The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Centuryby Peter Watson
From Freud to Babbitt, from Animal Farm to Sartre to the Great Society, from the Theory of Relativity to counterculture to Kosovo, The Modern Mind is encyclopedic, covering the major writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers who produced the ideas by which we live. Peter Watson has produced a fluent and engaging narrative of the intellectual/em>/em>
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From Freud to Babbitt, from Animal Farm to Sartre to the Great Society, from the Theory of Relativity to counterculture to Kosovo, The Modern Mind is encyclopedic, covering the major writers, artists, scientists, and philosophers who produced the ideas by which we live. Peter Watson has produced a fluent and engaging narrative of the intellectual tradition of the twentieth century, and the men and women who created it.
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Disturbing the Peace
The year 1900 A.D. need not have been remarkable. Centuries are man-made conventions after all, and although people may think in terms of tens and hundreds and thousands, nature doesn't. She surrenders her secrets piecemeal and, so far as we know, at random. Moreover, for many people around the world, the year 1900 A.D. meant little. It was a Christian date and therefore not strictly relevant to any of the inhabitants of Africa, the Americas, Asia, or the Middle East. Nevertheless, the year that the West chose to call 1900 was an unusual year by any standard. So far as intellectual developments the subject of this book were concerned, four very different kinds of breakthrough were reported, each one offering a startling reappraisal of the world and man's place within it. And these new ideas were fundamental, changing the landscape dramatically.
The twentieth century was less than a week old when, on Saturday, 6 January, in Vienna, Austria, there appeared a review of a book that would totally revise the way man thought about himself. Technically, the book had been published the previous November, in Leipzig as well as Vienna, but it bore the date 1900, and the review was the first anyone had heard of it. The book was entitled The Interpretation of Dreams, and its author was a forty-four-year-old Jewish doctor from Freiberg in Moravia, called Sigmund Freud. Freud, the eldest of eight children, was outwardly a conventional man. He believed passionately in punctuality. He wore suits made of English cloth, cut from material chosen by his wife. Very self-confident as ayoung man, he once quipped that 'the good impression of my tailor matters to me as much as that of my professor.' A lover of fresh air and a keen amateur mountaineer, he was nevertheless a 'relentless' cigar smoker. Hanns Sachs, one of his disciples and a friend with whom he went mushrooming (a favourite pastime), recalled 'deep set and piercing eyes and a finely shaped forehead, remarkably high at the temples.' However, what drew the attention of friends and critics alike was not the eyes themselves but the look that shone out from them. According to his biographer Giovanni Costigan, 'There was something baffling in this look compounded partly of intellectual suffering, partly of distrust, partly of resentment.'
There was good reason. Though Freud might be a conventional man in his personal habits, The Interpretation of Dreams was a deeply controversial and for many people in Vienna an utterly shocking book. To the world outside, the Austro-Hungarian capital in 1900 seemed a gracious if rather antiquated metropolis, dominated by the cathedral, whose Gothic spire soared above the baroque roofs and ornate churches below. The court was stuck in an unwieldy mix of pomposity and gloom. The emperor still dined in the Spanish manner, with all the silverware laid to the right of the plate. The ostentation at court was one reason Freud gave for so detesting Vienna. In 1898 he had written, 'It is a misery to live here and it is no atmosphere in which the hope of completing any difficult thing can survive.' In particular, he loathed the 'eighty families' of Austria, 'with their inherited insolence, their rigid etiquette, and their swarm of functionaries.' The Viennese aristocracy had intermarried so many times that they were in fact one huge family, who addressed each other as Du, and by nicknames, and spent their time at each others' parties. This was not all Freud hated. The 'abominable steeple of St Stefan' he saw as the symbol of a clericalism he found oppressive. He was no music lover either, and he therefore had a healthy disdain for the 'frivolous' waltzes of Johann Strauss. Given all this, it is not hard to see why he should loathe his native city. And yet there are grounds for believing that his often-voiced hatred for the place was only half the picture. On 11 November 1918, as the guns fell silent after World War 1, he made a note to himself in a memorandum, 'Austria-Hungary is no more. I do not want to live anywhere else. For me emigration is out of the question. I shall live on with the torso and imagine that it is the whole.'
The one aspect of Viennese life Freud could feel no ambivalence about, from which there was no escape, was anti-Semitism. This had grown markedly with the rise in the Jewish population of the city, which went from 70,000 in 1873 to 147,000 in 1900 and as a result anti-Semitism had become so prevalent in Vienna that according to one account, a patient might refer to the doctor who was treating him as 'Jewish swine.' Karl Lueger, an anti-Semite who had proposed that Jews should be crammed on to ships to be sunk with all on board, had become mayor. Always sensitive to the slightest hint of anti-Semitism, to the end of his life Freud refused to accept royalties from any of his works translated into Hebrew or Yiddish. He once told Carl Jung that he saw himself as Joshua, 'destined to explore the promised land of psychiatry.'
A less familiar aspect of Viennese intellectual life that helped shape Freud's theories was the doctrine of 'therapeutic nihilism.' According to this, the diseases of society defied curing. Although adapted widely in relation tophilosophy and social theory (Otto Weininger and Ludwig Wittgenstein were both advocates), this concept actually started life as a scientific notion in the medical faculty at Vienna, where from the early nineteenth century on there was a fascination with disease, an acceptance that it be allowed to run its course, a profound compassion for patients, and a corresponding neglect of therapy. This tradition still prevailed when Freud was training, but he reacted against it. To us, Freud's attempt at treatment seems only humane, but at the time it was an added reason why his ideas were regarded as out of the ordinary.
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Meet the Author
Peter Watson has been a senioreditor at the London Sunday Times, a New York correspondentof the London Times, a columnist for theLondon Observer, and a contributor to the New YorkTimes. He has published three exposés on the world ofart and antiquities, and is the author of several booksof cultural and intellectual history. From 1997 to 2007he was a research associate at the McDonald Institutefor Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge.He lives in London.
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This is a great book. In essence, it is a survey of the influential ideas of the twentieth century. It covers disciplines as wide ranging as psychology, philosophy, art, mathematics, sociology, physics, etc. It is well written and reading it gives you a perspective on the raging debates and tremendous intellectual breakthroughs the shaped the world we live in now. I loved this reading this book. It took some time to read (it is a big book) but it was worth it. The Modern Mind rewards you with a better understanding of the modern world.
What is otherwise a wonderful book is terribly flawed by the complete absence of ilustrations. The visual arts are too important in the story to be left entirely to words. Also, ignore the author's expanations of Einstein's theories. He completely misunderstood the popularizations he read and has written utter nonsense himself.