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The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of…
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The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919 - 1939 (edição: 2010)

de Richard Overy

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British intellectual life between the wars stood at the heart of modernity. The combination of a liberal, uncensored society and a large educated audience for new ideas made Britain a laboratory for novel ways to understand the world. The Morbid Age opens a window onto this creative but anxious era, the golden age of the public intellectual and scientist- Arnold Toynbee, Aldous and Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells, Marie Stopes and a host of others. Yet, as Richard Overy argues, a striking characteristic of so many of the ideas that emerged from this new age - from eugenics to Freud's unconscious, to modern ideas of pacifism and world government - was the fear that the West was facing a possibly terminal crisis of civilization. The modern era promised progress of a kind, but it was overshadowed by a growing fear of decay and death, an end to the civilized world and the arrival of a new Dark Age - even though the country had suffered no occupation, no civil war and none of the bitter ideological rivalries of inter-war Europe, and had an economy that survived better than most. The Morbid Age explores how this strange paradox came about. Ultimately, Overy shows, the coming of war was almost welcomed as a way to resolve the contradictions and anxieties of this period, a war in which it was believed civilization would be either saved or utterly destroyed. This entertaining, thought-provoking and original book is a lesson in the power of ideas and language to shape popular fears in a rapidly changing world, as pertinent today as it was in the years between the wars.… (mais)
Membro:buttes-chaumont
Título:The Morbid Age: Britain and the Crisis of Civilisation, 1919 - 1939
Autores:Richard Overy
Informação:Penguin (2010), Edition: First Paperback Edition, Paperback, 544 pages
Coleções:Sua biblioteca
Avaliação:
Etiquetas:history, british, social history

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The Morbid Age de Richard Overy

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If it seems that we live in a an age of permanent crisis and that our civilization is in a decline that may not be reversible, it is appropriate to take a step back and study previous instances of civilizational decline and look for causes and effects that might be applicable to our situation. It is not always necessary to recur back to the fall of Rome or the French Revolution for instruction. Richard Overy's study of 20th century Great Britain between the wars serves as a recent example of a society whose elites were in general agreement as to the parlous state of affairs that threatened an end to not just Britain's standing but to Western civilization altogether.

What makes Overy's work exceptional is the relative lack of emphasis on the world of politics in this period. His book is more focused on matters economic, sociological, psychological, and spiritual in the broader sense of the entire culture not only the status of religious belief. Of course politics cannot always be omitted from the history of this period and beginning with the Spanish Civil War in 1936 politics intrudes more and more on the narrative.

Overy divides the contents into separate chapters covering multiple indices of a feeling that decline was inevitable and whether or not something could be done about it and, if yes, what were some of the most recommended solutions to their dilemma - socialism, communism, eugenics, psychoanalysis, collective security, pacifism, world government, scientism. That said the first chapter of the book discusses the philosophies of history, particularly those of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee that argued for ineluctable laws of historical development and decline that provided a framework for despair whose intellectual roots preceded the Great War of 1914 - 1918.

Other than the perennial problems of war and peace the crisis of capitalism was the issue that concerned most of the elites across a broad spectrum of British society. That capitalism was in crisis was generally accepted and that its prolonged death was a cause of crisis was almost as fervently believed. Overy reviews the work of thinkers such as J.A. Hobson, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, G.D.H. Cole, Maurice Dobb and of course, J.M. Keynes whose influence was predominant in this period, especially once the effects of the economic slump of the 1930s hit Britain.

One of the hot button issues that surfaced in the aftermath of the war was the physiological state of the British population which was in a very bad way according to those thinkers who favored greater state involvement in the breeding of the British. Just as the quality of the animal population could be intelligently managed, so could the human stock be improved with an eye towards preventing reproduction by the physically and mentally defective elements of the population. Among the enthusiasts of eugenics were Keynes, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Cyril Burt, one of the founders of intelligence testing, Julian Huxley the son of Darwin's follower Thomas Huxley, Leonard Darwin, 4th son of Charles, and William Inge, the dean of of St. Paul's Cathedral. (All the best people!) Of course forced sterilization and more drastic measures fell out of favor after the 1930s in part due to the enthusiasm for eugenics on the part of Adolf Hitler. That said, the politicians in Great Britain should be given credit for ignoring most of the scientific advice put forth by the "eugenists". Their practical influence never approached that of Germany or for that matter the United States.

