Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Postwar World - a New Mindset

By 1945, not only the United States, but the entire world, had been through three decades of horrifying and amazing events. The First World War had shocked the planet by displaying the full terror of mechanized and industrialized warfare, killing humans on a massive scale never before seen, and fueled by a variety of ideologies which had grown in the soil of a Europe which had abandoned its own spirituality in favor of competing socialist and nationalist drives.

The postwar malaise was expressed in artworks which had their seeds in prewar visionaries like Franz Kafka, Arnold Schönberg, and Georg Trakl. Kafka published as early as 1908; Schönberg in the 1890's, and Trakl in 1912, with During the war, this sense of meaninglessness gave rise to Dadaism, and after the war, grew in a number of different stylistic directions. The hoped-for ideals proposed by progressivist movements were seen as unreachable utopias.

Pounding metaphorical nails into the coffin of a society perfected by technocrats and rationalists, the Great Depression demonstrated that humans could not manage their way out of painful realities.

When the horrors of WWI reappeared in WWII, amplified further by technological advances and by even harsher versions of industrialism, nationalism, and communism - versions which stepped in to fill a spiritual vacuum produced by Europe's failure to embrace and digest its sacred heritage, the stage was set for an intellectual reexamination. Rejecting the naive optimism of rationalist progressivism, postwar thinkers needed a framework which would acknowledge man's inclination toward evil, and yet offer hope for society. A sober realism which would claim that, humans being what they in fact are, a perfect world is impossible, but a better world is within reach.

Describing this "shift in the intellectual climate," historian Ross Douthat considers the example of poet W.H. Auden and other mid-twentieth century artists, noting

that the same feelings that had impelled Auden back to Christianity were at work in society as a whole. After the death camps and the gulag, it was harder to credit the naive progressive belief that the modern age represented a long march toward ever-greater enlightenment and peace, or that humanity was capable of relying for salvation on its own capacities alone. Instead, there was a sudden demand for writers who could revise the story that modernity told about itself - explaining what had gone wrong, and why, with reference to ideas and traditions that an earlier generation's intelligentsia had dismissed as irrelevant and out-of-date.

Auden left England and settled permanently in America, being himself a microcosm of the era's intellectual development: leaving behind his Wilsonian leftism, embracing a more reverent approach to the Judeo-Christian heritage and a less idealized view of human nature. The world was following a similar trajectory, stinging from revelations about Hitler's butchery and Stalin's willingness to kill millions in the gulag. A new mindset for the postwar world was required.

A host of thinkers answered this call. Not all of them were explicitly religious; their commitments ranged from the idiosyncratic European traditionalism of Eric Voegelin to the antitotalitarian liberalism of Hannah Arendt, from the continental socialism of Theodor Adorno to the very American conservatism of Richard Weaver and Russell Kirk. But they all contributed to a mood of historical and philosophical reassessment, in which the Christian past was mined for insights into the present situation, and the religious vision of a fallen world was suddenly more intellectually respectable than it had been for decades.

America, from the end of World War Two to social upheavals of the mid-1960's, was shaped by this intellectual reassessment. Kafka, Trakl, Dadaism, and Schönberg had cleared away the debris of a sadly failed Wilsonian utopianism, and culture was again being constructed during the presidencies of Truman and Eisenhower. Progressivists, stung by their failures, accused the era of superficiality. A view of life as based on norms simultaneously transcendent and immanent - eternal yet concrete - was, however, being constructed: a view which had enough resilience to survive the tumult of the 1960's and later decades, and to provide again a foundation for the reconstruction of civilization after the raging of destructive worldviews.