What a difference a century makes! Back in 1900 the streets held mostly horse-drawn carriages, you could die from a simple infection and if you wanted to communicate with a person who was not in the same room, you had to sit down and write a letter. On paper, and with a pen. A glimpse of a woman’s ankle was daring, and duty and respectability were the great social forces of the day. It seems almost impossible that a hundred short years should take us to the 21st century, with its stem cell science, hand-held wireless nanotechnology, global capitalism and politicians who act more like shouty, grudge-bearing teenagers with every day that passes.
How on earth to trace the story of 1900 to 2000? Well, this is the immense task that John Higgs sets himself, and he not only does it with searing intelligence and insight, but with clarity, accessibility and some very entertaining metaphors. If this strikes you as in any way a heavy or difficult book, or one that doesn’t have anything to say that you might be curious to hear, think again. This brilliant account of the modern history of ideas and ideology is an engaging and amusing tale illustrated by a cast of glorious eccentrics and their crazy but influential obsessions.
Perhaps the most important concept in the book is drawn from ancient history. The omphalos ‘is the centre of the world, or, more accurately, what was culturally thought to be the centre of the world.’ In 1900, Higgs tells us, the omphalos that mattered was the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, South London. This was the point on the earth from which time and space were measured, and it was supported ‘by four pillars: Monarchy, Church, Empire and Newton.’ Over the next decades, these great insitutions would crumble, fade in important and be superseded by new ideas. The first of which, in this account, is Einstein’s relativity. Einstein discovered that there was no absolute place of measurement in the universe – everything altered, depending on where you were standing, and what perspective you embodied. This realisation, which forever changed the face of science, becomes the catalyst in Higgs’ analysis for all kinds of other change across the twentieth century. No longer would the Emperor be the great omphalos for his people – instead we would witness the rise of individualism. The ultimate ideology of all that is relative, individualism refused all the hierarchies on which life had previously been organised. No more ‘knowing one’s place in the great scheme of things. Now the fact that we really knew our place, and that it was on shifting sands, viewed from a unique subjective perspective, would come to dominate all subsequent thinking.
Higgs’ influential thinkers on individualism are Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand. Crowley – whose extraordinary life provides many eye-popping anecdotes – was the author of the injunction to ‘Do what thy will’, whilst Rand promoted ‘the virtue of selfishness’. For both of them ‘the solution to a clash of competing liberties was the use of force. When someone was stopping you from doing what you wanted, then the strongest will must prevail.’ Crowley had an amazing number of interested followers – the early pioneers of space travel were deeply into his writings – and of course Ayn Rand’s theories went on to inform modern financial policy. We all know how that went.
Higgs divides his material up into a series of chapters that each deal with a significant area of change – war, Modernism, the discovery of the id, the rise of the teenager, the influcent of nihilism, the spread of the network. Along this primrose path, he strews some brilliant insights, such as: ‘technology had made warfare psychologically too terrible for soldiers to bear’, and the recognition that postmoderism was at work in New Age thinking, with its pick n’ mix approach to spiritual doctrine: ‘to dismiss a spiritual movement on the rational grounds of factual inaccuracy is, in many ways, to miss the point. Religions and spirituality are maps of our emotional territory; not our intellect.’ One of my favorite points concerns modern day capitalism and the rise of big business. In America, corporate lawyers managed to argue for businesses to be classified as individuals, thus gaining them all the rights of the Fourteenth Amendment and encouraging unrestrained growth. However, since there was no one employee or founder in the company who could be held as responsible for its actions, companies became individuals with none of the restraints or responsibilities real people have. In other words, they were granted the legal right to act like psychopaths, and I think it’s fair to say they have done so.
Higgs is also extremely adept at finding helpful ways to explain his more complicated concepts. In the most demanding chapter on mathematical uncertainty and quantum physics, he offers the reader an eye-catching metaphor to think through the subatomic world:
Let us imagine a single unit of news, such as Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, being photographed fighting a kangaroo. Such an event is unpredictable, in that it is not possible to say in advance when it is going to occur. All we can say, and both supporters and detractors of Putin will agree on this point, is that at some point the President is going to punch a kangaroo. That’s just the sort of person he is.’
I absolutely loved this book, and my husband who read it alongside me, loved it too. The only time I stumbled was on the extremely rare occasions when I had read widely in an area Higgs tackles – for instance, Existentialism, which Higgs rightly cites as a response to nihilism. But to say Existentialism IS nihilistic is to miss the insistence of its authors on social and political engagement as essential to our lives, on the way meaning remains no matter that it can seem irrational, and on the responsibility we must all take to do something with our time on earth. However, to cut such a clean swathe through a century of complex and confusing theories it’s inevitable some details will get lost by the wayside, and I was more in awe of Higgs’ ability to explain things so clearly than I was bothered by a few intricacies of thought. Another criticism that came to my mind was that there were not many women represented in the book – but I think that ought to be a criticism of the century, which has been dominated by men and masculine structures of thought, despite second wave feminism. We ought to ponder the consequences of such a celebration of strength, force, individualism, science and technology, when we find ourselves so often suffering from the problems of recklessness, competitiveness and selfishness.
Although Higgs does end on a potentially positive note, with the idea that the twentieth century has been a big blip, a lacuna of compassion as we move from one way of relating in society (based on the omphalos of the Emperor) to another, the transparency-obsessed, interconnected network. It’s a clever idea, and a hopeful one, too. May he be right in this, as he is in so many other things. Stranger Than We Can Imagine ought to be required reading in schools, it’s that excellent and essential a guide to modern history.