Science Fiction Studies

#82 = Volume 27, Part 3 = November 2000

Nicholas Ruddick

The Aesthetics of Descent: Recent Books on Nineteenth-Century Decadence

Nicholas Daly. Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle: Popular Fiction and British Culture, 1880-1914.Cambridge UP, 1999. viii + 220 pp. $59.95 hc.

Brian Stableford. Glorious Perversity: The Decline and Fall of Literary Decadence. Borgo, 1998. 152 pp. $20 pbk.

Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky, eds. Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence. U Pennsylvania P, 1999. vi + 318 pp. $45 hc; $19.95 pbk.

Susan J. Navarette. The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence. UP of Kentucky, 1998. xii + 314 pp. $37.95 hc.

Kelly Hurley. The Gothic Body: Sexuality, Materialism, and Degeneration at the Fin de Siècle. Cambridge UP, 1996. xii + 203 pp. 40 hc.

In the mid-1990s, a chart entitled "Return of the Century" from Details magazine hung on my office wall. Feeding off the idea that history repeats itself in hundred-year cycles, it connected the trials of Oscar Wilde with the tribulations of Michael Jackson, the subsidiary-marketing phenomenon of George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894) with that of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990), Havelock Ellis’s insights into sexual psychology with those of Camille Paglia, and the tragic love affair in Puccini’s La Bohème (1896) with that between Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. The result was supposed to show the uncanny similarity between the two fins de siècle, but ultimately the exercise offered one of the few confirmations of Marx’s cynical idea that historical events occur twice—first as tragedy, then as farce.

The looming end of the twentieth century may well have originally inspired the rash of recent work on the end of the nineteenth, in the hope that one fin de siècle could be used to interpret another. But researchers who delved deeply enough into late Victorian culture probably found something far more interesting than merely a distant mirror in which to contemplate their own millennial anxieties. For the period between, say, Darwin’s death (1882) and Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) was a time of ferment—or, to switch to a metaphor more apt in this context, a rich decaying compost out of which sprang many vital and enduring aspects of modern culture.

The most productive recent studies in the literature and culture of the fin de siècle work from the premise that the 1880s and 1890s were more than a twilight zone inhabited by frivolous or exhausted talents waiting out the transition between Victorianism and Modernism. Instead, they take account of the growing evidence that the movements characteristic of the period were attempts to come to terms with the unprecedented cultural trauma inflicted by that New Reformation, the Darwinian revolution. As the nineteenth century wore on, earlier attempts to reconcile evolutionary theory with Victorian ideas of progress (such as Herbert Spencer’s "Law of Evolution") had begun to be undermined by evidence that biological degeneration was as much a part of the natural order as elaboration. Indeed, organisms such as sea-squirts were observed to devolve even in the course of their own short lifespan. In the fin de siècle it was understood that natural selection tended to encourage an almost infinite formal variability, and that all living things were constituted of protoplasm, but there was no effective genetic theory until after the rediscovery of Mendel’s work in 1900. During this period, then, it seemed difficult to discount the terrifying possibility that human beings might mutate into lower-order beasts, or devolve even further down into the foundational slime.

The important radical artistic movements of the period include aestheticism, decadence, and symbolism, constituting an avant-garde that sent widening fissures through mainstream high culture. The cataclysm of 1914-18 would ultimately widen these into chasms. Within the more traditional literary field, there was a revival of romance (Haggard, Stevenson, Wells, Machen, Stoker) from which both modern horror fiction and sf continue to draw much of their strength. Sf indeed was constituted, in fact if not in name, as a respectable literary genre during this period. There had been earlier a proto-sf epitomized by Frankenstein (1818), in which enlightenment science serves as a kind of semi-rationalized, and therefore more credible, Gothic magic. And then there was Jules Verne, apostle of nineteenth-century technological optimism. But it was not until the great scientific romances of H.G. Wells, the first man of letters to have had a modern scientific education, that the real anxieties of the new age were fully articulated as horror scenarios with a highly plausible evolutionary rationale.

