Hamilton Arts & Letters
During the “modern” century, which includes the last decades of the 19th century and a good deal of the 20th century, the idea of progress became a joke, or a bad dream. The war that was supposed to end all wars turned out to be, in Margaret MacMillan's words, the war that ended the peace. Murder and killing on a vast scale are the main legacy of these hundred years, and of the years that followed. Science progressed, technology progressed, and humanity progressed in some places, in some ways, but regressed in many other places, and many other ways. “What was progress yesterday may seem today like heading straight for a prison of arrested development, like the societies of insects,” Northrop Frye wrote in 1967, in The Modern Century. Perhaps it's better, Frye suggested, if we don't push too hard to realize our ideas of how to improve the world. We might get Bush in Iraq in 2003, and ISIS in 2014. We might get Ferguson. Progress all too often becomes less a matter of creating a better world and more about bulldozing our way into the future, come hell or high water.
Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is one of two plays (the other is Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) that Frye singles out as summing up “with peculiar vividness and forcefulness the malaise that I have described as the alienation of progress.” Beckett wrote Godot during the years 1948 and 1949, so it is no wonder he has a bleak view of human “progress.”
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