“You are all a lost generation,” Gertrude Stein is said to have told Ernest Hemingway when he and his first wife were living in Paris after the Great War. Since then, the generation that was born in the 1890’s and reached maturity to fight in the terrible conflict that came close to exterminating both it and Europe and created the first truly modern society during the “Roaring Twenties” has entered the American imagination and gone down in American history under that sobriquet, as if it would own it forever. In fact, Hemingway’s and Scott Fitzgerald’s generation was only the first in a sequence of progressively lost generations stretching from their own down to the present one, and which includes the so-called Greatest Generation that the original Lost Generation sired and raised.
The Greatest Generation, so named for its stalwart endurance during the Great Depression, its victorious prosecution of the Second World War, and its postwar success in building the richest and most powerful country in history, was rediscovered by sentimental patriots a dozen or so years ago and has subsequently been represented as the heroic model for American youth to imitate, though the high esteem in which it is viewed today charitably ignores its sins. The Greatest Generation gave the country President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex,” C. Wright Mills’ “power elite,” and Riesman-Glazer-and-Denney’s “lonely crowd”; a synthetic and comprehensive “popular culture” produced following commercial formulae by bowdlerizers, vulgarizers, marketers, ad men, pollsters, and other immoralists and cynics as the antithesis of a healthy folk culture; the trivialization of religious thought and observance and the nihilism embraced by the Beats in America and the Existentialists in Paris; and the destruction of the American university system by social levelers in the academy and elsewhere, and bureaucratic agencies in the federal government seeking to appropriate what was at the time called “higher learning” for utilitarian purposes, most of them related to national “defense.” Worst of all was the Sixties Generation, which the Greatest Generation bequeathed to their country during the postwar Baby Boom and raised to young adulthood in the cultural wasteland they created after 1945 and that some of their progeny to their credit rejected, though the barbaric culture with which they intended, in their ignorance, to replace the banal one did them no credit at all. Possibly the Greatest Generation, preoccupied in the 1930’s by economic deprivation and by global war in the 40’s, never had a chance in maturity to learn civilization in the traditional sense of the word. If so, they too were a lost generation: lost, like their parents but differently, to modernity—the narrow and shallow ethos of the new materialist, secular, and technocratic industrial society that had no recollection of, or use for, the former high civilization of the Christian West.
The Sixties Generation, spoiled and infantilized by the intellectually and spiritually vacuous parent generation and by the historically unprecedented material wealth and security it enjoyed, set out with the intent to lose itself, by deliberately losing its collective mind first—renouncing it in an act of extreme imprudence and irresponsibility, or what we call today “self-harm.” The ancient Egyptian embalmers, assured that the corpse would find a brain useless in the afterlife, routinely disposed of it summarily while retaining only the heart. The Sixties youth performed a similar operation on their living selves by “abandoning their minds,” in Dr. Johnson’s phrase, to cant and frying them in acid, mushrooms, and other substances as much valued by them as the ancients of the East had valued frankincense and myrrh. (The pop jargon of the era relied heavily on the concept of mindlessness and its many benefits and virtues, as in the expression “stoned out of my mind.”) For them, the heart—chiefly their own hearts and their own chaotic, ungoverned, and unexamined emotions—made up Isaiah Berlin’s One Big Thing; had they read Pascal, they would have added that indeed it does have its reasons, while hastening to insist that these reasons are properly irrational ones. The Sixties Generation understood vaguely where the Greatest Generation had gone wrong and fallen short, but it lacked the mental and moral discipline, the sense of purpose, the energy, the imagination (despite the high value it set on fantasy) necessary to conceive a realistic alternative, the religious faith—even more, the desire for it—and, consequently, the character to try to put things right. It was offered the best education, had it chosen to take advantage of it; those of its number that did, almost certainly a minority, were the last generation of Americans to be set to studying a first-class curriculum characterized by profound intellectual seriousness, comprehensiveness, and rigor. No generation since has been truly educated, owing to the subsequent precipitous decline in educational standards. Lacking character, the larger portion of the Sixties Generation neglected its priceless opportunity and embraced, instead, the sensate culture that traces from the pre-war era of the 1920’s and 30’s, which they ingeniously and improbably transformed to make the New Left; a fusion of a distinctively American type of economic and political radicalism that had its roots in the 19th century with the Cultural Marxism that was developed in Middle Europe in the 1930’s and granted refugee status in the United States before the war, along with its creators and propagators, the founders of the Frankfurt School. At any rate, much of the Sixties Generation lost itself, as I have said, and of these a great many—a majority, perhaps—never found their way home, having deliberately neglected to take a compass with them. Of the ones that did (those who had second thoughts about the material and financial rewards to be gained from free sex, pot, and revolution) a substantial number found “success” (money, power, fame) but still without succeeding in “finding themselves”—just as the parents whom they patronized as Babbitts and squares had so widely failed to do.
