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Symbolism, Decadence And The Fin De Siecle: French and European Perspectives / Edition 1

Symbolism, Decadence And The Fin De Siecle: French and European Perspectives / Edition 1


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ISBN-13: 9780859896467
Publisher: University of Exeter Press
Publication date: 12/01/2000
Series: European Studies
Edition description: 1
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.50(w) x 9.45(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Patrick McGuinness is Fellow and Tutor in French at Jesus College, Oxford.

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Symbolism, Decadence and the Fin de Siècle

French and European Perspectives

By Patrick McGuinness

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2000 University of Exeter Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-646-7


Mallarmé and the 'siècle finissant'


FIN ... — [Dans des expr., souvent avec l'idée de déclin et d'élégance surannée, impliquant de la fragilité]

Fin(-)de(-)siècle. Dernière partie du siècle. Et quel coup, si (...) un maître [un peintre] se révélait, réalisant la formule avec l'audace de la force, sans ménagements, telle qu'il fallait la planter, solide et entière, pour qu'elle fût la vérité de cette fin de siècle!

[FIN ... — In expressions, often evoking decline or outmoded elegance, implying fragility

Fin(-)de(-)siècle. Last part of a century. And it really would be a revolution if a master [painter] appeared and put the theory into practice boldly and forcefully, without compromise, producing something solid, deeprooted and whole, to stand as the truth of this century's end!]

Zola, Oeuvre, 1886, p. 223

One obvious place to start, given the theme of the fin de siècle in Mallarmé to work on, is the dictionary. The result is puzzling. On the one hand, by putting the expression 'fin de siècle' in the subsection of the article 'fin' which deals with implications of decline, outmoded elegance, and fragility, the Trésor de la langue française clearly supposes that 'fin' in fin de siècle has precisely those connotations. On the other hand, in the quotation from Zola given to illustrate the use of the expression, those connotations are completely absent. Does this mean that the expression's connotations were not fixed at the time when Zola wrote? Or was he deliberately refusing them? I shall suggest an answer to this later. Meanwhile, what about Mallarmé? What would the phrase have meant to him? Is there any evidence that he believed in such a thing as the 'fin de siècle' as a symbolic or Symbolist moment of decline or decadence? I began my search for an answer to this last question by examining all the occurrences of the key words (or rather, of their French equivalents) in Divagations. I was encouraged in my choice of this method by having to hand the invaluable two-volume concordance to Divagations, prepared by a team in Tokyo and published in 1991.

This concordance gives no occurrences of 'symbolisme'; only one of 'décadence' ('décadence latine', in Plainte d'automne); and one of 'décadent' (to which we will return). But there are plenty of 'fin', 'finir', etc. and thirty-four occurrences of 'siècle'. As one goes through them, it becomes plain that Mallarmé believes he lives in a 'siècle finissant' which happens to coincide with a fundamental revolution, not only in literature, but also in the relationship between human thought in general and the material world. But is this revolution a decadence? Or is it rather, as in the Zola quotation that serves as epigraph to this essay, rather a splendid triumph of the new? Let us try to define it before proceeding further.

The most obvious symptom of this revolution is the 'crise de vers', the crisis of French verse in the literary-historical sense: the fact that there is no longer a tenable technical definition of what constitutes poetry. Its clearest symptom is the emergence of a modern kind of free verse best qualified, according to Mallarmé, by the adjective 'polymorphe': it is not just free, its freedom is indefinable. The official canonical verse forms still exist, but each poet now claims the right to create his own instrument. This freedom has never been known before; it is occuring now in France, he says, 'pour la première fois, au cours de l'histoire littéraire d'aucun peuple'3 ['for the first time in the literary history of any people']. A major, indeed a millenarist, claim. (Incidentally, there are no occurrences in Divagations of 'millénaire' or its cognates.)

But Mallarmé goes on to suggest that this new freedom is really only a symptom of a wider change. 'Au traitement, si intéressant, par la versification subi, de repos et d'interrègne, gît, moins que dans nos circonstances mentales vierges, la crise'4 ['Less in the treatment, so interesting, undergone by versification, as in repose or interregnum, than in our virgin mental state, lies the crisis']. And what are these 'circonstances mentales vierges'?

Décadente [this is the one occurrence of that word], Mystique, les Ecoles se déclarant ou étiquetées en hâte par notre presse d'information, adoptent, comme rencontre, le point d'un Idéalisme qui (pareillement aux fugues, aux sonates) refuse les matériaux naturels et, comme brutale, une pensée exacte les ordonnant; pour ne garder de rien que la suggestion.

[Decadent, Mystic, these Schools proclaiming themselves or hastily labeled by the press, meet at the point of an Idealism which (like fugues, like sonatas) refuses natural materials and, as brutal, precise thought ordering them: retaining from all nothing but suggestion.]

