Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 51.
- Review Date: 2008-09-22
- Reviewer: Staff
Virginia Woolf famously declared that “human character changed” in the year 1910; this dizzying survey of European history and culture before WWI elaborates. Historian Blom (Enlightening the World) examines every innovation of the turbulent period that, in his estimate, gave birth to modernity and its discontents. Automobiles, airplanes and electricity gave humans unprecedented speed and power; the explosive growth of industry, cities and consumerism shattered and rebuilt communities; women, moving into schools and workplaces, demanded new rights; mass politics and mass media challenged traditional authority; psychoanalysis and the theory of relativity challenged ideas about humans and about time and space. The panorama is almost too much to take in, especially since Blom rightly complicates the picture by exploring the diverse ways in which different countries experienced these upheavals. His stab at a unifying theme—a perceived crisis of masculinity that panicked everyone from Proust to proto-Nazi racists as sex roles changed and a machine-driven, bureaucratic economy made muscle-power and martial virtues obsolete—is fruitful, but it only partially illuminates the times. This is a stylish, erudite guide to an age of exhilaration and anxiety that in many ways invented our own. Photos. (Nov.)
The dizzying pace of life at the start of a new century
Vertigo is the profoundly unsettling sensation that either you or your surroundings are spinning. It's also possible to suffer a kind of psychic vertigo, if your world changes too fast for comfort. Take, for instance, this year's Wall Street financial crisis, which left most Americans at least temporarily dazed. Author Philipp Blom makes a strong case that the period of 1900 to 1914 in Europe, just before World War I, was, as the title of his new book has it, "The Vertigo Years." From the perspective of the 1920s, when the memories of war, revolution and influenza epidemic were raw, it seemed in retrospect like a golden time, of ice cream socials and porch swings. But the reality could be far different. Something, after all, led to the war and revolutions.
Blom argues convincingly that the trends of modernism that played themselves out in the 20th century, and even into our own time, accelerated remarkably during those dizzying years. Among them: scientific and technological revolution, politicized racism and anti-Semitism, feminism, human rights abuses, globalized commerce, the mass media explosion, abstract artand the reactions to every one of them, from peace campaigns and folkloric nostalgia to the cult of masculinity.
That's a huge amount of territory to cover, so Blom takes it year by year, with each chapter highlighting a particular theme. The 1903 chapter, for example, focuses on pioneering scientists, such as Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, and the influence of their discoveries on philosophy and art. Curie won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1903. The 1911 chapter is about such culturally democratizing developments as the cinema, the comic strip, the Brownie camera and the gramophone. In that year, the 3,400-seat Gaumont Palace movie theatre opened in Paris.
Blom is particularly good on the high level of anxiety, sexual and otherwise, that accompanied rapid change. It was the era of a disease known as "neurasthenia," which we would likely classify as extreme stress. From 1900 to 1910, the number of patients in German mental hospitals rose from about 116,000 to more than 220,000.
It's that kind of detail that stays with the reader. We learn, for example, that there was a craze for X-rays at the time. (See Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain for a literary depiction.) And that the respect for uniforms was so strong in Germany that a petty crook masquerading as an army captain in 1906 was able to commandeer a platoon, use it to arrest a small-town mayor, and steal the town's cash register. These trends did vary from country to country. The women's suffrage movement, for
example, reached its height in England, but had much less traction on the Continent. In contrast, the English had little use for New Age-style bohemianism that was most notable in Germany and Austria-Hungary.
It's impossible to read this book without being struck by parallels to our own society. We feel about the Internet the way our great-grandparents felt about the airplanehow amazing, and how frightening it all seems. Blom doesn't take us beyond 1914, but we know how the ideological movements of "The Vertigo Years" turned out in Germany and Russia. We can only hope for a better outcome.
Anne Bartlett is a journalist in Washington, D.C.