I was having a lively debate with a friend the other day about the relative merits of Tofu, and running, and generally being healthy. This fellow was convinced that, with a healthy diet of green vegetables, running and holistic therapy, he could stave off death itself. While he was declaiming the shortcomings of my lunch (instant ramen and a donut – calorific content exponential, dietry value nil) two things occurred to me: one, this chap was perhaps the most boring man ever to grace the earth and two, the 20th Century was a century all about death. A segue follows.
The historian Francis Fukayama, in what some would argue was his fifteen minutes of fame, described the end of the 20th Century as the point at which “history ended”. With the collapse of the Evil Empire, the USSR, and the ascendancy of the other Evil Empire, the great idealogical conflicts of the past several thousand years had ended. Now the world would be dominated by liberal democracies (more or less), history was dead. Events would still occur and be noted by historians, sure, but the actual process of development that had marked the two thousand years since Christ would more or less cease. The ultimate triumph of a system that assured a measure of personal freedom, a degree or representation and a level of protection under the law, marked the end of all other forms of competing ideologies – Feudalism, Unfettered Capitalism and Communism – and thus the end of the Hegelian idealogical dialogue between thesis and antithesis.
Whether this is true or not is a debate for historians and other scholarly types. What is important to take away from this is general notion that the 20th Century marked the End of Something Big. We know from observation that the 20th Century was also the century in which God finally, and irredeemably, died an ignoble death. In previous centuries scientists had skirted around the big questions of matter and existence but, with a paper published by an obscure German working in a Swiss Patent Office in 1905, man stared right into the heart of reality and found no god lurking there. Matter is energy condensed – there was, by definition, no creation event. If that wasn’t enough to convince the die-hard believers, when Yuri Gagarin made his breathtaking ascent into the heavens in 1961, he is reported to have said, “I looked and looked but I didn’t see God”. Man, in plumbing the depth of the ocean, the fringes of space and the heart of matter, had ascended to god-like powers. Nietzsche, ever prescient, had supposed the with the ascent of the Superman god would be dead. He was more right than he ever could have imagined.
The 20th Century also saw the final, irrevocable end of mankind’s innocence. The mass mechanization of death on the Western Front of World War One, where British soldiers gaily kicked footballs towards German machine guns only to be mown down in an instant, and the vagaries of evil that human beings could inflict on each other made it all too apparent that something dark lurked in the heart of the human being. Six million human beings were put to death for being different and unwanted – but it was not the scale of their death that shocked (there have been, regrettably, greater slaughters) but the cold-blooded industrialization of the process. When that many human beings can be ground into their constituent molecules or recycled into consumer goods, it is hard to hold onto the idea that humans are basically good. Less remarked upon, though no less shocking, was the systematic starving of fifteen million people because a gruff man with a moustache didn’t happen to like them. The Holodomir is less well known in the West than the Holocaust, yet it was carried out with such irrational brutality – as opposed to the psychopathic calmness of the Nazi atrocities – that it is somehow more shocking. I could go on.
In the twentieth century we began to learn more about ourselves when a Cocaine-obsessed Viennese doctor plumbed into the depths of the human mind and uncovered the Unconscious, a seething pustule of half-forgotten dreams and lusty hopes that occupies the subterranean operations of nearly everyone.
And when it came to our most basic preconception – that there is a distinction between good and evil – this too was proved false. Hannah Arendt showed that, far from being mythological boogeymen, the Nazis were morally conscious family men with a liking for cream cakes and German Shepherds who also believed it was quite alright to strip men and women of their gold teeth and gas them to death. The banality of evil was more than just a phrase – it was a reality. There are no evil men, only men who think they are doing something noble.
Faced with these devastating attacks to his equilibrium, what was the 20th Century human to do? Nearly every established model for belief was dissolved and swept aside. Operating in a moral vacuum, far from the watchful gaze of god, what did he have left to believe in?
Two of the remaining belief systems – the Market and the Self – remained. The remaining decades of the 20th Century were dominated by greed on an unparalleled scale. As computers allowed for micro-timed transactions and the automatic buying and selling of shares, human beings siezed on the idea that the only belief system they had left was in the market. Banks and stock exchanges became the new places of worship, attracting a very specialised type of priest – the stockbroker – who interceded on behalf of his clergy and supplicated before the goddess incarnate in the ticker tape and the subtle mysteries of the uptick. Greed alone would save our souls – we could achieve immortality through our earnings.
But the goddess of the Market, Lady Luck, was a capricious one, and more often than not we found ourselves in devastating trouble. Imaginary money disappeared, miraculously lowering the value of the real money in our pockets, and the purely speculative value of commodities that didn’t exist managed to devalue things we could see and touch. As a religion, market worship was more abstract than anything the Catholic Church could come up with. Quantitative Easing has spurred more argument than the division of the Holy Trinity.
And that brings us to now: to the absolute worship of the self. Stripped of our ideas of an eternal afterlife and hounded by the fear of our own mortality, people reach for the very last thing they have left: their own existence. We live in a world that worships youth because age means death and the negation of the self. And so we pursue the ultimate goal, immortality, husbanding our pleasure and devoting ourselves to five pieces of fruit and vegetables a day and jogging to work in the hope that maybe, just maybe, if we’re good, we might scratch out a few more years on this earth. We might be miserable and worn out, rendered thin and reedy by a diet of humus and celery sticks, and forever tormented by our Id which demands whiskey, cigarettes and Jammy Dodgers (not necessarily in that order), but dammit, we’ll be alive. We’ll be clawing our way towards the last spiritual ideal available to us. We will be worshiping ourselves.
And here, for what little it’s worth, a Bible quote surfaced in my mind. Galatians 6:7:-
For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
I do not believe in the life everlasting. I can vividly remember stumbling across a gravestone at a cathedral somewhere on which was carved the chilling inscription, ‘As I was like ye, so ye shall be like me’. The point, however, stands. Our bodies become corrupt and die away, which is inevitable. But our spirit, whatever that is, lives on until it fades from living memory. If we wanted any measure of immortality we would seek to live lives that impressed themselves on others. We would seize each day and throttle it. We would live for now, rather than for an impossible future, and once exhausted we could depart without complaint. As an older and wiser book than the Bible puts it:
The body dies. Tao remains. There is no danger.
I prod to the chest broke me out of my reverie. My healthy friend was still haranguing me about the shortcomings of my lunch. I paused, my mind suffused with the above argument. I looked into his frank, innocent eyes.
“Shove it up your arse,” I said.