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Humorous Masquerades:
The Rise of Anglo-Franco Melodrama


Jules Chéret, 1880 Parisian advertisement for a recurring Saturday masque performance

8,839 words

On April 19, Counter-Currents instituted a paywall for articles and podcasts that will be made freely available 30 days later. This article by Kathryn S. was one of the first items to go behind the paywall, and is now one of the first items to be released to everyone else. More information about how to get behind the paywall can be found below.

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This past winter I lost my last grandparent — the most stubborn one, still to the end a strict English schoolteacher after having long since retired from the profession in the 1970s. She suffered through the desegregation years while working at Marshall High and was never dishonest about the experience. She possessed that combination of Southern decorum and irascible (and accurate) bluntness, which gave her the ability to reduce anyone, including 250-pound, six-foot-three black football players, to tears. But I can’t blame her for looking at the world around her and feeling like a stranger in it — with a dead husband, grown children, Hispanics taking over the old neighborhoods, and no friends from those prime years left with which to reminisce and mourn — and finally wondering why she, of all of them, was still alive. But enough. One of her favorite dictates, which I heard many times from that slow, but sharp drawl: “Quit being so melodramatic!” And so I must even now obey. In her honor, I’ll attempt to sort through the melodramatic mess of a world she’s quit by applying old Western techniques to new white pathologies.

Humors, Ancient and Modern

For millennia those who purported to specialize in medical knowledge followed the ancient concept of the Greek Galenic tetrad: the four humors (blood, black and yellow bile, and phlegm) to determine cause and curative, poison and panacea. Healthy bodies had a pleasing balance between the four fluids — neither too bilious, nor too “bloody.” These were substances that circulated within the human body like water through pipes, and that were each central to its functioning. Indeed, they were “concocted out of the heat of digestive processes in the stomach,” and thanks to “the [warmth] produced . . . particles in the bloodstream called ‘vital spirits’ were expedited to the heart, and from there to the brain.” The cerebellum “refined some of these spirits into smaller ‘animal spirits’ . . . and determined the effects of each humor on mood, thought, or health.” In fact, all matter was divided into four elements corresponding with the humors: water, fire, earth, and air; moist, hot, dry, and cold. The natural world had four seasons and four cardinal points fixed to the compass. Men lived through the four stages of childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. All of these divisions, these fundamental realities, became associated with the humors. There was thus a “continuum between passions and cognition, physiology and psychology, individual and environment.” [1] [2] Not until the seventeenth century, when students of anatomy began to better understand bodily processes, did these ancient ideas decline in importance when it came to treating and explaining physical maladies.

Yet, they remained central to understanding the psyche, for according to the theory, humoral balance also affected the health of the mind (and the mind’s secrets lay locked much deeper inside the recesses of science and speculation; we still have but a vague understanding of psychology and the brain). We use words like “melancholy” and “temperament,” while major pop and professional psychological exams still retain the basic premises of the four humors. [2] [3] And in theory, the ideal man was he who was moderate: between fire and ice, timidity and boldness, negligence and impertinence, compassion and envy. When “out of humor,” one or more fluids began to affect an individual through temperamental moods, or personality traits. A sanguine person (who had an excess of blood) became unable to control his impulses; a choleric (yellow bile) was unnecessarily demanding, a bully; a melancholic (black bile) fell into depressions; and a phlegmatic (phlegm), meanwhile, handled his affairs with apathetic carelessness. These people wore masks, or personas that, rather than revealing some inner essence, obscured their true nature, warped it (unlike our more modern concept of identity-personality, the humors described behavior). And extreme imbalance, meanwhile, reduced men to the fearsome vagaries of epileptic hysteria and madness.

If we assume that humoral ideas have merit when applied to individuals, why not expand this analysis to include society at large? Societies too, have personalities and harmful/helpful tendencies that may extend the stages of its “life” (in the organic, Spenglerian sense), or end them prematurely. And what happens when, as in our own time, our civilization has the paradoxical affliction of symmetrical asymmetry — a surfeit of all four humors? We thus suffer from each corresponding and degenerate state — the sum total of which has caused a descent into fits of what I’ll describe as “chronic melodrama” (fitting, since melodrama’s traditional meaning has its roots in ancient Greek theater, melos meaning “song”). And in literature and theater, a melodrama is a work with hyperbolic, “sensational events and characters [4]. It is highly emotional, focusing on exciting but over-the-top situations that are designed to encourage [strong] responses in the audience.” It is therefore genre, but also mode, for according to its more prosaic meaning, melodrama is emotional exaggeration for affect/effect in which people consider themselves on a metaphorical, if not literal, stage — characters in a world of cartoon heroes and villains. This is an incredibly attractive, but childish way to view one’s self and society. Melodrama is for children and dummies.

But we decadents consume it like five-year-olds do their cotton candy at the fair. Here is a list of melodramatic feature articles taken from three “serious” newspapers and webzines (and for which I didn’t exercise any effort finding): [3] [5]

That’s rich. It’s almost like navel-gazing torpedoes self-awareness. This is all indicative of profound imbalance and sickness. The even-keeled phlegmatic drowns in his own stew of bitter indolence; the creative melancholic chases away everyone with his unbearable whininess; the optimistic sanguine loses all sense of seriousness and becomes a pollyanna, panting after his fix; and the bold choleric morphs into a tyrant ranting at the wind, and one whose coffee all the others wish to poison. And do even one of these caricature-authors’ hearts truly bleed for death-row inmates, fat people, or anyone else’s “trauma?” Of course not. It is a mask of piety that highlights, rather than hides, a stunning level of self-regard. These are our melodramatic, ill-humored modern types. Hideous, readers.

