© Michel Fingerhut 1995-8 ^  


George Steiner:
In Bluebeard's Castle. Somes Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture (1)
0-300-01791-3 Yale University Press © George Steiner 1971
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We are very grateful to Professor George Steiner for allowing us to make this text available here.

1. The Great Ennui

Some Notes towards the Redefinition of Culture: my subtitle is, of course, intended in memoration of Eliot's Notes of 1948. Not an attractive book. One that is gray with the shock of recent barbarism, but a barbarism whose actual sources and forms the argument leaves fastidiously vague. Yet the Notes towards the Definition of Culture remain of interest. They are, so obviously, the product of a mind of exceptional acuteness. Throughout my essay, I will be returning to issues posed in Eliot's plea for order.


It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures. It tests its sense of identity, of regress or new achievement, against that past. The echoes by which a society seeks to determine the reach, the logic and authority of its own voice, come from the rear. Evidently, the mechanisms at work are complex and rooted in diffuse but vital needs of continuity. A society requires antecedents. Where these are not naturally at hand, where a community is new or reassembled after a long interval of dispersal or subjection, a necessary past tense to the grammar of being is created by intellectual and emotional fiat. The "history" of the American Negro and of modern Israel are cases in point. But the ultimate motive may be metaphysical. Most history seems to carry on its back vestiges of paradise. At some point in more or less remote times things were better, almost golden. A deep concordance lay between man and the natural setting. The myth of the Fall runs stronger than any particular religion. There is hardly a civilization, perhaps hardly an individual consciousness, that does not carry inwardly an answer to intimations of a sense of distant catastrophe. Somewhere a wrong turn was taken in that "dark and sacred wood," after which man has had to labor, socially, psychologically, against the natural grain of being.

In current Western culture or "post-culture," that squandered utopia is intensely important. But it has taken on a near and secular form. Our present feeling of disarray, of a regress into violence, into moral obtuseness; our ready impression of a central failure of values in the arts, in the comeliness of personal and social modes; our fears of a new "dark age" in which civilization itself, as we have known it, may disappear or be confined to small islands of archaic conservation -- these fears, so graphic and widely advertised as to be a dominant cliché of the contemporary mood -- derive their force, their seeming self-evidence, from comparison. Behind today's posture of doubt and self-castigation stands the presence, so pervasive as to pass largely unexamined, of a particular past, of a specific "golden time." Our experience of the present, the judgments, so often negative, that we make of our place in history, play continually against what I want to call the "myth of the nineteenth century" or the "imagined garden of liberal culture."

Our sensibility locates that garden in England and western Europe between ca. the 1820s and 1915. The initial date has a conventional indistinction, but the end of the long summer is apocalyptically exact. The main features of the landscape are unmistakable. A high and gaining literacy. The rule of law. A doubtless imperfect yet actively spreading use of representative forms of government. Privacy at home and an ever-increasing measure of safety in the streets. An unforced recognition of the focal economic and civilizing role of the arts, the sciences, and technology. The achievement, occasionally marred but steadily pursued, of peaceful coexistence between nation states (as, in fact obtained, with sporadic exceptions, from Waterloo to the Somme). A dynamic, humanely regulated interplay between social mobility and stable lines of force and custom in the community. A norm of dominance, albeit tempered by conventional insurgence between generations, between fathers and sons. Sexual enlightenment, yet a strong, subtle pivot of agreed restraint. I could go on. The list can be easily extended and detailed. My point is that it makes for a rich and controlling image, for a symbolic structure that presses, with the insistence of active mythology, on our current condition of feeling.

Depending on our interests, we carry with us different bits and pieces of this complex whole. The parent "knows" of a bygone age in which manners were strict and children domesticated. The sociologist "knows" of an urban culture largely immune to anarchic challenge and sudden gusts of violence. The religious man and the moralist "know" of a lost epoch of agreed values. Each of us can summon up appropriate vignettes: of the well-ordered household, with its privacies and domestics; of the Sunday parks, leisured and safe; of Latin in the schoolroom and apostolic finesse in the college quad; of real bookstores and literate parliamentary debate. Bookmen "know," in a special, symbolically structured sense of the word, of a time in which serious literary and scholarly production, marketed at low cost, found a wide or critically responsive echo. There are still a good many alive today for whom that famous cloudless summer of 1914 extends backward, a long way, into a world more civil, more confident, more humanely articulate than any we have known since. It is against their remembrance of that great summer, and our own symbolic knowledge of it, that we test the present cold.