Nicholas Daly’s Modernism, Romance and the Fin de Siècle focuses specifically on the revival of romance in popular fiction beginning around 1880. Daly suggests that popular romances "played an important part in British culture as a form of narrative theory of social change" (5). Moreover, the revived romance in Stevenson, Haggard, and Stoker was "shaped in the same historical mould as literary modernism," so that it makes "more sense … to shelf [sic] a narrative like She [1887] or Dracula [1897] with the work of modernists like Joyce and Woolf" (9) than with Radcliffe or Scott. To this end he offers chapter-long examinations of Stoker’s Dracula and The Snake’s Pass (1890), of mummy stories, and of the primitive in modernism and popular fiction, concluding with an afterword that suggests the continuity of fin-de-siècle romance motifs in twentieth-century film.

Daly believes, correctly in my view, that it is misleading to see the revival of romance as simply a recrudescence of the Gothic in the urban or imperialist mode (as does Patrick Brantlinger in Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 [Cornell, 1988]). But all too frequently Daly’s association of romance with modernism leads to strained arguments. His chief flaw is a too-frequent elision of modernity, defined as that process of modernization that began to accelerate around 1880, with modernism, a movement that, though not monolithic, is typically a reaction against the mass society that modernization was bringing into being. In Daly’s view, Dracula is not so much an expression of fin-de-siècle anxieties (racial degeneration, the rise of the New Woman) in the form of the vampire, as a way of affirming the "expansion of a culture of experts" (36). The consequence for his argument is that the professional men of Van Helsing’s Crew of Light replace the vampire as the real focus of the novel.

Though Daly makes some interesting observations en passant (for example, that the blood of Dracula flows in the Harker baby at the end), there is a twofold problem with his larger thesis. First, Dracula is very far from being a modernist text: its presentation in documentary fragments is intended not as a strategy of indeterminacy but as one of total transparency, so that the fantastic events will seem authentic and plausible. Second, modernism, even though its products are often as reactionary as Dracula in political or gender terms, tends to condemn rather than celebrate professional expertise. Recall the implied view of professional men as both narratees and characters in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902).

There is in Daly’s argument generally a kind of willful perversity that allows him to minimize the huge difference between, say, Africa in Haggard and in Hemingway. The former may indeed be a Foucauldian heterotopia because Haggard, in the 1880s, was exploiting the fact that the map of central Africa was a terra incognita where anything might happen; the last significant blank space was not filled in until H.M. Stanley’s return from the Emin Pasha expedition in 1890. Hemingway’s Africa, on the other hand, like Gauguin’s Polynesia and Lawrence’s New Mexico, is a heterochronia: in a now totally mapped world, it is a reality owing its existence to nostalgic fantasies about the primitive before modernization. Meanwhile, Daly perhaps inadvertently reveals, through an almost obsessive recurrence to the motif of the bog, that his real interest, and forte, is in the influence of geography and history on Irish literature.

Glorious Perversity consists of reworked and reorganized introductions from Brian Stableford’s two pioneering Dedalus anthologies of decadent literature, Moral Ruins (1990) and The Black Feast (1992), as well as his introductions to his translations (under the alias "Francis Amery") of Remy de Gourmont’s The Angels of Perversity (1893, 1894), Octave Mirbeau’s The Torture Garden (1899), and Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas (1901) for the same publisher. Only the second chapter, on Baudelaire and Decadent style, is new. Nevertheless, the result is the best brief survey of decadent literature available, one that will prepare students well for lengthier academic studies such as Jean Pierrot’s outstanding The Decadent Imagination (Chicago, 1981). The qualities of Glorious Perversity are typical of Stableford’s critical work on sf: comprehensiveness (he has read everything), familiarity (he has translated some of the key decadent works from French), and lucidity (he is clear on the distinction between decadence and degeneration, and on the differences between the Decadent consciousness, movement, and literary style).