I. Masque of Sincerity: Revolutionary “Feeling” and the Melancholic-Choleric (1776-1845)

“Why do you tremble at me alone?” cried he, turning his veiled face round the circle of pale spectators. “Tremble also at each other! . . . when the friend shows his inmost heart to his friend; the lover to his best beloved; when man does not vainly shrink from the eye of his Creator, loathsomely treasuring up the secret of his sin; then deem me a monster . . . I look around me, and lo! On every visage a Black Veil!” [5] [7]

Both the American and French Revolutions overturned older orders that governed their societies, and this had an almost immediate effect on individual and societal temperaments. Unlike the usual depiction of Americans as sanguine types, I say that Americans were melancholics, while the French (often said to be melancholics) were cholerics through-and-through. And both revolutions became ones of personality, of theater, in which the never-ending fixation became one of finding the sincere citizen who truly represented his new country of republican virtue.

The American Revolution: A Man of “Sensibility”

The treason of General Benedict Arnold is a well-known story. After his disaffection with superiors and disgust with the way the war was going, the American general turned coat and schemed, along with one of General Henry Clinton’s aides, to betray and surrender West Point to His Majesty’s forces. Had this conspiracy gone as planned, the Revolution might have collapsed. But as it happened, the aide — British Major John André — was captured by several Continental militiamen while on his way back from a clandestine meeting with Arnold. Crisis averted. Arnold escaped and broke through Continental lines. André’s fortunes, meanwhile, took a turn for the worse, and adhering to standard rules dictating military punishment, a tribunal condemned him to hang as a spy (he’d not been traveling under British colors, nor identification when accosted on the road).


A Soldier Called Major John André, unknown artist and date, located at the Huntington Library Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California

Of course, there issued from the Americans predictable and furious denunciations made against André (“Lucifer!” “Treason! Black as hell!”), but in a lesser-known story, the script flipped on the morning of the Major’s execution. [6] [9] One of his guards, a young man from New England, wrote that André “met death with a smile, cheerfully marching to the place of his execution . . . I cannot say enough about his manly behavior and fortitude.” [7] [10] He later admitted to a colonel of his acquaintance that he’d had to “leave the field” in a “flood of tears.” [8] [11] André had the appearance of “Philosophy & Heroism,” and he “died like a Roman.” [9] [12] Another spectator described the “collective weeping” as having affected “every man [at the gallows-scene] of feeling and sentiment.” [10] [13] An elegant, charming, and aristocratic man with “elevated sentiments” himself, André appealed to an older ideal of chivalry and the newer ideal of “sensibility,” the eighteenth-century notion of “feeling,” of gentility, that was also tied to rank — but rank in an increasingly less aristocratic world. It (perhaps unknowingly) described the perfect mixture of the four humors: a man of good cheer, but of a serious mind; one who was sensitive, but possessed of courage. Having sensibility, whether in a man or a woman, meant one enjoyed personal distinction (discrimination in the correct sense of the word), taste, and moral character. [11] [14] And in this world, mortal male enemies could be applauded for halfway falling in love with one another. Sensibility defined a transitional and Romantic period between a feudal society and a modern, mass society dominated by the middle classes. A last nod to traditional superiority.

Confidence Men and Painted Ladies: Victorian “Sentimentalism”

It would be easy for me to describe the ensuing Victorian age of sentimentalism, rather than sensibility, as one of hypocrisy — a narrative of decline. For most of the twentieth century, artists and philosophers dedicated themselves to doing just that (charges against Victorians of exhibiting Mr. Pecksniff piety, and of “at least as much depravity as the vilest Puritans who ever lived” get boring.) [12] [15] But those Modernist thinkers only did this because the Victorians wrote so much about and were so concerned with their own hypocrisy. [13] [16] And as one historian put it, “those who charge themselves with this offense are not easily convicted.” [14] [17]

But there were real dangers to honesty and faith in a fast-changing world: the nineteenth century was a time of greater fluidity and less rootedness. It was the age of “the confidence man and the painted woman.” Instead of asking the question “why were Victorians hypocrites,” perhaps we should ask new questions, such as, “why were Victorians so obsessed with finding and correcting hypocrisy?” Victorians encountered more strangers in their lifetimes than any other group had before them — on mass transit systems and in the bloated cities. Neighbors in small towns could be trusted (if they happened to misbehave, you at least knew where they lived), and strangers, it followed, were both notable and watched like hawks, lest they decide to make off with someone’s livestock or a daughter’s virtue. And the new urban life? Daughters might run off and join the cabaret. Everyone was a stranger there, and even though all lived cheek-by-jowl, no one knew where anyone lived. Troublemakers could simply melt into the cement, into the anonymity of city life — instead of into the wilderness, or the forest. The narrow alleys and dirty tenements had become the deep dark woods, and who could tell which were the wolves from the woodcutters? This was disturbing. How, in such a society, might people reestablish ties of social credit, repair the trust on which all communities, great and small, simple and complex, rely — how did one ensure sincerity? In their earnest attempts to be the kind of sincere and temperamentally-balanced men of sensibility like John André, Victorians unfortunately created a more overwrought and fabricated culture.

