Over the past century, Malta has undergone vast developments in every aspect of society. Though many changes and their causes are clearly identifiable, it is not equally clear what it was that drove the changes. Some thinkers would reply that people drive that change, but what drove them? What stimulated so great a transformation to be encouraged by droves of people? I would suggest that it was literally the energy of that reformation itself.
The word to describe what I am talking about is Zeitgeist, that is the spirit of the time. But what is important about Zeitgeist? What is known about it? How has it transformed through history? It is rare indeed that you would see a discussion about this in Malta. But as we move through some of the most tumultuous times in history, you might well want to observe how the Zeitgeist has driven Malta, and learn why it is important to understand the history of the Zeitgeist.
This concept of Zeitgeist allows us to observe society through five main categories: politics, economics, social trends, cultural trends, and religion. Each of these played powerful roles in shaping the Zeitgeist, some more than others depending on their importance to the people of that time.
I was moved to write about this by the publication of the latest book by Irish novelist Sally Rooney’s, Beautiful World, Where are you?, which made it to the top of the bestseller lists when published last month. Rooney achieved fame as the voice of a thoroughly stressed-out generation — one contending with depression, drift and hopelessness. She has been described by the New York Times as “the first great millennial novelist.”
GenZ is still in the making, while it creates its own zeitgeist.
Rooney’s previous two books (all turned into tv series) pioneered the plot of a kind of quasi-marriage in which dissatisfied young people with poor communication skills have sex, find themselves hurt and eventually work it out, sort of. But her new book takes a subtly different twist, one that captures a similar evolution in her generation’s mind-set. Rooney’s characters, as well as her audience, have the same problems they always did — the jobs feel meaningless, the cost of living is too high, the seniors are inept and the politics phony — but now they’re pondering new solutions.
Rooney’s main character Alice, and her best friend Eileen, can hardly share a dinner without agonising about the ill-paid labour of the foreign waiters at the restaurant, the slave labour toiling on the plantations which provided the coffee they drink at the end of the dinner, the methane emitted by the cattle that provided their beef, and the greed of the restaurant owner who will probably fiddle the accounts to avoid paying tax.
It makes them wonder whether civilisation is on the brink of a systems collapse, indeed whether the planet will stop spinning. They are not alone. After all, there are millions of QAnoners who are awaiting The Event any day now. Apocalypse is around the corner, and the Four Horsemen have set about their business. No wonder, humanity is suppressed by a thrumming anxiety that dulls their lives.
It is important to truly understand what zeitgeist is. The word stems from the root German words “zeit” and “geist”, meaning time and spirit respectively (Zeitgeists). This word thus condenses the idea of spiritual atmosphere and an incorporeal feeling that flows through society. Looking back on history, it is rather simple to identify the overall psyche of distinct time periods, the important figures with opinions of the zeitgeist’s ideals, and where that spirit led to shortcomings or successes.
The ramifications of the sins of the two previous generations are now coming home to roost.
Authors, musicians, artists, and other such persons have a knack for understanding zeitgeists of particular eras. Thus, the music, text and parody techniques in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio evoke the religious culture and aesthetics of his time. The songs of the Beatles encapsulate the mores and hippie generation of the Sixties. Today, Rafaël Rozendaal’s algorithmic artworks bring together the internet and artificial intelligence marking our times.
We still talk about the Roaring Twenties. People living in that period later became known as the Lost Generation, a name popularised by American modernist writer Gertrude Stein. They were as disillusioned with the world of their time as today’s Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai with theirs. The numerous labels given to that period stand as a testament to the chaotic spirit of the era.
Perhaps the most vital aspect of zeitgeist is its effect on the individual. People are products of the chain of zeitgeists that ebb and flow across time and spirit. Just like parents instil certain values on their children, Zeitgeist impresses its ideals onto societies and individuals. Precisely because of this, it is difficult to fathom the zeitgeist of the present, rather than those of the past.
My generation of baby boomers and the Generation X looked at progress for us as moving onward and upward, often alone, towards more accumulation, more success, a finer-tuned rationality and proud independence. We were the needy ones, but we are now seen as a burden on the tax-paying younger Millennials and GenZ. We are accused of benefiting most from the welfare state, during a period when healthcare and education were free, jobs plentiful and housing affordable.
The Millennials and GenZ are rejecting this, reflecting the shifting zeitgeist, where social and environmental constraints are limiting growth. They feel that they are being made to pay for the sins of the previous two generations. Witness their disdain for “career” as an aspiration; or the nostalgic love of “cottagecore” sold by Target and Monsoon, as seen on Instagram, TikTok, and Tumblr; or the righteous scepticism of political systems and championing of mutual aid.
In some countries, the reaction has been a lurch to conservatism, exploited by populist politicians like Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and Salvini for their own ends. But, as Rooney shows, there are many people who, rather than giving in to the “sad sterile foreclosure on the possibility of life”, are exploring ways to build their own “Beautiful World” — a bold task, as the real world they’re inheriting has proved to be anything but.
So, it seems that while zeitgeists of the past have indeed shaped the current generation, they do not define what GenZ is or what it will become. In the words of Tennyson’s Ulysses,
“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Let’s not be too hard on them. Today an expectation that tomorrow should be better than today is no longer a reality and, like homing pigeons, the ramifications of the sins of the two previous generations are now coming home to roost. GenZ is still in the making, while it creates its own zeitgeist. Perhaps that zeitgeist will indeed turn out to be Rooney’s Beautiful World. We wish them luck.