Fin de siècle
Fin de siècle (French pronunciation: [fɛ̃ də sjɛkl]) is a French term meaning "end of century,” a phrase which typically encompasses both the meaning of the similar English idiom "turn of the century" and also makes reference to the closing of one era and onset of another. Without context, the term is typically used to refer to the end of the nineteenth century. This period was widely thought to be a period of social degeneracy and pessimism, but for some like the Millenarian movement, it was also a period of hope for a new beginning.
The "spirit" of fin de siècle often refers to the cultural hallmarks that were recognized as prominent in the 1880s and 1890s, including ennui, cynicism, and pessimism, but paradoxically also a millenarian hope and optimism that a "new age" could follow.
The term fin de siècle is commonly applied to French art and artists, as the traits of the culture first appeared there, but the movement affected many European countries. The term is applicable to the sentiments and traits associated with the period's culture, not solely the movement's initial development in France.
The major political theme of the era was that of revolt against materialism, rationalism, positivism, bourgeois society, and liberal democracy. The fin-de-siècle generation supported emotionalism, irrationalism, subjectivism, and vitalism, while the mindset of the age saw civilization as suffering from a crisis that required a massive and total solution.
One of the key cultural influences of fin-de-siècle was the rise of "degeneration theory" in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the 1850s B. A. Morel began to develop degeneration theory while he was the director of the mental asylum at Saint-Yon in northern France. In nineteenth century France, there was an increase in crime, sickness, and mental disorders, which interested Morel. He was determined to identify the underlying causes of this increase. Morel's degeneration theory was based on the idea that psychological disorders and other behavioral abnormalities were caused by an abnormal constitution. This also meant that he believed that there was an ideal type of human that degeneration had altered. He believed that these abnormalities could be inherited and that there was a progressive worsening of the degeneration by generation. These traits were not specified pathologies, but rather an overall abnormality like a highly susceptible nervous system to disturbances from excessive toxins. The first generation started with neurosis, then, in the next generation, mental alienation. After the second generation, the mental alienation led to imbecility.
The theory held that although societies can progress, they can also remain static or even regress if influenced by a flawed environment, such as national conditions or outside cultural influences.
Morel's ideas were taken up by the criminologist, Cesare Lombroso and cultural critic, Max Nordau. Lombroso, working in the 1880s, believed he found evidence of degeneration by studying the corpses of criminals. After completing an autopsy on the murderer Villela, he found the indentation where the spine meets the neck to be a signal of degeneration and subsequent criminality. Beginning with the assumption from Morel that degeneration was occurring, Lombroso was convinced he had found the key to degeneration that had concerned liberal circles.
Based on pre-Darwinian ideas of evolution, especially those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that acquired characteristics like drug abuse and sexual perversions, could be inherited, Lombroso claimed that the modern criminal was the savage throwback of "degeneration." Lombroso published The Man of Genius in 1889, a book which argued that artistic genius was a form of hereditary insanity. In order to support this assertion, he began assembling a large collection of "psychiatric art." He published an article on the subject in 1880 in which he isolated thirteen typical features of the "art of the insane."
Max Nordau published a book-length treat on degeneration in 1892. Degeneration holds that the two dominant traits of those degenerated in a society involve ego mania and mysticism. The former term was understood to mean a pathological degree of self-absorption and unreasonable attention to one's own sentiments and activities, as can be seen in the extremely descriptive nature of minute details. The latter referred to the impaired ability to translate primary perceptions into fully developed ideas, which he found largely in symbolist works, but also Pre-Raphaelites, the Decadent movement, and Aestheticism as well as Emile Zola and Joris-Karl Huysmans. Nordau's treatment of these traits as degenerative qualities lends to the perception of a world falling into decay through fin de siècle corruptions of thought, and influencing the pessimism growing in Europe's philosophical consciousness. As fin de siècle citizens, attitudes tended toward science in an attempt to decipher the world in which they lived. The focus on psycho-physiology, an early attempt to find a physiological basis for psychopathology, was a large part of fin de siècle society. It believed that unlike the art depicted through Romanticism, traits exhibited in symbolist and other late nineteenth century art gave some insight suggestive of how the mind works.
