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Wednesday, October 30, 2013


Many thanks to all of you who have, from time to time, followed me on History In The News. History In the News must go to its last resting place as I can no longer afford the time to give you and this blog the time and effort which both deserve. Blogs, I recognize, are for day to day opinion and observation. My hell bent attempt to create a blog as a source for up to date reference on the history behind the news, without social comment, irony or gossip- never quite managed to fly with the zeitgeist. 

This last post, and all the rest, will remain online for reference.


Dedicated to the background of contemporary events around the world. 

Climbing Around in the Dark: Intimations of Decline Then and Now

Hugh Graham,
October 30, 2013

          Next year, we’ll be faced with the centenary of the First World War and a mass of sober reflection on the collapse of an old world and the birth of the modern age. Yet “the war to end all wars“ was not the millennial cataclysm it’s taken to be. The tide of irrevocable change came not with the bloodbath but with its causes in the enervated hell-bent years that preceded it, 1900-1914.

            Europe was at peace as well as being at its zenith in 1913: a time which nevertheless produced Ludwig Meidner`s prescient urban apocalypses painted, in quick succession during a Berlin heat wave in 1913:  agonized, distorted cities under attack from the sky, bombs bursting with a carnival air of the macabre, altogether an unreal reality. Unreal because the works shook with a violence seen eerily –and mistakenly- to foreshadow World War One; real because they anticipated  the even more horrible, urban, aerial bombardment of  World War Two. It is not too much to say that the direct outgrowth of the uneasy, restless, neurasthenic peace of 1900-1913 was Hiroshima. 1914 was only a first eruption. The early 2000’s, the period which is now ending, recalls a far more important centenary: the eve of 1914. The early 1900s were witness to the West triumphant, much like the time in which we now live. 1900-1913  bore the seeds of catastrophe. And, like our own time, it was a time of malaise.

            A century later, there is talk of the mood of America and the West. The market crash of 2008, the recession and the current breakdown of government in Washington have ignited a lot of speculation about American decline, quickly extending to foreign policy failures and finally to diminishing vitality and purpose. The more subliminal tremors are not that different from those that rankled Great Britain in 1900 while she strove all the harder to assert her supremacy. It was the bard of imperialism, Kipling, of all people, who demanded humility and sobriety in his poem Recesssional:

Far-called our navies melt away—
On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!


      The term “Zenith,” applied to a nation or a civilization cannot be anything but tragic. Literally speaking, the word refers to the high point of the sun at noon, before it falls. When we talk of a zenith, even metaphorically, like reaching the summit of a mountain, we talk of incipient descent.

          No person, institution or state can attain a sense of arrival without some amount of unease; even a sense of failure at the moment of victory. That is the human condition.  America found itself at its zenith after the fall of the Soviet Union. Most would argue that it is still there, even in the wake of 9/11. But that does not make America immune from the ailments of success. The nation is plagued by doubts arising from internal disunity, a precarious economy, lingering wars. The West, meanwhile, finds itself helpless to influence the series of populist uprisings called The Arab Spring.  Powers which once led the world, look on, baffled. We can call it malaise. Jung, on the eve of his own personal crisis, a period of descent during his break with Freud, wrote in 1912, in Symbols of Transformation: “In the morning of life, the son tears himself loose from the mother, from the domestic hearth, to rise through battle to his destined heights. Always he imagines his worst enemy in front of him, yet he carries his enemy within himself- a deadly longing for the abyss, a longing to drown in his own source, to be sucked down into the realm of the Mothers.”

            The intention here isn’t to make dire predictions but to reflect on the meaning of malaise and of the talk of decline which fills the air now as it did in a century ago, before 1914. That fatal decade goes by various and innocuous names: the Edwardian Period, the Long Summer, the Progressive Era, the Cubist Decade. In his recent book on the period, Philipp Blom has named it the Vertigo Years. If we have no single name for it, perhaps it is because the premonitions were nebulous. Quite apart from the doomed power politics, we read of symptoms like “exhaustion,” “neurasthenia,”  “hubris,” “over-ripeness.” In his novel Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann speaks of  “The fate that for so long had brooded over Europe....”
        Malaise never arrives during times of cataclysm, emergency or struggle. It always comes when things are all right, or barely all right, perhaps “not quite as good as we thought,” for example during a recovery or with awareness of terrorism or a decaying natural environment; but most commonly in successful societies. “Advanced civilization,” writes the philosopher Ortega y Gasset,  “is one and the same thing as arduous problems. Hence, the greater the progress, the greater the danger it is in. Life gradually gets better, but evidently also gradually more complicated. ” 