Stableford offers a succinct historical summary of the origins of theories of cultural decline, showing how decay began to be aestheticized in post-revolutionary France as a quasi-aristocratic reaction against both the Romantic sentimentalization of nature and the nineteenth-century faith in the inevitable expansion of the empire of progress, positivism, and democracy. He is not ashamed to enumerate the continuing attractions of the decadent worldview. The decadent artist knows that "horror is a stimulant," and at the same time that "there is some essential truth in horror … the world is sick at heart" (28). Moreover, decadence is "a literature of moral challenge; it is sceptical, cynical, and satirical" (28). (Stableford is one of the small number of Anglophone critics who is aware that Huysmans’s Against Nature [1884] is a black comedy, and a very funny one.) He notes that the decadents were personally unhappy, and that the ubiquity of syphilis among the bohemian classes accounts to a great extent for the prevalent decadent metaphor of internal rottenness. He asserts, correctly, that "what passed for Decadence in England was but a pale shadow of French Decadence" (108), though he has read more widely than most in English texts, approving such obscure works as Eugene Lee-Hamilton’s The Lord of the Dark Red Star (1903) and James Elroy Flecker’s The Last Generation (1908). As for the US, it was "the last place on Earth to provide fertile soil for literary Decadence, because it was the nation most thoroughly infected with the mythology of progress" (130). Nevertheless, Poe, who begat Baudelaire, was an important forerunner, and Stableford deals briefly with the small assortment of later American misfits, émigrés, and immigrants who were infected with the decadent spirochete.

Aside from their common roots in the fantastic mode, there is little overlap between decadence and sf (Baudelaire was the antitype of Jules Verne); yet Stableford’s critical predilections suggest that the two genres may have a common appeal. He would probably account for it by the affinity of both for the discourse of anti-Romanticism. The Decadents thought that the veneration of Nature was stupid: Stableford comments, "it was and it is. While they had to live with the legacy of Rousseau, we have to live with a growing Ecological Mysticism which is … the parent of an indiscriminate hostility to exactly those aspects of technological progress which might yet save us from the filthy mess we are making of the world" (135). Barbey d’Aurevilly thought that the Decadent’s ultimate choice was between suicide and the foot of the cross; Stableford with glorious perversity believes that a decadent worldview conduces to mental health via the annihilation of religion and the end of its dogmatic hijacking of moral philosophy.

The critical anthology Perennial Decay collects fifteen essays by specialists in decadent literature under four headings: "Defining Decadence," "Visualizing Decadence," "Identifications of Decadence and Decadent Identities," and "Decadence, History, and the Politics of Language" (the last two are catchalls). There is no overall thesis to the collection, unless it is that the disapprobation of Max Nordau has unwarrantedly continued to infect the analysis of decadence; one hesitates to identify as a thesis the editors’ proposition that as a self-questioning, transgressive, subversive, anxious, troubling body of texts, decadent literature "continues to hold a mirror up to the concerns and anxieties of our own fin de siècle" (27). The standard of the essays and of the editing, however, is above average in a collection of this kind.

There is one outstanding essay in each of the four sections. In the first, Michael Riffaterre’s "Decadent Paradoxes" specifies the paradox as the defining trope of decadent writing (against Romanticism in particular). He then gives examples of three kinds of paradox—metalinguistic, thematic, and intertextual—from Huysmans, Baudelaire, and others. In Against Nature, for example, Des Esseintes’s desire for natural flowers that look like fakes is a metalinguistic paradox: here the Romantic idea of a natural beauty that outshines anything artificial is first inverted into an elementary paradox, in which the artificial is preferred to the natural. Then comes the "more perfect paradox, as it in is the very heart of nature that he verifies the law of artifice" (67): bored with artificial flowers, Des Esseintes desires natural flowers that look like fakes. Riffaterre’s essay, with its description of the two-stage transformation in the decadent paradox, would seem to offer an important theoretical key to unlocking the linguistic strategies of Oscar Wilde.

