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Book Review


Michael Saler, ed., The Fin-de-Siècle World. London and New York: Routledge, 2015. Pp. xxi + 761. Index. $250 (cloth).


     Public fascination with the 1800's fin-de-siècle dates back to the 1980s. Seminal works published at the beginning of that decade like Carl E. Schorske's widely read and translated Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Culture and Politics, together with the catalogues of a number of major art exhibitions held in Vienna, New York, Paris, and Tokyo,1 hyped up popular interest in the Central European turn-of-the-century as the cradle of a modernity which with its emphasis on relativity, fragmentation, the use of irony, playfulness, self-referencing and distrust of grand narratives, contained the seeds of the late twentieth-century postmodern mindset. Since then every decade saw at least the publication of a companion about the fin-de-siècle. Their general aim was to cover the main developments which made this period distinct. However, with their geographic focus on Europe and Britain,2 they failed to provide the global perspective on this period that The Fin-de-Siècle World does.

     Its thorough global coverage, which extends from Europe and the British Empire to North and South America, Africa, the Middle East and Asia, is therefore one of the main strengths of this volume. The Fin-de-Siècle World is innovative in many other respects as well. With its forty-five essays, written by contributors with impeccable credentials in their field, it stands out as the most comprehensive work on the topic. Organized partly geographically and partly thematically, the contributors cover topics as diverse as the late nineteenth-century industrial revolution, the ways globalization shrank space and time, the avatars of urban life and modernity, decadence, consumer culture, new modalities of transport and the fascination with speed, changes in the world of publishing, and the impact of nationalism, imperialism, and new understandings of individualism. Individual chapters also cover the rise of universities and new human and scientific disciplines such as philosophy, physics, biology, eugenics, psychology, psychiatry and medicine. Reflecting the period's intense engagement with spirituality, other chapters provide crucial insight into the main issues which confronted religions such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and the secular, agnostic, and New Age communities which emerged at the fin-de-siècle. Issues pertaining to gender and sexuality, and race and ethnicity are not forgotten, while aesthetics also gets its fair share in chapters devoted to fin-de-siècle music, the visual arts, the cinema, science-fiction, children's literature, and the realist novel.

     In spite of its wide coverage this volume is no mere reference work. While some chapters are summative, the majority of the essays are intellectually sparkling and highly engaging. The most successful ones are those that, instead of offering a panoramic picture of developments in a geographic area, discipline, or circumscribed topic, focus on moments of change or analyze defining fin-de-siècle attitudes. Many contributors stress that the fin-de-siècle was a Janus-faced period: emphasis on cultural crisis, decline, decadence, and degeneration went hand-in-hand with optimism in the potentialities opened up by the newest technologies of the industrial revolution (telegraphy, electricity, the telephone, the gramophone, the car, the airplane), which fostered a sense of renewal, rebirth and overall exhilaration regarding the future. With globalization in full swing, these different facets of the fin-de-siècle were also fashioned by a complex interplay between the local, the national and the global. Interaction between these levels was greatly facilitated, as Stephen Kern argues in his chapter on "Changing Concepts and Experiences of Time and Space," by "a new sense of simultaneity, an acceleration of the pace of life, and a leveling of spatial hierarchies" (74).

     Reflecting the increasing domination of Europe over other continents, many early European interpretations of fin-de-siècle culture outside the West emphasized its intimate connection with developments at home. Similar phenomena that arose outside European borders were seen therefore as mere imitations. Challenging narratives written in this vein, Regenia Gagnier points out  that "literary Decadence did not merely spread from France and Britain to other countries as a cultural movement but arose repeatedly and distinctly in response to changes and crises within various nations and cultures, and these underwrote formal resemblances" (25). Other contributors also emphasize the need to identify components of the fin-de-siècle mindset arising independently in a variety of non-European contexts. In some such cases the task might appear daunting. For instance, given the cyclical counting of time in units of sixty years instead of centuries in turn-of-the-century China, can one talk about a fin-de-siècle in that country? In spite of such important differences in counting time, building on formal resemblances between "the growing sense of a temporal rift" as it manifested itself in Western Europe and China, Maura Dykstra and Jeffrey Wasserstrom respond in the affirmative (240). If one counts the failed Hundred Days Reform Movement of 1898, the Boxer Uprising of 1900, the piecemeal reforms instituted by the Qing dynasty in the early 1900s and the successful Chinese revolution of 1911 as so many instances of opposition between the old and the new, then one can clearly see such a temporal rift emerging in China. Moreover, the official switch in 1911 from the traditional Chinese calendar to the solar one, which brought China in synch with Western time, led to "the conclusion of dynastic time, and the beginning of a new temporal regime tied to the Chinese nation" (250), which with its attendant struggles in the twentieth century, was an axial moment "of the struggle between old and new that defined China's distinctive fin-de-siècle experience" (253).

