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Antonioli on Barstad and Knutsen, eds. (2016)


Barstad, Guri, and Karen P. Knutsen, editors. States of Decadence: On the Aesthetics of Beauty, Decline and Transgression across Time and Space, Volume 1. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, pp. 327, ISBN 978-1-4438-1041-8

Barstad, Guri, and Karen P. Knutsen, editors. States of Decadence: On the Aesthetics of Beauty, Decline and Transgression across Time and Space, Volume 2. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016, pp. 280, ISBN 978-1-4438-1117-0

Kathleen Antonioli, Kansas State University

States of Decadence: On the Aesthetics of Beauty, Decline and Transgression across Time and Space is an interdisciplinary, bilingual (French/English), and international collection in two volumes, based on papers from the 2014 “States of Decadence” conference at Østfold University College, Norway. The study is varied and wide-ranging, covering authors from Finland to the United Kingdom to Spain, and spanning some five hundred years. The sections of most interest to readers of Nineteenth­­-Century French Studies are likely to be “Decadent Aesthetics and Reception” (volume one), “Degeneracy, Hysteria and Perversions” (volume one), “Images of Decadent Women” (volume two), and “Poetic Decadence” (volume two).

The introduction (which appears in both volumes) is relatively brief. In addition to a useful definition of Decadence and a description of the conference that inspired the collection, it contains summaries of each contribution to the volume. The definition of Decadence used by the editors of the volume is mostly situated in the European fin de siècle. Barstad and Knutsen describe the historical context of the end of the nineteenth century in Europe (colonialism, industrialization, and urbanization, the “New Woman,” inventions, and scientific discoveries) as well as the range of reactions to these changes (ambivalence toward modernity, contradictory emotions, pessimism as well as hope). Aesthetically, they situate Decadence within this “ambivalence of the fin de siècle” (xi). The authors produce a substantial and comprehensive list of Decadent characteristics including “images of disease, degeneration and rebellion." Decadence is "evil, fecund, and sensual, but also extremely intellectual” (xi). They call attention to inherent contradictions in Decadence: attraction to both beauty and ugliness; misogyny “with a strong animosity against lesbians, while it simultaneously worships the androgynous man” (xi). The main innovation of this collection is in the geographic and temporal diversity with which the editors and contributors apply this definition of “Decadence,” rather than in the understanding of Decadence itself. The goal is not to redefine Decadence, but to show how its characteristics “are also evident in literature and in the arts in many other periods both prior to and after the fin de siècle” (xii).

“Decadent Aesthetics and Reception” (volume one) focuses on themes and topoi that characterized Decadent art and literature, and many of the essays share a preoccupation with contradiction and refusal. “‘Sous l’humaine écorce, le squelette vivant’: Les Rayons X, progrès ou décadence?” by Marie-France David-de Palacio, explores the influence of X-rays on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature (including Marcel Proust, Charles Maire, and Robert de Montesquiou) as well as spectacles and paraliterary texts. Like so many Decadent themes, the X-ray, at once scientific and occult, macabre and voyeuristic, is deeply marked by contraction: “la hantise de la transparence, et l’angoisse d’une vérité absolue” (1:101). The very skeletons revealed by the X-ray also animate another contribution to this section: “‘L’Élégance sans nom de l’humaine armature’: La Décadence squelettisée” by Jean de Palacio. De Palacio explores the range of uses and representations of the skeleton, in particular the female skeleton, to embody (as it were) the contradictory “présence-absence qu’affectionne la Décadence” (1:131). Contradiction also characterizes the work of novelist Joséphin Péladan, according to Fanny Bacot in “Exemples et contre-exemples de décadence dans l’esthétique de Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918).” Though Péladan is understood as an author whose work was a “dénonciation de la décadence de son époque,” he nonetheless belongs to “la ‘Blague’ fin-de-siècle (Régnier 1893, 3) et, par ses écrits, s’inscrit au nombre de sujets décadents” (1:154, 163). The notion of denial or refusal, rather than contradiction, animates Guy Ducrey’s playful and poetic meditation on “Zut, premier ou dernier mot de la décadence?” Ducrey explores the apparition of and role played by this term in Decadent literature, arguing that “Zut” is “l’une des devises majeures” first of Decadent poetry, and then of nihilist philosophy (1:145). Julia Przyboś, in “Portrait du décadent en chiffonnier,” proposes a novel way of thinking about the ways that Decadent authors used characters and stories from literature of the past: they are “chiffonniers” who “ayant ramassé des déchets textiles, leur assurent une vie et fonction nouvelles” and thus “se proposent de faire du nouveau avec de l’ancien, de pratiquer ce qu’il faut bien appeler une sorte de recyclage culturel” (1:135, 136). Étienne Wolff explores a specific example of a Decadent text in “La Vandale (1907) de Magali Boisnard,” examining ways that this less-known woman writer, who spent the majority of her life in Algeria, takes up Decadent themes in her 1907 novel.