It also initiated the modern connection between genius and madness. The concept of genius returned to popular consciousness around this period through Max Nordau's work with degeneration, prompting study of artists supposedly affected by social degeneration and what separates imbecility from genius. The genius and the imbecile were determined to have largely similar character traits, including les delires des grandeurs and la folie du doute. The first, which means delusions of grandeur, begins with a disproportionate sense of importance in one's own activities and results in a sense of alienation.Nordau describes Charles Baudelaire and his work in these terms, as well as the second characteristic of madness of doubt, which involves intense indecision and extreme preoccupation with minute detail. The difference between degenerate genius and degenerate madman was thought to be small. The extensive knowledge held by the genius in a few areas paired with a belief in one's own superiority as a result defined the genius. Together, these psychological traits lend to originality, eccentricity, and a sense of alienation, all symptoms of le mal du siècle (the evil of the century) that Nordau suggests impacted French youth at the beginning of the nineteenth century, eventually expanding outward and eventually influencing the rest of Europe approaching the turn of the century.
Charles Baudelaire's work demonstrates some of the pessimism expected of the time, and his work with modernity prefigured the decadence and decay with which turn-of-the-century French art is associated, while his work with symbolism promoted the mysticism Nordau associated with fin de siècle artists. Baudelaire's pioneering translations of Edgar Allan Poe's verse supports the aesthetic role of translation in fin de siècle culture, while his own works influenced French and English artists through the use of modernity and symbolism. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and their contemporaries became known as French decadents, a group that influenced its English counterpart, the aesthetes like Oscar Wilde. Both groups believed the purpose of art was to evoke an emotional response and demonstrate the beauty inherent in the unnatural as opposed to trying to teach its audience an infallible sense of morality.
England's ideological space was affected by the philosophical waves of pessimism sweeping Europe, starting with philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's work from before 1860 and gradually influencing artists internationally. R. H. Goodale identified 235 essays by British and American authors concerning pessimism, ranging from 1871 to 1900, showing the prominence of pessimism in conjunction with English ideology. Further, Oscar Wilde's references to pessimism in his works demonstrate the relevance of the ideology on the English. In An Ideal Husband (produced in January 1895), Wilde's protagonist asks another character whether "at heart, [she is] an optimist or a pessimist? Those seem to be the only two fashionable religions left to us nowadays." Wilde's reflection on personal philosophy as more culturally significant than religion shows the influence of degeneration theory, and to Baudelaire's influence on culture in Europe more broadly. The optimistic Romanticism popular earlier in the century found a countervailing tendency in the shifting ideological landscape. The newly fashionable pessimism appears again in Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, written that same year:
Algernon: I hope tomorrow will be a fine day, Lane.
Lane: It never is, sir. Algernon: Lane, you're a perfect pessimist.
Lane: I do my best to give satisfaction, sir.
Lane is philosophically current as of 1895, reining in his master's optimism about the weather by reminding Algernon of how the world typically operates. His pessimism gives satisfaction to Algernon; the perfect servant of a gentleman is one who is philosophically aware.
Degeneration and Literature
Towards the close of the nineteenth century something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration had invaded the European creative imagination, leading to "a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence," partly fueled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory. These literary conventions were a direct reflection of many evolutionary, scientific, social and medical theories and advancements that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century.Examples include the symbolist literary work of Charles Baudelaire and the Rougon-Macquart novels of Émile Zola.
In the Victorian fin de siècle, the themes of degeneration and anxiety are expressed not only through the physical landscape which provided a backdrop for Gothic Literature, but also through the human body itself. In Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), Thomas Hardy explores the destructive consequences of a family myth of noble ancestry. Works such as Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde—published in the same year (1886) as Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis— (1886), Oscar Wilde's only novel (containing his aesthetic manifesto), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan (1894), and Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) all explore themes of change, development, evolution, mutation, corruption and decay in relation to the human body and mind. A scientific twist was added by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895) in which Wells prophesied the splitting of the human race into variously degenerate forms, and again in his The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) wherein forcibly mutated animal-human hybrids keep reverting to their earlier forms. Joseph Conrad alludes to degeneration theory in his treatment of political radicalism in the 1907 novel The Secret Agent.
Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen showed a sensitivity to degenerationist thinking in his theatrical presentations of Scandinavian domestic crises. Arthur Machen's The Great God Pan (1890/1894), with its emphasis on the horrors of psychosurgery, is frequently cited as an essay on degeneration.
In her influential study The Gothic Body, Kelly Hurley draws attention to the literary device of the abhuman as a representation of damaged personal identity, and to lesser-known authors in the field, including Richard Marsh (1857–1915), author of The Beetle (1897), and William Hope Hodgson (1877–1918), author of The Boats of the Glen Carrig, The House on the Borderland and The Night Land. In 1897, Bram Stoker published Dracula, an enormously influential Gothic novel featuring the parasitic vampire Count Dracula in an extended exercise of reversed imperialism. Unusually, Stoker makes explicit reference to the writings of Lombroso and Nordau in the course of the novel. Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories include a host of degenerationist tropes, perhaps best illustrated (drawing on the ideas of Serge Voronoff) in The Adventure of the Creeping Man.
Degeneration and Art
The works of the Decadents and the Aesthetes contain the hallmarks typical of fin de siècle art. Holbrook Jackson's The Eighteen Nineties describes the characteristics of English decadence, which are: perversity, artificiality, egoism, and curiosity. The first trait is the concern for the perverse, unclean, and unnatural. Romanticism had encouraged audiences to view physical traits as indicative of one's inner self. Fin de siècle artists accepted beauty as the basis of life, and so valued that which was not conventionally beautiful.
This belief in beauty in the abject leads to the obsession with artifice and symbolism, as artists rejected ineffable ideas of beauty in favor of the abstract. Through symbolism, aesthetes could evoke sentiments and ideas in their audience without relying on an infallible general understanding of the world.
The third trait of the culture was egoism meaning disproportionate attention placed on one's own endeavors. This can result in a type of alienation and anguish, as in Baudelaire's case, and demonstrates how aesthetic artists chose cityscapes over country as a result of their aversion to the natural.
The impact of the fin de siècle was limited in part by the difficulties of the first two decades of the twentieth century, especially World War I and its aftermath. While the influence of the degeneration theories would diminish under the weight of their own inadequacies, elements of the artists developments and the impact of millenarian optimism would not completely disappear..
The fin-de-siècle was not only a time of cultural pessimism. Millenarians saw the potential for an end of the age, and beginning of a new age. This end of an era thinking has a precedent at the time of the year 1000, and then at the turn the twenty-first century. Michael Heffernan in his article "Fin de Siècle, Fin du Monde?" (End of the century, end of the world?) finds in the Christian world what he calls "the syndrome of fin de siècle. In 2000, this took the form of the Year 2000 problem. Fins de siècle are accompanied by future expectations:
Changes which are actually taking place at these junctures tend to acquire extra (sometimes mystical) layers of meaning. This was certainly the case in the 1890s, a decade of "semiotic arousal" when everything, it seemed, was a sign, a harbinger of some future radical disjuncture or cataclysmic upheaval ... The original French expression, meaning simply "end of century," became a catch all phrase to describe everything from the architectural and artistic styles ... to the wider, often impassioned debates about the past, the present and the future on the eve of a new century. ... Much fin-de-siècle writing ... tended to assume that the passing of the nineteenth century would represent a fundamental historical discontinuity, a clear break with the past.
The desire for a "final solution" to the problems of society survived beyond the end of the fin de siècle. It led to the development of new political theories. Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Nottingham, Michael Heffernan, and Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote about the origins of geopolitics:
The idea that this project required a new name in 1899 reflected a widespread belief that the changes taking place in the global economic and political system were seismically important.
