The Waning of the Modern Age

Melencolia by Albrecht Dürer

Not at my best this morning. It’s the black bile.

It’s a peculiar fact of English usage that we speak about “the Middle Ages” in the plural, but of “the Modern Age” only in the singular.  Cultural historian Johan Huizinga penned a famous book entitled The Waning of the Middle Ages. I have yet to read it. I’m sure it’s quite instructive in assessing the problems and symptoms of civilisational decadence and decline, and perhaps full of lessons for evaluating the status of our own era — Late Modernity.

How many Ages were there in the Middle Ages? I suspect we speak in the plural because historians have tended to distinguish between Low and High Middle Ages, the low being the Dark Age and the high Middle Ages being everything from around 1100 a.d. when the first Troubadour, William, Count of Poitiers, appears — like birdsong at dawn singing the medieval world awake — up until, perhaps, Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the mockery of chivalric and aristocratic values by the newly ascendent bourgeoisie (you know, that branch of homo sapiens that, in the game of “survival of the fittest”, proved themselves more clever and more fit than the aristocratic and priestly type, and who now rule the roost and has now become itself decadent). In that sense, “Middle Ages” refers to the entire Christian Era following the collapse of the Roman Empire until Cervantes and that next new thing called the “novel”.

Future historians (assuming there will be any) may come to speak of the Modern Age in the plural as well, perhaps electing to periodise the Industrial Age and the “Technotronic Age” as distinct periods of the Era, or perhaps Newtonian and Quantum periods, or even distinguishing between an Age of Physics and and Age of Biology — between the Mechanistic Era and the Life Era, as Eric Chaisson would want it.  Equally, they may elect to use cultural historian Jean Gebser’s taxonomy of civilisations as consciousness structures, and describe the whole of the Modern Era in terms of “the mental-rational structure of consciousness” — as the Mental-Rational Era or “Age of Reason”; or “Perspective Era” and “Aperspective Era”, measuring the first from da Vinci up until Pablo Picasso.

Regardless of how such future historians (of the not too distant future, I would think) elect to frame it, the waning of the Modern Ages is the period we are living through — Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”. And from what we know of such periods of decline and decay, they are times of horror, times of death and destruction on a mass scale.  Although such times are often also times of renewal and regeneration, there are no guarantees.

We are proud of ourselves for beating back the barbarians at the gates and the threat of a new Dark Age during the last century — Stalinism or Hitlerism.  It may turn out to have been a pyrrhic victory. The issue was wrongly framed, because the wars of 1914 – 1945 were not an attack from the outside upon modernity, but an insurgency within the Modern Era itself. Particularly in the case of Nazism in Germany (home of the Reformation) and fascism in Italy (home of the Renaissance) there is something that smells of the self-negation and suicide of modernity itself — an extreme reactionary antipathy towards the Enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution, of the Age of Reason, that refuses to go away even today, even after its defeat in a contest of manpower and armaments. Nothing except the delusions and self-deceptions of chest-thumping triumphalism can disguise the fact that the events of the last century have left, not just scars, but still open and bleeding wounds in the psyche of Modern Man, and something of the “modern spirit”, as such, has been bleeding away through those open wounds and leading to a state of torpor.

Whatever that “something” is, it is nonetheless everything that has been recognised — consciously or semi-consciously — as belonging to a new period now called “post-modern”. That term “post-modern” only dates from around 1973 which year, for other reasons as well, always strikes me as having been a watershed year. The “post-modern condition” isn’t the invention of fashion. It is the more or less conscious effort, more or less successfully or unsuccessfully in certain representatives, to articulate the experience of the sense of an ending — the “end of the Grand Narrative”, but also, as it must inevitably mean, the post-Enlightenment, post-humanist, post-democratic, end of “the Modern Project”, disillusionment and cynicism of the intelligentsia for the “Age of Reason” and a conclusive c’est fini to that early optimistic “infinite perfectibility of man” that the Enlightenment philosophe, the Marquis de Condorcet, had predicted for it.

Or, as Bob Dylan put it in song, “Everything is Broken”.

The strange fact is, that since 1914 and the beginnings of World War and the doctrines of “total war” there has been no peace. No peace was ever concluded. After 1945, hot war turned to Cold War, insurgent and revolutionary wars of national liberation and counter-insurgent, counter-revolutionary wars. It reminds me of that passage from the Bible: of those crying “peace, peace where there is no peace”.  Nationalistic war has been succeeded only by a perpetual state of global civil war.

These are the symptoms of an Age and Era in the throes of its own disintegration, but which remains complacent and deluded about its real situation. “War” is just another word for disintegration; integration, but another word for “peace”. Self-contradiction is civil war — even psychic civil war — but that is another name for loss of integrity, the Jekyll and Hyde condition. Self-contradiction is the essence of Shakespeare’s “the times are out of joint”; or, the rational pursuit of self-interest becomes indistinguishable from the irrational pursuit of self-destruction. “The road up and the road down are the same”, as Heraclitus put it once.

Self-contradiction — one and the same process negates itself, and cancels itself out. “All higher values devalue themselves” (Nietzsche). In a sense, it is the essence of the suicidal. Self-contradiction: that means, two apparently opposite  and contending values nonetheless meet each other like matter and anti-matter — like Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde — become mutually annihilate, and leave a void of meaninglessness. Thesis and its negating anti-thesis become indistinguishable from one another.

“We had to destroy the village in order to save it sir”


4 responses to “The Waning of the Modern Age”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Fall of the Icons: Detroit files for bankruptcy, and a day later, the iconic Maple tree that allegedly inspired Canada’s unofficial national anthem, “The Maple Leaf Forever” is blown down in a storm.

    “Fall of the Legends” is how one headline put it.

    Seems ironic.

  2. alex jay says :

    “That term “post-modern” only dates from around 1973 which year, for other reasons as well, always strikes me as having been a watershed year.

    If your thinking that one of those “other reasons” includes taking the dollar off the gold standard, you can add an insight into economics among your other polymathic attributes. For it was at that point when the means of exchange disconnected from intrinsic value via a precious metal to limitless counterfeit paper, thus resulting in present day ponzi scheme economics, and only surpassed by the private banking coup of the Republic with the creation of the Federal Reserve system in 1913. Or as Mayer Amschel Rothschild states,. “Let me issue and control a nation’s
    money and I care not who writes the laws.”

    And they’ve been running it ever since …

    • alex jay says :

      Sheesh, Just realised that it was 1971 Nixon went off the gold standard. Got confused with the OPEC Oil Embargo in 1973 – though they’re related. Sorry, while you might be having a “black bile day”, guess I’m having one of my senior moments. The memory just isn’t what it used to be. Still, I’d be interested what your “other reasons” for citing 1973 as being a threshold year for “post-modenity” besides Watergate, the Yom Kippur War, end of the Viet Nam War, and Elvis’ divorce? : )

      • Scott Preston says :

        Death of Rosenstock-Huessy. Death of Jean Gebser. Coincidentally, the same year “post-modern” first used. Also, for the other reasons you mention, but also decline of the counterculture; Wounded Knee; Gravity’s Rainbow published (described as “landmark post-modern novel”); Dark Side of the Moon released; First hand-held mobile phone and call; Skylab; first patent for an ATM; Pinochet’s coup in Chile; Schumacher publishes “Small is Beautiful”;

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