One of the themes I’ve wrestled with these past fifteen or so years has been an attempt to understand exactly what is meant by the philosophical worldview that’s been labeled “postmodernism.” You can Google this, of course, and find a variety of definitions and explanations (many that define it as undefinable), but if you stop there you’ll only end up with a pat on the back and not really comprehend it, for it’s a myth to think that if we have a definition we can stop thinking about its significance. Though difficult to define it’s a potent force that has been and continues to influence us, whether or not we see it, understand it or recognize it.
After years of mulling, my current opinion is that the best way to understand postmodernism is to have a clear picture of the modernist worldview of which postmodernism became a reaction against.
For me, one powerful illustration of the modernist mindset was Sigmund Freud's decision to publish his Interpretation of Dreams in 1900. Freud chose the year 1900 to publish this epic volume because he believed the Twentieth Century would be the dawn of a new era in human achievement, the Age of Enlightenment come to fruition.
This “modern” world would see the elimination of disease and continuous progress in every field of endeavor, along with the shucking off of religion-imposed guilt and deliverance from every evil by means of Reason.
The upheavals of the Sixties were directly related to a conflict of worldviews. Modernism embraced a confidence about the future, a feeling of certainty about things and a belief in the myth of progress. Technology will solve everything. The postmodernist is one for whom the scales have fallen off the eyes. Hope is a battered vessel sailing toward an uncertain destination with no confidence of ever achieving anything of lasting significance.
While 1950’s Americans watched Leave It To Beaver and TV commercials with smiling faces promising happiness if only you tried this or did that, there had been little progress for our own nation’s blacks who in the Deep South still lived under Jim Crow laws even though many had put their lives on the line to secure America’s freedom in overseas wars. Modernist Americans were told everything was getting better, but for the oppressed, one hundred years of “emancipation” had changed things very little.
While Americans read magazine stories about a bright tomorrow, others began to see the culture’s cancer beneath the surface of the veneer.
The epitome of this contradiction of world views came two decades later when Ronald Reagan announced that the world wants to bring Americans down to their level when America’s aim should be to bring the world up to ours. Unrecognized and unstated, the Postmodernist would say, was the reality that our Western wealth was achieved through the exploitation of the rest of the world’s resources. There would be no one left for the third world to exploit to rise up to our stature.
The false hopes of Modernist thought have a great appeal. Taking off the rose-colored glasses produces challenging observations.
So it was that Dylan articulated what many young people had begun to feel as they came of age during the Viet Nam war, during the upheavals of the civil rights movement, the assassinations and confusion of those times.
Darkness at the break of noon
Shadows even the silver spoon
The handmade blade, the child’s balloon
Eclipses both the sun and moon
To understand you know too soon
There is no sense in trying
From the getgo the song underscores that sense of futility so pervasive in that era.
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying
Temptation’s page flies out the door
You follow, find yourself at war
Watch waterfalls of pity roar
You feel to moan but unlike before
You discover that you’d just be one more
Your collapsing confidence shakes you to your roots…. but you see that your parents don’t understand, so the chorus runs like this:
So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing
As some warn victory, some downfall
Private reasons great or small
Can be seen in the eyes of those that call
To make all that should be killed to crawl
While others say don’t hate nothing at all
Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred
Instead of being a beacon of hope for those who were sensitive to (or poisoned by) what was going on, mainline Christian denominations reflected the same values as the broader modernist culture, infected by a belief in Reason and confidence about the future. Or rather, interpreting the Bible from such a perspective. Instead of critiquing the culture, books were being written on how to be successful in the culture. Norman Vincent Peale and others wrote about the Power of Positive Thinking. In the 70's two of the top selling Christian books at any given time were Christian weight loss books. Companies made money by importing cheap globes from China and gluing John 3:16 around the equator.
Nietzsche had already articulated the situation with clarity in the late 19th century: this world was such a mess that God had either died or abandoned it. For those who felt the reverberations of this viewpoint, the deepest need for which they felt an awareness was not faith or salvation, but for hope in this time of abandonment.
It took a Continental war to shake the foundations of Europe, and fifty years later, chiefly due to the power of the media, the trauma of the Sixties to shake the foundations of American culture. The metanarratives by which we defined our culture and our lives were themselves in conflict. As NT Wright explains:
Amongst the legions of bad ideas that flowed out of modernism was the eugenics movement, an extension of Darwinist ideology applied to sociology. How quickly we forget our history, and the complicity of Western ideologues who initially supported and even admired the Third Reich.
This is already too long for a blog entry, so you can find the rest of the lyrics here at bobdylan.com. Few songs paint a more detailed landscape of the times the Baby Boomer generation came of age in.
Ralph Gleason, who had been around the block and back, was one of those who saw what was happening here in our nation and understood what was going on. His article in American Scholar** began with these quotes below in red. Rolling Stone magazine became one of the outcomes of writing this piece, which he co-founded with Jann Wenner... a topic we'll explore again soon.
"Forms and rhythms in music are never changed without producing changes in the most important political forms and ways."
Plato said that.
"There’s something happenin’ here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. There’s a man with a gun over there tellin’ me I’ve got to beware. I think it’s time we STOP, children, what’s that sound? Everybody look what’s goin’ down."
The Buffalo Springfield said that.
"For the reality of politics, we must go to the poets, not the politicians."
Norman 0. Brown said that.
"For the reality of what’s happening today in America, we must go to rock ‘n roll, to popular music."
I said that.
Meantime... Open your eyes.
*The Resurrection and the Postmodern Dilemma
**Ralph Gleason, "Like a Rolling Stone"; American Scholar
EdNote: Dylan was not the only one expressing this vibe, nor is this song the only one of his that reflects it. It's Alright Ma is here used as a strong example.