     At first sight, the parallel with the Western European fin-de-siècle appears even more forced when it is applied to the Middle East. There, as Jens Hanssen writes, "the year 1900 in the Gregorian calendar corresponded to 1317 hijiri and to 1315 in the maliyye year of the Ottoman fiscal calculation; it was the year 5660 in the Jewish  and 6649 in the Assyrian calendars" (266). Yet, as he points out, "despite this communal heterogeneity, forces of temporal homogenization and spatial differentiation were at work in the nineteenth century that generated an epochal consciousness above and beyond the mosaic of communal chronological frames" (266). Global awareness was reflected both in the discourse of Islamic purists who "did not reason outside the fin-de-siècle dialectic of civilization and barbarism, degeneration and regeneration" (276), and that of Arab reformists among whom a "fear of degeneration" (277) became prevalent. Together they produced "a resistant object of Western Orientalism, European expansion and colonial expansion; a disowned key to understanding the formations of modernity in the European metropole itself; and communities of discourse with their own self-reflective consciousness" (279).

     The fin-de-siècle language of degeneration and decadence found echoes in India as well, where in a moralist vein Indian nation builders used it to describe the Lucknow school of poetry of an earlier Indian fin-de-siècle (that of the eighteenth century). In Africa too,  as Rebecca Saunders points out, contrary to  fears of decadence, biological regression, and racial contamination that Europeans projected onto Africans, "the cultural malaise over which Europeans fretted was, for Africans, a wholesale (albeit not uncontested) destruction of cultures, political systems and social structures" (318). As further proof of the interconnectedness of the world in 1900, the self-consciousness of the European fin-de-siècle as a distinct time in cultural history was absorbed by exiled Latin American writers in Paris and New York, who "became aware of their subaltern condition" in "a common world culture" (234) and it produced an important outcome in Tibet, Sri Lanka, Burma, and Japan, where the idea "of a single world religion called 'Buddhism' (601) took shape. Other religions also underwent significant changes. In the world of the East European shtetls,  an "internal shift" took place "in Jewish thought from the evolutionary temporality (Gr. chronos) of the nineteenth century to the 'crisis' temporality (Gr. kairos)  of the fin de siècle" (562), while  this time period also saw the Thomistic revival in Catholic thought and the spread of liberal theology among Protestant denominations. Indeed, from the reconceptualization of the Muslim ecumene through the historicization of Islamic civilization to the rise of secularism, atheism, agnosticism, theosophy, occultism, and spiritualism, the last decades of the nineteenth century and what they ushered into thereafter, offer the picture of a world in profound intellectual and spiritual ferment.

     Similar to imperialism's exclusionary mindset and subjugation of non-European populations were the manifestations of the 'new nationalism' on the European continent, where diatribes against "'the other' became much more prevalent among nationalist discourses, encompassing both the external enemy and also the enemy within" (325). If there was any hope for the ideas of the Enlightenment and humanity to triumph in the future, it came from exponents of "higher individualism" (351) like Grant Allen and Havelock Ellis in Britain, as well as pacifists, suffragettes, feminists, humanitarians and social reformists elsewhere. Their "new politics" "was passionately concerned with, and highly successful in expanding, the contemporary political agenda. It offered a new way of being interested in politics that encompassed sexuality, child rearing, gender issues, art, drama, and literature. It promoted big issues and high ideals. At the same time, it elevated domestic questions: the personal became political as the political became personal" (361). Indeed, as Chris Nottingham argues, "politics became, unmistakably, a means by which one expressed one's identity, one's intellect, even one's moral worth" (361).

