Saturday, January 15, 2005

Part 4: The Second Phase Of Modernism

Before going on with part 4, let me answer one commentor. I was reluctant to start using the term "modernism" as an antithesis to romantic-nostalgism and fanatical idealism. Elsewhere I call it Romanticism vs the traditions of the Enlightenment. If you want to see this antithesis laid out pretty clearly, as it applies to literature and the arts, see my article: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Modern Age.

In literature the contrast is not only huge, it is remarkably consistent and pure. If an author posits a past golden age, he or she nearly always ALSO follows the rest of an exact recipe of romantic tropes. I use Tolkien and Star Wars to illustrate this, but the best example is the stark and diametrically opposite moral values portrayed by two movies in the same universe, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan vs Star Trek III: Search for Spock.

In any event, I decided that modernism seemed a more useful term than "the enlightenment". Let's now turn to continuing with my draft article about modernism.

The Second Phase Of Modernism

The second phase of modernism was its era of golden ambitions. During the long stretch from the American Civil War until the First World War, an alliance of tinkerers and capitalists became ever-more convinced that nothing lay beyond reach.

True, the robber barons cheated like mad, stole everything they could grab, and flaunted wealth to such a garish degree that it became known as a Gilded Age. But there was also a cheerfully egalitarian-meritocratic feel to it all. Fortunes were won and lost in a spirit of easy-come, easy-go and few resented the poor boy who - encouraged by all those Horatio Alger tales - turned pluck, inventiveness and good fortune into a mighty bonanza.

Driven by can-do individualism, by free-wheeling markets, by a roughshod, stoic willingness to endure periods of bad luck - and spiced with Wild West machismo - they took their social Darwinism with several shots of whiskey and several thousand grains of salt. Even those immigrants who slaved in sweatshops for low wages mostly believed, and mostly succeeded in their one-generation programs to uplift happier and better-educated kids. You and I might envision people of that era lacking compassion. But you and I are a whole lot richer and have much higher standards for one reason. We stand on their broad shoulders.

Oh, and one more point about the Second Age of Modernism. We like to think that WE are experiencing rapid and disrupting change. But imagine that you live in 1910 and have just witnessed the arrival, in rapid succession, of wireless telegraphy, commercial radio, refrigerators, women politicians, telephones, washing machines, automobiles, airplanes, community colleges, zeppelins, electric lighting, gas cooking, elevators, science fiction stories, skyscrapers, reliable indoor plumbing... and all of these newfangled things moving down the social ladder, transforming rapidly from extravagances for the rich to normal accoutrements of a burgeoning middle class.

Could anybody, witnessing all this, NOT believe in modernism?

Well, in fact, many people were deeply disturbed by it. They waxed eloquent about how much better things had been in former times, when children respected their elders, when women weren’t uppity, when citified interdependence had not usurped self-reliance and yeoman farmers stood by their old-time religion. But while uneasiness and nostalgia won many social and political battles, the rejectors seemed helpless to prevail in any long term war against modernism and change, which had captured the imagination of their children.

Then came the first great setback.

on to part 5 

Or return to the beginning: The Radical Notion of Modernism