On Neophilia, the eternal struggle

“I don’t like to rewatch movies,” it has been said. “And, if I can help it,” it has been added, without any of the necessary reservations, “I don’t usually watch old movies.” The speaker, who remains nameless, but whom you yourself have probably encountered, might as well have appropriated his or her mental attitude from that parody of modernity, Ada Chiostri Polan in Bertolucci’s epic 1900. In one exemplary scene, for instance, Ada tosses her perfectly fine poetry out the window of a moving car so as to avoid contaminating herself with the old (see the scene at the 3:50 mark in the embedded video). Though either example is ostensibly comprised of two claims, the unwillingness to return to what has been known and the aversion to what is known, both are in fact animated by the same unquenchable and untenable desire for all things new. Ironically, despite its pretension to novelty, neophilia, as I will demonstrate, is an old phenomenon.

Though it may have lent its form to the title of Christopher Booker’s 1969 sociological text The Neophiliacs, and though it may have been passed off by Robert Anton Wilson as his own neologism a short while later, neophilia was in both instances, quite ironically, an appropriation of an ancient condition. It was Chaucer’s linguistic perversion, what we might perhaps now describe his anglophilia, and which gave a centre to the English language (but not its root, nevermind what may be alleged). It was with modernism in the late 19th century that a term which had until then been taken to mean the crude and quaint–that which was of our time, rather than for all time–achieved its sanctification. Ironically, this rarified condition of modernism–the quality of being modern–is what consigned the movement to failure: for to be of the mode is to be connected to the very life that modernism sought to negate. More recently, it was the catalyst of the French New Wave, a cultural revolution which announced with its very name a turn towards the new, ironically an old ideal. The New Wave was the desire for the new as much as it was a movement towards newness. Presently, however, it is the simplified appeal of novelty, rather than the veneration of the new, that has wormed its way into modern culture as a bonafide credo. It was in London, in 1972, for example, that the Daily Telegraph hinted at its recrudescence: “The exaltation of novelty (neophilia) had been turned into a cult”. Had, we are reminded–the obsession being already among us.


Neophilia is also within us, and always has been, accompanying us since the birth of our humanity. At best a commensal parasite of our psyche, at worst neophilia infects us with debilitating delusions of modern perfectibility. This neophilia might be better considered as a farcical reworking of Occam’s razor: for all things being new, the most new is the best choice. Succinct, perhaps, but less than useful.


The cult of the new is the supreme idiocy of our age.


The recognition of the new as the immediate answer to a problem of old is the pretension of reason in the absence of evidence. The new is, in fact, an aspiration, which through use and tolerance is made real. The irony should be readily apparent, for through its use the new is made old, and so abandoned in favour of the new–the ever-new, the newfangled and newest of the new. This impulse, it should be noted, is not wholly without merit: the desire for the new is the desire for progress; yet its veneration is the sigh of the ideological orgasm, as brief as it is fleeting.


Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione interior

The new of technology, the progress of progress, is the imposition of unity. This transformative movement is consigned to obsolescence, however, by its very nature as a transformation, as the bringing together (unity) of disorder. In this way it is unsurprising that these movements of the new always come in conjunction with new technologies. Modernism emerged with the Industrial Revolution, the French New Wave with a revolution in cinema technology (as an avenue to new technique). A more banal example of the cult of the new is visible in the gleaming panels of the newest cars, which with their odd bricolage of hidden gadgets (a new solution to that old problem of chaos) suggest the newest means of overcoming an age-old problem of control. Age-old since, in the beginning, so go the Ancient myths, there was only Chaos. From this primordial state arose Order–the birth of the new.  Chaoskampf, the eternal struggle, remains eternal in the Age of New’s struggle against the old to undo what is new.

Geras depicted on an Athenian pelike, 5th century BCE

The fear of Chaos, personified as it was across so much time and so many cultures in such monstrous forms, has been transposed, without merit, unto Geras (the spirit of the old from which we derive geriatrics). The shriveled form is perhaps monstrous in that it resembles what was once new. But the appeal to Hebe, Geras’ antonym, comes at the expense of both arete and kleos, virtue and glory. Without virtue, art loses its vitality; without glory, it has no after-life. Without the old then, the new art arrives already dead, and doomed to an eternal death–wholly unlike Athena in her fully-formed explosion from the mind of Zeus. The solution to this ageless problem seems one that venerates the old as it is succeeded by the new, for only then can the new succeed.
The desire for unity (entailing as it does a fear of Chaos) is not misplaced, only misjudged. The cliché rings true: Love is blinding. The sentiment is echoed in that charged tableau from 1900 which began this discussion, in Ada Chiostri Polan’s screaming declaration just after discarding her poetry. “I don’t want to see, I’m blind! I’m blind!” she wails melodramatically and shuts her eyes, giving no mind to driving the car. The distinction Bertolucci himself seems to be driving at, and why he has her repeat the line no less than three times, is that the choice is a conscious one, if entirely irrational. In the process, Bertolucci captures a key ideology of not only 1900 but the century after.

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