The Fin-de-Siècle World
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The Fin-de-Siècle World

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The Fin-de-Siècle World

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About This Book

This comprehensive and beautifully illustrated collection of essays conveys a vivid picture of a fascinating and hugely significant period in history, the Fin de Siècle. Featuring contributions from over forty international scholars, this book takes a thematic approach to a period of huge upheaval across all walks of life, and is truly innovative in examining the Fin de Siècle from a global perspective. The volume includes pathbreaking essays on how the period was experienced not only in Europe and North America, but also in China, Japan, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, India, and elsewhere across the globe.

Thematic topics covered include new concepts of time and space, globalization, the city, and new political movements including nationalism, the "New Liberalism", and socialism and communism. The volume also looks at the development of mass media over this period and emerging trends in culture, such as advertising and consumption, film and publishing, as well as the technological and scientific changes that shaped the world at the turn of the nineteenth century, such as the invention of the telephone, new transport systems, eugenics and physics. The Fin-de-Siècle World also considers issues such as selfhood through chapters looking at gender, sexuality, adolescence, race and class, and considers the importance of different religions, both old and new, at the turn of the century. Finally the volume examines significant and emerging trends in art, music and literature alongside movements such as realism and aestheticism.

This volume conveys a vivid picture of how politics, religion, popular and artistic culture, social practices and scientific endeavours fitted together in an exciting world of change. It will be invaluable reading for all students and scholars of the Fin-de-Siècle period.

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Information

Publisher
Routledge
Year
2014
ISBN
9781317604808
Edition
1
Topic
Storia
Part I
Overviews

Chapter One
Global Literatures of Decadence

Regenia Gagnier
One traditional understanding of Decadence in the European fin de Siècle is as an intensification of Aestheticism characterizing the 1890s, one that was severely challenged in Britain as a result of the Oscar Wilde trials, and one recoiling in France, Germany, and the United States from the backlash against discourses of degeneration. In this view, following World War I Decadence was reduced to a circumscribed movement periodically revived with, for example, the Gothic, but essentially confined to pre-Modernism. This chapter will argue that Decadence and modernization are mutually constituting, global, and subject to ongoing renegotiations that have their own varying rhythms when viewed geographically. Its aim is to broaden the meaning of Decadence in wider literary circulation, to begin to consider global literatures of decadence.

