Thursday, October 25, 2018

Holly Case's "The Age of Questions"

Holly Case is an associate professor of History at Brown University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Age of Questions: Or, A First Attempt at an Aggregate History of the Eastern, Social, Woman, American, Jewish, Polish, Bullion, Tuberculosis, and Many Other Questions over the Nineteenth Century, and Beyond, and reported the following:
The “Page 99 Test” apparently has some followers over at Lapham’s Quarterly, because an excerpt from my book published there includes page 99. The page lays out a paradox. In the words of Emil Hammacher, a young German philosopher writing in 1914, there are “questions and tasks whose solution is felt as a need and a necessity”; he listed the social, woman, and worker questions among them. “[N]ever before,” he continued, “have there been so many riddles storming the people as there are today.” But even as questions proliferated and seemed to demand immediate redress, there was a mounting loss of faith in the Lösung (solution). “[I]t’s not so much that now a question appears with unprecedented intensity,” Hammacher wrote, “but rather that absolutely all handed-down solutions of world- and life-problems have become doubtful.”

Loss of faith in solutions did not turn Hammacher into a pessimist, however. In place of the Lösung, he fantasized about Auflösung (dissolution, or giving over). “[T]he self-same conditions that pave the way to the end also lead to the highest maturation of mystical experience; it is in the state of Auflösung that individuals can achieve a higher perfection than ever.” Hammacher saw the potential for Auflösung in the Great War, in which he fought and died. “Is the war that [a state] fights for its own self-assertion or aggrandizement an amoral or at least fatuous residue of barbarism? […] Is eternal peace the highest ideal?” Hammacher echoed Germany’s emphatic “no” to both questions.

On page 99 we learn that it was not just Germans like Hammacher, but also many non-German Europeans had ceased believing in solutions to the questions of their time. The chapter explains how this general loss of faith in definitive solutions ended in the “Final Solution”—the Holocaust. Genocide, in other words, was the endgame of the “age of questions.”

So yes, page 99 does seem to capture the “quality of the whole.” But The Age of Questions is a wily book. Each chapter makes a different argument regarding the essence of the age, and each is also periodically engaged in an argument (dispute) with the others. The final chapter integrates all these arguments into a single, higher-order one. So the argument that appears on page 99 is a bit like Hammacher; destined to struggle and go under, but with an eye to achieving Auflösung—dissolution, or giving over to something higher—in the final chapter.
Learn more about The Age of Questions at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue