Realizing the End

The close of the 19th century was a time of widespread change in Europe, with much of this change appearing – at least on the surface – strongly positive, leading some to hail it as a Belle Epoque. Nonetheless, it was also an era in which darkness an uncertainty dominated many cultural mediums, leading others to call this period the Fin de Siècle; “the end of the cycle”. The end of the 19th century was neither of these simplified characterizations, for it was an era in which an unprecedented awareness of the human condition coupled with massive change in order to produce a consciousness which created a society that was neither inherently positive nor negative, but which was simultaneously the product and the creator of change.

For many this period was a beautiful era that embodied a zenith of European society, though this zenith was truly only the surface façade of a far more complex situation. During this era, workers rights were on the rise in Western Europe, with the 8-hour work day movement gaining significant strength, and with leisure time becoming fairly standard, leading to the development of industries such as the cycling business, which came to unify and dominate much of middle class society. Cities had been rebuilt into more glorious, accessible states, as visible in the Ringstrasse of Vienna, encouraging the spirit of mass culture that came to characterize the era, grouping individuals into archetypal groups. By providing many people with a new means of fitting in, it appeared to many as though this was truly a beautiful time that meant prosperity for all, when in fact the only thing such created was a new cycle of stress-induced action driving an ever-struggling population.

Psychology of the Times

For an era of such apparent prosperity, the psychological views of the time were atypical in their views and nature, illustrating a darker look at the mass psychology born of this era and analyzing its negative effects on the human condition. It was indeed this aforementioned rise prominence of mass culture that led to the publishing of many works on psychology, such as Le Bron’s papers on the dangers of mass psychology, for within a crowd the individual loses themselves in favor of an often dangerous, unfounded view that drives action without reason, demonstrating the dangers of a movement in which unprecedented levels of pressure and stress govern human action. This view of humans becoming indistinct in a larger setting was mirrored by the artistic works of the time, with the expressionistic movement favoring paintings designed to evoke emotion over realism – individual figures in a painting were often blurs without true features, lacking the humanity that they might once have possessed.

This ominous suggestion of the dangers of human unconscious action coincides with the theories of Freud and Nietzsche, two prominent intellectuals of the time who embodied the increasingly dark views on human nature. Despite these increasingly pessimistic outlooks on humanity, this is not to say that human nature was becoming more negative. No, this era was not one of devolution so much as it was once of increased awareness, for the changes induced by mass culture had made increasingly clear the more volatile aspects of humanity – an awareness that illustrated the unstable state of the consciousness which was driving society.

In an era when massive changes were leading people into actions which lacked precedent, the development of negative psychology seems at odds with the prevailing emotion of prosperity that gilded over the era. Nonetheless, the late 19th century was neither a negative end to a cycle nor a positive beginning to another cycle – it was merely a point in human history at which people began to become more aware of their own state and of their own nature. This awareness underlined the dangers to the individual mind in a society which focused now on mass culture and mass psychology, pushing individuals both to simultaneously distinguish themselves and conform with the status quo, creating a series of intricate impossibilities which undoubtedly fueled the more cynical philosophies of the era.

History Essays

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