At some point, it became quaint to use the term “vintage” as a term of endearment. Somehow, old things that aren’t quite as functional as more technologically developed items are as valuable or even more so than contemporaries.
Okay, that was caricatured. Still, a new year has dawned, and that fills even the most stubborn ones of us with contemplation. The fascination with everything vintage I can understand, because I always had a gnawing suspicion I was born in the wrong age. I would have loved to write with the Lost Generation in the streets of Montmartre, or work like all the President’s men. There’s something about that vintage feel that makes me look at the past through a romanticized sepia lens. Though not alone – Amy Winehouse was too longing to travel back in time – there seems to be recall going on.
We’re coming about on the modern twenties, and everything used to be better, back in the day. That’s what they say. And though you shouldn’t believe everything you hear (or read), what is the fascination with the Roaring Twenties and, more urgently, why is it important that we understand this fascination?
The Decade of Decadence
Adult are only children with drinking permissions, and like children, if you tell them they’re not allowed to do something it’s the first thing they’ll try when you turn your back. The twenties saw the rise of gangster culture and the black market of alcohol was imminent (in the States). In Europe, cocktail culture became an actual culture, proudly boasting the rising alcoholism especially seen in the Lost Generation. Next time you’re painting the town red, raise a glass for Hemingway!
The original twenties also saw a budding social change, with blacks finding their ways into the urban and art scene in USA, and women gaining the right to vote across Europe. Today, this echoes in the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatters-movements and in the, in my personal opinion, weaponizing of feminism, but that’s a topic for another time. Women’s movements and the flappers that followed set the bar for female empowerment and the presumably promiscuous values they had. Looser and lighter clothing and visible makeup for the first time since the Enlightment age trademarked this era.
While makeup became visible, sound was incorporated into movies, and abstract thoughts took shake both in literary and painted works, the creatives juices were allowed to flow where the alcoholic ones were not. Prohibition became an everyday concept in many countries, though most prominently in the States (although, fun fact: I recollect a note about a sobriety society in my home town; the society was founded in 1919, but discontinued three years later due to lack of interest).
We see a new trend in social and gender politics, but its form is the only new thing about it. The same discussions and the same battles have been raging for ages. It’s about freedom – it’s always about freedom – but again, the values we wish to change aren’t universal, and pinning down exactly what values one is trying to change is a difficult if not impossible task in a world that is so heavily influenced by international affairs.
Art is another highly important part of influential culture. In the original 20’s we saw the rise of literature (and I’ll get back to that in a second), of surreal art and of experimental music. This was the artistic reaction to the overt realism of the previous decade that had sported the Great War. Every action has an equal reaction, and the roaring twenties (though roaring the loudest in the US), at least meowed angrily here in Europe as well.
Many black jazz musicians toured in Europe, and especially France, since discrimination was significantly lower here than in America – again, a reaction to the War. The US had focused on a unifying patriotism with help from Uncle Sam while Europe was torn apart and left for dead. Nothing was whole, and that made it an excellent breeding ground for change. The 20’s saw the rise of Dalí and Magritte, it laid the foundation for the art deco movement that gave birth to iconic fashion houses like Chanel. Movies became an accepted form of art, radios were implemented in many households; technology in general blossomed, bringing many household items such as the laundry machine, toaster and vacuum cleaner into the hands of the public.
Before the Wall Street Crash in 1929 the US economy blossomed and prospered (for the most part). In Europe, the financial sectors were more uneven. Especially Germany, that had been ordered to repay the damage caused during the War, was in deep trouble – a trouble that would later evolve into the extreme movement we all know so well. The escalating inflation and debt were supposed to be helped by loans from the States, but the crash put the plans on hold and ultimately set the stage for the Second World War.
The 1920’s was an era of social, political and intellectual evolution. Technology and art spread and tied together new issues and parties. Although it was a time of development and prosperity, the higher you climb, the harder you fall. This only meant that there were many more factors to take into account when considering the events during the 30’s.
Because of the tumultuous two decades preceding the decade of decadence, people preferred to focus on entertainment, intellectual values, and new experiences. It was a way of distracting attention from the horrors that happened and the downfall that followed. Today, we’re very familiar with the concept of distraction, and we’ve excelled on focusing on trivial matters when there still are very important issues to discuss. In many ways, history is repeating itself.
And it’s only one year left until the new 20’s start to play out.
I’ve said it before and it ought to be said again; I’m not a blogger. Bloggers are supposed to earn a living in obscure ways of promoting content and products through their seemingly personal social media channels. You’re taught how to make content accessible and as tempting as possible – “clickable” is an actual term. Basically, the idea is that you should commercialize yourself and the content you brand yourself with.
This is a very capitalist idea, and might I add, as intellectually challenging as banging your head against the hollow trunk of a tree. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
Back in the earlier half of the 21st century, blogging wasn’t promoting commercialism on Instagram. It was about writing, and it was about writing in a clever, chatty and quick way that made it easy to read and contemplate as well as entertaining.
Although there still is a community of writing bloggers that write about other things than how to get more traffic to your platform, they are in decline. The written word in general doesn’t seem to be as important as videos and images. Words aren’t as attractive.
However, we should remember that beauty is in no way rent you pay in order to exist.
I understand that thanks to globalization and the online revolution that made it possible has changed the world in inconceivable ways. We are becoming better at everything than ever before. _worldindata. In the back of my mind I still have a gnawing feeling if being out of place, and as one tend to do when an issue becomes personal, I turned my attention elsewhere.
This time, I turned it to a book, and I read Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, a 600-something page brick that is as Japanese as one can imagine and as dreamlike as David Lynch at his best, which indubitably brings it as close as possible to pure literary art. The novel in itself was fine, well-written and all, but its effect was astonishing.
Because of all the entertainment i.e. distractions we constantly have around us, it’s easy to allow yourself to become distracted. What I found after 615 pages of dreamlike quirkiness is that I can focus and concentrate better than I have in years.
When I’m relaxing at home, I usually put on a familiar series on Netflix, take my laptop and phone and browse both devices while barely listening to the first. (I am aware that constantly looking for ways to distract your mind is a sign of anxiety, and I’m working on that.) While working through the novel, I noticed that I was getting much better at focusing on one thing at a time.
In the original 20’s we saw the rise of the written word and thought, with legendary names as Hemingway, Proust, Sartre, Fitzgerald, Nietzsche budding in the overturned ground that was the social scene, post-war. Many of them are still cited today, because they are still found relevant. What can we learn from this, and how does it relate to the upcoming renaissance of the economical distress and flapper dresses?
Will the 2020’s roar, too?
It means that we still haven’t learned the importance of considering what, how and why we’re evolving. This is of course very generally speaking, but personally I find that there’s a lack of contemplation in this age of distraction, much like there was a wish to forget consequence in the age of decadence. I’m not a history buff, an economy expert or any other kind of scholar on the 1920’s or the upcoming 2020’s.
What I’m saying is that we really need to contemplate what kind of content we’re putting out into the world, and how we process and receive the information available to us, because one day sooner or later those decisions will become consequences, and if we’re not careful, those consequences will bite us in the ass, figuratively speaking.
It would do all of us some good to practice good old-fashioned focus on well-written prose, or muse on the inner workings of anxiousness that is existentialism, or enjoy a piece of surreal art, be it painted or filmed. Maybe one day we can sneak around the dark streets of town, pretending alcohol is a forbidden product, and how that just makes it taste better than it ever has before.
As long as we don’t forget what happened the last time we were distracted.