From the second section, Marc A. Weiner’s "Opera and the Discourse of Decadence: From Wagner to AIDS" traces the nexus of associations between opera, disease, and sexual deviance and examines the idea that "gay men have a purportedly special or privileged affinity with opera" (123). It also brings wittily and effectively into its embrace such apparently disparate elements as Wagner’s anti-Semitism, Jonathan Demme’s 1993 movie Philadelphia, and the reason the Metropolitan Opera needs to package its broadcasts with "inane trivia quizzes" (133). From the third section, Melanie C. Hawthorne’s "‘Comment Peut-on Être Homosexuel?’: Multinational (In)Corporation and the Frenchness of Salomé," is a fascinating literary-historical meditation on the fin-de-siècle association, in various European nations, between sexual deviance and foreignness. Hawthorne is not afraid to question many of the received ideas relating to this notion, including Foucault’s pronouncement that the homosexual became a species around 1870, the title of the notorious yellow book under Wilde’s arm as he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel, and the reason Wilde wrote Salomé in French. From the final section, Jennifer Birkett’s "Fetishizing Writing: The Politics of Fictional Form in the Works of Remy de Gourmont and Joséphin Péladan" is a very suggestive study of two representative decadents, one who made a fetish of Art, the other of Religion. Yet both "would rather, with the fetish, embrace the Oedipal symbolic, the familiar source of terror and pain" than contemplate the truly subversive "Mallarméan alternative" (273), the rupturing voyage to the frontier of representation.

Susan J. Navarette’s The Shape of Fear concerns itself with the sudden emergence of a modern horror literature at the fin de siècle, and how its creators were "anatomists of the imagination" (44) inspired by post-Darwinian ideas of devolution and entropy. Nature’s mask had seemed to slip, and many of the well-chosen illustrations in the text—Ensor’s and Rops’s grinning skulls, Beardsley’s abortions, Victor Hugo’s uncanny blottesques—manage to convey the hideous vraie vérité of the decadents. That is to say, the images exemplify the decadent strategy, in distinction to the crude verities of realist writers or the escapist fantasies of romancers, of exposing the "real truth" of what lies under nature’s beautiful facade. In this sense, then, the decadent’s antipathy to Nature, Kurtz’s last cry "The horror! The horror!," and the literal dissolution of Helen Vaughan in Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan (1894) can all be credibly viewed as emerging from the same epoch.

At its best, especially in the introductory chapter "Rictus Invictus" and in a chapter on "Protoplasmic Predications" in Machen, Navarette’s study offers brilliant insights from her wide reading in Darwin, Huxley, Haeckel, Lombroso, Nordau, and Max Müller. (Her inclusion of the ideas of this last figure, one of the most notable philologists of his time, in the devolutionary picture is particularly appropriate when discussing decadence as a linguistic style.) Elsewhere, in chapters centered on (but by no means confined to) Walter De La Mare’s obscure story "A:B:O" (ca. 1895), Henry James’s "The Turn of the Screw" (1898), Vernon Lee’s "The Doll" (1927), and "Heart of Darkness," there are many good things. In the De La Mare chapter, for example, there is an excellent discussion of the grip on the fin de siècle of Haeckel’s Biogenetic Law, a passage that more than compensates for the rather slender peg upon which the chapter is hung. One hesitates to say it, but there is almost too much reading behind Navarette’s study—intriguing quotations abound, but many of them are isolated pearls, not strung through by an argument.