Scholars have often pointed out that middle-classness was/is riven with neuroticism, and thus, with quotidian rules that have served to separate and signify members as apart from the richer and from the poorer — and these scholars are not altogether wrong. In Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart, he described the class divisions in late-stage liberal-democratic America. Upper-class and working-class people have been more likely to keep old things instead of replacing them; they have tended to be more straightforward when speaking. A man, they will say, has died, rather than having “passed away.” Both have also been more likely than the middle-class to say “politically incorrect” things, or lob “intolerant” slurs. The bourgeois (for lack of a better word) have “minded their manners,” because such proper behavior has always been considered a vital part of their belonging within the respectable sort, the educated, smart set. To dissent would have been to risk all the things for which they attended college, acquired debt, and worked forty-hour weeks to achieve. The still-large white middle-class (whether identifying as “liberal” or “conservative”) abides by all the maxims we here at Counter-Currents have dedicated ourselves to discrediting. This does not mean that we are enemies of the middle-class, per se, but we are enemies of the current Queensberry Rules that keep these whites terrified and toeing the line.

One of the inventions of the American Revolution and early Republic was the formation of a new class system — a new way of organizing/ranking people sans inherited titles or ancient aristocratic estates — and new organization-men are always a bit sensitive, somewhat nervous. Coupled with the dislocations of the nineteenth century, this anxiety manifested in a large portion of the American public becoming obsessed with “right feeling.” A cult of sentimentality developed in order to ascertain “right feeling,” or sincerity — to prove one’s belonging in this new Empire, not merely one of “Liberty,” but of “Morality.” People put a heavy emphasis on meeting face-to-face, applying the “personal touch,” insisting on the manly handshake. Ladies’ magazines encouraged women to discard the elaborate Romantic fashions for simpler gowns and hairstyles — to look the way Victorians assumed women were naturally supposed to look: demure and slightly shy. The “broadest significance of sentimental culture lay in the powerful middle-class impulse to shape all social forms into sincere expressions of inner feeling.” Ironically, these practices of sincere gentility too easily turned into ritualized theater. By the end of the nineteenth century, the humors were both more superficial and more upset than they had been during even the wound-up Romantic era. Melancholia victorious, with its compulsive focus on authenticity, nostalgia, and perfectionism. The best-laid plans, readers.


Godey’s Ladies fashion, a study in blue: elaborate Romantic era party dress, ca. 1830 vs. the simpler designs of the late 1840s; notice how the women in the second frame exhibit sweet, natural “poses of sincerity,” waiting to be approached by their male company.

And when this sentimentalism encountered the deceptions of modern life? The lurid pageant of the metropolis captured the interests of observers like Arthur Symons, who often passed by the Alhambra ballet theater during his night walks. In “The moment before the doors closed again,” Symons saw “far off in a sort of blue mist, [the Alhambra’s] brilliant crowd drawn up in the last pose.” Though he at first seemed merely a disinterested pedestrian who happened to draw alongside the theater at a propitious instant, it soon became clear that Symons was a regular visitor. “I prefer,” he went on, “to see my illusions clearly, recognising them as illusions . . . Maquillage is intensely fascinating . . . I do not for a moment really want to believe in what I see; to believe that those wigs are hair, that grease-paint a blush,” he insisted. No, he was content to revel in the “fairy tale” and leave behind the grit of city life for a time, though he seemed reluctant to leave it behind completely, for he was apparently intimate with many members of the ballet troupe.

There is this charming person, for instance, at the Alhambra: in the street she is handsome, rather than pretty; on the stage she is pretty, rather than handsome. I know exactly how she will look in her different wigs, exactly what her make-up will bring out and conceal . . . it has, to the remnant of the Puritan conscience, a certain sense of dangerous wickedness . . . the very phrase, painted woman, has come to have the association of sin; and to have put paint on her cheeks, though for the innocent necessities of her profession, gives to a woman a sort of symbolic corruption. At once she seems to typify the sorceries and entanglements of what is most deliberately enticing in her sex. [15] [19]

Was Symons a dispassionate reporter on urban living, or was he an avid fanboy, insatiable for the dreadful delights of the Victorian city? Did he see through the Maquillage masque of his favorite dancers? Or, even if he knew them to be “sorceries,” did he allow himself to become “entangled” by their “enticements” all the same? Finally, was this simple hypocrisy, or something else? His was a meld of fascination with the glitter and unromantic candor at the slight ghastliness of the “painted women” onstage — a curious mixture that revealed his desire to remain sincere and truthful while defending his love of artifice.

The French Revolution: Les Enfants Terribles and the Advent of Melodrama


One of the most melodramatic French stories written in the nineteenth century, Jules Chéret, 1879

America’s “Tree of Liberty” grew in the same grove as that of the French wood, but they produced somewhat different fruit. Instead of applauding sensibility, the French revolutionaries invented melodrama — an essentially “moral response to the Revolution’s liquidation of the sacred.” This was another attempt at sincerity, for the Revolution aimed, at least in its rhetoric, at empowering the “true people,” the good citizens. During the 1790s, “La Marseillaise” became the anthem of revolutionary violence and terrorism. In the early morning hours of 10 August 1792, fédérés (soldiers from Marseille) singing the soon-to-be-famous tune and leading some twenty-thousand armed Parisians, surrounded and laid siege to the Tuileries Palace. The mob blasted their way inside and massacred six hundred guards, courtiers, and assorted servants of the royal family. Revolutionary sympathizers and journalists like Antoine-Joseph Gorsas seized upon the song, calling “all Parisians to take up arms against traitors in the capital,” predicting that “rivers of impure blood” would have to be shed in order to protect the innocent from those counterrevolutionaries who plotted to murder patriot families in their beds. Several weeks later, “citizen battalions” launched another horrific killing spree, decapitating over 1,300 people throughout the city while shouting “La Marseillaise” til their hands grew sticky-red and their voices hoarse.

