LESS and less of the decade remains, and the century, and...

salmagundi

July 20, 1994

LESS and less of the decade remains, and the century, and the millenium. There's a name for this state of the calendar, and of mind: fin de siecle, end of (particularly) century. The French weren't the only ones to notice a cultural trend, back in the 1890s, but their name for it stuck. Fin de siecle: meaning, decadence.

If you haven't heard the phrase invoked much, this far into the 1990s, it could mean merely that enrollments are down, in the study of French. Also, that we have no one outstanding Oscar Wilde figure, no Ernest Dowson or Aubrey Beardsley. But one factor must be that a different condition is, today, so very prevalent: turbulence.

Yes, the depraved are always with us, and degenerates abound. But people find it easy to drive on by. To be fashionable, nowadays, simply take a map of the world, point to any continent and intone, "chaos science." If half a dozen wars or insurrections are in progress today, by 2000 there may well be a dozen.

Nonetheless, it is pleasant to see someone still mindful of the old anti-values. Johns Hopkins University Press will soon publish a book that inspects poetry and culture in the 1590s, 1690s, 1790s, 1890s and 1990s. The editor of "Les Fins de Siecle" is Elaine Scarry, a Harvard literature professor; the respective essayists give us "portraits of the final decade as a radical invitation to political distribution, as a prolonged kiss, as an assassin, even as a Hegelian reader."

Doubtless, books on the end of a thousand years are out there too, being written or already displayed in stores. Do they liken 2000 as it approaches to a comet or asteroid on course toward Earth? as (oui bien!) an even longer kiss? as one more losing lottery number? as just another waste of time in the day's e-mail?

One thing about all this last-of counting. Few serious authors seem to be expecting the fin or finis of everything. On we go toward one more decade, century, millennium. Will one of them even have, as theme, good will?

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