Fin-de-siècle is a name covering both what is characteristic of many modern phenomena, and also the underlying mood which in them finds expression. Experience has long shown that an idea usually derives its designation from the language of the nation which first formed it. This, indeed, is a law of constant application when historians of manners and customs inquire into language, for the purpose of obtaining some notion, through the origins of some verbal root, respecting the home of the earliest inventions and the line of evolution in different human races. Fin-de-siècle is French, for it was in France that the mental state so entitled was first consciously realized. The word has flown from one hemisphere to the other, and found its way into all civilized languages. A proof this that the need of it existed.i The fin-de-siècle state of mind is to-day everywhere to be met with; nevertheless, it is in many cases a mere imitation of a foreign fashion gaining vogue, and not an organic evolution. It is in the land of its birth that it appears in its most genuine form, and Paris is the right place in which to observe its manifold expressions.
No proof is needed of the extreme sillinessii of the term. Only the brain of a child or of a savage could form the clumsy ideaiii that the century is a kind of living being, born like a beast or a man, passing through all the stages of existence, gradually ageing and declining after blooming childhood, joyous youth, and vigorous maturity, to die with the expiration of the hundredth year, after being afflicted in its last decade with all the infirmities of mournful senility. Such a childish anthropomorphism or zoomorphism never stops to consider that the arbitrary division of time, rolling ever continuously along, is not identical amongst all civilized beings, and that while this nineteenth century of Christendom is held to be a creature reeling to its death presumptively in dire exhaustion, the fourteenth century of the Mahommedan world is tripping along in the baby-shoes of its first decade, and the fifteenth century of the Jews strides gallantly by in the full maturity of its fifty-second year. Every day on our globe 130,000 human beingsiv are born, for whom the world begins with this same day, and the young citizen of the world is neither feebler nor fresher for leaping into life in the midst of the death-throes of 1900, nor on the birthday of the twentieth century. But it is a habit of the human mind to project externally its own subjective states. And it is in accordance with this naïvely egoistic tendency that the French ascribe their own senility to the centuryv, and speak of fin-de-siècle when they ought correctly to say fin-de-race.
But however silly a term fin-de-siècle may be, the mental constitution which it indicates is actually present in influential circles. The disposition of the times is curiously confused, a compound of feverish restlessness and blunted discouragement, of fearful presage and hang-dog renunciation.vi The prevalent feeling is that of imminent perdition and extinction. Fin-de-siècle is at once a confession and a complaint. The old Northern faith contained the fearsome doctrine of the Dusk of the Gods. In our days there have arisen in more highly-developed minds vague qualms of a Dusk of the Nations, in which all suns and all stars are gradually waning, and mankind with all its institutions and creations is perishing in the midst of a dying world.vii
It is not for the first time in the course of history that the horror of world-annihilation has laid hold of men's minds. A similar sentiment took possession of the Christian peoples at the approach of the year 1000. But there is an essential difference between chiliastic panic and fin-de-siècle excitement. The despair at the turn of the first millennium of Christian chronology proceeded from a feeling of fulness of life and joy of life.viii Men were aware of throbbing pulses, they were conscious of unweakened capacity for enjoyment, and found it unmitigatedly appalling to perish together with the world, when there were yet so many flagons to drain and so many lips to kiss, and when they could yet rejoice so vigorously in both love and wine.ix Of all this in the fin-de-siècle feeling there is nothing. Neither has it anything in common with the impressive twilight-melancholy of an aged Faust, surveying the work of a lifetime, and who, proud of what has been achieved, and contemplating what is begun but not completed, is seized with vehement desire to finish his workx, and, awakened from sleep by haunting unrest, leaps up with the cry: 'Was ich gedacht, ich eil' es zu vollbringen.'