        The hazards of success seem at first morbid if spectral. Baden Powell, the Boer War hero of the siege of Mafeking in 1899-1900,  when Britain was at her zenith, thought the British, like ancient Rome, were being eaten from within by “a moral virus.”  In his introduction to The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad described London: “the devourer of the world’s light. There was room enough to place any story...darkness enough to bury five millions of lives.” In his Heart of Darkness (1899), the River Thames, at the centre of the Empire would, metaphorically, serve as the mouth of the Congo River and the route backward into the primeval depravity of  Empire and civilization: “A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, the greatest, town on earth.”  In the same novel, Conrad whispers of the European hubris embodied in Kurtz: “This initiated wraith from the back of Nowhere honoured me with its amazing confidence before it vanished altogether...All Europe contributed to the making of Kurtz.”  In The Problem of Our Laws, Kafka shares this sense of uneasy premonition during the collapse of the Austro Hungarian Empire and the eve of something far worse: “The law gives people a false, deceptive and overconfident security in coming events.”

             Premonitions like these have routinely called up shades of the Roman Empire. The clich├ęs of the old historical analogy notwithstanding, the Antonine period and particularly its conclusion with the reign of Marcus Aurelius, (generally thought to be the zenith of the Roman Empire), does bear an interesting relation to the United States under President Obama, not least the intellectual bent and careworn, sober reserve of both leaders in the midst of imperiums grown too large to manage. But symptoms of malaise are always diaphanous and shifting and often best seen not in the usual facts but in art which might even be described as the fever blister of the times. And so it is that the bas reliefs on the Column of Marcus Aurelius, erected to celebrate his military victories at the apex of the Empire, have themselves been seen as a symptom of incipient decline. The historian Bamford Parkes reads into it a feeling of conscious self-congratulation, the figures stylized, stiff, the Emperor himself outsized in response to the growing emperor cult and concludes that  “art was beginning to move from naturalism to expressionism,” much like a similar if more positive transformation of art in 1900-1914.

        During all of these high periods, something is out of joint: as Pope Gregory the Great reflects on Rome at its zenith: “There was long life and health, material prosperity, growth of population and the tranquillity of daily peace, yet while the world was still flourishing in itself, in their hearts it had already withered.”  In that period, the satirist was king, much like the stand-up comic in our own time. Lucian, the good but not great literary star of the Aurelian period, constructs little while demolishing everything with blows well-aimed, particularly as the famous and successful. Thus Hermes and Charon discuss the great athlete Milon and the question of death:
“Hermes: When he’s at his height? How could he give any thought to death?
Charon: Let him be. Pretty soon he’ll hand us a big laugh when he gets on board the skiff and isn’t able to lift a gnat, to say nothing of a bull...”
And of the wealthy and powerful: “Charon: ...let them raise themselves to the heights; the higher they go, the harder they’ll fall. What a laugh I’ll get when I see them aboard the skiff, stark naked, without purple rule or crown or golden couch.”
        Malaise doesn’t come quickly; it is attenuated, it has the feeling of bad luck, a series of disconnected harbingers: and so we have, during the time of Aurelius, a decline in belief in the Olympian Gods and problems of identity compounded by plagues, earthquakes and the bugbear of nascent Christianity. It is not hard to see environmental destruction, Hurricane Katrina, the Gulf oil spill, the curse of tornadoes, Islamist terror and even the Japanese sunami in a similar light. Bad luck, perhaps, yet you can’t help but sense the plea: Why now?

      There is, of course, a deeper, more objective problem. The “end of history” once declared by Francis Fukuyama  upon the fall of Communism, did not unfold. Resurgent post-colonial wars, rattling Western dominance emerged in its place. With the purpose and heroism of the Cold War behind it and some sort of reckoning with China still ahead, America, perhaps indeed the entire West, feels adrift in a historical doldrums.  The 19th century too, culminates in anticlimax. We feel it even in Russia with the attenuated weariness that suffuses the plays of Chekhov: In The Cherry Orchard (1900), Vershinin moans: “Mankind used to spend all its energy making war. Life was just one campaign, one invasion after the next. That’s all over now, but it’s left behind a tremendous void, and so far nothing’s come along to fill it.” The Georgian idyll, a brief flare of false optimism and nostalgia which began with George V’s ascent to the British throne in 1910, is now seen as a fool’s paradise. In 1910-1911, TS Eliot, young and scarcely known, is in Paris, writing poems haunted with hesitation, their atmosphere oneiric, almost narcotic. He is only in his early twenties and something elegiac lurks in the tone.  In Portrait of a Lady, only death overcomes hesitation. In Prufrock and elsewhere he speaks as some one prematurely old, full of high sentence, a bit of obtuse,” occasionally imagining himself, it seems, as an elder statesman of uncertain future in an outworn era.