Psychoanalysis came into its own in Britain during the 1920s starting from near ground zero mainly thorugh the efforts of Ernest Jones an early disciple of Freud. Jones founded the London Psycho-Analytical Society in 1913, but theoretical disputes led him to dissolve the organization in 1919 and replace it with the British Psycho-Analytical Society initially composed of just twelve apostles, I mean members. Jones established the International Psycho-Analytical Press and the launched the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis in 1920. By the mid 1930s psychoanalysis had become sufficiently part of the cultural mainstream that it was suggested that just as it's methodology could be applied to the neuroses and worse of individual patients so it could provide a diagnosis and a cure for the insanity among nations, Diagnoses were certainly offered, e.g., Freud's final book, Civilization and its Discontents, but recommended cures were not forthcoming.

The problems of War and Peace, specifically its causes and what was the proper response to the threat of war occupies the next two chapters. If you really want to know the answer to the question "Why England Slept" these chapters would be a good starting point for answering the question. It is clear that the British population was morbidly in fear of a future conflict that would exceed the horrors of 1914-18 and risk the end, not just of the empire, but of British democracy and the everything associated with their civilized way of life.

Naturally, capitalism and its effects, especially imperialism, were identified as the chief cause of wars by the orthodox left, but it was recognized that war seemed to be endemic to the human experience and Britons turned to science for an explanation and a cure. Studies were aplenty from biologists, zoologists, anthropologists, psychologists, social psychologists, psychoanalysts, sociologists and yet none of them at the end of the day afforded a cure. Sir Arthur Keith, a Darwinian anthropologist did not shrink from the logic of natural selection. He was famously quoted on the subject of human conflict in the following metaphor - "Nature keeps her human orchard healthy by pruning - war is her pruning hook". The eugenicists would have countered by pointing out that the best and the fittest males were the first ones sacrificed in modern war and that the least fit were the most likely to survive. In a work titled "Human Evolution" Keith claimed to have studies fifty-eight different authors on the question of "Why War" and identified twenty-six suggested causes. As Keith concluded, "Multiplicity of cause is usually a measure of ignorance".

It is inarguable that one of the results of the First World War was the emergence of pacifism as the predominant response to the threat of war in British elite and mass opinion. What jumps out at the reader is the multiplicity of organizations, publications, platform speeches, academic studies and mass communication on the problem of war and the promise of pacifism or the need for collective security in the form of the League of Nations. At the peak of the League's popularity a plebiscite was conducted in 1935 under the auspices of the "League of Nations Union which succeeded in getting some 12 million British adults to express their support for the League and its work towards preserving peace.

But reliance on the League of Nations meant a commitment to the principle of collective security which was beyond the pale for committed pacifists. The National Peace Council was established in 1923 with a goal of uniting all the disparate pacifist organizations into a single entity that would not compel but would eventually move all of its members to a position of absolute pacifism, i.e., non-resistance to aggression. Absolute pacifism was a movement that featured unlikely an unlikely alliance between Christians and atheists. Among the latter were included Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. Ultimately the pacifist movement and the broader peace movement fractured over the rise of fascism in Europe, the civil war in Spain and the aftermath of Munich, but some of it adherents kept the "faith" right up to and even after the outbreak of World War II in September, 1939.

Overy's narrative is rich in detail, and for the most part attempts to understand the participants in this story as they understood themselves. This review only briefly sketches the issues, arguments and the players involved. Overy's paradox is that while the spirit of the times was suffused with pessimism that Britain and the West in general were faced with decline and possibly the end of its civilization, things were in relative good shape in Great Britain. The population was predominantly moderate and center-left in its politics, Neither the Communist Party of Great Britain nor the British Union of Fascists enjoyed any significant popular support. There was serious unemployment but not nearly as severe as that which plagued the United States or Germany. Incomes were on the rise for those who had jobs. Apart from the revolution in Ireland in the early 20's the status of the empire was still firm.

