[Part I is here.]
You all know I’m a big fan of Natalie Portman. I had a crush on Senator Amidala when I was 12 years old, and so I’ve seen a bunch of her movies. Someday maybe I’ll do a definitive ranking of them, although that would require watching Song to Song, which I have no mind to do, so maybe not. But I’m sure I have a better-than-average knowledge of her filmography.
Why am I rambling on about this? What does this have to do with fin de siècle?
Well, I saw a film of Portman’s called Vox Lux in 2018, which grossed over $400 million dollars and earned eight Oscar nominations.
Oh, wait; no, it didn’t. That would be A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Both are films about an up-and-coming singer trying to make it in the music industry. Vox Lux wasn’t 1/100th as popular as A Star is Born, mostly because A Star is Born is a love story and Vox Lux is a weird and unsettling meditation on the depravity of modern culture. You can guess which one I’d gravitate towards, even if La Portman were not involved.
I won’t go on at length about Vox Lux here. If you want that, you can read my review here. Otherwise, just look at this picture from the film:
Now, I know it’s tough to see. But this ominous hooded figure is wearing a golden mask. Do hooded, masked figures make you think of anything from our last discussion? A drop of King in Yellow, a pinch of Red Death, a little Tower Headsman to taste, and before you know it you’ve got a piping hot Symbol of Death. As it should be, because this hooded character in Vox Lux is a terrorist. (See, I told you it was weird…)
Of course, one costume using a fairly common trope to communicate “scary” doesn’t prove anything. I would never dream of saying Vox Lux is the modern-day King in Yellow on such a flimsy basis.
Don’t worry, Vox Lux‘s connections to our old friends from the 1890s run deep. My review contains the full accounting if you want it, although you’ll have to tolerate a bit of redundancy with things I’ve said in this series. Otherwise, we can make do with a couple of images.
But wait. Might this all be a red herring? After all, didn’t I just say Vox Lux wasn’t nearly as popular as A Star is Born? So who cares what it says about our culture? It’s not widely-known enough to even matter.
Here’s my counter-argument: the art that we associate with the fin de siècle movement wasn’t necessarily the popular entertainment of the day. The Grand Duke flopped. The King in Yellow was far from a hit. These kinds of artistic movements are always a little bit off, a bit outside of “normal” people’s tastes. But the fact that it exists at all is telling.
The Victorian era is famous for its rigid morality. This was a time of modest dress, traditional families, and a conservative culture. “Repressed” is a word you’ll often see thrown around, although of course the Victorians would never have described themselves as such.
But it’s clear that this cultural tradition was eroding by the late 1800s. Much of the shocking art and literature of the decadent period would simply have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.
Curiously, we can perceive a very similar period of changing cultural mores in more recent history. Just as Jude the Obscure would have so not been published in 1860, Vox Lux could so not have been made in 1960. Actually, almost none of our modern day movies could have been made in the era between 1930 and 1960, and not just for technical reasons. Or at least, not made in America.
So, is there just some immutable cycle where, at the end of every century, people start to feel a sense of oppressive ennui, of creeping apathy, and retreat into decadent and strange arts that would seem perverse to their more straitlaced ancestors? Maybe, although no such feeling appears to have existed in, for instance, the 1790s in America.
To me, what can most easily explain these related aesthetics is that these are phases in the lifecycle of a global hegemon. When a superpower arises, it initially is buoyed by a feeling of optimism and enthusiasm for creating new institutions. Over time, however, these institutions grow stale, corrupt, and oppressive, causing people to lose faith in them.
This gradual loss of faith is a hallmark of decadence. In such periods of decline, alienation is the norm, and the fabric of society decays, leading to social upheaval, rebellion and a general feeling of collapse.
This brings me to the phrase which I used for the title of this post, which is a quote from Warren Spector describing the creation of the 2000 video game Deus Ex. I love “millennial weirdness,” partly because, although it actually refers to the epoch, it can also sound like a description of my generation, but mostly because it’s the perfect modern American rendering of fin de siècle.
Here’s one reason I feel justified in saying Vox Lux and Deus Ex share an aesthetic. Check out their respective covers:
Seriously, if you knew nothing else about these two things, wouldn’t you guess they were somehow related? Not only do they share this weird day-for-night color palette, but they also both have a Latin phrase for the title. To me, it seems clear that these two images have the same mood.
In terms of behind-the-scenes stuff, Vox Lux and Deus Ex are not related at all. They’re not the same medium, nor the same genre, nor do they, as far as I know, have any cast or crew in common. As for audience, well, it’s entirely possible that I may be the only person who has both played Deus Ex and watched Vox Lux. What does this suggest, if not some some strange memetic propagation of this mood across the culture?
