Note: I’m re-posting this April 13, 2017 essay after deleting several superfluous passages. I haven’t updated it in any way, except for an endnote, so that the feeling of that time and the fear it implies for 2020 remain intact. To demonstrate authenticity, I’ve kept the original post on my website.
A breeze insinuates itself through open windows into a warm living room while, on the stereo, Anne Sofie von Otter sings Robert Schumann’s song cycle, Frauenliebe und Leben (A Woman’s Life and Love).
Schumann (1810-1856) set the eight songs, more like short movements, to a mediocre cycle of poems written by the justly obscure Adelbert von Chamisso. Fortunate, in this case, that I speak little German, so that it is the music, and not the lyrics, that claims me. Still, I recall the poem cycle’s gist. A woman reflects on her times with the man she loved, even though by dying he deserted her. There’s the song of a mind at peace, another of happy expectation, yet another of disillusionment, one of fond remembrance, and finally one of bitter resignation. But unlike the text, the music ends not at the last disaffected verse, but with a return to the lovely, reassuring piano chords of the beginning. Life has been filled with joys and sorrows, and now death is no longer deniable. In these concluding chords, there is a poignant resolution.
I rarely spend an evening listening to German lieder, and when I do, it’s usually in either the spring or autumn. They make me think of fin de siècle Vienna. Why? It isn’t Schumann who, though he spoke the same language, was German, not Austrian. Maybe it goes back to my two years studying German, when I read a ghost story by an Austro-Hungarian in that twilight era when World War I was approaching. Perhaps the ebb and flow of cool air suggests the presence of a ghost, a word related to “Geist,” today’s German word for spirit, as in “zeitgeist,” spirit of the times.
Whatever the reason, my Vienna evenings are disconnected from the city of that name. No tortes are on hand, no waltzes danced. Tonight, only cabernet is consumed.
Did that era feel like twilight to the Viennese? Europeans at the time had forebodings of war, but they couldn’t have foreseen the outcome for the Hapsburg Empire: smashed into fragments of small countries. But afterwards, dire predictions were in the air. Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949) made their dystopian marks before and following World War II, and as the twentieth century went on, we were deluged with dire forecasts acted on by “survivalists” stocking up on canned food and spare generators. Today’s outlandishly wealthy Silicon Valley magnates have taken dystopian precautions to an even greater extreme, as Evan Osnos details in his January 30, 2017 New Yorker article, “Doomsday Prep for the Super-Rich.”
Last Sunday’s New York Times had a story about Stephen Bannon’s preoccupation with a dystopian book, Neil Howe and William Strauss’s The Fourth Turning, one of those gloom-and-doom books that purport to find cycles in history. In this case, each cycle, tracking only American history, lasts eighty years and ends in catastrophe. The first cycle supposedly started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776, resume with the Civil War in 1861, and picked up again with Pearl Harbor in 1941. Here we are, in 2017, approaching eighty years later.
History does have broad patterns. Empires do fall. But history gives us insufficient data to predict when exactly the end occurs or even to know that a decline has begun. For this reason alone, cyclical theories of history are selective and, therefore, silly.
The Fourth Turning apparently chooses to discount the forced Indian migrations and the Mexican War that occurred between Bunker Hill and Fort Sumter, the labor union struggles and World War I between Appomattox and Pearl Harbor, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars between Nagasaki and today. The authors could claim that no wars cost more American lives than the Civil War and World War II. True. However, while the Civil War cemented national unity, World War II inspired it. It was the Vietnam War, well into the auspicious phase of the so-called cycle, that split the country apart. Besides, the theory seems to focus on wars, even though the event that may have had the biggest impact on twentieth century America was the Great Depression, which began only sixty-four years after the end of the Civil War.
Many of us are concerned that the Trump administration is doing irreparable harm to America, which would prove nothing about the theory. However, a true believer might be in a position to create the illusion of that proof. Enter Steve Bannon, who talks glibly about “deconstructing the administrative state,” showing a poor grasp of the meaning of “deconstruct” but revealing his intent to help along the destruction of America’s institutions. One wonders why he would actively contribute to a terrible outcome, especially when in his view it is preordained.
A chill-tinged spring or fall breeze through a room takes us inside ourselves and to our sadder thoughts. Maybe this is why I think of the waning years of the Viennese empire, home of psychology’s pioneers.
Could Bannon’s determination to destroy be borne of personal depression? If so, he might deserve sympathy, but he ought to refrain from turning his fears outward and inflicting them on the rest of us. If he isn’t depressed, he’s indulging in a form of armchair anxiety. As my occasional Vienna evenings force me to admit, there is something perversely pleasing in contemplating the embers of history. But a Vienna evening isn’t a prognosticator. Just because I’m in a certain mood or state of mind doesn’t mean I’m sensing the future.
It has been forty years since the suicide of nine hundred people instigated by Jim Jones in Guyana, a self-fulfilled prophecy of the end—one ending, at least. We can hope that the Bannon faction in the Trump administration will turn out to be the current apotheosis of self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, but only if they are the ones to meet the fate their proponents seem so eager to inflict on the rest of us.
Schumann had a tragic life, ending in his forties with a failed suicide attempt and two ensuing years of hospitalization. But in Frauenliebe, he bequeathed us the gift of affirmation. The voice wanes, but the lovely opening piano chords return.
Note: For me, the most touching rendition of Schumann’s song cycle is performed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and pianist Geoffrey Parsons, which I couldn’t find in 2017. I’ve now discovered their recording on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMqdEaLbLUM