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Irony and the 21st Century

19th century philosophy is rife with allegories about a will (Schopenhauer) or a war-like divine force (Nietzsche) or a spirit (Hegel) rising out of the unconscious of the earth and declaring itself at last in some momentous, apocalyptic manifestation. Hegel’s “spirit of history” rises out of the dialectic of time and event, slowly perfecting itself by annihilating the mistakes and the false starts and constructing what the Germans anticipated as a perfect order of some sort. Hitler bought the idea, simplified it, and then applied it with cudgels and tongs to make it fit his warped idea of the coming Utopia of Aryanism. A kinder and gentler form of immanence in nature appeared in the British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, whose study of time, Process and Reality (1929), elaborates the theory that the universe itself is sifting through its molecules and electing only those that cohere into a perfect order. He veils his allegorical intent here, but he seems to think that the universe originated out of a chaotic explosion of potentials, in which “occasions” or eternal tidbits would slowly find their place in the emerging “organism” of the cosmos, and this process was the will of a god to flesh itself in atoms and organize the vast universe into its divine body.

All of these theories have their antecedents in earlier philosophy, but one particular sketch of the theoretical landscape can be found in the poet William Blake’s The Four Zoas, the baroque allegorical narrative of how the sundered parts of the cosmos were beginning to slough off chaos and to find out how the alienated parts could fit back together again into a divinely inspired figure he called Albion. Wagner was late to the party but he saw a chance to incorporate this cosmic optimism into the grand scheme of his operas, in which a fervid Teutonic nationalism found its key in medieval mythology and the rise of a Teutonic spirit long dormant under the warring princes of central Europe. William Butler Yeats helped found the Abbey Theater in Dublin as a place in which to showcase his similarly optimistic and religious vision of the Celtic gods coming back to arouse the sleeping spirit of Ireland after 900 years of persecution by the British.

In almost every case, the reintegration of the sundered world was a reading of Europe (and America) after the fall of Christian theology and metaphysics in the 18th century. Without a consensus of belief in any transcendent vision, materialism would take the place of faith, and a new world order would emerge that had neither heart nor gods. A visionary optimism was hatched in the difficult outer reaches of phenomenology, where it was possible to speculate on the evidence of the new physics and astronomy, hoping that their partial reading of the natural world would allow for arguments of the rest of the hidden pattern. But the optimism was limited and confined to arcane essays on probability and the nature of chance.

That left the realists to hatch other readings of the situation in post-Christian Europe. Hence, the rise of dystopian literature and the invention of detective fiction, where a fallen world is salvaged through the reasoning prowess of a Sherlock Holmes or some other high rationalist. Dystopias had been around a long time before the 19th century, but the need for cautionary tales about the fate of godless science and unrestrained capitalism inspired writers like Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, Samuel Butler, Mark Twain, Emile Zola, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Theodore Dreiser, George Orwell and T.S. Eliot to fashion tales of the cruelest exploitation of the alienated individual in the modern era. Eliot’s return to orthodox Christianity after 1925 signaled a retreat from further examination of a world without gods. You might say he got cold feet after the horrors of World War I, as did many other intellectuals of the period. Ezra Pound called his old friend Eliot “the reverend,” and seemed to think his piety was mostly hogwash. It was difficult for Eliot to make a persuasive argument about the need for a return to Christianity “to save Europe.” But all around him were visionaries promising to find the key to all mythologies in the Christian way, or if not that theology, some other. Pound turned to the writings of Confucius and Mencius, and thought he had discovered the hidden religion of nature buried in the Chinese and Japanese ideogram, in which abstraction was thwarted by the pictorial nucleus of each word, a welding of nature to the abstractness of human expression.

The lure of primitivism discovered in African masks and rituals by the painters Matisse, Picasso, Miro, and Braques, and Gauguin’s studies of ritual in Tahiti, is the main undercurrent of modernism in all its forms. Henry Moore’s earth gods shaped out of stone, Kandinsky’s studies in the mysticism and spirituality of color confirm this hope of the early 20th century. Against these religious tendencies of post-Impressionism and Cubism are the gaunt skeletal figures molded by Brancusi, or the suffering souls of Edward Hopper, who represent the status quo of post-Christian western life without the bromides and panaceas promised by others. It was only a matter of time before Francis Bacon would paint a pope in the act of being punched in the face, and of others tortured on mysterious floating platforms in dingy, English bedrooms. The century’s art and thought seems to split down the middle between hope for a design to explain the world, and the despair that any such speculation was nothing more than fantasy.

The irony of our moment lies in the brutality of the ISIS images of carefully manipulated slaughter of, most recently, Coptic Christians, in Libya, the shooting of the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and the intellectuals meeting to discuss free expression in Copenhagen, which together represent the capacity to sweep aside western faith in reason, freedom, the rights of the individual, values crafted after the collapse of medieval certainty. The attempt to gather up the drifting particles of a lost religious vision has met its counterpart in a determined effort to impose religious absolutism drawn from the 12th century. ISIS operates from the same motives that inspired Hegel – to envision and to midwife the immanent spirit that longs to flesh itself in perfection and moral harmony. To get there, one must cut off a lot of heads, drench the desert with blood, wreak as much chaos as possible on western relativism and moral indifference. The wars to come will be the admission of our profound failure to find anything to replace the faith lost in the dim past, under the banners of the Crusades and the push of Islam into southern Europe. Irony is about all we have to cling to in this age.


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