Fin de siècle Blues

The end of the 19th century saw the apogee of Western civilization: most of the world had been explored and colonized; science reached a universal synthesis of Nature in Newtonian physics and Darwinian evolutionary theory; British Industrial Revolution and the American Gilded Age created tremendous wealth that upended the feudal ancien régime. But there was also a sense of dissipation, a loss of civilization’s former vigor. Culturally, it is also known as the fin de siècle–a period that saw the rise of the Decadent Movement (Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, the Pre-Raphaelites) in defiance of progressivist critics who denounced the aesthetic ideology of artifice and extravagance then current in art and literature.


Decadence follows Romanticism’s passionate reaction to Enlightenment’s enthronement of Reason–but Romantic emotionalism that turned against cold, mechanized Reason, eventually slides into aesthetic over-sensitivity, and a preoccupation with the Baroque and Rococo in the Decadent. As Camille Paglia observes,

Pre-Raphaelite painting begins with Keatsian ardour for the minutiae of organic nature [but] instead of High Romantic energy… we get Late Romantic stasis… [There] is only a single step from Pre-Raphaelite naturism to Gustave Moreau’s Decadent jewelled artifice… Pre-Raphaelite painting deadens even as it celebrates. Persons and things are candied, mummified, miniaturized.

Frozen in sleep:
The Legend of Briar Rose (1885-1890),
by Edward Burne-Jones

Decadence is a complex phenomenon that appeared at the fin de siècle, but the same decadent slide had also been seen in the past: in Ptolemaic Egypt of Cleopatra; in the unnatural virtuosity of Mannerism in Late Renaissance; in the Church’s turn to Baroque, (and, later, the French court’s to Rococo) in the face of Protestant Reformation; and, again, in the reappearance of Cleopatra’s Egypt and exotic North Africa in the Orientalism of mid-19th century academic painters.

Jewelled artifice: Delilah (1896),
by Gustave Moreau

It manifests as well in contemporary culture: in Weimar Berlin, Jazz Age Long Island, and Studio 54 New York. The exuberant rockabilly of the 1950’s eventually slid to acid rock in the 60’s, and, finally, to it’s baroque form in 70’s progressive rock. The same transition occurred with hard bop to jazz fusion, and with punk to post-punk, where style becomes more complex, sophisticated, overthought, and, in the case of grunge to post-grunge, irritatingly mannered. (One can think of punk and grunge as revivals of the immediate, energetic rockabilly style.) Indeed, Paglia noted that so much of avant-garde art was really Decadent Late Romantic.

The prevailing cultural mood at the fin de siècle is one of ennui–of living at a time of civilization’s exhaustion, of world-weariness from the burdens of plentitude, and of romantic nostalgia for the past, that is, a lost pastoral innocence. The consolation for the decadent is a cynical pursuit of pleasure: the refinement of taste, the display of extravagance, the indulgence in sadomasochism (a ritual constraint on the diffused body). The hipster’s fetish for the retro and obsessive curation, as well as the soccer mom’s newfound taste for BDSM-lite, are signs of a culture in decline. These folk got the fin de siècle blues real bad, though they ain’t even know it.


Blues is the root of all American music. It is in turn rooted in the Negro slave experience, in spirituals and work songs, which cross-pollinated with white folk music to give us jazz, country, and rock-and-roll. The name suggests melancholy and sadness, from heartache or loneliness, recollected in song. Ralph Ellison observes that,  “[the] blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy, but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

Blues singers often call their songs and albums simply the “blues,” modified by the name of a person, place, or state of mind the song refers to: Hoodoo Man Blues (Junior Wells), Penitentiary Blues (Lightnin’ Hopkins), Down and Out Blues (Sonny Boy Williamson). Lest you forget, the genre announces itself in the title.

The power of blues, Ellison adds, lies in expressing at once “both the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit.” In Guitar Welch’s Electric Chair Blues, he asks, sardonically,

Wonder why they electrocute a man at the one o’clock hour at night? The current much stronger, people turn out all the light.

But he then defiantly sings,

I believe, I believe, oh baby, Lord, I believe I’ll go back home… This old life I’m living, baby, Lord, it ain’t gonna last me long.

So, while the blues recollect suffering, there is, at the same time, an optimism of overcoming it, distinctly different from the pessimism of fin de siècle ennui. Blues, in it’s raw earnestness that admits the tragicomic, always resists decadence. (After their brief digression into decadent psychedelic pop in Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Rolling Stones quickly turned around with the bluesy roots rock of Beggars Banquet. Blues always keeps rock real.)

But even at the fin de siècle, there is also not just a sense of an ending. After all, the turning of a new century also signals the beginning of a new age, and possibly a way out of civilization’s malaise–the enervation of the Old World, replaced by the vigor of the New.



Japan, observes Roland Barthes, that most urbane of French radical intellectuals, is “an empire of signifiers, so immense, so in excess of speech.” Thus begins his investigation of that fictive nation, not as a “reality” (or “essence”) constituted by history, philosophy, culture, and politics in contrast to the Western, but purely as a symbolic system. It presents a situation of writing that exposes the fissure of the symbolic, like “flashes” or seismic events that creates an emptiness of language.

In writing about Japan, Barthes aims to subvert the notion of meaning, and its locus in Western tradition, the individual subject. In these fissures–the irreducible differences an alien language reveals–we can uncover the very limits of language, the ideology of speech, from which we can begin to contest (Western) society.

Barthes observes that in Japanese the subject is turned into a great envelope empty of speech, not that dense kernel which proclaims itself in utterances. It confines fictive beings into inanimate “products,” or signs properly cut off from their primary referents in living things. In the Japanese zen (as in the Chinese ch’an and Hindu dhyana), the act of knowledge is without a knowing subject, and without known object. It is a perception of emptiness.

