PRINT May 1990



ONE DAY IN 1984, I taxied down Broadway with the physicist I. I. Rabi, discussing the topic of age. Rabi told me he was 86—“Just as old as the century.” I could not resist an affectionate tease, but when I told him his computational powers had evidently waned, Rabi responded that for him the century began with the discovery of the electron by J. J. Thomson, in 1897—though even so, his mathematics were a little off. And then we went on to the observation that the great epochal events tend to fall on nondescript dates—1066 but not 1000, 1492 but not 1500, 1688 but not 1700, 1789 rather than 1800, and then 1848, 1914, 1929, 1968, and now—though he did not live to see it—1989. Freud contrived that his masterpiece, The Interpretation of Dreams, should be published in 1900, marking a new era and a new century at once, but apart from such acts of mythologizing will, there is little correspondence between the pulses of historical change and the periodicities of calendrical rotation, the figurative turning of new leaves.

The enthusiasts of the French Revolution sought to rationalize the discrepancy between historical and metrical time by constructing a new calendar, counting forward from themselves instead of from the putative birth of Jesus—but France reverted to the Gregorian metric not many years later. There is a historical myth that medieval Europe, putting together the facts that 1000 A.D. was coming up and that a thousand years is regarded as portentous in the Book of Revelations, faced the millennium with quaking fear. But this turns out to have been a matter of what rationalists of the 17th century believed the superstitious mind of the 10th century would have to have believed. In truth, the medievals were even more naive than anyone thought on the matter of Doomsday—they lived by sun and season, and 1000 A.D. passed unremarked. As always, history failed to happen at the stroke of midnight, and only an abiding numerology, which disposes us to attach magic to multiples of ten, moves us to expect new beginnings in human affairs with the fresh decade, the dawning century, the third millennium.

It is now believed that the overthrow of the monarchy in France was designated a revolution initially to declare the completion of a historical cycle, a recursion to the pre-Christian republicanism of ancient Rome. (The modern sense of “revolution” must have been already fixed, though, when Kant, around 1787, credited himself with having achieved a “Copernican Revolution” in philosophy. Copernicus himself had only the geometry of circular motion in mind when he called his epochal work De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in 1543.) It is possible to believe that the use of the centennial to mark an important anniversary only came into general practice when secular and hence political history struck modern consciousness as trumping, in overall momentousness, the glad tidings of redemption through the birth of a savior. If our true destiny lay in the next world, after the Last Judgment, then mere political occurrences would seem laughably ephemeral, except those connected with the expulsion of infidels. The Jacobins’ decision to adopt a revolutionary calendar, then, was a revolution in its own right, marking the overthrow of sacred by secular historical values. Centennial and bicentennial celebrations impress me, in fact, as among the many effects of the French Revolution. The Oxford Book of Quotations cites no poetic occurrence of the term “century” before the 1800s, when one would think that Shakespeare, if the word had any of the energy for him that we attach to it, would have found occasion to use it with his customary dazzle.

It is difficult to suppose much of a connection between the bicentennial of the French Revolution and the breaching of the Berlin Wall, which reenacted if it did not precisely memorialize the dilapidating of the Bastille in 1789. The bicentennial itself coincided with the centennial of the Eiffel Tower, but it was not especially made much of that the latter, which has become endearing and old-fashioned, almost a souvenir of itself, was in its own time, and certainly in the eyes of its author, an embodiment of the most advanced technologies and the furthest attainment of the engineer’s craft. It was to be like a prophet’s upheld finger in wrought iron, and Eiffel compared it to a triumphal arch, though symbolizing the march of science into the luminous future rather than the return of conquering armies. In 1989, the tower was the backdrop for a stage show and one of the pylons for a high-wire crossing of the Seine, as if the spirit of Rome were again being reenacted, this time in the form of the circus. The whole spirit of the bicentennial was to look backward rather than forward, and it bears mention that the architectural monuments that Paris erected in the bicentennial moment make post-Modern references to vanished imperial grandeur—to the pyramid and the triumphal arch; and the new opera house looks like a kind of restored Bastille.

This diffidence in regard to the future is perhaps the one thing that the events in Eastern Europe have in common with the fireworks, the tricolored buntings, the grands projets, and the liberty hats of the Paris festival. In 1889, history appeared to plunge like a wide boulevard into a future where each decade, each year, marked the advance of knowledge and the enhancement of an inevitable human happiness. In 1989, the 20th century ended. The 21st century, which was to have been the temporal playground of Buck Rogers and Wilma Dearing tooting about in their Art Deco space suits, is in fact the emptiest century in centuries from the perspective of fore-historical structure. There are no visionary political architects for the years ahead. The only picture we have of the future is an erased picture of the past, like Robert Rauschenberg’s prophetic undrawing of Willem de Kooning. Futurology is a stammering failure.

