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Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas: The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 by Philipp Blom

My Rating★★★★☆

Dangerous Ideas; Necessary Ideas

The Vertigo Years traces the initial eruptions of some of the most explosive ideas and social phenomenons of the century that bore the brunt of the first mad rush of modernity —  from socialism and fascism, to nuclear physics and the theory of relativity; from conceptual art and consumer society, to mass media and democratization; to feminism and psychoanalysis. The many issues and the intellectual interplay is explored in great detail and gives an overall impression of what seems in retrospect like backing for the war that followed, by every section of the social classes, from the intellectual elite, to the middle classes to the oppressed classes. We may even be tempted to see the war itself as a subconscious eruption of such strong tendencies that pervaded a restless continent and thus the world.

Granted it was weird times, but the ping-pong of retrospectively attributing the war to all these ideas and tendencies, and all these back to the war is not valid. The turn of the century was marked by many leaps of understanding, and also by a blind faith in science and progress, and a strong tendency to believe simplistic arguments. The war itself was a product of this blind faith in technological advance and an inability to think through the various connected effects of each advance and its application in any field (including the military). A mad scramble for catch-all theories.

Most of the wildest surmises of the era seems laughable at best or dangerous at worst to us now, especially the term ‘Belle Époque’ and the many excesses of fields such as Criminology, Phrenology, etc. But what we need to understand is that without such wild forays and over-confident theories, science would not have progressed at such a rate. There is now an unfortunate tendency to look back at these theories and mock them with a typical – “Look what THAT led to!”

Isn’t it deplorable that even a theory like Darwinism still has to buckle occasionally under the weight of its origins and the distortions visited upon it back then? Isn’t it at least sad that the intellectual legacy of philosophers like Nietzsche is perpetually tainted by the twisting it was subjected to by over-zealous followers? Isn’t the same the case even with Marxism? Why do they all have to be judged with hindsight-bias? It is our loss that these ideas are tainted, and even more so when we know so well that there is enough wheat among the supposed chaff to make them well worth passionate study and engagement.

This book allows us to see those ideas, including the ones that seem virulent and culpable to us today, in a new light — in the light of exploration and intellectual abandonment. As necessary precursors to both the good and the bad, hard to distinguish or separate at the moment of conception.

This is to be achieved by seeing the whole period in a new light, far way from the shadow cast upon it by later events.

That is when we can understand and appreciate the many ideas and false starts and sputtering that were necessary to the march of progress. That is also when we can learn to liberate the ideas from the weight of history and set them free again, to rejuvenate our own times.


The Thought Experiment

Blom is well aware that it is impossible to see this momentous period without the perspective of the war that followed. True. And the period deserves to be seen without that shadow, but this book proves that it is impossible to read without that shadow and more importantly, the author must have realized that it is impossible to write without it either, especially when most of the readers who turn to the book will do so to understand the war and its lead up better.

That is why Blom asks us to indulge in a thought experiment that should be sustained throughout the reading of this book — Blom invites us to look at the era without the benefit of our retrospective blinkers. He asks us to imagine that written history ended on 1914, so that this complicated period is not overshadowed by the events that followed. This is very hard to do and the moment we loose sight of this and slip back into our impatience to ‘understand’ the war, much of the book will seem pointless to the reader. If the reader wishes to understand the period, he/she needs to persist in this little suspension of belief.

After all, no period deserves to be treated merely as a lead-up to some historic event, but needs to be approached on its own terms to discover the true complexity of the people and ideas which inhabited and shaped it.

A lot more was going on than just the war.

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Posted by on March 1, 2014 in Book Reviews, Books, Thoughts

 

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The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche: Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

The Birth of Tragedy (Complete Works)The Birth of Tragedy by Friedrich Nietzsche

My Rating★★★★★

Apollo Vs Dionysus: A Darwinian Drama

Nietzsche never struck me as a real philosopher. He was too much the story-teller.

This is probably his most a-philosophical (?) works. But it is my favorite. It was the most accessible to me and it was the most relevant of his works. It helped me form my own convictions. It was universal and yet not choke full of platitudes. It was forceful but not descending into loud (almost incomprehensible) invectives. (you know which works I subtly allude to)

‘Birth of Tragedy’ was his first major work and to me (in contradiction of the previous paragraph) his most philosophical. It seems to me to be the very soul of his philosophy – that was then refined and reformed in the fire of his (self-imposed?) suffering. The later philosophy is the ‘Nietzschian’ one – grand and too powerful to ignore. But, this earlier core is, to me, the real beauty that livens all the later fury.

Nietzsche, already in this, his first work (ostensibly on the source of Greek tragedy), set Dionysus (the god of vitality, ecstasy, thriving life, and of wine) against Apollo (the god of tranquillity, logic, and of contemplation).

According to Nietzsche, in Greek tragedy as in life, it is the unruly chorus who represented Dionysus and was a crying-out of humanity (the species) itself. Apollo, on the other hand, was represented by the human actors and expressed himself through the orderly dialogue. Apollo was designed to be noticed – the conscious story. Dionysus was designed to be evoked – the collective unconscious?

In this early core of Nietzschian philosophy, a philosophy of species vs individuals, of species evolution pitted against human vanity, Dionysus is the strength of the human race, of life itself (vide Darwin) but manifests only as mere background to any given human drama (but still the source of all drama and is THE actual Drama).

Apollo, in contrast, is expressed in any given human drama (composed or lived) – important and represented and thought about. But, always about mere individuals, weak and mortal.

With this early work Nietzsche leapt into the depths and all the later developments was a climb back and proclamations of the reality of the Deep. He adored and embraced the tragic sensibility which is the condition for man – of adoration of life and of its cruel laws, despite all the weakness of the individual – the real genesis of the Superman.

Disclaimer #1: Written more than a year after the original reading and after only a cursory re-reading/re-glancing. Please trust the reviewer when he asserts that the work is powerful enough to stay fresh-to-review even after a year has passed.

Disclaimer #2: Required Expansion of Essay: ‘The Superman as The Buddha: The Inevitable Evolution of Tragic Consciousness’

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Posted by on December 17, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy, Thoughts

 

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