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The Lost Illusions


The compulsion to sum up the half-centuries which overpowers newspaper and magazine editors every fifty years demands more audacity than good sense. Only a being from another planet could hope to remain sufficiently unmoved by the great forces and events engulfing mankind to treat the most recent five decades with any degree of unconcerned ness. And that's just what I am--a being from another planet. Just which planet I'm not prepared to say, as my long since civilized home does not wish visitations by adventuresome barbarians.

Arriving on your globe for the first time since 1900, I was struck by a change of mood. Humanity in general had come to think of itself in a way different from the confident eagerness of a half-century ago. Then everyone was all optimism, inevitable progress still enjoyed some degree of credibility, and the millennium had almost arrived. Man, while not still center of the universe, yet had faith in reason and his own power finally to wrest control of nature from those forces which had remained mysterious till then.

Well, that wasn't the way they greeted me when I arrived this time. Glum, disillusioned-- I sensed a note of cynicism in their replies to my first questions. What had been going on? What has happened? They answered confusedly, mumbling apologetically, then fell to quarreling among themselves. None really seemed to know for sure, but each felt that the other had had something to do with it.

The illusions seem to have been shed both subtly and cataclysmically. Ideas such as those of Freud which had been around before the turn of the century invaded thinking they had never been intended for. Loss of faith in reason spread to the painters and poets and eventually evolved into such aberrations as Dadaism and Surrealism. However, these were the sensitive areas, and the folks in Sauk Center, Minnesota had not yet been moved by it at all. Joyce had to build upon an ancient myth to get any order into his world, but most of the more modern myths still persisted for the rest of mankind.

It was then that the more cataclysmic weapons were brought to hear upon the serenity of the still untroubled minds. Big Bertha could be leveled against those stubborn areas of complacency which ideas could not infiltrate. War swept the world of many of its illusions, delusions, and ideals, leaving behind--in the sensitive areas--small groups of "The Lost Generation" conversing aimlessly around the tables of the Cafe Dome. Some sort of bottom in disillusion of man with himself was reached with the publication of "The Waste Land" in 1922.

Sank Center still persisted in believing--distant tremors of Big Bertha's hits had only shaken it mildly. Then depression came--depression being a state of mind in which man no longer feels sure of himself or sure that what he's doing he's doing right. Another cataclysm followed hard upon. It seems that the tribal ways of thinking that the man of 1900 had blithely ignored had a resurgence in the twenties and thirties; any illusions hovering protectedly by were finally burned in the crematoriums or died with the Kamikaze pilots. The vencer of civilization had not just worn thin; it had warped and peeled off altogether.

Now that I understand how even the people in Sauk Center have come to wear a harassed, uncertain look, I can return to civilization for another fifty years. Perhaps with the illusions shed man will grow more mature by the year 2,000. Or perhaps the unpleasantness of looking at himself and the world unadorned will cause him to revert once again to his tribal ways. I noticed you deified another man last month--let's see, that makes the third this century.

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