Stranger Than We Can Imagine – John Higgs’s intriguing and unique tour of the 20th Century.
I recommend to readers trying to make sense of the tumultuous twentieth century a fresh historical take – John Higgs’s Stranger Than We Can Imagine: An Alternative History of the Twentieth Century. Its special quality is the sprightly manner in which Higgs offers up key events that illustrate the transforming qualities of the leading ideas and themes of modernism and postmodernism. The prose is accessible and one can only admire this British author’s uncanny ability to highlight complex ideas and phenomena with clarity in short, incisive chapters.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine takes us from the certainties and (apparent) stability of the Victorian era of progress and light to the various shocks and vigorous new philosophies and ways of being that transformed the world. The book might be better termed an historical investigation than a standard history. It clocks in at just 341 pages so there is much that is unavoidably omitted. For instance, his discussion of Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialism, developed in the immediate aftermath of the ravages of World War II, ties it to nihilism and the type of despair found in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. Yet, for Sartre and for those of us who have been energized by existentialism, it was surely intended to be a meaningful attempt to overcome despair and to reject nihilism. A longer section might have helped us to understand why Higgs considers the project to have failed. That being said, the author generally operates as a tour guide in an artful fashion, asking the reader to probe the wondrous and strange developments that were responsible for making the world new. The book can serve as a useful primer on such topics as Einstein’s theory of relativity and the successful literary experiments of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, such as the use of stream of consciousness and multiple, shifting perspectives.
In his chapter on individualism Higgs certainly hits his stride and I appreciated his account of the significance of the rise of the Rolling Stones and rock music as a new form of cultural expression …Legal cases and the role of law play a surprisingly significant role in relation to the events and the cultural icons that Higgs seizes upon to illustrate his narrative history. Indeed, these come into play for me, in the strongest part of the book, as Higgs takes us through the changes of the 1960s and beyond. For instance, in his chapter “Sex” the author relates the controversial and mould-breaking publishing history of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, written in 1928. It could not be legally published in Britain (and generally elsewhere), other than in a heavily abridged edition, until 1960. In that year Penguin Books chose to publish it to offer the reading public the important (if quite flawed) final novel of one of greatest writers of the century. The prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act was a dramatic and breathtaking event, with members of the literary community holding their breath and awaiting the verdict with trepidation until the jury finally rendered its verdict – not guilty!
Where Higgs succeeds is in following up on this event with a quick take on what came next. Here, as elsewhere, a breakthrough led to unexpected, even ironic consequences. For what Lawrence as a modern puritan surely wanted to affirm in his novel , contrary to the mistaken views of his enraged detractors, was a sexual relationship between the two protagonists, Constance, the young bride of an aristocratic lord, and Mellors, the gamekeeper on their estate, based on love and tenderness and what can be termed emotional intelligence.
The coming sexual revolution, ushered in by the court decision and altered perceptions as to what was now permissible in the books, plays and films of the new era, was heedless of Lawrence’s suddenly old-fashioned, even quaint, ideals and his concept of an idealized spiritual union between couples. Higgs uses as his example the novels of Henry Miller, notably Tropic of Cancer, which move a long way beyond tenderness between partners.
In his chapter on individualism Higgs certainly hits his stride and I appreciated his account of the significance of the rise of the Rolling Stones and rock music as a new form of cultural expression – the power of youthful rebellion, nurtured on a diet of “drugs and sex and rock and roll.” It pains me to look back on the exciting times of the counterculture in the late 60s and 70s, when groups like the Stones seemed to be heralding some form of breakthrough, perhaps even a political and social revolution. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the other Stones truly did seem to represent some form of progressive political movement. However, a philosophy of individualism and defiance, without some genuine concept of the social good, is bound to lead to disappointment. What was thrilling and apparently meaningful when done by a young person becomes far less praiseworthy when performed by middle aged millionaires who have taken their place as “superstars” at the top of a new establishment.
Stranger Than We Can Imagine depicts two encounters Keith Richards has with the police. One is at a point soon after the Rolling Stones’ meteoric rise to the top. He and Mick Jagger are convicted of simple drug possession but are treated fairly leniently by the magistrate and are aided by a sympathetic press. Later, Richards is apprehended after a run- in with U.S. police officers on an occasion where he took a risky drive through the heart of the Southern Bible Belt, his car laden with “dope, pills, peyote and coke” that even he considered excessive. The attitude he displayed on that and many other occasions is exemplified for Higgs by the phrase the guitarist used to explain himself – “We needed to do what we wanted to do.” With the help of high-powered lawyers he avoided disaster. (Pity the many young people who must have tried to emulate Richards and either overdosed on heroin or faced serious jail time). However, as the years have gone on, and Jagger and Richards continue to operate as “bad boys” of rock, they have long ceased to symbolize any meaningful form of rebellion and have come to personify unrepentant or irresponsible individualism. Higgs connects them to the Thatcher revolution of the 1980s and beyond that made this behaviour eminently respectable (not the drug taking, but the relentless focus on the bottom line for oneself), and notes that Jagger became a staunch Thatcher supporter.
The book can serve as a useful primer on such topics as Einstein’s theory of relativity and the successful literary experiments of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, such as the use of stream of consciousness and multiple, shifting perspectives.
Another strong chapter is the one on Growth, which chronicles the rise in power of the corporation, to the point that the large, multinational corporations now exert much more power than many governments around the globe. Lawyers did a successful job of utilizing the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects the life, liberty and property of any person, to increase the already heady powers of corporations in an exponential fashion. It is something of a mystery as to why corporations should be granted personhood at law, a development that has extended to Canada and many other nations, but a short history of this power play is provided here. Higgs describes this problematic transformation of our modern world with biting humour, using the Canadian documentary The Corporation as his launching pad. Filmmakers Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott took seriously the legal fiction that corporations are persons by asking just what kind of psychological profile can be created of this person. It is self-centred and even narcissistic, fails to conform to social norms with respect to lawful behaviour, has a callous lack of concern for the feelings of others and perhaps should be labelled a psychopath. The film draws on the book by law professor Joel Bakan which is worth consulting. We know, of course, that corporations are not, in fact, persons, but this instructive way of looking at their role in society shows a link with the self-centred behaviour of teenagers. Indeed, a connection can no doubt be drawn between the irresponsible individualism of these “persons” known as corporations and the unrepentant individualism of members of major rock acts, with their endless tours, outrageously high ticket prices and relentless flogging of tour merchandise. The perfect corporations!
There is much more, on a variety of topics, in this frequently exciting history of the past century.