Category Archives: Modernity

Whirl

Alberto Giacometti

‘It’s a good thing for you to be a clergyman,’ he said at last. ‘People get ideas about a thing they call life. It sets them all wrong. I think it’s poets that are responsible chiefly. Shall I tell you about life?’

‘Yes, do,’ said Paul politely.

‘Well, it’s like the big wheel at Luna Park. Have you seen the big wheel?’

‘No, I’m afraid not.’

‘You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the centre the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It’s great fun.’

‘I don’t think that sounds very much like life,’ said Paul rather sadly.

‘Oh, but it is, though. You see, the nearer you can get to the hub of the wheel the slower it is moving and the easier it is to stay on. There’s generally someone in the centre who stands up and sometimes does a sort of dance. Often he’s paid by the management, though, or, at any rate, he’s allowed in free. Of course at the very centre there’s a point completely at rest, if one could only find it. I’m not sure I am not very near that point myself. Of course the professional men get in the way. Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shriek and giggle! Then there are others, like Margot, who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn’t get on it at all, if you don’t want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they’ve got to join in the game, even if they don’t enjoy it. It doesn’t suit every one.

‘People don’t see that when they say “life” they mean two different things. They can mean simply existence, with its physiological implications of growth and organic change. They can’t escape that—even by death, but because that’s inevitable they think the other idea of life is too—the scrambling and excitement and bumps and the effort to get to the middle. And when we do get to the middle, it’s just as if we never started. It’s so odd.

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall, 1928

Dada

Dada left its traces in America, but never struck deep roots there. It never acquired the criticality, the indignation or the longing for social subversion that marked it in Europe. It devolved into amusing in-jokes and tended to preciosity and quirkiness. This grew out of the tiny clique of self-professed illuminati that sustained it. Its sense of humor never grew as robust as the work of the professional funny guys who helped inspire it, like Rube Goldberg or the Marx Brothers. In America the Dadas were plagued by the thought that American popular culture was more Dada than Dada could be. And in fact they were right.

Robert Hughes, “Days of Antic Weirdness,” 2001

Tools

Francis Picabia

[The] modern sciences do not possess the character of disinterested knowledge, nor is their speculative value, even for those who believe in it, much more than a mask beneath which purely practical considerations are hidden; but this mask makes it possible to retain the illusion of a false intellectuality. Descartes himself, in working out his physics, was primarily interested in extracting from it a system of mechanics, medicine, and morality; but a still greater change was brought about by the diffusion of the influence of Anglo-Saxon empiricism. It is almost exclusively the practical results that science makes possible that gives it so much prestige in the eyes of the general public, because here again are things that can be seen and touched. We have said that pragmatism represents the outcome of all modern philosophy, and the last stage in its decline; but outside philosophy there is also, and has been for a long time, a widespread and unsystematized pragmatism that is to philosophical pragmatism what practical is to theoretical materialism, and which is really the same as what people call “common sense.” What is more, this almost instinctive utilitarianism is inseparable from the materialist tendency, for, “common sense” consists in not going beyond the things of this earth, as well as in ignoring all that does not make an immediate practical appeal. In particular, it is “common sense” that sees only the world of the senses as real, and that admits of no knowledge other than the one that comes from the senses; moreover, it ascribes value to this narrow form of knowledge only insofar as it offers a possibility of satisfying either material needs or a certain sentimentalism, for in reality sentiment—and this must be frankly stated at the risk of shocking contemporary moralism—lies quite close to matter. In all this there remains no place for intelligence, or at most only insofar as intelligence may consent to serve for the attainment of practical ends, and to become a mere instrument subordinated to the requirements of the lowest and most corporeal part of the human individual—”a tool for making tools,” to quote a significant expression of Bergson: it is an utter indifference to truth that begets pragmatism in all its forms.

Under such conditions, industry is no longer merely an application of science, an application from which science should, in itself, remain completely independent; it has become the reason for, and justification of, science to such an extent that here too the normal relations between things have been reversed. What the modern world has striven after with all its strength, even when it has claimed in its own way to pursue science, is really nothing other than the development of industry and machinery; and in thus seeking to dominate matter and bend it to their service, men have only succeeded, as we said at the beginning of this book, in becoming its slaves.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World1927

The Sentimentality of Science

Jacques-Louis David

It is ‘common sense’ that sees only the world of the senses as real, and that admits of no knowledge other than the one that comes from the senses; moreover, it ascribes value to this narrow form of knowledge only insofar as it offers a possibility of satisfying either material needs or a certain sentimentalism, for in reality sentiment—and this must be frankly stated at the risk of shocking contemporary moralism—lies quite close to matter. In all this there remains no place for intelligence, or at most only insofar as intelligence may consent to serve for the attainment of practical ends, and to become a mere instrument subordinated to the requirements of the lowest and most corporeal part of the human individual—”a tool for making tools”, to quote a significant expression of Bergson: it is an utter indifference to truth that begets pragmatism in all its forms.