If we pause to examine the sources of that knowledge, we shall see that they are often purely literary or pictorial, that our inner nineteenth century is the creation of Dickens or Renoir. If we listen to the historian, particularly on the radical wing, we learn quickly that the "imagined garden" is, in crucial respects, a mere fiction. We are given to understand that the crust of high civility covered deep fissures of social exploitation; that bourgeois sexual ethics were a veneer, masking a great area of turbulent hypocrisy; that the criteria of genuine literacy were applicable only to a few; that hatred between generations and classes ran deep, if often silent; that the safety of the faubourg and of the park was based squarely on the licensed but quarantined menace of the slum. Anyone who takes the trouble to find out will come to realize what a day's work was like in a Victorian factory, what infant mortality amounted to in the mining country of northern France in the 1870s and 80s. The recognition is inescapable that the intellectual wealth and stability of middle- and upper-middle-class life during the long liberal summer depended, directly, on economic and, ultimately military, dominion over vast portions of what is now known as the underdeveloped or third world. All this is manifest. We know it in our rational moments. Yet it is a kind of intermittent knowledge, less immediate to our pulse of feeling than is the mythology, the crystallized metaphor, at once generalized and compact, of a great garden of civility now ravaged.

In part, the nineteenth century itself is responsible for this nostalgic imagining. One can assemble from its own pronouncements an anthology of strenuous or complacent pride. The note of Locksley Hall can be heard at numerous moments and in different places. In Macaulay's famous encomium of the new horizon of science in the "Essay on Bacon" of 1837:

It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil; it has given new securities to the mariner; it has furnished new arms to the warrior; it has spanned great rivers and estuaries with bridges of form unknown to our fathers; it has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from the heaven to earth; it has lighted up the night with the splendour of the day; it has extended the range of human vision; it has multiplied the power of human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to descend the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, to cross the ocean in ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first-fruits; for it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress.

The apotheosis at the close of Faust II, Hegelian historicism, with its doctrine of the self-realization of Spirit, the positivism of Auguste Comte, the philosophic scientism of Claude Bernard, are expressions of the same dynamic serenity, of a trust in the unfolding excellence of fact. We look back on these now with bewildered irony.

But other ages have made their boast. The image we carry of a lost coherence, of a center that held, has authority greater than historical truth. Facts can refute but not remove it. It matches some profound psychological and moral need. It gives us poise, a dialectical counterweight with which to situate our own condition. This appears to be an almost organic, recursive process. Men of the Roman Empire looked back similarly on utopias of republican virtue; those who had known the ancien régime felt that their later years had fallen on an iron age. Circumstantial dreams underwrite present nightmares. I am not seeking to deny this process or to expound an "authentic vision" of the liberal past. I simply propose to look at the "summer of 1815-1915" from a somewhat different perspective -- not as a symbolic whole whose contrasting virtues stand almost in indictment of our own difficulties, but as a source of those very difficulties. It is my thesis that certain specific origins of the inhuman, of the crises of our own time that compel a redefinition of culture, are to be found in the long peace of the nineteenth century and at the heart of the complex fabric of civilization.


The motif I want to fix on is that of ennui. "Boredom" is not an adequate translation, nor is Langweile except, perhaps, in Schopenhauer's usage; la noia comes much nearer. I have in mind manifold processes of frustration, of cumulative désoeuvrement. Energies eroded to routine as entropy increases. Repeated motion or inactivity, sufficiently prolonged, secrete a poison in the blood, an acid torpor. Febrile lethargy; the drowsy nausea (so precisely described by Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria) of a man who misses a step in a dark staircase -- there are many approximate terms and images. Baudelaire's use of "spleen" comes closest: it conveys the kinship, the simultaneity of exasperated, vague waiting -- but for what? -- and of gray lassitude:

Rien n'égale en longueur les boiteuses journées,
Quand sous les lourds flocons des neigeuses années
L'ennui, fruit de la morne incuriosité,
Prend les proportions de l'immortalité.
--Désormais tu. n'es plus, ô matière vivante!
Qu'un granit entouré d'une vague épouvante,
Assoupi dans le fond d'un Sahara brumeux;
Un vieux sphinx ignoré du monde insoucieux,
Oublié sur la carte, et dont l'humeur farouche
Ne chante qu'aux rayons du soleil qui se couche.