       In The Revolt of the Masses Ortega y Gasset writes of the period that ”Life today is the fruit of an interregnum, of an empty space between organizations of  historical rule- that which was, that which is to be. For this reason it is essentially provisional...” Then as now, the great powers were in the dark. In The Vertigo Years, Blom suggests that the period “had much in common with our own day,  not least their openness: in 1910 and even in 1914, nobody felt confident of the shape the future world would have, of who would wield power, what political constellation would be victorious, or what kind of society would emerge from headlong transformation.”  The mood of false calm is powerfully conveyed in Heart of Darkness when Conrad writes of mundane duties aboard a steamboat: “When you have to attend to things of that sort, to the mere incident of the surface, the reality- the reality, I tell you- fades. The inner truth is hidden- luckily, luckily. But I felt it all the same; I felt often its mysterious stillness watching me at my monkey tricks...”

       Rome, in the period of Aurelius has grown tired of her old Gods yet is unable to accept the inner truths of the new ones that beckon, perhaps threaten from a heart of darkness beyond her borders. By 1900, traditional religion in Europe and especially in France has likewise begun to lose its force. Secularism, even a sort of paganism looms. Art leaps to fill the gap. At the great Paris Exposition of that year, Rodin’s disturbing, monumental sculpture, The Gates of Hell stands precisely between belief and unbelief. Bodies erupt from the panels and armature, a man falls from the cornice, Icarus from his zenith. The surfaces are black and only roughly finished, in defiance of classical perfection The doors, classical and monumental with lintel and cornice, are the scene of writhing, naked figures, entwined and  passionate, having deserted allegory and other rules for the classical nude in favour of a godless and frank modernity, stranding the entire production in a void without god, yet with remnants of the sacred.. In six years Proust would begin Remembrance of Things Past, the attenuated novel which rests on the same threshold: between altar and aristocracy and the solvent of modernity.

        But to say that the period faced uncertainty, a wilderness, is not entirely true. Those of greater detachment, meaning those who were not infatuated with science, money or nationalism, felt the zenith passing and something wrong. In the first part of the Book of Hours (1900) the poet Rilke writes, “I am living just as the century departs.”  Two years later, words from his Book of Images will spark recognition from readers for whom there is something suspect in the period’s exhausting and noisy optimism:
“Death is great,
and we are his
When we laugh in delight.
When we reckon life at its height
Death dares to weep
In us deep inside”

The young German poet protests a secularizing age with religious mysticism; an age of forgetful progress with history, an age of hectic and shallow affirmation with gentle but persistent words of death.  In this, he is crossing the same no man’s land as Rodin whom he would, in fact, get to know. The Austrian novelist, Hugh Von Hoffmasthal  feels the same presentiment when he writes: “Yet he says much who whispers ‘evening,’ a word from which grave thought and sadness flow.” And Eliot. again, must feel the passing as he concludes Portrait of a Lady:
“This music is successful with a ‘dying fall’
Now that we talk of dying-
And should I have the right to smile?”



       Europe’s and America’s late 19th century urban revolution was bound to disappoint its promise. The new city, after all, counted on the atomization of the individual in order to remake traditional rural society into industrial society. Individualism was, quite literally, the solvent for reshaping populations. This was the time when the German sociologist Tonnies makes an epochal distinction between Geselleschaft, or the older traditional community which transcends its membership, and Gemeinschaft, or civil society, in which the individual is paramount, whether as solitary wage worker out for himself, industrialist, typist, or artist. After gains in freedom, loneliness and insecurity are not far behind; the new world is hard-edged and turns a cold eye on Victorian sentimentality. Whatever warm domesticity hangs on in the fine arts has drained out of them by 1900. Edvard Munch, who in 1889 had written “I’ve had enough of ‘interiors’ and ‘people reading’ and ‘women knitting.’ I want to paint real live people who breathe, feel, suffer and live...” paints people in terrible isolation in his The Dance of Life (1899-1900), three self-involved couples and an isolated onlooker pervaded by a grimy wash, as if something were dying.  Like art, the movements of liberation, feminist, anarchist or nationalist reject tender heartedness for tough mindedness. Heeding, if not leading the call, business is ruthless.

