Monday, February 17, 2014

The Belle Epoch

The Belle Epoch is the name given to an era centered in Paris between 1870 and the commencement of the first World War. The influence of that period is underestimated and misunderstood. It was merely a 45 year span, a virtual pittance in the annals of human history, yet it marked a change in thought that is interesting and significant.

By 1870, what is commonly known as the Industrial revolution was 50 years in the rear view mirror... and thank god for that. I would argue that it was the most dreadful time in the history of human society. Plague, disease, death, hazardous work conditions, and a total breakdown in family relations were the "victories" associated with this prolific era. Those that argue its merits were obviously involved in some kind of viscous arbitrage opportunity that profited from the labors of broken men. A few escaped to North America, or died trying.

But by 1870, European Society had been given time to understand the impact that technological change would have on their lives. Perhaps if the puzzle of technological change could be solved and harnessed it could be done for the betterment of mankind, not its destruction. A new philosophy was emerging that pondered the center of all things. It speculated what would be left if we cut down all of the layers that muddied the picture, and how could we find beauty and meaning in all facets of everyday life. It is when the wistful natural art of Monet ceded to Van Gogh's realistic portrayals of saloons and the people that frequent them. Gauguin painted a bowl of lemons (for crying out loud) and made it look noble.  It was a golden age of the aesthetic; real household objects could be beautiful and precision mattered. It was a hopeful time that postulated that the scientific principles governing economic progress could be applied to the social sciences such as psychology, anthropology and education. It was the era of Rudolf Steiner and Carl Jung. The age produced some of the finest novelists of any generation; Henry Miller, T.S. Elliot, James Joyce, D.H Lawrence, E.M. Forster, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Lewis Carroll; writers who felt that the world was a riddle and through mysticism, logic or scientific trial, the human condition could be improved.

All of the men and women that I mention above were members of, or were influenced by a new doctrine, Theosophy. Founded by Maria Blavatsky in 1875, Theosophy was an attempt to unify mankind by finding common ground among the worlds spiritual traditions. In essence, a search for the truth. Misguided or not, the agenda was bold and those that garnered inspiration from Helena's writings make up a select and distinguished group of visionaries.

And it wasn't just Europe - in 1907 the Prime Minister of Australia, Alfred Deakin, himself interested in the Theosophical Society conspired with a husband and wife team of architects, Walter and Marion Griffin (also society members) to build an entire city around theosophical principles. The city was Canberra and it was to be the capital of Australia. The drafts were presented in 1913, the last year of the Belle Epoch, as war loomed on the horizon. I can assure you that elements of the design were indeed incorporated into Canberra's cityscape... I've been there.

I often wonder what may have become of the world had war not intervened at that time. Between 1870 and 1910 the world saw the greatest improvement of all time in human living standards. You cannot escape the era in your life today; electricity, petroleum, iron, steel, rail, advances in machine tools and paper-making, marine technology, rubber, bicycles, automobiles, telecommunications and an explosion of applied sciences such as metallurgy and chemistry are directly born from that era.

In 1907, while Lord Deakin was wooing the Griffin's a British activist, writer and orator named Annie Besant, became the President of the world's Theosophical Society. An ardent supporter of India's independence she gave her first speech to a crowd gathered in London, and in the audience that evening was a 37 year old woman who had just begun a school in San Lorenzo Italy, Dr. Maria Montessori. Annie was a powerhouse and an inspiration, she soon moved to Madras (in India) and worked hard to end the conditions of British rule in favor of Indian independence. She passed away in 1931 and the leadership of the theosophical society fell to George Arundel. Mr. Arundel met Dr. Montessori in Holland in early 1939 and invited her to India to run a training course. The timing was perfect. Maria and her son Mario accepted the invitation and began to develop the program in Madras. It was there that Mario and Maria completed the cosmic curriculum, today a staple of any Montessori elementary classroom.

Just like the technical innovations born from the era, the thoughts and ideas still remain today. Mostly they exist in a scattered context, but the embers are there. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if the world stands now at the precipice of another Belle Epoch. A short period between the cold war and whatever may come next. A world that is ready to successfully integrate the ideas born from disruptive technology to our benefit.

Please do not misinterpret, I am not advocating a return of Theosophical doctrine, and whether or not Elvis Presley carried around the complete works of  Maria Blavatsky  in his overnight bag (as any quick check of the Internet will attest) interests me less. It's just that tonight I feel hopeful and I think that the period between 2001 and 2050 might just stand for something some day and the Belle Epoch Part Deux...why not.

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