A Terrible Beauty

By Peter Watson

Among the recent flood of books on the history of the twentieth century the focus has mostly been on political and military events. In A Terrible Beauty, subtitled “A History of the People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind,” author Peter Watson sets out to correct this bias by taking an encyclopedic look at the intellectual heritage of the century that was.

Writing a history of ideas involves tricky questions of influence. It was the observation of Marx, for example, that ideas are merely the product of social and economic forces. Judging from what Watson has to say about postmodernism, identifying it with recent trends in French philosophy that have put too much stock in Marx and Freud, it’s likely he would disagree. Watson clearly thinks that some distinction can be made between “cultural” and “intellectual” advances, and that the history of ideas is to some degrees independent of political events. Nevertheless, his discussion of the personalities and cultural contexts of the ideas he describes is some concession to the materialist view.

Another aspect of postmodern theory that Watson would probably disagree with is its distrust of “metanarratives” or “totalizing discourse.” A Terrible Beauty presents its view of twentieth-century thought as just such a grand narrative, the hero of which is science.

“Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science,” he begins. While science has gone from triumph to triumph, other intellectual disciplines have had to adapt or find some way to respond to its success. As an example of what can happen if they don’t, Watson suggests that many of the classics of twentieth-century literature, with their dependence on scientifically bogus theories of psychology (Freud, again) may become period pieces without any intellectual validity for readers in the future.

If science is the master discourse, the great narrative of twentieth-century thought is evolution: “the greatest idea, ever.” Unfortunately, what made evolution such a great idea was the ease with which it became a metaphor for progress. This intellectual slippage was noted as long ago as 1920, when J. B. Bury wrote about the evolution of the theory of evolution in his book The Idea of Progress. But while Watson is aware of the implications of Bury’s book, he still seems comfortable talking about such things as an “evolution of knowledge forms” and an “evolution in the rules of thought.”

As often as evolution and progress are confused, especially when we start making cross-disciplinary analogies, we should insist on keeping them separate. There is, for example, nothing in the theory of evolution that says that things are getting better, only that they adapt to their environment. How this translates to intellectual trends as opposed to the differentiation of species is not clear. And the question of whether it has any application to a discussion of social inequality, as many people tried to argue throughout the century, has rarely been a scientific inquiry at all.

A Terrible Beauty covers a lot of ground, and while most useful as a summary or reference guide it also manages to be provocative on many subjects. In particular, there are at least two important questions that Watson’s evolution narrative leaves unanswered. The first has to do with evolution and the arts.

Do the arts evolve? Clearly the arts change, especially through the development of new technologies. Who carves anything out of marble anymore? Literature, at least in the opinion of some commentators, is already dead. Movies and television effectively supplanted the novel as the twentieth century’s dominant art form – but even now the writing is on Hollywood’s walls. In the next century it’s likely that some kind of interactive digital entertainment will be king.

Are these changes evolutionary? Are they progress? Can they be directed, or do they only develop by accident? Is the quality of art improving, or are the forms of art simply changing in ways that will allow art to survive in new markets? And what other effects will these changes in art’s environment have?

The second big question, and maybe the biggest question there is today, relates to the apparent re-birth of the old idea of Social Darwinism. Recent breakthroughs in the field of genetic research, including the mapping of the human genome, have revived popular interest in the possibility of directing human evolution, and speculation as to the meaning of human progress. Sadly, this has resulted in what is all too often a simplistic and reductive view of human nature, which is then used to justify all manner of bad social policies.

Human behaviour may be controlled by our “selfish genes,” but we are also social animals – which means something more than learning how to use each other for selfish ends. Furthermore, evolution has no purpose, which has always made it a strange model for social planning.

Some readers will find A Terrible Beauty frustrating. The ideas it deals with are often quite complex, and hard to explain in a few pages. There are also a number of personal aesthetic judgments, especially on literature, that seem out of place in a history of ideas.

But Watson also deserves a fair measure of praise. A Terrible Beauty is accessible, provocative, and comprehensive. Familiar ideas are placed in context, while many important but forgotten figures have been rescued from oblivion. If nothing else, Watson provides an excellent reading list of books that have unjustifiably become the victims of the shallowest kind of progress: fashion.

That so much knowledge has apparently been forgotten, so many perfectly valid ideas disposed of along the way, is one of the most curious aspects of the history of thought.

Review first published March 17, 2001.

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