      By 1900, the new, atomized individual, on the shop floor or on the board of directors is made to count on self-reliance; in art, the same individual withdraws into a highly personal subjectivism. With the recession of religion, tradition and community, many of the newly middle class lose their bearings. Some are stranded with residual, multiple identities, especially in places like the polyglot Austro-Hungarian Empire and its aftermath. The exemplar is Kafka, too Jewish to be Czech, too secular to be Jewish, too Czech to be German, too German to be Czech. In a sense he is, and believes himself to be nobody, an atom. It’s not surprising that so many of his characters are ciphers or that his novels and stories have such a strong sense of introversion. The dark side of today’s multiculturalism is not so different if we think of deracinated second generation Muslims in the West.; or, for that matter, niche tribalism of youth culture. The warning of Ortega y Gasset couldn’t be better phrased: “Barbarism is the tendency to dissociation. Accordingly, all barbarous epochs have been times of human scattering, of the pullulation of tiny groups, separate from and hostile to one another.”

         Paradoxically perhaps, a healthy individualism is the only defence.  “The individual life is the ultimate reality,” writes Ortega y Gasset,  and “Every life is a view point on the universe.” An heir to the perspectivism of Nietzsche, he is wary of mass movements. Likewise, art takes individual isolation at its word and asserts itself against society.  In the same period, the expressionist Franz Jung writes of  “the impulse to place the individual ego at the centre of things against all influences from within and without, a defence mechanism and counter-attack against the status quo in society.” And it hasn’t stopped. The micro-individualism of today was born in the age when Conrad’s Marlowe made himself the subject as he reflected on Kurtz and Europe. The critic Monique Laurent tells us that the Gates of Hell was inspired by Rodin’s own “pent up emotional conflicts,” Rodin himself being “pessimistic and secretive.” Rodin, she continues, quoting Sigmar Hugueburre,  “projected his own anxieties into a huge dustbin where all the coinage of human suffering is gathered.”  The present age, when individual rights are held to be more important than obligations, whether among taxpayers of the right or activists of the left, actually begins around 1900. It was Rodin himself, sculptor of the intoxicated, self-absorbed figures on the Gates of Hell, of who wrote, “Humanity had no sooner raised itself from the primeval slime than it gave in, unprotesting, to the tyranny of the Self...the disconnectedness of modern life.” Before the end of World War I, Ortega Y Gasset felt there was not “a single group whose attitude to life is not limited to believing that it has all the rights and none of the obligations. It is indifferent whether it disguises itself as reactionary or revolutionary...” 

           For the perceptive, however, lonely egoism can lead to revelation. One senses in Eliot and in Rodin, in the entrapped characters of Kafka, in Conrad’s Marlowe, an element of solipsism; the world which appals or resists them is internalized. Hero and enemy vie within and the result is a sort of high, moral impotence. In Kafka’s parable Before the Law, the appellant is made to wait forever and in futility by the doorkeeper of a legal system which implies that authority is an enigma, a hall of mirrors, made solely for the appellant himself. In the absence of god or intelligible authority there is nothing left but the self and the entire system may as well by a solipsism in the single mind.  In My Destination, the point is brought  home: the master asks the servant to provision him for a long trip “away from here” which will always mean “away from myself.” It is the personal response to an impersonal world.

           Desperate visions like these are provoked by the disruptions of modernity, the reshaping of cities and lives. Of the strangeness, the splendour, the unhappiness, art becomes the register. In the words of the historian William McNeill, “such fragmentation of familiarity and ordered experience, resulting in an arbitrary, often incongruous juxtaposition of parts, was exactly what happened in the lives of millions of men during and after World War I. It therefore seems as though a few unusually sensitive spirits had sensed in advance the impending breakup.......” 

           The painters who sensed it most acutely and vividly were the Expressionists. The primitive “expressionism” which, according to Parkes, betrayed itself 1,800 years before in the Column of Marcus Aurelius was, by contrast, involuntary, its larger than life Emperor and outsized military cordons and masses of prisoners crowding the frames, sacrificing context to exaggeration and action; and to this extent it shares a forceful, unapologetic subjectivity with the more conscious and critical 20th century Expressionism of Germany. The bronze column, however, is a symptom of decline while the Expressionists identified impending collapse in the hectic progress they saw around them. Meidner’s pictures are, perhaps, the most typical, their commonplace cityscapes charged with a terrible anxiety in which cartoon and realism are merged and what might have been childish becomes satirical and demonic. These artists had repudiated the tame, analytical naturalism of the Impressionists in favour of emotion, very often alarm while seizing from the Symbolists the revelation of inner meaning in the outwardly ordinary. From the viewer they demanded not contemplation but affect. Here was art that was meant to set off warnings. Stravinsky would have expected nothing less from his 1911 ballet Petrouchka, the story of a half-human carnival puppet kept prisoner by its manager, a libretto launched into action by a score which was itself jarringly Expressionist.