Quite otherwise is the fin-de-siècle mood. It is the impotent despair of a sick man, who feels himself dying by inches in the midst of an eternally living nature blooming insolently for ever. It is the envy of a rich, hoary voluptuary, who sees a pair of young lovers making for a sequestered forest nookxi; it is the mortification of the exhausted and impotent refugee from a Florentine plague, seeking in an enchanted garden the experiences of a Decamerone, but striving in vain to snatch one more pleasure of sense from the uncertain hour. The reader of Turgenieff's A Nest of Nobles will remember the end of that beautiful work. The hero, Lavretzky, comes as a man advanced in years to visit at the house where, in his young days, he had lived his romance of love. All is unchanged. The garden is fragrant with flowers. In the great trees the happy birds are chirping; on the fresh turf the children romp and shout. Lavretzky alone has grown old, and contemplates, in mournful exclusion, a scene where nature holds on its joyous way, caring nought that Lisa the beloved is vanished, and Lavretzky, a broken-down man, weary of life. Lavretzky's admission that, amidst all this ever-young, ever-blooming nature, for him alone there comes no morrow; Alving's dying cry for 'The sun -- the sun!' in Ibsen's Ghosts -- these express rightly the fin-de-siècle attitude of to-day.
This fashionable term has the necessary vagueness which fits it to convey all the half-conscious and indistinct drift of current ideas. Just as the words 'freedom,' 'ideal,' 'progress' seem to express notions, but actually are only soundsxii, so in itself fin-de-siècle means nothing, and receives a varying signification according to the diverse mental horizons of those who use it.
The surest way of knowing what fin-de-siècle implies, is to consider a series of particular instances where the word has been applied. Those which I shall adduce are drawn from French books and periodicals of the last two years.
A king abdicates, leaves his country, and takes up his residence in Paris, having reserved certain political rights. One day he loses much money at play, and is in a dilemma. He therefore makes an agreement with the Government of his country, by which, on receipt of a million francs, he renounces for ever every title, official position and privilege remaining to him. Fin-de-siècle king.
A bishop is prosecuted for insulting the minister of public worship. The proceedings terminated, his attendant canons distribute amongst the reporters in court a defence, copies of which he has prepared beforehand. When condemned to pay a fine, he gets up a public collection, which brings in tenfold the amount of the penalty. He publishes a justificatory volume containing all the expressions of support which have reached him. He makes a tour through the country, exhibits himself in every cathedral to the mob curious to see the celebrity of the hour, and takes the opportunity of sending round the plate. Fin-de-siècle bishop.
The corpse of the murderer Pranzini after execution underwent autopsy. The head of the secret police cuts off a large piece of skin, has it tanned, and the leather made into cigar-cases and card-cases for himself and some of his friends. Fin-de-siècle official.
An American weds his bride in a gas-factory, then gets with her into a balloon held in readiness, and enters on a honeymoon in the clouds. Fin-de-siècle wedding.xiii
An attaché of the Chinese Embassy publishes high-class works in French under his own name. He negotiates with banks respecting a large loan for his Government, and draws large advances for himself on the unfinished contract. Later it comes out that the books were composed by his French secretary, and that he has swindled the banks. Fin-de-siècle diplomatist.
A public schoolboy walking with a chum passes the gaol where his father, a rich banker, has repeatedly been imprisoned for fraudulent bankruptcy, embezzlement and similar lucrative misdemeanours. Pointing to the building, he tells his friend with a smile: 'Look, that's the governor's school.' Fin-de-siècle son.
Two young ladies of good family, and school friends, are chatting together. One heaves a sigh. 'What's the matter?' asks the other. 'I'm in love with Raoul, and he with me.' 'Oh, that's lovely! He's handsome, young, elegant; and yet you're sad?' 'Yes, but he has nothing, and is nothing, and my parents want me to marry the baron, who is fat, bald, and ugly, but has a huge lot of money.' 'Well, marry the baron without any fuss, and make Raoul acquainted with him, you goose.' Fin-de-siècle girls.
