Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time of Confusion

Several years ago, I read a book I wanted to keep for future reference, but as is often happens after praising it so much I had to lend it to someone and never got it back. The book was The Vertigo Years: Europe 1900-1914, by Philipp Blom. I bought it because a chapter titled Wagner's Crime grabbed my attention and in my typical fashion I did not realize until later that Richard Wagner had long been dead in 1900. Nevertheless, the book was fascinating and I wish I still had it. Maybe it would help clarify my current thoughts and give me a hint on how best to proceed in this century. 

The Vertigo Years is about fast changes - scientific, technological, political and societal - that left many people confused in the early years of the 20th century. In the West, machines increasingly replaced manpower, motorcars replaced horse-drawn carriages, and movies became a popular form of entertainment while the Bolshevik Revolution was brewing in the East. Life became faster and more complex causing  a lot of stress. More and more patients were diagnosed with a nervous disorder called neurasthenia. With the advent of women's movements, communism, technological developments and other threats to the established order in Europe, many men felt insecure and so they put on uniforms, grew moustaches and engaged in duels and similar "manly" pursuits. The author (as far as I can remember) said much of the confusion stemmed from the conflicting approaches to the new century. Half of the western population believed that a new century must usher a new era, and the other half (or three-qarter?) wanted to cling to the old and familiar.

The Gaumont Palace in Paris was the largest movie theater in Europe in the early 20th century
It seems to me that the world has arrived at a similar point in the early decades of this century. Aren't recent political developments worldwide, not to mention at home, a clear indication that half of the world is not sure it wants to get ahead, and prefers to take a step back. Just look at the Polish events this weekend: the marchers, apparently quite young, want a return to white, Catholic and conservative Poland. One can only hope that it is the kind of step back that gives impetus to a big jump forward.
There are other comparisons between the early 20th and the early 21st centuries.
Silently the family, at least in the United States, stopped consisting of a man, a woman and several kids. Traditionalists watch in horror the crumbling of the established boundaries as same-sex marriages become legal, gender issues include transgender issues, populations become diverse. The more changes are pushed in from one side, the more resistance builds up on the other. You can see semi-nude bodies in public places along with those covered from head to toe. Digital technology is developing at such a vertiginous speed that while you still struggle to learn the ropes on iPhone 6, the new cell-phones are light years ahead. It has come to the point when even a libertarian and "futurist" like me cannot digest it all. I stubbornly refuse to use Siri because it may give me more headache. Of course, it is questionable that Siri would understand my accent.

A hundred years ago, women in England demonstrated for the right to vote. A century later, women in several countries donned pink hats to demonstrate against all kinds of injustices. They were not stoned or jailed , but the recent Weinstein hoopla revealed how much women have been discouraged from seeking justice even in the 21st century, and not only by men but by their whole societies. A woman in Croatia, I learn, has tried to report her husband's sexual abuse of their daughter only to be told by the police that they can't intervene in family disputes. When the daughter got pregnant a couple of times and the case could not be covered up any longer, the husband was jailed, but the woman was ostracized by her community for "not having done enough", for "not having left the man immediately" and all kinds of other "wrongs." People were angry at the uncomfortable situation in their midst and the victim was easier to blame than the perpetrator. 

The wife of French President Emmanuel Macron has had to cope with a wave of misogyny for being 24 years older than the husband
Neurasthenia is no longer officially listed as a disease in the United States (as it is in some other countries), but there are all kinds of other nervous and autoimmune disorders with similar symptoms and blamed on similar causes.

The Vertigo Years is divided into 15 chapters, one for each year leading to World War One. But instead of giving us a boring history lesson for the year, Blom picked an important event in each year that was new and significant not only for the era but for the future too.

The last chapter titled Murder Most Foul, was about 1914, the year of the start of the Great War. So it can only be about the assassination of the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo, right? Well .....not actually. It is about the sensational murder committed by the wife of a French politician. Henriette Caillaux shot to death the editor of Le Figaro who was critical of her husband. If she had not done it, her husband would have been forced to challenge him to a duel that would end his political career. She was acquitted after her lawyer persuaded the jury that the wealthy socialite had not premeditated the murder, but committed a crime of passion, caused by her "uncontrollable female passions." Never mind that Henriette sat for an hour in Le Figaro offices waiting for the editor to come in. Female passions take much longer to cool down.

The second murder most foul that year sparked the biggest war in the history of the time.  Let's hope our "vertigo years" don't bring another more destructive one.

P.S. Just in case you wondered: Wagner's Crime, as indicated earlier, was not a chapter about one of my favorite composers, but a story about a provincial Austrian teacher who unexpectedly and inexplicably murdered his wife and children after having a pleasant meal at a local inn and chatting amiably with neighbors all the way home. It was the first court case ever in which insanity was accepted as reason for acquittal and Wagner spent the rest of his life in an asylum. Today, insanity seems to be a new normal so such acquittals may be harder to win, and there aren't enough asylums to keep all the afflicted in.

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