What was particularly telling about “La Marseillaise” was its use of the phrase “allons enfants,” or “come children.” In the ancien régime, childhood was barely acknowledged as a separate state of existence, but was thought to be the prelude to adulthood, a sort of pre-humanity. Most viewed childhood, in fact, as merely a metaphor for dependence, in both the biological and feudal sense. And so, to refer to revolutionary patriots as “les enfants,” was to make the argument that the mass of peasant humanity, or “the people,” were emerging from a state of immaturity, of dependence, and toppling their parents — their monarchical and Catholic patriarchs. This narrative was the first modern melodrama, for it divided the world into firstly innocent and pure children yearning to be free of their shackles, and secondly into the depraved aristos and latter-day leaders with whom they struggled. Such Manichean conceptions of the world produced extreme emotions and excused the worst conduct.

When, for example, the Comédie française performed “La Marseillaise” “as a grand operatic spectacle in September of 1792, the stage filled up with a chorus of children dressed in white; they sang lines . . . about the permanently armed condition of the nation’s eternally immature patriots, who [did] not develop or grow up but [were] replenished ad infinitum” by fresh harvests of “similarly militarized children: ‘s’ils tombent nos jeunes héros / La terre en produit de nouveaux [should our young heroes fall, / The land shall grow a new crop of them].’” [16] [21] This oppositional language encouraged by revolutionary melodrama was a “politico-moral” one in which “politics [were] moralized and morality [was] politicized” — a phenomenon that should seem quite familiar to us. Les enfants were “morally good, because they [were] politically weak. The opera emphasized their vulnerable condition “in marked contrast to the privileged “status of the ‘kings,’ ‘masters,’ and ‘despots’ ranged against them.” [17] [22] French theater had never been so popular as it was during the days of the Revolution when stories like Victor and Cœlina, terrorist plays about les tyrans “receiving just punishment” for their wicked plots against the “children of the Revolution,” performed to sold-out crowds. [18] [23] By the Victorian era, half a million Parisians were visiting the theater once a week, and over twice that number once per month. [19] [24] As one journalist put it, “the population of Paris lives in the theater, by the theater, and for the theater.” [20] [25] The increasingly “spectacular” condition of modernity after the Revolution with its rapid pace of change only heightened the “predilection for the melodramatic mode, which was grounded in the visual.” [21] [26] There were people “who only dressed, spoke, laughed, lived, and died as one does in novels. Others, even more numerous, borrowed their posture and vocal inflections from the Comédie française . . .” [22] [27]


Overused, but seen in a fresh light: Eugéne Delacroix’s Liberty Leading [les Enfants], 1830, with an actual child as her most enthusiastic participant (can he truly be called a “follower?”): in his haste to shoot the viewer, le petit “Gavroche” steps on the corpses of his older brethren.

Children given license to run amock, humiliate, and kill their fathers, ironically for “la patrie,” or “the fatherland,” this led to an infantilization of society — and can anyone deny that children, when not controlled, exhibit the worst of the four humors? They can be little tyrants throwing conniption fits; the pouters who whine that “nothing is fair”; the daydreamer for whom responsibility matters little. We forgive them this immaturity, because they are immature — but they should obviously not govern societies, for they lack the psychological poise required. The rise of these Jacobin “children” coincided with the rise of infantile entertainment: the melodrama, that which goaded les enfants terribles in their insatiable quest for blood, imparted within their minds a simplistic, but powerful morality that removed from their hearts all hesitance of conscience when it came to mass murder, that placed in their hands the blade with which they happily committed regicide. The choleric tin-pot bullies of the schoolyard held their sway. And during the next two hundred years, Paris would be the capital of the “Bohemian diaspora,” a place where forever-adolescents could live out their “rebellions” when unable or incapable of facing the demands of adult society. In the new societies that we wish to create, we should prioritize having children, yes, but childhood we must cease romanticizing.

II. Masque of Madness: The Sanguine’s Nervous Splendour (1850-1914)

The growing consciousness is a danger and a disease. [23] [29]


Jules Chéret, “La Musique,” 1891

Nation and Sensation: The Melodramatic Media

The nineteenth century was the era of newfound orders, new “truths,” and nationalist movements, even if some of them [31] were civic fabrications (yes, nations and nationalism can be different things — one a simple fact of existence that people do not necessarily have to “try” at, and the other a conscious act at creation); the press aided every one of them — helped these movements form a self-conscious public. In a lecture delivered at the Sorbonne on March 11, 1882, Ernest Renan asked, “Qu’est-ce qu’une nation?”

The nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which, truth be told, are but one, constitute this soul . . . one is in the past and the other in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich heritage of memories, the other is active consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue the undivided heritage passed down . . . the cult of ancestors is the most legitimate of cults; a heroic past, great men, glory . . . this is the social capital upon which the nation is founded. To share past glories, a common will in the present; to have done great things together, is to desire to do so again . . . [24] [32]

Hard to argue with such stirring words. Material began to address itself to e.g., “the people of France, les enfants de la patrie,” uniting disparate groups around the idea of a Gallic state that was at one time subject to a single monarch. Some of this made good sense, for nationalism required effort, as it was an outreach program, but it always showed the power of the media to influence public opinion. [25] [33] The Victorian era inaugurated the great age of the novel and of the publishing house, as more texts than ever before flew off the presses in the form of periodicals, books, newspapers, pamphlets, and journals. Languages standardized in order to meet this enormous demand among a more literate population, and people began to view themselves as, again, e.g. “French,” not simply because of the substance of their reading, but because of the format of their reading; someone in Lyon purchased the exact serial from the pharmacie as did the Parisian in Montmartre, both accounts written in the same, standardized French. Language and people-hood have always been closely, if not exactly, linked. An organic movement built on the gradual and often torturous process of biology and generation suddenly found itself hitched to the back of a station-wagon and taken farther and faster than ever nationhood had traveled before. This is why we have called the period after the French Revolution the “Modern Age,” an exciting time that mirrored the sanguine personality with its heady brew of media, politics, and sensationalism.