Under such conditions, industry is no longer merely an application of science, an application from which science should, in itself, remain completely independent; it has become the reason for, and justification of, science to such an extent that here too the normal relations between things have been reversed. What the modern world has striven after with all its strength, even when it has claimed in its own way to pursue science, is really nothing other than the development of industry and machinery; and in thus seeking to dominate matter and bend it to their service, men have only succeeded, as we said at the beginning of this book, in becoming its slaves. Not only have they limited their intellectual ambition—if such a term can still be used in the present state of things—to inventing and constructing machines, but they have ended by becoming in fact machines themselves.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 1927

Sacred Art

The love of ‘formulae’, that is, of formal syntheses which are both concise and rich in possibilities, is characteristic of every sacred art. Buddhist iconography is made up of type images of this kind, and the same is true of Hindu and Taoist art, as well as of the icons of the Eastern Church , whose colouring and composition are fixed by tradition. In each case the imagination of the individual artist is subordinated to the traditional model; his imagination is free only in an inward sense in that he endeavours to attain to the spiritual kernel of his model and to remake the image from that. In the case of Islam, it is in architecture and ornamentation that one must look for the formulae of prototypes which the artist ceaselessly reproduces and varies according to circumstance. These prototypes are inexhaustible because they are true.

This fidelity to models, which religion does not actually prescribe but which the consensus of believers has in a sense consecrated, has earned for Islamic art the stigma of being the victim of ‘stagnation’, as if its stability over the centuries had been the result of inertia or lack of awareness. In reality, the alternatives of stagnation are highly inapplicable to sacred art, which is either faithful to its principles, and hence active and aware, or forgetful of them, thus entailing decadence and collapse.

Titus Burckhardt, Art of Islam: Language and Meaning, 1976

The Poverty of Modernity

. . . what is called the Renaissance was in reality not a rebirth but the death of many things; on the pretext of being a return to the Greco-Latin civilization, it merely took over the most outward part of it, since this was the only part that could be expressed clearly in written texts, and in any case, this incomplete restoration was bound to have a very artificial character, as it meant the re-establishment of forms whose real life had gone out of them centuries before. As for the traditional sciences of the Middle Ages, after a few final manifestations around this time, they disappeared as completely as those of long distant civilizations long since destroyed in the cataclysm; and this time nothing was to arise in their place. Henceforth there was only “profane” philosophy and “profane” science, in other words, the negation of true intellectuality, the limitation of knowledge to its lowest order, namely, the empirical and analytic study of facts divorced from principles, a dispersion in an indefinite multitude of insignificant details, and the accumulation of unfounded and mutually destructive hypotheses and of fragmentary views leading to nothing other than those practical applications that constitute the sole real superiority of modern civilization–a scarcely enviable superiority, moreover, which by stifling every other preoccupation, has given the present civilization the purely material character that makes of it a veritable monstrosity.

René Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World, 1927

Open Mind, No Mind

Raoul Hausmann

The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut. Man can hardly be defined, after the fashion of Carlyle, as an animal who makes tools; ants and beavers and many other animals make tools, in the sense that they make an apparatus. Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion in the formation of some tremendous scheme of philosophy and religion, he is, in the only legitimate sense of which the expression is capable, becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined scepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when he says that he has outgrown definitions, when he says that he disbelieves in finality, when, in his own imagination, he sits as God, holding no form of creed but contemplating all, then he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and the unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broad-minded.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

The New Shit

Paul McCarthy

Novelty is a quality independent of the intrinsic value of the commodity. . . . It is the quintessence of false consciousness, whose indefatigable agent is fashion. The illusion of novelty is reflected, like one mirror in another, in the illusion of perpetual sameness. The product of this reflection is the phantasmagoria of “cultural history,” in which the bourgeoisie savors its false consciousness to the last. The art that begins to doubt its task and ceases to be “inseparable from utility” (Baudelaire) must make novelty its highest value. The snob becomes its arbiter novarum rerum. He is to art what the dandy is to fashion.

Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” 1939