Fin De Siecle


  • Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August opens by describing the mood of Europe in 1910 _ the so called Fin De Siecle or “End of Century.”  She shows how this was unexpectedly related to what happened a few years later.
  • At the time, Europe had enjoyed a period of nearly 100 years without a major war, almost 30 since the last minor one.  There had been a few conflicts that raged in the rebellious Philippines and South Africa, a shocking conflict between Japan and Russia, but all in all the international order was stable.  Nations’ rulers, often blood relations, were on good terms with one another.  A homogenous Christianized culture bound the majority of inhabitants together.
  • Elites were fat and happy.  They considered war impossible because of the bonds of trade and logic.  Science produced daily marvels, many applied to day to day life.  The standard of living for most people was sufficient and rising.  Marvels were expected in the near future.
  • But.
  • Elites turned tricky and boring government over to whoever wanted it.  The military command grew tired of never having chances for glory and promotions.  Industrialists thought that their rivals were being too much helped by colonial subsidies.  Moralists thought rot had spread through society which required an idealistic purge of bad ideas and people.  The masses felt they were cheated and wanted their fair share of increasing wealth.  And local cults _ some racial, some philosophical, some religious, some cultural _ all thought a quick shake up would put them on top, or at least in a much better position.
  • By 1914, almost all of Europe looked forward to a quick glorious war which would solve all their problems.  Instead, of course, they endured 50 years of unremitting horror, slaughter, and hardship. 
  • I worry about the mood today, which strikes me as increasingly similar to that not so long ago.


  • Even in the midst of vast extinctions, even in one of the most densely populated and ecologically damaged areas of the planet, the complexity and number of shellfish washed up on shore by tide and storm remains amazing.  Clams of several types, oysters, periwinkles, moon, whelk, and others unnamed, in multiple subspecies, too many for me to know nor name.  Infinite piles along certain areas of the coast, renewed constantly.  Nature struggles, but some life remains vibrant.  All strange, all complex, all exotic.
  • For true complexity I need not venture outside my skull.  Consciousness forever eludes analysis.  The physical foundation of consciousness drives biologists to despair from sheer interrelated complexity.  Western culture’s greatest sin has been, continues to be, that the universe is mechanistic and can be somehow understood and controlled piecemeal.  Sometimes it is proper to blink in amazement at where I am and simply accept the exotic immensity of the unknown supporting my familiar.


  • Fractals and Quantum guarantee we never reach the bottom of systems.
  • Chaos assures whatever we think we know is wrong.


  • Lurking below a surface daily joy, there seems a great unease in public mood.  Today is fine, many people think, but they are worried about tomorrow.  They are worried that they may control what is around them, but vast unseen currents are sweeping problems their way, most insoluble.  Nostalgia for a presumed simpler past is rampant.
  • Some of the disquiet manifests itself in conspiracy theories _ somebody somewhere must be controlling the world.  Some shows as a distrust of any statement _ if truth is deep and complex then there is no truth, and any lie becomes plausible.  Some, of course, simply translates to a vague anger that at times can be incited to violence.
  • Wishing for this fog of dread uncertainty to be swept away is dangerous.  We may get what we wish, and like many wishes granted we may discover there are consequences far more dire than what we had been experiencing.  Clean revelation and revolution never occur _ there must be blood, often an awful lot of blood _ and the end results never match the glorious visions.
  • I worry about all the cartoon philosophies floating about, all the gossamer juvenile spiritualities clutched by those wanting something simple to believe.   If we are to have a better world, a world of dreams and hope, it must be a complex world, a foggy world, and a world where the unexpected is accepted as part of our bargain of being consciously aware of who we are.


  • For long eras of Earth, especially when landmasses were connected, there was probably a fairly stable and slow-changing dance of species, gracefully drifting into similar niches everywhere.  Breakup of the continents followed by pulsating ice ages changed that, creating isolated environments which remained in constant flux.  A huge number of species evolved, including one that threatens all the others.
  • Anyone who existed in the twentieth century most likely experienced maximum diversity of life on our planet.  Now globalized bugs, weeds, and other aggressive survivors are crowding out more delicately balanced forms.  Meanwhile industry reworks every spot on the planet _ either directly with human devastation, or indirectly through acidification and water table manipulation.  The coming poverty of nature is unfortunate and ugly, but probably closer to the long term average than we would suspect.  


Joe and I stand under the library overhang on a miserable chilly rainswept afternoon.  We watch bent and bundled pedestrians, half with umbrellas, scurrying along trying to avoid puddles.  Frustrated drivers perform the necessary dances to move their vehicles along choked Main Street.  I turn to him, “Feels like the end of an era.”
“How so?”
“Well, you know how you can always tell 1890’s Paris in old photographs and paintings?  All big hats, and horse carts and a certain feel to the light and costumes.”
“Well, I think this scene is just a temporary.  In fifty years it would be totally different.  Not like the change from the sixties to here, which are very much the same.”
“And you think the new scene will be …. What?”
“Oh, I don’t know.  Just different.  Smaller cars, if cars at all.  People wearing much less bulky clothing.  Maybe clear domes to keep out the rain.”
“Ah, science fiction.  And no darker side?  What about blasted rubble or detritus-strewn streets with no life moving.”
“Except insects _ yeah, I know.  But I’m an optimist.  Assuming good things, I still think we are at the end of an era in all kinds of ways, some visual, some social, some we don’t have any idea about.”
“Well, won’t affect us,” says Joe.
“True, true.  I need to return these books.  See you in a while….”

The lobby is refreshingly warm and happily quiet.


We assume that things will change
Assume that much remains the same
We hope for better finer days
While treasuring our ancient ways
We fight to stay just where we stand
Faith as solid as the land
We drift and paddle on time’s flow
Moving, not sure where we go
Hardly matters, here or there,

We’re insubstantial as the air.  

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