Honors Essay 04: The Soul in Motion

This is far from the best essay I’ve ever written, but it turned out moderately well. Enough that I think it might have been a good essay if I could completely rewrite it. You may recognize the similarity to the short exercise I posted earlier for another class. I think I’ll try a different tack next time around. I had an inspiration for a future honors essay today at lunch, and that may be more exciting.

On a positive note, I’m currently on page 68 of my senior project, The House on Samarkand Hill, at roughly 19,500 words. It’s coming along, and the end is in sight. I thought it would turn out around 20,000, but now I’m anticipating that it’ll be closer to 25,000. If that’s by February 14, the due date for the first draft, that would be nice.

 

THE SOUL IN MOTION:  MODERNISM AND THE CITY

One question that weighed heavily on the minds of many European intellectuals in the early twentieth century was the effect of a movement, not altogether new to that era, described variously or according to its multiple facets as modernism, Americanism, or urbanism. It was characterized by a mechanization of society, a focus on city life, the rapid and universal spread of cultural trends, and the pushing aside of traditional ways of life. The most notable place for this movement was the major cities of Germany, especially Berlin.

This paper shall examine the situation in regard to its psychological effects, as general rather than specific to the period, and point out how it creates a vacuum that the individual will either numb to or feel an undeniable need to fill. Although this is a topic that has dominated Western consciousness and has been explored in Western literature and thought for over a century, it nevertheless remains relevant in a world that has not stopped journeying in the same direction and to an unknown end.

 

The Situation

On one hand, there is a certain level of excitement associated with the coming of the modern, mechanical way of life. Scientific optimism and faith in progress were once the prevailing currents of Western intellectualism, although there was great disillusionment felt after the world wars. In Weimar Germany this disillusionment may have been particularly strong, for what had being the most modern, technologically advanced and efficient nation brought them? A devastated population and economy and a legacy of guilt.

In the wake of this war, Berlin saw proliferation in drugs, liberal sexuality, prostitution, and various vices that were widely recognized, sometimes illegal, but usually ignored or openly accepted. Here also the Dada movement was popular; artistic and philosophic absurdism continued to rise in artistic and intellectual circles. Then, as today, much of the population that would not fall into outright depravity coped with cheap adventure or romance novels that would make them forget their own lives for an idealized one—along with the Schund und Smutz that eventually met with blatant and unconstitutional (but ultimately impotent) censorship in 1926. Above all people wanted something new to draw them out, to give them a fresh shock, to make them feel alive, and hedonism could only last so long on its own momentum. Perhaps modern Russia is comparable in some ways—a hole of atheism and alcoholism, with a fast-shrinking population and a staggering and rising suicide rate.

Although not equally distributed, there is a fear that comes with modern urban life, and it is in this kind of environment that most of the political and economic power of the world is now centered. Expressions of this fear in literature alone are countless. This loneliness is expressed by Dostoyevsky’s narrator in White Nights, who lived in St. Petersburg for eight years and befriended no-one. The dystopian visions of Jules Verne’s Paris in the Twentieth Century and Zamyatin’s We are distinctly urban and collectivist. Whether or not we have seen the worst of what modernism can offer, or will see it, it is something that cannot be ignored.

 

The Psychological Dilemma

This mechanical, modern way of thinking affects relationships. I have seen the difference in most human relationships between the farm country of Oregon and the suburbs of northern Virginia. Politics play a role in both, but there is a subtle but definite distinction in interaction. In Oregon people will complain about one another. Enemies will inevitably be made, and dislikes spring up, and there are always those who will seek to maneuver into power at the expense of others. But it is personal, and pure economy is rarely a motivation. In Virginia, one is often forced to wonder if most people, even “friends,” truly care. Relationships often remain superficial, and one usually gets the feeling that the career comes first. The apathy is not universal or insurmountable in most cases, but it is remarkable.

Where humanity seems to be master, humanism flourishes. This is especially true of the metropolis, the hivelike triumph of human self-organization, architecture, and economy. Unfortunately, given the state of mental life of many in the cities, one wonders if humanity is truly master or slave to the systems that evolve to sustain the way of life. Philosophical modernism is the pit in which many city-dwellers find themselves. The human soul, I believe, cannot consistently hold to this without strong repression; so the door opens into the blackness of postmodernism. Living a mechanized life, the world may be seen as a cold, heartless mechanism. This may swing the person into despair, or it may trigger irrational behavior and a willingness to believe in anything for escape. Is it any wonder that the people of Weimar Germany, humiliated, stuck at the bottom end of an exacting, mechanical, materialist way of life, were willing to look to the promises of the Nazis for redemption and the Jews for scapegoats? Is it any wonder that Enoch Emery in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood became willing to worship anything that would respond to his constant hunger for sympathy and friendship?

There can indeed be something comforting in the steady rhythm of life, when the city is perceived as an organic whole. I have worked holidays in the downtown District of Columbia for the past two years, and there is something aesthetically pleasant about walking among tall office buildings, especially at night or during gray days, seeing the many patterns of lights and feeling the thousands of people walk by. But this constant movement, this vague unrest, also makes me wonder what it would be like to live there always. If one’s occupation is a grind, not finding any sympathy in the eternally-preoccupied “organic whole” could be life-sapping. In Berlin particularly, we may add a loss of connection to the spiritual and a degradation of the family, and the pillars which uphold relational stability and sense of individual worth tremble.

In this “organic whole” the individual is lost. Urban life may provide escape and new opportunity to some, but for many it means loss of purpose and friendlessness. When defeat is suffered, the system will keep on rolling, and even crush what cannot get out of its way or reinvent itself.

As Georg Simmel’s essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” points out, the whole of these things offer a very negative prospect for the portion of humanity that finds itself trapped in such a system. The horror of Meursault, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s L’Étranger, a man grown altogether numb to feeling or remorse, remains with us. The Nietzschean übermensch, the dancing individual who creates his own values, is the future in this world, unless something greater than himself rescues him from the vacuum.

 

Reflection and Conclusion

The pillars which, in my opinion, may serve as rescue in this metropolis lifestyle, all rest upon the conscious choices of the individual. Utopia always exists in potential and, due to human nature, never in practice; so the city will always be hell for some and the way to success for others. But what could have saved Berlin in the 1920s? Could they have rejected Nazis and communists alike and have taken a more moderate path out of the pit?

History teaches us that nations and peoples cannot be rescued from decline. They must die and be reborn. It is often a hard rebirth. But there are some things which may afford the city a better lifestyle and no loss of humanity. As G. K. Chesterton might say, love of the community is primary. If we hate the city we will not seek to change it for the better, only escape or improve our own standing in it. Add to this the “traditional values” of family and religion and the support system is radically improved. Hypothetically, anyway, by joint effort some level of true community can be reached.

It seems the nature of progress that the metropolis lifestyle is unavoidable. In an industrial society humans will always flock to the cities for a chance at better livelihood. The city does not force individuals upon one another, for the most part. There is no comprehensive reform plan or new government that will in and of itself solve the problem of modernism. The difference between peace and Hell rests in the will of the individuals. But as long as the environment allows one to seclude himself and to be constantly at war with his fellows, the city is not likely to will itself to the hardship of revolution until it is altogether desperate, and then it will accept whatever god will offer it peace—at whatever cost.

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