The implication of Overy's thesis is that the British elites and maybe the broader population's fear that the end of civilization was at hand was overwrought and unjustified. But it's a little easy to look back condescendingly on the period in question and chide the times and its populace for a lack of proportion. It was not a foregone conclusion that the Germans would attack the Soviet Union, that America would enter the war and that the Allies would prevail. Faith in the various nostrums thrown up by the 2nd quarter of the 20th century may have been misplaced but the fear of a civilizational disaster was certainly not without reason. ( )
  citizencane | Aug 23, 2020 |
To read this, you would think that to live in England during the years between the two World Wars, you needed two Venlafaxine a day. Of course the First World War caused tremendous amounts of grief and worry, and threw the national and imperial economies of Europe into a tailspin. But Richard Overy paints a picture of a people who thought that they were the only bastion of civilization. They barely survived one total war. They lived for an entire generation thinking that another one would bring total ruination to everything holy, pure, and good. “The Twilight Years” looks at a wide range of topics, but this looming nihilism about chances for the future and its sure doom if another war was to rear its ugly head, are constant themes which fully inform all aspects of the book.

Several topics are traced here, starting with the dominant historiography of Western Europe during this time, namely the writings of Spengler and Toynbee, both of whose thoughts about history were colored by cyclical periods of cultural growth and renewal followed by eventual decadence and decline. Others thought that World War I was the symbolic end for capitalism, illustrating how it was now an unsustainable economic system and needed to be replaced with either Communism or something else; these ideas were prevalent on both the sides of the political spectrum.

What was one to do, then, in order to save culture from the barbarians trying to throw us headlong into another war? An ethos of cautious preservation and social utopia – the titular paradox - coexisted simultaneously. Eugenics was very much in vogue, especially by those who considered themselves members of the progressive Left, and felt that “weeding out” members of society who were not as physically or mentally fit was the obligation of the government if society was to continue on. Furthermore, everyone was in favor of both positive and negative eugenics. (Positive eugenics is aimed at encouraging reproduction among the genetically advantaged, while negative eugenics is aimed at lowering fertility among the genetically disadvantaged, including abortions and forced sterilizations.) One woman Overy mentions, a highly enthusiastic supporter of eugenics of all kinds by the name of Marie Stopes, disinherited her own son upon his announcement that he had married a woman who wore eyeglasses, thinking that she might pass her myopia onto their own children.

This was also the time when Freudian psychoanalysis was just beginning to both splinter off into its sub-schools (Adlerian, Jungian, et cetera), and when Freud started to become a household name. It was seen as just as big a panacea as eugenics, another eight ball to tell whether human nature was inherently good or evil. The answer was sure to predict whether or not another war would be inevitable. Not surprisingly, the “scientific” research into these questions yielded only inconclusive results. Political partisans would use it for their own advantage, hawks thinking that war was a part of the human condition, and pacifists thinking that it wasn’t. Pacifism and all of its various incarnations all over England take up a sizeable part of the book, only fading well into the 1930s when percipient observers knew that it would take nothing short of war to stop Hitler and fascism. It was fascinating to see who hung on, though, and for how long. Aldous Huxley, for example, remained an ardent pacifist even as Hitler was invading Poland.

As others have noted, this isn’t so much a social or intellectual history as it is a “history of mentalities,” mostly informed by the thought of the dominant, educated classes of the time. For all of the possibly divisive material, I didn’t detect any noticeable biases on Overy’s part. It’s clear and accessible for anyone with even a minimal background in the subject, and doesn’t assume too much of the reader in the way of the minutiae of English politics. For those interested in these smaller details, he provides a useful introduction called “Britain 1919-1939: A Chronological Introduction,” which gives foreign policy details, a list of prime ministers, and a note on the economy. All in all, this is a superb book for anyone interested in the very historically specific worries, anxieties, and preoccupations of England during the twenties and thirties. ( )
  kant1066 | Aug 9, 2012 |
One thing to get straight here is that the British title of this work, "The Morbid Age," does a much better job of capturing what the author is all about than "The Twilight Years." This is as Overy examines the processes by which the British general public sought solutions to the general malaise of the time, but found mostly dead ends, until Hitler again instigated general war. Once past thematic chapters on the hope that "Science" would help solve issues of demographic, economic, and psychological decline, but mostly seemed to offer cures worse than the disease, the real meat of this book is how Overy tracks the process by which the British general public engaged with the threat of war in the abstract, came to be involved in the matter of the actual wars on the run-up to 1939 (with particular emphasis on the Spanish Civil War), and finally grimly accepted that a war for "civilization" was necessary, even if it meant risking existing civilization with destruction.