              The Expressionists traced a lineage that passed from the furious inner vision of Van Gogh through the anguish of Edvard Munch to the strident and violent  primary colours of  Matisse and the Fauves, their work appearing simultaneously in several countries, suggesting not the voice of any one school but a mood and a reaction in the continent itself. Meidner himself trained at Breslau and Berlin before going  to Paris where he knew Modigliani. But the movement’s elixir was to be found in Germany itself with three schools, Meidner’s The Silent Ones, Kirchner’s  Der Brucke, Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter, and the Vienna School of Oskar Kokoshcka.
       Among other things, these painters balked at the “Iron Cage”- the inescapable modern labyrinth governed by market, profit and punch clock. The term was coined by the great sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920). Though the phenomenon isn’t as rigid today as it was then, it shares one thing with the digital round-the clock Blackberry-assisted work ethic and disposable service jobs, and that is insecurity, the speed of change and the compulsion to produce. In the years before the First War the Iron Cage was demoralizing. If it is not so today, it’s every bit as much a system and certainly as unnatural and out of step with day to day rhythms. When Ortega Y Gasset warned that “society begins to be enslaved, to be unable to live except in the service of the state,” he is talking about any closed system in which means begin to overtake the ends for which they were made. That is no less true today than it was a century ago or in the increasingly militarized and bureaucratized empire of Marcus Aurelius. It is extraordinary, in that outwardly peaceful epoch of 1900-1914, how often entrapment appears as the theme in art, whether for Petrouchka under in thrall of his manager, for Munch’s besieged figure in the The Screamr , Conrad’s Kurtz, or the crushing cityscapes of the Expressionists.

         The Iron Cage, of course, is the terrain of Kafka who Brecht saw as something of a prophet: “...the future instability of the law, the future absolutism of the state apparat, the paralysed, inadequately motivated, floundering lives of the many individual people; everything appeared as if in a nightmare and with the confusion and inadequacy of a nightmare...” In Kafka’s world, all authority is arbitrary and all law the possession of that authority, therefore the law is arbitrary: as he puts it in The Problem of Our Laws, “ can express the problem only in a sort of paradox...Any party that would repudiate not only belief in the law but the nobility as well, would have the whole people behind it, yet no such party would come into existence, for nobody would dare repudiate the nobility. We live on this razor’s edge.”  In the parable The Judgement, a young businessman heading an inherited family business cares for his aged and helpless father, only to discover that the old man is in complete control of every detail of his, the son’s own life.  This is the deviousness of the Iron Cage whether it be the Austro Hungarian Empire on its last legs, Soviet Russia or Western transnational capitalism. It is not surprising that in 1914, nationalism and the outbreak of war held the illusion of freedom and release for so many ordinary people.

      Worst of all, the Iron Cage has no architect. That is why the demonstrations at the World Economic summits are so amorphous and diffuse. It’s also why Europe was shaken by a hundred sputtering revolutions in 1919, the formless mass of ordinary people turning against an old order which was just as shapeless and without a centre. The Iron cage or merely the society in which people live, no matter who profits from it or runs it is, in effect, filled with cumulative unintended consequences.  Rome after Aurelius and Europe before the First War were massive, unmanageable facts; not unlike the fragile state of  today’s world economy, massive unemployment, the rise of China and the unforeseen appearance of popular revolution in the Middle East. Then as now, none of it was expected. By 1900 Britain, mistress of the world’s largest empire was suddenly faced with being only one of several competing European states when she had only recently been Europe’s master. With little warning, she faced the behemoths of Germany and the United States just as an astonished United States now faces China. The dilemmas which today’s America holds  in common with Britain on the verge of decline in 1900-1914 would seem more than coincidence or clever analogy. Free trade, or liberal laissez faire as it was then known, did not produce the anticipated boom in wealth and productivity for Britain after 1900 and it hasn’t done so today for the United States. In all of these unexpected turns there’s a sense of non-recognition: “This can’t be the world I live in.” In the work of Arnold Schoenberg the unstructured, the alarming and unfamiliar rises out of his Opus 11, No. 1, an experimental work rejected by the public for being “atonal” because it had no key while Schonberg responded with defiance that it was “pantonal”: everything happening at once.  


         Britain could not hear, much less listen. The English were behind. When, in 1910, the Bloomsbury group put on a London exhibition of Post-Impressionists like Van Gogh, Cezanne and Gaugin  suggesting it was tonic for a dying, desiccated world, the public was baffled and outraged.  If England was still politically powerful, it lagged psychologically. The sense that the past was no longer beneath Europe’s feet was felt more strongly on the continent, especially in Germany. In the words of the Cambridge historian, Jay Winter, "Most of German society as it was in the early 19th Century had vanished by 1900. The pace of urbanization was huge. Berlin was a provincial backwater in 1860. By 1910 it was one of the great metropolitan centers of the world,”  In Rilke’s novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Malte’s family is surprised to discover old friends living in one wing of their fire-gutted mansion: “Georg had completely forgotten that the house wasn’t there, and for all it was there at that moment. We walked up the front steps that led to the old terrace, and were amazed to find it so dark...My father laughed: “We are climbing around like ghosts,” and he helped us back down the stairs...'But there was a house just now,' Maman said...” 

