Keep Right on to the End of the World

By Conrad, Peter | New Statesman (1996), October 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

Keep Right on to the End of the World


Conrad, Peter, New Statesman (1996)


Peter Conrad celebrates a miracle: mankind's survival of the 20th century

Barring accidents over the next 14 months - a car-boot sale of Russian nuclear missiles, leakage from Saddam Hussein's cache of nerve gas or perhaps a last, desperate wag-dog burst of belligerence by President Clinton - it now seems likely that the human race will survive the 20th century. It is an outcome that would have dismayed many of our century's best and brightest minds. For this, after all, was the century in which the world was supposed to end.

By the time the 20th century began, few people believed in God, who had recently been killed off by Nietzsche. But modern men and women, living in a society newly liberated from religious prohibition, still adhered to the biblical notion that the world had a certain, fixed and finite lifespan, which was now near its end. In 1900, it was as if the millennium had arrived a hundred years too soon.

In his thunderous historical epic The Decline of the West, published after the first world war, Oswald Spengler looked back on the 19th century as a period of "death-struggle"; men, given Faustian powers by their machinery, had begun to abolish nature. For Spengler, the new physics of Einstein confirmed this prophecy of imminent doom: entropy revealed the mortality of nature, and warned that the world's end was the "completion of an inwardly necessary evolution". No wonder that Spengler's book, garbled and speciously misunderstood, was adopted by the myth-makers of the Third Reich. That regime volunteered to instigate the apocalypse. Hitler, when engaging Albert Speer to reconstruct Berlin, commissioned him to design buildings which would look impressive as ruins, and at the end of the war - while Wilhelm Furtwangler conducted a last performance of the final scene from Wagner's Gotterdammerung in the besieged, burning city - he gave orders for the wholesale destruction of Germany.

Such mad nihilism was always part of the modern creed. The pace of change had suddenly and violently accelerated, estranging human beings from the past. The Italian futurist painters were enthusiasts for fast cars, which dynamised the world. The prospect of crashing at speed and being killed did not bother them. To kill yourself, as the critic Walter Benjamin argued, was a deed of uniquely contemporary valour - a sign of your modem taste for risk and experiment, regardless of the cost.

Machines, as the first world war demonstrated, soon acquired the power to kill in prodigious quantities: had they secretly vowed to slay their creators? The science fiction of H G Wells brooded on the possibility that technological man had outwitted himself. A dotty inventor in The First Men in the Moon manufactures a substance which alters the pressure of air and is capable of asphyxiating the world. "It would," he cries with reckless zealotry, "have been the death of all the world!" In The War of the Worlds lowly men meet their match when the Martians- who are minds on stilts, having dispensed with the organic nuisance of the human organism - decide to colonise the earth.

Even those who did not imagine extraterrestrial invaders suspected that men had reached the end of their tether. The decadence of the 1890s displayed a mutant race of etiolated creatures, exquisites such as Des Esseintes in Huysmans' novel A Rebours or the dandies of Oscar Wilde - men who despised the banality of nature and declined to reproduce themselves on principle. These, according to the later diagnosis old H Lawrence, were the warped and sterile products of a civilisation which fatally cultivated the mind and allowed the body to wither.

Modern painters showed the world moving to its end. In the works of the futurists, objects dematerialise in a blur of energy, leaving only a vapour-trail behind. The surrealists systematically massacred matter. Dali based his molten watch on a liquefying cheese: metal could not be spared the more or less noble rot to which dairy products, like all organic things, were condemned. …

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