Overy further notes that this commitment is much more understandable if you appreciate that during this period British mindset was still very much of feeling like the center of the world system, of having responsibility for this system, and being frustrated that more could not be done to protect it short of risking all. The much maligned Neville Chamberlain is offered as a paradigm of a general British attitude of first trying to stave off disaster and then preparing for the worst.

Apart from this the author devotes a great deal of time to the function of voluntary societies and pressure groups, to the flow of correspondence between people in a position to shape popular opinion, and to examining how the publishing industry catered to the demand for popular knowledge; the sinews and blood of civil society if you will. This is all apart of Overy's opinion that the popular feeling of the time was not as congruent with the machinery of British organized politics as has been depicted, particularly at the Communist and Fascist extremes. Indicative of this is the example of how when Oswald Mosley tried to march with 7000 of his fellows in 1936, perhaps hundreds of thousands came forth to confront the BUF. It was this foundation of political concern just below the threshold of organized politics that first backstopped the broad pacifist movement until there was no hope of saving the peace, and then formed the basis of the popular will to fight on come what may; not bad for a society that thought itself decadent. ( )
  Shrike58 | Jul 22, 2010 |
My favorite quote: "A mood of dispair or helplessness or sober pessimism permeates all the different elements of pblic discussion examined in this book. Each of the dead ends - the failures of capitalism, the crisis of tenetic decline, the psychological distortions of modern life, the naturalness of war, the paradoxes of pacifism, the fruitless search for a progressive consensus - contributed indirectly or directly to the popular reaction to the international situation, which promised a further and more dangerous dead end of universal war..." (p 360). Later, in next chapter: "...It gradually became clear that many of the fears for the future that pervaded pre-war discourses failed to materialize. The population did not decline steeply; ideas of eugenic intervention were modified into posiive welfare policies; the capitalist economy was reformed sufficiently to avoid a repeat of the slump but not replaced entirely; the progressive political centre voted overwhelmingly for the Labour Party and ended the political stalemate of the National Government; fascism was utterly discredited but the emergence of Soviet domination in eastern Europe also eroded sympathy for a 'New Civilization' on Communist lines; psychotherapy became an accepted branch of medicine and a growing interest in and knowledge of sex did not promote degeneration. Only war remained an apparently intractable issue and fears of the Third World War, the frame for Huxley's diatribe, did not subside until the late 1960s and the era of stand-off deterrence and detente." (p 364). ( )
  ddonahue | Oct 4, 2009 |
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British intellectual life between the wars stood at the heart of modernity. The combination of a liberal, uncensored society and a large educated audience for new ideas made Britain a laboratory for novel ways to understand the world. The Morbid Age opens a window onto this creative but anxious era, the golden age of the public intellectual and scientist- Arnold Toynbee, Aldous and Julian Huxley, H. G. Wells, Marie Stopes and a host of others. Yet, as Richard Overy argues, a striking characteristic of so many of the ideas that emerged from this new age - from eugenics to Freud's unconscious, to modern ideas of pacifism and world government - was the fear that the West was facing a possibly terminal crisis of civilization. The modern era promised progress of a kind, but it was overshadowed by a growing fear of decay and death, an end to the civilized world and the arrival of a new Dark Age - even though the country had suffered no occupation, no civil war and none of the bitter ideological rivalries of inter-war Europe, and had an economy that survived better than most. The Morbid Age explores how this strange paradox came about. Ultimately, Overy shows, the coming of war was almost welcomed as a way to resolve the contradictions and anxieties of this period, a war in which it was believed civilization would be either saved or utterly destroyed. This entertaining, thought-provoking and original book is a lesson in the power of ideas and language to shape popular fears in a rapidly changing world, as pertinent today as it was in the years between the wars.

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