Fin de siècle – different settings

Fin de siècle – different settings

Posted on Goodreads:—different-settings

I’m writing this from China in the midst of the Coronavirus shutdown. I’ve just had a great holiday with my parents, starting in Singapore and travelling by cruise-ship up the coast. I saw the outbreak beginning on news reports, but it was another thing to arrive at HongKong airport. My flight to Shanghai was cancelled, and on the next morning’s flight the combined group of passengers filled not a fifth of the three-hundred seat plane.

This is a city, a country, of surgical masks. You can’t buy them anywhere, and if you don’t have one on your face you are regarded as a danger. I got mine from the cruise-ship’s medical bay before leaving.

I travelled to the safest supermarket in the city centre – and had my forehead scanned by temperature gun. The streets are almost deserted, just occasional people at a distance. The subway trains are running, where we sit at intervals, facing no one opposite; the buses carry one or two, still driving their routes along empty streets. This is Shanghai – debatably – the largest city on the planet. I was at People’s Square, where once horses raced around the oval track, watched by Europeans from their tree-lined concessions, and where the Municipal government now sits. The sky is frequently pollution-grey in this land, lasting for days, weeks.

Before my holiday I had been working hard to complete the revision of an article on Thomas Hardy, which will soon be published. I find the nineteenth century a fascinating time, as the period of history which set the stage for so much of the modern world. The second half of the century, in particular, captures my attention, as it leads to the ‘fin de siècle’. The French came up with the term, and the sense of despair about which it refers. Literally, it means ‘the end of the century’. It caught on, and has come to be applied to literature, the arts, and society in general. You can trace its development, building – or collapsing – in the writing of Hardy, Conrad, and others, such as those of the Decadent movement. Essentially, people felt like everything was slipping away, that chaos was gathering storm-like, around and through ‘civilisation’; too few of them, I would argue, saw their own role clearly in dismantling it. This is Edvard Munch and his ‘Scream’; this is existential angst. They tore at the foundations, even as they screamed at the sensation of collapse.

What came at the end of the long-century was World War I, Europe – the Old World – destroying itself, and the tumult and change which followed. Yet, as many have discussed, that sensation of things coming apart, is by no means original to the 1890s. I would say it is of fallen humans, and we destroy with ease; even as we arrogantly pronounce to ourselves and others that we build and achieve.

Perhaps one of the things I find fascinating about 19th century literature is that the words still contain the hope and vision of a foundation holding aloft. There is a beauty and a tragic tension in the work of writers who glimpse, but often fail to recognise it.

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