To live in the Nineties is to have first-hand experience of l'entre-siècle, a useful word I picked up from Kenneth Silver. Expect to see signs of what Henri Focillon in his book on the year 1000 identified as 'centurial mysticism', an affliction even more likely to be endemic when the century that is ending is also ending a millennium. These chronological divisions are meaningless in themselves, but, as Focillon argued, we tend to project onto them aspirations and anxieties which have quite other sources. Conscious of personal and social decadence, hopeful of renovation, people transfer their mood to the decade, the illusory dead weight of an old century behind them, and before them the perhaps equally illusory promises of a new one. In the arts these ages of transition tend to breed avant-gardes to whom contempt for the past is a necessary condition of radical innovation, an old calendar thrown out as the new one is hung up. Yet when we look back at such movements, themselves now parts of the past they mistrusted, we see them differently: harbingers of the new, no doubt, but mired still in the tradition they thought to displace.
LRB 11 January 1990 | PDF Download