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Sunday, August 14, 2005

 

ACQUIRED WISDOM

The Great Relearning

By Tom Wolfe

(The writer is the author of more than a dozen books, among them such contemporary classics as The Bonfire of Vanities and A Man in Full. This article is excerpted from his book of essays, Hooking Up.)

�Start from zero� was the slogan of the Bauhaus School, a tiny artists� movement in Germany in the 1920s that swept aside the architectural styles of the past and created the glass-box face of the modern American city during the twentieth century. I should mention the soaring 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.

The hippies sought nothing less than to sweep aside all codes of restraints of the past and start out from zero. Among the codes and restraints that people in the [hippie] 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.

And 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 the 21st century.

In politics the 20th 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, it is instructive to read John Reed�s Ten Days that Shook the World�before turning to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn�s Gulag Archipelago. Well before the sudden breaching of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the relearning had reached the point where even ruling circles in the Soviet Union and China had begun to wonder how best to conquer Communism into something other than, in Bernard Henri-Levy�s memorable phrase, �barbarians with a human face.�

The great American contribution to the 20th 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 backlit plastic sign. But in the sexual revolution, too, a painful dawn broke in the 1980s, and the relearning, in the form of prophylaxis, began. All may be summed up in a single term requiring no amplifications: AIDS.

The Great Relearning�if anything so prosaic as remedial education can be called great�should be thought of not so much as the end point of the 20th century as the theme of the 21st. There is no law in history that says a new century must start 10 or 20 years beforehand, but two times in a row it has worked out that way.

The 19th  century began with the American and French Revolutions of the late 18th. The 20th century began with the formulation of the Marxism, Freudanism and Modernism in the late 19th . And the 21th  began with the Great Relearning�in the form of the destruction of the Berlin Wall in a single day, dramatizing the utter failure of the most momentous start-from-zero of all.

The 21st century will have a retrograde look and a retrograde mental atmosphere. People of our craven new world will gaze back with awe upon the century just ended. They will regard the 20th 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 spaceship if it blew�and to jigger with his own genes.

But above all, they will look back upon the 20th as the century in which their forebears had the amazing confidence, the Promethean brass, to defy the gods and try to push man�s power and freedom in limitless, godlike 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.

   
 
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Harold Mejilla, Alan Zoilo Belizario, Errol Laciste
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