In his wonderful book, Lost in the Cosmos Walker Percy guides his readers into uncomfortable (but also funny) questions about the human condition. In one scenario, he asks us to imagine a famous movie star stopping in a small town local grocery store. On the one hand, there is the prospect that he will be recognized and fawned over. He will have to take selfies, make witty remarks, give autographs, and so on. He will have to assume something of a mask. On the other hand–what if, having prepped himself for this eventuality, no one recognized him at all? Which is the worse fate?
Thinking about this dilemma made more sympathetic for athletes who bring entourages with them wherever they go. I used to see this phenomena motivated purely by ego and money. Now it looks like a coping mechanism for an entirely weird situation. Back in my father’s day athletes often had off-season jobs and lived in neighborhoods with other middle class families. Some had great renown but to see them you usually had to go in person. No highlight reels existed, so slow-motion footage, to make them seem super-human. How does a 23 year-old deal with extreme fame and fortune for having the talent of pretending to be someone else or putting a ball in a round cylinder? Such success could be traumatic, and the entourage a means of dealing with the world at a distance.
We can make similar diagnoses of cultures in general.
Historical comparisons of one era to another are no doubt tricky. We assume that anyone can easily make one thing look like another by selective choosing of our material. I admit that this was my first reaction to Kirby Farrell’s Post Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90’s. Farrell attempts to link the 1890’s and the 1990’s examining its culture (books and movies) through the tense of personal and cultural trauma. The neat 100 year gap seems all too convenient at first glance.
I have mixed feelings about the book, which I experienced as a combination of excellent insights and thoughts that Farrell wielded the hammer of psychoanalysis and saw everything as a nail. It is possible, for example, that if a character in a story drinks a cup of coffee, it may be a simple background detail and not meant to conjure the idea of fetishizing the exotic, or some other such trope. And, while he cites a variety of examples of similar themes in the two decades, he never seeks to prove that the 1890’s/1990’s had more focus on his themes than other decades. Granted–proving this would involve a different kind of writing and research, but its lack allows for doubt about his thesis.
This premise nonetheless intrigued me. Certain things about the 1990’s in retrospect appear strange. I distinctly remember fearing nuclear war in the early 1980’s. But we first win the Cold War, and then the first Persian Gulf war in overwhelming fashion my senior year of high school. I remember thinking that a burden had lifted, that skies had cleared. The 1990’s–good times, right?
And yet, in looking back . . .
If we take music, for example, we see that in the 1980’s, songs about fun, love, and pastel colors routinely topped the charts in a time when many had real fears of nuclear annihilation. But almost immediately after the Cold War, grunge music dominated the airwaves. Bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden, etc. celebrated anger, alienation, confusion, and disillusionment. Fashion changed from accentuating and celebrating oneself with shoulder pads and coifed hair to wallowing in degradation with greasy hair, ripped jeans, and heroin chic.
None of this seemed odd at the time to me–it just was. I suppose some might tell me to get over myself, that culture changed because it changed, with no reason behind it. But if that’s true than there are no reasons for anything. Three explanations, then, present themselves to me:
- People are by nature self-indulgent, and having no crises to validate us, we invented crisis to grant ourselves legitimacy.
- Democracies especially need an outside enemy to maintain social cohesion and a sense of purpose–recall what happened to Rome’s republic after they conquered Carthage and Greece. Rome turned on itself as a body politic. But being less communally oriented than the ancient Romans, who destroyed their public institutions, we turned to destroy ourselves as individuals (i.e., heroin chic and ripped jeans)
- We faced a (clinically) real sense of psychological trauma that fits a ‘normal’ pattern of human experience. Our cultural obsessions of the 1990’s could be termed not “self indulgent,” or ” typical of democracies,” but typical of modern man in general. The two decades had western man face a similar kind of challenge that evoked a similar response.
This last premise forms the basis of Farrell’s book.
He asserts that the 1890’s and the 1990’s shared important things in common:
- The 1890’s saw the closing of the frontier for America and western Europe. As Cecil Rhodes remarked, “The world is all carved up now.” The idea of the problem of “no frontier” would be taken up as a major theme in American history, beginning with Frederick Jackson Turner.
- In the 1990’s we had the sense of the “End of History,” with no enemies on the horizon, and nothing to do with ourselves.
- The 1890’s had the sense that they had gone so far, that good times could not last. The encounter with the ‘other’ overseas would surely rebound and perhaps destroy them. They felt their culture endangered.
- Our efforts to win the Cold War took into Asia, Africa, and South America. Our contact with the ‘other’ brought on the infamous ‘Culture Wars’ of the 1990’s–the sense with many that the key aspects of our identity faced grave threats.
- Many accounts exist of people describing dread in confronting the enormous scale of life introduced by the Industrial Revolution. Yes, by the 1890’s people had lived with this change for nearly a generation. But the 1890’s saw the application of electricity to society begin, just as the 1990’s saw the internet begin to become part of the everyday. Both inventions dramatically altered our experience of creation, eradicating natural boundaries and expanding the scope of life unnaturally.
All of these factors combined gave us a real sense of dislocation, as we had lost our bearings and become unmoored. The man of internet lives everywhere and nowhere. The similarities asserted between the decades, which seemed arbitrary to me at first, make more sense upon reflection.
Farrell’s best insights come when he discusses the concept of the prosthetic, by which he means what we add to ourselves in attempt to make ourselves whole. An athlete’s entourage, for example, can be seen as a prosthetic, an artificially constructed way to deal with the world, to make us whole. In Schindler’s List, for example, Schindler creates much of his cache with Nazi elites through providing more and more extreme forms of entertainment. “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” The trauma that the Nazi’s inflicted on others cannot help but rebound back at them. To cope with this and to create something of an internal balance, or something of an escape, they douse themselves with physical pleasures–they escape their misery through a kind of “beserking.”* He cites numerous examples of how various forms of culture in the 1990’s manifested something similar–grunge music among them.
I remember reading parts of Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, her examination of life in Europe before W.W. I. In the preface, she mentioned that she thought to find a calm and tranquil world shaken out of a slumber of sorts by the war. Instead, she saw a world even in the 1890’s on the edge of its seat psychologically, and to a lesser extent, politically. Like 1990’s America, 1890’s western Europe stood atop the world, seemingly having it all. And yet–that fact seemingly hurt them more than it helped.
Farrell cites the novels of H.G. Wells from this period, almost all of them having an apocalyptic subtext. Conan Doyle based Sherlock Holmes’ whole existence on trauma–unable to handle real life, Holmes must live through the prosthetic of the trauma of others. The art of the briefly dominant pre-Raphaelite school focused so often on Arthurian themes of the end of a golden age, of mourning and loss. This style appears just as out of place as the dominance of Nirvana and Pearl Jam right after winning the Cold War. It would seem as if the golden age should be beginning, not ending. Farrell suggests that we could not handle the scale of life, and the power it conferred–“winning” as a kind of trauma. Oscar Wilde, the man of the 1890’s, seemed unable to function without masks–and in fact he celebrated the very idea of people masking themselves to others. As he wrote about in A Picture of Dorian Gray, however, those masks hid deeper and darker realities.
All in all, Farrell had too much of psychoanalytic lens on his subject to completely convince me of the connection between the 1890’s and the 1990’s. Not everything comes from trauma. But–he got a lot farther than I thought he would.
*With this term Farrell references the Viking warriors, who would put themselves into a frenzied state before going into battle, no doubt to disassociate themselves in some ways from the death they inflicted.