        The vanishing acts continue. In the twenty-first century, the house of the twentieth century is gone; nothing is clearly there at the top of the steps. There is no continuity. In the darkness we mistake one thing for another. In politics, ad hominem slander is taken for rebuttal. In life, laxity is taken for liberty. In the media, slander and libel masquerade as free speech. The quick and shallow is taken for the concise. Incivility is understood as informality. Anonymity passes for equality. The vulgar is mistaken for the democratic. Egalitarianism is confused with the lowest common denominator. When a society has entered a swamp of banality and drift without any idea how it got there, it is, often as not, a sign of decline.

        In the opening years of the twentieth century, the ruling orders of a new, brassy and triumphalist Germany reached unimagined heights in loud, upper class, jingoist, militarist vulgarity. Even the huge, Social Democratic workers’ revolutionary movement was hypnotized by the new Germany. By instinct, expressionists hit the opposite note. They sought the depraved, the impoverished and the hidden. It was Nietzsche, in the words of Barbara Tuchman, who had “unleashed the German unconscious,” the best and the worst of it. The best emerged in the arts which showed an ordinary Germany of poverty, anxiety and violence, the dark side of the new obsession with power and speed; above all a rejection of the sentimental domesticity that was supposed to support the Reich. In the words of Marcuse: “Expressionism attracted me- by its negation of tables and chairs and all that stuff, by its liberation of vision (from) what is only obscured by all the rubbish, large and small.” The fatigue with industrialism comes through even in Heart of Darkness: -“I was helping the engine-driver to take to pieces the leaky cylinders, to straighten a bent connecting rod, and in other such matters I lived in an infernal mess of rust, filings, nuts, bolts, spanners, hammers, ratchet drills...I toiled wearily in a wretched scrap-heap...” Above all, in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, an ordinary family blandly if reluctantly accepts that their son has become a giant bug while the son, with all his waving legs makes every attempt to dress and go to work- much indeed as ordinary Germans and Austrians stood by as grotesquely over-powerful military machines took them toward a reasonless war. 

      The fact was that Europe, since the Enlightement of the 18th century, had been “disenchanted,” to use Weber’s phrase, The spirit world of religion had retreated, much as it had withdrawn in Aurelian Rome, while the clamour of nationalism made a poor replacement. Much as Romans sought sensation in strange, eastern rites, so the west found it in Madame Blavatsky, Theosophy and the occult. Some felt the sad gaze of the old gods and history as did Hardy in Channel Firing (1914):
“Again the guns disturbed the hour,
Roaring their readiness to avenge, as far inland as Stourton Towner,
And Camelot and starlit Stonehenge.”
              In Prague, meanwhile, speculators and bureaucrats conspired to destroy entire sections of the old city and replace them with the monotonous row housing “which brought the epoch of hustle and bustle and threw away the heritage of the past without creating a style and expression of its own.”  Perhaps the elites, who had more faith in science than they did in religion or values, did not feel the emptiness any more than do the strident materialists of today.

       Kafka knew that void. It was the motive force behind his writing. He rejected, as one critic puts it, “the irreligious humanism that lies at the basis of Freud’s psychoanalysis.
He completely and resolutely despaired of Freud’s rationalistic faith in the curative power of scientific knowledge.”  In Kafka, the disappearance of an old, metaphysical order left a hostile cosmos in which anything could happen, a place inhabited by, in the words of Walter Benjamin, “the modern citizen who knows that he is at the mercy of a vast machinery of officialdom whose functioning is directed by authorities that remain nebulous to the executive organs, let alone to the people they deal with.” Indeed, the secularized Kafka had briefly sought escape into Zionism before considering refuge in the old Eastern Jewish diaspora; finding neither sufficient he determined to face the absurdity of the bleak and the modern simply by writing.

         A similar problem faced Rodin, though the solution was different. Where Kafka despaired, Rodin hung on to a metaphysics without God. The Gates of Hell partook in the extremes of France’s Catholic Revival, which had, since the mid-century, attempted to salvage the drama of sin, damnation and salvation but without piety and without a present or loving god. Lest the bland entropy of commerce and materialism abolish any metaphysical dimension altogether, artists like Baudelaire saw the need for an awareness of the razor’s edge between a receding God,  the delights of sin and the ironic exaltation of Satan if only to provide urgency and drama to morality, rather than submit to an age of bland moral indifference.