The "new world of the Twentieth century would need to be understood in its entirety, as an integrated global whole." Technology and global communication made the world "smaller" and turned it into a single system; the time was characterized by pan-ideas and a utopian "one-worldism," proceeding further than pan-ideas.
What we now think of geopolitics had its origins in fin de siècle Europe in response to technological change ... and the creation of a "closed political system" as European imperialist competition extinguished the world's "frontiers".
- Belle Époque
- Decadent movement
- Gay Nineties
- Lost generation
- Reactionary politics
- Symbolism (arts)
- Patrick McGuinness (ed.), Symbolism, Decadence and the Fin de Siècle: French and European Perspectives (Exeter, U.K.: Exeter University Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0859896467), 9.
- Nicoletta Pireddu, Antropologi alla corte della bellezza. Decadenza ed economia simbolica nell'Europa fin de siècle (Verona, IT: Fiorini, 2002, ISBN 8887082162).
- Zeev Sternhell, "Crisis of Fin-de-siècle Thought," in International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus (London, U.K. and New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998, ISBN 978-0340706138), 169.
- Stanley G. Payne, A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 (1995; Oxford, U.K.: Routledge, 2005, ISBN 978-1857285956), 23–24.
- Glyn Hambrook, "Baudelaire, Degeneration Theory, and Literary Criticism," The Modern Language Review 101(4) (2006): 1005–1024.
- Russel Goldfarb, "Late Victorian Decadence," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20(4) (1962): 369–373.
- Catherine Maxwell, "Theodore Watts-Dunton's 'Aylwin (1898)' and the Reduplications of Romanticism," The Yearbook of English Studies 37(1) (2007): 1–21.
- "What Is Fin de Siecle?" The Art Critic 1(1) (1893): 9.
- Nicholas Shrimpton, "'Lane, You're a Perfect Pessimist': Pessimism and the English 'Fin de siècle'," The Yearbook of English Studies 37(1) (2007): 41–57.
- Marion Thain, "Modernist 'Homage' to the 'Fin de siècle'," The Yearbook of English Studies 37.1 (2007): 22–40.
- John Allen Quintus, "The Moral Implications of Oscar Wilde's Aestheticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22(4) (1980): 559–574.
- Stjepan Meštrović, The Coming Fin de Siecle: An Application of Durkheim's Sociology to modernity and postmodernism (1991; Oxford, U.K. and New York, NY: Routledge, 1992, ISBN 978-0415853613), 2.
- Nicoletta Pireddu, "Primitive marks of modernity: cultural reconfigurations in the Franco-Italian fin de siècle," Romanic Review 97 (3–4) (2006): 371–400. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Greg Buzwell, "Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siècle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds," The British Library, May 15, 2014. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Kelly Hurley, The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996, ISBN 978-0511519161).
- Fiona Subotsky, Dracula for doctors: medical facts and Gothic fantasies (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2019, ISBN 978-1911623281).
- West Shearer, Fin de Siecle: Art and Society in an Age of Uncertainty (New York, NY: Overlook Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0879515195).
- Talia Schaffer, Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle (New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2007, ISBN 978-0321132178), 3.
- J. Trygve Has-Ellison, "Nobles, Modernism, and the Culture of fin-de-siècle Munich," German History 26(1) (2008): 1–23.
- Michael Heffernan, "Fin de Siècle, Fin du Monde? On the Origins of European Geopolitics; 1890–1920," in Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought eds., Klaus Dodds & David A. Atkinson (London, U.K. & New York, NY: Routledge, 2000, ISBN 978-0415172493), 28, 31. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Michael Heffernan, "The Politics of the Map in the Early Twentieth Century," Cartography and Geographic Information Science 29(3) (2002): 207.
- Thomas Owens Mackubin, "In Defense of Classical Geopolitics," Naval War College Review 52(4) (1999): 65. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Stephen Kern, Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918 (Boston, MA & London, U.K.: Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN 978-0674179738).