Such test-cases show how the word is understood in the land of its birth. Germans who ape Paris fashions, and apply fin-de-siècle almost exclusively to mean what is indecent and improper, misuse the word in their coarse ignorance as much as, in a previous generation, they vulgarized the expression demi-monde, misunderstanding its proper meaning, and giving it the sense of fille de joiexiv, whereas its creator Dumas intended it to denote persons whose lives contained some dark period, for which they were excluded from the circle to which they belong by birth, education, or profession, but who do not by their manner betray, at least to the inexperienced, that they are no longer acknowledged as members of their own caste.xv
Prima facie, a king who sells his sovereign rights for a big chequexvi seems to have little in common with a newly-wedded pair who make their wedding-trip in a balloon, nor is the connection at once obvious between an episcopal Barnum and a well-brought-up young lady who advises her friend to a wealthy marriage mitigated by a cicisbeo. All these fin-de-siècle cases have, nevertheless, a common feature, to wit, a contempt for traditional views of custom and morality.xvii
Such is the notion underlying the word fin-de-siècle. It means a practical emancipation from traditional discipline, which theoretically is still in force. To the voluptuary this means unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of the beast in man; to the withered heart of the egoist, disdain of all consideration for his fellow-men, the trampling under foot of all barriers which enclose brutal greed of lucre and lust of pleasure; to the contemner of the world it means the shameless ascendency of base impulses and motives, which were, if not virtuously suppressed, at least hypocritically hidden; to the believer it means the repudiation of dogma, the negation of a supersensuous world, the descent into flat phenomenalism; to the sensitive nature yearning for æsthetic thrills, it means the vanishing of ideals in art, and no more power in its accepted forms to arouse emotion. And to all, it means the end of an established order, which for thousands of years has satisfied logic, fettered depravity, and in every art matured something of beauty.xviii
One epoch of history is unmistakably in its decline, and another is announcing its approach. There is a sound of rending in every tradition, and it is as though the morrow would not link itself with to-day. Things as they are totter and plunge, and they are suffered to reel and fall, because man is weary, and there is no faith that it is worth an effort to uphold them.xix Views that have hitherto governed minds are dead or driven hence like disenthroned kings, and for their inheritance they that hold the titles and they that would usurp are locked in struggle. Meanwhile interregnum in all its terrors prevails; there is confusion among the powers that be; the million, robbed of its leaders, knows not where to turn; the strong work their will; false prophets arise, and dominion is divided amongst those whose rod is the heavier because their time is short. Men look with longing for whatever new things are at hand, without presage whence they will come or what they will be. They have hope that in the chaos of thought, art may yield revelations of the order that is to follow on this tangled web. The poet, the musician, is to announce, or divine, or at least suggest in what forms civilization will further be evolved. What shall be considered good to-morrow -- what shall be beautiful? What shall we know to-morrow -- what believe in? What shall inspire us? How shall we enjoy? So rings the question from the thousand voices of the people, and where a market-vendor sets up his booth and claims to give an answer, where a fool or a knave suddenly begins to prophesy in verse or prose, in sound or colour, or professes to practise his art otherwise than his predecessors and competitors, there gathers a great concourse, crowding around him to seek in what he has wrought, as in oracles of the Pythia, some meaning to be divined and interpreted. And the more vague and insignificant they are, the more they seem to convey of the future to the poor gaping souls gasping for revelations, and the more greedily and passionately are they expounded.xx
Such is the spectacle presented by the doings of men in the reddened light of the Dusk of the Nations. Massed in the sky the clouds are aflame in the weirdly beautiful glow which was observed for the space of years after the eruption of Krakatoa. Over the earth the shadows creep with deepening gloom, wrapping all objects in a mysterious dimness, in which all certainty is destroyed and any guess seems plausible. Forms lose their outlines, and are dissolved in floating mist. The day is over, the night draws on. The old anxiously watch its approach, fearing they will not live to see the end. A few amongst the young and strong are conscious of the vigour of life in all their veins and nerves, and rejoice in the coming sunrise. Dreams, which fill up the hours of darkness till the breaking of the new day, bring to the former comfortless memories, to the latter high-souled hopes. And in the artistic products of the age we see the form in which these dreams become sensible.