But these are just single images. We can’t judge a film by its poster, or a game by its cover. It could just be a weird coincidence. After all, we know a poster’s vibe need not match the thing its advertising. What else do we know about Deus Ex and its atmosphere of “millennial weirdness”?
I’ve never formally reviewed Deus Ex for one reason: because Ross Scott did it better than I ever could. If you want a masterclass in reviewing, Scott is your man. Gamers reading this should absolutely check out his videos on Deus Ex.
But, for the purpose of my larger argument, let me try to fill you in on the details of Deus Ex, knowing all the while that I stand on the shoulders of a giant.
Deus Ex is set in a dystopian future of, as Wikipedia describes it: “a world ravaged by inequality and a deadly plague.” It begins in New York City. The game was made in 2000, but because of texture issues, they had to eliminate the World Trade Center from the background. They justified it in-game by saying it had been destroyed in a terrorist attack.
Are you thinking back to our earlier discussion of Repairer of Reputations and getting a little deja vu yet? Why do these nightmarish dystopias always feel so familiar?
In the world of Deus Ex, every conspiracy you can imagine is true. The Illuminati, Area 51, global plutocrats ruling over the rest of us, and super-intelligent Artificial Intelligences. All these things exist, and are gradually uncovered by the player’s character, J.C. Denton.
It’s a world of shadowy cabals, distrust and justified paranoia. (There are also robot soldiers and mechs. It’s still a video game.) I think it’s fair to say that Deus Ex‘s imagined future is one in which faith in institutions is not rewarded. Conspiracy theories are typically the product of an age in which trust in the established order is very low.
Beyond that, there is the omnipresent sense of decay and the feeling that the rotten husk of the ancien regime is giving way to something else. In Deus Ex, the player gets a choice in what that is; whether it’s continued manipulation by a sinister oligarchy, rule by a machine intelligence known as Helios, or simply burning it all down, and returning to a simpler time, when life was hard but people were free.
Deus Ex is a deeply philosophical game. There are tons of dialogues about personal freedom vs. order, the morality of power, and so on. It’s simply too massive for me to discuss each example at length. Watch the intro cinematic and see what you think. Don’t worry if it seems a little incoherent; it should. No one is supposed to know what’s going on in Deus Ex when they start.
By this point, I hope I’ve convinced you that “there’s something happening here” even if “what it is ain’t exactly clear.” I’ve used the two examples of Vox Lux and Deus Ex–two separate works, in separate media, nearly two decades apart, to try to demonstrate that this aesthetic exists in modern culture.
But we’re not finished yet. After all, I still need to find some indication that this decadent zeitgeist is related to the 1890s and the original fin de siècle. Ideally, something stronger than “I dunno, they just, like, seem the same to me, man.” (Although true, this is a weak argument, and one to which skeptical readers would be entitled to reply in kind.)
Throughout Deus Ex, there are lots of documents, books, newspapers, magazines, tablets etc. that the player can pick up and read. This is mostly optional; it’s just a way to add to the atmosphere and do a little extra world-building.
Among these texts are scattered excerpts from The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel by G.K. Chesterton. Here’s one of the excerpts quoted in Deus Ex:
…First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?”
“To abolish God!” said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. “We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong.”
“And Right and Left,” said Syme with a simple eagerness, “I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me…”
It’s true that The Man Who Was Thursday was published in 1908, and therefore is not, in the literal sense, fin de siècle. But most historians would say that this period really extended until the start of World War I in 1914, so we’ll go ahead and grandfather it in. If so, we now have discovered a missing link between our two aesthetics. The anarchistic philosophy of mass collapse that permeated fin de siècle Europe and the cynical alienation and paranoia that existed at the end of the 20th century and the early 21st, though separated by a massive gulf in technology, fit neatly with one another, the way South America and Africa, now a hemisphere apart, were once clearly connected.
I hope I’ve persuaded you to see things my way, dear reader. If not, I humbly apologize. You see, I’m so confident that my thesis is correct that if I’ve failed to convince you, it can only be because I’ve argued my case very poorly, which is the worst thing someone seeking to persuade can do. It’s one thing to have an incorrect premise and not be clever enough to make people buy into it, but to have a correct premise and still botch the selling of it is just inexcusable.
But, assuming that what I’ve asserted here is correct, and that there does indeed exist some inherited tradition of a strange, alienated, cynical and decadent aesthetic that flourished both at the beginning and the end of the 20th century, the question remains: what should we do with this information?