“May you live in interesting times,” is one of those sentiments that appears to be a benediction but is actually a curse. Allegedly it is an ancient Chinese curse to be aimed at one’s enemy. “Interesting,” in this case, means “bad” and “chaotic” times during which peace and tranquility are impossible to find. Although its original source is highly disputed, the phrase has entered our cultural lexicon.
One could certainly say that we are living in “interesting times.” There is chaos, disorder, and apathy, and perhaps even an epochal shift toward all of these. But since we do not possess knowledge of the future and how events will unfold, perhaps such statements are too dramatic.
Whatever the future may hold, most people still have a sense of the past, both recent and distant. And it is the distant past that both connects us to our ancestors (on a personal level) and cultural riches (on a collective level).
Pop psychology and fashion counsel us to let go of the past with airheaded calls to “look to the future!” While there may be a time and place for such counsel on a personal level (something that should be discussed with one’s therapist, if one is needed), denial of the past takes on a different, more sinister, meaning if we are talking about society at large. We are witnessing this with the so-called Great Reset. People like Klaus Schwab and Bill Gates lead organizations that live by one motto—start from zero!
The great American journalist, novelist, and cultural critic, Tom Wolfe (1930-2018) thought and wrote a lot about this phenomenon. In his essay, “The Great Learning,” Wolfe recalls his reportage on the hippies in San Francisco during that chaotic year, 1968. “The hippies,” writes Wolfe, “sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero.” It would be one thing if this movement was only contained to the hippies’ communes, where old diseases (both intellectual and literal) became new again. But it wasn’t.
Long before 1968, a small group of architects started the Bauhaus School of architecture, whose slogan was “start from zero.” Its founder was Walter Gropius, “The Silver Prince, White God No. 1,” as Wolfe calls him in From Bauhaus to Our House, who thought that he had a better idea about how people should live than his predecessors. “By starting from zero in architecture and design,” writes Wolfe, “man could free himself from the dead hand of the past.”
This turned out to be true, but like the seeming benediction of “interesting times” it is far from a blessing. Architects that followed Gropius’ dictum certainly freed themselves from the past—indeed, they were so freed from it that some of them only talked about architecture and never built anything. Others stuck to the “traditional” path of actually building something but alas, “the flat roofs . . . leaked from rain and collapsed from snow; the tiny bare beige office cubicles . . . made workers feel like component parts; the glass walls . . . let in too much heat, too much cold, too much glare, and no air at all.”
If only our worries these days involved badly designed and executed architecture! But there is another component, which Wolfe mentions in “The Great Learning,” indicating nothing has changed. It was the political realm that was most affected by the notion we should “start from zero.” For the 20th century, this resulted in communism, the legacy of which still continues to plague us. The problem was not so much with what communism (and, especially, Leninism) looked like in theory but with the people who thought and firmly believed that a new world order can, should, and must arise. In this order, morality is reimagined and society’s ambitions will have no limit. Nobody will be flying too close to the sun because we are all our own individual suns, and the myth of Icarus will either be unknown or deemed quaint.
And so, here we are again. The cultural forces of the 21st century want us to start from zero. Klaus Schwab and his whole gnostic congregation at the World Economic Forum are reimagining a just society in which inequality is addressed, fought, and destroyed. There is a price to be paid, however,—sovereignty and freedom are no longer viable realities of human life—and, of course, that which is deemed unequal is a matter to be decided by the oligarchical elites.
It’s not only the globalist’s dream of world domination that is part of the “start from zero” slogan. Toppled statues and that dreadful “1619 Project” are part of the same web of lies—among many others. But unlike the ecstasy of the hippies in the 1960s, we see no release (sexual or otherwise) that might indicate some celebration of the old-fashioned decadence and hedonism—which, at least, would be recognizably human. Rather, we witness the listlessness that comes from the insistence that being a slave is a good human condition. The lips are forced to mouth the words and our bodies are forced to comply, but the mind and heart protest—if only in quiet screams.
Many people, particularly in Western nations, were already primed for what emerged when the COVID phenomenon hit the world. Personal phobias and extreme narcissism have flourished thanks to the Oprahfication of the mind. The dawn of the new technological age has lost almost all connection to its original innovation. Instead, we see openly-advertised and ridiculous ambitions that technology alone will bring us goodness, justice, and a final end to human suffering. Evil will no longer exist because now we have iPhones and can connect to others on a global scale.
What these fantasies forget is the same thing that Soviet Communism forgot: human nature remains.
There is no real “relearning”—there is only acedia and, worse, society is mainly too listless even to know what condition it is in.
As Wolfe writes, in the 21st century people are “idly twirling information about on the Internet, killing time like Victorian matrons . . . content to live in what will be known as the Somnolent Century or the Twentieth Century’s Hangover.” The internet is in its own torpor as well, and its fast pace indicates no authentic movement of time. The idleness inspired by the internet is less a depressive, immovable state, than it is an obsession with information that turns into mania.
“God is dead,” declared Nietzsche’s madman. It seems that this self-fulfilling prophecy has continued to this day. The narcissism of our age is that we can only kill God if we have created God. But since God lives apart from our wills and is beyond time, beyond being, and beyond our imagination, we are destined to confront Him unprepared. “Start from zero” is a slogan of someone who deems himself a god, and who cannot see the true way in which human beings connect with one another. God, in fact, is not dead. We just have to open our eyes and reject the idle “twirling” of a society addicted to cynicism, joylessness, and information.