Here is the place to forestall a possible misunderstanding. The great majority of the middle and lower classes is naturally not fin-de-siècle. It is true that the spirit of the times is stirring the nations down to their lowest depths, and awaking even in the most inchoate and rudimentary human being a wondrous feeling of stir and upheaval. But this more or less slight touch of moral sea-sickness does not excite in him the cravings of travailing women, nor express itself in new æsthetic needs. The Philistine or the Proletarian still finds undiluted satisfaction in the old and oldest forms of art and poetry, if he knows himself unwatched by the scornful eye of the votary of fashion, and is free to yield to his own inclinations. He prefers Ohnetxxi's novels to all the symbolists, and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana to all Wagnerians and to Wagner himself; he enjoys himself royally over slap-dash farces and music-hall melodies, and yawns or is angered at Ibsenxxii; he contemplates gladly chromos of paintings depicting Munich beer-houses and rustic tavernsxxiii, and passes the open-air painters without a glance. It is only a very small minority who honestly find pleasure in the new tendencies, and announce them with genuine conviction as that which alone is sound, a sure guide for the future, a pledge of pleasure and of moral benefit.xxiv But this minority has the gift of covering the whole visible surface of society, as a little oil extends over a large area of the surface of the sea. It consists chiefly of rich educated people, or of fanatics. The former give the ton to all the snobs, the fools, and the blockheads; the latter make an impression upon the weak and dependent, and intimidate the nervous. All snobs affect to have the same taste as the select and exclusive minority, who pass by everything that once was considered beautiful with an air of the greatest contempt. And thus it appears as if the whole of civilized humanity were converted to the æsthetics of the Dusk of the Nations.
 This passage has been misunderstood. It has been taken to mean that all the French nation had degenerated, and their race was approaching its end. However, from the concluding paragraph of this chapter, it may be clearly seen that I had in my eye only the upper ten thousand. The peasant population, and a part of the working classes and the bourgeoisie, are sound. I assert only the decay of the rich inhabitants of great cities and the leading classes. It is they who have discovered fin-de-siècle, and it is to them also that fin-de-race applies.xxv
 'My thought I hasten to fulfil.'
 A four-act comedy, by H. Micard and F. de Jouvenot, named Fin-de-Siècle, which was played in Paris in 1890, hardly avails to determine the sense of the word as the French use it. The authors were concerned, not to depict a phase of the age or a psychological state, but only to give an attractive title to their piece.
 Traité des Dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l'Espèce humaine et des Causes qui produisent ces Variétés maladives. Par le Dr. B. A. Morel. Paris, 1857, p. 5.
 At the instigation of his mistress Ebergenyi, Count Chorinsky had poisoned his wife, previously an actress. The murderer was an epileptic, and a 'degenerate,' in the Morelian sense. His family summoned Morel from Normandy to Munich, for the purpose of proving to the jury, before whom the case (1868) was tried, that the accused was irresponsible. The latter was singularly indignant at this; and the Attorney-General also contradicted, in the most emphatic manner, the evidence of the French alienistxxvi, and supported himself by the approbation of the most prominent alienists in Munich. Chorinsky was pronounced guilty. Nevertheless, only a short time after his conviction, insanity developed itself in him, and a few months later he died, in the deepest mental darkness, thus justifying all the previous assertions of the French physician, who had, in the German tongue, demonstrated to a German jury the incompetence of his professional confrères in Munich.
 Morel, op. cit., p. 683.
 L'Uomo delinquente in rapporto all' Antropologia, Giurisprudenza e alle Discipline carcerarie. 3ª edizione. Torino, 1884, p. 147 et seq. See also Dr. Ch. Féré, 'La Famille nevropathique.' Paris, 1894, pp. 176-212.———
- Proof rather that it was cheap enough to substitute more adequate, accurate and genuine feeling and sensibility. The bulk of society doesn't watch TV in preference of talking to each other "because a need existed", but because it is easier, because it puts less draw on their lazy inadequacy. The only thing they need is whipping, sustained, and ideally in half or so of cases to death ; but what they prefer... now that's a different matter altogether. [↩]
- The trouble with attempting proof for items that need none is the ever-present (and too often realised) risk of producing something not quite on the level of what'd be required. If the (dying, or otherwise) stars allign nefariously enough, the attempter might find himself, like Nordau finds himself here, in the unenviable position of proposing paragons of silliness in proof of the supposed (and readily accepted) silliness of something else.
