Modernist Works and the Fear of the Fin de Siècle
Fin de siècle is a term which is now used to refer to the period of the last 40 or so years of the Nineteenth Century and its art, yet at the time the word had genuine sociological connotations of modernity, social decay and reaction. In France in particular though arguably throughout Europe, society was changing in such a way as to merit such a pessimistic term for the trend evolving. The growing ability for the mass of the people to access all areas of society, previously only available to an appreciative elite coupled with the growing crime rate and visible decline of this elite are factors of this social phenomenon. The modernist writers, typically the youthful offspring of the old elites, certainly used fin de siècle as a theme. There is evidence of a conflict with the concept of fin de siècle, but it is too simple to say that they displayed a fear of fin de siècle. As I will try to show in this essay, the modernist reaction to and interpretation of fin de siècle is not static and, as though proportional to the development of modernity as an aesthetic, develops through works of varying mediums by different authors over the period identified as 'modernist'.
The phenomenon of fin de siècle is like any term, including modernism, not rigidly set chronologically. It can be used to describe any time in the period between about 1860 and around the beginning of the First World War. This roughly coincides with the chronology of modernism. This is no coincidence, since the two are linked exponentially and develop so. But whether the relationship between the works of modernism and fin de siècle is one of fear, is not a clear cut 'yes or no' situation. In this essay I hope to show that through the development of modernism the relationship with fin de siècle, though perhaps based on fear, changes within the concept of fear, that is the type of fear and its projection through art. Throughout my essay I shall be referring closely to two texts; Joris Karl Huysmans's Against Nature and Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, as well as other areas of modernist art.
The fin de siècle period was the culmination of social upheaval around Europe especially France. Politically there had been disenchantments: after 1815 and 1830, after 1848 and 1851, after 1871 and from the late 1880s on, old revolutions and new regimes failed to usher in the brave new world that had been over enthusiastically promised.1 This installed an atmosphere of pessimism and cynicism, especially amongst the young intelligentsia who had begun to form a primitive but developing youth culture. Sociologists such as Emile Durkheim were identifying an erosion of moral consensus aided by the progressive force of relativism. New social awareness led to a feeling of malaise and anomie, new methods of statistics collection revealed previously hidden problems in society such as crime, alcoholism, child...