[Les Fleurs du Mal 76]

"Vague épouvante," "humeur farouche" are signals we shall want to keep in mind. What I want to stress here is the fact that a corrosive ennui is as much an element of nineteenth-century culture as was the dynamic optimism of the positivist and the Whig. It was not only, in Eliot's arresting phrase, the souls of housemaids that were damp. A kind of marsh gas of boredom and vacuity thickened at crucial nerve-ends of social and intellectual life. For every text of Benthamite confidence, of proud meliorism, we can find a counterstatement of nervous fatigue. 1851 was the year of the Universal Exhibition, but also of the publication of a group of desolate, autumnal poems, which Baudelaire issued under the significant title Les Limbes. To me the most haunting, prophetic outcry of the nineteenth century is Théophile Gautier's "plutôt la barbarie que l'ennui!" If we can come to understand the sources of that perverse longing, of that itch for chaos, we will be nearer to an understanding of our own state and of the relations of our condition to the accusing ideal of the past.

No string of quotations, no statistics, can recapture for us what must have been the inner excitement, the passionate adventure of spirit and emotion unleashed by the events of 1789 and sustained, at a fantastic tempo, until 1815. Far more than political revolution and war, on an unprecedented scale of geographical and social compass, is involved. The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars -- la grande épopée -- literally quickened the pace of felt time. We lack histories of the internal time-sense, of the changing beat in men's experience of the rhythms of perception. But we do have reliable evidence that those who lived through the 1790s and the first decade and a half of the nineteenth century, and who could recall the tenor of life under the old dispensation, felt that time itself and the whole enterprise of consciousness had formidably accelerated. Kant's reputed lateness on his morning walk when news came of the fall of the Bastille, and the decision of the Republican régime to start the calendar of human affairs anew with l'an un are images of this great change. Even in the mind of contemporaries, each successive year of political struggle and social upheaval took on a distinct, graphic individuality. 1789, Quatrevingt-treize, 1812, are far more than temporal designations: they stand for great storms of being, for metamorphoses of the historical landscape so violent as to acquire, almost at once, the simplified magnitude of legend. (Because music is so immediately inwoven with changes in the shapes of time, the development of Beethoven's tempi, of the driving pulse in his symphonic and chamber music during the relevant years, is of extraordinary historical and psychological interest.)

Together with this accelerando, there occurred a "growing more dense" of human experience. The notion is difficult to set out abstractly. But it crowds on us, unmistakably, from contemporary literature and private record. The modern advertisement nostrum about "feeling more alive than before" had a literal force. Until the French Revolution and the marches and countermarches of the Napoleonic armies from Corunna to Moscow, from Cairo to Riga, history had been, very largely, the privilege and terror of the few. Certainly in respect of defined consciousness. All human beings were subject to general disaster or exploitation as they were to disease. But these swept over them with tidal mystery. It is the events of 1789 to 1815 that interpenetrate common, private existence with the perception of historical processes. The levée en masse of the Revolutionary armies was far more than an instrument of long-continued warfare and social indoctrination. It did more than terminate the old conventions of professional, limited warfare. As Goethe noted acutely on the field at Valmy, populist armies, the concept of a nation under arms, meant that history had become everyman's milieu. Henceforth, in Western culture, each day was to bring news -- a perpetuity of crisis, a break with the pastoral silences and uniformities of the eighteenth century made memorable in De Quincey's account of the mails racing through England with news of the Peninsular Wars. Wherever ordinary men and women looked across the garden hedge, they saw bayonets passing. As Hegel completed the Phenomenology, which is the master statement of the new density of being, he heard the hoofbeats of Napoleon's escort passing through the nocturnal street on the way to the battle of Jena.

We also lack a history of the future tense (in another context I am trying to show what such a phenomenology of internal grammar would be). But it is clear that the Revolutionary and Napoleonic decades brought on an overwhelming immanence, a deep, emotionally stressed change in the quality of hope. Expectations of progress, of personal and social enfranchisement, which had formerly had a conventional, often allegoric character, as of a millenary horizon, suddenly moved very close. The great metaphor of renewal, of the creation, as by a second coming of secular grace, of a just, rational city for man, took on the urgent drama of concrete possibility. The eternal "tomorrow" of utopian political vision became, as it were, Monday morning. We experience something of this dizzying sense of total possibility when reading the decrees of the Convention and of the Jacobin régime: injustice, superstition, poverty are to be eradicated now, in the next glorious hour. The world is to shed its worn skin a fortnight hence. In the grammar of Saint-Juste the future tense is never more than moments away. If we seek to trace this irruption -- it was that violent -- of dawn into private sensibility, we need look only to Wordsworth's Prelude and to the poetry of Shelley. The crowning statement, perhaps, is to be found in Marx's economic and political manuscripts of 1844. Not since early Christianity had men felt so near to renovation and to the end of night.

