When you are stuck in a Cafe in Newtownmountkennedy an hour or two before an appointment, one can become intolerably bored. Being a bit of a bore myself, I start talking to complete strangers, who for the most part have come in for a quiet time by themselves and don’t want a strange hairy talkative man discussing economics and brands of coffee with them. The other possibility, being the one I found myself doing after talking too much this particular Wednesday morning, was to ensconce oneself, read too much, and start making notes, too many notes, notes on a book that is quite brilliant.
Peter Watson, in his truly wonderful unputdownable Ideas, a history from fire to Freud (Orion Books ISBN 978-0-7538-2089-6), which deals in one thousand odd pages the development of ideas from the emergence of the first Chimpanzee/proto-human (about six and a half million years ago, give or take) to around 1933 just as the Nazis began to turn Germany into a war economy. I picked up this particular tome after I came across the second volume of this series (it deals with 1933 onwards) from seeing and reading bits of it years ago in a friends library and desperately coveting a copy of it myself. The second volume is called A Terrible Beauty – The people and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind, which, as I said, takes us from 1933 onwards to the late 1990’s. I read it and think I may have either lost it or gave it away.
The first volume (Ideas …) glides swimmingly through the millennia of history and deals deftly with vast tracts of ideas and cultural shifts with élan, clarity and compelling prose. Its definitely worth a look. Think about it as a Christmas gift for readerish friends.
In the last hundred or so pages, the area of the book I found myself in that Wednesday morning, Watson begins to talk about the flowering of German Genius, an event that happened between the years 1848 and 1933. The picture on that sits oddly on the top of this web page is a photograph of page 906 of Ideas I took on my phone. It gives one and idea of just how many rather clever German individuals were around at that time. One or two names, however I do take exception to. For instance I notice Franz Kafka’s name is on the page, about midway down. Kafka was actually a Czech. He subsequently lived in Berlin and died in Austria- so he kind of barely makes the list. Ludwig Wittgenstein was born in Austro Hungarian Vienna in 1889, and spent a lot of time in Cambridge, England. Also the photo of p. 906 is of a list of most but by no means all the rather clever individuals that came out of Germany between the aforementioned years. This flowering is an event that runs parallel but is not necessarily inextricably linked with the development of the most repugnant scientific racism (pseudo scientific if one looks at it closely) that was gaining momentum during the time, also in Germany and surrounding countries. The scientific racist, whose logic hides to my mind a profound bigotry that seeks rational defensible explanation, believes (borrowing an idea taken from the Enlightenment) that being human is a biological rather than spiritual or theological or metaphysical fact. This belief, coupled with Primarily Western European historical contact with other races and a firm misapplication of Darwinian Principles of Evolution, led some thinkers to believe that not only are all races not equal, but equality doesn’t come into it. Some are just not as evolved as others. The misinterpretation of Germany’s Renaissance, (if you might like to call it that) was misinterpreted. It gave us a huge advance in so many disciplines. Yet it was also used a proof of racial superiority. This racist thinking, backed with jackboots and weaponry was a kind of poacher-turned-gamekeeper thinking that leads nations to impose their versions of democracy and/or religion on others, believing they to be the one in the right and all others by default in are in error.
However if one looks down the list in the photo of page 906, one sees how few of those artists and thinkers would for a moment hold such views. I would like to very quickly single out one name and point out that Nietzsche was not one of those aforementioned thinkers. He was not a racist in any way, shape or form. He split with Wagner for instance because he loathed, among other things, Wagner’s racism. Moreover Nietzsche’s sister Elizabeth who looked after him during his years of dementia was a racist. She also married a fascist, someone Nietzsche loathed and despised and would have nothing to do with. Elizabeth Nietzsche’s subsequent associations with Hitler, and her poisoning of her brother’s writings and legacy has done much to distort the reputation of one of the greatest philosophers, prose stylists and psychologists that ever lived, and its a deep shame that such a thing happened.
Anyway – so many exceptional artists, philosophers, scientists, engineers, musicians, painters, sculptors, writers did not emerge in a void. Something had to have triggered it – for instance the unification of Germany in 1848, without question triggered events. Indeed to crib lines from Fawlty Towers – there is ‘enough material for several volumes’ trying to tease out the causes of the German Renaissance. One thing that Watson points out as a big cause is the profoundly interesting and dynamic German concept of what constitutes cultural activity. German Kultur came to stand for intellectual, spiritual, or artistic activity – but not to the same extent political, economic or technical life.
Kultur was a synonym for societal manifestation for a type of creativity of a higher order, perhaps the highest, one of the profoundest expressions of the German Spirit. Thus for a person to engage in such intellectual, spiritual, or artistic activity, ones work was more than welcomed, but seen as central to the furtherance of the nation’s well being. This is somewhat different to how such work is seen now. It is the province of universities and study groups paid for think tanks and the work of vast multinational corporations who invest huge sums in universities and trawl for talent across the world for those people to work in vastly well stocked labs on projects that are deemed useful mainly fiscally attractive rather than good in themselves. It is a sad truth that novels are written for sales now more than anything else. If one decides to become a writer or a poet one is really talking about someone who teaches college and gives creative writing classes and as a side project writes. They operates so cohesively within the system as to never have an opportunity to adequately critique the world they live in. Other than that they either become part of the one percent who write a best seller or remain forever on the fringes of the golden circle, giving readings at open mics and getting their work published in small presses. An artist needs an audience, and so many gifted artists work shrivels on the vine of rotted potential simply because the world we live in views the creative thinker as something extraneous to what is central and most important, being economic viability. Painting and sculpture is a huge business and viewed as such. As a consequence has thus far completely lost its teeth with the exception of a few labouring in isolation. Academics in universities are, as well as teaching and publishing duties, are expected to bring in money from corporations and perform studies for a price as part of their contract. There thus is a world of difference between the use of genius ( an unpopular word I admit – perhaps giftedness is a less controversial word) as a commodity and the pursuit of artistic and intellectual goals as a good in itself. The irony is that the rather romantic view of pursuing such goals as a good in itself has a massively beneficial effect on society as a whole. The post 1848 Germany for all its many many faults, was a place where such work went on precisely because of such values. And we are happily living with its many benefits since. The chapter that covers our present age is in real terms remains unwritten. The commodification of skill sets tends to more benefit the needs of the corporate thinker, the organizational psychologist, the investor, and the team leader. The irony of the lessons of this Watsons chapter in German prewar history seems to be this : the more the truly creative person works/writes/paints/builds for themselves, the more they work for others. This is not egotism, which goes nowhere. This is the selflessness of true creativity, which transcends not only the bounds of egotism but says something about what it is to live in the world.