Literary Notes : Fears and hopes at the turn of the century
Wednesday 29 September 1999
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)
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