Sunday, 22 September 2013

Brian Cox Ha-ha-ha! (The New Enlightenment)

The moon-like face of Brian Cox swims into view as, simpering and tittering, he expatiates, in front of an audience of adoring celebrities, about the unimaginable dimensions of the universe, while simultaneously, one suspects, internally marvelling at the unimaginable dimensions of his own intelligence. He and his boffin accomplices are very pleased with themselves. They are particularly delighted by the latest concrete objective correlative spewed out into the real world as an image of their cathedral-like brains. It is a heap of meccano, cables, shock-absorbers and probes, which, together, constitute a Mars exploration module. For them and their audience, Science is sexy.

This reminds me of another age that was in love with its ability to create technology, in love with science and in love with human reason. The 18th century in France was dominated by the arbitrary power of absolute monarchy and the collaborating and obscurantist power of the Catholic Church. The arrogance of these two estates would inevitably lead to their downfall. That downfall came in an unexpected form. As the century progressed there arose a new faith in human reason which harked back to the philosophers of Greece and Rome. A new invention appeared – the Encyclopaedia which aimed to define and describe the world coldly and rationally according to human reason. D’Alembert, Diderot and Voltaire figured largely. Science and scientific method, whereby experiments with the keywords of preparation, observation and conclusion became the new watchwords, was given primacy in intellectual circles. Religion was railed at and priests were ridiculed. All was put under scrutiny, including accepted and long-standing political systems. Not surprisingly and, probably deservedly, many of these systems came crashing down and the century of revolutions, the 19th century began. The most spectacular revolution took place in France from 1789 onwards. Before Napoleon stepped in to restore order, the world had witnessed Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. In this spell the churches were torn down or converted into tennis courts and prisons and real stone Temples to Human Reason were erected. The culmination of all of this was the invention of a piece of technology that embodied the huge strides that had been made in human technology and scientific resourcefulness. A Doctor Guillotin produced a sparkling new machine that would solve many problems with its efficiency and effectiveness and would foreshadow the mass production of the next century’s industrial revolution. No more hacking at necks with a blunt axe misery! No more extended terror for the victim! No more slices of flesh and gobbets of gore to be cleared away! No more fear on the part of the proletariat spectators that the fast-glazing eye of an aristocrat would fix them from a severed head that had indiscriminately rolled to their feet! A carefully placed pannier would solve that. And look at how many items could be processed in one day. Reason had triumphed! Human resourcefulness and technology had won the day! The Guillotine had arrived. Few noticed that the gutters of the Place Louis Quinze (now the Place de la Concorde) continued to run with human blood just as it had before the dreadful machine was installed.

In England a lone voice in the form of William Blake raised itself in criticism of the century’s obsession with rationalism. He, uniquely, railed against the God of Reason and even gave a name to him – Urizen or Your Reason. He also, famously, produced a picture of a naked Isaac Newton bending down with a pair of compasses and attempting to measure the universe and thus subject it to human reason. We find ourselves in a new age of enlightenment. Technology reigns supreme, a scientific utopianism prevails in many quarters and one can scarcely turn on the television without encountering an array of programmes feting the latest inventions and marvelling at the new macro or microcosms most lately explored. One can suffer from compassion-fatigue, however, and now one begins to suffer from slack-jawed Coxian wonder-fatigue. Compassion and a capacity for wonder are fine qualities in a person but they are exhaustible. One finds oneself, after the fifth Horizon on the latest examination of solar winds or the latest genetic-targeted drug or crop modification, longing for something with warm human dimensions, like a song or a story. Our minds and hearts are not the equivalent to Jodrell bank telescopes (no doubt far larger and more sophisticated telescopes have superseded Jodrell Bank) desirous only of capturing unimaginable quantities of data. We are wonderful complex creatures but we are finite, human and most of all, mortal. Utopian ideas have always existed but have seldom given comfort to those who enjoy or suffer the human condition. Who is to say that our ability to produce art, story, music and feeling is inferior to our ability to wield tools, and to analyse our surroundings with a clinical eye? Love, feeling, humour, heart, spirit and beauty – all of these are things that give unique value to human life and they are things that cannot be measured or defined as they are part of a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

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