The last post was about deep structural reasons for the end of the Victorian cultural system. Here, I’ll discuss the unpredictable role of people and events.

In every society, some people get listened to and copied. We listen to the rich and powerful, because we want to be like them. Other people — artists, scientists, intellectuals — become influential by having interesting things to say. Being listened to and copied gives these people power to sway the rest of society. They set expectations and norms, by what they say and by their example.

The cultural elites of the nineteenth century were conscious of their power and had a strict sense of duty in this regard. They saw themselves as missionaries to their own societies. They wanted to pass their values down the social scale, by preaching and example. At the start of the period, this was often literally preaching (Victorian Britons consumed sermons the way we watch box sets); later cultural elites were more secular, but still wanted to spread “sweetness and light”, as Matthew Arnold put it. This was a key part of the Victorians’ highly moralized idea of progress.

At the turn of the twentieth century, these attitudes began to shift. A new generation lost its missionary zeal in different ways.

  • They lost faith in the moral superiority of bourgeois values.
  • They became increasingly sceptical and fearful of “mass man”.
  • Art and “high culture” turned inward upon itself in order to progress, seeking freedom from its social role.

Bourgeois values

The phrase itself explains the change. Marxists saw Christianity as the ideology of an unjust social system. This especially made sense on the European continent, where reactionary elites were hand-in-glove with established churches. Trotsky put it pungently in Their Morals and Ours:

Whoever does not care to return to Moses, Christ, or Mohammed... must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing immutable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character…. A revolutionary Marxist cannot begin to approach his historical mission without having broken morally from bourgeois public opinion and its agencies in the proletariat.... Whoever fawns before precepts established by the enemy will never vanquish that enemy!

Arthur Koestler described the effect:

the demonstration of the historical relativity of institutions and ideals — of family, class, patriotism, bourgeois morality, sexual taboos — had the intoxicating effect of a sudden liberation from the rusty chains with which a pre-1914 childhood had cluttered one’s mind.

Freud made a more intimate attack on conventional morality, seeing it as the internalized commands of the father figure. As an alternative, he offered the ruthless self-scrutiny of the psychoanalytic couch.

Honesty was in fashion. The intense examination of consciousness in contemporary literature could uncover the hypocrisy and self-delusion behind high-minded values. Even groups who didn’t explicitly side with Marxism or psychoanalysis became sceptical of these values, and satirized them in works from Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (written in the 1870s, but unpublished until its posthumous success in 1903) to Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians.

Mass man

Economic progress and mass education opened up what had been an elite preserve to a much wider group. But as the masses emerged into sunlight, they didn’t follow elite tastes or preferences. Instead new cultural industries grew up to serve them: the tabloid press, popular fiction, later the gramophone and the film. They had their own political preferences too. Some turned to socialism, others to anti-semitic demagogues. In his 1895 book The Crowd, Gustave Le Bon was the first to sound the alarm about how this would change society:

The substitution of the unconscious action of crowds for the conscious activity of individuals is one of the principal characteristics of the present age.

Mass electorates and parliamentary assemblies were all avatars of the emotion-driven crowd. Intellectuals began to see a deep connection between the crowd and the unreason. After the Great War, Julien Benda’s Trahison des Clercs made the same point:

Consider the political passions by which men ally themselves against other men, principally those of race, class and nationality.... For the space of a century, and more day by day, these passions are reaching a degree of perfection which has never been seen in history.

Leadership was passing away from the elite into the hands of demagogues.

John Carey, who famously wrote about these ideas in The Intellectuals and the Masses, argued that mass man was a fantasy, an intellectuals’ bogeyman. That is hard to square with the real role of mass antisemitism and socialism in the twentieth century. The masses really did gain power, and as power was diffused, it was exercised less responsibly. (Today, we’d explain this not by psychoanalysis, but by Mançur Olson: deep thought about politics is a classic public good, which will be underprovided.)

In Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, the hero watches a street musician:

Rather than Venetian, he seemed from the race of Neapolitan jokers, half bully, half comedian, brutish and corrupt, dangerous and entertaining... It was a song that the isolated Aschenbach did not remember ever hearing before; a vulgar hit in incomprehensible dialect and furnished with a chorus of laughter, which the band joined in full-throatedly each time. Words and accompaniment would stop, leaving nothing but a rhythmically controlled but very naturally-played laugh, which the soloist could imitate to the life.… At the end of each sung verse, he seemed to be irresistibly overcome with the giggles. He swallowed, his voice trembled, he covered his mouth with his hand, he hunched himself up, and on the beat, an uncontrollable howl of laughter burst out of him, with such reality that it was infectious and spread to the audience, so that even on the terrace an aimless, self-feeding hilarity broke out. Just this appeared to double the singer’s exuberance. He bent his knees, his shoulders shook, he held his sides, he laughed himself sick, he was no longer laughing, but screaming; he pointed up as if there was nothing funnier than the laughing people above, and in the end there was laughing everywhere, in the garden and on the terrace, down to the waiters, bellboys and servants in the doors.

Aschenbach no longer sat back in the chair, he sat up straight as if to protect himself or flee. But the laughter, the rising smell of disinfectant, and the presence of his beloved caught his senses in an unbreakable, inescapable web.

The musician prefigures the fascist demagogue, the manipulator who plays the masses through deliberate art and instinctive connection, who despises and subverts the established social hierarchy, who spreads unreason like the plague running through Venice.