The quickening of time, the new vehemence and historicity of private consciousness, the sudden nearness of the messianic future contributed to a marked change in the tone of sexual relations. The evidence is plain enough. It comes as early as Wordsworth's "Lucy" poems and the penetrating remark on sexual appetite in the 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. It declares itself from a comparison, even cursory, between Swift's Journal to Stella and Keats's letters to Fanny Brawne. Nothing I know of at an earlier period truly resembles the self-dramatizing, self-castigating eroticism of Hazlitt's extraordinary Liber Amoris (1823). Many elements are in play: the "sexualization" of the very landscape, making of weather, season, and the particular hour a symbolic restatement of the erotic mood; a compulsion to experience more intimately, to experience sex to the last pitch of nervous singularity, and at the same time to make this experience public. I can make out what must have been contributory causes: the partial emancipation of women and the actual role of a number of them in political life and argument; the breakdown of usages of decorum and formal reticence which had been a part of the caste system of the ancien régime. It is not difficult to see in what ways an intensification and widening of the erotic could be a counterpart to the dynamics of revolution and European conquest. Nevertheless, the phenomenon, with its culmination in Wagner's amalgam of eros and history, remains complicated and in certain regards obscure. The fact that our own sexuality is distinctly post-romantic, that many of our own conventions stem directly from the revaluation of the erotic in the period from Rousseau to Heine, does not make analysis any simpler.

But taking these different strands together, one can say confidently that immense transmutations of value and perception took place in Europe over a time span more crowded, more sharply registered by individual and social sensibility, than any other of which we have reliable record. Hegel could argue, with rigorous logic of feeling, that history itself was passing into a new state of being, that ancient time was at an end.

What followed was, of course, a long spell of reaction and stasis. Depending on one's political idiom, one can see it either as a century of repression by a bourgeoisie that had turned the French Revolution and the Napoleonic extravaganza to its own economic advantage, or as a hundred years of liberal gradualism and civilized order. Broken only by convulsive but contained revolutionary spasms in 1830, 1848, and 1871, and by short wars of an intensely professional, socially conservative character, such as the Crimean and the Prussian Wars, this hundred years' peace shaped Western society and established the criteria of culture which have, until very recently, been ours.

To many who personally experienced the change , the drop in tension, the abrupt drawing of curtains against the morning, were deeply enervating. It is to the years after Waterloo that we must look for the roots of "the great ennui," which, as early as 1819, Schopenhauer defined as the corrosive illness of the new age.

What was a gifted man to do after Napoleon? How could organisms bred for the electric air of revolution and imperial epic breathe under the leaden sky of middle-class rule? How was it possible for a young man to hear his father's tales of the Terror and of Austerlitz and to amble down the placid boulevard to the countinghouse? The past drove rats' teeth into the gray pulp of the present; it exasperated, it sowed wild dreams. Of that exasperation comes a major literature. Musset's La Confession d'un enfant du siècle (1835-36) looks back with ironic misère on the start of the great boredom. The generation of 1830 was damned by memories of events, of hopes, in which it had taken no personal part. It nursed within "un fonds d'incurable tristesse et d'incurable ennui." No doubt there was narcissism in this cultivation, the somber complacency of dreamers who, from Goethe to Turgenev, sought to identify with Hamlet. But the void was real, and the sensation of history gone absurdly wrong. Stendhal is the chronicler of genius of this frustration. He had participated in the insane vitality of the Napoleonic era; he conducted the rest of his life in the ironic guise of a man betrayed. It is a terrible thing to be "languissant d'ennui au plus beau moment de la vie, de seize ans jusqu'à vingt" (Mlle. de La Mole's condition before she resolves to love Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le noir). Madness, death are preferable to the interminable Sunday and suet of a bourgeois life-form. How can an intellectual bear to feel within himself something of Bonaparte's genius, something of that demonic strength which led from obscurity to empire, and see before him nothing but the tawdry flatness of bureaucracy? Raskolnikov writes his essay on Napoleon and goes out to kill an old woman.

The collapse of revolutionary hopes after 1815, the brutal deceleration of time and radical expectation, left a reservoir of unused, turbulent energies. The romantic generation was jealous of its fathers. The "antiheroes," the spleen-ridden dandies in the world of Stendhal, Musset, Byron, and Pushkin, move through the bourgeois city like condottieri out of work. Or worse, like condottieri meagerly pensioned before their first battle. Moreover, the city itself, once festive with the tocsin of revolution, had become a prison.

