The mass house confinements of the last year have accelerated human migration from life in the material world towards a virtual life. This trend is most obvious amongst the young whose social and educational activities have nearly all been suspended for considerable stretches of time due to a virus less dangerous to them than the seasonal flu. The amorphous landscape of the internet to which they have retreated offers the observer something of a window into the contemporary millennial soul.
One of many disturbing features of ‘online life’ among the young is what has been called “millennial [and now Generation Z] miserabilism.” They have had much of their social lives, education, and cultural inheritance sacrificed in order to “fight the virus,” and they are subconsciously sensitive to the late-civilisational decay they observe all around them. In turn, for this demographic ironic nihilism has merged with internet addiction and mushroomed across numberless internet ‘sub-cultures.’ Internet dwellers themselves chronicle the multiplication of ‘failsons,’ Hikikomori, e-girls and ‘NEETs’ (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) under a dimming post-modern horizon.
Different online aesthetic styles—generally inspired by fantasy, futurism and videogaming—such as ‘Steampunk’ provide escapist imaginary worlds for some of these users to practice sub-creation and inhabit different roles. One such vogueish aesthetic style which has permeated Instagram, Pinterest and other visual platforms with viral speed in the last year has been ‘Cottage Core.’
A #cottagecore search will envelop you in a warm embrace of idyllic homely comfort. Here flowering vines creep over thatched cottages and maidens in floral dresses gamble barefoot in meadows. Flocks of chicken peck in herb gardens and children knead bread in rustic kitchens. Modern technology is not to be seen; wholesome crafts and homestead chores occupy people’s time. The ambience is warm and inviting. Here it is always the ‘golden hour’ for photography. This is Snow White chic—essentially a form of Neo-Romanticism, Marie Antoinette’s Hameau de la Reine for the Instagram generation.
A #cottagecore search will envelop you in a warm embrace of idyllic homely comfort
The deluge of these images that greet your search can feel cloying and artificial. As with other virtual trends everything is a little too perfect, a little too contrived. Like most things on the internet the aesthetic has no clearly defined boundaries and sometimes intersects with more unsavoury ‘queer’ internet subcultures. Some of the virtual ‘people’ internet image creators depict in these meadows have the bright dead eyes of gaming ‘NPCs’ (alien non-playable characters). With the irony and absurdism of internet culture it might seem difficult to ascertain consistent themes across Cottage Core visual art. Nevertheless, much like the widespread penchant for period drama, a certain bucolic and familial longing can be detected and is clearly evidenced by the popularity of the trend, particularly among girls.
The aesthetic is self-consciously escapist and Cottage Core can be thought of as one of many expressive forms of post-Sexual Revolution trauma in the West. With the shattering of the family several generations have now grown up often with little to no experience of what the Germans call Nestwärme, the consolation and security of a happy family life, particularly the ambience that a good mother generates. Cottage Core bespeaks a longing for family love, for a common life, for what Pope Leo XIII called ‘frugal comfort,’ in harmony with nature and reality. The desire for home is a central theme in the Western Canon. But what if Odysseus never had an Ithaca?
During Covid lockups, fashionable urban high-rise apartments favoured by young adults lost a good deal of their lustre as theatres, bars, music venues and restaurants closed and the enticements of city life withered. Suddenly their very proximity and density made them feel simultaneously claustrophobic and lonely, and the appeal of rural space and IRL (in real life) human contact grew.
Dissolution of identity, pornography, debt, frenetic intemperance, oligarchic ‘strategies of tension’, social engineering, technocracy and numberless other noxious forces with particular bearing on the young, have all exacerbated the millennial soul’s longing for the wholesome, the organic, the unmanipulated and the personal. Covid restrictions represented a power cut (even if a temporary one) for the carousel of spiritually-anaesthetising sensory delights that late capitalism offered. Such an interruption helped compel young people to react against the warping and distortive effects of these forces in a myriad of different ways as they came to resent the profound spiritual agitation of postmodern life.
With the growing hegemony of Cultural Marxism it is now almost completely socially unacceptable for young people to directly criticise the social revolution of the last century in the West, at least without risking ostracism. They do not even really know of a time when repudiation of family life and received culture, as well as wilful denigration of moral decency, wasn’t the norm. Besides, with the retreat of Church officials from proclaiming the Gospel in the public square, and their institutional concordat with the Zeitgeist, young adults are left without the language to articulate their angst and discontent. Thus, phenomena like Cottage Core afford them a channel by which to express their dissatisfaction and yearnings indirectly.
human nature and deep human desires do not change
Cottage Core has some overlap with the internet archetype of the ‘tradwife.’ Interestingly, semi-ironic tweets and memes circulate among some young women online, attacking feminists for creating and spreading a single lifetime ‘script’ that girls are pressured into following to the neglect of domestic joys. Memes and Tiktok videos proclaim things like “some feminist demanded equality—now I have to work all weekend on this spreadsheet,” and such sentiments receive a surprising amount of positive support. There is an incipient realization among some young women that feminism might not have been an organic grassroots movement for ‘equality’ at all, so much as an orchestrated manoeuvre by powerful men to profit from young women, thereby reducing their prospects of domestic fulfilment.
There have of course been flowerings of recognisably Cottage Core-like literature and art in Western culture before. In his England: An Elegy, Sir Roger Scruton noted that English childhood, as whimsically represented in 19th century literature, “in some way fulfilled the dream of England, and therefore compensated for the disappointing reality.” In the midst of rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and the overturning of centuries of settled rural life “the child’s England was an Arcadian countryside, cleared of its industrial accretions, peopled by English eccentrics like Winnie-the-Pooh and Eeyore, Rat and Toad, the White Queen and the White Rabbit, the mice and moles of Beatrix Potter.” Other writers have remarked on the comforting appeal of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings. It is such gentle tranquillity, protected from the traumatic liquidity and uncertainty of the contemporary world, that also forms the essence of Cottage Core’s appeal.
What the Cottage Core phenomenon also demonstrates is that—contrary to the insane ravings of delinquent ‘progressives’—human nature and deep human desires do not change. The human heart will ever desire a family life, a life of meaning within a community, and a life in consonance with nature, ultimately ordered to the Divine. A word for any shepherds of the Church still interested in saving souls: Cottage Core should be one of encouragement. As corrupted as the human world has become, there is still a deep longing for the Peace of Christ in the Reign of Christ.
The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. The duty to promote an organic society, to present the tranquillity of order as a fruit of living in accord with God’s commandments, and correspondingly to admonish oligarchical revolutionaries for their relentless assault on the family, should seem all the more pressing at this late hour.
Theo Howard is a freelance writer based in London whose work has appeared in Crisis, the Catholic Herald and Sword & Spade magazine.