Children of the Sun

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Every generation rebels against its predecessors, as every child rebels to some degree against its parents. This is a necessary step in the evolution of the individual; it is a declaration of self, a groping toward independence, a natural part of the weaning process. It can range from tentative expression of ideas that seem original and heretical—at that stage of development—to total rejection of a heritage that is seen as blighted by authoritarianism, stupidity, and dishonor. Human nature is such that none of us can fully accept accumulated wisdom of the past without rediscovering its principles for ourselves: thus we are individually driven, in our separate ways, to recapture fire and reinvent the wheel. This process is central to the transitional state we call adolescence. Suppressed in some cultures, tolerated or encouraged and perpetuated in others, it is universal.

That civilization endures and even advances is due to an uneasy balance maintained between accumulated knowledge and youthful skepticism—that is to say, between established dogma and continuous revolution. Knowledge unquestioned petrifies and cannot become wisdom unless it is tested regularly. This is why the course of civilization, like other evolutionary processes, is an indirect one and is marked by various detours and false starts. We are flawed by a penchant for extremes, and our infatuation with the new and novel leads us to hail every unfamiliar concept as both. The revolution may be of lasting significance, or it may be nothing more than a brilliant aberration; we never know until long afterward.

In times of large-scale human crisis, when an older generation appears to be managing the world with vast ineptitude, the revolutionary urge is intensified and seen in its most contagious and radical forms. If these are political in nature the society and its civilization may undergo a sweeping change. If they are instead apolitical, they often blossom into cults, spectacular or bizzare, each with a numerous following. Some of these have a marked influence on arts, letters, or social patterns; seen in retrospect, there is a peculiar fascination about them. Martin Green has chronicled one such coterie in Children of the Sun.

War is always a catastrophic experience, and its evils are readily apparent to the young, who see them as the ultimate result of an older generation’s folly. England experienced an appalling waste of life in terms of its young manhood during World War I; Green points out that half a million men were lost in three months at the Battle of the Somme, and few British families were spared at least one personal tragedy between 1914 and 1918. Those who died included most of the promising literary figures born during the 1890’s, and they were mourned as England’s lost hope.

The rebellion that occurred in England in response to these horrors was bloodless and had nothing whatever to do with social or political reform. It was composed of young aristocrats who came to be called the Sonnenkinder or Children of the Sun. They were dandy-aesthetes who surrounded themselves with an aura of beauty, brilliance, and great promise, and their purpose was to be at complete variance with all the precepts of their elders. To this end they cultivated physical beauty, striking and elaborate costume, polished manners and speech, exquisite taste in arts and letters, and total irreverence toward the adult world. They eliminated all points of contact with their fathers, both by rejection of everything the latter represented and by the obvious device of homosexuality.

Their behavior was notable for callousness and cruelty toward one another as much as toward parental images, and the many practical jokes they staged ran the gamut from amusing satire to vicious insensibility. Parties, always gala affairs, were one of their major activities and brought them widespread recognition. They made cult figures of their predecessors of the 1890’s and were encouraged by a few members of the older generation who found them either promising or entertaining.

The Sonnenkinder were essentially actors. The traits they cultivated were those of facades and their behavior threatrical. The advent of Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe had an enormous influence on them, as did the French dandy-aesthetes most flamboyantly exemplified in Jean Cocteau. France had seen its young men decimated by the war, and to a far greater extent than had England; the reaction among those...

(The entire section is 1843 words.)