Kelly Hurley’s The Gothic Body deals with similar material to Navarette’s but is much more strongly focused. Extremely concise without being obscure or over-theoretical, it is an outstanding contribution to fin-de-siècle intellectual history, and should take its place as one of the ports of first call for those seeking to understand the mentality of the late nineteenth century. Hurley centers her thesis on the paired ideas of the abhuman (borrowed from William Hope Hodgson), namely, the condition of having fallen away from full humanity, and abjection as glossed by Julia Kristeva, meaning, very roughly, the nauseating ambivalence of the human subject who seeks to maintain the illusion of autonomy while being drawn to the monstrous pleasures of indifferentiation promised by the sheer materiality of the body. The first term is very useful in expressing the linked ideas of degeneration and decadence; the second offers important insights into what is perhaps the overwhelming question about horror literature: why do we enjoy the nauseating spectacles it evokes? Hurley’s opening chapter on the "Thing-ness of matter" includes a brilliant section entitled "Theorizing Slime," and concludes with one of the most balanced attempts to come to grips with the paradoxical appeal of horror that I have read.

This study is of considerable relevance to sf, because H.G. Wells in the 1890s was a master at evoking nausea, and Hurley gives close attention to The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) as well as to Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897) and Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters (1895). In distinction to Daly, Hurley adopts the anxiety theory of the revival of horror, and insists on the use of the term "Gothic" to describe the kind of fin-de-siècle romance instrumental in negotiating anxieties produced by the effect of a rapidly changing worldview on human identity, while inducing fear, loathing, and nausea in the reader. Hurley herself shows with considerable mastery and economy how scientific discourses—"evolutionism, criminal anthropology, degeneration theory, sexology, pre-Freudian psychology" (5)—underlay the horror fiction of the fin de siècle, marking this fiction as a specific product of the Darwinian aftermath and distinguishing it from the supernaturalism and virtue-in-danger fiction of true Gothic. Yet so effective is Hurley in anatomizing "Gothic" materialities, bodies, and sexualities that she has indirectly made a strong case for the adoption of the term. Indeed, Hurley is particularly good at noting how during the fin de siècle there was a "surprising compatibility of empiricism and supernaturalism" (5), so that, in Dracula for example, "psychology is represented simultaneously as an antidote to magic, an alternate form of magic, and finally, a magical new discourse by which to comprehend irrational behavior" (20).

The real strength of Hurley’s study is its ability to deal logically and concisely with a complex nexus of discourses that have fascinated other critics but generally have seemed to thwart attempts to link them—she restores form to the abject body. She shows, for example, why physics, evolutionism, and social medicine generated highly compatible discourses of entropy, species reversion, and atavism, and how what now seem ludicrous ideas were deadly serious attempts to make sense of a society that, at once enchanted and appalled by evolutionary ideas, was reforming itself at every level with unprecedented speed.

Accelerating change remains perhaps the characteristic feature of modern Western society, and to understand the roots of our current modernity, we are likely to find ourselves increasingly turning, not so much to modernism, but to movements such as decadence and the revival of romance—or of the Gothic, if you will. It is to be hoped that the impetus to fin-de-siècle studies and the insights into the modern condition provided, in various degrees, by all the works reviewed here will not peter out merely because the millennial odometer has rolled on.

[Ed. Note: A valuable supplement to this spate of critical studies is Asti Hustvedt’s anthology The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-Siècle France (Zone 1998), a vast compendium that includes three full novels (Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus [1884], J.-K. Huysman’s A Haven [1886], and Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s The Future Eve [1886]) and a complete collection of nouvelles (Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Les Diaboliques [1874]), as well as substantial selections from Jean Moréas, Catulle Mendès, Joséphin Péladan, Jean Lorrain, Remy de Gourmont, Octave Mirbeau, and from Huysmans’s Saint Lydwine of Schiedam (1901). Many of these texts are newly translated or appear here in English for the first time, and each is introduced by an essay, written especially for the volume, by major critics such as Peter Brooks, Charles Bernheimer, and Emily Apter. The book is capped with a useful chronology and a collection of penetrating mini-biographies.—RL]

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