Decadent Temporality

In 1979 Richard Gilman described decadence as “an epithet that relies entirely on the norm it implicitly calls up and points to no substantive condition” (Gilman 1979), and others have also concluded that we should understand decadence as a textual and social strategy (Gagnier 1986; Constable, Denisoff, and Potolsky 1999; Stetz 2010). European and most Western terms for “decadence” derive from the Latin de+cadera, meaning to fall away from, and in most traditions decadence is used to mean cultures that have declined from robust civilizations: in the age of modern empires and nation building, Europeans called Ottomans decadent, Latin Americans and Slavs called Europeans decadent, Europe called Rome decadent, France called America decadent. In more internal struggles, dictators and authoritarian regimes attempt to purge decadents from the state or polis. And, using negative stereotypes in a positive, affirmative sense, rebels and revolutionaries often nominate themselves as decadent with respect to the status quo. If literary genres generally designate a temporality—the time of fear (Gothic), the time of memory (elegy), the time of the domus (domestic fiction), the time of seasons (pastoral), and so forth—literatures perceived, or self-nominated, as decadent designate a temporal category of the decline away from established norms. Rather than appear as the last, effete gasp of declining civilizations, Decadent literatures often appear in societies in which local traditions are in contact, and often in conflict, with the forces of modernization, less products of modern Europe and North America than effects in most cultures undergoing similar processes of change.
One of the greatest British critics of decadence, Holbrook Jackson understood this tension or anxiety about change when he described the 1890s, the typically decadent decade in Britain, as “A decade singularly rich in ideas, personal genius and social will,” whose “central characteristic was a widespread concern for the correct—the most effective, most powerful, most righteous—mode of living” (Jackson 1914: 12, 17). In The Decadent Movement in Literature (1893) Arthur Symons wrote that it typically appeared at the end of great civilizations, e.g. the Hellenic or Roman, and was characterized by intense self-consciousness, restless curiosity in research, over-subtilizing refinement, and spiritual and moral perversity. It often appeared, he said, as a new and beautiful and interesting disease. In the age of empire, it was obsessed with the local and minute. In the age of Romantic nature, it turned to the mysteries of the urban. In the age of purposiveness, productivity, and reproduction, it was in praise of idleness, critical reflection, sterile contemplation, even sexual excitement largely mental (Symons 1893).
Yet if decadence was, as Symons thought, “a disease of truth,” it was a new and beautiful and interesting disease, often appearing as egoism, feminism, or naturalism in relation to hegemonic forces and norms. It sought out the particular perspective against the dominant whole, studied the details with a dedication to the empirical truth of the senses, and often looked so objectively at the data that it made no evaluative distinction between health and disease. Against the dominant ideology of progress, the decadent saw the pathology of everyday life. Freud became one of the two key philosophers of European Decadence (with Nietzsche) because, contrary to Enlightenment reason—the belief in the mind’s ability to discern and act upon one’s interests—he saw that humans were equally subject to irrationality and self-destruction; that subjectivity was based on a relationship with others; and that individualism—the psychosomatic drive toward self-assertion—was always confronted with the presence of others. The New Woman writer George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne) captured the intellectual spirit of the age in Europe—and this as her protagonist was confronting her lover—with “I was analysing, being analysed, criticising, being criticised” (Nelson 2001: 30).
Decadence by definition is a time of change, a falling away from an experienced organicism into a splintered or factious temporality. In Britain, the fin de Siècle showed the rise of giant corporations, mass production, and consumption, the development and distribution of electrical energy (“iron lilies of the Strand” meant streetlights in Richard Le Gallienne’s “Ballad of London” [1888] where London is the “Great city of Midnight Sun”) and aviation and motor vehicles (“ever-muttering prisoned storm/ the heart of London beating warm” in John Davidson’s “London” [1894]). In Western science, evolution, genetics, and the “New Physics” transformed knowledge of time, life, matter, and space. In politics, the people became the masses in the age of mass parties, mass media, and sport. The first modern Olympics were held in Athens in 1896 with the motto of citius, altius, fortius: faster, higher, stronger, proclaiming the dream of progress through competition. These changes gave rise to the concomitant fears of Taylorization, that the individual would be mechanized, routinized, massified. The German Ferdinand Tönnies developed the theory of Gemeinschaft (Community) as distinguished from Gesellschaft (Society) and the French Émile Durkheim theorized modern societies in terms of anomie and suicide.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, 80 percent of the British population were rural; by 1900, 80 percent lived in the cities. Social crowding revealed divisions and ethnicities often against the background of global or imperial economic formations, as with the Irish Literary Renaissance (also known as the Celtic Twilight), and the revival of Cornish, Welsh, and Gaelic languages against the dominant Anglophone. In terms of gender, the perspectives of women became prominent in the so-called New Woman literature, which often counterposed traditional, ideal forms of femininity against modern women’s worldly perspectives. Men’s and women’s relationships were said to be “between two centuries.” The novelist Thomas Hardy wrote in Candour in English Fiction (1890): “By a sincere school of Fiction we may understand a Fiction that expresses truly the views of life prevalent in its time. … Life being a physiological fact, its honest portrayal must be largely concerned with … the relation of the sexes, and the substitution for such catastrophes as favour the false colouring best expressed by the regulation finish that ‘they married and were happy ever after’ [by] catastrophes based upon sexual relations as it [sic] is” (Hardy 1890). New Woman literature is less about woman’s traditional role of reproduction than about the production of creativity and ideas. Babies are more often ideas or symbols, not children in themselves.
Charles Baudelaire summed up the paradoxes of Decadence as early as 1857 (“Further Notes on Edgar Poe”) when he described it as a sunset of astonishing illumination, its degenerations turning into generations of new possibility: “The sun which a few hours ago was crushing everything beneath the weight of its vertical, white light will soon be flooding the western horizon with varied colours. In the changing splendours of this dying sun, some poetic minds will find new joys; they will discover dazzling colonnades, cascades of molten metal, a paradise of fire, a melancholy splendour … And the sunset will then appear to them as the marvellous allegory of a soul, imbued with life, going down beyond the horizon, with a magnificent wealth of thoughts and dreams” (Baudelaire 1992: 189).

