Mal du Siècle

I often ask myself why people around us often seem sad and bored, especially young people, and especially in Europe. One thing I have discovered when reading about Romanticism is how similar many aspects of our time are to the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Romantics denounced the same things as we do today: the dark satanic mills and extreme financial difficulties of countless people, victims of pitiless capitalist economics. The years following the French Revolution were also a period of materialism and spiritual emptiness. In the upper classes, a certain spiritual ailment reigned. It was called in French the Mal du Siècle, inability to live in one’s time. It was a kind of boredom and melancholy, something between acedia and clinical depression.

Victor Hugo described it in Les Travailleurs de la Mer – “La mélancolie est un crépuscule. La souffrance s’y fond dans une sombre joie. La mélancolie, c’est le bonheur d’être triste. Melancholy is a sunset. Suffer melts into dark joy. Melancholy is the happiness of being sad.

We often find this sadness among the artists and writers of those days when Napoleon’s France and George III’s England were still at war, when the map of Europe was being redrawn. The individual feels unable to relate to society and revolts against a political system that crushes the artist. We feel a feeling that there is no past and no future. Alfred de Musset wrote On ne sait, à chaque pas que l’on fait, si l’on marche sur une semence ou sur un débris. Each time we take a step, we don’t know whether we are treading on a seed or debris. It is surprising to find as much in the way of nihilism in those days as now among our post-modern young people. We can hardly mention Musset without also bringing up Chateaubriand’s René.We find many of the same themes in Delius’ opera Fennimore and Gerda.

We doubtless find the same spiritual emptiness and apathy to beauty as in those days two hundred years ago. The parallels are the same between the rationalism of the eighteenth century and our own atheism, the industrial revolution to the development of the same thing today.

Two hundred years ago, it was the period of Romanticism, when some reacted through moroseness and others through art and beauty. It was a sort of “counter-enlightenment”. I am sceptical about “counter” movement as with the Counter Reformation (and the Reformation). Apart from the moroseness of some, I see a great amount of energy and unity in a movement of extremely diverse personalities over a long time scale. Romanticism is a consequence of the French Revolution, and many of its proponents had a wide range of conservative and progressive views.

We find many inner goals in this movement, namely a Platonic notion of beauty, spiritual freedom and creativity, the ideas in later Russian philosophers like Berdyaev whom I have admired for many years. There is a notion of freeing the heart and emotions from the dictatorship of reason. Romanticism and its era in the early nineteenth century reflect many of the things we think, feel and say today.

There are many popular subcultures evoking ideas of Romanticism, and I see strands of continuity. We should try to live fully in our own times (we cannot live in any other) but with many of the more positive and constructive ideas Romanticism had to offer in its own time. It is a world view with which I sympathise.

To provide lines for comments, I would like to put out several ideas with which some of us might identify:

  • A reaction against the intellectualism of the Enlightenment, against excessively rational theology and thought,
  • A reaction against the rigidity of social structures protecting privilege,
  • A reaction against the materialism of an age which, in the first stirring of the Industrial Revolution, already shows signs of making workers the slaves of machinery and of creating squalid urban environments.
  • A response to emotion and the ‘heart’ more than reason, the desire for mystery rather than clarity of concepts, the primacy of the conscience and the person over social conventions and demands, perhaps underpinning many of the cultural characteristics of the 1960’s.

I also recommend an attentive reading of this article.

They felt that, for human beings, it was our own day-to-day living that was the centre of our search for the truth.  Reason and the evidence of our senses were important, no doubt, but they mean nothing to us unless they touch our needs, our feelings, our emotions.  Only then do they acquire meaning.  This “meaning” is what the Romantic movement is all about.

