Saturday, December 5, 2009

Modern ways to empty life: more on civilization and its discontents

Speaking of civilization - which, if you ask me, is not a product of man, but a part of him, as no man exists as a lonely atom, but only within relationships of I-Thou and I-It, of which he is an integral part; which explains why isolation is used as punishment or torture, or is a symptom of mental illness - speaking of civilization, then, looking back I feel a certain barrenness to this past 20th century. Yes, just look back, with the eyes of your mind, towards the past couple of centuries, and the twentieth will seem barren, or more barren than the 19th, which seems more barren than the 18th... An illustration of this barrenness I perceive is the work of Le Corbusier about which there is this interesting article (less interesting the last two paragraphs).

I grew up in a neighborhood in Central Europe populated, well actually made of, square apartment buildings of reinforced concrete; yet my general sentiment about that neighborhood of my childhood is never one of barrenness. The buildings, the place, were very much alive - teeming, in fact, at times, with kids running around, playing soccer on the street, people spending time in front of them, walking around in pursuit of their business (the main means of transportation being the feet); in that sense, a much, much warmer place than the American suburb I inhabit now, where people walking on the street is a rare sight. Suburbs are machines to live in, while malls are machines to shop in, while downtown districts are machines to work in (look at their appearance), while restaurants are machines to eat in. It is interesting that - and I am not saying things that have never been uttered before - a society essentially shaped by the pursuit of money and the spending of that money one earned (which is one sort of capitalism; there are others, perhaps), is just as barren as one shaped by other phenomena of modernity, as were the totalitarian ideologies.

They have little in common. What they do have in common is the preeminence given to one aspect of human existence (the mechanisms of the economy, the significance of class etc.) over all others; furthermore, it is the violent imposition of that one factor over everything else, which drains and desiccates society of its essence: its very humaneness.

A few years ago we agreed with an American friend that life in Europe is somehow more "humane" - and, in that specific context, the discussion was about eating and drinking - as a way, I think, to point to something broader. But the judgment expressed then is incomplete, and less than truthful, for anyone who has been to Chicago, New York, San Francisco, or even Toronto. Generalizations that start with "Europe is..." or "America is..." are mostly wrong. Their mistake is similar to that committed by the demons of modernity mentioned above: they neglect (and oppress, and brutally simplify, and thus stifle) reality: the floral unpredictableness and multifariousness of human life.

The highest expression of which we can call civilization.

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