     A process of politicization was noticeable not just at the level of the personal but of the human body as well. In the words of Marius Turda, with the configuration of biology as a new scientific discipline and the rise of eugenics, "there is no doubt about the renewed importance fin-de-siècle modernity bestowed upon the body in the establishment of a new biological vision of humanity"(456). Under the influence of eugenicists, by the turn-of-the-century, diagnoses of moral and physical degeneration were transferred from individuals to larger groups like nations and races. Yet, science also cultivated its own identity in trying to stay above the political fray. The turn-of-the-century was the time of the rise of the universities in their modern form, a process influenced by the global circulation of the German research university and the Oxbridge models. It was also a time when the natural and social sciences became  distinct disciplines, with the former taking the lead as big science, and the latter trying to meet the challenge by staking their own claims to scientific objectivity. While physics moved away from the mechanical to an electrodynamic interpretation of natural phenomena, the professionalization of psychology and psychiatry helped its practitioners take over the task of dealing with a "person's inner experiences and pains" from "priests, ministers, shamans and fortunetellers" (474). By contrast, the field of medicine reflected a "tension between medical advancements and how medical discourse was used in theories of degeneration to support a model of cultural decline" (488).

     The richest fin-de-siècle developments were in the field of culture. Music was dominated by the spread of Wagnerism, with Brahms, Liszt and Debussy also having a considerable impact. In the visual arts, the turn-of-the-century witnessed the emergence of impressionism, symbolism, and the beginnings of modernism. However, both the music and the visual arts of this time were heavily influenced by the spread of mass culture, evidenced by the survival of romanticism in music and the impact that late nineteenth-century world's fairs' constant featuring of the exotic had on the painters, sculptors, graphic artists and photographers of the period. The focus on peasant cultures that the new nationalism urged was another important development noticeable both in music and in the visual arts. Early cinema brought the distant world close to viewers, while the new genre of science fiction enabled readers of all ages to dream about creatures from beyond the earth. There was also a new focus on children as both subject and audience as evidenced by the spread of children's literature, while realism and naturalism continued to play an important role in depicting the world of adults with its own set of problems and social ills.

     As for criticism, if there is a general agreement among contributors that locates the beginning of the fin-de-siècle in the 1880s, a decade when contemporaries self-consciously  started to use it to describe their present, the endings of this period here appear to be much more fluid. Some chapters stop their coverage around 1900, while others take it to 1914, and some even make forays into the 1920s. With the exception of Olga Matich, who convincingly argues that the Russian fin-de-siècle "began belatedly" in the first decade of the twentieth century to "spill over into the 1917 Russian Revolution" (150), the latter date seems a bit far-fetched since contributors fudge the fin-de-siècle with the high time of modernism and the avant-garde, which were to a great extent shaped by the First World War and the specific political, economic, social and cultural conditions of the interwar period. Thematically too, in spite of the contributors' thorough coverage of so many topics, one would have wished to read more about music hall culture, mass tourism, nighttime entertainment, and the mass sports  that engaged very large audiences as they spread like a global wildfire at the turn-of-the-century.

     These quibbles aside, one cannot but praise the impressive achievements of this work. It is not only an intellectual pleasure to read but maps out the global fin-de-siècle in a way that makes it eminently suitable material for teaching the history of this period. For the non-specialist, almost every chapter offers gems of insight and interesting information that greatly contribute to the better understanding of the multiple ramifications of a topic. The visuals of the volume, which includes more than 50 illustrations with many different from the customary ones, are also very rich and rewarding for those looking to enhance their visual material in a course. With this set of strengths, The Fin-de-Siècle World, will definitely stand out as the best introduction to its topic for many decades to come.

Alexander Vari is an associate professor of modern European and world history at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He has published articles on popular culture in Paris and Budapest and, among other projects, is working on a book-length manuscript on urban popular culture and the globalization of entertainment in Central Europe, 1880–1914. He can be contacted at



1Carl E, Schorske, Fin-de-siècle Vienna: Culture and Politics (New York: Knopf, 1980), Tino Erben, Traum und Wirklichkeit: Wien, 1870–1930 (Vienna: Museen der Stadt Wien, 1985); Kirk Varnedoe, Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture and Design (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1986); Jean Clair, Vienne, 1880–1938: l'apocalypse joyeuse(Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 1986); Sezon Bijutsukan, Wien um 1900: Klimt, Schiele und Ihre Zeit (Tokyo: Sezon Museum of Art, 1989).

2See Mikulá_ Teich and Roy Porter, eds., Fin de Siècle and Its Legacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990) and Gail Marshall, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.



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