, , , , , , ,

Illustration from Danse Macabre

The modern taste for shock, irrationality, the supernatural, and everything to excess remarkably resembles the earlier Baroque period. (Image: Wikimedia)

Every age acquires a label of some kind, a word or phrase designed to capture the essence of the times. We have seen “the post-industrial society” and the “information age,” the one indicating what we have left behind, the other where we have arrived. Yet neither of these business descriptors truly captures the irrational emotional state that now permeates, and so powerfully disturbs, the troubled Western World.

We in the West should seriously consider labelling our present era the “neo-Baroque.” In their landmark work, Theory of Literature, Weller and Warren claim that the Baroque period was in love with paradox, the oxymoron (e.g. deafening silence), and catachresis (deliberate wrong use of words), and not just in the sphere of literature, which is, after all, philosophy for its time, but at large in society as well. Today, we see the same tastes running amok in all Western societies.

We absolutely adore paradox. Think about the immense popularity of Einstein-inspired time-travel paradoxes, the endless number of writers and scientists connecting the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics to virtually everything. Consider the astrophysicist’s black holes and multiple alternate universes. Paradoxes in mystical writings are de rigueur since readers see a mind-bending contradiction as proof that the work is “deep.” All an author has to do is throw in a few ridiculous paradoxes and they have become profound.

The oxymoron is just as popular. We have “unbiased opinions,” are urged to “act naturally,” and often say “same difference.” The notion of “sustainable energy” would be a better example. How can something be sustainable when it is so expensive no one can afford to use it? Yet the immensely popular phrase stands unquestioned.

We see catachresis in the careful use of words like “special” to describe the mentally retarded, or “challenged” to indicate a handicap, or the eager substitution of “holiday season” for the traditional Christmas. Political correctness is catachresis gone mad.

It is important to understand that these terms (paradox, oxymoron, catachresis) represent Christian, mystical, and pluralist “figures”; that is, language used in a non-literal sense. “Pluralist” here refers to philosophers who believe in more than one ultimate principle (such as fate, chance, God, and so on). In other words, we inherited these popular linguistic habits and ways of thinking from the mystics. We live in mystical times.

We must also consider the Baroque mind’s “universe at once of many worlds and of worlds all, in unpredictable ways, connected” (Weller and Warren, 1949). Who, currently, does not believe in the interconnectedness of all things? This notion is the foundation of the environmental attitude that I refer to as neo-aboriginal thinking.

Baroque figures (metaphors etc.) are “rhetorico-poetic expressions of a pluralist epistemology and a supernaturalist ontology” (Weller and Warren, 1949). In other words, Baroque figures are pleasing or persuasive imagery supporting a philosophy based on the idea that multiple (non-scientific) explanations are required to explain all the phenomena of nature, and only supernatural explanations can adequately account for our existence. In short, we are talking about a completely mystical way of looking at the world. New Agers fall squarely into this category, but so do many other people who may be less aware of the significance of what they believe. Ridiculous time paradoxes and the inappropriate application of the uncertainty principle compromise even science.

The Baroque mind had an “appetite for surprise and shock” (Weller and Warren, 1949). Hollywood blockbusters, anyone? We see the same taste every time we tune in to the grossly exaggerated and deliberately dramatized news. Or when we view those so-called science documentaries picturing, with lurid special effects, yet another laughable doomsday threat to humankind. Our movies, news, and documentaries look like this because more people will watch hyped-up shows than accurate ones.

The Baroque mentality favours “wider inclusiveness” (sound familiar?) and has a taste “for richness over purity, polyphony over monophony” (Weller and Warren, 1949). Our current passion for the greater richness of multi-cultural, multi-racial societies springs to mind, as does the preference for loud music where all the instruments blend into a wall (some might say an onslaught) of sound. Consider the incredibly ornate sets used in contemporary Hollywood productions and contrast them with the clean uncluttered sets favoured by filmmakers in the past.

With so many important similarities to the original Baroque era, it would make sense for us to recognize that we have spiralled back to the same place (but at a higher level) and openly describe our times as neo-Baroque.