La Belle Époque: The era between approximately 1870 and the outbreak of World War One.
It was an age of great scientific and technological breakthrough, from automobiles, to telephones, to cinema, airplanes, radioactivity, germ theory, and vaccines.
Another mark of the Golden Age was artistic and cultural fecundity. Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Modernism, Expressionism, Cubism, Abstraction, The Beaux-Arts, the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau architecture, the Jugendstil Movement, Literary Realism, naturalism, and Symbolism were all active movements during this time.
An age of great economic prosperity and wealth, the Belle Époque was built upon colonialism, imperialism, and a massive income and class disparity reliant on cheap labor and increased physical distances between the ultra-wealthy, the working classes, and the poor.
It is 2016. We are living in a New Golden Age.
The New Belle Époque is killing my friends.
It is killing the friends of my friends. The Golden Age is killing the friends and loved ones of people I’ve never even met.
This Golden Age of the super wealthy, the glitterati, the politicians, the multi-billionaires thieving from those who sleep in their cars because they don’t have time to go back to their apartments between the three jobs they hold in order to stay alive…
This New Belle Époque kills families with drone strikes. It kills factory workers in Pakistan and school children in Flint and Portland. It kills women in Owsley County and Dakar and men in Oakland and Dubai. It kills teachers and nurses and men and women walking home from work. It kills through high blood pressure, and poverty, and racism, and misogyny.
The New Belle Époque has very long arms.
The left arm reaches out a hand to grab and snatch, the right holds up a gilded and perfumed fan that shields eyes from the effects of its own actions, its inactions, its corruption, narcissism, and its greed.
But I’m talking about none of that.
When I say the New Belle Époque is killing my friends, I’m pointing to the secondary effects of living under the crushing weight and struggle of being Black, or brown, or trans, or queer, or poor, or sensitive, or any combination of the above.
The New Belle Époque is causing my friends to sacrifice their own lives on the altars of despair.
Placing stones into her pockets, setting her cane and hat by the river bed, Virginia Woolf walked into the water.
She had lived through La Belle Époque, and World War One.
At the dawn of World War Two, her home bombed twice, Woolf was hearing voices again.
She struggled with depression. In the advent of a second cataclysm, the water was already rising around her, it was almost over her head.
Woolf declared “I feel that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times.”
She was speaking of herself, and to her husband, Leonard. Yet one wonders what may have happened had not the larger times, the epoch of the world, felt so crushing on top of her other troubles.
What is outside of us puts pressure on what is within.
I know. Depression lies. Depression kills. Mental illness stalks communities, and we never know when it will take a loved one or co-worker away.
These recent suicides of activists and artists –of genderqueer psychic painters and trans performers, of street warriors fighting for justice– might have happened anyway, no matter what.
Yet I can’t help but feel that the tension all of us live with right now hurried these bright spirits on their way.
Perhaps if the pressure to just pay rent was not so great…
Perhaps if being trans or Black or brown or femme or queer was not to be a target of violence, disgust, or disregard…
Perhaps if there was a greater appreciation of beauty, difference, justice, and joy…
Perhaps…If we had been allowed to build the world we wanted, instead of spending all our time on making money, and all our money on making weapons of war –or paying for another set of bloody diamonds for the necks of the ultra rich– my friends would have found some room to breathe and be.
The New Belle Époque is killing my friends.
The .0001% have blood all over their hands. They bathe in it. Every. Single. Day.
The terror of the situation is this: they force us to bathe in blood, too. Our faces are spattered with it. It is in every cheap piece of clothing we buy, and in every strawberry picked by fingers other than ours.
In order to live, we are forced to eat our own.
Allen Ginsberg’s Moloch still devours us all. The jaws of global capitalism and war grind us all down.
The only ones who sleep well at night –I imagine– are those who don’t worry how their children will get to school in the morning, or if their loved ones will make it home alive.
The rest of us? We either worry directly about the day to day, or we worry for our friends who live more precariously than we do ourselves. We either worry about getting enough food to eat, or we worry that we are killing those who give us access to our food. Or we worry that we will be hounded to death because of our differences, or smothered by neglect.
For anyone trying to carve out space in this world while creating the world we want to come…sometimes it is overwhelming. It feels like the flood waters are rising, sweeping away supports, tugging the mind and body downward, until a person drowns.
Sometimes –despite plans for a new performance, or having gotten all the art together for an exhibit, despite a party being planned in our honor, or friends wishing us happy birthday, despite being lauded for our activism in the news– sometimes we take our lives out of this world, to someplace that feels safer, more welcoming, less stressful, less hateful, less frightening, less fraught.
Sometimes the unknown is far less frightening than the known.
It is said that after cataclysms and disasters suicide rates rise.
For all but the wealthiest and most sheltered, this Golden Age is an ongoing state of cataclysm and disaster.
In the United States today, suicide rates among people of color are higher than those of white people. More men commit suicide than women. Trans people are at higher risk for suicide than cis people.
People who are rejected by families or lack social support are at greatest risk for suicide.
People who are discriminated against are at high risk for suicide.
People with physical or sexual abuse histories have increased risk of suicide.
People with intersections of discrimination or abuse are at the highest risk for suicide.
In the New Belle Époque, Black Lives Matter activists are resorting to suicide on courthouse steps or in their homes. Trans performance artists resort to suicide. Queer painters resort to suicide. Poor people resort to suicide. Farmers in India resort to suicide.
There is something called “minority stress.” It is a byproduct of this Golden Age we live in.
And this Golden Age is killing my friends.
We do not have to continue to uphold this twisted world.
We must find ways to dance and dare with one another.
We must find ways to feed and nurture and protect each other.
We must find ways to live.
Copyright T. Thorn Coyle, October, 2016
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