Yes, it's true that fresh new men are born at all times -- yet nevertheless each individual one is born at some individual moment, and therefore personally ages, degenerates, and dies. The siecle was born 1800, even though القرن might've been born in the 1880s or the מאה circa 1850. There'd be little consolation for a Joe, born 1800, that some Giuseppe, born 1850, or even Jose, born 1880, aren't nearly as old as him, nor nearly as dying. That's good enough for them, but he, Joe, is fucked -- and the siecle also, just as much. Just one, alone and solitary named chunk of time, lost yet distinct among so many starting and ending so arbitrarily yet indiferently to it -- it, it, the only one!
It'd seem self-evident that equating the name of Joe with "man" in the abstract, and then failing to notice that while "man" might arguably even be immortal, nevertheless Joe, the specific, named example of such a man is very much nothing like deathless... now that is silly! And silly quite in the manner of childhood's confusions of sign and significance, at that. Yes siecle means Jahrhundert (and vice-versa) ; yet neither are it, though they might mean it well enough, and so, unlike it, can (and do) very well die. For instance I call the thing century instead (specifically because the siecle died), and this century... it is quite as dieing! In the same way, for the same reasons (proof, as it happens, of the circumstance that the New World was and stayed a century or so behind its cultural capital). [↩]
- If this idea is quite so clumsy and quite so childish, the Ancients have some problems nobody knew about, because anthropomorphism was most definitely not invented in 1890s Paris. Perhaps the author intends to depict those early greats as savagely childish ; but the problem even then perdures, because all classical painting's suffused, soaked-through and entirely covered in concepts with tits (usually bare). Truly the font of exemplary offerings in this vein could never be stopped, metonymy itself being, at its heart, the very item here contemplated. So...
Not to say that there's no merit whatsoever in what Nordau's trying to (like a pregnant woman) bring to light ; but I (like a man, knowing nothing of the problems of wombs and their ripe fruit, nor interested in finding out) much prefer Xenophanes' formulation, of snub-nosed or red-haired gods, in no smart part because it's so much better applied : there where it indeed can find some purchase. [↩]
- An enviable state of affairs. These days it's more like 400k, regrettably enough, and not even half of those are offset by corresponding deaths. [↩]
- Well no, they ascribe it to the siecle, something they were very much within their right to do, seeing how it's their race that made the siecle be a thing in the first place, as opposed to a century or wharever else.
- Is that so!
And... don't tell me, let me guess... what happened was that China took over, a bunch of dubious, rowdy upstarts with a newfound industrial base built on cheap male lives and forcibly quieted female anxieties ? Only it was calling itself "America" back then. Did I guess right ? [↩]
- That's ok, the future holds chewing gum. [↩]
- I believe this to be such a naive reading as to verge on pious fraudulence. The pre-Cluny system was, in econnomic, demographic and socio-political reality quite as exhausted as exhaustion ever gets, and quite ready for some... upstarts/ing. Maybe you don't know about it, but yes there was a system in place, uniting over time the latifundia-based post-Rome senatorial withdrawal into the rural villas and the invention of the papacy (which no, did not exist pre-Gregory, whose invention it entirely is). [↩]
- I suspect he's confusing Rabelais' Black Death / Great Famine-era sentiments for the turn of the year 1000. Since we're on the topic : the reason life seemed quite so fresh, the stem of existence quite so juicy and the fruits it bore so appealing, at that juncture, was the dearth of people. Never was population so low, in relative terms, and therefore never was joy, that joie de vivre ever so great. There's a moral here, staring unabashed : the foremost social good is the killing of as many people as possible. It may not be the foremost personal good for the killed, sure ; but then again well over ninety percent of gang rape participants reportedly enjoy the experience. [↩]
- This is... perhaps not the only available reading. [↩]
- Imagine my surprise as that very same rich, hoary voluptuary, discovering in amazement that the young cunts are way too dumb to fuck anymore! For I was expecting for myself something quite along the lines of what he is describing, whereas in fact I find... strangely enough the exact opposite!
