From the Ashes of the 20th Century

As I watch many of the 20th Century’s foundational ideas and institutions crumbling before my very eyes and a new guard taking control in Washington, I’m reminded of the Hermann Hesse novel Demian, which includes the line, “The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.”


To digress quickly, Abraxas is a mythical figure thought to represent both God and Satan in one entity. It’s a perfect fit for Hesse because much of his fiction centers on man’s conflicting natures at war within himself.


But, for these purposes, I want to focus on the line “who would be born must destroy a world.” Demian was published in 1919 just after World War I, the conflict that introduced mankind to the horrors of industrialized war and the efficiency with which technology could propagate death. Hesse, a German, had a front row seat to the destruction of the old Europe, and what he thought then to be the birth of a new one—hence, “who would be born must destroy a world.”


Sinclair, Demian’s main character, sees this as a necessary violence the world must inflict on itself—like the removal of an infected limb to prevent it from tainting the rest of the body. The first eight years of the 21st Century could be seen as a prolonged amputation of the outdated ideas and models of the 20th Century. September 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a contentious 2004 election that ignited a culture war between “religious conservatives” and “liberal elites,” our diminishing standing in the world, outsourcing of any jobs that actually create material goods, and now our failing economy–the sum of all these events, perhaps, is the destruction of 20th Century America.


I look to Hesse and Humanism and find optimism in times such as these. Certainly we all wonder what new world will emerge from the smoking ash of a burned down yesterday, but the Humanist understands that wonder alone is not enough. We have no God waiting to fix what’s wrong with the world. That is a religious frame of mind: “there is nothing to do but pray; the rest is in God’s hands.” The Humanist has only reality. Religious people might see that as a bleak and desolate worldview, an existential crisis. I beg to differ. Because the Humanist controls his own destiny. We can’t simply cast our gaze skyward and beg for strength. It is up to us to build a new world and, relying only on our own intelligence and creativity, we can make of it what we wish.


As I watch our situation continue to deteriorate, I’m filled with hope that the leveling of America as we knew will yield a new and better age. My hope is that the more bloated superpowers of the previous century—like CitiGroup and General Motors—who fail and the more neo-cons we expel from Washington, the the more room there will be for the companies and thinkers of tomorrow. Advocating the expulsion of such institutions may sound radical to some, but I think it helps to think of it this way: would we have elected a one-term senator, black intellectual named Barack Hussein Obama President of the United States, had George Bush not completely laid waste to our government, our economy, our military, our constitution, our reputation and, subsequently, our sense of selves as Americans?


“Who would be born must destroy a world.” Sometimes the greatest progress springs forth from our greatest failures.



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