Saturday, 10 October 2015

Thomas Hardy's 'New Dark Age' is ours

In 1915, Thomas Hardy, poet, novelist and visionary, saw that the First World War could never be won outright, in spite of what he saw as ‘the innocence’ of the British. He foresaw that attrition and exhaustion would halt the guns, eventually. He also understood that this would only be for a while. So, Hardy effectively foresaw The Second World War.

In 1922, looking forward to the rest of the 20th century, Thomas Hardy wrote this:

“Forward conjecture scarcely permits the hope of a better time, unless men's tendencies should change. So indeed of all art, literature, and ‘high thinking’ nowadays. Whether owing to:
  • the barbarizing of taste in the younger minds by the dark madness of the late War
  • the unabashed cultivation of selfishness in all classes 
  • the plethoric growth of knowledge simultaneously with the stunting of wisdom 
  • a degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation (to quote Wordsworth again) or 
  • any other cause.... 
we seem threatened with a new Dark Age”.

Thomas Hardy felt that something had ruined European culture, by barbarising younger minds. This, in turn, had affected and ruined art, literature and high thought. Hardy could not quite put his finger on the cause. Was it the madness of World War One? The unabashed selfishness, in all classes (though The Bright Young Things, living madly in the early Twenties were from the Upper Classes)? Was it the growth of a desire for knowledge and stimulation, without wisdom - or some other hidden cause? Whatever it was, Thomas Hardy foresaw the 20th century as 'a new Dark Age'.

Who can argue with him - knowing what has happened in the last hundred years?  Discussing this, would make an ideal question for a difficult exam paper but it is also food for thought. Is the 'trauma' over yet? Are we destined never to recover from World War One?  Its trauma is only one aspect: its underlying drives are another.

It is considered that loss of faith in God was caused by Enlightenment philosophies that had caused the French Revolution. No doubt, the corruption of the church elite and Christian hypocrisy played its destructive part. Into this spiritual void came nationalism -  the worship of the state (and man) in place of God. Before the Enlightenment, pre-industrialisation loyalties were to kin, village, town or province. It is considered that quasi-religious nationalism (supported by industrialised weaponry) was the main cause of the tragedy of the First World War, along with the collapse of the moribund Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It is reasonable to imagine that we might escape from this New Dark Age (which Hardy would see as continuing, today) by reversing The Enlightenment to some extent. But, of course, Thomas Hardy, a lapsed Christian, would never have suggested that - he put a small modicum of hope in 'amelioration'. However, as his last poem of contrition in "Late Lyrics" -  Surview suggests (written in Biblical language), he knew that the real problem lay deep in the human heart.

Further reading suggestions
  • Thomas Hardy, The Time Torn Man by Claire Tomalin
  • After the Trauma by Harvey Curtis Webster (1970) about the lasting effect of World War One on literature, through disorientating English writers.

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