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8 Responses to Mal du Siècle

  1. ed pacht says:

    “We should try to live in our own times (we cannot live in any other)”
    Ah, yes, that is what we need to do, but it isn’t always easy at all. As I go deeper into my seventies, I find myself increasingly feeling like a misfit, as if I’ve somehow strayed into an alien world in which I do not belong. It is, of course, the only world I have, and I, of course, belong in it as much as anyone else, but …

    The culture in which I now live is so vastly different from that in which I grew up and had my formation that, no matter how hard I try to be a 21st century man, I can’t manage to like it here. The culture gives me intense discomfort. Much that I have valued is either gone forever or presently fading away. Much has come to be that I find loathsome and ugly. There seems to be less and less peace for such as I am. Yes, I am writing this on a computer, and seem to be relying on such gadgets more and more, but I don’t think I’m happy about that. The electronic era and the information age leave me feeling deeply uncomfortable.

    As with the culture, so is it with the faith. In many respects I was already looking backward in my prime, but it has come to the place where I become nostalgic for what I then saw as terribly deformed.

    Regardless of these complaints of an old man, it is this world, the one we now inhabit, in which we must live, and to which we are commissioned to bring a message of hope. It probably isn’t really any worse than any previous age, and the eras for which we pine were undoubtedly just as corrupt in their own ways as this one is, and it remains true that ‘while we were sinners, Christ loved us and died for us.’ It is a fallen world. Mankind is a damaged species, but God loves humankind with an everlasting love,and constantly calls on us to become what He has always intended us to be — the fullness of His image. One way or another that’s our purpose in being here, our purpose for living at all, and in particular for living in uncomfortable times such as these. How do we live that out? Ay, there’s the rub.

    • That seems to be our condition of life, even for one in his fifties and many opportunities lost.

      I can only react as a “Romantic” to a world that was as much in spiritual ruins as France as she groaned out of the shadow of the guillotine and the Terror. I don’t know how things will be, but you write poetry. I write prose. We need to create and build beauty for ourselves and those we love.

      We are called to love every phase of our lives, and now I discover something new with growing hair. It is all white and something I have never seen before on myself. To me this is a symbol of many things. No, I don’t think our age is worse than the 1800’s, even with our technology. After the desolation came men seeking God and there was a Christian revival, both Protestants and Catholics, and there were saints to inspire us all, like the Curé d’Ars. Perhaps we are those seeking God and who can bring flesh back to the dried out bones in the desert…

      How do we live that out? We have our faith and we also have an inspiration from 1814 and thereabouts.

  2. Dale says:

    I think that in some ways we are living in an age of change that is different from previous centuries. Personally, I think that the great catalytic event was the Great War of 1914-1918. Not only was this really the first modern war on a grand scale, it caused a whole generation to doubt the traditions, Faith, philosophy and direction of the previous centuries; all seemed to have failed. Religion could offer no consolation for a War that had, starting with excitement and actual joy, destroyed almost 20 million lives, and for what? None of the certitudes of the past offered any real explanation, other than that they were either false or simply out-of-date. We are still in some measure living in this post-war trauma. Nothing had saved us from ourselves; not the Enlightenment, not religion, nothing…

    • Your comment has haunted me for much of yesterday. Last night on television, they began showing a documentary in several parts on World War I with colourised film with a remarkable reconstruction of sounds. It certainly makes the whole thing live for the viewer. The way I am, I tended to look at houses, shops and the ordinary people in the towns rather than the meetings between the giants like Wilhelm II and Tsar Nicholas II. What a world to come crashing down in such a nightmare! It was still the Belle Epoque with lots of beautiful things. But, it was the industrial era and men calculating how more people could be slaughtered in the shortest time possible!

      World War II was also a direct consequence of World War I, with Hitler doing no more than reigniting the dry tinder. The twentieth century seems almost to have been no more than one colossal war. You touch on the concept of post-modernism, the death of the meta-narrative, which according to some scholars is already dead. The line “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever” was written in 1948 by George Orwell. That notion seemed to emerge as I read the article about all there being left was the hand-held electronic gadget!

