Friday, November 9, 2012

The Lost Generation

Our Modern Society

“Where else? I belong to a lost generation and am comfortable 
only in the company of others who are lost and lonely.”
Umberto Eco, essayist, literary theorist, & novelist

After the Great War, World War I, a generation of men returned to their homes, many wounded, maimed, and sick. Even those without any noticeable outward infirmities suffered from a sense of  being déraciner, uprooted; these were a "lost generation"—men who were not trained in the basics or essentials of life while away at war; in other words, they suffered from a decided deficit, including a connection to the past traditional myths and glories. Such was the thinking then, as it is today. The term was coined by Gertrude Stein, with broader social implications, after a garage owner, viewing a mechanic, a war veteran, who lacked the necessary skills to repair her car said they were part of "une génération perdue"; it was later used by Ernest Hemingway in his novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926), a fine novel of that period.

Wars change people and their societies, and this war was no exception. It was a brutal and senseless war, but that does not explain everything. For many, the war ended the hope and spirit of modernism and left many persons, including writers, poets, composers and artists disillusioned and without hope in humanity. Who could blame them?; this was the first mechanized war, fought with airplanes, bombs, artillery, chemical weapons and machine guns. The death toll on all sides was astoundingly high, and the winner was no one, save misery. And misery became a friend of the lost, as is the case today.

The generation who went through the war were considered lost by those who weren't. Perhaps so, but a better, less tidy and more humane explanation was that they were abandoned by their nations who placed them in harm's way, into battle over virtues such as honor, duty and patriotism to nation and flag? One can and should questions such pre-modern ideas as "honor" and "duty," particularly since they serve the unique needs of the state so well. These quaint ideas are antiquated. The generation of writers following the Great War lost their values of good and evil, their abstract ideas of morality and their connection to the past. Their writing and their art reflected such, these works becoming a critique on economic optimism, materialism and consumerism—so well encapsulated by such terms as the Roaring '20 or the Jazz Age. I guess that some profited from these terms.

So these lost (or abandoned) ones acted accordingly, in keeping with their experiences, sensibilities and melancholy. The commercialization of everything rubbed these lonely ones the wrong way; as it has been said, you can be lonely in a crowd, if it's the wrong one. Malcolm Cowley in Exile's Return writes in 1934 about this period in a way that makes the best use of his experience and skills of observation:
The late 1920s were an age of islands, real and metaphorical. They were an age when Americans by thousands and tens of thousands were scheming to take the next boat for the South Seas or the West Indies, or better still for Paris, from which they could scatter to Majorca, Corsica, Capri or the isles of Greece. Paris itself was a modern city that seemed islanded in the past, and there were island countries, like Mexico, where Americans could feel that they had escaped from everything that oppressed them in a business civilization. Or without leaving home they could build themselves private islands of art or philosophy; or else—and this was a frequent solution—they could create social islands in the shadow of the skyscrapers, groups of close friends among whom they could live as unconstrainedly as in a Polynesian valley, live without moral scruples or modern conveniences, live in the pure moment, live gaily on gin and love and two lamb chops broiled over a coal fire in the grate. That was part of the Greenwich Village idea, and soon it was being copied in Boston, San Francisco, everywhere.
The idea eventually failed, as it always does once reality and commercial interests overtake dreams. But while it lasts the individual feels a taste of freedom—real unconstrained freedom—that he will never feel again. And that explains much. But don't try explaining such concepts to the anti-Romantic types, who enjoy sharp corners, straight narrow paths and clear lines. As well as making money on misery, without a trace of guilt or shame; it makes for a nice bottom line.


  1. The generation that was the most lost of all, morally speaking, was the generation that embraced totalitarianism. Murderous atheistic religions--Marxism, fascism, nazism--seized power, enforced thought control, and killed innocent people.

    1. The conditions for totalitarianism were greatly created by the First World War,one of the dumbest wars of many dumb wars.

  2. Hi Perry,
    It is a very intriguing topic you’ve chosen, ‘Islands’.
    As I read this, I can’t help thinking of another type of ‘Island’ – the refuge offered to notorious war criminals by certain nations after WW2 – (WW1 I’m not sure about).
    I understand these were deals sometimes brokered by the very nations our war heroes died for in the name of honor and good.
    I believe it still happens today. How many refugees are welcomed in the name of political asylum, who have themselves taken part in the atrocities which inflame their homelands? Defecting Syrian leaders come to mind, but how many other, less known persons are part of this modern day contradiction of old time values? And who are they?
    You say:
    “One can and should question such pre-modern ideas as "honor" and "duty, particularly since they serve the unique needs of the state so well…”
    The well-stated irony noted here is inescapable, Perry. The rhetoric of ‘values’ and the contradiction of these same values seem also to, as you say, “…serve the unique needs of the state so well”.
    Mark OB

    1. Mark, thanks for your comment on islands, which I was unaware of; but when examined from human history, it doesn't surprise me.

      Yes, both Canada and the U.S. admitted war criminals while denying entry to powerless and helpless refugees, in deals brokered by military and political leaders for specious purposes. That this continues today, when leaders in the same breath decry the loss of values, is not surprising, given that the same thinking prevails in the corridors of power. It would be funny, even absurd, if its consequences to individuals and humanity in general were not so serious.


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