This week we wrapped up our look at the Progressive/Victorian Era. I wanted to look at things in a little different way, by asking if there are there any possible links between Darwinism and Victorian morality. Victorians devoted themselves to duty, both to country and family. But as many have noted, Victorian morality was ‘defensive’ in nature. That is, it focused on protecting themselves from outside forces. This is reflected by the segregation of Europeans from other natives in the imperialized countries, among other things. This is not a Christian concept because love is ‘positive’ in nature and should push us out of ourselves. We see this ‘defensive’ attitude in their fashion:
Womens’ dress reflected this idea of protection and isolation. Darwinism says that we are little different from the animals, thus, we need protected from the ‘animal’ instincts just below the surface. As some students commented, the women are not allowed to look like women at all. Does modesty require a denial of femininity in general? Men’s fashion does not change nearly as much as women’s, but even the men seemed quite buttoned up in their multi-piece suits:
Queen Victoria herself set the tone by projecting soberness and duty:
As we discussed in class, ‘modesty’ does not mean denying one’s femininity. I would even argue that Victorian fashion projected the idea that they needed to protect themselves from themselves as well as the world.
Can patriotism become a religion in its own right? Arnold Toynbee remarked that the ‘victory’ of science over Christianity proved disastrous. It did not and could not eliminate religion. Rather, it turned people from a ‘higher’ religion to the ‘lower’ pagan religions. Toynbee writes further about the turn of the 20th century,
‘The most serious symptom was that, professedly Christian countries . . . .were by this time, practicing the primitive pagan worship of the bee-hive by the bee and ant-heap by the ant. This idolatry was not redeemed by being concealed under the fine name of patriotism’ (Study of History, vol. 7b).
Along these lines, we discussed briefly Stravinsky’s (very likely a Christian) premiere of his ‘Rite of Spring’ in 1913. which was meant to depict pagan ritual. Shocked and horrified people nearly rioted at performances. Did they do so because Stravinsky destroyed traditional artistic conventions of what music and dance should be, or because the he held up a mirror to a society that refused to see themselves for what they were (or perhaps both)? We watched this clip in class:
All religion involves sacrifice. If God was no longer present to sacrifice Himself, if man robbed the Crucifixion of its reality and power, would the sacrifice have to come from within the community? If so, would this help explain the advent of the cataclysmic conflicts in the west during the first half of the 20th century? It might also help explain the not often discussed dark underbelly of the Progressive/Victorian Era, the rise of eugenics. My personal take is that Stravinsky was trying to unmask the very carefully cultivated civilized veneer of European society. I think they thought of themselves this way, with Strauss’s famous, ‘Blue Danube’ waltz.
It is to this first dramatic conflict, World War I, that we will turn our attention after Christmas break. How did a globalized, modernized, Europe, where few if any had much to gain from the risks of war stumble into it? What factors, be they religious, political, ideological, economic, or psychological, brought this on? I look forward to tackling these questions with the students after the mid-term.