      Can we do nothing about our own future? I think we had it right in the 1960’s but we lacked philosophical vision behind the long hair and the return to nature. I am afraid that society might be beginning to move back to the conformism of the 1920’s and 30’s. If that is so, it can only mean one thing.

      Check mate – or is there still something to hope for? You have children. I don’t.

      During a Google search, I found this Tragedy and Hope by Carroll Quigley. We arrive at a more or less Calvinistic vision of man and the inevitability of totalitarianism.

      The belief that human abilities are innate and should be left free from social duress in order to display themselves has been replaced by the idea that human abilities are the result of social training and must be directed to socially acceptable ends. Thus liberalism and laissez-faire are to be replaced, apparently, by social discipline and planning. The community of interests which would appear if men were merely left to pursue their own desires has been replaced by the idea of the welfare community, which must be created by conscious organizing action. The belief in progress has been replaced by the fear of social retrogression or even human annihilation. The old march of democracy now yields to the insidious advance of authoritarianism, and the individual capitalism of the profit motive seems about to be replaced by the state capitalism of the welfare economy. Science, on all sides, is challenged by mysticisms, some of which march under the banner of science itself; urbanism has passed its peak and is replaced by suburbanism or even “flight to the country”; and nationalism finds its patriotic appeal challenged by appeals to much wider groups of class, ideological, or continental scope.

      Flee to the country and be as far from it as possible!

    • ed pacht says:

      Dale is right on this one. WW I is indeed a watershed event – a pointless war fought for no discernible reason. “To make the world safe for democracy?” Is that best accomplished by encouraging and magnifying long-standing ethnic hatreds and making them the be-all and end-all of nation-building? As I see it, he is right that WW II was only Act 2 of WW I. I’ll carry that further in saying that the Cold War seems merely to be Act III, and the world-wide brushfires now raging, from the Arab Spring and its aftermath, to the various conflicts in Africa, and now to Crimea. We’re still fighting the same century-old war and there is no end in sight. Frankly, I find myself glad that there are not all that many years ahead before my final escape from it all. I don’t have good feelings about the decades ahead.

      • Yes, I’m frightened too. If totalitarianism is the way, then the party is over and it’s back to 1933 and the trains to the east full of “undesirables”, perhaps ourselves among them. I just see history repeating itself. Only the technology is making the killing more efficient!

        The problem is when the enemy isn’t the “other country” but one’s own fat cats and politicians.

        Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!

      • ed pacht says:

        Amen. Marana tha!

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tom Shippey has an interesting paper in Scholarship & Fantasy: Proceedings of The Tolkien Phenomenon, Turku May 1992, Anglicana Turkuenisa No. 12, 1993, called Tolkien as a Post-War Writer in which he looks not only at Tolkien, and Lewis, who fought and were wounded in the Great War, but Orwell, who was shot through the throat in the Spanish Civil War, and William Golding who was in the Royal Navy throughout World War II, and also T.H. White, a pacificist preoccupied with war, saying “while they were all pre-World War I by birth, they were all effectively or as regards their major impact post-World War II by publication date” and that “all five authors share a theme […] the nature of evil”. Another of the Inklings, Owen Barfield, published a collection of essays in 1945, called Romanticism Comes of Age, which was reviewed by yet another, Charles Williams. I have not read it – yet – but I think there are ways that Williams, Barfield, Lewis, and Tolkien may be regarded as distinct but related examples of ‘Romanticism coming of age’. That other survivor of and sufferer from the Great War, who also saw its connexion with the heroism of old, David Jones, might be consider a example as well: ‘high Modernist’ in literary style, but deeply, ripely ‘Romantic’ in the best sense, too.

    I also think that each, in his own way, could say what Richard Hooker said in the first sentence of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, “Though for no other cause, yet for this; that posterity may know we have not loosely through silence permitted things to pass away as in a dream…” (words quoted, if I recall correctly, as an epigram by yet another, philosophical ‘Romantic come of age’, Erich Voegelin, in his (also post-WWII, he having escaped the Nazis) study, The New Science of Politics).

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