       The Gates of Hell was commissioned on August 16, 1880. The fact that Rodin continued to work on it up to and beyond 1900 suggests his full participation in the growing thirty year crisis until oeuvre and artist were themselves recognized as Expressionist. What is significant is that he   began with Dante.  By 1880, the Inferno had become the preferred  book of the  Commedia for artists and writers increasingly concerned with materialism and amorality. Though Rodin’s sketches for The Gates of Hell began by illustrating the Inferno, he ended by dropping most of Dante but  using his suffering damned as a point of departure, in a sense discarding the incense of heaven while  retaining the incense of hell. “From Dante he came to Baudelaire,” wrote Rilke, who became his secretary, “…In the poet’s writing there are passages which appear to have been sculpted rather than written…He recognized Baudelaire as his artistic predecessor…in the search for characters who were larger than life, crueller, more fevered.”    A world alive with sin but without a god and a holy libertinism acutely conscious of danger  and evil had been the themes of Baudelaire’s mid-century volume of poetry, The Flowers of Evil.  In the words of Elsen, “…Les Fleurs Du Mal worked their way into ‘The Gates of Hell.’...Baudelaire’s pessimistic view of the trials of the modern spirit was its poetic articulation and confirmation. ”

         Great moral drama is now out of fashion; an uncompelling substitute seems to be the science and forensics of good and evil and the easy television fare of crime families, ancient and modern along with journalistic debates about belief in god and the morality of religion. The absence of emotional force today may be just the sort of thing that worried Baudelaire in his own time. It might even be a sign of decline. The profound, post-romantic meditations on life, death, evil and morality began to peter out around 1900, though there was a long coda: 1906 (retrospectively) is the year in which Thomas Mann has Adrian Leverkhun contract syphilis from a prostitute, the moment at which the Faustian composer hero in the novel Doctor Faustus, sells his soul and his talent to the devil of seduction and madness.  By 1912, the devil is pretty well gone though a sense of the infernal remains in Schoenberg’s “nightmare vision” of Pierre Lunaire, an orchestrated “speech-song” whose first part is devoted to “love, sex and religion” followed by a second part on “violence, crime and blasphemy.”

         For the acute, there was still the smell of death.  In 1902, the year he became Rodin’s secretary, Rilke arrived in Paris to write a monograph on the sculptor, and the poet seems, according to his novel, The Notebooks of Laurids Malte Brigge, to have seen death everywhere and in everything. As with Kafka, the metaphysical dimension is never entirely absent while the fallen, mortal world is increasingly seen from within. Conveying the bowels, the sewers, the overbuilt palimpsests of decay on which the city is constructed like a human body in a state of dissipation, Rilke launches a virtuoso passage on the living stains left by the summary demolition of attached houses, leaving interior walls imprinted with drains and waste pipes, encrusted with the build-up of human effluvia and the oozing bacterial life that cling to it, and to his horror he realizes he’s looking inside himself- man and city, microcosm and macrocosm festering and moribund.  

           After 1900, as with a river beginning to surge under the stillness of ice, the hairline cracks were apparent. With long hindsight, it’s possible to say that technological progress and the rapid accumulation of wealth and power during a century of peace had outstripped the human capacity to adapt to what it had created. British historians who compared Britain to Rome at its height seemed reluctant to take the comparison further in time. British politics was polarized, the old Liberal consensus crumbling. An extreme individualism had triumphed not just in art but in society, in business and among lone nations each looking for its own survival. Too many nations, arming themselves since 1870, had come powerful and with power were becoming belligerent. The system of alliances, linking every country in Europe and without checks, seemed poised to produce a chain reaction. Political tests of strength produced brinksmanship, a hell bent arms race between Germany and Britain. Overcompensation characterized nations as much as individuals in an epochal fear of weakness. Breakneck progress for the average person brought displacement, anomie and frustration and not the promised delights. With such material, artistic vision flourished everywhere in Europe while most other progress surged on without much sense of what lay ahead. Among the Expressionists, according  to the critic Paul Raabe, “The will to live and work was not unmixed with premonitions of disaster. Unwittingly this generation bore the mark of Cain: war and death came like a visitation of man kind...”  Ludwig Meidner’s The Corner House, (1913)  is perhaps most representative precisely because this depiction of  the innocuous ‘Villa Kochmann,’ in Dresden is uneventful; merely the image of a house. Its three stories with their classical pediments, cornice and moulding recall, like the  design of Rodin’s Gates, tradition and the past. Yet the picture is pervaded by violent, seismic vibration as if all were on the point of destruction. Sky and atmosphere alike are a turgid blue-grey. The perspective is distorted as if the viewer were suffering the same vertigo as the building while the very sky takes on the quaking and buckling of the roof.  