The media, however, had an uglier side. For those who believe that the press is especially bad today, I say that you’re probably right. But the media’s job has never been to inform, but to form, or shape, to keep the public in a perpetual state of crisis, ever on tenterhooks. We often talk of the news — print or online — like we do our food. We consume texts and absorb their messages as if they were sandwiches being digested for their caloric energy. And if, in fact, we are what we eat, and what we consume courses through our bodily systems, through our bloodstreams, and manifests in our personalities, then it follows that consuming printed/graphic trash will affect our humoral balance. It may even cause us to go mad. Chivalric romances certainly had that effect on Don Quixote, and Miguel Cervantes was, I suspect, only writing a halfway-satire about the dangers of too much reading. Behold the press of the nineteenth century: yellow journalists, byline thieves, and melodramatic muckrakers whose hackery could give any of our own front-listers for the Washington Post a run for their filthy Jewish money. In the nineteenth century, the press first began to truly flex, to stretch forth its tentacles. It became both aware of its enormous power and addicted to it, to the sensations it could provoke — a trait that made its peddlers too similar to the attention-addicted killers and madmen whom they followed in breathless articles, living off the fear and the blood (do I sound like a melodramatic Rorschach yet?). Instead of simply unifying people, or helping them to make sense of themselves as a particular group with similar interests, the press could also shatter their sense of peace, of wholeness. It thus contributed to the rise of a nervous nineteenth-century splendor.

All That Is Solid: A Schizophrenic Modernism

And what is madness? A lack of reason, or emptiness? Like junkies, some “madmen” are quite reasonable, for they are aware that they act in an “irrational” manner — that their impulses or obsessions may be harmful to themselves and others, or could send them to prison; reason simply doesn’t stop their behavior. Madness, then, is not absence of reason, but ascendance of passion. [26] [34] And if we once again return to the humoral concept of psyche, then madness occurs when one or more of the humoral passions (the sanguine passion for stimulation; the melancholic passion for self-destruction; the choleric passion for power; and the phlegmatic passion for dispassion) assume control over the mind to such an extent that they “possess” their subject. Even those surrealists and Modernists who have glorified “un-reason” or madness as a kind of creative life-force, “a night-blooming tropical flower” as one character described it in a Tennessee Williams play, they have all located madness in the realm of the overflowing Dionysian passion-spring.

Theatrical types have always been attracted to madness. Shakespearean plays abounded in mad characters, for when reason fled or was overtaken by some other mysterious force, it could appear like a fantastical-terrible performance, a kind of maquillage for the psyche — and catnip for ambitious actors. Madness was melodrama that allowed characters to vent their deeper impulses. On the other hand, many asylums of the nineteenth century encouraged inmate performances of plays based on the theory that if madmen were to perform sanity, to act out the motions of rational characters (“saneface?”), they might cure themselves. [27] [35] Theaters of reason might save them from the darkness of their obsessions. While the Victorians might have been consumed with rooting out hypocrisy, they were also very intrigued by insanity. [28] [36] The fields of psychoanalysis and psychology became accepted as true scientific endeavors, and everyone began to diagnose themselves, not simply of hypocrisy, but of hysteria. One of their other endearing qualities was a belief that with enough white-man reason and ingenuity, they could fix or reform anything — even a broken mind. They were right about their prodigious abilities often enough that progress became THE shining, sanguine article of faith in the 1800s.


Francisco Goya, The Sleep of Reason Breeds Monsters, 1799

Perhaps madness too might arise, not only from unconscious passions, but from too much consciousness, too much sensitivity and awareness of the simultaneity dictating and distorting the modern world-condition. [29] [38] The poet Gerard de Nerval, for instance, described an exquisite clarity he endured during one of his “mad episodes”: “It struck me that I knew everything; everything was revealed to me, all the secrets of the world were mine during those spacious hours.” [30] [39] Are people built to be bombarded constantly by media messaging, or the knowledge that everyone everywhere is doing or seeing something at the exact moment of his own subjective awareness? We have plucked pre-modern man from his provincial town where he once thought only of his own inner circle and then inserted him into the overwhelming environment of the global-techno cityscape. Radio and film (and today mass television ownership) has made it possible to “experience a rush of images from different spaces almost simultaneously, collapsing the world into . . . a single screen.” [31] [40] A few psychologists welcomed this change in humanity as a boon and advocated the “[intensification of] the nervous faculties of men and women.” With education, experts might enrich students’ minds through “penetrating exercises which called forth vibrations from the inward nervous structures and harmonised the elements of action . . .” [32] [41] Harmony by way of agitation! Modernity often gave people the sense that “all that is solid melts into air.” This was unnervingly similar to descriptions given by patients during their psychotic breaks: “When I am melting,” said one schizophrenic, “I have no hands . . . in the doorway I can gather together the pieces of my body . . . I feel that my personality is melting and that I do not exist anymore. Everything pulls me apart . . .” [33] [42] Modern man lacks a solid plot, for he does not have one in the rooted, landed sense, nor in the narrative sense, nor finally in his sense of reality. He is a masked man whose center has not held.

Agonies in the Garden and Apocalyptic Cities

But then, humans have imagined themselves as having been on the brink any number of times before circa 1890. But a shift did occur in their thinking — that of a desire to save the world by welcoming the End Times (often understood to be the physical destruction of the earth), to one of saving the world by averting the End Times. During the Middle Ages, few people thought seriously about creating worldly utopias; many wanted to hasten the apocalypse so that the earth might cease to spin, and they’d each be judged according to goodness and virtue, then sent otherwheres. But a curious thing happened in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: just as people became less rooted to the literal earth beneath their feet, they began to cling to it with greater desperation — a mania that manifested in fashionable crazes that foretold skyfall from all sorts of evils. And unlike their medieval ancestors, they shuddered at the Final Prospect.

