The Age of Delightenment, as it is now so named, began as the 20th century entered its mid-point. After the second of wars considered world wars in that century, there was a hunger to put aside the darkness and sadness and horror born of these wars. Most of the world, Europe, Great Britain, Northern Africa, parts of Asia, Japan and certain of the Pacific Island nations would not so easily shed the memories of war because these were living wounds in the landscape, scars too visible and too deep to turn away from. But America, that enchanted place between the Atlantic and Pacific, in that place the scars were mostly hidden in the men who returned, or visible where limbs were lost or eyes gone blind, but it was easy enough to shunt these off where they would not be troublesome reminders of unpleasantness.
The main thing was that the depression was over, thank God! The men were home from the war. Things could get back to a normal that never was. A normal that was carefully constructed to assuage the hunger of the people for the fruit of the pursuit of happiness. And not so incidentally to continue to provide wealth to those hungry gods who profited so enormously from the wars.
Thus did the Age of Delightenment begin. Aided so magically by the invention of television and household machinery. Life of ease, careless. An age where science really was the religion, though the old religion stood guard over the practice of ritual so that the common thought was: Science, God willing, would cure everything. Perhaps even death could be vanquished. We are rightly stunned by such hubris from our vantage point in the future. But imagine living in that time when terrible diseases like polio, syphilis, smallpox, anthrax, tuberculosis were beaten back, beaten down, cured to such an extent that most of them existed only as specimens in rigidly guarded containment. Our scientists smugly declared these viruses to be eradicated. Though some of them still pestered what was regarded as the Third World. Anyone traveling there had to be sure to be inoculated against them, especially tuberculosis.
And such wonderful things were on the horizon. A cure for cancer could be out there, graspable. Cryogenics–all you had to have was enough money and you could be suspended in a tank waiting for the cure of whatever killed you in the first place. Revivication, frankenstein nation. You could live forever.
Medicine had advanced so much and advertised itself as having advanced so much further than it had that people were absolutely indignant, actually outraged, when their loved ones died, when a baby died, when a child died, when a man in his prime, a woman in her glory, died. Sue the doctors, the hospital, sue them, someone must pay.
We lived in a world of euphemism. People didn’t die, they passed as if they were just walking by you on the street into some other country from which they would not return. That was the juncture of the old religion and the new.
It is easy for us to look back and shake our heads in disbelief. How was it possible? How could our predecessors have been so blind, such idiots? As we pick our way through the ruins, through the thin strata of soil covering the armature of their architecture, we have the vantage point of time and knowledge. We have the history between them and us. We know what happened. Who are we to say we are any different? Would we not pick the fruits and eat them, choosing the best for ourselves because it is within reach. Delightenment. The roots of the word come from the ancient, ancient world. Delectare: to select from.
Science was ever-changing, ever evolving, reaching out to the future and back to the beginnings. Describing the origins of the universe and the end of time. Science had its own priesthood. Men and women in laboratory uniform spent their days cloistered in clean rooms protected by airlocks, speaking their incantations over strands of DNA. They constructed massive particle accelerators seeking subatomic particles to prove their theories of quantum physics.
Wasn’t it a wonderful world? I see you shaking your head, filled with sorrow and sympathetic remorse. You say if science was building with one hand, it was tearing down with the other. Science in the employ of destruction, tool of greed.
If we know anything now, I think we know that no one stands on the top of the hill forever. If nothing else, the hill itself will come down. The earth shrugged, stretched and swatted at the vermin on its skin. And science could not save them. Science could not win. And God was already dead, being just an image as frozen as the head of Rupert Murdoch.
The Age of Delightenment is remarkable for having been so short-lived among the annals of ages. However, like other paradigmatic shifts the defining characteristics, such as prodigious self-indulgence, were confined to a narrow geography. The era is regarded as important solely because the dominant culture was wallowing in it. As history is written by members of the dominant culture it follows that what is recorded is their own history. The conditions of existence, the accomplishments and disappointments, the day-to-day struggles of the rest of the world disappear into the ground, like worm-castings, underfoot. Their richness and the enigma of their existence left to be uncovered centuries later by archeologists.
(next article in series: Enlitenment)