Monday, February 1, 2016
Review: John Higg's "Stranger Than We Can Imagine"
John Higgs new history book, "Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century" is not the usual political-military narrative that most historians offer.
Instead, Higgs argues that the best way to understand how we got from the 19th century to the present day is to examine some of the difficult but interesting ideas and artistic conceptions that arose from 1900 to 2000. Some of these ideas are hard to understand, so the "Making Sense" in the title is something of a double entendre.
This approach plays to Higgs' strengths. He is very good at explaining difficult ideas in a way that makes them easy to understand, and he often uses humor. A floating teacup (Higgs seems very British) is used to discuss the theory of relativity.
Although 12-tone music was invented fairly early in the century, the results of the composing style remains incomprehensible to many listeners today, and it's also difficult to explain to non-musicians. Higgs manages the job, lucidly, in one paragraph:
In traditional composition, a stream of musical notes complement each other in a way that sounds correct to our ears because the pitch of every note is related to, and determined by, the central tone of the key chosen by the composer. Without that central tone, which all the other notes are based on, we become adrift in what Professor Erik Levi called "the abyss of no tonal centre." This is similar to Einstein's removal of the Cartesian x, y and z axes from our understanding of space, on the grounds that they were an arbitrary system we had projected onto the universe rather than a fundamental property of it. Without a tonal centre at the heart of Viennese atonal music, the compositions which followed could be something of a challenge.
Although Higgs is one of the most clear prose stylists writing today, his book actually is rather complex. By my count, he offers three narratives.
In one narrative, the book is what it appears to be — a history of the 20th century, focusing on some of the more striking and hard to understand ideas and social movements. These ideas and movements are discussed in a series of thematic chapters, but the topics they cover are arranged to form a kind of temporal narrative; relativity is covered in the first chapter, for example, while the Internet takes up the last.
But as a kind of organizing principle, Higgs narrates these events as a history of the rise of individualism, and how that played out. For Higgs, while there is a positive side how individualism freed people, individualism is not an end to itself, but a stage along the way to organizing a new approach to society that balances freedom and responsibility.
In his chapter on teenagers and rock and roll, Chapter 11, Higgs compares Margaret Thatcher's philosophy to the philosophy of the Rolling Stones, and he does not intend that as a compliment to Mick Jagger & Co. He ends the chapter,
The second half of the twentieth century was culturally defined by adolescent teenage individualism. But despite complaints about kids being ungrateful and selfish, the adolescent stage is a necessary right of passage for those evolving from children to adults. Understanding the world through the excluding filter of "What about me?" is, ultimately, just a phase.
The teenage stage is intense. It is wild and fun and violent and unhappy, often at the same time. But it does not last long. The "Thatcher Delusion" was that individualism was an end goal, rather than a developmental stage. Teenagers do not remain teenagers forever.
But RAW fans will recognize the book as a kind of "secret history" or hidden narrative of RAW's intellectual universe.
I call it a "secret history" because Wilson is not mentioned at all. He's not in the index, although the bibliography does mention the Illuminatus! trilogy.
But Higgs, who often lectures about Wilson and who often writes about him (he wrote the introduction for the new edition of Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, published by the RAW Trust) provides discussion and background on many concepts, people and ideas mentioned by Wilson.
For example, he discusses modernism and the writing of James Joyce; Emperor Norton in San Francisco; Aleister Crowley's career; John von Neumann's game theory; rocket scientist and magician Jack Parsons; Carl Jung's interest in UFOS; Erwin Schroedinger and quantum mechanics, and George Gurdjieff's efforts to get people to come out of "waking sleep" — all issues raised by Wilson's writing. I'm probably forgetting other examples. Because I have read so much Wilson, there were probably fewer surprises for me than for most of Higgs' readers. I doubt that many of them had heard of Emperor Norton before.
Higgs' rather skeptical treatment of the value of individualism allows him to put some distance, however, between himself and Wilson, who rooted much of his philosophy celebrating the uniqueness and primacy of the individual.
Higgs' book is entertaining and stimulating from beginning to end; when I did a "best books of 2015" piece for my paper, I included it in my list.