Too often this passage is read as if only the last word of it mattered. I prefer to concentrate on 'Idéalisme', defined by analogy with wordless music ('like fugues, like sonatas'). This musical analogy, of course, serves to point to the dissolution or devaluation of reference characteristic of the poetry of these schools (music being seen as the abstract art, the art which does not refer); this dissolution of reference is a stablemate of the dissolution of the rules of poetry which I have mentioned, and also, as we shall see, of the dissolution of religious faith. But the point I want to make here is that these dissolutions, in Mallarmé's theory, never lead to a simple sense of decline or of decadence. He does not see them as a loss. He sees them rather as a unique and exciting opportunity. For when 'natural materials', poetic props and religion are taken away, what is left is not nothing, but, precisely, a new and more truthful Idealism.

And what is the ideal of this idealism? I shall briefly follow in the footsteps of Bertrand Marchal and approach this question via an analysis of Mallarmé's views on the evolution of religion. In one sense, his opinion of Christianity is simple: it is dead, because God is dead. But although it is dead, we can make good use, if we are careful, of the space it used to occupy. So, as Mallarmé says in Catholicisme, we should not simply let Catholicism go:

Tout au moins, pareil effacement sans que la volonté du début, après les temps, appelât, intimement comme elle frappe une solitude, l'esprit à résumer la sombre merveille —

Lequel préfère, en dédain des synthèses, égarer une recherche — vide s'il ne convient que l'ahurie, la banale et vaste place publique cède, aussi, à des injonctions de salut. Les plus directes peut-être ayant visité l'inconscience, les plus élémentaires: sommairement il s'agit, la Divinité, qui jamais n'est que Soi, où montèrent avec l'ignorance du secret précieuse pour en mesurer l'arc, des élans abattus de prières – au ras, de la reprendre, en tant que point de départ, humbles fondations de la cité, foi en chacun.

[At the very least, such an effacement without the original ambition, after an epoch, calling, intimately as it strikes solitude, the spirit to sum up the dark marvel —

Which spirit prefers, disdaining synthesis, to stray in search — an empty search unless it allows that the dazed, vast and banal public arena is also vulnerable to injunctions towards salvation. The most direct ones perhaps ever to have visited the unconscious, the most elementary: in sum, the Divinity, which is never other than Oneself, towards which rose with that ignorance of the secret precious for allowing us to take the measure of the parabola described, prayers rising then falling back — the task is to take it up again, but from the beginning, as a starting point, humble foundations of the city, faith in each one.]

A rich passage ... I would like to begin my reading of it at the start of the last sentence. The kind of injunctions to be found today are different in nature from those of earlier generations: 'les plus directes peut-être ayant visité l'inconscience, les plus élémentaires'. No longer do we believe in the elaborate myths of past ages: we have reached the bare and elementary bedrock. But at the same time, the 'place publique', the public of the modern democratic state, has lost the ability to think consciously about those 'injonctions de salut'. It was easy to think about them when they were incarnated in the narrative mythical world of religion; but now that they have been stripped of their visible or narrative manifestations, they seem unable to emerge from their home in the unconscious. (Mallarmé's use of the word 'inconscience' is delighfully pre-Freudian, as are many aspects of his analysis of the bedrock of humanity.) The result, and it is visible in all Mallarmé's writing on the state of literature in contemporary society, is a bizarre dichotomy. On the one hand, his fin de siècle is the first period in history in which it is possible to think about the true nature of poetry, and to see how universally relevant it is. On the other hand, the vast majority of his contemporaries, having lost their religious faith, have lost with it their ability to think consciously about the ideal. No generally accessible medium has developed which could replace the Church as a site where the average Frenchman can feel himself in contact with the Absolute. The fin de siècle is thus a time of unique intellectual excitement and promise, but of social difficulty for the poet. Indeed, the subject of Mallarmé's great series of essays Variations sur un sujet, of which Catholicisme was originally one, is precisely this question of how art, with its new awareness of its true nature, can gain a position in society although it has lost the ability to pretend to tell the truth narratively, by concrete reference.

