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Garry Leonard

What is it we want to say about the Twentieth century? What might others say centuries hence? What makes it different from any other? What issues from former centuries are still present, either as a difficult legacy, or a promise unfulfilled, or a nightmare as yet forestalled but still an ominous possibility? And, given these questions, what is the role of Art, literature and film that is also unique? A preliminary answer to that question might be posed as follows: because “answers” have less and less credibility in a more and more subjective world view, Art in the Twentieth Century develops more and more sophisticated ways to ask more subtle and more challenging questions. What the Twentieth Century needs, in other words, is not more answers, but better questions. And there is a deep urgency to this concern since some of the worst episodes of the Twentieth Century–Imperialism, World Wars, Genocide, Fascism, the Atomic Bomb, the neo-Imperialism of globalized capitalism–all come from people and institutions “sure” that they have the answers and therefore determined to ignore (or worse, eliminate) whoever challenges them. The most dangerous attitude of our time is not uncertainty but a false certitude presented as “the way things need, should or have to be”. Such a false certitude is often backed up by force to protect the people promoting it from doubt. A good deal of Twentieth Century Art is devoted to suggesting alternative “realities” so that being told “that’s just the way it is” can be countered with “but how did it get that way?”. In other words, a traditional belief in “essentialism”–that things had some fundamental essence that could be discerned, gets replaced by “constructivism”–a sense that the “meaning” we think is “inherent” in the thing, has actually been placed there by us, and represents what we need to see, and what we want to find, rather than something essential and separate from us. In contrast to this, Science has developed an extraordinary capacity to discover “objective knowledge”, supposedly untainted by the subjective, but the uses to which this Science then gets put remain very subjective indeed. One reason the wars of the Twentieth century have been so devastating is that the weaponry has been improved courtesy of various scientific discoveries. The discovery, in other words, may be “objective,” but the use to which it is put, is not. A great deal of anxiety in the Twentieth Century revolves around the question of whether or not we have the wisdom to use what scientific knowledge has made possible. And, beyond that, do we have the moral and ethical structure? Increased technical innovation is often conflated with a sense that we are advancing in terms of our humanity–but the two operate separately, and innovation does not necessarily signal an increase in the understanding of ourselves, our world, or our relation to our world. All of these issues are contained in the poem “Dover Beach”. The moonlit ocean the poet sees as so beautiful, he then imagines as indicating something serene and full--and, in an older poetic tradition, he would have gone on to assume the world is therefore essentially serene and full--but he realizes this is his own projection, and therefore a construction, to try and reassure him about what he fears he lacks: fullness (a sense of completeness) and serenity. He tries, in other words, to find evidence “out there” of what he can not be sure of “inside”. This crisis of certitude I have called “the loss of transcendental certitude” to connect it to the increased sense of the absence of a divine force ruling and ordering the universe beyond the limited and even corrupt sensibility we bring to that task ourselves. In fact, he feels neither serenity nor completeness, and the grating roar of the ocean waves ceaselessly pulling back pebbles and throwing them up the beach again, undercuts his constructed image of the peaceful moonlit ocean, and he is thereby forced to acknowledge it is indifferent to his existence and will not supply or guarantee anything. It is then he turns to his companion and demands truth and fidelity from her, warning that should they fail to be true to one another, there is no hope in this world of “ignorant armies clashing by night”. But, as I suggested, this sets up a relationship of the “self” to the “other” where the other is used to shore up the self. This “other”, who, of course, to him or herself, is also a “self”, does the same thing. The Self/Other relationship becomes vampiric–with a stronger self seeking to strengthen its’s self at the expense of the self of someone weaker. Relationships become predatory almost by default, and not because of individual bad intent. Such a vampiric relationship is brilliantly depicted in Oscar Wilde’s presentation of Dorian Gray’s first “love” affair with the nearly helpless Sibyl Vane who has no idea Dorian Gray is in love with the affect her stage performance has on HIM, and has no real interest in anything “essential” about her. He is in love with the feeling the reality she constructs grants to him, and therefore he will show nothing but contempt when she can no longer fake love on stage because now she actually loves someone: Dorian Gray. Of course, she doesn’t even know his name, and calls him “Prince Charming” indicating the extent to which she, too, has “invented” him: he is the Prince that will take her away from the shabby stage life and her impossible, narcissistic mother (who also drains the life force of her children as she seeks from them the temporary distraction of dramatic effect). In a world of transcendental certitude, we can believe God is watching and do what we think would please him or her, but in a world coping with the loss of transcendental certitude, there's no such thing and that the best thing may be to get as much as you can of whatever you want in this world, since there appears to be no other one, and no ultimate judgement. One might position money as “certitude” and make as much of it as possible; like any belief, this belief would then make one how and why one choice is more significant and desirable than another. Nietzsche
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