Shinjuku Girl
Shinjuku Girl:
The hat, the fur coat, those stick-thin legs.

Subway Somniloquy
Subway Somniloquy:
Who was he talking with in his dream?

This evisceration of the core is exemplified in the over-politeness of the bow. It is pure ceremony, an exercise of the void. By the strength of its codification–the scrupulosity of its codes, the graphism of its gestures–it signifies nothing. The Form is Empty, the Buddhist says. The “person” bowing is bounded in quotations, its metaphysical substrate deferred or in doubt. Humiliation (the extreme prostration of the self), is therefore as meaningless as its Western converse, self-assertion (a fullness of the self).

There’s something “moody” about these scenes.
What is this about? Perhaps about nothing.

This mode of being (or non-being), extends even to Japanese civic life. Whereas, the Western city is concentric around an essential center, where the values of civilization are gathered and condensed (church, offices, stores, cafés), the Japanese city of Tokyo orbits around a center that is empty.

Gādo-shita: pubs under the train tracks,
watering holes for Japanese salaried men.

The city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty. The entire city turns around a site both forbidden and indifferent, a residence concealed beneath foliage, protected by moats, inhabited by an emperor who is never seen, which is to say, literally, by no one knows who. Daily, in their rapid, energetic, bullet-like trajectories, the taxis avoid this circle, whose low crest, the visible form of invisibility, hides the sacred “nothing.”

Family picnic
Family picnic; Chiyoda Sunday flea-market;
Cool kid: haircut, puffer jacket, patched jeans.

There is no Emperor (no Subject, no God)–or at least he has evaporated into the figment of a collective dream. And yet the city continues its frenetic activity, in constant deflection from this center which is empty. It is a circulation of signs around a vacuum of meaning–a floating world, unmoored, turning on a chasm.

(Tokyo, 2015)

Love Song

Le chant d'amour (1914, Giorgio de Chrico)
Le chant d’amour (1914, Giorgio de Chrico)


Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möchte ich sie bei irgendetwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
die aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Geiger hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (1907)


How could I keep my soul from
perturbing yours? How can I lift her
over and above you unto other things?
Ah, how I’d like to hide them
among those lost in the dark,
in some strange, quiet place that
will not reverberate, even as your depths vibrate.
But everything that perturbs us, you and me,
binds us together like a bow that draws
a single voice from two strings.
From which instrument are we spanned?
And which violinist holds us in his hand?
Oh, sweetest song.

(Chemnitz/Dresden, 2017)

Apollo’s Archaic Torso

Belvedere Torso
Belvedere Torso

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (Paris, 1908)


We do not know his undiscovered head,
in which the apples of the eyes ripened. But
his torso still glows like a lamp,
in which his gaze, twisted back,

persists, illuminating. Othewise the prow
of the chest could not dazzle so, nor the gentle
twist of the loins bring a smile
to that nexus where procreation springs.

Otherwise, this stone, disfigured,
truncated at the shoulders from a clean fall,
would not glisten like a wild beast’s coat,

nor break free from all its incised edges
like a star: here, there is no place
that does not see you. Your life must change.

(Mainz/Wiesbaden, 2017)

Buddha in Glory

Angkor Wat (2012)
Angkor Wat (2012)

Buddha in der Glorie

Mitte aller Mitten, Kern der Kerne,
Mandel, die sich einschließt und versüßt,—
dieses Alles bis an alle Sterne
ist dein Fruchtfleisch: Sei gegrüßt.

Sieh, du fühlst, wie nichts mehr an dir hängt;
im Unendlichen ist deine Schale,
und dort steht der starke Saft und drängt.
Und von außen hilft ihm ein Gestrahle,

denn ganz oben werden deine Sonnen
voll und glühend umgedreht.
Doch in dir ist schon begonnen,
was die Sonnen übersteht.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (Paris, 1908)

Santa Barbara, CA (2015)
Santa Barbara, CA (2015)


Center of all centers, core of cores,
almond, self-enclosed and sweetening,—
this Universe up to all the stars
is your fruit’s pulp: I greet thee.

See, you feel no more tethers upon you;
your rind is cast to the Infinite,
and there is the stout sap, pressed.
And from without he is helped into Enlightenment,

above whom your many suns revolve
around its zenith, illuminating.
But in you something is born,
what will outlast even all the suns.

(Groningen, 2017)

The Panther

Der Panther

          Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält.
Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe
und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,
der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,
ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,
in der betäubt ein großer Wille steht.

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille
sich lautlos auf—. Dann geht ein Bild hinein,
geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—
und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (1903)


          In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

His vision, from the passing of bars,
has grown so weary, it cannot bear anything else.
For him, there are as if a thousand bars,
and beyond these thousand bars no world.

The soft gait of powerfully supple strides
that turn and turn in ever smaller circles
is like a dance of forces around a center,
where a great will stands subdued.

Sometimes the curtain of the pupils
lifts quietly, an image slips in,
darts through the limb’s tense stillness,
and in the heart stops, and is gone.

(Fribourg, 2017)


Urbana, IL (2009)
Urbana, IL (2009)


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.

Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.

Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.

Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.

— Rainer Maria Rilke (Paris, 1902)

Kuhrhaus, Wiesbaden (2017)
Kuhrhaus, Wiesbaden (2017)


Leaves are falling, falling from afar
as distant gardens in the sky are withering;
they fall gesturing in self-surrender.

At night the heavy Earth also falls
far from all the stars in the vast solitude.

We all fall. This hand, there, also falls.
And look at all the others: it is in all.

But there is One, in whose hands,
in infinite gentleness, all this falling ends.

(Wiesbaden, 2017)