Half bully, half comedian, brutish and corrupt, dangerous and entertaining…

Elites lost faith in their ability to lead the masses. Instead, the idea of the intellectual developed: the man (yup, usually) whose role was to undermine, not support, mainstream values.

Art for art’s sake

Modernist artists also saw mainstream taste as a shackle to be discarded. Oscar Wilde had written “all art is quite useless”, but perhaps more as a paradox than a serious claim, and much of his work still expresses a social agenda. But when Arnold Schönberg said “If it is art, it is not for all, and if it is for all, it is not art”, he meant it. The avant-garde meant to storm ahead, letting society catch up in its own time. Artists, like intellectuals, would question the old certainties.

This idea is still conventional wisdom, in the connection between art and subversion. Today, art and literature again see themselves as fulfilling a social role: “amplifying voices” or “speaking up”. There’s a certain tension between the two views, which is sometimes resolved by repeating conventional ideas as if they were radical threats to a shadowy establishment.

2009: Anish Kapoor subverts colonialism in the Royal Academy’s Sackler Wing.

An old bitch gone in the teeth

These ideological changes were justified and accelerated by the Great War. Patriotism had always been a central traditional value, and had if anything been strengthened by the decline of religion as a rival source of value. Dulce et decorum est pro patri mori really was an old, old lie. The generation that fought in the trenches became sceptical not just of this but of all the values of their culture. Pound put it pithily:

There died a myriad, 
And of the best, among them, 
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization,... 
For a few thousand battered books.

Céline’s Voyage to the End of the Night starts from the shattering disillusion of the war. Trying to desert, his antihero is confronted by the mayor of a front line village:

Then he started talking about the common good to us, in the night, there in the silence where we were lost…. What if they would burn the 15th century church? ... Between us floated sentimental and archaeological values.... Patriotic, moral, pushed by words, ghosts that the Mayor was trying to catch.... For sure, nothing opposed these powerful arguments but our small desire not to be burned to death.

He is equally cynical about the Enlightenment project of mass education:

... it was the philosophers who first told stories to the people.... That’s it, the people started saying, that’s just it! That’s exactly it! Let’s all die for that! The people is always so keen to die.... “Long live Diderot,” they yelled and then “Hurray for Voltaire!”.… First up, may everyone know how to read the newspapers! It’s healthy!… Nothing but citizen-soldiers! Who vote! Who read! Who fight! Who march! Who blow kisses!.... And that was the send-off of the first battalions of the frenzied emancipated! The first of the voting, flag-waving sods that Dumouriez led off to get shot up in Flanders.

The losing side

The most influential groups of the twentieth century stepped away from the Victorian value system. In the end, they won the argument and the traditionalists lost, and this is one reason why our time-travelling Victorian would be so shocked by parts of contemporary culture. But it would be remiss to ignore the losing side’s contribution to its own defeat.

Humans spend huge effort socializing each other. It’s how the species conquered the world. But throughout most of history, this difficult job has had to compete for resources with many other priorities. The economic take-off of modernity loosened this constraint. Suddenly you could separate your house from your workplace. You could create the “traditional” (i.e. extremely modern and unusual) nuclear family, a special environment for bringing up children, and you could devote historically unprecedented resources to education, meaning mostly character formation.

The result was like concentrating the sun’s rays with a magnifying class: very powerful effects, but somewhat unpredictable. Victorian-era moral culture had a certain over-elaborated, hothouse character. The table legs fitted with curtains , so as not to offend the daughters of the house, are a myth, but they capture something true. Over time, the incumbent culture might come to seem both dangerous and ridiculous.

Starting with the art. In 1901, the Kaiser opened the Siegesallee (Victory Avenue) in Berlin, a set of roadside statues commemorating heroes of German history. Conventional and of varying competence in execution, it was soon dubbed the Puppenallee (Doll Avenue). Around the same time, the Berliner Dom, a pompous monument to the Hohenzollern family, was built:

Berliner Dom, interior

Throughout the next half-century, traditionalist art simply failed to compete with its modernist rivals. The most notorious attempts were made by the Nazis, who tried to win this culture war by physically destroying the other side’s artwork. But nothing could make Nazi art any good.

The Nazis indeed were the most extreme defenders of the old order: determined to roll back modernism and democracy, imbued with ideals of duty and sacrifice, and led to destruction. But even in less authoritarian versions, traditional culture could not keep up with the times. George Orwell was awake to the underrated virtues of his country, but he also described it as “a family with the wrong members in charge” — people whose pomposity and meanness he mercilessly dissected.

The south door of the Berliner Dom stands out from the rest: it carries a post-war sculpture by Siegfried Krepp, which shows, among images of war and destruction, a scene from the Prodigal Son.

Berliner Dom south door, detail

The old system died because it was outcompeted, but also because it was rotten.


These ideas came out of history, but they weren’t determined by it. The ideas of a few highbrows, which could have been different, fed into mass social change. Gauging the importance of these different trends is hard! We don’t yet have good tools to measure cultural change. The above is just my best guess.

In the course of the twentieth century, these iconoclasts became the new establishment. We are still living through the aftershocks of this replacement. Our societies are still groping for a new consensus — or rather, many rival groups are offering alternatives. To navigate this transition, it helps to understand where we are coming from. Then we can steer between two traps: nostalgia for the past, and thinking the present is unchangeable.


New Comment

New to LessWrong?