before? The words of Nietzsche seemed to be the conscience of the European artist and intellectual.
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copyright � 2000 Steven Kreis