Georg Hegel used the phrase der Geist seiner Zeit. Translated it means “no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit.” Zeitgeist is more than just a trend, although it may seem such from a more historical perspective. It is the “spirit” of the times. It is what we believe as a culture and a society. The writer writes about that spirit for as Hegel suggests we cannot really separate ourselves from it. It is debatable whether or not Art creates that spirit or is merely a reflection—perhaps it is a bit of both.
I believe the art of writing serves two important purposes in terms of the spirit of the times. The first and most basic is to provide a historical depiction in fiction that allows future generations to “understand” the “times” through its impact on the human experience. This is more than just dates and events, it is the interpretation of how the world was perceived. Literature may not always be factually correct, but the sum of our viewpoints is seldom just the sum of facts. The author simply sets the words to creating a world that reflects the spirit of the times. Fitzgerald offers us a view of the decadence of the twenties, Steinbeck shows us the Great Depression, Faulkner the ideologies of the mid-west, and Tom Wolfe’s depiction of the world beneath the resurgence of Wall Street in the 1980s. That all of these tales are in part the author’s perspective is less important than their ability to offer insight into times we didn’t experience.
The second and perhaps more important value of literature’s depiction of the Zeitgeist are those works that contemplate the emergence of the next “spirit.” The stories that recognize the end of something and foreshadows the beginning of something new. For this we can return again to Fitzgerald and feel the anxiety as the Roar of the Twenties slipped toward the whimper of the Great Depression.
And every so often a story comes along that creates a new spirit or brings attention to something that needs such attention. The secular practices of Christmas had almost faded until Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Harper Lee’s, To Kill A Mockingbird ignited a desire to better understand race relations decades after the civil war.
My draw to reading classics is to experience the Zeitgeist or Spirit of other times. My passion for writing is to offer my own opinions on the current human experience. That I cannot see clearly beyond the ways in which we see our world today is not reason to remain silent. Instead my writing is an opportunity to explore character under the microscope of today’s spirit. To be one voice in the many voices that form, or are formed, by our Zeitgeist.
Categories: A to Z Blog Challenge