Global Decadence

The tensions and anxieties of change in Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave rise to the most famous European definition of Decadence, first penned by Désiré Nisard in 1834 and taken up by Paul Bourget, Nietzsche, and Havelock Ellis at the fin de Siècle, as a decomposition or deformation of the relationship between the part and the whole:
The individual is the social cell. In order that the organism should perform its functions with energy it is necessary that the organisms composing it should perform their functions with energy, but with a subordinated energy, and in order that these lesser organisms should themselves perform their functions with energy, it is necessary that the cells comprising them should perform their functions with energy, but with a subordinated energy. If the energy of the cells becomes independent, the lesser organisms will likewise cease to subordinate their energy to the total energy and the anarchy which is established constitutes the decadence of the whole. The social organism does not escape this law and enters into decadence as soon as the individual life becomes exaggerated beneath the influence of acquired well-being, and of heredity. A similar law governs the development and decadence of that other organism which we call language. A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word. A decadent style, in short, is an anarchistic style in which everything is sacrificed to the development of the individual parts.
(Ellis 1932: 52 [1889], see Gagnier 2010)
According to this definition, an exemplum of Decadent style is Joris-Karl Huysmans’s description of the Crucifixion in Là-Bas (1891). Here the reader is increasingly distanced from the event—the holiest moment in Christendom—first by the fact that it is mediated through a work of art, Matthias Grünewald’s Crucifixion, and then by the heightened artificiality of the language itself, in which “the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word”:
Purulence was setting in; the seeping wound in the side dripped thickly, inundating the thigh with blood that was like congealed blackberry juice; a milky pus tinged with pinkish hue, similar to those grey Moselle wines, oozed down the chest and over the abdomen with its rumpled loin-cloth. The knees had been forced together, twisting the shins outwards over the feet which, stapled one on top of the other, had begun to putrefy and turn green beneath the seeping blood. These congealing spongiform feet were terrible to behold; the flesh swelled over the head of the nail, while the toes, furiously clenched, with their blue, hook-like horns, contradicted the imploring gesture of the hand, turning benediction into a curse, as they frantically clawed at the ochre-coloured earth, as ferruginous as the purple soil of Thuringia.
(Huysmans 2001: 3–14 and Gagnier 2010: 170–71)
To introduce such profane stylistic intrusions as “blackberry juice,” “Moselle wines,” “spongiform feet,” and “ochre-coloured earth, as ferruginous as the purple soil of Thuringia” into the sacred scene—such decompositions or deformations of the relationship between part and whole were characteristic of Decadent literatures of the fin de Siècle.
Offering a survey of diverse literatures from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, this chapter will show that the factors contributing to the rise of the Decadent Movement in France and England—the decline of economic, social, religious, political, ethnic, regional, and gendered traditions under the forces of modernization that disrupted numerous relations of part to whole—have had similar effects elsewhere, giving rise to similar literary strategies. Literary decadence did not simply spread from Europe to other countries as a cultural movement, but it arose repeatedly and distinctly in response to changes or crises within various nations and cultures. While many of the writers targeted or self-identified as decadent were familiar with European Decadence, others evidently responded to similar socio-political conditions with similar literary tactics. Even when ostensibly translated from European Decadent authors, translations were creative interventions within their own specific environments, with self-directed goals. In exploring a wide survey of literatures from an extended period of time, our references will often necessarily be cursory; in the early stages of this kind of transcultural research, they are provisionally intended to engage with deeper research in each literary tradition and to foster dialogue on global literatures of decadence.
