I had not planned to spend a week on French Decadent Tales, not that I couldn’t spend a month, working through a story at a time, more openly stealing ideas from Stephen Romer’s introduction.
He has a section on Schopenhauer, for instance. Schopenhauer pervades theses stories, not his influence, exactly, but his musk. The philosopher is the fashion among this crowd. He provides intellectual cover for their misogyny, their contempt for the bourgeois, their fetishization of art. Some of the writers may have a deeper interest in or understanding of Schopenhauer, but really, the philosopher they believe in is Charles Baudelaire. Schopenhauer just provides a system.
I mentioned a couple of stories by Maupassant and Laforgue that directly invoke Schopenhauer. Another that never uses the philosopher’s name but is clearly about his ideas is “The Time” (1901) by George Rodenbach, best known for the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, which is about a collector of clocks. He becomes obsessed with the idea of making all of his clocks strike the time simultaneously, which he hopes will transcend his earthly being and allow a glimpse of the eternal Will, or something like that. The clocks do synchronize, but he misses the moment because he has neglected them for love and human kindness. He is
punished for coveting love… for having abandoned the ideal for reality. The ideal is always jealous, and demands, if it is to be attained, immense, single-minded purpose. Is it not our renunciation of Life itself, that alone makes us fit to attain our Dream? (158, ellipses mine)
Little else in the story is so baldly stated, thank goodness. The problem with the Decadents received idea of Schopenhauer, the artistic problem in general received ideas, is that it leads to so many clichés, which is especially ironic with a group of writers so preoccupied with style. They were children of Flaubert just as much as their enemy Zola was. Or poisoned by Flaubert. However you like. Rodenbach’s story has some superb descriptions of clocks, for example (“chimes that whistled like blackbirds or squeaked like well-chains,” 152).
It is the official position of Wuthering Expectations that Naturalism was a con job foisted on gullible readers. The opposition between the Decadents (ideal) and the Naturalists (reality) is a puzzler at this distance. The squishy corpse-sex of Thérèse Raquin is hardly different and no less “shocking” than that is in these Decadent stories. (I am imaging the shock, since I myself am not really shocked. Maybe no one is or ever was.) Zola’s inventory of hothouse plants in The Kill is written on the same principles as Rodenbach’s room of antique clocks. Zola wrote prefaces in which he claimed to be doing something different, but c’mon, don’t be a sucker.
On the other hand, folks at the time bought it. Gustave Geffroy, whoever he was, supplies a story to the collection that is a parable of Idealism and Naturalism, “The Statue” (1894). A woman with artistic aspirations marries a successful society sculptor (they live just down the block from the mansion in The Kill!) and becomes his sole nude model. Soon, perfect nudes of her are all over Paris.
The sculptor has a mid-life crisis. He “experienced a vast emptiness” and sees “the hollowness of his artistic conception, the nullity of his work” (127). He becomes a realist. The wife still models, as he “catalogued her wrinkles, he drew up the inventory of her fleshy existence.” An idealist, she begs him to seek other models, but she has become his grainstack, his Rouen Cathedral, his water-lily pond – he just wants to scuplt her in every angle of light. “Walking in front of him, she began to dread the feel of her husband’s heavy gaze on her back” (129). A cynical little twist ends the story.
Whatever skepticism I have about the ideas of the Decadents, they know something about art.