Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Lost world

Early-to-mid 20th century Europe and America (to the extent that America reflected aspects of European culture) is my spiritual home. The world of the new physics and the Vienna Circle. A world of artistic and literary ferment. Even much of the popular culture was not ephemeral (the Gershwin brothers for example).

And yet I know this world only by the traces it has left - books, paintings, films, songs; but, more importantly, by overlapping generations and manners of thought, speech and action that survived long enough for me to learn to love and respect them.

I don't know that book-learning is ever really enough to know a culture. One has to grow up in it - or at least to mix with those who did or, more doubtfully, to mix with those who mixed with those who did! That song comes to mind: I've danced with a man, who's danced with a girl, who's danced with the Prince of Wales...

When I was an undergraduate, many of the older academics spoke English with German or Hungarian accents and epitomized for me the archetypal European scholar. There were stories of encounters with famous names. An old colleague (and friend) was taught logic at Harvard by Willard Van Orman Quine and this mattered to me.

I recognize of course that much of this is idealized and even illusory and based on the same rather childish tendencies which drive teenagers to emulate pop-culture icons, or hang around hotel exits.

The difference is that my idols all checked out some time ago.


  1. One virtue of Herodotus was that he applied the rule of three generations. He interviewed people whose grandfathers had fought the Persians. So, he talked to people who talked to people who had been eye witnesses to the events he chronicled.

    I myself know people who knew people of genius from the time you mentioned. I.A. Richards, the English literary critic, was one. My father was a protege of Richards, whom I met when I was a boy. In fact, we climbed Mt. Rainier together (in Washington state). Of course, I did not understand Richards' work, then (and perhaps not even now). But the respect for education, for the life of the mind, was palpable among such people.

    I've often thought movies offer valuable evidence of the values of a time. Not that they provide accurate portrayals of how people acted and thought--though they do more of that than they get credit for--but because they preserve at least the aspirations and fantasies of a time. And some of those were beautiful.

  2. I'm glad your experience with I.A. Richards (respect for the life of the mind, etc.) supports my image of that time. And I strongly agree with what you say about movies embodying the aspirations etc. of the time. What will future generations see in the movies of today?

  3. I think your spiritual home (early to middle of 20th) might be the last bright shinning period of individualism, at least if we refer only these a few centuries.
    I too, long for that lost world. This is a time for "experts", not for independent thinkers.

  4. You're right, Yun Yi. Real individualism seems to be disappearing.