Science-fiction, a genre that came into maturity during the later Victorian decades, replaced religious apocalyptic tales with dark, futuristic fantasies about the end of the world. H. G. Wells’ short story “A Vision of Judgment” was perhaps the best example of this phenomenon — a satirical take on Judgment Day and the awakening of the dead after the “Last Trump” from above, a blast that the narrator contemptuously called: “that infernal shindy.” Every man who ever lived suddenly appeared in an “amphitheatrical space as vast as the sky,” called not by name, but summoned as a bulk of undifferentiated bodies. Ancient beliefs in an absurd meeting with mass society. But the earth, as it turned out, was but a minor concern for the Creator and his heavenly Host. This gathering of souls was more like a bureaucratically administered welfare process. There was no Second Coming in the traditional sense, but

“Now,” said God, as he shook us [all] out of his sleeve upon the planet he had given us to live upon, the planet that whirled about green Sirius for a sun, “now that you understand me and each other a little better, . . . try again.” Then he and his great angels turned themselves about and suddenly had vanished. . . . The Throne had vanished. All about me was a beautiful land, more beautiful than any I had ever seen before — waste, austere, and wonderful . . . [34] [43]

This irreverent little story from the master of science-fiction was an expression of the ambiguity Victorians felt regarding religion and the afterlife. The world got its new beginning, its utopia, but no Celestial City. And in his other novellas, Wells imagined the future of humanity as no utopia at all, and the distant future of earth as but a “palpitating grayness.” His famous Time Traveler, after venturing forward past the farthest reaches of Fate, saw overhead a “steady twilight” and a dying sun that made everything on earth “a deep Indian red and starless, [while] southeastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay [the sun’s] huge hull . . . a horror came on [him].” A sanguine sun, in the bloody, ruddy sense, had reduced the world to a bleak tomb suspended in space: optimism’s alternate face that had ceased to blink or to sink behind the western sky, but bared its wine-red glare eternally. The Time Traveller regretted his journey.


The ruins of the future, a Gustave Doré engraving, London: A Pilgrimage, 1872

Belle Epoque France certainly had reasons for which to be fearful of the future. Just as Paris had cemented herself as the fashion capital of the world, it became fashionable there to suppose the end was waiting just ‘round the bend. Prussian troops under the command of Otto von Bismarck had humiliated Republican forces at Versailles and then annexed several resource-rich eastern provinces into the German nation-state. Anarchists like those of the Paris Commune of 1871 had wanted to overthrow the already-liberal French Republic (that “puddle of stinking water” [35] [45]) and inaugurate an even more radical order. Though government forces brutally suppressed the revolt, plots and deep bitterness over the affair continued to fester. And so, they did what Parisians have always tended to do after tragic bloodbaths or terrifying invasions: they threw a party.

The 1900 World’s Fair, accompanied by the Summer Olympics held that same year, was a celebration of the City of Light, of fantasy, exoticism, futurism, and the New Century ahead. A euphoric nineteen-year-old Pablo Picasso fresh from Barcelona (and whose paintings the Fair had featured), stepped off the gangplank á la gare and immediately went to his rooms where he signed several of his unfinished self-portraits, “I, the King.” And indeed most historians have cited the Paris Exposition as a festival of sanguine optimism — no doubt. But the unhealthy, alternate reflection of sanguine optimism was chronic worry. The “Palace of Electricity” along the Seine summed up the mood: lit with enthusiasm, but nervy with the charged buzz almost tangible in the static air. Even as Exposition tourists like Picasso reveled in the greatest fête of their lives, they heard rumblings in the distance; the world beyond the Île de la Cité grew frightening. Every week a new assassination, each month a new revolutionary prophesying total collapse.

The celebrations of city life like those in Paris and Chicago were matched by city-haters, who longed either to remove themselves from the urban sphere altogether, or to import nature in the form of city parks — a breath of fresh air and sanity amidst the madhouse of the metropolis. That “madwoman in the attic” herself, Emily Dickinson, found solace in her garden near Amherst, Massachusetts, still a fertile, river-run land of orchards, hills, and fields of bloom. This was the beginning of suburbia — not quite the city, not exactly the country, but a carefully cultivated garden of peace and plenty. Science-fiction author William Dean Howells envisioned an entire country of such places — railway-connected hamlets — in America’s future. There were too many “large cities . . . which [had] increased and fattened upon the country, and fed their cancerous life with fresh infusions of its blood . . . let them fall to ruin as quickly as they would.” In the fantastic society of Howells’ imagination, “ubiquitous villages” dotted the countryside, “connected to each other and to modest regional capitals by swift, electric express trains,” thus composing a vision of technology paired with “pastoral bliss.” [36] [46] But there was/is an inherent problem with suburbia that mirrored the problem with the middle class: it was in-between and thus an anxious place that nervously guarded against creep. The idyllic utopias of picket fences and domestic gardens were also places awaiting the final confrontation, the moment when Eden would end.

