The Spirit at the Turn of the 20th Century
I’ll be in Denmark this week, taking part in a symposium about the work of the Swedish metaphysical artist Hilma af Klint. The details are here. I suspect most of you won’t make the symposium, so here is an outline of my talk:
The Spirit at the Turn of the 20th Century
A Talk for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art
The decades leading up to and just following the turn of the twentieth century saw a remarkable juxtaposition of seemingly opposed but in many ways inseparable currents in Western consciousness, which expressed themselves in a variety of daring developments in culture, society and science. For the sake of convenience we can see these opposing yet mutually informing spiritual currents in the simple terms of positive and negative, of advance and decay. Both sensibilities fed into what must be recognized as a titanic eruption of creative energy and speculation, a fantastic mélange of alternative, progressive and transgressive ideas wedding ancient beliefs and modern science. A sign of these antithetical yet mutually linked oppositions can be seen in the publication of two books, both of which prophesized dramatic changes unavoidably approaching Western Man. In 1892 the physician and social critic Max Nordau published his bestselling study of modern decadence, Degeneration, which argued that developments in modern art and culture displayed clear signs of the West’s moral decay and growing senility. Yet Nordau’s despair was countered a few years later by the psychologist Richard Maurice Bucke, whose Cosmic Consciousness (1901) argued instead that mankind was evolving into a new, wider, deeper form of consciousness that promised unheard of positive developments in humanity and society.
Nordau’s alarm at the “decline of the West” – the title of Oswald Spengler’s 1918 bestselling tome– remains the clichéd image of the fin-de-siècle. But as I will try to show in my talk, there was also what we can call a ‘positive fin-de-siècle’, one concerned with exploring the fascinating possibilities that the advent of a new century offered.
Central to the ideological flood characteristic of the times was the occult, the elements of which reached from the dim, primordial past to the unimagined future. Notions of prehistoric lost civilizations and evolutionary supermen shared the same intellectual space as a profound re-discovery of magic and a dizzying preoccupation with ‘higher dimensions.’ As is true in our own ‘new age,’ science and mysticism were seen to support each other, with Einstein’s theory of relativity and ideas about ‘non-Euclidean space’ bolstering accounts of astral travel and visions of the Akashic Record. Philosophy, too, was conscripted, with Nietzsche’s ideas about an Ubermensch blending with Eastern notions of karma and reincarnation. A deep dissatisfaction with the mechanical picture of the universe erected by rationalist science primed Western consciousness for a cultural journey to the East. Many of the preoccupations we associate with our own ‘new age’ have their roots in this time. Yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, multiculturalism, alternative medicine, ‘higher consciousness’, the ‘counter culture’, a concern with ancient civilizations, new religions, free love, feminism, interest in ‘altered states’ and the paranormal, paganism, nature worship, and a profound unease with ‘modernity’: these and many other concerns that we associate with Western consciousness following the 1960s, were already very alive and very active more than a century ago. Their sometimes odd couplings produced an effervescent, highly charged atmosphere in which anything seemed possible.
Many of the most important names in the culture of the early twentieth century were deeply immersed in this mystical milieu. The Nobel Prize winning poet W. B. Yeats belonged to two of the most important occult societies of the time. The playwright and novelist August Strindberg practiced alchemy in the occult underground of fin-de-siècle Paris. The philosophers William James and Henri Bergson – another Nobel Prize winner – were both intrepid explorers of the paranormal and belonged to the Society of Psychical Research, a membership they shared with several prestigious scientists of the time, such as the physicists William Barrett and Lord Rayleigh and the physiologist Charles Richet. Even a British Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour, was a member. In the arts Wassilly Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Frantisek Kupka, and the subject of this symposium, Hilma af Klint, were profoundly influenced by the esoteric ideas emerging from Theosophy, Anthroposophy, and other spiritual teachings. In music Alexander Scriabin, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, and others explored the connections between the spiritual world and that of sound. The occult, the mystical, the esoteric was the height of fashion in cosmopolitan capitals , reaching into politics and society. While the ‘holy devil’ Rasputin had the ear of the tsarina, the actor Fedor Chaliapin stunned audiences in Moscow and St. Peterburg with his portrayal of Goethe’s Mephistopheles during the height of the ‘Satanic craze’ that swept these cities. And as in our own time, many people unsympathetic to the increasing pressure and disharmony of urban living, looked to new social structures and communities in which there seemed the possibility of leading a healthier, more spiritual and natural life. In many places in Europe, the seeds of what we would later recognize as a communal life ‘off the grid’ took root and prospered for a time.
The spirit at the turn of the twentieth century was one of adventure and exploration, but also one of concern over the potential dangers that can accompany a journey into the new, the unknown and uncertain. It was a time of profound optimism in the future and in human possibilty and it is arguable that the shattering experience of World War I, in which the atavistic energies courted by the ‘decadent’ cultural currents of the time were unleashed en masse, is something we are still struggling to assimilate and overcome. My talk will focus on the optimistic anticipations that influenced many artists and thinkers of the period and on what we may gain for our own equally turbulent time in understanding them.