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Buzwell, Greg. "Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siècle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds," The British Library, May 15, 2014. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Goldfarb, Russel. "Late Victorian Decadence," The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20(4) (1962): 369–373.
- Hambrook, Glyn. "Baudelaire, Degeneration Theory, and Literary Criticism," The Modern Language Review 101(4) (2006): 1005–1024.
- Has-Ellison, J. Trygve. "Nobles, Modernism, and the Culture of fin-de-siècle Munich," German History 26(1) (2008): 1–23.
- Dodds,Klaus, and David A. Atkinson (eds.). Geopolitical Traditions: A Century of Geopolitical Thought. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000. ISBN 978-0415172493
- Heffernan, Michael. "The Politics of the Map in the Early Twentieth Century," Cartography and Geographic Information Science 29(3) (2002): 207.
- Hurley, Kelly. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0511519161
- Kern, Stephen. Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1918. Boston, MA & London, U.K.: Harvard University Press, 1983. ISBN 978-0674179738
- Mackubin, Thomas Owens. "In Defense of Classical Geopolitics," Naval War College Review 52(4) (1999): 65. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Maxwell, Catherine. "Theodore Watts-Dunton's 'Aylwin (1898)' and the Reduplications of Romanticism," The Yearbook of English Studies 37(1) (2007): 1–21.
- McGuinness, Patrick (ed.). Symbolism, Decadence and the Fin de Siècle: French and European Perspectives. Exeter, U.K.: Exeter University Press, 2000. ISBN 978-0859896467
- Meštrović, Stjepan. The Coming Fin de Siecle: An Application of Durkheim's Sociology to modernity and postmodernism. 1991; Oxford, U.K. and New York, NY: Routledge, 1992. ISBN 978-0415853613
- Payne, Stanley G. A History of Fascism, 1914–1945. Oxford, U.K.: Routledge, 2005 (original 1995). ISBN 978-1857285956
- Pireddu, Nicoletta. Antropologi alla corte della bellezza. Decadenza ed economia simbolica nell'Europa fin de siècle. Verona, IT: Fiorini, 2002. ISBN 8887082162
- Pireddu, Nicoletta. "Primitive marks of modernity: cultural reconfigurations in the Franco-Italian fin de siècle," Romanic Review 97 (3–4) (2006): 371–400. Retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Quintus, John Allen. "The Moral Implications of Oscar Wilde's Aestheticism," Texas Studies in Literature and Language 22(4) (1980): 559–574.
- Schaffer, Talia. Literature and Culture at the Fin de Siècle. New York, NY: Pearson Longman, 2007. ISBN 978-0321132178
- Shearer, West. Fin de Siecle: Art and Society in an Age of Uncertainty. New York, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1994. ISBN 978-0879515195
- Shrimpton, Nicholas. "'Lane, You're a Perfect Pessimist': Pessimism and the English 'Fin de siècle'," The Yearbook of English Studies 37(1) (2007): 41–57.
- Sternhell, Zeev. "Crisis of Fin-de-siècle Thought," in International Fascism: Theories, Causes and the New Consensus. London, U.K. and New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 1998. ISBN 978-0340706138
- Subotsky, Fiona. Dracula for doctors: medical facts and Gothic fantasies. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1911623281
- Thain, Marion. "Modernist 'Homage' to the 'Fin de siècle'," The Yearbook of English Studies 37.1 (2007): 22–40.
- "What Is Fin de Siecle?" The Art Critic 1(1) (1893): 9.
- Schwartz, Hillel. Century's End: A Cultural History of the Fin de Siècle—From the 990s Through the 1990s. New York, NY: Doubleday, 1990. ISBN 978-0385243797
- Jullian, Philippe, and Diana Vreeland. La Belle Époque]. New York, NY: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982. ISBN 978-0870993299
All links retrieved May 6, 2023.
- Fin de Siècle at The British Library
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