December 1987
The Great Relearning
The twentieth century is over.

by Tom Wolfe

In 1968, in San Francisco, I came across a curious footnote to the psychedelic movement. At the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic there were doctors who were treating diseases no living doctor had ever encountered before, diseases that had disappeared so long ago they had never even picked up Latin names, diseases such as the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot. And how was it that they had now returned? It had to do with the fact that thousands of young men and women had migrated to San Francisco to live communally in what I think history will record as one of the most extraordinary religious experiments of all time.

The hippies, as they became known, sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes and restraints of the past and start out from zero. At one point Ken Kesey organized a pilgrimage to Stonehenge with the idea of returning to Anglo-Saxon civilization's point zero, which he figured was Stonehenge, and heading out all over again to do it better. Among the codes and restraints that people in the communes swept aside -- quite purposely -- were those that said you shouldn't use other people's toothbrushes or sleep on other people's mattresses without changing the sheets or, as was more likely, without using any sheets at all or that you and five other people shouldn't drink from the same bottle of Shasta or take tokes from the same cigarette. And now, in 1968, they were relearning...the laws of hygiene...by getting the mange, the grunge, the itch, the twitch, the thrush, the scroff, the rot.

This process, namely the relearning -- following a Promethean and unprecedented start from zero -- seems to me to be the leitmotif of our current interlude, here in the dying years of the twentieth century.

"Start from zero" was the slogan of the Bauhaus School. The story of how the Bauhaus, a tiny artists' movement in Germany in the 1920's, swept aside the architectural styles of the past and created the glass-box face of the modern American city is a familiar one, and I won't retell it. But I should mention the soaring spiritual exuberance with which the movement began, the passionate conviction of the Bauhaus's leader, Walter Gropius, that by starting from zero in architecture and design man could free himself from the dead hand of the past. By the late 1970's, however, architects themselves were beginning to complain of the dead hand of the Bauhaus: the flat roofs, which leaked from rain and collapsed from snow, the tiny bare beige office cubicles, which made workers feel like component parts, the glass walls, which let in too much heat, too much cold, too much glare, and no air at all. The relearning is now underway in earnest. The architects are busy rummaging about in what the artist Richard Merkin calls the Big Closet. Inside the Big Closet, in promiscuous heaps, are the abandoned styles of the past. The current favorite rediscoveries: Classical, Secession, and Moderne (Art Deco).

Relearning on the wing, the architects are off on a binge of eclecticism comparable to the Victorian period's a century ago.

In politics the twentieth century's great start from zero was one-party socialism, also known as Communism or Marxism-Leninism. Given that system's bad reputation in the West today (even among the French intelligentsia), it is instructive to read John Reed's Ten Days That Shook the World -- before turning to Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. The old strike hall poster of a Promethean worker in a blue shirt breaking his chains across his mighty chest was in truth the vision of ultimate human freedom the movement believed in at the outset. For intellectuals in the West the painful dawn began with the publication of the Gulag Archipelago in 1973. Solzhenitsyn insisted that the villain behind the Soviet concentration camp network was not Stalin or Lenin (who invented the term concentration camp) or even Marxism. It was instead the Soviets' peculiarly twentieth-century notion that they could sweep aside not only the old social order but also its religious ethic, which had been millennia in the making ("common decency, " Orwell called it) and reinvent morality...here...now..."at the point of a gun," in the famous phrase of the Maoists. Today the relearning has reached the point where even ruling circles in the Soviet Union and China have begun to wonder how best to convert Communism into something other than, in Susan Sontag's phrase, Successful Fascism.

The great American contribution to the twentieth century's start from zero was in the area of manners and mores, especially in what was rather primly called "the sexual revolution." In every hamlet, even in the erstwhile Bible Belt, may be found the village brothel, no longer hidden in a house of blue lights or red lights or behind a green door but openly advertised by the side of the road with a thousand-watt back-lit plastic sign: TOTALLY ALL-NUDE GIRL SAUNA MASSAGE AND MARATHON ENCOUNTER SESSIONS INSIDE. Up until two years ago pornographic movie theaters were as ubiquitous as the Seven-Eleven, including outdoor driveins with screens six, seven, eight storeys high, the better to beam all the moistened folds and glistening nodes and stiffened giblets to a panting American countryside. Two years ago the pornographic theater began to be replaced by the pornographic videocassette, which could be brought into any home. Up on the shelf in the den, next to the set of The Encyclopedia Brittanica and the great books, one now finds the cassettes: Shanks Akimbo, That Thing with the Cup. My favorite moment in Jessica Hahn's triumphal tour of Medialand this fall came when a ten-year-old girl, a student at a private school, wearing a buttercup blouse, a cardigan sweater, and her school uniform skirt, approached her outside a television studio with a stack of Playboy magazines featuring the famous Hahn nude form and asked her to autograph them. With the school's blessing, she intended to take the signed copies back to the campus and hold a public auction. The proceeds would go to the poor.

But in the sexual revolution, too, the painful dawn has already arrived, and the relearning is imminent. All may be summed up in a single term, requiring no amplification: AIDS.

The Great Relearning -- if anything so prosaic as remedial education can be called great -- should be thought of not as the end of the twentieth century but the prelude to the twenty-first. There is no law of history that says a new century must start ten or twenty years beforehand, but two times in a row it has worked out that way. The nineteenth century began with the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth. The twentieth century began with the formulation of Marxism, Freudianism, and Modernism in the late nineteenth. And now the twenty-first begins with the Great Relearning.

The twenty-first century, I predict, will confound the twentieth-century notion of the Future as something exciting, novel, unexpected, or radiant; as Progress, to use an old word. It is already clear that the large cities, thanks to the Relearning, will not even look new. Quite the opposite; the cities of 2007 will look more like the cities of 1927 than the cities of 1987. The twenty-first century will have a retrograde look and a retrograde mental atmosphere. People of the next century, snug in their Neo-Georgian apartment complexes, will gaze back with a ghastly awe upon our time. They will regard the twentieth as the century in which wars became so enormous they were known as World Wars, the century in which technology leapt forward so rapidly man developed the capacity to destroy the planet itself -- but also the capacity to escape to the stars on space ships if it blew. But above all they will look back upon the twentieth as the century in which their forebears had the amazing confidence, the Promethean hubris, to defy the gods and try to push man's power and freedom to limitless, god-like extremes. They will look back in awe...without the slightest temptation to emulate the daring of those who swept aside all rules and tried to start from zero. Instead, they will sink ever deeper into their Neo-Louis bergeres, content to live in what will be known as the Somnolent Century or the Twentieth Century's Hangover.

Tom Wolfe is author most recently of A Man in Full (Farrar Straus Giroux).

This article orginally appeared in the December 1987 issue of The American Spectator.

(Posted 8/11/99)


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