The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the Twentieth Century by Peter Watson. HarperCollins, 847 pages, $40.00
June 1, 2001        

It was a busy century. More people were occupied in killing, torturing and imprisoning one another in the 20th century than ever before. But also—perhaps because there were simply more people than ever before—more people were occupied in creating, transmitting and absorbing the arts and sciences than in any previous century. As some recent books—e.g., Jonathan Glover’s Humanity and Robert Conquest’s Reflections on a Ravaged Century—have eloquently demonstrated, it was the worst of times. But as Peter Watson’s splendidly readable and hugely informative The Modern Mind will suggest to many readers, it was also arguably the best of times.

Watson, a British journalist, apparently decided to complete his education by digesting and summarizing the whole culture of the century. His method is simplicity itself. He has read the epoch’s chief books, or books about those books, and tells us what is in them. There are hors d’ouevres of historical or biographical context, sprigs of anecdote, and a light sauce of commentary, but for the most part, the dish is served plain. It is very nourishing. The Modern Mind shows how much can be accomplished by a diligent amateur who knows how to write and has no theory to peddle.

The book is loosely but very effectively organized in forty-odd cleverly captioned chapters, with just enough thematic continuity within and among them to make a satisfying narrative whole. Of all the book’s narrative threads, pride of place goes to science. In both quality and sheer quantity—I remember hearing in the late 1960s that more than 90 percent of all the physicists who had ever lived were alive at that moment—the 20th was before everything else the Scientific Century. Fortunately Watson has an expository knack for science, to go along with his enthusiasm for it. But economics, social theory, archaeology, anthropology, philosophy, theology, literature, the arts, and popular culture are generously represented as well.

As it happens, 1900 saw a number of intellectual beginnings. Max Planck proposed that radiation was not continuous but discrete, launching quantum physics. Sigmund Freud published “The Interpretation of Dreams,” launching psychoanalysis. A Dutch, a German, and an Austrian botanist each simultaneously and independently rediscovered Gregor Mendel’s forgotten paper on the laws of inheritance, launching modern genetics. An English archaeologist, Arthur Evans, excavated Knossos in Crete and discovered Minoan culture, “the ‘mother culture’ from which the classical world of Greece and Rome had evolved.” At the Exposition Universelle in Paris, Bertrand Russell attended a debate on the foundations of mathematics and set out to write what would become “Principia Mathematica,” while David Hilbert issued a famous slate of 23 questions which would set the mathematical agenda for much of the century. And the 19-year-old Pablo Picasso arrived in Paris, eager to conquer the city and the art world.

Of course this portrait of the year 1900 as launching pad is slightly artificial, an expository contrivance. But it is a remarkably successful one, leaving the reader a little breathless and primed for a fast-moving yarn. Besides, Watson suggests, there is a real significance to these coincidences: “first, the extraordinary complementarity of many ideas at the turn of the century, the confident and optimistic search for hidden fundamentals,… and second, that the driving motor in this mentality, even when it was experienced as art, was scientific.”

The scientific skein of The Modern Mind continues through Einstein and special relativity; Rutherford and the discovery of the atomic nucleus; Bohr and the golden age of theoretical physics; Eddington and the experimental confirmation of relativity; Heisenberg, Fermi and the bomb; Godel, Turing and the enigmas of mathematical logic; the explosion of particle physics after World War II; the discovery of background radiation and the heyday of cosmological theory; strings, superstrings, and the “Theory of Everything.” All these topics are explained with maximum concision and clarity, placed in intellectual context, and frequently illustrated with telling anecdotes.

And this -- math and physics -- is only one strand within science. There are similar mini-histories of biology, chemistry and medicine. There is economics from Veblen to Galbraith, anthropology from Boas to Geertz, philosophy from Bergson to Rawls, music from Strauss to Cage … . But no: there are not merely too many individual figures to list, or even too many topics; there are too many categories of topic in this teeming book to mention more than a few.
Watson is a prolific storyteller. Episode after episode from the cultural life of the century springs to vivid life for a page or two. There are, again, far too many of these to list more than a few favorites: the premiere of Strauss’s Elektra, which its lead singer described as “frightful…we were a set of mad women”; the invention of skyscrapers; the debut of “The Great Train Robbery,” the first mass-market American movie; the fateful progress from celluloid through Bakelite to C7H38O43 (better known as plastic); the discovery of the “magic bullet” that killed syphilis; the search for Macchu Picchu and for King Tut’s tomb; the Lysenko fiasco in Soviet genetics; the excavation of the Olduvai Gorge in Kenya, where humankind was born; the opening of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which “many thought…the ugliest building ever constructed.” There are dozens more of these brief but illuminating sketches.

Unlike, say, Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Darkness (2000), The Modern Mind does not offer any novel or idiosyncratic interpretations. But what judgments there are are usually sound. Watson is wrongly dismissive, though, of Marx and Freud. True, it’s impossible in our enlightened age to be an orthodox Marxist, or an orthodox Freudian. But the old boys were not exactly spouting nonsense, either. Of rather less significance, Watson sometimes writes sloppily. “In 1968 America had nearly half a million troops in Asia, 25,000 of whom were being killed annually.” 58,000 Americans were killed throughout ten years in Indochina, so “annually” can’t be right. Christopher Lasch was not a psychoanalyst, though he made use of psychoanalytic theory. Watson refers to the “tender, deliquescent lovemaking” in the film “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Chemical substances deliquesce; lovers do not.

The last century will be remembered for its (let us hope) unique atrocities. The age’s no less remarkable achievements are well commemorated in this rich and lively book.