Friday, November 11, 2016

Modernism and the Death of the Victorian Dream

When I was at Cambridge, I had the opportunity to attend a course of lectures by the eminent architectural and cultural historian, Dalibor Vesely, described on Wikipedia as "one of the most outstanding architectural teachers of the late twentieth century."  These lectures, which attracted a large audience outside the Architecture department, had a tremendous effect on my thinking about intellectual history in the Victorian and modern periods, and I want to try to replicate here a small part of his thinking about that period, which came to be dominant in Cambridge intellectual life from the early eighties on.

It is important, as Veseley suggested, to understand the immense optimism of the Victorian era.  The nineteenth century saw the industrial revolution, which massively increased the output of goods and food, making famine a distant thing for many.  We saw the development of vaccines, which offered the very real prospect of seeing many of the maladies which had plagued mankind eliminated.  And equally important was the development of our understanding in a systematic way.  Progress in genetics, the mapping out of the periodic table of the elements and other such developments led to a faith that mankind was on the verge of moving past all of its previous horrors, to a new golden age.  This led to such heroic quests as Freud's attempt to reduce all human behavior to something as clearly delineated as the periodic table, or the long dead belief among modern architects that all design could be properly derived from an understanding of material function.

Well, most all of this, as we know, came to a devastating crash with World War I, where the world learned to its horror that progress can go the wrong way as easily as the right way, depending on who directs that progress.  And yet, through all of this, there remained a vestige of this heroic dream; and that was that morally, the world was moving into a new age, where abundant food and resources would allow the ages-old hatred and greed that had always plagued mankind to wither and die; where one by one, the world's people were learning to live in tolerance, and have a concern for the welfare of others.

I think we can now safely abandon that conceit, as, if anything, more delusional than the other Victorian dreams.  Evil; hatred, greed, the lust for cruelty for its own sake, the intense desire to punish others just for being different; these are an inseparable part of humanity.  We don't all suffer from these maladies; in fact the majority of people at any given time may be perfectly decent.  But it is seemingly beyond our capacity to eliminate this evil entirely from the human race, and those who are evil enough can succeed in blinding large parts of the populace to what it is that they are really supporting, so that endless horrors can be unleashed on us in their name.  Our country alone, supposedly the shining light of the earth, has slaughtered between two and four million civilians in Vietnam, and another million in Iraq, without a shred of justification, and without most Americans giving a damn.

People of good will have let their guard down again in this country, and assumed that their good will was contagious, and that it would be stronger than the lust for degradation that exists buried in so many.  Well, it wasn't, and now we are faced with the result.

"The right" has now shown itself, over and over again, for a century and a half, to be not the other side of some long-winded political or cultural debate; it is the face of evil, the face of greed, the face of hatred, the face of violence, alive today as it has been throughout the existence of mankind.  We must never, ever again delude ourselves into thinking that it is merely a political opponent.  Our attitude from this day forth must be to crush it like the diseased creature that it is.  There is no compromise with it.

The great failing of Obama was to push out of his consciousness this fact, as the right betrayed him, and lied to him, and suckered him over and over again.  Had he really fought the good fight against these people, instead of portraying them as reasonable opponents, we might have been in a different place today.  We must never make this mistake again.  I want to make it clear that, I fear, it is too late for this resolve to save the United States, which may have just made an irreversible move toward the scrap heap of history,  but next time, next country, maybe the populace will have the sense not to let false patriots casually extinguish the "shining light on the hill" about which they like to pontificate so insistently.

2 comments:

Jean Valjean said...

Awesome. I'm sharing on Faceboook and Twitter.

Green Eagle said...

Thanks. As I said, the credit goes to Dalibor Veseley, and the people at Harvard who made it possible for me to be a research student at the time that he was teaching at Cambridge.