By the second half of the 19th century, scientific progress was adding to a persistent pessimism, and it was becoming more and more difficult to affirm life. The theories of Charles Darwin, for example, played an important role in discrediting more of the myths that human beings relied on. The insulting description of Homo Sapiens proposed in Origin of the Species destroyed once and for all the belief that man occupied a dignified position in the order of things and ruined the hope of cosmic purpose.
Biological chance and unconscious determinism reduced man to merely another accident performing an insignificant task in a convoluted but frivolous evolutionary process. Such dismal visions of the world had been expressed before but had never captured such widespread awareness, influencing all sorts of thinkers, social theorists and artists.
Prompted by a Darwinian perspective, the Realists were stimulated to create an art that would altogether eradicate an idealization of life and disseminate solely objective views. The result? Visions of a bleak world where shabby and pitiful characters wrestle alternately with boredom and misery.
The writer Gustave Flaubert, for example, created Emma Bovary, a woman whose mind is filled with foolish, fanciful fictions. Compelled by an acute discontent, Emma flies recklessly into a dangerous debauchery culminating in her suicide.
Elsewhere, Fyodor Dostoyevsky created memorable characters in the Underground Man, Raskolnikov, and Ivan Karamazov, who all confronted meaninglessness, only to be shattered by the experience. Artists Gustave Courbet, Honore Daumier, and Edouard Manet painted struggling victims clinging desperately to life’s sordid and dismal underbelly.
Late in the century, the Naturalists attempted to fabricate a super-realism by fusing their art even more tightly to post-Darwinian determinism. In the process, they refined a profoundly pessimistic literature. Believing they were as objective as scientists, the Naturalists portrayed human beings as further slandered, damaged, treacherous creatures in an ominous world, the powerless puppets of heredity and environment who inevitably wither or are annihilated.
In addition to their effect on artists, the domination of scientific models is echoed in the politics of the mid-19th century terrorists of France, Germany, and Russia. The radical nihilists, supported by material theories, criticized civilization as the byproduct of hypocrisy and falsehood and recommended its complete destruction. Their nihilistic method was annihilate God, civilization, property and morality.
The product of the late 19th century’s bleak Zeitgeist, Nietzsche swore to dismantle everything that had disguised the Void to show life in all its evil. He is the world’s first thinker of cosmic nihilism, the first to perceive the apocalyptic ramifications of Western civilization’s pathology. With Nietzsche, a fully articulated diagnosis of the West’s irrevocable digression toward nothingness emerges.
As with all moribund civilizations, by the end of the century there is evidence that an irreversible corrosion had begun to erode long-established traditions. Keenly aware of the malice and folly of human affairs, the Decadents made it a point to invert conventional social values to rejoice in depravity, ugliness, and perversion, all in an effort to promote the overlooked appeal of what Baudelaire had called the “phosphorescence of putrescence.”
In retrospect, the fixation of many 19th century figures with corruption and carnage must have originated from a growing perception and obsession with Nothing. And during the century, even the theories of science substantiated the pessimistic existential judgment that artists and philosophers expressed.
* Friedrich Nietzsche