Vertigo Years

About a hundred pages into writing a novel that takes place in Vienna and Paris between 1897 and 1943, one of the best sourcebooks on the early part of the story has been Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914. Below are a few dozen voices from that time, and while some of the accents and stresses may seem silly to us, in an almost uncanny way their concerns aren’t much different than ours: there’s worry over the spread of new technology and its invasion (and cheapening) of everyday life; a deep paranoia over changes in previously stable gender roles—where women and machines are replacing men in factories—with a resulting exaggeration in masculinity and a lashing out at even the hint of homosexuality; a faith in progress and the harnessing and collation of data, whether in science or culture, which inevitably leads either to ideas of eugenics or simply in materialist notions of actually “useless” people, or just in rigid artistic theories and groups; or a feeling of utter powerlessness in the face of science, culture, and rapid change, resulting either in artists who feel language and music and representation are no longer able to bear the old burdens, or in anarchists or philosophers who see the entire world as irredeemably unjust and brutal, especially for the poor; and there is exuberant patriotism and great worry over eventual collapse, and the experience of uncertainty and the need for certainty. There is, as always, the desperate belief in the perfectibility of society that will finally solve all of our ills, ideas which usually involve the imposition of some form of authoritarianism, some exclusion of those deemed undesirable who are the root cause of all our troubles, and some curbing of natural freedom which, it’s usually realized too late, is the core both of our greatest highs and most deplorable lows. They are all right here, a hundred years ago:

Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain: “I believe that the British race is the greatest of the governing races that the world has ever seen.” (24)

Poet Rudyard Kipling:
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dune and headland sinks the fire;
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre! (26)

Poet, novelist, playright Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “No understanding is possible between people, no discussion, no connection between today and yesterday: words are lying, feelings are lying, and our very consciousness is lying.” (44)

A young woman in one of Arthur Schnitzler’s novels: “They send you to school and see that you learn French and the piano and you spend the summers in the country,” she reflects about her upbringing. “But what’s happening inside me, what is tormented and frightened inside me, have they ever been interest in that?” They had not. In the context of a good society the very question was heretical.” (57)

The New York Times, April 21, 1912: “Few New Yorkers realize that all through the roar of the big city there are constantly speeding messages between people separated by vast distances, and that over housetops and even though the walls of buildings and in the very air one breathes are words written by electricity.” (71)

Pierre Curie, accepting the Nobel Prize: “…It can even be thought that radium could become very dangerous in criminal hands, and here the question can be raised whether mankind benefits from knowing the secrets of Nature, whether it is ready to profit from it or whether this knowledge will not be harmful for it. The example of the discoveries of Nobel is characteristic, as powerful explosives have enabled man to do wonderful work. They are also a terrible means of destruction in the hands of great criminals who lead the peoples towards war. I am one of those who believe with Nobel that mankind will derive more good than harm from the new discoveries.” (78)

Physicist Albert Michelson in 1899, only a few years before Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: “The more important and fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote… Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.” (81)

Aleksei Svirskii, on the poor of Russia: “Three days and two nights I passed among people who had fallen out of life. They are not living, these people, but moldering like charred logs left scattered after a fire. In the gloomy half-light of the dirty dives, in crowded, bug-infested flophouses, in the tearooms and taverns and the dens of cheap debauchery—everywhere vodka, women and children are sold—I encountered people who no longer resembled human beings.” (127)

Artist Mikhail Larionov: “The genius of our day: trousers, jackets, shoes, tramways, buses, airplanes, railways, magnificent ships. We deny that individuality has any value in a work of art.” (151)

F. T. Marinetti, in the Futurist Manifesto: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” (155)

A Russian peasant mother to her son: “When one is not a soldier, one is not a man.” (165)

Writer Anatole France, that the duel was “the first tool of civilization, the only means man had found to reconcile his brutal instincts and his ideal of justice.” (166)

The Daily Mail, warning its readers “Refuse to be served by an Austrian or German waiter. If your waiter says he is Swiss, as to see his passport,” while William Le Queux warns the British public that there “were Germans who, having served in the army, had come over to England and obtained employment as waiters, clerks, bakers, hairdressers, and private servants, and being  bound by their oat to the Fatherland, had served their country as spies. Each man, when obeying the Imperial command to join the German arms, had placed in the lapel of his coat a button of a peculiar shape with which he had long ago been provided and by which he was instantly recognized as a loyal subject of the Kaiser.” (181)

Max Nordau, Zionist, that the threat to civilization came from: “…a contempt for traditional views and morality… a practical emancipation from traditional discipline… unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of the beast in man… disdain of all considerations for his fellow-men, the trampling under foot of all barriers which enclose brutal greed of lucre and lust of pleasure… to all, it means the end of an established order, which for thousands of years has satisfied logic, fettered depravity, and in every art matured something of beauty.” (184)

Feminist Rosa Mayreder: “…Modern man suffers from his intellectualism as from an illness… is it not significant that men, educated to be critical in all questions, remain uncritical for the longest when it comes to analyzing masculinity?” (188)

