Tuesday, March 27, 2012

800 Words: ET: Almanac

I will have a comment upon this passage tomorrow. In the meantime, I cede the floor to Jacques Barzun.

Let Us End with a Prologue

"The careful historian, before he ventures to predict the course of history, murmurs to himself 'Schedel.' It is not a magic word, but the name of a learned German who, in 1493--note the date--compiled and published the Nuremberg Chronicle. It announced that the sixth of the seven ages of mankind was drawing to a close, and it included several blank pages for recording anything of interest that might still occur during the final days. As we know, what occurred was the opening of the New World and all innovations that followed from it--hardly a close. With this risk in mind, I mean to set down what appears to me possible, plausible, likely, as our own era reaches an end.

Our Age

Some of the descriptive labels: Age of Uncertainty, Age of Science, Age of Nihlism, Age of Massacres, Age of the Masses Age of Globalism, Age of Dictatorships, Age of Design, Age of Defeat, Age of Communication, Age of the Common Man, Age of Cinema and Democracy, Age of the Child, Age of Anxiety, Age of Anger, Age of Absurd Expectations

"Some writers have called our time the end of the European age. True in one sense, the phrase is misleading in another: it overlooks the Europeanization of the globe. Techno-science and democracy are far from ruling everywhere, and in certain places they are fiercely opposed, but together they grip people's imagination and inflame their desires. The whole world wants, not freedom, but EMANCIPATION and enjoyment. And the West is the corner of the globe whose peoles, borrowing freely from all others, have shown the way of achieving the one and given the means of possessing the other. [A book to browse in is Pandemonium by Humphrey Jennings.] The shape and coloring of the next era is beyond anyone's power to define, if it were guessable it would not be new. But on the character of the interval between us and the real tomorrow, speculation is possible. Within the historian lives a confederate who is an incurable pattern-maker and willing to risk the penalties against fortune-telling.
"Let the transitional state be described int he past tense, like a chronicler looking back from the year 2300. As the wise ancient Disraeli remarked, 'We cannot be wrong, because we have studied the past and we are famous for discovering the future when it has taken place.'
"The population was divided roughly into two groups; they did not like the word classes. The first, less numerous, was made up of the men and women who possessed the virtually inborn ability to handle the products of techne and master the methods of physical science, especially mathematics--it was to them what Latin had been to the medieval clergy. This modern elite had the geometrical mind that singled them out for the life of research and engineering. The Lord Bacon had predicted that once the ways and biases of science were enthroned, this type of mind would be found relatively common. Dials, toggles, buzzers, gauges, icons on screens, light-emitting diodes, symbols and formulas to save time and thought--these were for this group of people the source of emotional satisfaction, the means of rule over others, the substance of shoptalk, the very joy and justification of life.
"The mind was shaped and the fancy filled by these intricacies as had been done in an earlier era by theology, poetry, and the fine arts. The New Man saw the world as a storehouse of items retrievable through a keyboard, and whoever added to the sum ws in high repute. He, and more and more often She, might be an inventor or a theorist, for the interest in hypotheses about the creation of the cosmos and the origin of life persisted, intensified, from the previous era. The sense of being close to a final formulation lasted for over 200 years.
"It is from this class--no, group--that the governors and heads of institutions were recruited. The parallel with the Middle Ages is plain--clerics in one case, cybernists in the other. The latter took pride in the fact that in ancient Greek cybernetes means helmsman, governor. It validated their position as rulers over the masses, which by then could neither read nor count. But these less capable citizens were by no means barbarians, yet any schooling would have been wasted on them; that had been proved in the late 20C(entury). Some now argue that the schooling was at fault, not the pupils; but when the teachers themselves declared children unteachable, the Deschooling Society movement rapidly converted everybody to its view.
"What saved the masses from brutishness was the survival (though in odd shapes) of a good deal of literature and history from the 500 years of western culture, mingled with a sizable infusion of the eastern. Some among the untutored group taught themselves to read, compiled digests, and by adapting great stories and diluting great ideas provided the common people with a culture over and above the televised fare. It was already well mixed and stirred by the 21C(entury). Public readings, recitals of new poems based on ancient ones, simple plays, and public debates about the eternal questions (which bored the upper class), furnished the minds and souls of the ordinary citizen. This composer of longings, images, and information resembles that which the medieval monks, poets, and troubadours fashioned out of the Greco-Roman heritage. Religious belief in the two ages alike varied from piety, deep or conventional, to mysticism.
"As for social organization, the people were automatically divided into interest groups by their residence and occupation, or again by some personal privilege granted for a social purpose. The nation no longer existed, superseded by regions, much smaller, but sensibly determined by economic instead of linguistic and historical unity. Their business affairs were in the hands of corporation executives whose view of their role resembled that of their medieval ancestors. Not the accumulation of territories but of companies and control over markets were their one aim in life, sanctified by efficiency. Their The pretext was rarely borne out but the game prospered and the character of the players followed another medieval prototype: constant nervousness punctuated by violent and arbitrary acts against persons and firms. Dismissals, resignations, wholesale firings of workers and staffs were daily events. There being no visible bloodshed, wounds and distress were veiled. The comprehensive welfare system, improved since its inception, repaired the damage. Its decisions being all made by computer on the basis of each citizen's set of identity numbers, there could be few terrible grievances. Those due to typing errors would be corrected--in time. There was thus no place for the citizen voter and the perpetual clash of opinions that had paralyzed representative governments.
"The goal of equality was not only preserved but the feeling of it enhanced. Faith in science excluded dissent on important matters; the method brings everyone to a single state of mind. On the workaday plain, the dictates of numerical studies guided the consumer and the parent, the old and the sick. The great era had ended--by coincidence, no doubt--as it had begun, with a new world disease, transmitted (also like the old) through sexual contact. But intense medical research in due course achieved cure and prevention, and the chief killer ailment was once more heart disease, most often linked to obesity. The control of nature apparently stops short of self-control. But Stat Life, ensured by the many specialized government agencies, inspired successful programs and propaganda in many domains of the secure society. The moral anarchy complained of in the early days of the Interim rather suddenly gave way to a strict policing of everybody by everybody else. In time it became less exacting, and although fraud, corruption, seuxal promiscuity, and tyranny at home or in the office did not disappear, these vices, having to be concealed, attracted only the bold and reckless. And even they agreed that the veil is a sign not of hypocrisy but of respect for human dignity.
"As for peace and war, the former was the distinguishing mark of the West from the rest of the world. The numerous regions of the Occident and America formed a loose confederation obeying rules from Brussels and Washington in concert; they were prosperous, law-abiding, overwhelming, in offensive weaponry, and they had decided to let outside peoples and their factions eliminate one another until exhaustion introduced peaceableness into their plans.
"After a time, estimated at a little over a century, the western mind was set upon by a blight: it was Boredom. The attack was so severe that the over-entertained people, led by a handful of restless men and women from the upper orders, demanded Reform and finally imposed it in the usual way, by repeating one idea. These radicals had begun to study the old neglected literary and photographic texts and maintained that they were the record of a fuller life. They urged looking with a fresh eye at the monuments still standing about; they reopened the collections of works or art that had long seemed so uniformly dull that nobody went near them. They distinguished styles and the different ages of their emergence--in short, they found a past and used it to create a new present. Fortunately, they were bad imitators (except for a few pedants), and their twisted view of their sources laid the foundation of our nascent--or perhaps one should say, renascent--culture. It has resurrected enthusiasm in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive."

Jacques Barzun: From Dawn to Decadence

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