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Looking Backwards

By Ross G. Douthat

Maybe it's the slush and slate-gray skies, or the unscrubbed, dour faces of my overworked classmates, or the prospect of that final exam coming up tomorrow morning--but lately, I've started feeling a tad pessimistic about the state of the world.

I think the problem goes back to New Year's Eve, when I was under the Eiffel Tower, drinking cheap champagne and watching the revelers throw firecrackers at one another. (An odd people, the French.) Paris was all around me in the darkness, with its bleached-out white buildings, dark, clammy churches and long, gold-trimmed palaces, and it occurred to me that a hundred years ago, in the last year '01, the City of Lights probably would have looked more or less the same had any of my ancestors happened to visit.

There were no cars in 1901, of course, and fewer tourists, and the ghastly Centre Pompidou, which rises like a colorblind child's Lego castle above the charming boulevards around the Place de la Bastille, was mercifully unbuilt. But the long avenues were the same, and the bridges and the monuments, and then, as now, there were no skyscrapers in the center of Paris, no garish glass-and-steel confections, no piles of cement marring the long, twilit boulevards where the Parisians sat and sit still, sneering at the tourists and smoking their cool, carcinogenic cigarettes.

But--and here's where the pessimism comes in, folks--a hundred years ago, Paris and all the West possessed a thriving, glittering cultural life, one that vied with the Italian Renaissance and even ancient Athens in breadth and splendor.

Today, meanwhile, the West makes really good computers, and our video games are just excellent. But otherwise--well, things aren't quite what they used to be.

Consider my fictional ancestor visiting the France of 1901--Rudolph Douthat, we might call him, wandering the Quartier Latin and the narrow, flea-market streets of Montmartre. In the last twenty-five years alone, Paris has seen the sculptures of Rodin, the ballerinas of Degas, the water lilies of Monet, the dreamy Provencal mountains of Cezanne--not to mention to paintings of Manet, Seurat, Bonnard, Renoir and many more. Meanwhile, Toulouse-Lautrec is presiding over the Moulin Rouge nightclub, Paul Gauguin has taken ship for Tahiti and set about painting the native girls--and poor, mad Van Gogh is only ten years in the grave.

Or perhaps my great-grandsire Rudolph has more of a literary bent. If so, he might take a jaunt across the Channel to London, where a Polish emigre named Joseph Conrad has just published, in successive years, Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim. Conrad is coming in at the end of the full flowering of Victorian literature--in the last half-century, Eliot (George, not T.S.), Hardy, Henry James, Zola, Dickens, Flaubert, Balzac, Twain, Melville, Trollope, Tennyson and countless others have been busy penning new works. And with the arrival of the 1900s, our well-travelled Rudolph will soon be able to read new works by Dreiser, Cather, Wharton and Kipling--and then Lawrence, Woolf, Joyce, and eventually Paris's own bard of the boulevards, Marcel Proust.

One could go on, I suppose, into music or political philosophy--but the point should be obvious. The good news, of course, is that like the lucky, imaginary Rudolph, we too can read Conrad (or Nietzsche, to give the Teutons their due), we too can wander the Musee d'Orsay and see the flowering of the Impressionist genius--we too can enjoy the culture of a lost time.

The bad news, meanwhile, is that we have no culture of our own. Oh, we have "painters," yes--just take a trot through the Carpenter Center, or the modernist wing at the Fogg. And we have "writers," absolutely--turn on Oprah's Book Club, she'll introduce you to them. "Musicians," too--that Eminem fellow is pretty popular, right? And we've got plenty of great minds--most of them tenured at Harvard, if you believe the promotional literature.

But somewhere in the wreckage of the two World Wars, and the chilling, post-modern pessimism that came after, great art became hard to come by. That was when people started telling us that "greatness" in art is a subjective business, culturally constructed and so forth, and this neat device let them pretend that (save me your howls of anguish) Toni Morrison deserves a Nobel Prize in literature, or that Jackson Pollock's paint-spattered canvases are 20th century versions of the Mona Lisa, or that Elton John deserves a knighthood.

But I think they--or you, perhaps, dear reader, with the collected works of Thomas Pynchon decorating your shelves and a Piet Mondrian print on the wall--know better. I do not claim that today's artists lack talent or brains or ability; many of them have all three in spades. But nobody, anywhere, seems to know what to with it.

So our architects are paid small fortunes, and in return they throw up Mather House, or the Science Center, or the monstrosity that may take the place of the Harvard Provision Company in a few years.

And our writers play word games and write big, complicated books filled with absurdist characters whose lives are neither interesting nor moving--and pick up Pulitzers and plaudits from other writers who do exactly the same thing.

And our musicians and painters--well, the less said about them, the better.

On the bright side, though, we're living longer than ever. So we'll have plenty of time to figure out what went wrong.

And in the meantime, our video games are really super-terrific.

Ross G. Douthat '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Quincy House. His column has regularly appeared on alternate Mondays.

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