Is it really later than we think?
Modernity's bright future may actually be antiquity's dotage
By Ben Hutchinson
Let’s play a word association game. If I say the word “modern,” what comes into your mind? Chances are, it will be some variation of “new,” “recent” or “contemporary.” This understanding of modernity is so ingrained that we rarely pause to reflect on its historical implications. Yet there is another way of conceiving the term, one that brings with it a whole different set of associations. What if we were to turn the telescope around, like Copernicus, and view modernity not as a new beginning, but as an end, as a period that is defined by the fact that it comes after everything else? What if we were to understand modernity as the old age of the world?
This simple inversion opens up a new approach to a whole range of assumptions about modern culture, history and politics. Modernity emerges in this view not as the thrusting youth the advertising world would have us believe in, but as a kind of historical late style – which means that the ways in which we understand late style become of central relevance to how we understand modernity. But here’s the rub: late style doesn’t exist. Or rather, it does, but not in the intuitive, uncomplicated way that we think it exists. We tend to use the term to refer to the last period in an artist’s life: we might say, for instance, that Rembrandt, Shakespeare, Beethoven or Picasso has a “late style.” So far, so good, but notice how these are all “dead white males,” major canonical figures whose standing is subtly reinforced by our sense that their work “culminated” in a late period. Do we say that minor figures have a late style? Women? Scientists and thinkers? Do we ascribe a late period to those who die young, as well as those who die old? The lesson here is that there is no single sense of late style, no transcendental “essence” that can be applied universally across history. The term is in fact a myth, more or less invented by critics as a way of crowning their heroes and policing the canon. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Malvolio: some are born late, some achieve lateness and some have lateness thrust upon them.
If late style is a critical construct, then how might it help us re-conceive modernity? We can begin by noticing that there is, in fact, a whole tradition of viewing modern life as late. Already in the early modern period, Francis Bacon argued that the old “age of the world ... is the attribute of our own times,” a sentiment that Descartes reduced to the pithy claim “c’est nous qui sommes les anciens.” By the end of the 17th century, the literary debate known as the “Quarrel of Ancients and Moderns” placed the question of historical self-understanding at the center of debates about the legitimacy of modernity. In the words of the French author (and inventer of the fairy tale) Charles Perrault, “should our forefathers not be regarded as the children & we as the Elders and true Ancients of the world?” Perrault maps the development of cultural history onto the life of man not in order to describe the late 17th century as an era of virility, but as one of senescence: after the childhood of Antiquity and the adulthood of the Renaissance, mankind has now entered upon the old age of modernity. Seen from this perspective, modern literature from the 18th century onwards emerges as what Thomas Hardy, in his description of Little Jude, calls “Age masquerading as Juvenility.”
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