Friday, December 05, 2008

The Spirit of the Age

With 2009 just around the corner it seems about the right time to think about this decade, and see if any themes have emerged in literature, or elsewhere, to define the spirit of the age. Post 9/11, and a week after Mumbai, you can say that "terror" could be seen as that spirit, but as no doubt someone else has said, terror is the spirit of all our ages, not just this one. If there is one literary work that seems to be evoked more often than any other at the moment its Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", which must say something about our view of the times - the last time post-apocalyptic nightmares took hold of our imagination were in the decade after the 2nd world war, as the threat of the cold war began to grip where the terror of Nazi Germany was only just subsiding ("Lord of the Flies" - 1954, "1984" - 1949).

Yet, I think its some other works of that late 40s/early 50s period we need to look to. "Waiting for Godot" (1953) has been revived a couple of times lately, and there's something about its ennui, its resignation, its passivity that seems particularly key to the current world. Look around the world, and what you see, whether thuggery, barbarism, militarism or imperialism, is at a state or semi-official level. We live in repressive times, where the sheer force of the state, or the immense reach of globalisation seems to quell anything other than feelings of resignation. This is no 1968, with a youth rebellion reeling round the world with contempt at their elders, nor 77, with punk rock, working class rebellion and race riots beginning to form a heady brew of discontent. This is the age when a shop assistant gets killed on the first day of the Walmart Sale, as the angry consumers trample over him; or when the decision on whether a cricket tour should continue in India is more about what's in the contract, than what is morally right or sensible.

Art reflects, doesn't lead - and yet I don't think the spirit of the age is an angry one, or even a collective one. Even in parts of the world where there is much more reason for rebellion and protest than in the west, the differential between the might of the state and the organising power of the people is too great; collectively there is ennui, resignation, even acceptance. (The destruction of value that the banks have given us over the last year or more, and the willingness of the population to almost reward the architects of this failure.) Much is talked about the internet and "social media" but a Facebook group seems a poor replacement for a union meeting. That other book of the age, A.M. Homes' "This Book Can Save Your Life" seems every bit as appropriate as "The Road"; they both deal in dread, but whereas the dread in "The Road" is very real, in the Homes book its almost existential.

I've been reading a few poems recently that seem to have something of this quality as well - a quietitude, a non-expectation of solving things. So back to Beckett, "I can't go on, I'll go on."


Jim H. said...

Fine post, BR. I'm only just coming to your blog. What lingers for me in The Road is the man's unshakeable belief in the promise of the future—if not for him, for his son. Posterity: this, of course, is why we have institutions; this why we write fiction. Our own measly, individual lives are small comfort in the sweep of things. Wonderful book. Does it capture the spirit of the age? Tough call. How forward looking are we, really? How not narcissistic, self-centered, self-involved?

As for Godot, the bleakness prevails. The cruelty. The expectation of something that just doesn't come.

All wonderful ponderables inspired by your post. I look forward to reading around in the archives of your blog, and invite you to my own little blog—Wisdom of the West—which shares some of your interests.

Best wishes for the holidays,
Jim H.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Thanks for commenting - The Road's almost made for endless dissection, but at its heart is a powerful book, with, as you say, an unnamed central character who could be seen as the little remaining "hope" from this particularly modern Pandora's Box.