I know you
Met before, seventh floor
First world war, I know you
— The Byrds, “I See You” (1966)
This Sunday is Veterans’ Day here in the U.S. I prefer its old name, Armstice Day, not because veterans don’t deserve their own day (they do) but because detaching the day from its original context—November 11, 1918—diminishes the palpability of that crucial moment in history. Eighty-nine years on, the end of World War I is still regarded as the birth announcement of the modern world. Everything on the ancient side of that historical divide—the unchallenged governing status of authority and class, the optimism of the Enlightenment, the belief that mankind was in control of historical forces and not the other way around—seemed to perish in the conflagration. In Robert Graves’ famous formulation: good-bye to all that.
But in a crucial sense, the brave and/or craven new world that suddenly confronted humanity in 1918 had been around for quite some time—it just hadn’t been popularized. The writers and intellectuals who defined the modern world in the wake of the Great War were, in their own way, crossover artists, taking something that had been the purview of a marginalized minority and repackagaing it for the population as a whole. They were, in other words, like early rock-and-roll musicians.
The founding myth of rock-and-roll is unusual in that it simultaneously tells a creation story and acknowledges the historical circumstances such stories normally gloss over. The accepted gospel is that the early stars—Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and so on—took a style of music that was already prevalent among African-Americans and, by virtue of their skin color, made it palatable to the majority white population. Like most creation myths, it’s an oversimplification, ignoring both the formidable influence of country-western music on 50s rock and the concurrent popularity of Little Richard, Fats Domino, and other black artists.
But the notion at its core, that rock-and-roll already existed, but needed white performers to inoculate its potential audience from the perceived social stigma of its origins, is a powerful enough narrative to have been refashioned in watered-down form ever since, whether in the form of blue-eyed soul or (most notoriously) in the case of Vanilla Ice, greeted as the purported Elvis of hip-hop. (As it turned out, hip-hop was able to make its own way in the world, thank you very much.)
What was it that swept across societies in the 1920s and 30s with the cultural force of early rock? Disillusionment. The feeling that all organized human endeavors almost inevitably, somehow, are frustrated in their noble goals is so common today that it’s hard to imagine a time when such emotions didn’t exist. But disillusionment is a recent innovation, first making its appearance in the violent, messy wake of the French Revolution of the late 18th century. The ideals of that epoch had themselves been percolating for some time, but it was the failure of the Terror that first showed how such ideals could lead to a disappointment of previously unknown profundity. Throughout the following century, revolutionaries of all stripes would be buffeted against the twin shoals of optimism and disillusionment. As the poet Ferdinand Freiligrath put it after the failure of the revolutions of 1848: “We stood on the threshold of paradise, but the gates were slammed in our faces.”
Revolutionaries, though, were the pariahs of the Victorian age, an affront to the stability that respectable society clung to like a life preserver. And their disillusionment was regarded as a symptom of a cast of mind that was, at best, an indulgence of youth, at worst, an assault on the verities that held civilization together. That civilization would be revealed as impotent in the stalemate of the trenches and the pettiness of the peace. The centuries-old structure of the West seemed to collapse like a revolutionary plot.
It might risk trivialization to compare the violence and destruction of World War I with the ephemeral joys of Elvis. But both phenomena are manifestations of a great historical antagonism within their respective eras. Rock-and-roll put the the enduring racial tension at the core of American history on stage, front and center. Post-World War I anomie reflected the long-standing friction between the power of the state and the freedom of the individual, a conflict that even the only enduring revolution, our own, still hasn’t resolved.
One could, in fact, argue that the rising hegemony of specifically American culture after World War I was similarly lying in wait, that the Civil War had set in motion a distinctly American psychic engine running on equal parts idealism and anxiety; American participation in the Great War simply kicked that motor into gear. Ann Douglas, in Terrible Honesty, her study of postwar Manhattan, points out how a writer like Ernest Hemingway was far better prepared to make sense—and art—out of his wartime experience than his European counterparts. “The Great War as a military, industrial, and psychological force was already in America’s history, one could say, before it broke out in Europe in 1914,” Douglas writes. “Hemingway had been to boot camp without knowing it.”
Perhaps this is why both the First World War and the advent of rock-and-roll seemed to come about so inevitably, in the face of widespread disbelief. The reverberations of the revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries have continually buffeted civilization for so long now, that upheavals aren’t really what catch us off guard, but merely their sometimes unexpected source and size. The raw materials of revolutionary emotions have become commodities. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz put it best: the modern world waits for revolutions like “the early Christians expecting the Apocalypse,” he once said. “And revolution comes; not the expected one, but another, always another.” Each time, we’re reintroduced to what we already know. Hello to all that.