Feminist Lavena Saltonstall: “As I am a tailoress many people think it is my bounden duty to make trousers and vests, and knit and crochet and sew, and thank God for my station in life. I am supposed to make myself generally useless by ignoring things that matter—literature, music, art, history, economics, the lives of the people round me and the evils of my day. They think I ought to concern myself over clean doorsteps and side-board covers—things that don’t matter so much….” (226)

A young Russian woman in her diary: “I do not have the preparation, the zeal, or the perseverance for serious study. And now I am old it is too late. You do not begin studying at twenty-five. I have neither the talent nor the calling for independent artistic creation. I am unmusical and understand nothing about it. As for painting, I have done no more than study a few years as a schoolgirl. And literature? I have never written a thing except this diary. So only civic activity remains. But what kind? Fashionable philanthropy which is held up to ridicule in all the satirical journals? Establishing cheap dining rooms? That’s like trying to patch up a piece of crumbling, rotting flesh. Opening up literacy schools when it is universities that we need? I myself have jeered at these attempts to empty the sea with a teaspoon. Or perhaps I should turn to revolution? But to do that, one has to believe. I have no faith, no direction, no spiritual energy. What is left for me to do?” (233)

Feminist Anita Augspurg: “The question whether the fundamental relationship of men and women needs reforming must not only be answered in the affirmative, we can even say that it must be revolutionized in its very foundations.” (236-7)

Feminist Lida Gustava Heymann: “Already as a youngster … I was disgusted by the self-overestimation and the hauteur of men. Their condescending and disdainful way of treating women, especially their own wives—all this disgusted me. When I had become an adult I swore to myself that I would never allow a man to limit my personal freedom—as far as that is possible in the given circumstances, in a men’s state.” (238)

Feminist Grete Meisel-Hess, on the various misogynist philosophers: “Even great minds have an experience no more than five fingers broad; directly next to it, thinking stops and the indefinite empty space of stupidity begins.” (241)

Feminist Rosa Mayreder: “Even the work of a man has been replaced by the machine. The machine worker is a mere executor of a particular movement, which could just as well be done by women and children… The ‘strong fist’ which under other conditions was crucial and formed the legal foundation of his dominion, has become entirely superfluous.… The office, the workplace, the professional practice, the atelier—they are all coffins of masculinity. But the monumental mausoleum is the city itself… all influences of city life are conspiring to increase the sickness most opposed to the character of masculinity: nervous exhaustion.” (243)

Novelist and Naval Officer Pierre Loti: “Having been knocked off balance by our knowledge, today we know that underneath us there is nothing but emptiness… an emptiness that falls vertiginously, the emptiness into which everything is falling without hope. And, at certain hours, one grows heavy with the thought, it becomes an anguish to realize that never, never we or our ashes, our last dust, will be able to repose in peace on something stable, because stability no longer exists and we are condemned, after life as during it, to career around in that dark void… we have no point of reference which would not be caught up in the vertigo of movement, and this frightening speed can only ever be evaluated relative to other moving things, to other poor little things… which are also falling.” (264)

A twenty-one year old on his time in a sanatorium: “The nervousness had already come in my earliest childhood. I can remember that I often fainted and that the whistle of a locomotive could shake me to my foundations… I was always excited and would explode at the slightly provocation. If I had to be in a crowd, I felt dizzy. I would involuntarily feel my heart and be convinced I was suffering a heart attack… For years I suffered from thinking that I would not be good enough at my job, an idea that made my heart race everyday.” (266)

A metal worker: “As my work was done with machines, with the rollers used in the ovens, which now employ 80-100 people, well, you can see, if you work for forty-two years in this roaring noise, how that can wreck an old man’s nerves. I sweat all day, I feel afraid. I often cry like a young child, I cannot sleep at night… Several other workers have the same disease. One was pushed so far that he slit his throat.” (267)

Pavel Kovalevskii: “In Petersburg there is no sun. You could charge admission for showing Petersburg sun, it’s such a rarity. In Petersburg there is no air. In Petersburg there is no light, no space, no life… There is only vegetative existence. People have turned day into night and night into day… In Petersburg people work beyond their strength, but they blabber even more… Given such a life, can we really expect health, the continuation of our race, the strengthening of society?… Never—degeneration is its fate.” (271)

Virginia Woolf: “All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature.” (278)

The famously virile Jean Mounet-Sully: “Up until the age of sixty I thought it was a bone.” (315)

French priest Abbe Mugnier: “One is no longer at home with oneself today. It is only going to get worse. X-rays will penetrate you, Kodaks will photograph your passing, phonographs will engrave your voices. Aeroplanes will threaten us from on high.” (317)

Louis Haugmard, on the cinema: “Through it the charmed masses will learn not to think anymore, to resist all desire to reason and to construct, which will atrophy little by little; they will know only how to open their large and empty eyes, only to look, look, look… Will cinematography comprise, perhaps, the elegant solution to the social question, if the modern cry is formulated: ‘Bread and cinemas’?… And we shall progressively draw near to those menacing days when universal illusion in universal mummery will reign.”  (317)

