Przybos on Palacio (2011)

Palacio, Jean de. La Décadence: le mot et la chose. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2011, Pp. 341. ISBN: 978-2-251-44426-0

The title of Jean de Palacio's latest book pledges to give a clear sense of what constitutes the fin-de-siècle state of mind that, with passing time, came to be known as Decadence. In contrast to the plural title of Foucault's Les Mots et les choses, Jean de Palacio's subtitle promises to offer the reader a single explanation of Decadence, a unique definition that could cover all aspects of this rich, complex and multilingual artistic phenomenon. Furthermore, the promise conveyed by the subtitle suggests a simple, straightforward relationship between language and reality. This one-to-one relationship is all but shattered in the very first chapter of the book, "Question de sens," in which the author offers a detailed review of the multitude of terms that have been used to describe multifaceted art and literature of the fin-de-siècle.

In a 1991 conversation with Guy Ducrey in the Swiss review Equinoxe, Jean de Palacio famously stated: "Il n'y a pas d'auteurs majeurs et d'auteurs mineurs. C'est peut-être le premier enseignement de la Décadence. Il y a seulement une prodigieuse activité d'écriture qui s'exerce fébrilement dans toutes les directions, bouleversant les hiérarchies, ébranlant les catégories, bousculant les genres."  In his yearly comparative literature seminars (1979-99) at Paris IV Sorbonne on "l'esprit de Décadence," de Palacio had participants study authors no longer read nor easily available, such as the Belgian Raymond Nyst or the English Aleister Crowley, alongside well-known writers like Joris-Karl Huysmans and Jean Lorrain. A few "respectable" symbolists, with Mallarmé as their champion, are often contrasted by historians of literature with "ludicrous" Decadent writers such as Jules Bois or Edmond Haraucourt. More than forty years spent reading and studying what was published between roughly 1880 and 1914, primarily in French, but also in German and English, allow Palacio to conclude authoritatively that the distinction between naturalism, symbolism and decadence, among other artificial categories, is a moot one that does not help but, to the contrary, hinders our understanding of the extraordinarily rich and diverse literature published during that period in Europe.

Jean de Palacio's seven previous book-length studies, along with a myriad of essays and prefaces to books he edited for La Bibliothèque décadente Séguier, have brought to light many characteristic aspects of fin-de-siècle literature. In most of his books, Palacio's approach is deliberately thematic. For instance, commedia dell'arte's Pierrot is also a recurrent character in Decadent literature and the main subject of one of Palacio's best-known earlier books. To the author, the fact that he dedicated a book-length study to this character does not mean that Pierrot has received definitive coverage. In fact, a large part of chapter V of La Décadence: le mot et la chose, entitled "Petites Suites décadentes," contains a discussion of additional traits displayed by the fin-de-siècle Pierrot. Discovered after de Palacio had published his book on this elusive and protean figure, Pierrot's "appendix" stands to symbolize the task before dedicated and indefatigable scholars of Decadence: The more they read, the more complex and unexpected appears to be their object of study. This might be the invaluable message of Palacio's latest book. His incomparable example teaches us all a lesson in the perseverance and humility necessary for studying fin-de-siècle art and literature.

It comes as no surprise that Jean de Palacio's latest book defies a simple summary. Except for chapters II and III, entitled respectively, "Lexique de la Décadence," and "Grammaire de la Décadence," both of which present résumés of linguistic and stylistic traits typically found in fin-de-siècle writings, this extremely rich and complex book will be difficult for novice amateurs of Decadence. Those unfamiliar with fin-de-siècle literature who enter Palacio's study, which teems with examples, counter-examples and analogies, are likely to become lost in meandering arguments that are cumulative and inductive in nature. Anglophone readers, who may expect to see paragraph breaks for each new example, concept or idea, may be confounded by the mise en page of de Palacio's French text, which shuns indentation, preferring a continuous flow of sentences cobbled together by thematic, formal or stylistic associations.

A more experienced amateur of Decadence who, like me, has been studying, teaching and writing about Decadence for over twenty years, will enter Palacio's latest book with excitement and gratitude: immense gratitude that so much has been unearthed by this indefatigable researcher of literary treasures long buried in dusty archives and musty libraries; sheer excitement that so much still needs to be done. My generation of scholars of Decadence will not manage to accomplish this daunting task. All we can do, after the few productive years still ahead of us, is to pass the torch of fin-de-siècle research and interpretation to our students. Jean de Palacio's latest book has shown the work remaining not only for my brothers and sisters in Decadence, but also for future generations of scholars who, with the current academic interest in circularity, heterogeneity and hybridity, will discover that fragmentation, disconnectedness and absence of linearity are typical characteristics of the prodigious literary activity that flourished between 1880 and 1914 in much of Europe and, to some extent, the United States.

Julia Przybos
Hunter College and The Graduate Center
Volume 42.1-2