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The Age of Anxiety Essay

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The Age of Anxiety

The Age of Anxiety, a poem by W.H. Auden expressed the spirit of melancholy that characterized the post-1945 period. This period saw the world reduced into a cataclysm of death and destruction. These were the results of World War II, the memories of the Holocaust massacre in Europe, and the dropping of the two atomic bombs in Japan (Matthew and Platt, p.583).  The poet therefore saw a period that was caught between a frantic quest for certainty and the recognition of the futility of that search (Matthew and Platt, p. 583).

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This melancholy would evolve into despair as the world entered the cold war era, and the people seemed to brace up for even a larger war, fought with much advanced and lethal weapons such as the nuclear bombs: the people feared a much destructive world war III.

It was against this backdrop that various works of art and literature were produced. They, like Auden’s poem, had a touch of melancholy and despair. These artists, musicians, writers, sculptors, philosophers and others tried to portray a world whose people seemed to exist at the edge of perpetual fear. Some of these artists and literary writers included novelist Tony Morison, Korean American artist Nam June Paik, and African American activist James Baldwin.

Tony Morison, was an African-American writer whose works portrayed racial challenges that African Americans went through in the predominantly white society in the U.S. In The Bluest Eye (1970), the novelist tells a story of a young black girl that is attracted by the standard of white beauty. She thus yearns to have blue eyes just as the many whites around her (Matthew Platt, 591).

In this and other works, the author also shows how violence is a central part of black experience (Matthew and Platt, 591). But it is in a Conversation with journalist Bill Mayers that Morison herself gives an insight into the essence of his novels. She says that her novels are about “fear of collapse, of meaningless, of disorder, of anarchy” (Matthew and Platt, p.594): The very elements of the Age of Anxiety.

Nam June Paik’s My Faust-Channel 5-Nationalism (1989-1991), is a playful commentary on war. It depicts war as a form national religion. The art is filled with such military objects as bombs, jackboots, and helmets. It also has television screens and laser disc players (Matthew and Platt, p.584). These objects bring to the fore those articles that have left a cloud of fear hanging over the world.

The last of these artists is James Baldwin, an African American writer and activist that contributed a lot to the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the United States of America. In his book, No Name in the Street, this writer that had advocated civil disobedience without violence ruefully “accepted violence as the only path to racial justice for black Americans” after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jnr (Matthew and Platt, p.588).

This period also saw the growth of existentialism as a philosophical thought. It was well embedded in the structure of The Age of Anxiety. This twentieth century philosophy focused on the precarious nature of human existence, with uncertainty, anxiety, and ultimate death; it also focused on individual freedom and responsibility and the possibilities for human authenticity and creativity (Matthew and Platt, G-3).

This philosophy was invented by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger who wished to restore philosophy to its central position as the definer of values of culture (Matthew and Platt, p.584). In his Being and Time, Heidgger reasons that the nature of human existence is peculiar as compared with other objects in the world; that human existence leads I to anxiety, this is due to the consciousness that there is a future that includes choices and death (Matthew and Platt, p.554).

Indeed, existentialism flourished from 1945 and declined in the 60s. In fact it was supplanted by such other intellectual movements as structuralism, feminism, and black consciousness (Matthew and Platt, p.584). This was so because existentialism was a consequence of the two World Wars and the Cold War rivalry; it was dependant on historical environment. But soon, all these started changing.

Structuralism in particular played a pivotal role in supplanting existentialism in the 60s. Structuralism is defined as a type of thinking that affirmed the universality of the human mind in all places and time. Unlike existentialism, it embraced mass culture ands asserted that human freedom is limited (Matthew and Platt, pp. 584-585).

Feminism and Black Consciousness movements also played a significant role in eclipsing existentialism. Black consciousness was led by such African American writers as Richard Wright and feminism by such writers as Alice Walker.

The collapse of the Soviet Union has resulted in one of the most turbulent and disturbed periods in human history (Khan, p.1): The growth of religious fundamentalism. But what is religious fundamentalism and why has it gained popularity in the past to decades? Well it is both difficult to define fundamentalism and point out with precision its causes in the recent past. Nonetheless religious fundamentalism can be defined as “an urban movement directed primarily against dissolution of personalistic, patriarchal notions of order and social relations and their replacement by depersonalized principles” (Emerson and Hartman, p.2).

Emerson and Hartman further note that without modernization and secularization there would be no fundamentalism (p.2). That the processes of modernization—such as urbanization and cultural and structural pluralism—lead to secularization. With the advent of secularization religion is relegated to a smaller and smaller role among a decreasing number of people and organizations (p.3).

So fundamentalism is simply a backlash against the forces of modernization-urbanization and secularization. And these have become predominant in the past two decades as the world’s economy grew and urban centers sprouted all over the world resulting into a confluence of cultures that do not subscribe to any religion.

Matthew,Roy.T., F.Dewitt Platt. The Western Humanities. California: Mayfield Publishing Company: 2001, 575-613.

 

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