Terrible Beauty

It was an impulsive purchase, which proved to be worthwhile. I was looking for something else in the Ideas and philosophy section of the Grant Park McNally Robinson store when I noticed Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty: The People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind. (ISBN 1-84212-444-7). With end notes and index, 847 pages of small type. It was the Orion Press British paperback edition. The book has also been published in the US as Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century.
Watson is a journalist, and an experienced writer. He seems to have an insatiable curiosity and wide interests. His other published work has tended to relate to the visual arts, but that only covers part of his work. His style is smooth and fluent, only occasionally lapsing into journalistic bombast and cliches.

His goal was ambitious – to write the history of the intellectual achievements of the 20th Century. Politics and war, business, economics and depressions fall into the background. He delivers a roughly chronological review of the achievements of the 20th century in mathematics, physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology, genetics, paleontology, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, philosophy, theology, literature (in several languages and countries), economics, political theory, visual art, cinema, formal (classical?) music, pop music, architecture, communications. The material is rich and dense. His cross-disciplinary vision tends to provide a sense of the cultural climate that allowed these ideas to develop and grow in America, Britain, France, Germany, Austria and Russia. He acknowledges the contributions of a few Asian (Chinese and Indian) scientists and social scientists. He sees most of the achievements in science and the social sciences coming from men and women who were able to study and teach at the great universities of America and Western Europe. He covers the contributions of African, Asian, and South Americans to literature and the arts in more detail.
Part of his goal was to look at influential ideas, and he necessarily covers some ideas that were fashionable but later discredited – for instance the Marxist view of history and the social sciences, large parts of Freudian psychology, and Margaret Mead’s romanticized ethnological studies of Samoa. His journalistic style works well. He takes what might be a dry collection of data and gives it life with anecdotes and colour. He puts several intellectual trends into perspective. Many accomplished German and Austrians left Germany in the 1930 and found refuge and new careers in Britain and America. America gained mathematicians, physicists, chemists and other scientists, and the theologian Paul Tillich. It also imported elements of the Frankfurt school of social criticism and Freudian psychology, which were to grow in unexpected ways in America in the second half of the century.
His enthusiasms are eclectic, and slightly progressive. In English language literature, he respects T.S. Eliot, but he adores George Orwell. He looks at the great writers of the century, from Joyce, to Beckett, to Updike and Bellow. In history and critical theory, he favours the E.P. Thompson and the British historians of the common life, Braudel and the French historians of the Annales school and, with some reservations the postmodern French intellectuals – the French Collection as he call them. He may be faulted for giving a few lines too many to some writers and ideas, and for skipping a few, but I would be hard pressed to say that he has made any major mistakes.
When he writes about the first 55 or 60 years, he has the support of a good deal of growth and secondary literature. His assessment of the best and the brightest of the last 45 years may be premature. He seems to be on safe ground when he writes about physics and astronomy, and his discussion of current philosophers appears to be solid. When he starts looking at polemical, political and spiritual writers his choices may prove to have been embarrassing. When he looks for influential ideas, he occasionally becomes occupied with writers like Ardrey, who were essentially popularizers or publicists, whose influence on the popular imagination was temporary. (Ardrey wrote a popular book explaining primate evolution but his books on animal and human behaviour present some wooly personal theories).
Watson generally limits himself to descriptions of the great theories and ideas, and offers only a few general comments and ideas on the trends and patterns of the 20th Century. He traces the increasing convergence of physics, chemistry and biology and the growing power of science to explain the physical world. He suggests that psychology and sociology have collapsed under the weight of ideology and inadequate methology. He comments on the resistance to the scientific method from artists, conservative intellectual, existentialists and postmodernists. He suggests that C.P. Snow was right, for reasons that he did not fully appreciate, to identify two competing cultures in the modern world. Science and empiricism work in explaining things, but don’t work well at explaining the creativity and complexity of human social life. The methodology of the arts and humanities is richer and more flexible as tool for reviewing human thought and action, but tend to break down into fanciful mythology when applied to observable reality. This sounds obvious, but he provides a good context for the observation. He makes a strong argument that universities have a special place in allowing curiousity and intelligence to succeed, with great benefits for all of society.
He begins with a quotation attributed to the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a BBC interview. Berlin was born in Riga, Latvia and most of his family perished in the Holocaust. He lived a safe life in Britain and wrote on liberty and pluralism. How did creativity and genius flourish in the terror of the 20th Century? He can’t explain, and we can only marvel at the terrible beauty of human lives.
I enjoyed it. I thought it was solid, honest, and reliable.