How WWI Changed the Meaning of ‘Barbaric’ | Daily News


 

How WWI Changed the Meaning of ‘Barbaric’

Our children’s storybooks contained the fable of the old man who, on his deathbed, convinced his sons that a treasure was buried in the vineyard. They simply had to dig for it. They dug and dug but found no sign of the treasure. But when autumn came, the vines yielded a harvest like none other in the land. The sons realized their father had given them the fruit of his experience: true wealth lies not in gold but in hard work. We were presented these lessons drawn from experience as threats or blandishments the whole time we were growing up: “Still wet behind the ears, and he’s got opinions!”

Everyone knew exactly what experience was: older generations had always shared theirs with the young. They did so succinctly, with the authority of age, in proverbs or at length and volubly, in stories, sometimes as stories from distant lands recounted to children and grandchildren by the fire. What happened to that custom? Can we still find people able to tell a proper story? How are the words of the dying passed on from generation to generation like an ancestral ring? Who, today, has a helpful proverb ready to hand? Who attempts to deal with the young by evoking past experience?

No, this much is clear: experience’s stock has fallen and did so for a generation that underwent, from 1914 to 1918, one of the most horrific experiences in world history. Perhaps this is not as surprising as it seems. Was the observation not made at the time that people returned mute from the battlefield? They did not come back richer in experiences they could impart, but poorer. What flowed into the flood of books about the war that appeared ten years later was anything but experience, which streams from lips to ears. No, this was not surprising at all.

For experiences have never been refuted more thoroughly than strategic ones were by trench warfare, economic ones by inflation, physical ones by hunger, ethical ones by the ruling powers. A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars found itself under the open sky in a landscape in which only the clouds were unchanged and where, in the midst of it all, in a force field crossed by devastating currents and explosions, stood the tiny, fragile human body.

This monstrous development of technology has brought a completely new kind of poverty to human life. The flip side of this poverty is the oppressive wealth of ideas that has come from the revival of astrology and yogic wisdom, Christian Science and palmistry, vegetarianism and gnosis, scholasticism and spiritualism and has spread among—or, rather, over—the population. For this is not a true revival, but a galvanization. Think of Ensor’s marvelous paintings in which a specter haunts the streets of great cities: an endless throng of petty bourgeois revelers in carnival costumes with flour-covered grimacing masks and sequined crowns streams through the streets. These paintings are perhaps first and foremost a portrayal of the horrific and chaotic renaissance in which so many have placed their hopes.

Yet what is clearly evident here is that our poverty of experience is merely a part of the greater poverty that once again has an aspect as distinct and precise as that of the beggar in the Middle Ages. Of what value is our entire cultural heritage if we have no connection to it through experience? The consequences of feigning or misappropriating experience are too clear in the mishmash of styles and ideologies created in the last century for us not to find it honorable to acknowledge our poverty. Let us admit it: our poverty of experience is not only an impoverishment of private experience but of human experience as a whole. It is, therefore, a new kind of barbarism.

Barbarism? Indeed. We say this in order to introduce a new, positive notion of barbarism. For where does poverty of experience lead the barbarian? It leads him to start again from the beginning, to start fresh, to make do with little, to rebuild with next to nothing and without looking left or right. Among the great creators there were always those ruthless spirits who began by wiping the slate clean. What they needed was a drawing board; they were constructors. One such constructor was Descartes, who wanted nothing more for his entire philosophy than a single certainty, “I think, therefore I am,” and he took it from there. Einstein, too, was such a constructor, whose interest was suddenly captivated by only one thing in the entire realm of physics, the small discrepancy between Newton’s equations and the observations of astronomy.

Artists were driven by this same desire to begin again from scratch when, like the Cubists, they adopted the methods of mathematicians and built the world from stereometric forms or, like Klee, adopted the methods of engineers. For Klee’s figures were, so to speak, conceived on a drawing board, and like any well-designed automobile, every element of whose bodywork responds to the exigencies of the motor, their expression accords with their internal structure.

- Lit Hub


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