Historian George d’Avenel, historian, on mass-produced everything: “The character of the new luxury is to be banal. Let us not complain too much, if you please: before, there was nothing banal but misery. Let us not fall into this childish but nevertheless common contradiction which consists of welcoming the development of industry while deploring the results of industrialism.” (323)

Maurice Talmeyr, at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, on the India exhibit: “The notion of such an India, of an India-warehouse, so magnificent and so partially true as it may be, is true only partially, so partially as to be false, and all these overflowing rooms… speak to me only of an incomplete and truncated India, that of the cashiers. And the other? That of the famine? For this land of enormous and sumptuous trade is equally that of frightening local degeneracy, of a horrifying indigenous misery. A whole phantom-race dies there and suffers in famine. India is not only a warehouse, it is a cemetery…. And why is starving India incarnated in well-coiffed, well-nourished, well-clothed Indians? because famine is not and never can be an attraction….” (325-6)

Pathologist Hugo Ribbert: “The man who is thoroughly healthy in every respect cannot act badly or wickedly; his actions are necessarily good, that is to say, properly adapted to the evolution of the human race.” (334)

Novelist Jack London on the poor of London: “The unfit and the unneeded! The miserable and despised and forgotten, dying in the social shambles. The progeny of prostitution—of the prostitution of men and women and children, of flesh and blood, and sparkle and spirit; in brief, the prostitution of labour. If this is the best that civilization can do for the human, then give us howling and naked savagery. Far better to be a people of the wilderness and desert, of the cave and the squatting-place, than to be a people of the machine and the Abyss.” (340)

Francis Galton, on eugenics: “What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly.” (341)

Virginia Woolf: “On the towpath we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles.  the first was a very tall young man, just queer enough to look at twice, but no more; the second shuffled, & looked aside; and then one realised that everyone in that long line was a miserable ineffective shuffling idiotic creature, with no forehead, or no chin, & an imbecile grin, or a wild suspicious stare.  It was perfectly horrible.  They should certainly be killed.” (343)

George Bernard Shaw: “There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenic religion can save our civilization from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilizations.” (341)

Ernst Haeckel: “The higher culture, which we are only beginning to construct, will always have to keep in mind the task of creating a happy, i.e. contented existence… Many barbarous customs and old habits which are thought indispensable will vanish; war, duels, forced adhesion to churches… The main interest of the state will no longer be the creation of the strongest possible military force, but the most perfect education of its youth based on the most extensive care of the arts and sciences. The perfection of technology with its inventions in physics and chemistry will satisfy the needs of all; artificial synthesis will deliver foods rich in proteins. A rational form of marriage will create happy families.” (343)

Ernst Haeckel again: “Rationally speaking, the killing of a crippled newborn child… cannot be subsumed under the notion of murder, as our modern law books would have it. Instead, we must see and approve of it as a sensible measure, both for those concerned and for all society.” (343)

Wilhelm Schallmayer on the “crushing and ever-growing burden of useless individuals.” (344)

Theodore Fritsch, calling upon Nietzsche: “Zarathustra preaches: Do not spare your neighbor!… Therefore this means becoming hard against those who are below average and I them to overcome one’s own sympathy.” (345)

Friedrich Nietzsche: “Life is appropriation, injury, conquest of the strange and weak, suppression, severity, obtrusion of its own forms, incorporation, and at least, putting its mildest, exploitation.” (354)

Moritz Schreber, on extreme forms of disciplinary education: “The idea should never cross the child’s mind that his will might prevail.” (368)

Note found in the pocket of a French anarchist: “Our women and our children are crammed together in slums while thousands of big houses stay empty. We are building palaces and we live in hovels. Worker, develop your life, your intelligence, your strength. You are a sheep; the cops are dogs and the bourgeois are the shepherds. Your blood pays for the luxuries of the rich. Our enemy is our master. Long live anarchy.” (373)

Marius Jacob: “Life is nothing but theft and massacre…. From top to bottom of the social scale everything is but dastardly on one side and idiocy on the other. How can you expect that convinced of these truths I could have respected such a state of things? A liquor seller and the boss of a brothel enrich themselves, while a man of genius dies in poverty. The baker who bakes bread doesn’t get any; the shoemaker who makes thousands of shoes shoes his toes; the weaver who makes stocks of clothing doesn’t have any to cover himself with; the bricklayer who builds castles and palaces wants for air in a filthy hovel. Those who produce everything have nothing, and those who produce nothing have everything…. The right to live isn’t begged for, it’s taken.” (385-6)

Rosa Meyreder: “Modern man suffers from his intellectualism as from an illness.” (399)

Fernand Leger, on how life was “more fragmented and faster-moving than in previous periods…. a modern man registers a hundred times more sensory impressions than an eighteenth-century artist.” (401)

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