For although politics had entered the phase of bland mendacity analyzed by Stendhal in Lucien Leuwen, the economic-industrial growth released by continental war and the centralized consciousness of the new nation-states took place exponentially. The "dark Satanic mills" were everywhere creating the soiled, hybrid landscape which we have inherited. The theme of alienation, so vital to any theory of the crisis of culture, is, as both Hegel and Saint-Simon were among the first to realize, directly related to the development of mass-manufacture. It is in the early and midnineteenth century that occur both the dehumanization of laboring men and women in the assembly-line system, and the dissociation between ordinary educated sensibility and the increasingly complex, technological artifacts of daily life. In manufacture and the money market, energies barred from revolutionary action or war could find outlet and social approval. Such expressions as "Napoleons of finance" and "captains of industry" are semantic markers of this modulation.

The immense growth of the monetary-industrial complex also brought with it the modern city, what a later poet was to call la ville tentaculaire -- the megalopolis whose uncontrollable cellular division and spread now threatens to choke so much of our lives. Hence the definition of a new, major conflict: that between the individual and the stone sea that may, at any moment, overwhelm him. The urban inferno, with its hordes of faceless inhabitants, haunts the nineteenth-century imagination. Sometimes the metropolis is a jungle, the crazed tropical growth of Hard Times and Brecht's Im Dickicht der Stadt. A man must make his mark on its indifferent immensity, or he will be cast off like the rags, the dawn flotsam which obsessed Baudelaire. In his invention of Rastignac, looking down on Paris, challenging the city to mortal combat, Balzac dramatized one of the focal points of the modern crisis. It is precisely from the 1830s onward that one can observe the emergence of a characteristic "counterdream" -- the vision of the city laid waste, the fantasies of Scythian and Vandal invasion, the Mongol steeds slaking their thirst in the fountains of the Tuileries Gardens. An odd school of painting develops: pictures of London, Paris, or Berlin seen as colossal ruins, famous landmarks burnt, eviscerated, or located in a weird emptiness among charred stumps and dead water. Romantic fantasy anticipates Brecht's vengeful promise that nothing shall remain of the great cities except the wind that blows through them. Exactly a hundred years later, these apocalyptic collages and imaginary drawings of the end of Pompeii were to be our photographs of Warsaw and Dresden. It needs no psychoanalysis to suggest how strong a part of wish-fulfillment there was in these nineteenth-century intimations.

The conjunction of extreme economic-technical dynamism with a large measure of enforced social immobility, a conjunction on which a century of liberal, bourgeois civilization was built, made for an explosive mixture. It provoked in the life of art and of intelligence certain specific, ultimately destructive ripostes. These, it seems to me, constitute the meaning of Romanticism. It is from them that will grow the nostalgia for disaster.


Here I am on familiar ground and can move rapidly. In romantic pastoralism there is as much of a flight from the devouring city as there is a return to nature. What needs close attention is the extent to which critiques of urban society tend to become indictments of all formal, complex civilization as such ("civilization," of course, has in it the word for city). Rousseauist naturalism has an obvious destructive edge.

Romantic exoticism, that longing for le pays lointain, for "faery lands forlorn," reflected different hurts: ennui, a feeling of impotence in the face of political reaction and philistine rule, a hunger for new colors, new shapes, new possibilities of nervous discovery, to set against the morose proprieties of bourgeois and Victorian modes. It also had its strain of primitivism. If Western culture had gone bad in the teeth, there might be sources of new vision among distant savageries. Mallarmé's Brise marine concentrates each of these elements into an ironic whole:

La chair est triste, hélas! et j'ai lu tous les livres.
Fuir! là-bas fuir! Je sens que des oiseaux sont ivres
D'être parmi l'écume inconnue et les cieux!
Rien, ni les vieux jardins reflétés par les yeux
Ne retiendra ce coeur qui dans la mer se trempe
O nuits! ni la clarté déserte de ma lampe
Sur le vide papier que la blancheur défend,
Et ni la jeune femme allaitant son enfant.
Je partirai! Steamer balançant ta mâture,
Lève l'ancre pour une exotique nature!
Un Ennui, désolé par les cruels espoirs,
Croit encore à l'adieu suprême des mouchoirs!2

Romantic ideals of love, notably the stress on incest, dramatize the belief that sexual extremism, the cultivation of the pathological, can restore personal existence to a full pitch of reality and somehow negate the gray world of middle-class fact. It is permissible to see in the Byronic theme of damnation through forbidden love and in the Wagnerian Liebestod surrogates for the lost dangers of revolutionary action.

