cover image Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century

John Higgs. Soft Skull (PGW, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (356p) ISBN 978-1-59376-626-9

Marshaling an impressive array of subjects into a brisk and surprisingly cohesive cultural history of the "dark woods" of the 20th century, Higgs (KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds) explains what happened after the world lost its "omphalos"%E2%80%94the ancient concept of the center of the universe. The 20th century's early milestones smashed many of the traditional frames of reference humans had: Einstein's theory of relativity demonstrated that time was not absolute, the decline of monarchies and the rise of democracy ended an age of absolute authority, and artistic Modernism embraced the limitations of relativist perspective and the freedom of nontraditional narrative. What arose, for better or worse, was a cult of the individual that began with occultist Aleister Crowley's imperative to "do what thou wilt," and eventually gave birth to totalitarianism and youth culture alike. Higgs affects a witty and casual tone, but his indictment of individualism, which he sees as a path to vapidness, nihilism, and commercialism, is rather severe. He does, however, find hope at the dawn of the 21st century, the age of the network, when multiple-model atheism and the Internet's quest for transparency can perhaps lead humanity out of the wreckage of the 20th century. (Nov.)