CAN YOU HEAR THE NEW?
In 1923 the novelist and journalist Joseph Roth was living in Berlin in Weimar Germany, chronicling life in a part of the German-speaking world that, though only some 700 kilometres north of his native Vienna, was very unlike his homeland. The great Austro-Hungarian Empire into which he had been born had been reduced to the rump of plain old Austria, and Vienna was already a monument to the disappearing glories of the Hapsburg Dynasty, what his fellow Viennese writer Stephan Zweig called The World of Yesterday, a world of royalty and chivalry, of deep loyalty to the emperor, devout Catholic faith (and Judaism), and pride in one’s bourgeois roots. Berlin, in contrast, was the world of today, or perhaps of tomorrow, a world of jazz and bawdy shows, technology and traffic, of republicanism, liberalism, and strange new ideologies stirring under its glitzy surface. In one of his dispatches Roth found an avatar for his own bewilderment in a man recently released from a long stretch in prison, finding himself in a world shockingly different from the one he remembered:
B climbed out of the S-bahn, and stood in the middle of the twentieth century. Was it the twentieth? Not the fortieth? It had to be at least the fortieth. With the speed of arrows shot from a bow, like human projectiles, young fellows with newspapers darted here and there on flying bycicles made of shiny steel! Black and brown, imposing and tiny little vehicles slipped noiselessly down the street. A man sat in the middle and turned a wheel, as if he were the captain of a ship. And sounds – threatening, deep and shrill, plaintive and warning, squeaking, angry, hoarse, hate-filled sounds – emanated from the throats of these vehicles. What were they shouting? What were these voices? What were they telling the pedestrians? Everyone seemed to understand, everyone except B.
There was something in the air, and more than just the sound of brakes and the smoke of exhausts. As the above passage illustrates, it wasn’t just that the world around him was different, but the people were too: they all understood, or seemed to, the sounds of the traffic; they had adapted themselves well enough to a world of speed and noise.
A year earlier, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, another German speaker from a former province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had released his Sonnets to Opheus, one of whose poems dramatized this very same change, describing the siren call of technology and its champions:
Master do you hear the New
Quiver and Rumble?
Prophets come through
We could identify the ‘New’ here with the great new God that Yeats predicts at the end of his great prophetic poem ‘The Second Coming’, ‘the beast that slouches toward Bethlehem to be born’. The nineteen-twenties was a time of great spiritual upheaval – perhaps of great spiritual abandonment, as Europeans, disillusioned by war, left behind the faith that they had followed for centuries; and the twenties were also a time when many people were turning, slowly at first, to terrifying new ideologies – the communism that would swallow the east of Europe, and many of the intellectuals (and some of the poets) of the west, and the Fascism, even madder and bloodier, that would rise in response. But Rilke’s poem seems less about ideology and religion, than about technology and newness itself, the great machines of the mechanical age that had, as Roth’s freed prisoner notices, transformed the world so drastically. It had transformed war, too, in the shape of the great machines of death of the First World War:
The air is loud with death
The dark air spurts with fire
The explosions ceaseless are
That is Isaac Rosenberg, of the English war poets, perhaps the most evocative in his descriptions of the machinery of modern war and the terror it inspired, of the power and ruthlessness of bombs and guns, and the weakness of flesh and bone in the face of fire and metal. Rilke too, saw service in the First World War, albeit briefly (and on the opposite side to Rosenberg), and his poem shows certain awareness of the great destructive power of technology:
Look at the machine: how
it waltzes and wreaks pain
And mutilates and makes us cow
Yet in these lines there is a faint but definite sense of the beauty of the machinery, as well as its dreadfulness – the word ‘waltzes’ intimates a kind of dance, a quite sophisticated one, and the destruction it wreaks feels almost like a creative act. Few would deny that great weapons can be beautiful – and explosions too inspire awe. So it is no wonder that the new has its prophets.
When he spoke of ‘prophets’ Rilke may have had in mind the great inventors and manufacturers of his day, but he may also have thought of figures such as the Italian poet and theorist Filippo Marinetti, who lauded all that was new and technological, and argued for a radical, indeed, definitive and destructive break from the past – he was later an enthusiastic proponent of Fascism which would try to achieve just such a break. The destructiveness of fascism was not merely rhetorical, but at the beginning of his career, Marinetti was not quite so clear on what this break would look like, declaring in his Futurist Manifesto that: “We will sing the praises of man holding the flywheel of which the ideal steering-post traverses the earth impelled itself around the circuit of its own orbit.”
The early 20th century English writer G.K. Chesterton had a little fun with that in a poem called The Futurists’ Song. Chesterton, as you will gather, had nothing but contempt for the Futurist creed, such as it was, but he was at least appreciative of the comic rhyming potential of the word ‘orbit’
My fathers scaled the mountains in their pilgrimages far
But I feel full of energy when I’m sitting in a car
And petrol is the perfect wine, I lick it and absorb it,
So we will sing the praises of man holding the flywheel of
which the ideal steering-post traverses the earth impelled
itself around the circuit of its own orbit.
That’s pretty funny, and perhaps that is the best response to those who would sacrifice our humanity in their rush to embrace technology – to laugh at and mock them. But almost a hundred years on the high priests of technology are by no means as ridiculous as Marinetti, and the change they seek to wreak is of as radical nature, even if it is more slickly presented. Rilke ends his poem with the ambiguous imperative ‘Let it serve’, and indeed technology has served human beings well in the decades since the Second World War, but that too brings its dangers. We may well survive the great violence that technology is able to inflict on us and our environment, but we may not so easily escape its services: AI, robotisation, the melding of humans and machines, the creation of synthetic life. I can easily imagine myself, in thirty or forty years’ time, as bewildered and disturbed as Roth’s released prisoner standing by the S-bahn, as the latest manifestations of the new waltz around me.
Extract from the article The Resurrection, from What I saw, Joseph Roth, transl. Michael Hoffman, Norton 2003
Extracts from Sonnet XVIII, Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke, Transl. Willis Barnstone, Shambhala 2004
Extracts from Dead Man’s Dump, Isaac Rosenberg, from Poetry of the First World War, Ed. Tim Kendall, Oxford 2013
Extract from Collected Nonsense and Light Verse, G.K. Chesterton, Xanadu, 1987