As coronavirus fatalities multiply these days—as COVID-19 leaves our bodies sick and makes our spirits sick at heart—I find myself asking how similar the mood today is to that of the West during the 1889-1890 flu pandemic.
One of the world’s worst plagues occurred in 1889-1890. The so-called Russian flu is of particular interest to historians for a number of reasons. For one thing, it was the first pandemic for which we have extensive public records in both eastern and western hemispheres.
For another, it spread with alarming speed, faster than any previous pandemic. Newly laid railroad tracks insured that the pest would travel the rails that now connected far-flung places. At the terminus of the tracks, steam ships took on passengers who carried the flu from Eurasian ports to the Americas. In all, this virulent bug killed one million people across the globe.
A third thing that made the 1889-1890 Russian flu a novel experience in world history was that news of the pandemic spread fast due to the unprecedented profusion of telegraph lines, newspapers, and magazines.
That led to a fourth factor that made the virus an unusual social experience. As casualties mounted, as morbid details of painful deaths accumulated, a new mood gripped the West. The adjective that was coined to capture the mood was fin-de-siecle, French for “end of the century.” Fin-de-siecle held two contradictory thoughts in a dynamic polarity. One pole was people’s amazement at the unprecedented material progress made by modern science, technology, and medicine. The other pole was people’s feeling of world-weariness accompanied by the loss of energy, abandonment of purpose, perception of decadence, and foreboding of apocalypse. Most people in prosperous countries tended to focus on the former, on the nineteenth century’s material gains. Rebellious youth and the rising new class of avant-garde artists and intellectuals tended to seize on the latter, with an air of fashionable despair.
As coronavirus fatalities multiply these days—as COVID-19 leaves our bodies sick and makes our spirits sick at heart—I find myself asking how similar the mood today is to that of the fin-de-siecle West during the 1889-1890 flu pandemic. On the one hand, most middle-class Americans have high expectations that science will prevail and beat back this novel strain of virus. On the other hand, there are reports of throngs of people who have recklessly crowded bars just before stay-in-place executive orders were to take effect. Multitudes are deliberately ignoring the practice of social distancing to revel in beach blanket bacchanals. Most notorious of all were the sandbar parties off Miami Beach to celebrate the spring equinox. How fin-de-siecle.
The foregoing is offset, of course, by the millions of citizens who are obeying the law, resisting the temptation to hoard, sheltering in place, and taking the long view. This “silent majority” will be the rock on which our nation rebuilds its economy and civil society on the other side of this pandemic. Nor do I mean to suggest that it is just young people on spring break who are being irresponsible. Plenty of adults are out of their minds, too. Hoarding toilet paper and soap is about as irrational and antisocial as it gets. During a pandemic, shouldn’t we want our neighbor to be clean to lower the risk of spreading the disease to us? Also, it’s hard to take politicians in Washington, DC, seriously these days when they try to use the pandemic to make a killing in the stock market and score political points. The way our so-called representatives in Congress have shoehorned their pet projects into the coronavirus legislation is disgraceful, and I hope they pay at the polls in November 2020.
Commentators in The Atlantic and elsewhere have speculated why so many Americans are either being stupid or being jerks when it comes to coronavirus. Hoarding toilet paper is only the beginning of it. Reckless people risk not only their own health; they may also be asymptomatic carriers who pass the virus on to more vulnerable people. What explains this tendency of some people to embrace such careless behavior in the midst of a public health crisis?
Let’s try to be generous. Early news reports suggested the coronavirus mostly endangers elderly people who have serious complicating conditions. We don’t usually associate the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello set with COPD.
The recent article in The Atlantic speculated that some youth were engaging in reckless behavior out of ignorance, selfishness, distance from the problem, and lack of practice when it came to exercising their moral muscle. I would add additional factors that have weighed on young people’s psyches: (1) high student loan debt, (2) the belief that the American Dream has passed their generation by, (3) their deferral of marriage and having children, (4) the apocalyptic scenarios generated by a Trump presidency that refuses to deal with climate change in a responsible way.
There are grains of truth in each of these explanations. Students in college tend to be more alarmed by climate change than the Main Street entrepreneur is. But perhaps there is an additional reason not quite captured by The Atlantic analysis. I would ask if a tipping point of Americans, young and old, are in a fin-de-siecle mood. That mood was famously characterized by the physician Max Nordau in his 1895 classic, Degeneration. Absorb his diagnosis in small bits, digesting them slowly, and ask whether Nordau’s words apply to the mood of our own day:
The surest way of knowing what fin-de-siecle implies, is to consider a series of particular instances where the word has been applied. It means a practical emancipation from traditional discipline, which theoretically is still in force. To the voluptuary this means unbridled lewdness, the unchaining of the beast in man; to the withered heart of the egoist, disdain of all consideration for his fellow-men, the trampling underfoot of all barriers which endorse brutal greed of lucre and lust of pleasure; to the contemner of the world it means the shameless ascendency of base impulses and motives, which were, if not virtuously suppressed, at least hypocritically hidden; to the believer it means the repudiation of dogma, the negation of a super-sensuous world, the descent into flat phenomenalism; to the sensitive nature yearning for aesthetic thrills, it means the vanishing of ideals in art, and no more power in its accepted forms to arouse emotion. And 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.
All of the strange polarity of the fin-de-siecle rises to the surface in Nordau’s passage. On the one hand, the writer was a physician who trusted in science, technology, and medicine to lead to material progress. On the other hand, the society around him was falling apart in sybaritic spasms. Are we seeing this movie again?
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