Sunday, 4 January 2015

Ah, this modern world, how far it is from realising its ideals

Have you ever given any thought to when “modern” started? Have we been living our modern lives a couple of years? A generation? Perhaps even longer?

Think of all those museums of modern art we have. When I was a kid, we’d never have included the impressionists in a modern art exhibition. But when I first began to be interested in art, the impressionist Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette was under a century old, and today Picasso’s modernist Demoiselles d’Avignon is over a century old.

Renoir. Modern Art? Don't be silly
So when will modern art stop being modern?
Picasso. Modern art.
From 1907? Seriously?
We even have the notion of “post-modernism”, one of the more ludicrous we’ve come up with. After all, what comes after modernity? Surely its the future, isn’t it? So unless we have a time machine, how on earth can we know what “post-modern” looks like?

At the moment, I’m reading a book by Elizabeth Badinter, a leading French philosopher and feminist, who adds to her range of talents a profound understanding, and knowledge, of eighteenth-century history of thought. The book confirms a feeling I’ve had for some time, that the “modern period” started in the middle of that century. She traces two remarkable women of the time, Emile du Châtelet and Louise d’Epinay. They were contemporaries for a while, but du Châtelet died in 1749, and Epinay’s writing dates from the 1750s onwards.

Badinter shows that there is a real watershed between them. Du Châtelet was a leading physicist and philosopher, the first major French woman scientist, and the last before Marie Curie. Epinay wrote principally about education, in an environment where the natural sciences were beginning to lose their popularity in favour of the social sciences and moral philosophy. This trend led to the emergence of a notion of Man as opposed to classes, which would later in the century inform such ideas as “the rights of Man”, applying to all men or women, regardless of their station in life.

In Badinter’s words, “increasingly, the idea of humanity took hold in minds, previously more used to distinguishing men by their station than to bringing them together within a single concept.”

The changing view is illustrated by a story told by a certain Longchamp, a former manservant of du Châtelet’s, who claimed in his memoirs that she would undress without any kind of modesty in front of him; on one occasion, she called him to bring hot water for her bath; she opened her legs wide so that he could pour the water between them and, when he averted his eyes, she told him to watch what he was doing so that he didn’t scald her (I suppose she scolded him to avoid being scalded).

Now du Châtelet would never have behaved that way with anyone she felt she had to treat as a man, in other words, someone of her own aristocratic caste. But Longchamp was a servant; he didn’t count.

That was the kind of thinking that began to change around 1750, so that in 1776 the nascent United States could declare that they were acting on the principle that all men are created equal. To them, there is a community of man, to which we all belong, and from which are derived certain inalienable rights. A world-changing concept after 1750, it held little sway before.

Since that’s a fundamental idea of our time, I like to date the modern from then.

And yet. No changes in human mentalities is sudden. The old ideas cling on long after the new ones have begun to emerge and supplant them. Even the framers of that great Declaration of Independence were in many cases slave-owners: equality of humanity clearly didn’t extend to involuntary African immigrants to America.

Nor are we out of the woods yet. You probably saw the pair of demonstrators from the States, one white and carrying a placard asking “is my life worth more than his?”, the other black and with a placard asking “is his life worth more than mine?”

Sadly, our societies don't (yet) value them equally
The founding fathers of the United States framed a constitution in which a black man’s life was officially valued at 3/5 of a white’s. The idea should have been buried by the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, but was it? Judging by the apparent right for whites, inside or outside the police, to shoot with impunity young black men in the States, one would have to say we’re not there yet.

No-one in Europe should feel any self-satisfaction with respect to the US either. If you’re Muslim, or black, or simply a foreigner, there’s a view in most of Europe today that youre a lesser being. Your rights can be denied. If you’re attempting to enter Europe illegally and your boat sinks, you should be left to drown. Behind such thoughts is the notion that other people are inferior, not fully entitled to human rights, perhaps not entirely human.

Not caring whether such a person sees you naked may be a little degrading, but it does no more ham than that. Thinking such a person may be gunned down in the street for no offence, or doesn’t deserve to be rescued from a watery grave in the Med, is much more serious. When we reach a point where our societies no longer find it acceptable to shoot young blacks or abandon drowning migrants, we shall at last have realised the ideals that began to emerge in the eighteenth century.

So my view? The modern period did indeed start around 1750. When will it end? Oh, it has a long way to run yet...

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