The intellectual and cultural vapidity of the Greatest Generation—and the corporate-bureaucratic state, the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear annihilation—gave its deracinated offspring the pretext they needed to launch a cultural and political revolution that, far from ending with the succeeding generation (“Generation X”), has persisted into the 21st century in a series of progressively bizarre and illogical transmutations. Lost generations do not easily rear found ones, nor does a late-capitalist technocratic society encourage them to do so. The Sixties Revolution, in its sexual aspect especially, offered corporate America untold opportunities for immense profits to be realized by astute marketing techniques developed by cynical business professors and business executives eager to exploit the licentiousness, sensuousness, self-indulgence, and egoism that an era of affluent bourgeois revolutionaries promotes and sanctions, while fracturing society into an endless congeries of highly specialized and particularized markets awaiting identification and commercial exploitation. (This is the process that allows marketers and others to distinguish and identify Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, and Generations Y and Z in the first place, as they had “invented” and named the “teenager” for the same purposes in the 1950’s.) This social fragmentation of modern society into impersonal markets developed and organized across a full range of goods and interests—material, sartorial, literary, musical, journalistic, political, culinary, and sexual—occurring simultaneously with the virtual disappearance of rural life, the demographic shift to the cities and suburbs, and the establishment of homogeneous suburban standards as the collective national standard for everything, progressively elided historical personal identities as old as civilization itself, while reducing the equally wide range of varied historical experience to a single common one. Simultaneously also, the left discovered and began to press its multicultural agenda; a form of political reeducation that denies that Western culture has any value or distinction worth communicating to anyone, including its own descendants, and that its religion—the “white religion”—is less than worthless, being structurally oppressive and actually antihuman. For educators today, everything is “the same” (except for whatever pertains to racial and ethnic majorities, which is not only different from but superior in every way to everything else). And the past is not just past; it never existed in the first place: History is an illusion of dead white men, flowing timelessly from one all-extensive, all-pervasive undifferentiated present. In postmodern society which is really no society at all—only a chaotic Babel with no past, no future, no character, no language, no structure, no shape or form, no color, no smell, no feel—every generation is lost, everyone together, and the notion of generations itself is meaningless. In this wasteland, eternally blanketed by an impenetrable fog, identitarianism as a substitute for “finding oneself” (or anyone else) is worse than futile, whatever its advocates (and victims) think.
Even so, the lostest of all lost generations must be Generation Z—the unfortunate and unhappy people born between the mid-90’s and the early aughts—who have been deprived, and gone on to deprive themselves, of the human and the natural worlds alike by substituting the virtual world of technology where reality does not intrude, including for many the reality of “actual” friends, and even of sexual relations with warm, alive bodies for the world itself. In America the debate over the Internet, the social media, and “connectivity” generally centers around the control the liberal owners of the international digital companies exert to suppress conservative sites, conservative opinions, and “content” offensive to their political views. In Great Britain, though, critics worry about the emotional and psychological damage digital addiction is inflicting on children, including very young children. “Three children in every classroom are thought to have a diagnosable mental health problem, which is approaching epidemic proportions,” the chief executive of the UK’s largest children’s charity argued recently in the Telegraph.
Across the country, there are children living in comfortable homes with their parents, who seem safe and secure, but the moment they switch on their phone, tablet or computer, they enter a new realm where the usual rules, regulations and safeguards do not apply. . . . We know through our specialist services how abusers destroy children’s lives, and much needs to be done to protect them. Any delay could put future generations of children in danger.
The London newspaper has, as indeed it noted at the foot of the same article, “been campaigning for a new statutory duty of care on social firms to better [sic] protect children from threats such as cyber-bullying, grooming and addiction.”
Gertrude Stein’s Lost Generation hunted, went fishing and camping, danced waltzes at cotillions, swam in the Plaza Fountain, made love to real people, went to war against real people, and really killed them. And still, Fitzgerald drank himself to death and Hemingway fired both barrels of his favorite shotgun into his mouth, a brutal act of self-execution at dawn. The Lost Generation didn’t have smartphones, but—just like Generation Z and every generation in between the two—it didn’t have God, either.