Stranger Than We Can Imagine

Stranger That We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the 20th Century
John Higgs

At the turn of the millennium there were a host of books published looking back on the twentieth century. Fifteen years later, some of the dust has settled and perhaps we have a clearer idea now of what it all meant. This new “alternative history” seeks to “step off the main highways and towards the dark woods” of the twentieth century, looking to define “a broadly coherent direction” bringing us to where we are today.

The journey isn’t quite as strange as all that however. Many of Higgs’s key personalities in the strange story of the century are familiar ones like Einstein and Freud, here seasoned with alternative figures like Aleister Crowley and Ayn Rand (if we can still think of Rand as outside the mainstream). And the general point that the century saw a drift away from certain moorings, becoming a “post-omphalos world” (that is, one without a fixed moral or intellectual center or locus of authority), is also pretty standard.

Where Higgs is best is in suggesting a “broadly coherent direction” in science, art, and political thought. In the language of -isms this takes us from relativism and individualism through liberalism (and neo-liberalism), to nihilism and narcissism. The end point is the network: “a planet of individuals” that Higgs is more optimistic about than many.

As with all such general histories, this is a sweeping survey that tries to build its argument through pattern recognition and the use of significant lives and details. Much of it is more a well-worn trail than an alternative path, but Higgs does point out some interesting points along the way that we may have missed, and provides a decent guide to the century’s unsettled geography.