The twentieth century will be remembered as one of the most violent in history. There were two world wars, numerous genocides, and millions of murders conducted in the name of progress. Driving this violence was the urge to find truth or purity. The violence was lit by the refining fire of belief. The redemptive ideal was called national socialism, communism, stalinism, maoism.
Today, these gods have feet of clay, and we mock their pretensions. Global consumerism is the new world order, but global consumerism is not a god. Market capitalism does not ask questions about transcendent meaning. Western democracies, nodding into the sleep of reason, have grown numb with self-congratulation about having won the hot, the cold, and, now, the star wars.
The questions that have disappeared are eschatological. But they have not really disappeared. They are a chtonic force, waiting underground, searching for a new language in which to express themselves. This observation sprang to mind while I was standing in the Place de la Revolution, now known as the Place de la Concorde, awaiting the arrival of the third millennium. During the French revolution this square was so soaked in blood that oxen refused to cross it. On New Year's Eve it was soaked in rain and champagne, as we counted down to a display of fireworks that never materialized. Instead, there was a Ferris wheel, lit alternately in mauve and chartreuse, and some lasers illuminating the Luxor obelisk which today is the square's secular center. No one staring at it knew how to read the hieroglyphics carved on its face, but this obelisk was once a transcendent object, infused with meaning, and so, too, was the guillotine that formerly stood in its place.
THOMAS A. BASS, who currently lives in Paris, is the author of The Eudaemonic Pie, Vietnamerica, The Predictors, and other books.