The restoration of the future to historical blankness is among the lesser by-products of the utter unforeseenness of the events of 1989. Since not a single agency of knowledge, whether academic or hardheaded political or journalistic or military, had the slightest clue that the whole apparatus of the Eastern European governments would collapse and fold about itself like a punctured balloon, every agency of knowledge available to us has revealed its utter uselessness in telling us about the relevant future. The social sciences, to the degree that they have pretended to tell us one single thing about political thought and action, are as discredited as haruspicy. What we know, now, is that the minds of those who lived under those scary gray regimes were basically untransformed by the material conditions under which they learned how to survive. This is the single great lesson that we have learned—the relative unplasticity of the human mind, despite massive input of rhetoric and misinformation. The terrible experiences of the past six decades have been in fact an immense, inadvertent laboratory demonstration that there are limits on the degree to which the mind can be shaped by material conditions, but no calculating the degree to which imagination can be fired by more rewarding possibilities of material consumption. Looked at from an Olympian perspective, classical Marxism has performed the necessary historical experiments to falsify its premises absolutely. To be sure, some will argue that because the revolution was not worldwide, because all those capitalist images of consumables came leaking in, there were too many variables over which the party had no control. But few will care to see the experiment run again.

The end of history does not mean, of course, the end of politics. It means only the end of a certain kind of vision. Soviet theory assumed that under like conditions, everyone, if normal, must think the same, so that deviation and dissent, in and of themselves, were evidence of abnormality and a kind of moral disease. But people reverted to their presocialist diversity the instant intimidation abated, making it transparently plain that their supposed, one-mindedness was not the effect but the appearance of social conditioning. People had conformed out of fear or opportunism, against their own inclinations, which they preserved intact.

One of the technologies one remembers from Buck Rogers was “suspended animation,” and that seems the concept with the greatest application to postwar Eastern Europe. It is as if the vast socialist experiment were a kind of parenthesis in history, an entr’acte from which people are returning to many of the same problems, though no longer to most of the same political ideals, that were unresolved before everything froze in place. Once again there are all the tensions and conflicts of normal human history. Indeed, Marxism itself was frozen and fixed in the East by contrast with the rather exotic and supple thinking that goes by that name in the critical establishments of the West. In its monolithic inflexibility, the Eastern variety of Marxism was as little adequate to the doctrine’s own best expression as the hammer and the sickle are as emblems of contemporary technology, work, and industry.

So the politics ahead are the politics of negotiation, compromise, trade-off, slower than partisans want, but the kind in which participation is the key to change, even if change never comes quite as it was expected to, and brings side effects no one anticipated. Democracy, the one thing demanded everywhere, is not an answer but a method, unwieldy, slow, exhausting, and far from foolproof, for arriving at the kind of answers people with diverse interests are capable of living with. It inspires political imagination only against the bleak contrasting background of known alternatives. But if that is the immediate future, the remote future is a canvas waiting to be filled in by the clash of present passions and present freedoms. The only future anyone can predict is the one forced upon human beings by those willing to force it, as in China, say—for the moment.

Sometimes I think that artists have a certain sensitivity from which one can read the forces of historical change, the way the conduct of cats can reveal the coming of storms and earthquakes. If that is true, the disintegration of a monolithic and authoritarian modernism by a wild pluralism, which has been the condition in the art world of the West for some decades, was a sign and model of things to come. (It would not be the only incoherence of conservative critics to condemn authoritarianism in politics while lambasting pluralism in art.) There are, after all, external causes of artistic change. In 1889, champions of the decorative arts sentimentalized the Rococo as the true artistic expression of France, stifled through an act of will by the detested classicist David; we know, of course, that classicism in the 18th and early 19th centuries was a complex and diverse response to all manner of forces, and did not merely develop out of the Rococo as an internal artistic revolution. More, similarly, must have been going on to which artists of recent decades were responsive than some internal dissatisfaction with the previous reigning style. So the art world may give us as good a picture as we are likely to get of the shape of things to come in political history. There may even be signs, in the remarkable recent emergence of collaborative artistic production, in which the assertive individualism of the artistic entrepreneur is implicitly criticized, that some hope remains for those communitarian ideals that made socialism once seem morally urgent. Anyway, no one has a better theory.

Arthur Danto is Johnsonion Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, New York, and art critic for The Nation.