Category Archives: Open Forum

Defining Decadence: A Few More Thoughts (Open Forum)


See some of our own initial “definitions” at the start of class:


“During the last half of the nineteenth century, literary movements, schools, cenacles, and ‘isms’ proliferate.  My position is that decadence is the common denominator underlying the extremely complex and diverse literary activities in the mid-to late nineteenth century, and that this substratum of decadence is crucial to the development of the modern novel.”  (David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, p. xvii)

“Practically everyone who writes about decadence begins with the disclaimer that the word itself is annoyingly resistant to definition.  …  [T]he paradoxical nature of decadence and its resistance to definition are among the most important elements of its meaning.”  (p. 1, 2)

“Nevertheless, by dissociating art once and for all from the goal that has always been assigned it—the faithful imitation of nature regarded as the supreme norm [i.e. mimesis]—the decadent period does constitute an essential line of cleavage between the classical esthetic and the modern esthetic.” (Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination 1880-1900, p. 11)


How did Wilde fit in—in contemporaries’ eyes, and in our own?  Wilde as the quintessential embodiment and model of Decadence?

“There is not a man or a woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry [Lord Alfred Douglas’ father, who was the cause of the trials for “acts of gross indecency” that ended Wilde’s career] for destroying the high Priest of the Decadents.”  (National Observer, May 1895)

“[C]ontrary to its image as a rarefied ivory-tower aesthetic or merely parodic hiatus before the inception of Modernism, decadence poses serious literary, political, and historical questions.”  (Constable, Potolsky, and Denisoff [eds.], Introduction to Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, p. 1)



Leave a comment

Filed under Lecture notes, Open Forum

Open Forum: Wilde’s journalism, Wilde and fashion

In class this past week, we discussed the importance of actresses for Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism in general (recall his “Phèdre”, dedicated to Sarah Bernhardt, and other poems), and his work as editor of The Woman’s World in particular.

One famous English stage dress I mentioned in this context was the actress Ellen Terry’s costume as Lady Macbeth from Hamlet, which became iconic for the period:

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889)

Recently, Ellen Terry’s Lady Macbeth dress was patiently and expensively restored for safe keeping for the ages.  See this fascinating blog post, which discusses the restoration process and includes pictures of the real dress, visual art depicting Ellen Terry, and the National Trust property where the dress is now exhibited, Smallhythe House in Kent, England, where Terry lived before her death.  See also this Daily Mail news article about the dress’s restoration.

19th-century fashion is alive (not true for the beetles on the dress …).

1 Comment

Filed under Open Forum, Week 8 reviews: Wilde's journalism, Wilde's Salome

Open Forum: Wilde and Salome

“A Wilde Idea, or More Injustice to Ireland!”  Punch cartoon by J. B[ernard] P[artridge], 9 July 1892.

In two separate newspaper interviews at the time when Salomé was being considered by the London theater censor (and subsequently banned), Wilde stated his opposition and intent to leave England for France once and for all:

“If the Censure refuses Salomé […] I shall leave England and settle in France, where I will take out letters of naturalization.  I will not consent to call myself a citizen of a country that shows such narrowness in its artistic judgement.  […] I am not English; I’m Irish—which is quite another thing” (Oscar Wilde, “The Censure and Salomé,” interview, The Pall Mall Budget, xl, 30 June 1892, 947, quoted in E.H. Mikhail [ed.], Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, vol. 1, 188).

“My resolution is deliberately taken.  Since it is impossible to have a work of art performed in England, I shall transfer myself to another fatherland, of which I have long been enamoured.  There is but one Paris, voyez-vous, and Paris is France.  It is the abode of artists; nay, it is la ville artiste.  I adore Paris” (“La Salomé de M. Oscar Wilde,” Le Gaulois, June 29, 1892, 1, quoted from ibid.)

The unsympatheticNew York Times reported on July 3, 1892:  “[a]ll London is laughing at Oscar Wilde’s threat to become a Frenchman” (cited in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 373).

Leave a comment

Filed under Open Forum

Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony: Scrapbook (Open Forum)

Jacques Callot (1592-1635), engraving of the painting of The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Pieter Breughel the Younger (sometimes spelled Brueghel, Bruegel; Flemish Renaissance painter, ca. 1564-1636).  Callot was Breughel’s disciple.

Flaubert insisted the Brueghel painting, which he saw on a visit to the Balbi Palazzo in Genoa in 1845, had inspired him to write The Temptation of Saint Anthony.   Flaubert ownedprint of Callot’s engraving, which hung on the wall until his death.

Poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (cf. Helen/Ennoia in Section IV) :

Helen of Tyre

What phantom is this that appears
Through the purple mist of the years,
Itself but a mist like these?
A woman of cloud and of fire;
It is she; it is Helen of Tyre,
The town in the midst of the seas.

O Tyre! in thy crowded streets
The phantom appears and retreats,
And the Israelites that sell
Thy lilies and lions of brass,
Look up as they see her pass,
And murmur “Jezebel!”

Then another phantom is seen
At her side, in a gray gabardine,
With beard that floats to his waist;
It is Simon Magus, the Seer;
He speaks, and she pauses to hear
The words he utters in haste.

He says: “From this evil fame,
From this life of sorrow and shame,
I will lift thee and make thee mine;
Thou hast been Queen Candace,
And Helen of Troy, and shalt be
The Intelligence Divine!”

Oh, sweet as the breath of morn,
To the fallen and forlorn
Are whispered words of praise;
For the famished heart believes
The falsehood that tempts and deceives,
And the promise that betrays.

So she follows from land to land
The wizard’s beckoning hand,
As a leaf is blown by the gust,
Till she vanishes into night.
O reader, stoop down and write
With thy finger in the dust.

O town in the midst of the seas,
With thy rafts of cedar trees,
Thy merchandise and thy ships,
Thou, too, art become as naught,
A phantom, a shadow, a thought,
A name upon men’s lips.

Lithography by Odilon Redon (1840-1916) for Gustave Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine

Comment: Des Esseintes likes only a handful of artists; among them Rembrandt, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon (see J.-K. Huysmans’ À Rebours). It’s absolutely blow-minding to notice the artist’s play on the clair-obscur (light-dark, see the notion of Chiaroscuro) in those breathtaking and highly symbolical examples of Symbolist-decadent style.

Odilon Redon – À Gustave Flaubert : Six dessins pour la Tentation de Saint Antoine (2ème série), 1889

  1. Saint Antoine : À travers ses longs cheveux qui lui couvraient la figure, j’ai cru reconnaître Ammonaria
  2. … une longue chrysalide couleur sang …
  3. La Mort : Mon ironie dépasse toutes les autres !
  4. Le Sphinx : Mon regard que rien ne peut dévier, demeure tendu à travers les choses sur un horizon inaccessible ! La Chimère : Moi je suis légère et joyeuse !
  5. Le Sciapodes : La tête le plus bas possible, c’est le secret du bonheur !
  6. Saint Antoine : Il doit y avoir, quelque part, des figures primordiales, dont les corps ne sont que des images


– R.C.

Leave a comment

November 5, 2012 · 12:14 pm

Open Forum: Huysmans’ A rebours

Gusatve Moreau, L’Apparition 

Gustave Moreau, Salomé dansant devant Hérode

Some information about Tristan Corbière, a poet referenced in Chapter 14: I also found an eBook of Les Amours jaunes, the only book Corbière published in his lifetime, in the original French: I can understand Des Esseintes’s interest; the rhymes and rhythms are quite beautiful, though there are moments that feel, to me, sharp and out of place.


Leave a comment

Filed under Open Forum

Open Forum: Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray




Leave a comment

Filed under Open Forum

Open Forum: Rachilde’s Monsieur Venus (1884)

As always, the Open Forum is your chance to post completely (or partially) random observations, comments, questions, or links to various materials you’ve looked up for this novel or Rachilde, such as biographical or other relevant literary or cultural information.

Go ahead, and enjoy!  I’ll start us off with a picture of “Mademoiselle Baudelaire,” Rachilde herself:

I broke off reading this novel with ten pages to go to have dinner before the dining hall closed. I was talking incessantly about the novel throughout dinner, and literally ran back to my room to finish reading. The gender dynamics, especially in the ambiguity of how, why, and when characters’ genders change (both in how they perceive themselves and in how others perceive them) throughout the novel, are absolutely fascinating, and would still be relevant in conversations today about gender and sexuality. –M.P.

Woo-hoo, M.P.!  I agree 100% that this novel is absolutely relevant to talking about gender and sexuality today–gender fluidity, gender mind/body relation, trans(gender, -sexual) issues, ideas about hegemony, violence, and gender binarism, queer theorist Eve Sedgwick’s ideas about the hetero-homoerotic triangle (in Between Men), and so much more … I am tickled you ran back to finish reading it–I had a similar experience when I first read it.  Absolutely astonishing work of literature.  From 1884!  I’m also thinking a lot about Faust (Goethe) and Frankenstein (Shelley) with regard to the ending.  -petradt

Leave a comment

Filed under Open Forum