Fin de siècle
|Fin de siècle|
Fin de siècle (French pronunciation: [fɛ̃ də sjɛkl]) is French for end of the century. The term typically encompasses not only the meaning of the similar English idiom turn of the century, but also both the closing and onset of an era, as the end of the 19th century was felt to be a period of degeneration, but at the same time 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', 'pessimism', and "...a widespread belief that civilization leads to decadence."
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 becomes applicable to the sentiments and traits associated with the culture as opposed to focusing solely on the movement’s initial recognition in France. The ideas and concerns developed by fin de siècle artists provided the impetus for movements like symbolism and modernism.
The themes of fin de siècle political culture were very controversial and have been cited as a major influence on fascism. 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 being in a crisis that required a massive and total solution.
B. A. Morel’s Degeneration Theory holds 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. This degeneration can be passed from generation to generation, resulting in imbecility and senility due to hereditary influence. Max Nordau’s 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, largely noted in symbolist works. 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, now psychology, was a large part of fin de siècle society in that it studied a topic that could not be depicted through Romanticism, but relied on traits exhibited to suggest how the mind works, as does symbolism. 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, as Nordau describes in Baudelaire, as well as the second characteristic of madness of doubt, which involves intense indecision and extreme preoccupation to minute detail. The difference between degenerate genius and degenerate madman become the extensive knowledge held by the genius in a few areas paired with a belief in one’s own superiority as a result. Together, these psychological traits lend to originality, eccentricity, and a sense of alienation, all symptoms of la mal du siècle that impacted French youth at the beginning of the 19th century until expanding outward and eventually influencing the rest of Europe approaching the turn of the century.
England's ideological space was impacted by the philosophical waves of pessimism sweeping Europe, starting with the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer's work from before his death in 1860 and gradually impacting 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, 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 lends credence to the Degeneration Theory as applied to Baudelaire's influence on other nations. However, the optimistic Romanticism popular earlier in the century would also have had an impact on 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 appears, then, to be philosophically current as of 1895, reining in his master's optimism about the weather by reminding Algernon of how the world typically operates. Lane's pessimism gives satisfaction to Algernon, possibly indicating Lane's status as the perfect servant of a gentleman is one who is philosophically aware of the fashionable religions Wilde addresses. Charles Baudelaire's work demonstrates some of the pessimism expected of the time, and his work with modernity exemplified 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 influenced other French artists like Arthur Rimbaud, the author of René whose titular character displays the mal du siècle that European youths of the age displayed. 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.
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. While Romanticism encouraged audiences to view physical traits as indicative of one's inner self, the 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 favour 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 is egoism a term similar to that of ego-mania meaning disproportionate attention placed on one's own endeavours. 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.
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