We Live in Baroque Times

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 economic descriptors truly captures the irrational emotional state that now permeates, and so powerfully disturbs, the troubled Western World.

Illustration from Danse Macabre

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

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 social and environmental attitude that I refer to as neo-primitive 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.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

7 thoughts on “We Live in Baroque Times”

  1. Thomas, this is a piece of synchronicity, as you are reading my book at the moment, and you will realise why near the end of it, a taunt Emile directs at Sophie…
    Well, I love Baroque music, anyway…

  2. I’m looking forward to that synchronicity, Lucinda!

    My favourite classical music era is the romantic, but I enjoy all the other periods (even 20th-century) as well. In the Baroque, I’m especially fond of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.”

  3. They are just playing ‘spring’ from the Four Seasons on the radio as I read your reply, Thomas, there’s another! I love Handel’s music particularly, especially Andreas Scholl singing ‘Ombra..’ Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto Number six is another favourite.

  4. I agree with you in general, Thomas. However, as we discussed previously in the comments section of your post ‘Slicing the Life of Pi’, I think that fiction is an acceptable context in which to explore the irrational and paradoxical. Admittedly, I am bound to say this, as my WIP has a plot which revolves around the concepts of alternate universes and time-travel! I don’t truly know whether these ideas hold a great deal of water rationally or scientifically, but the fictional possibilities they present are irresistible.

  5. Stories about time travel and alternate universes have always intrigued me, Mari, so I’m looking forward to reading your next novel. I grew up reading all the science fiction I could get my hands on. So much, in fact, that I left many of these titles out of my Goodreads listings to avoid swamping everything else!

    Within the context of this post, we must consider popularity and emphasis. Writers, and more recently, filmmakers have always explored the irrational and paradoxical. Your recent first novel, *The Quickening,* has been compared with Henry James’s, 1898 classic novella *The Turn of the Screw.* Such stories have been part of every era and I have no problem with this. But books and movies with these themes have never before enjoyed the degree of popularity they garner today. Never have so many irrational stories been written and filmed. Tales of this kind were once a niche market. SF, for example, was hard to come by when I was a young boy. Fantasy was scarce when I was an adolescent. Now these genres dominate. Ghosts and other supernatural phenomena such as vampires and werewolves are also wildly popular.

    Furthermore, the taste for surprise and shock has moved to the fore. Older ghost stories subtly left things open to question or ended with (not unexpected) revelations of fakery or mental derangement. Fantasies were typically lyrical and enchanting. There was not a lot of action or sudden surprises. In most of today’s stories, everything is all too real and – watch out! – it’s after you! In films, crash-bang, helter-skelter, rapid-fire action presented with state of the art special effects, deafening soundtracks with abrupt bangs that make you jump from your seat, and eye-popping pyrotechnics is the norm. Surprising and shocking the audience is entirely the goal. Writers have different tools to work with, but the aim is often the same. And today’s cinema goers and readers cannot get enough of it.

  6. You seem to live immersed in synchronicity, Lucinda! The older Jung shared your taste for seeing things that way. Even a wave slapping unusually loudly on the shore outside the window of his tower at Bollingen was significant. I’m a sucker for license plate numbers and letters, and the model names of autos.

    And while we are swapping classical favourites, let me mention Handel’s lovely *Water Music*.

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: