Iconoclastic essays on the state and fate of the West at the end of a dreadful century. Did he not eschew the word, the German poet and essayist Enzensberger (Europe, Europe, 1989, etc.) might be termed a "postmodernist," for he speaks here of an era, modernity, that has exhausted itself. Unlike most postmodern thinkers, however, he writes well and coherently, and possesses a sense of humor. He is more bemused by the modern world than outraged (though well aware of its tragedies.) Enzensberger's targets are many, from politicians to the World Bank to intellectuals (with a nice take on the tooth of the narwhal, as well). Connecting these disparate subjects, however, is a gentle but penetrating attack on the shibboleths of the modern world; certainty, progress, perfectibility are all called into question. "Consistency," writes Enzensberger, "will turn any good cause into a bad one." A belief in progress, the inexorable march of time toward the great and perfect future—be it a classless society, the true Germany, the realm of freedom—has led to ruin time and again. Better, writes Enzensberger, is "normality," for within normality, the persistent attention to the details of everyday life, lies a common humanity and collective memory and wisdom that has been able to withstand all who would perfect us. And so, within these pages, we seem to bumble on, succeeding as a species despite, not because of, grand designs. Not all the essays here are of equal quality. Some topics are quite trivial (fashion in "The Street Theater of Rags"), others are overfamiliar (television in "The Zero Medium"). Also, many of the pieces have appeared in English in previous volumes. Still, the quality of writing and thought here is usually superior to better known and more celebrated contemporary social critics. In all, an eloquent defense of common sense, humanism, and thought.
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