Week Six: All that is solid melts into air*

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Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, 1912

American history, any history, is not teleological. There is no purpose, no meaning, no goal. It does not neatly follow from one development to another, to another. It is not progressive.

Things end.

There is no comfort in this, but as fervently as Victorians believed in progress, I know there is no point, no map. I believe in science and dumb luck, not gods and master plans. I accept modernity, as nebulously defined as it has been since Einstein and Freud and the First World War changed everything.

And so, this week, I have been thinking about historian Modris Eksteins’ book, Solar Dance. It is a wonderful, powerful, thoughtful book that tries to explain, through an art forgery, how the Nazis came to power. That doesn’t do it justice—buy it and see what I mean. This is what I wrote about it a few years ago in an essay on  modernism:

“His book is not just about modernists and antimodernism. It is an argument explaining the breakdown of cultural and moral values during the inter-war years in Germany, a failure that he insists left a gaping hole through which the National Socialists goose-stepped in 1933:

‘If authenticity was assaulted and denigrated, as it clearly was in the Wacker Affair and in the Weimar period as a whole, then there was nothing solid left to hold onto. The entire middle-class belief system was gutted. This void Hitler and Nazism would fill with their fantasy world of myth and mastery.[1]

Eksteins echoes Yeats’s “The centre cannot hold.” In this past few weeks, we have ample evidence of the centre failing to hold, from a gun-wielding idiot “investigating” a fake news story to the revelation that Trump may be taking office with what amounts to his own SA.

Yesterday, the electoral college met and made it official—Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States, though we won’t formally know that until January 6, when Vice President Joe Biden, in his role as the departing President of the Senate, reads out the results.

Yesterday we also watched a twitter loop of a man standing at a podium grimace then fall, shot dead in the back at an art gallery in Ankara, Turkey. I don’t believe, like some, that this assassination will set off our July Crisis, though it understandably makes us scholars of the First World War more than a little queasy. The neatly dressed killer shouted for all to remember Aleppo before he too, ended in gunfire, not filmed for our twitter feeds, though a still picture is circulating, of his dead body up against the gallery wall, a smear of blood and bullet casings in the foreground—art at the end of 2016.

So too are the mini-videos of the doomed and the desperate of Aleppo. Many of its children are slaughtered, but one has come to symbolize them all. She is safe. For now.

Since life is not progressive and there are no gods or plans, all that matters is who we are and how we act towards each other now. When it’s all over, we are just dust.

I have always believed that most people are kind, are motivated to do the right thing. This year has shaken those core beliefs. What happened to empathy?

*I borrowed the title of this entry from Marshall Berman’s 1982 book on modernism. He borrowed it from Marx.

[1] Modris Eksteins, Solar Dance: Genius, Forgery and the Crisis of Truth in the Modern Age. (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), p.222.

© 2016, Kate Barker. All rights reserved.

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