The essays of “Degeneracy, Hysteria and Perversions” (volume one) focus in particular on the representations of these themes in Decadent literature. Anna Gural-Migdal, in “L’Imaginaire horrifique de L’Abbé Jules, par-delà naturalisme et décadence,” argues that Octave Mirbeau’s 1888 novel should be read as belonging both to Naturalism and to Decadence, both inscribed on the body of the priest, “animalisé et proie aux instincts, connote la dégénérescence, le vide et la mort; de l’autre côté, la dimension décadente de ce personnage tient de sa féminisation et de son tempérament hystérique” (1:211). In “Horreurs sadomasochistes dans le conte de fées (1880–95): Catulle Mendès, Marcel Schwob, Jules Ricard, Gustave Claudin et Daniel Darc,” Hermeline Pernoud explores sadomasochistic themes in ten fairy tales, all dating between 1880 and 1895—according to Pernoud, the theme of sadomasochism disappears almost entirely after 1895. The selected stories “favorise[nt] le masochisme et l’algolagnie” in their interpretations of common fin-de-siècle figures such as la femme fatale, the sacrificial or martyred woman, and scenes of symbolic castration (1:252). These figures seem to reinscribe traditional or stereotyped gender roles: “la relation instaurée entre le dominé et le dominant deviendrait une allégorie des tabous sexuels où le dominé se complairait dans des figures pénitentes illustrant ses souffrances” (1:252). In “A New Catalogue of Perversions: Sexology and Decadence,” Maxime Foerster analyzes the role of sexology in Baudelaire’s “Mademoiselle Bistouri” and Rachilde’s La Jongleuse, concluding that, for these two Decadent writers, the treatment of sexology (specifically represented by a heterosexual couple consisting of a male doctor and a “so-called mad female”) is ultimately parodic, “challenging and distorting notions of health sexuality and sanity” (1:266, 268).

Read together, the essays in “Images of Decadent Women” (volume two) highlight a number of important themes in the representation of women in Decadent literature: the prominence of the figures of the “androgyne” and the “femme fatale,” contradictory fascination and horror provoked by female sexuality, and the frequent use of ambiguity and ambivalence in the depiction of women. Vesna Elez’s “La femme fatale et la fatalité: Le crépuscule des dieux dans Salammbô de Flaubert?” argues that Flaubert’s uses of incertitude and ambiguity in the text “reflètent les catégories-clés de la décadence” (2:21). Elez explores this Decadent ambivalence in three areas: the heroine’s “passion pour Mâtho, sa crise religieuse relative à la découverte du vrai culte de la déesse Tanit et son rôle de femme fatale” (2:23). Maïa Varsimashvili-Raphael, in “Salomé—Le mythe symboliste,” analyzes a range of representations of Salomé, from Gustav Klimt’s paintings, to the works of Georgian poets Valérian Gaprindachvili and Grigol Robkidzé, to Stéphane Mallarmé’s Hérodiade, and on this basis argues that Salomé is the emblematic mythic figure of the fin de siècle, “le mythe de toute une époque” (2:33). Michela Gardini, in “Les Décadents et les femmes mystiques,” considers the influence of mysticism on Decadence, noting the influence of women mystics such as Jeanne d’Arc, Angèle de Foligno, and Marguerite-Marie Alacoque, on Decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans in particular. Elizabeth Emery’s “Une morte vivante: Reliquarianism in Rachilde’s ‘La Dent’” reads Rachilde’s very short (five page) story as an encapsulation of Decadence’s contradictions: “obsession with estheticism and ugliness; fear of and fascination for death; voluptuous sensuality and frigid prudery; hysteria about the mundane; fascination and dissatisfaction with religion; the horror of the quotidian; and a satire of bourgeois mores” (2:62). Rachilde (Decadent woman author par excellence) is also the subject of Marie-Gersande Raoult’s “Féminité(s) iconoclaste(s) chez Catulle Mendès et Rachilde: du saphisme à la construction d’un sexe amazon.” Raoult argues that, in Mendès’s Méphistophéla and Rachilde’s Madame Adonis and Monsieur Vénus, a “tentation homosexuelle stigmatise une remise en cause de la hiérarchie des sexes notamment par l’émancipation de la femme et la crise des identités masculines et féminines” (2:76).

In the section entitled “Poetic Decadence” (volume two), Wassim Seddik’s “La Sensibilité décadente de José-Maria de Heredia à travers ‘Sphinx’” uncovers Heredia’s “convergences” (2:233) with Decadence in his 1893 sonnet “Sphinx.” Seddick argues that the poem contains two eminently Decadent motifs: “la tératologie et la misogynie fin-de-siècle” and concludes that the depiction of femininity in the poem, while indeed misogynist, is truly an example of Jean de Palacio’s “féminité dévorante” (2:244, 252). Aurélie Briquet, in “‘L’Aquarium’ de Jules Laforgue: Les avatars d’un poème en prose,” compares three versions of Laforgue’s text and argues that the versions reveal the poet’s “vif souci” for formal and generic conventions, as well as a deep sensibility to the “conditions d’apparition” of each text (2:228). In the end, for Briquet, Laforgue’s contributions are to modern literature, as much as to Decadence, in his “usage constant de la parodie et de l’ironie, ainsi que son exploitation de voix multiples” and his defiance of boundaries between forms and genres, between poetry and prose (2:228).

With coverage of such a diverse range of topics, this work would be most useful for those interested in the approaches and topics of the individual contributions contained in it, rather than those seeking a novel definition of Decadence. Readers should note that though the collection aims to enlarge the geographic and temporal boundaries of Decadence “across time and space,” this space remains largely European.


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