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 biology; 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 Symbolists and 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,
Wonder why they electrocute a man at the one o’clock hour at night?,
to which he answers, sardonically,
The current much stronger, people turn out all the light.
But then he went on with defiance,
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.