February 19, 2005

They Are Still Giants Walking the Earth

There's an interesting post over at Daily Pundit by Lastango noting an article in which David Frum takes Charles Murray to task for an intellectual variation on the theme that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket:

In October 2003, David Frum cited Charles Murray’s new book Human Accomplishment in which Murray contends Western man has lost his sense of artistic excellence.

Mr. Frum related that “Murray underscores this assertion by challenging his readers and listeners to name even one artistic or scientific achievement (he thinks science – pure science, that is, as opposed to technological or engineering progress - is declining for different reasons) of the past 50 years that will still matter to people in the year 2200.”

Continued Frum: “So here’s my list, in no particular order, of 10 things from 1950 to 2000 that will still matter two hundred years hence:”

1. A. Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
2. Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum at Bilbao.
3. The paintings of Jackson Pollock.
4. The Godfather I & II
5. C. Milosz, The Captive Mind.
6. West Side Story.
7. M. Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.
8. The collected “I Love Lucy.”
9. VS Naipaul, A Bend in the River.
10. Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA.

“Also (and in honor of Virginia Postrel) almost the entire corpus of mid-century decorative arts: the Concorde jet, the UN building, and the 1959 Cadillac Coup de Ville.”

Needless to say, Mr. Murray's lamenting that the days of giants has passed is silly and representative of the short term perspective that affects so many of the elite (right and left) these days. It should also be noted that most people are generally unaware of the scientific acheivements that have the greatest impacts on their lives, whether it is because they are too complicated for most to comprehend or that they have become so ubiquitous as to be taken for granted. But being unaware of them is not the same thing as them not existing.

As an aside, I find Mr. Frums' list a rather strange list of highbrow and lowbrow acheivements. Most people haven't read any of the 4 books he has listed today, much less 200 years from now. But the collected works of I Love Lucy? Eeeek. And, IMHO, Jackson Pollack is a talentless hack whose popularity is a sign of just how successful the Dadaists were in destroying the aesthetics for the intelligentsia that Mr. Murray is on about. Fortunately, not everyone has lost sight of them.

For what it's worth, here are my suggestions for 10 artistic or scientific achievements from 1950 to 2000 that will still matter two hundred years hence (with hyperlinks!):

1. Frank Lloyd Wright's buildings -- Price Company Tower (1952), the Beth Sholom Synagogue (1954), and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1956). The buildings may be gone by 2200, but the ideas will still resonate.

2. Man's first trip to the moon on Apollo 11 in 1969. A tour de force of science and engineering.

3. Stanley Kubrick's and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. I'm guessing that in 200 years our descendant's still will not have figured it out.

4. QED. A significant step to a theory of everything.

5. The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Actually, I'm not exactly disappointed that I won't have to listen to whatever over-produced techno-grunge-rap melange happens to sweep the Grammy's in 2200.

6. Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Since the novel took place 7 centuries before, it's not like studying this great work is going to lose it's relevance in another 200 years.

7. Ken Burns' The Civil War. As George Will once said, "If better use has ever been made of television, I have not seen it..."

8. The first heart transplant performed by Dr. Christian Barnard. While not terribly successful in and of itself, like Roger Bannister's sub-four minute mile it broke the mold and freed doctors to think in entirely new ways.

9. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." -- Ronald Reagan. Politics is the art of the possible, is it not?

10. The validation of Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift. Although proposed in 1915, it was not validated and understood until the 1960's with the development of a theory of plate tectonics backed by solid evidence. This has so many implications on how we see the earth.

So what's your top 10? Or do yo agree with Charles Murray on this one?

Posted by Charles Austin at February 19, 2005 10:57 AM

I don't know about all of my top 10, but I'm pretty sure I'd have the invention of the laser in there somewhere.

Posted by: Russ at 04:39 PM

If Reagan's wall speech gets in there, then MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech should be in there, too.

Maybe "Catch-22", published in 1961.
Definitely "Green Eggs And Ham", published in 1960.

Posted by: dorkafork at 12:43 AM

I was thinking "Goodnight Moon" but I'll defer to "Green Eggs and Ham."

I'm reading "The Name of the Rose" right now, coincidentally.

Posted by: Tanya at 08:25 PM

You will all rue the day you laughed at my pseudo-intellectualism!

As for the laser, perhaps. It is easy to make an argument for hundreds of items. I thought about including velcro at one point.

As for MLK's speech, for reasons I'd have to write another essay to explain why I choose not to include it here. Great speech, but I'm not as sure it will be as important in 200 years.

Catch-22, not in the same league, IMHO.

I discharged my responsibilities on Theodor Geisel in my first sentence.

I'm writing a book on The Name of the Rose, though at my current rate I'm not sure I'll have it completed before my remaining 30 years are up.

Posted by: charles austin at 11:22 AM

You are all forgetting Tolkien's : "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Posted by: Allen Lewis at 12:14 PM

Never heard of it.

Posted by: Tanya at 05:38 PM