III. Masque of Truth: Phlegmatic Mumbo-Jumbo

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table . . .
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo . . . [37] [47]

One of the byproducts of media-imposed language standardization was the diffusion, not simply of “correct” spelling, but of mumbo-jumbo — lies. It’s nice that we have collectively agreed that “Gothic” is spelled thusly and not with a “K,” [48] but it has also trumpeted various snake-oil cures and ridiculous beliefs, from Deepak Chopra’s medical pretensions to Crystals (Krystals?) and rock painting that might fix our hysterias. In his everyday conversation, the average person tells three lies per minute. [38] [49] He probably swallows just as many from those around him. Most of these are petty untruths, but there are quite a lot of them — certainly enough to argue that we live in a society of masquerades and rank dishonesty.

The yuppies that comprise the (one-and-the-same) liberal and conservative camps indulge in faux-hemian practices that combine “the bourgeois world of capitalism with the bohemian counterculture,” hence all of the “artisanal” cheeses and “authentic” African art with which they insist on gilding their lives. [39] [50] They might purchase Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, then put it on a shelf, never intending to read past page two. They stake BLM signs onto their white, Midwestern front lawns and will talk endlessly about their red-vax badges of courage (get the shot if you will, but please shut up about it). Raised on 1960s protest hagiography, these new elites don’t like the idea of being “the Man,” the establishment that they undoubtedly are. So, they wear masks of bohemianism that, nevertheless, remain status codes that govern the elite/middle-classes to which they belong. This is a group that, in order to exist, must lie. They still insist on seeing the world through melodramatic glasses — the lens of the innocent, “powerless” children of the revolution vs. the nasty oppressors (and like the revolutionaries of two hundred years ago, they are unable to discern within whose hearts the tyranny truly resides). This delusion has required the sum of status anxiety, childish sentimental-melodramatic moralism, an unhinged press, and no small doses of insanity and apocalyptic crazes.

Only yesterday I read about a professor of “gender studies” and his claims that medieval saints’ declarations of love — of wanting to kiss the face of Jesus, or embrace the Queen of Heaven — meant that they must actually have wanted somewhere deep down in their dirty souls to have had sex with Christ and his Mother (maybe at the same time). Obvious trash scholarship enabled by queer critical theory. And the worst truth out of all these lies: people are mostly okay with it (or at least not willing to combat it). They content themselves with sitting back and apathetically watching the world sink into the crater caused by the weight of our collective mendacity. Our saddest quotient. Phlegmatic white conservatives and “classical liberals” shrug and deny that a crisis is upon us (though this game of pretend is getting more and more difficult to play). Perhaps, they persist in believing, if we act out saneface, that we’re all fine, our lines will not run out and the play will not end and we shall dwell in the house of unreality forever. Asylum will not save them.

And the zenith (for now) of mumbo-jumbo? Our trans-idiocy. Everything must now be trans: there are “transnational studies” and “transnational corporations.” There are no boundaries, but “borderlands.” Philosophical, historical, and literary scholarship focus on “go-betweens,” middle-men (a historic Jewish role), “mixed-race” people, and “liminal” spaces. Of course, there are the trannies themselves. We’re on a trans-everything kick, lest borders and binaries do “violence” to colored or “queerly-gendered” people. Complete costume theater — has there ever been a phenomenon more melodramatic than the masks put on by these monsters in drag?

And how must we combat these lies, this apathy? Should we garden like Emily Dickinson? That’s not a terrible idea — the Leftists were right: everything is, in the end, political. Flowers blooming in the face of black ugliness can be a form of rebellion. But, of course, gardening needs pairing with other endeavors that will restore our individual and collective humors, that will lead us down the path toward healthy living. Be cognizant of lies, when you speak them, and when others speak them to you. It’s a bad habit, and it cheapens everyone. Resist turning to simplistic stories of Good and Evil, or engaging in cartoonish fantasies that lead to manga-reading and Funko Pop!-collecting, the addictions of forever-adolescence.

If you, like I do, enjoy road trips, take them, and see your country. I’ve gone through the villages of England and France, and they have stunned me with their quiet beauty, the churches on their hills, and the houses in a circle ‘round them. As for Americans, the Rocky Mountains belong to us, as do the spring fields of wild bluebonnets in central Texas. Travel down one of my favorite roads: John Tyler Route 5 from Williamsburg, Virginia to Richmond — you’ll pass expanses of forest and plantation, old battlefields and ghosts from out of the blue mists. Insist, too on beauty. Those who lack beautiful things surrounding them will wither (this is particularly true of white people, the most beautiful race, and the race that has created the most beautiful things). If you have older relations, talk to them, and listen to stories about their grandparents. They will be gone tomorrow. There is much to love, without falling into blind faith, much about which to feel nostalgic without becoming seduced by the spell of melancholy; much to confront, without becoming a thug, and much to enjoy, without retreating into complacency.

When we found my grandmother the morning after she died, there was a note by her side — a Stevenson poem apparently written from her memory the night before. Perhaps she’d taught it to a class full of white children years ago:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. [40] [51]

This is not melodrama, but dignity. I take solace in the idea that, in some limited way, she chose the hour of her death, that she never gave up her “will” til it was finally time she “laid [it] down.” Now that her generation has mostly gone, it is up to me, to you and me, to raise it up, the standard — to let not the colors of our people fall.

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[1] [52] Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York: Ecco, 2007), 18.

[2] [53] I refer here to Jungian temperament theories (including the Myers-Briggs spinoff) and the “Big Five” personality test, the latter widely used by professionals.

[3] [54] I located all of these articles at the WaPo, the HuffPo, and

[4] [55] A quote from this article:

I personally don’t believe “inclusive” can apply to sites that cater to a limited size range that excludes both larger and smaller sizes [she doesn’t care about smaller sizes]. That position may be somewhat controversial, but to me, “inclusive fashion” looks like a brand like SmartGlamour, by Mallorie Dunn, which has a preset size range from XXS – 15X, but additionally offers complete customization of every piece sold, each of which is made to order.

