Politics & Policy

The Age of Us, as Seen by Herman Hesse; Nuts & Bolts


Let me try Friday’s G-File from a different angle. Unfortunately, the column got short-circuited because my webmaster decided to go on a vision quest and I had to post before it was done. We found him this morning. He had toner cartridge ink around his mouth and nose and he was sprawled-out semi-conscious in a pile of National Reviews from the 1970s muttering something about “those damn Atari Democrats.”

Anyway, repeating yourself is rarely good form, unless someone is standing on your toe. So, let’s come at it from another direction. The German Swiss novelist Herman Hesse wrote a book in 1943 called Magister Ludi: The Glass Bead Game. It was Hesse’s last work, and allegedly his greatest. To be honest, I was assigned it for my 11th grade Summer reading and never finished it. But I did remember Hesse’s phrase “the Age of Feuilleton” and in the process of trying to find it in the book I’ve started reading it again.

Hesse’s book is credited to be the first and only science fiction novel to receive the Nobel Prize (for Literature — wouldn’t it be cool if it won for chemistry?). The book takes place in a distant future where people take perfecting art, particularly music, to be the only true and worthwhile calling. According to the premise of the book, “the Age of Feuilleton” is essentially what we live in now at the end of the 20th century. It was an age of intellectual frivolity. Feuilleton is a French word which refers to the light entertainment articles in daily newspapers. The book opens with future scholars trying to figure out the Feuilletonistic age. Hesse’s future archivists write: “We must confess that we cannot provide an unequivocal definition of those products from which the age takes its name.”

The phrase — which I couldn’t pronounce to save my life — was coined by a fictional historian named “Ziegenhalss” to capture the unseriousness of the popular mood of the 19th and 20th centuries. Typical articles of the Age of Feuilleton were, according to Hesse, “Friedrich Nietzsche and Women’s Fashions of 1870,” or “The Role of the Lapdog in the Lives of the Great Courtesans.” Others might be — considering the word is French after all, “How to Capitulate while Making Smelly Cheese,” or “Full Employment Schmull Employment.”

In the book’s Utopian future, in which the serious pursuit of serious art is the core of life, such twaddle is baffling. “They” — meaning 20th century journalists and intellectuals — “reported on, or rather ‘chatted’ about, a thousand-and-one-items of knowledge.” At times it is as if they are writing about trying to read the Goldberg File. “It would seem, moreover, that the cleverer [if I do say so myself] among the writers…poked fun at their own work…many such pieces…are so incomprehensible that they can only be viewed as self-persiflage on the part of the authors. Quite possibly these manufactured articles do indeed contain a quantity of irony and self-mockery which cannot be understood until the key is found again.”

So absorbed am I in “self-persiflage,” I had to look up persiflage, which means light-hearted banter — like what I have regularly with my couch. Why just the other day I was asking my couch — and the rest of the staff — whether David Hasselhoff conceals crypto-fascist metaphors for nuclear war in the subtext of Baywatch in order to appeal to his huge following in Germany as well as pay homage to the films On the Beach and Back to School (I invite readers into some e-persiflage over why I picked these two films). It’s actually a fairly frightening concept that futuristic non-dilettantes will be looking for some Rosetta Stone to decipher what I meant when I used phrases like “women’s prison movie frisson,” “pull my finger,” “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” or “sweating like Jerrold Nadler over his second helping of nuclear buffalo-wings.”

Anyway, we should get back to the serious stuff, because the web-master is eyeing the fax machine toner cartridge pretty closely. Hesse says the Age of Feuilleton was born out of society’s inability to find a legitimate means for organizing life. “For while they had overthrown the tutelage of the Church completely, and that of the State partially, they had not succeeded in formulating an authentic law they could respect.”

In the Age of Feuilleton nothing really seemed to matter. Despite all the writing on the wall, “People went dancing and dismissed all anxiety about the future as old-fashioned folly; people composed heady articles about the approaching end of art, science, and language.”

Now I don’t think society is dismissive of anxiety. In fact I think society is rife with anxiety. But it is a flat anxiety. Our collective worries are banal. The “Digital Divide” between blacks and whites. The “epidemic” of older people falling in their homes. After all, you have to worry about something.

But I think Hesse’s commentary about our frivolity is exactly right, and I’d be the first one to be rounded up if anybody did anything about it. Everything in the culture is derivative. High art is usually incomprehensible, because it was intended to be. Popular culture is self-referential self-persiflage. Technology is increasing in leaps and bounds, but human wisdom and sensibility seem to be stagnating.

It seems like we are incredibly free today — and I guess, in a better mood, I’d agree with that assessment. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t hidden burdens that we all bear but can’t identify.

According to J.S. McClelland in his A History of Western Political Thought, medieval peasant revolts “always seem to have a bull-in-the-China-shop quality to them.” The Medieval order is as incomprehensible to us as the Feuilletist Age is to the far-off Masters of Herman Hesse’s Magic Bead Game. Historians have long marveled at how medieval peasants tended to destroy everything around them. They burned manorial ledgers and Church records; they destroyed their own fields and the possessions of their neighbors. In feudal societies, the connections between Church and State and custom may have been invisible, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t very real to peasants. McLelland sees those connections as the thousands of strings that held down Gulliver. He thinks this is why the mayhem was so indiscriminate. “What was the good of attacking one of Gulliver’s ties if the others remained in place?” Probably not one in a thousand illiterate peasants could tell you why they burned a specific item other than that they sensed it was connected to a larger whole.

America has had plenty of its own riots that seem indiscriminate. In 1992 people wondered why rioting blacks destroyed so much of their own property in Los Angeles. For the last several years colleges have been erupting into riots because college administrators try to take away their beer. Let us not forget Woodstock 99 with its fires and destruction.

But I think there is another riot taking place, a more quiet riot (no, not the bald rock band). Today teenagers and adults seem willing to kill their own children for the most casual reasons. Young girls mutilate themselves with razors. It seems everybody under 25 is pierced or tattooed. I suspect that people are fighting boredom and trying to free themselves for more sensation. I think kids dread something. I think they riot over beer because they don’t want the larger society to invade their campus redoubts.

To me this looks like the death of imagination, which is just a fancy way of saying boredom. If this were a Feuilletonistic Age we should be dancing and writing about the End of this or that. Go check out the dead-eyed wastes at the MTV music awards or search Amazon.com for books about the “End of Science,” the “End of History,” the “End of Ideology,” the “End of Endism,” etc., and Hesse seems pretty prescient.

I don’t know what it is, but I think there are Gulliver’s strings between every ironic line and in every laugh track.


Note to readers: my apologies for the above rant taking the place of the Most Overrated People Poll. But I have taken your suggestions and with the help of the gang at National Review we are putting together the 100 Most Overrated People list. It should be up tomorrow (as will be two new features).

Also, some of you have pointed out that we announced the winners of the What’s That From [Link defunct] feature without saying what the correct answer is. That has been remedied. And, yes, Clip Job [Link defunct] has been updated, ya ingrates! (Just kidding).


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