When Kenneth Clark wrote the concluding section of his magnificent thirteen-part television series, Civilisation, he gave it the title “Heroic Materialism.” The series had been based on Clark’s definition of civilization. Each part displayed an epoch of Western history marked by particular creative energy. Clark finished by showing how, in the early days of the nineteenth century, engineers began building a new world of cast iron—a man-made material world of heroic proportions. Clark’s title was a wry and masterful bit of misdirection, just as the great works he described have also misdirected our attention. If he had used the term heroic materialism to describe medieval cathedrals instead of the great engineering works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we might have balked. When we look at a Gothic cathedral we see not cold, material stone, but a flight of the human spirit. We see mind rising over matter. However, our first reaction is to accept Clark’s seeming claim that nineteenth-century iron was merely materialistic. It is a characterization that makes sense to us. But once he has shown the stereotypical view of things, Clark begins steering us in unexpected directions. He shows how all that heroic iron triggered a new spirit of social reform. By the end of the nineteenth century, Victorian iron had even played a role in bringing art back from heroic themes to the humanizing influence of the Impressionist artists. That should be no surprise since, as we have already stressed, machines relate directly and intimately to essential human needs, and they have always been an equalizing force in society. By the 1930s the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier was proclaiming machinery and craftsmanship to be the one truth in a world full of lies: “Machines are truly humane, but we do not know machines.” He cried, “The world lacks harmonisers to make palpable the humane beauty of modern times.” In this chapter we look at the machine as a heroic figure, and what we see is a progression from megalomania to humanization—from the obsessiveness of Napoleon Bonaparte to the world-unifying effort to go into space.
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