Most discussions of Decadence at the fin de Siècle begin with ancient Rome in the fifth century, yet Chinese literati were also formulating deviations that they called decadent as early as the sixth century, the late Tang period (Wu 1998; Owen 1992). Praise and blame were the two functions of poetry in ancient China, praise for moral influence and blame for the decadence of the morally fallen state (Zhang Longxi). Under the Confucian system, poetry was cast as sincere expression; its function was to serve the State and its moral and social concerns. Confucians and Daoists valued spontaneity and naturalness and distrusted overly sophisticated speech. Tang Palace Style poetry of the Southern Dynasties, as in Xu Ling’s (507–83) New Songs from Jade Terrace on women at court, showed the poet’s fascination with aesthetic, technical, formal qualities or Wen , and was called a decadent literature that had brought down a nation, both for its preoccupation with style and its unconventional subject matter, i.e. women. In “On Insect Carving,” Pei Ziye (469–530) wrote, “In ancient times poetry consisted of Four Beginnings and Six Principles. It formed the moral and political atmosphere of the whole nation and displayed the will of gentlemen … Writers of the later age paid attention only to the leaves and branches; they adopted florid style to please themselves … From then on writers followed only the sound and shadow and gave up the correct model … If Jizi heard this he would not have regarded it as the music of a thriving nation; and Confucius would never have taught such poetry to his son. Xun Qing once said that ‘in a chaotic time the writing is obscure and florid’” (Wu 30–31). The great aesthetician Liu Xie (5th century) wrote of the “Decline from the simple to the pretentious; literary style becomes more and more insipid as it approaches our own time” (“Wenxin diaolong” Wu 32). The politician, scholar, and calligrapher Yu Shinan (558–638) wrote, “His Majesty wrote a poem in the Palace Style and ordered Yu Shinan to match it. He said, ‘Your Majesty’s poem is indeed artful, but its style is not proper. When a monarch likes certain things, his subjects below will like them in the extreme. I fear that if this poem is passed around, the customs of the entire empire will become decadent. Thus I dare not accept your command’” (Wu 34). A thousand years later, in Record of the Decadent Chalice (1584) the Ming Minister Wang Shizhen continued to write of “governments of the time, retaining ancient names without ancient principles,” concluding that “If government do not obtain the Way, nothing can be accomplished” (Hammond 1998: 36). Wang equally condemned decadent practices such as the improper granting of titles, the political influence of eunuchs, the erosion of the power of the literati (shidafu, Confucian scholar-officials) as arbiters of taste, the distortion of aesthetics by the marketplace, and the four-six style of ornate and flowery language suitable only for slander and flattery. The contemporary Syrian-Lebanese critic Adūnīs (Alī Ahmad Sa’īd) writes that it was similar with classical Arabic, in which the Bedouin style was praised for its sincerity above that of the city (Adūnīs 2003).
In the modern period, the May Fourth movement from 1919 was arguably the greatest rejection of tradition in world history, the French Revolution paling in the face of China’s critique of its 3000 years of cul...

Table of contents

  1. Cover Page
  2. Half-Title Page
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Table of Contents
  7. List of illustrations
  8. List of maps
  9. Notes on contributors
  10. Introduction
  11. PART I: OVERVIEWS
  12. PART II: PLACES
  13. PART III: POLITICS IN A NEW KEY
  14. PART IV: MASS CULTURE
  15. PART V: DISCIPLINES
  16. PART VI: SELFHOOD
  17. PART VII: RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
  18. PART VIII: AESTHETICS
  19. Index