Perhaps it is my fate and my fate alone to live my life reversed ; but the birds humping treestumps, listlessly if painfully, and the bees trying (and failing, and, impervious to their failing, keep right on trying) to interact with flowers while wearing muzzles over their respirating pores, while I shake my head in amazement, the only one left knowing how to do everything (and each and every single anything)... that'd be rather the whole of my experience of this here end of days. Or shall we say the centuriend ? [↩]
- Or rather... [↩]
- Isn't this a great idea, though ? I mean, imagine the bitch fails to deliver -- the solution's quite elegant, to say nothing of readily available.
- Yet as a factual matter a demi-mondaine was a period escort -- a whore in all but streetwalking ; Dumas neither invented it nor owned it. Actually, who the fuck is he, anyway ? [↩]
- This being exactly what is meant by whore in the first place -- the woman dominating womanhood to the arrayed envy of lesser exemplars to such a degree they're reduced to collective action. [↩]
- This is exactly not what happened. What was sold was a claim, not a right. If the king had any rights, he wouldn't have been living in Paris. [↩]
- The notion that whoring around is somehow contemptuous to traditional views (of marriage, or anything else) is beyond laughable. It has been always customary in France to fuck around, without recorded exception at any point, going as far back as records are kept ; and there's very solid anthropological reasons for it, too. Moreover, what in ballooning is disrespectful of honeymoon customs that taking a train or a boat or a horse-drawn buggy isn't ? Should the honeymooners stay the fuck home, is the idea ?
This guy's as informed as he is subtle, a paragon of clueless bluntness. [↩]
- I will not step in to untangle this mixed bag. Let's just say that the brief century following the Frenchman's realisation that he's fucked, on a global scale, and his decision to follow that Corsican MC into the greatest party ever thrown, by that point or ever hence, ain't worth much mention. Certainly it doesn't breathe the millenium, let alone impudent plurals. At some point a thousand of years prior (more like nine hundred), a (very sovereign, though elected) emperor was taking barefoot walks in the snow for no apparent reason ; and at some other point seven or so centuries prior, a certain Charles was forbidding any obedience to a certain Urban. Fin de siecle king ? Which ? [↩]
- If they need "upholding", they're not worth the trouble. You don't "uphold" your own breathing, do you ? Maybe you do ; but for me, if I had to work my own liver, consciously... I'd just write out the will and call it good. [↩]
- For the self-obvious (if apparently unobserved) reason that the less concrete, and the less substantial, therefore the least likely to require anything of the spurious imbeciles whose unwelcome presence on this earth was the whole of the problem to begin with. No more is "sought" than some kind of future world wherein all the deficients piled up through so many endless years of culling neglect could still find themselves acceptable.
Two world wars seem quite an adequate outcome ; though by my taste the bodycount could well have been far greater. [↩]
- Inconsequential Dupin admirer, wrote a bunch of light and simple romantic nothings.
- Ainsi ce mariage n'a rien qui te contrarie ? reprit mademoiselle Moulinet, exprimant ainsi dans les plaies qu'elle avait faites son plus subtil venin. Comme tu me rends heureuse! Songe donc, quel rêve! Ta parente, ton égale, cette fois vraiment, et duchesse!
- Tout ce que tu mérites! dit Claire avec une ironie profonde.
- Laisse-moi t'embrasser! s'écria Athénais, se jetant sur Claire et la saisissant par le cou comme si elle eut voulu la mordre.
and so in this vein until Catniss falls over. [↩]
- Nobody was ever anything else at that dork, meanwhile deservedly resting perfectly forgotten. [↩]
- By which I fucking hope for god's sake he means tits. [↩]
- A small minority who, bereft of any skill or useful occupation, hope to make their living at it ; and venturing forth on that oldest and most stable of reasonings. [↩]
- Noa mai da-o-n pula. [↩]
- In the usage of the time, this word denotes a clinical psychiatrist, or in any case as close an approximation as can be furnished -- someone who studies and manages the insane. It derives from "mentally alienated", the period euphemism for someone sufficiently gone they can't function in society. [↩]