ad astra per alia porci

definitive books of the 20th century
June 10, 2007, 9:29 am
Filed under: the arts,,2093888,00.html

The Guardian conducted a poll of it’s readers for the list of books that best defined the 20th century. The list is as follows:

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding

Out of the list of 10, I have read 6 before, three of which are on my own list of personal favourites, namely Heart of Darkness, The Great Gatsby and Catch-22.

While Nineteen Eighty-Four definitely has its merits, I would not regard it as the book that best defines the 20th century. As a whole, the threat of authoritarianism and the infringement of privacy have not materialised in a very substantial manner over the 20th century. While the rise of terrorism post 9-11 has increased security measures all over the globe, I would not count this as a grave infringement of privacy and freedom of thought. I believe that the 20th century has ushered in an age of increased freedom and openness; take the rise of the Internet, blogging, civilian journalism and the opening up of countries all over the world to the freedoms of free market economic systems as examples of the increase in personal freedom in every sense of the word for most all over the world.

Of course, branding something as definitive of an era inevitably ends in gross oversimplification and large-scale summarising; the zeitgeist and concerns of the 20th century is definitely much more complex than what a book can hope to reflect and give voice to. No disrespect to Orwell, he’s a top notch writer who cuts to the chase; however, I do feel that Conrad’s Heart of Darkness represents the 20th century better than Nineteen Eighty-Four does.

Clearly, the 20th century has been marked by wars. The World Wars, the Vietnam Wars, the Arab-Israeli Wars, amongst many others. In each war, “noble” goals often only serve to thinly mask the moral decay and innate propensity for humans to indulge in violence and immorality. Hitler’s rhetoric of rebuilding Germany and purifying Europe only serves to reveal the moral bankruptcy of the Nazi movement, which culminated in the Holocaust. America’s pursuit of the “noble” goal of democratising Vietnam led to the various atrocities committed in the name of “freedom” in Vietnam, which consequences still reverberates in American society today. While Nineteen Eighty-Four‘s idea of doublespeak used by politicians might be representative of what is happening here, I am more concerned with the deeper and more worrying underlying idea that man has always had the innate capacity for evil.

All these are eerily reminiscent of Kurtz’s actions in the Congo in Heart of Darkness, and the larger concept of the “virtues” of colonisation and the concept of the white man’s burden. Kurtz, who was the best that Europe had to offer (to paraphrase Marlow), moved into the Congo with the aim of civilising the “brutes”. His pursuit of this “noble” goal led him to the realisation of the “horror” that lies in every man: the innate capacity for violence, immorality and uncivilised behaviour. This begs the question of just how much men has advanced with the development of “civilisation”.

For all the great technological advancements of the 20th century (the 20th century was probably the most productive century for man in terms of technological advancements), man himself has not changed significantly. We are still animals driven by animistic desires and we cannot hide our basest desires and wants.

Hence Heart of Darkness would have served as a better reminder of the lessons we have learned in the past century, and a warning for anyone who is about to vest power in a political leader or pursue a goal. With the trend of increased individual freedoms and empowerment at the end of the 20th century, we have an increased responsibility to think even more deeply about our actions and keep our innate capacity for evil in check.

Heart of Darkness was written in 1902, at the dawn of the 20th century. It is amazing how one man’s observation at the start of century can cast light on events and issues as observed at the dusk of the 20th century.


1 Comment so far
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Whew, spins my head.

The simple fact you have so much to say about it, helps explain why Nineteen Eighty-Four is a definitive book of the 20th century. So many in a one significant generation read it, and/or Animal Farm, many were forced by a paranoid educational system. Whether you liked it or not, whether positive or negative, in belief or repercussion, it certainly helped define the thinking of that and subsequent generations in the 20th century, as much if not more than any other book on that list. Don’t ya think?

Comment by Highball

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