It’s almost like the author thinks that there is a market for bespoke (which would be very exclusive) women’s clothing stores, or that these places are actually run by Cinderella’s fairy godmother. “Complete customization of every piece which is made to order?” Get over yourself, lady.

[5] [56] Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Minister’s Black Veil,” in Hawthorne’s Short Stories (New York: Vintage, 2011), 21.

[6] [57] The date of the Major’s hanging was October 2, 1780.

[7] [58] It has been a near-universal point of admiration among white people throughout history: almost anyone was forgiven anything if he or she met death with courage and dignity. It is interesting to note that while André won sympathy from his American captors, no such admiration would ever be given to Arnold, who lacked the former’s grace and “sensibility,” as well as a brave end that might have redeemed him in the eyes of some of his former friends.

[8] [59] Benjamin Tallmadge to Colonel Wadsworth, October 4, 1780, in Worthington C. Ford, ed., Correspondence and Journals of Samuel Blachley Webb, 2 vols, (New York, 1969), 2: 293.

[9] [60] Joel Barlow to Ruth Baldwin, October 2, 1780, quoted in Sarah Knott, “Sensibility and the American War for Independence,” 22.

[10] [61] Anonymous account, printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette, October 18, 1780.

[11] [62] For more on John André and American Revolutionary “sensibility,” see Sarah Knott’s “Sensibility and the American War for Independence” in The American Historical Review 109, no. 1 (February 2004), pp. 19-40.

[12] [63] Just as the pelting of “vile Puritans” gets equally tiresome. See Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870, (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982), xiv.

[13] [64] Think of all the novels and psychological essays written about the “masks” people wore to hide their darker, or more savage natures — from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to The Picture of Dorian Gray; from Dora: An Analysis on a Case of Hysteria to “The Cask of Amontillado.”

[14] [65] Confidence Men and Painted Women, xiv.

[15] [66] Arthur Symons, “At the Alhambra: Impressions and Sensations” in The Fin de Siécle: A Reader in Cultural History c. 1880-1900, eds. Sally Ledger and Roger Luckhurst (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 67-68.

[16] [67] See Jennifer Wise, “L’enfant et le Tyran: La Marseillaise and the Birth of Melodrama,” Theatre Survey 55, no.1 (April 2012), pp. 29-57, 33-34. My translation.

[17] [68] “L’enfant et le Tyran: La Marseillaise and the Birth of Melodrama,” 35.

[18] [69] These two plays were written by René-Charles Guilbert de Pixérécourt (1773-1844), the father of modern melodrama.

[19] [70] See Eugen Weber’s, France, Fin de Siècle (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1986), 159.

[20] [71] Pierre Giffard, La Vie au théâtre (1888), 2.

[21] [72] Venita Datta, Heroes and Legends of Fin-de-Siècle France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 29.

[22] [73] V., “Le Triomphe de Sherlock Holmes,” L’Humanité, (8 Juin 1908), 2. The same pseudonymous author called the theater “Le Mauvais École.”

[23] [74] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. Thomas Comman (Edinburgh: 1909), 31-32.

[24] [75] Reproduced in Raoul Girardet, Nationalismes et Nations (Brussels: Editions Complexe, 1996), 137-139.

[25] [76] There is a modern fallacy put forward that “constructions” (which could be almost anything related to humanity) are not legitimate, or real. But many “constructions” are very real, in the sense that they emerge from both inherent biological processes as well as cultural forms that may each be specific to certain groups and serve to impose necessary order and meaning. Time on the clock is a construct that nevertheless is used to describe a reality; language is a construct that is very real and allows us all to engage in real-world relationships. Nation-states are constructs, but that does not necessarily de-legitimate them as entities.

[26] [77] By “madness,” I do not mean all of the psychological disorders one can now find in a DSM manual, but the kind of behavior human societies have continually thought “mad” for thousands of years: deep suicidal depression, debilitating phobias, catatonic trances, “epileptic fits,” and other behaviors that today we group under the heading: “schizophrenia,” multiple personalities, and murderous frenzies. But the modern diagnosis of autism, for example, was not recognized until last century, and before that time, people would have referred to such a personality as “odd,” “touched,” or “simple” — not mad.

[27] [78] See Benjamin Reiss’ Theaters of Madness: Insane Asylums and Nineteenth-Century American Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008).

[28] [79] Romantic and Victorian-era authors loved the subject of madness; examples include: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, the many stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sigmund Freud’s writings, etc.

[29] [80] See Louis A. Sass, Madness and Modernism: Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature, and Thought (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).

[30] [81] D. P. Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988; originally published in German in 1903), 117.

[31] [82] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995), 293.

[32] [83] T. Clifford Albutt, “Nervous Diseases and Modern Life” in The Fin de Siecle: A Reader, 267.

[33] [84] A schizophrenia patient quoted in P. Schilder, The Image and Appearance of the Human Body (London: Kagan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1935), 159.

[34] [85] H. G. Wells, “A Vision of Judgment [86],” (Online Literature Network).

[35] [87] Peter Kropotkin, “Words of a Rebel” in The Fin de Siecle: A Reader, 201.

[36] [88] Quoted from Nathaniel R. Walker’s Victorian Visions of Suburban Utopia: Abandoning Babylon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 426-427.

[37] [89] Excerpt from T. S. Eliot’s, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” (1915).

[38] [90] See Ralph Keyes, The Post-Truth Era: Dishonesty and Deception in Contemporary Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 2015).

[39] [91] See David Brooks’ BoBos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There (New York: Touchstone, 2000).

[40] [92] Robert Louis Stevenson, “Requiem,” (ca. 1894).