Friday, September 5, 2014

The ideal is always jealous - French Decadents on art and Schopenhauer

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. The story 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 of 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 imagining 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.


  1. Schopenhauer's artistic influence went on into the next century. He provided the visual inspiration at least for Dr Caligari in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

  2. What a wonderful blog you have here! I've just discovered it. Dipped my toe in by reading this series on the decadent tales. I love the way you set up your posts with an overview of the book, and a sort of thesis about the nature of the decadent, defining it as

    "ome combination of weirdness, Schopenhauer , repellent attitudes towards women, mental illness, attention to prose style, prostitutes, artists, over-aestheticized attitudes, and some move towards the destruction of human values"

    and then all subsequent posts have been marchings forth from the sally ports set up in that sentence. It's a novel and fascinating way to blog. I can see I'm going to have to back up a year or two in your archives and get a running start with your current literary preoccupations. It's always so fun to discover a new blog that I know immediately I will want to read religiously.

    Oh, and on this subject of the decadent. Your demonstrations and analysis have fleshed out my own mental image of the term. I used to think of decadence as an unorthodox use of energy, appearing lazy in the matters of life that engross the attention of the bourgeois, and investing that energy with unholy fervour in bizarre aesthetic projects. Rather like an edible fungus, a darkness-loving, cave-dwelling form of nourishment.

    But now I'm starting to think the decadent might have more in common with the New Weird. Laforgue and China Mieville, for example, seem like they might get along rather well.

    Anyway, marvellous blog. I'm off to read some more of it!

  3. Roger, I wonder if, at least among Austrians and Germans, if his artistic influence ever ended.

    Robert, thanks so much. I just write 'em the way I think they oughta be writ. Maybe most people see a 3,000 word blog post and think "all right!" but plenty often I think "I'm going to save that for later." Later can turn out to be pretty late.

    Weird France has been a running theme of the blog for a while. French literature has such a wonderful history that in American literature would be thought of as counter-culture, but in France quickly became part of the canon - I was tempted to say "became the canon," but that's Argentinean literature. I think you're fundamentally right about the decadents, but the term got attached to lots of odd offshoots and digressions. New Weird, absolutely. Neil Gaiman could have put a version of that Jules Laforgue story in Sandman.

  4. Interesting reading here as always. I'm afraid what little I know of the Decadents is English, Yellowbook and Oscar Wilde. My knowledge of French literature is Victor Hugo and assorted 20th century writers.

    I do like your position of naturalism as con-job.

  5. Wilde openly stole from the French Decadents. He gives a good taste of them. None of them are as funny as Wilde.

    I didn't go into it, but the Decadents are in part reacting against Hugo. They are decayed from the impossible grandeur that us Victor Hugo.

  6. Jarry is often funnier than Wilde. His collected short columns ("La Chandelle Verte") is remarkable for its comic invention.

    The Decadents, I suspect, sometimes wrote with their tongues in their cheeks. They often reacted not only against Hugo's grandeur, but his pompous earnestness, which could be a bit trying. As early as the 1830s, Gautier was mocking Romantic pretensions (including his own) in "Les Jeunes-France."

  7. Doug, it was sometimes tricky to guess the degree of sarcasm or irony in these stories. Or perhaps I mean the direction of the irony. The treatment of violence, for example, I think was always tongue-in-cheek. But I am sure I was often misled.

    For so many French writers, Hugo was something like a problem to be solved. He took up so much space.