Paul Mitchinson is a part-time writer and a full-time father of two. He writes when he can. » more about me

Jumping Around in the Twentieth Century, Without Pop Music

National Post, 10 February 2001

Book Review
A Terrible Beauty : The People and Ideas That Shaped the Modern Mind – A History, by Peter Watson
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 640 pages

A Terrible Beauty : The People and Ideas That Shaped the Modern Mind - A HistoryWill the 20th century never end? Certainly not at your nearest bookstore. True, pulping machines are busy devouring a decade’s worth of fin de siecle treatises on the end of everything from affluence to Zionism. But even as futurology texts get swept into the remainder bins, newly cleared shelves are being restocked with works of history, the final take on a century that refuses to go away.

Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty is an early sign of the deluge to come. (We’re not counting cheaters such as Sir Martin Gilbert, who published the first volume of his History of the Twentieth Century back in 1997.) Watson, a British journalist now working as a research associate at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, offers a peculiarly sunny view of the past century. He asks readers to look beyond the gas chambers, the Gulag, the nuclear wastelands and the killing fields, and to reflect upon humanity’s intellectual achievements. If we do this, he assures us, “the dominant intellectual trend, the most interesting, enduring, and profound development, is very clear. Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science.” Well, who could argue?

In telling his tale of the “people and ideas that shaped the modern mind,” Watson is working with a staggering cast of characters. Even had he restricted his account to scientists proper, Watson would have set himself a daunting task. But he goes much, much further, sketching the lives of artists and theologians, composers and civil rights activists. “Great works of religion, literature, music, painting, and sculpture fit into this narrative,” he writes, since “all cultures have been attempts to come to terms with both the natural and the supernatural world, to create beauty, produce knowledge and get at the truth.” The only ones left out of this story are politicians and generals, the traditional heroes of narrative history.

The breadth of Watson’s account is humbling. It is a rare author who can discuss dendrochronology — the science of dating objects using tree rings — in the same breath as chaos theory and psychoanalysis. And a rare narrative that makes room for everyone from Leni Riefenstahl to Albert Einstein to Maya Angelou. Watson traces the outlines of major scientific discoveries and minor literary figures alike, deftly and sympathetically.

Too sympathetically, perhaps, for some readers. Watson’s uniform response to his subject is a sense of awe, a gee-whiz tone that grows increasingly tiresome as the book progresses. Science possesses “a moral authority as well as an intellectual authority,” he asserts, and he is inclined to extend this compliment to its practitioners. But to his credit, Watson does not shy away from offences committed, however fraudulently, in science’s name. Two of the book’s Big Ideas — genetic inheritance and Darwinian evolution — have together sired countless bastard offspring, odious pseudo-scientific theories about racial hierarchies and eugenics.

Does Watson miss anything? Inevitably. But he heads off any criticism by declaring flatly that his book is not intended to be “a definitive intellectual history of the twentieth century — who would dare attempt to create such an entity?” Even so, it is puzzling how Sigmund Freud, a looming figure in Watson’s tale, emerges from the book with his scientific credentials largely intact. He might at least have included an account of the recovered memory movement, the latest outrage in a century of Freudian hoaxes dating back to Dora, the good doctor’s first patient.

Watson’s capsule summaries are less effective at describing artists than scientists, perhaps because art resists condensation. An account of Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain says that the “symbolism is pretty heavy-handed,” but it is only Watson’s summary that makes it so. Isaac Babel is described bloodlessly as “a celebrated short-story writer whose best-known works include Red Cavalry (1926) and Odessa Tales (1927), an account of his [Russian] Civil War experience.”

Watson faults modern art for its “obsession with novelty for its own sake,” and for speaking “with less and less confidence” as the century progressed. But perhaps it is Watson’s lack of confidence that is the real issue. His discussion of music is particularly derivative and unassured. He ends with serialism and aleatory music in the 1950s, with barely a passing nod to pop music, and nary a whisper about anything else.

But a far more significant reservation must be raised about the book: Is it, in fact, a narrative at all? Watson tells us that he was inspired by Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb. “It made me realise,” he writes, that “the narrative approach can make even the driest and most difficult topics highly readable.” And he’s right. Rhodes has written a spine-tingling thriller with a seamless narrative.

Watson, meanwhile, has created an exquisite mess. His book jumps from story to story, with only the briefest nod to narrative coherence. In a characteristic transitional device, Watson writes that “T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Adolf Hitler, so different in many ways, had one thing in common — a love of the classical world.” He says that the painter Gustav Klimt was, “like [philosopher Otto] Weininger, the son of a goldsmith. But there the similarity ended.” On literature, he tells us that “the form of Joyce’s Ulysses could not be more different from The Waste Land or Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room,” then adds, “But there are similarities.” A two-page discussion of antibiotics — clearly inadequate in terms of its overall importance — is sandwiched between the development of radar and the discovery of the Lascaux cave paintings. And on it goes. Readers will likely be reminded of one of the 20th century’s greatest discoveries — the quantum leap.

This might sound like a criticism, but it is not. A Terrible Beauty is a gripping, enlightening account of a wondrous century. Is it history? No, more like an encyclopedia that happens to be arranged chronologically rather than alphabetically. So stock it under Reference, and give your groaning history shelves some temporary relief.