BOOK CLUB: Stranger Than We Can Imagine

GARETH LANGDON is impressed by John Higgs’ riveting account of the 20th century.Stranger Than We Can Imagine - John Higgs

I first encountered the literature of the 20th century when I was in my third year of university, floundering through an English BA at the University of Cape Town. I remember cracking open The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, that other book by James Joyce that isn’t the impenetrable Ulysses. I was immediately taken by the richness of the work but also by the strange disjointedness of the narrative – how the stream of consciousness technique he used at once made perfect sense and no sense at all. During a particularly messy time in my life, I found this kind of narrative almost soothing – a semantic echo of what was going on in my own jumbled head. I remained fascinated with work from this time throughout my undergraduate and graduate careers, and to this day anything 20th century gets my juices well and truly flowing. I find art and literature from this time comforting. It makes me feel less alone.

The 20th century is considered by many to be the most turbulent time in human history. It started with a world war, saw the rise of communism and fascism and then another world war, disillusionment with religion and some of the most significant advances in science, medicine and industry that changed the shape of our psyches forever – a veritable explosion of confusion, enlightenment, death and fear that ripples through our lives today.

In his clear-headed and thorough inquiry, Stranger Than We Can Imagine, John Higgs carefully unpacks the major events of the 20th century that shaped the art, literature and science we take as foundational to this day, and examines some of the psychological effects of things like Einstein’s relativity and Nietzsche’s dead God on our lives.

Central to Higgs’ unpacking is the idea of the omphalos, in his words a “universal symbol common to almost all cultures but with different locations.” In Higgs’ figuring, the chaos of the 20th century can be best understood in the context of the disruption of various omphali. Western culture was now faced with a loss – the loss of a single benevolent God, the loss of the sovereignty of kings and queens and the loss of a single art for explaining everything around them. Various attempts at explaining existence gave rise to new but fleeting omphali, perhaps most notably fascism, embodied in that haunting spectre of the 20th century: Nazism.

The question of “Why?” lived on everyone’s tongue throughout the 20th century. Why are we here? What does it all mean? Why is there so much killing?

While he speaks fondly of the various artistic movements and scientific advances that arose across the century, from chemistry to cubism, Higgs brings it back always to what birthed these new ideas. Humans no longer had a central location from which to tether their existence and give it meaning. There was no answer to the “Why?” anymore. We were now quite small, floating on a rock in the middle of an ever expanding universe. Time itself was not even beyond reproach and left us flailing, albeit with our paintbrushes sometimes striking the canvas in new ways, or our pens giving birth to the likes of Ulysses or To the Lighthouse and indeed, the Beatles and rock ‘n roll.

For experienced readers of the period, John Higgs’ work is 20th Century Lite – a brief romp through the major events that shaped us, and continue to shape us. It is academic yet accessible, and also strikingly clear, leading critics to describe it as “like being shot with a diamond.” While it is ambitious to try and capture everything that mattered during the last 100 years, Higgs drops in at key moments and elucidates them brilliantly enough that the reader closes the book feeling rather well educated.

If you want to understand how we got to where we are today as a species – philosophically, scientifically and artistically – then Stranger Than We Can Imagine is, without question, required reading. Drastically undersold by the Financial Times as “A brilliantly stimulating tale”, Higgs’ work is much more than that. It is a telescope into the past that, ironically, helps situate us exactly where we are in the present.

Stranger Than We Can Imagine is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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