August 6, 2009
Gods of the Underworld
I wrote about Joshua Glenn’s new schema for generations a year ago - basically, Glenn’s MO is to toss out distended categories like “Generation X” for tighter, single-decade groupings with names like “Hardboileds” or “The Net Generation.”
That was at Brainiac, the blog for the Boston Globe. But at Hilobrow, Glenn’s still working back, decade by decade, which is especially awesome for 1) people who are geeks for the nineteenth-century, like me, and 2) all of us, who have a much less intuitive sense of generational changes or continuities the longer we look beyond living memory.
For example, consider the generation born between 1854 and 1863. Glenn calls them “the Plutonians”:
Pluto is the god of the underworld, and members of this generation — Freud, Emil Kraepelin, Sir James Frazer, Eugen Bleuler, Julius Wagner-Jauregg, Franz Boas, Émile Durkheim — were dedicated to spelunking the darkest corners of the unconscious, rationalizing the world’s religions and myths, laying bare the deepest structures of society and culture. And then there’s Plutonian Joseph Conrad’s voyage to the Heart of Darkness… and, of course, Rimbaud’s Une Saison en Enfer.
If Rimbaud’s Season In Hell isn’t enough brooding modernist romance for you, may I remind you that Nikola Tesla is holding in his hands balls of flame?
Tesla, the greatest of all Plutonians, had decided that the earth itself was a great conductor, “literally alive with electrical vibrations” — and that he could use it to transmit electrical power without wires. Tesla claimed that soon, humankind would tap the sun’s energy with an antenna, control the weather with electrical energy, and establish a global system of wireless communications. “When wireless is fully applied the earth will be converted into a huge brain,” he told backer J.P. Morgan, “capable of response in every one of its parts.”
Glenn says that Tesla, Ishi, Le Petomane, and The Elephant Man would make for a great League of Extraordinary Gentleman-style team-up; however, according to Wikipedia, there’s already a graphic novel, The Five Fists of Science, where
Nikola Tesla, Mark Twain and Bertha von Suttner combine forces to try to bring about world peace through superior firepower. The comic’s introduction shows Twain explaining that the story does not concern itself very much with historical accuracy, and this assertion is borne out by the story: Twain and Tesla use scientific know-how, general trickery and media manipulation techniques to try to scare world leaders into following their noble path. In the company of several allies, the two are soon confronted by dark forces led by the dastardly Thomas Edison, John Pierpont Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and Guglielmo Marconi. The inventors and financiers are collaborating on a bizarre new skyscraper, the Innsmouth Tower, on whose building site many construction workers have already died in mysterious accidents.
Here, I’ll just give the last word to one of my favorite quotes from Futurama:
FRY: Hey, you have no right to criticize the twentieth century! We gave the world the light bulb, the steam boat and the cotton gin. LEELA: Those things are all from the nineteenth century. FRY: Yeah, well, they probably just copied us.