My wife and I have been watching Perry Mason on HBO Go.
It’s not the greatest television show, but it’s not terrible by any stretch. In it, Mason comes back from World War I disillusioned, scrambling to make a living among others devastated by The Great Depression.
The Lost Generation was characterized by deaths from war, the Spanish Flu, and an economic disaster.
It doesn’t sound too far off from us, does it?
Of course, there are differences to be sure. The pain and suffering was of a much higher order, and a world war is something we thankfully have not experienced for over half a century.
So before you throw Steven Pinker’s books at me, I am aware that the Venn Diagram between us and them is farther apart than closer together.
But is it difficult to imagine a Millenial or beyond at a loss for what to do in the next decade? With a financial crisis, dwindling wealth opportunities, a gutted middle class, technological upheaval, climate change, and now a pandemic under their belt? I digress…
In any case it might be helpful to find lessons in history (as we seldom seem to do nowadays) in the ways that those of the lost generation acted in response to what ailed them back then.
Some lessons will be much desired, while others maligned.
For example, the drinking that occurred among authors living in Paris looked to be unspeakably high. They drank throughout the evening and into the early mornings. It became a symbol it seems of the reactions to the temperance movement in The United States.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been drinking heavily during coronavirus.
In fact, the amount of alcohol consumed is worrying me, and I’m the one doing it.
Many of my friends report the same thing. In fact, I’m drinking whiskey this Thursday with them!
But the Lost Generation seemed to be overly drinking to prove a point, that a Bohemian lifestyle guaranteed time, but it also guaranteed a method for fighting tradition and custom. And drinking was no different. In time, drinking as a cultural past time would ascend to what it is now: as a method to lubricate conversation.
Still, even Gertrude Stein worried about the effects of alcohol if overused.
The newness of the experience of being in The Lost Generation came out of a fierce desire to redefine the lived experience post World War I. A new world with dense urban experience, of partying and Jazz and anonymity, of telephones and radios and factories. The concept of “modern” meant whatever it was to whoever could plant the flag fast enough. From Stravinsky in music, Pound or Cummings in poetry, Hemingway or Stein in literature, Picasso in painting, and the development of silent films throughout, there was a huge demand for novelty. In the ruins of Paris, with someone able to live on as little as 100 dollars a MONTH (can you imagine?), many artists were able to congregate and share ideas and live on the cheap. Shakespeare and Company allowed expats to borrow books as an ad hoc library, as well as publish their own books. Joyce’s Ulysses may never have gotten off the ground were it not for Sylvia Beach, founder of the store.
Above all else during that time, it was important to think dangerously. If you somehow managed to live through disease or destruction from influenza or war, it was in your best interest to create the bad ideas that could be replaced by better ones. Woodrow Wilson’s attempts at the League of Nations was a great idea that arose too soon, it seemed. America’s isolationism after The Great War gave the impression that America had learned nothing, or perhaps that it had learned too much and sought to overcorrect. The political conservatism of the time (and its economic leanings) gave way to artistic liberalism.
Gertrude Stein’s house, and the surrounding Paris, became what has been called and made into cellulite by Woody Allen, “Cafe Society.”
The eradication of the public and the private had artists going to a bistro and ordering a coffee, and remaining and writing or discussing or reading for hours on end. They would migrate from restaurant to cafe to bar. The sharing of ideas, the building up of egos and personas, was so incredible that Allen again addressed the nostalgia (and its dangers) in Midnight in Paris. Many would go to the bohemian revolving door that was Gertrude Stein’s house, 27 rue de Fleurus, to gather and disperse ideas. Supposedly Alice B. Toklas was smart enough to have artists face their own paintings, hung on the wall in a baroque mess, so that they might not have to suffer from insecurities about their craft while debating surrealism.
Perhaps in that era, when PTSD was mentioned but not made medically explicit, many who returned from war felt they had no choice but to discuss. And what it was they were not sure. Anyone who has read The Sun Also Rises may feel suffocated by all the talking. But now, in 2020, with the world taking either the choice to yell loudly or remain understandably silent, we need the middle ground of discussion more than ever.
Compared to what came before, the hedonism on display was either fabulous or horrifying, depending on where you leaned. To me, it seemed that the modern era had a difficult time accounting for not just God being dead, but it was growing apparent (and would be cemented with World War II) that Humanism was reaching what many believed to be its conclusion as well. Many like Steven Pinker are trying to get us back to what Humanism stood for, but back then, when you found yourself on the tail end of a world war, one where horses charged at tanks and were obliterated, or you saw a friend succumb to the fog of mustard gas, and came out convulsing and writhing, it was clear to that The Enlightenment also brought with it atrocities.
What else then but the human impulse towards sex? Aliveness was the order of the day, in order to make up for all those who died, as well as to realize a lost sense of youth from growing up learning very different lessons. The cosmopolitan man needed a taste for drink and art. The boyish girl needed clothing that flattened the chest and exposed the shoulders as well as a short haircut. Gender roles had not reversed, per se, but like everything else they were being brought into question.
And dance, my God. The dancing that occurred at these parties was incredible. There are reams of footage of people dancing in clubs and speakeasy’s. They were swinging to Jazz and living up whatever infidelities they could, dance acting somewhat as a sexual preamble (or for the more conservative, sex entirely) that allowed many to introduce themselves to their own body.
Comparing to Now
Thank God for YouTube.
I have taken to thinking of YouTube now as a sort of Gertrude Stein establishment for the weird to inhabit, for people to speak and be heard, and for speech and thought to have a forum.
In the age of coronavirus, many positive lessons of the importance of people and their lives lived has been stymied by the necessity to socially distance. Yet I have gone to YouTube for all sorts of desires to be met, whether it is in reviews of tech, an interview of an author, or a biography of John Milton. Use these technologies to understand the people around you.
The power of discussion, to me, is the greatest takeaway. When I consider my life in my twenties, my biggest complaint would be the lack of time for long conversations. And after decades of the wrong technology use, I have seen people lose skills (as I have) in the ability to maintain a topic in conversation for longer than two minutes. Conversation is an art, and it is the art that we need during this crisis to mold the world into a place we all want to live in.
I think that the newly acquired time I have had with my wife has proven that some crises arise that illuminate a secret crisis in others. Never before realizing just how little time I spent with my wife, we now have more time than we could hope for, and I have gotten the opportunity to spend that with her playing games, watching things, and above all talking and listening to her.
I am surprised at just how negative the reaction has been from parents lamenting the time social distancing with their children. I hope this is a vocal minority, because many cannot wait, it seems, to dump their child back onto school grounds as soon as possible. What was the whole point of having children if not to be a father? To be a mother? To relish in the opportunity to again see someone experience all the loves of life for the first time?
The Lost Generation reminded us most of all that life should really be lived from the inside-out, that is to say that the inner being should be cultivated first, especially when the known world is destroyed. Then, bring yourself to the cafe, the bar, the conversation. So much of the 21st century has been outside-in thinking, of going out and hoping it solves the problem that is you. Instead of consuming, create. Instead of watching, converse. Bring yourself along and cultivate on the cheap. Use that library card. Drink responsibly.
You don’t have money, and social mobility is out the window. What we have instead (hopefully) is time.
Members of the Lost Generation lived it up, and they did so in a way as to bring themselves back to what they knew best, which was the bodies and minds they were given. They rejected the consumerism of America and went to Paris, where it was a better place to starve. We should remember the essentials of what makes being human so great: the ability to love, the chances to be merry, the power of the mind to think great and terrible thoughts (where they can also be exacted or buried), and the determination to party.