The artist becomes hero. In a society made inert by repressive authority, the work of art becomes the quintessential deed. That is the claim put forward in Berlioz's Benvenuto Cellini, in Zola's l'Oeuvre. Shelley went further. Though outwardly harried and powerless, the poet is "the unacknowledged legislator" of mankind. Or, as Victor Hugo proclaimed, he is le Mage, the divinely gifted necromancer in the van of human progress. It is not these propositions in themselves I want to consider, but only the degree of exasperation, of estrangement between society and the shaping forces of spirit which they betray.

All these currents of frustration, of illusory release, and of ironic defeat are registered, with unequaled precision, in the novels and private life of Flaubert. The figure of Emma Bovary incarnates, at a cruelly trivialized level, the roused and thwarted energies of dreams and desires for which mid-nineteenth-century society would allow no scope. L'Education sentimentale is the great "anti-Bildungsroman," the record of an education "away from" felt life and toward bourgeois torpor. Bouvard et Pécuchet is a long whine of loathing, of nausea at the apparently unshakable regimen of middle-class values. And there is Salammbô. Written almost exactly in mid-century, this frenetic yet congealed narrative of blood-lust, barbaric warfare, and orgiastic pain takes us to the heart of our problem. The sadism of the book, its scarcely governed ache for savagery, stem immediately from Flaubert's account of his own condition. Since adolescence, he had felt nothing but "insatiable desires" and "un ennui atroce."

Reading only these novels, one should have sensed much of the void that was undermining European stability. One should have known that ennui was breeding detailed fantasies of nearing catastrophe. Most of what has occurred since has its specific origins in the tensions of nineteenth-century society, in a complex of attitudes which, in hindsight, we think of too readily as a model for culture itself.


Ought one to go further? Is it reasonable to suppose that every high civilization will develop implosive stresses and impulses towards self-destruction? Does so delicately balanced, simultaneously dynamic and confined an aggregate as a complex culture tend, necessarily, towards a state of instability and, finally, of conflagration? The model would be that of a star which, after attaining a critical mass, a critical equation of energy exchanges between internal structure and radiant surface, will collapse inward, flaring out, at the moment of destruction, with just that magnitude of visible brilliance which we associate with great cultures in their terminal phase. Is the phenomenology of ennui and of a longing for violent dissolution a constant in the history of social and intellectual forms once they have passed a certain threshhold of complication?

I want to come back to this question at different points in my argument. To ask it at all is, of course, to follow on Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, and to consider once again, the nihilist pastoralism of Rousseau. Freud's essay is itself a poetic construct, an attempt to devise a myth of reason with which to contain the terror of history. The notion of a death wish, operative in both individual and collective consciousness, is, as Freud himself emphasized, a philosophic trope. It goes frankly beyond the available psychological and sociological data. But the suggestion is of extraordinary force, and Freud's portrayal of the tensions which civilized manners impose on central, unfulfilled human instincts remains valid. As do the hints, abundant in psychoanalytic literature (which is itself post-Darwinian), that there is in human interrelations an inescapable drive towards war, towards a supreme assertion of identity at the cost of mutual destruction. Again, I want to return to these ideas. They are obviously cardinal to any contemporary theory of culture.

Whether the. psychic mechanisms involved were universal or historically localized, one thing is plain: by ca. 1900 there was a terrible readiness, indeed a thirst for what Yeats was to call the "blood-dimmed tide." Outwardly brilliant and serene, la belle époque was menacingly overripe. Anarchic compulsions were coming to a critical pitch beneath the garden surface. Note the prophetic images of subterranean danger, of destructive agencies ready to rise from sewerage and cellar, that obsess the literary imagination from the time of Poe and Les Misérables to Henry James's Princess Casamassima. The arms race and the mounting fever of European nationalism were, I think, only the outward symptoms of this essential malaise. Intellect and feeling were, literally, fascinated by the prospect of a purging fire.


I. F. Clarke's Voices Prophesying War provides a lucid account of this fascination, of the anticipations of global conflict in poetry and fiction as they came to a head from the 1870s on. In all this mass of premonitory fantasy, only H. G. Wells's World Set Free was to prove wholly accurate. Written during 1913, it foresaw, with eerie precision, "the unquenchable crimson conflagrations of the atomic bombs." And even Wells could not prophesy the true measure of the dissolution of civilized norms, of human hopes, that was to come.

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