          The “...vital level represented by Europe at the present day is superior to the whole of the human past, but if we look to the future, we are made to fear that it will neither preserve the level reached nor attain to a higher one, but rather will recede and fall back upon lower heights.”  These words of Ortega Y Gasset are frank; there is even a tone of resignation. The statesmen who sent Europe careening into the First World War were fourteen years into a new century and they still lived in the old. In 1912, Jung wrote in Symbols of Transformation: “If we wish to stay on the heights we have reached, we must struggle all the time to consolidate our consciousness and its attitude. But we soon discover that this praiseworthy and apparently unavoidable battle with the years leads to stagnation and desiccation of the soul. Our convictions become platitudes ground out on a barrel organ, our ideas become starchy habits, enthusiasm stiffens into automatic gestures. The source of the water of life seeps away.”   For the historian Arnold Toynbee the first cause of decline is unimaginative, mechanical leadership. Whether or not recent leadership in the West has been uninspiring, one thing is certain: the age of  charismatic stewards  that included Roosevelt, Churchill, DeGaulle and Kennedy ended with Trudeau. But one thing held in common between present leaders and those on the eve of the First World War is that all emerged from a long period of peace.  The wars fought by Marcus Aurelius were fought on the margins of the Pax Romana. In the peace that otherwise reigned, innovative leadership had ground to a halt. The problems of government had become intransigent, or, to use one of our buzz words, “systemic.” 

           The figures that project from Rodin’s Gates of Hell, cling to ledges, crouch and fall from cornices while the structure itself retains its classical grandeur.  The decline, if not the fall of nations is usually accompanied by great wealth and its mismanagement. The society of Rome under Marcus Aurelius was extremely rich despite the Princeps’ preference for the army and the bureaucracy. Like the hi-tech billionaires of  America, a new aristocracy filled second century Rome’s upper ranks. As in America, there was  an unparalleled disparity between the rich and the poor with two levels of citizenship aggravating strife between the classes. By 1900, personal wealth in Britain was vast while poverty was so widespread by 1914, that it could no longer be kept secret. For Toynbee the mutual alienation of governors and governed through polarization of rich and poor and imperial expansion was the second stage of decline.


          As long as a country remains the world’s wealthiest, it can endure a declining economy, as Britain had since 1875 and as America has for a few decades. But for Britain it did not bode well, even as it survived financial crises in 1903 and 1907. The United States survived a market crash and near economic depression in 2008 caused by bad loans and mortgages on a massive scale. In Aurelian Rome, Lucian told his readers that Timon went broke mismanaging the money of Athens and that despite orders from Zeus, the god Wealth refused to bail him out saying,  “So help me Zeus, that man insulted me. He squandered me. He cut me up into little pieces...he got rid of me quicker than you’d drop a hot potato. Go back there and be handed over again to a bunch of parasites, bootlickers and whores? No, Zeus...” 

           The Western world is not in a state of collapse but it is certainly past its zenith. “There is no longer a ‘plenitude of the times,’” wrote Ortega Y Gasset about Europe in Edwardian times, “for this supposes a clear, prefixed, unambiguous future, as was that of the XIXth century. Then men thought they knew what was going to happen tomorrow. But now once more the horizon opens out toward new unknown directions because it is not known who  is going to rule, how authority is going to organized over the world.” In the same period, Eliot’s hesitant lover in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,  adopts the tone of a prescient but helpless elder statesman:
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and
And in short, I was afraid.

         Though nothing is on the point of breaking in the West, the signs of decline have returned and are probably here to stay. The present generations remain the inheritors and not the originators of their culture. For a hundred years, the energy released in the demise of faith has dissipated into a warm bath of art, high technology and popular culture, a comfortable medium-low common denominator which pales beside its origins in the Promethean cultural supernova of 1900-1914.

           But the West can still be brilliant if it descends well instead of badly. In the words of Jung, -“...let those who go down the sunset way do so with open eyes, for it is a sacrifice which daunts even the gods. Yet every descent is followed by an ascent; the vanishing shapes are shaped anew, and a truth is valid in the end only if it suffers change and bears new witness in new images, in new tongues...”   To re-emerge in a different form will be possible only if the blind barbarism that lies dormant like larvae in a culture that remains preoccupied with violence and its own superiority is allowed to die in its sleep. For the worm is still there, as it was in 1914.   

“Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!”

Hugh Graham, October 30, 2013.  
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