Archive for Thursday, December 30, 1999

ALL TRIUMPH MAY BE FLEETING

December 30, 1999

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— In the first decade of this century in Linz, Austria, August Kubizek would take walks with another adolescent. Years later Kubizek remembered:

"My friend would sometimes be taken by a certain mood and begin to change everything he saw. That house there was in a wrong position; it would have to be demolished. ... That street needed a correction in order to give it a more compact impression. Away with this horrible, completely bungled tenement block! ...This inclination to be dissatisfied with things as they were ... was ineradicable in him."

This boy who chafed against everything became the most radical person of a century convulsed by radicalisms far fiercer than the (relatively) demure dream that justice would reign when the last king had been strangled with the entrails of the last priest. Radicalism no longer aimed merely to change elites. The nature of man would be remade.

Kubizek's friend Adolf Hitler appears in what surely is the century's most remarkable photograph. Snapped Aug. 1, 1914, in Munich's Odeonsplatz, it is of a crowd jubilant about the coming of war. Clearly discernible is 25-year-old Hitler, ecstatic. The era of restraint and reticence was ending. Do today's intellectuals who celebrate "transgressive" acts, erasing limits on willfulness, know there was a kindred spirit in the Odeonsplatz?

To this day French plows turn up soldiers' bones. But buried forever was the pre-1914 world of castes and durable hierarchies. Also gone were other fixities, moral and intellectual. In the universal flux and contingency, language itself seemed to have become a realm of indeterminacy, as T.S. Eliot wrote:

... Words strain

Crack and sometimes break, under the burden, Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place, Will not stay still.

"It was," writes Modris Eksteins (in "Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age"), "as if words had become like the mud on the Somme." But, then, the 20th century has become used to a fact not known in 1900 -- you are used to it, aren't you? -- that the cup that holds your coffee, and the table that holds the cup, are mostly space.

In the first half of the century, physics radically changed our understanding of physical reality and what we can do with it. The second half of the century belonged to biologists, who may be changing what we can be. Einstein's axiom that the world is more apt to be destroyed by bad politics than bad physics needs a corollary: Good biology without good philosophy will be a calamity.

As the century closes in a triumphalist mood, it may seem churlish to wonder whether such contentment is quite the right reaction to a century in which there was so much tragedy and murder to be triumphed over. Still, health, wealth, freedom and respect have been expanded more rapidly and distributed more broadly than could have been anticipated, or even imagined, in 1899. Socialism is now as barren an ideology as fascism.

Suppose the problem of producing prosperity has been solved and tyranny (other than that of ungoverned appetites) has been rendered unfeasible. To what should we now aspire? Never mind Robert Frost's question:

How are we to write

The Russian novel in America

As long as life goes so unterribly?

But before congratulating ourselves for making history an upward spiral, it would be well to know what, if anything, we mean by "up," beyond material comfort.

We have so lost the talent for admiration -- for looking up -- that a 1984 movie ("Amadeus") presented Mozart as a gibbering ninny. People seem more comfortable with compassion, looking down. That may vindicate a prophecy made 70 years ago by Jose Ortega y Gasset who foresaw "vertical barbarians" who would storm their cultures from within, rising for the purpose of lowering things to their moral level.

There is a perhaps telling fact about some of this century's noblest heroes of freedom -- Churchill, Adenauer, De Gaulle, both Roosevelts. They who (in Stephen Spender's phrase) "left the vivid air signed with their honor" were formed by the Victorian and Edwardian era, and the certitudes that died 1914-18.

In November 1911, Arthur Balfour, an aristocratic philosopher-politician emblematic of that era, abruptly resigned as leader of Britain's Conservative Party. A colleague explained: "He knows that there was once an ice age and that there will be an ice age again." Today's triumphalism should be leavened by such a sense of how long the long run is, and of the impermanence of things, especially triumphs.

-- George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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