Literary Notes : Fears and hopes at the turn of the century

WE KNOW about millennial excitement and millennial hopes - but also about millennial fantasies and the view that the whole millennium thing is misconceived and fictional, this last being the view of Stephen Jay Gould and others. We know rather less about an underestimated millennial boredom. Or not so much boredom, as in Private Eye's Great Bores of Today, boasting that they got to see the real thing in Hungary unlike the dupes in Cornwall - as of a puzzlement and concern at not having any real idea of the future.

A semi-blank millennium, part excitement (now) and part ennui (what next?). From this a question follows - was that the state of mind at the end of the last century?

I teach the history of such things at university, paying attention to arguments in the sciences and elsewhere from 1880 onwards. I joined forces with an expert who knows about the too easily dismissed worlds of spiritualism, "New Age" philosophies, cults, "fringe" science. We exchanged texts and thoughts - Darwinian, psychiatric, sexological, anthropological - and 1900 is the result.

One major difference between our current millennial states of mind and that of the last fin de siecle emerged with real force. The texts we studied and included were promise-crammed, bursting with simultaneous proposals as to who or what was holding back the future but also how to overcome those obstacles and bring the future closer. Part of that story is familiar : the obstacles were the lower races, the unfit, the feeble, the semi- human degenerates. If there was to be social evolution then the forces of selection had to work on these "backward" human types.

To cushion the power of selection and elimination would lead to backwardness and regression. The human future would in fact be a replay of the human past. This fierce kind of thinking formed a prelude to totalitarianism, providing the building blocks for the camps, the labour colonies, for total war and genocide.

But something else has happened as this bleak and somehow inevitable history has cast its shadow. The sense of continuing unbelief and revulsion that can be the only response to such events has led to the burial of a whole other side of the 19th-century fin de siecle. Petrified by a century of foulness, by the Holocaust or by Stalinism or by Agent Orange or by Year Zero or by nuclear weapons and their unimaginable power, the regenerationist flipside has been lost. Not surprising - add demographic chaos and environmental exhaustion and one can see why practical action seems well nigh impossible.

How can we begin to have real ideas about a future? Or begin to understand where inhumanity comes from and start again? And isn't part of our blankness to do with confusion over science? If science isn't the value-neutral, objective knowledge that we were taught but visibly at the centre of the dark historical story, where can we turn for certainty and truth?

Fin-de-siecle writings were suffused with degenerationist and regenerationist fears and hopes. The call to the sleepwalkers to awake was everywhere. New frontiers were visible: democracy, women's social and political emancipation, even that most elusive of human experiences - prolonged peace. Recovering that futurity for us is not easy. But, whether it's through eco-politics or radical psychoanalysis or mysticism or the revival of psychedelia or whatever, we can use our anxieties as a place to start. Anxiety is an opportunity. We will then recover a missing script from the fin de siecle, as anxiety-riddled as our own.

None of the turn-of-the-century authors, poets, activists would have been surprised at our stasis: just puzzled at our prolonged immobility. Rediscovering them brings a strange sense of our being less "modern" than the dead of a century ago and (with luck) a reawakened desire to catch up.

Michael Neve is the co-editor, with Mike Jay, of `1900 : a fin-de-siecle reader' (Penguin Press, pounds 9.99)

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

HR Manager (standalone) - London

Up to £40,000: Ashdown Group: Standalone HR Manager role for an SME business b...

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution