Part I: Why We Don’t Live the Vicarious Life — the Historical Lens

This is part one of a series examining the reason why we struggle to live the vicarious life that Sam so poignantly discussed in his post, “Our life and death is with our neighbor.” Today’s post examines the historical background, mainly in regards to art, while the next post will examine where we currently are and how we can press into faithfully living the vicarious life.


Every life is forever tied to the lives before it, past lives are lived on in our being, and our present lives are intermingled with every other living soul. – Sam Turner

World War I is the seminal event in the development of our current culture. Leading up to the assassination of the Austrian Arch Duke, the Enlightenment philosophy of the 18th century seeped into nearly all of Western culture. Rationalism and realism determined the viability of art. Creativity and originality took a back seat to efficiency and scientific understanding. Even the church became susceptible to it, as seen in the formulaic approach to evangelism: quick, efficient, soul saving.

Naturally, industrialism formed from these foundational Enlightenment tenants – ideas which increased productivity through the use of machines and systems. Cities began to grow and the agricultural and rural communities shrank, alongside their traditional values. As the city became the hub of the industrial boom and its efficient characteristics, man’s value began to diminish – i.e., man was no longer a necessary commodity. Technology and the requisite means of operating them well replaced the individual and his personhood.

Now, whether this was completely intentional or not (a few years later, there were reports during the Third Reich of German leaders propagating the idea that man and machine are equal), the destruction of over 37 million human souls in WWI from industrial crafted weapons at the whim of enlightened minds, speaks to, at the very least, an unconscious infiltration of extreme rationality determining how and why certain decisions are made (land, power, culture > man).

On the cusp of WWI, peripheral pockets of the art world attempted to unleash the Enlightenment’s grasp ton the culture. Dostoevsky, The Impressionists, the Expressionists, Picasso, and Stravinsky, just to name a few, tried to reveal the danger of this philosophy. Few, if any, listened to them. Yet, no one could avoid the bleating from the atrocities of The Great War. No longer could anyone close their eyes, head slightly bent forward, fingers firmly entrenched in their ears, and silently whisper, “lalalala” when the clamor arose. The shrill of rationality was incessant and unbearable and destructive.

As the Enlightenment philosophy crumbled at the foot of WWI, modernism swept in, desperately trying to put the pieces back together. T.S. Eliot states it as such in his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”:

The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.

The particulars Eliot referred to encompassed all of the human experience, not just those vetted by reason and scientific discovery. In order for the artist to synthesize these experiences, they alluded to great works of the past (Eliot), assimilated sacred rituals and religions of “barbaric” peoples into their art (Stravinsky, Picasso, Gauguin), and developed new forms of their art to communicate this compound Eliot longs for (Picasso, Braque, Faulkner, Joyce).

Yet, lo and behold, the valiant effort of the modernists fell short. Hitler and his cronies arrived on the scene, soon followed by Stalin and his oppressive ideology, and wreaked havoc on the West’s attempt to redeem the error of the Enlightenment.

In Russia during this time, poet Anna Akhmatova assumed a new role, one much more passive than that of Eliot and his modernist counterparts. Orlando Figes, in examination of Akhmatova’s most well know poem, “Requiem”, claims her role as a poet is to “share in her people’s suffering” by remaining in the Russian darkness. Her willful participation enabled her to put the pieces together in a different way, by singing “a dirge for the dead sung in whispered incantations among friends.” This passive retelling of her people’s pain “in some way…redeemed that suffering.”

Poet Boris Pasternak, who was loved by the Stalinist regime, longed to suffer alongside his fellow artists, to redeem the time by bearing “the guilt for the suffering of those writers whom he could not help through his influence. [Yet] He was tortured by the notion that his mere survival somehow proved that he was less than honourable.” The Russian poets on the backend of Modernity believed that to suffer with those who suffer is the means of putting together these new disheveled pieces wrought from the second Great War – at least, this is the Russian sentimentality. Yet, the pieces don’t come together into a nice, new unified whole – in Russia or the West. It is too modernist, too traditional, too in touch with the passive, peaceful resistance of the Christ. His teachings don’t seem relevant in this unstable, fragmented godforsaken world…

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