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10-08-2015, 22:27

ASPECTS OF CULTURE IN POSTWAR EUROPE

During the German occupation of France, the French intellectual Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–1980) developed a philosophy of resistance and individual freedom called existentialism, whose fundamental premise was the absence of a god in the universe, thereby denying any preordained destiny to mankind. Humans were thus deprived of any absolute purpose or meaning, set adrift in an absurd world. Often reduced to despair and depression, the pro- tagonists of Sartre’s literary works were left with only one hope—themselves, voluntarily reaching out and becoming involved in their community. In the early 1950s, Sartre became a devout Marxist, hitching his philosophy of freedom to one of political engagement to the Communist ideal. One of Sartre’s contemporaries, Albert Camus (1913– 1960), greatly influenced generations of young people in the postwar era with writings that focused on the notion of the absurd. In his seminal novel, The Stranger (1942), the protagonist, having stumbled through a lethargic existence, realizes just before dying that regardless of the absurdity of life, humans still have the opportunity to embrace the joyful dimensions of experience—in his case, the warmth and splendor of the Algerian skies. Neither a political activist nor an ideologue, Camus broke with Sartre and other French leftists upon the disclosure of the Stalinist atrocities in the Soviet gulags. The existentialist worldview found expression in the Paris of the 1950s in the “theater of the absurd.” One of its foremost proponents was the Irish dramatist Samuel Beckett (1906 –1990), who lived in France. In his trailblazing play Waiting for Godot (1952), two nondescript men eagerly await the appearance of someone who never arrives. While they wait, they pass the time exchanging hopes and fears, with humor, courage, and touching friendship. This waiting represents the existential meaning of life, which is found in the daily activities and fellowship of the here and now, despite the absence of any absolute salvation to the human condition. With the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, many Europeans became disenchanted with political systems of any kind and began to question the validity of reason, history, progress, and universal truths. Leading the way toward the adoption of a new perspective was the French structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss (b. 1908). An anthropologist, he examined world cultures as autonomous units, each different and worthy of respect, thus helping to reinforce the dismantling of the French colonial empire and empower the newly emerging postcolonial nations in Africa and Asia. In the late 1960s, the negation of prewar ideologies and the proliferation of structural methodology, now applied to all branches of learning, fused into a new doctrine of skepticism called deconstruction. Deconstruction cast doubt on all Western political and philosophical traditions, leaving a world in which human beings have lost their status as free agents dealing with universal verities and are reduced to empty vessels programmed by language and culture. For deconstructionists, language was like quicksand, constantly moving, its intermittent layers hiding unlimited and opposing meanings. A word does not signify an objective meaning but rather is open to different associations by each speaker or listener. Consequently, a given text can never have one single meaning, since the intention of the author and the understanding of the reader will never be precisely the same. By denying any ultimate meaning to language, deconstruction thus negated the existence of any objective truth. The philosophical skepticism reflected in this new approach quickly manifested itself in European literature as authors grappled with new ways to present reality in an uncertain and nonsensical world. Whereas the modernists at the beginning of the century had celebrated the power of art to benefit humankind, placing their faith in the written word, much of the new “postmodern” literature reflected the lack of belief in anything, especially the written word (see Chapter 16). Following in the footsteps of the modernists, French authors in the 1960s experimented so radically with literary forms and language that they pushed fiction well beyond its traditional limits of rational understanding. In the “new novel,” for example, authors like Alain Robbe- Grillet (b. 1922) and Nathalie Sarraute (1900 –1999) delved deeply into stream-of-consciousness writing, literally abandoning the reader in the disorienting obsessions of the protagonist’s unconscious mind (see Chapter 10). Some authors, however, preferred to retrieve literary forms and values that modernists had rejected, choosing to tell a “good” chronological story, to entertain as well as to deliver a moral message. Graham Greene (1904 – 1991) was one of Britain’s more prolific, popular, and critically acclaimed authors of the century. He succeeded in combining psychological and moral depth with enthralling stories, often dealing with political conflicts set in exotic locales. A longtime critic of the United States, Greene forecast the American defeat in Vietnam in his 1955 novel The Quiet American. This and many of his other novels have been made into films. Two other European authors who combined a gripping tale with seriousness of intent, written in fresh exciting narrative, were the German writer Günter Grass (b. 1927) and the Portuguese novelist José Saramago (b. 1922). Grass’s 1959 novel, The Tin Drum, blasted German consciousness out of the complacency that had been induced by his country’s postwar economic miracle, reexamining Germany’s infatuation with Hitler and warning German readers of the ever-present danger of repeating the evils of the past. In Crabwalk (2002), Grass chronicled a 1945 Soviet submarine attack on a German ship carrying thousands of civilian refugees, thus breaking the taboo of silence by Germans, who had suppressed the memory of their own suffering during World War II. In The Cave (2001), Saramago focused on global issues, such as the erosion of individual cultures stemming from the tyranny of globalization, which, in his view, had not only led to the exploitation of poor countries but also had robbed the world’s cultures of their uniqueness, thus reducing humankind to living in caves where communication is impossible and the only place of worship is the ubiquitous shopping mall. Like Grass, Saramago believed strongly in the Western humanist tradition and viewed authors as society’s moral guardians and political mobilizers. Since the end of World War II, serious music has witnessed a wide diversity of experimental movements, each searching for new tonal and rhythmic structures. Striving to go beyond Schoenberg’s atonality, European composers in the 1950s set out to free their music from the traditional constraints of meter, form, and dynamics. Of special consideration are Frenchman Pierre Boulez (b. 1925) and German Karlheinz Stockhausen (b. 1928). They devised a new procedure called serialism, which is a mathematical ordering of musical components that, once set in motion, essentially writes itself automatically. The second half of the century witnessed a profusion of diverse movements in European painting and architecture, many of which were initiated in the United States. For that reason, the issue will be discussed in Chapter 10.

 

 

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