But let us return to our quotation. 'Sommairement il s'agit, la Divinité, qui jamais n'est que Soi, où montèrent avec l'ignorance du secret précieuse pour en mesurer l'arc, des élans abattus de prières – au ras, de la reprendre, en tant que point de départ, humbles fondations de la cité, foi en chacun' ['in sum, the Divinity, which is never other than Oneself, towards which rose with that ignorance of the secret precious for allowing us to take the measure of the parabola described, prayers rising then falling back – the task is to take it up again, but from the beginning, as a starting point, humble foundations of the city, faith in each one']. If, following the now generally recognized method for rendering Mallarmé's prose comprehensible, one wished to separate out this sentence into a main clause or central proposition, plus a number of 'incises' or parentheses, one would have to suppose that the main clause is: 'Il s'agit de reprendre la Divinité, ... en tant que point de départ' ['the task is to take up the Divinity, ... as starting point']. However, one should note the effect, not only of the 'incises' that interrupt this statement, but also of the inversion that places 'la Divinité' so far in front of the verb 'reprendre'. The point made by this convoluted and imbricated syntax is that the action of 'reprendre la Divinité' cannot take place until we have carefully redefined 'Divinité' — as, in the first place, originating in the human self ('qui jamais n'est que Soi'). The interference of the redefinition of Divinity with the readability of the sentence is symptomatic of the difficulty of the new idealism. In the new literature, words cannot be allowed to get away with referring simply to what they have always referred to. They need to be stopped and taken back to first principles. Stopping them has stylistic consequences which are only too plainly connected with the difficulty that the average reader has with modern poetry. Unfortunately for the average reader, that's his problem. A modern poet simply has to go back to those disturbing first principles.

Tout s'interrompt, effectif, dans l'histoire, peu de transfusion: ou le rapport consiste en ceci que les deux états auront existé, séparément, pour une confrontation par l'esprit. L'éternel, ce qui le parut, ne rajeunit, enfonce aux cavernes et se tasse: ni rien, dorénavant, neuf, ne naîtra que de source.

[All, in history, effective, ends interrupted, transfusion is rare: or, the link consists herein that the two states will have existed, separately, for the purpose of their confrontation in spirit. The eternal, that which seemed so, does not recover its youth, sinks into caverns and settles: nor will anything, henceforth, new, arise except from the wellspring.]

That wellspring, as we have already seen, is 'la Divinité, qui jamais n'est que Soi'; Oneself as the absolutely and therefore impersonally human, the modern form of the divinity. One can always, of course, refuse this truth, and cling to one's 'precious ignorance'. Mallarmé even suggests, as Flaubert and Zola do, that it is easier to find an 'élan' towards the ideal if one maintains the religious fiction that divinity exists outside man. But he clearly thinks the poet of his time has a task at once more difficult and more noble: to achieve a new kind of élan, starting, not from the lie of religion, but from the 'humble foundations of the city, faith in each one'.

To summarize our findings so far: Mallarmé sees a unique revolution in ideas and in art going on around him, a revolution that he entirely identifies with and approves of in intellectual terms. However, in practical terms, its relationship with contemporary society remains difficult, and is characterized by incomprehension. One of Mallarmé's main concerns in Divagations is to examine how and why society is blind to this revolution, what can be done about it, and what an ideal future might look like — in other words, how society can be brought to appreciate the new and more truthful art of the future.

It is time to return to my concordance, and to the question: to what extent did Mallarmé connect this bogged-down revolution with the fin de siècle? After all, given his well-known fondness for analogy, one might have expected him to take advantage of the coincidence between the calendar and the evolution of his art. But in fact, he never really does. The passage in which he comes closest to it is this:

La littérature ici subit une exquise crise, fondamentale.

Qui accorde à cette fonction une place ou la première, reconnaît, là, le fait d'actualité: on assiste, comme finale d'un siècle, pas ainsi que ce fut dans le dernier, à des bouleversements; mais, hors de la place publique, à une inquiétude du voile dans le temple avec des plis significatifs et un peu sa déchirure.

[Literature here undergoes a crisis exquisite, fundamental.

He who gives this function its place or the first, will recognize, therein, the new development: we are witness, as the finale to the century, not as in the last, to turmoil; but, outwith the public arena, to a worried agitation of the veil in the temple with significant folds and a suggestion of tearing.]

The evocation of the 'finale d'un siècle' (so near to and yet so far from the expression 'fin de siècle') is carefully contextualized not as an evocation of decadence, but as an invitation to compare and contrast the end of the nineteenth century with the end of the eighteenth, in other words, social revolution with poetic revolution. We have seen, I think, why Mallarmé should want to evoke such a contrast: he is constantly concerned with the relationship between the new revolution and the public sphere it has so far failed to reach. And the meaning of the veil should be starting to emerge, too. The tearing of the veil is synonymous with revelation, not decadence. The biblical reference is clearly to the revelation of Christ, at the critical moment of which the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; the new revelation, as yet incomplete, but already tweaking the veil, is that of humanity as the new divinity. After the non-human Jewish God came the Christian Trinity uniting God and man; after the Christian Trinity comes the Mallarméan divinity which is in man alone.


Excerpted from Symbolism, Decadence and the Fin de Siècle by Patrick McGuinness. Copyright © 2000 University of Exeter Press. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Table of Contents

Part 1: Mallarme and the "siecle finissant", Peter Dayan disinterested Narcissus - the play of politics in decadent form, Jennifer Birkett experiment in women's writing in the "fin de siecle", Alison Finch the poetry of symbolism and decadence, Clive Scott the difficult distance - Mallarme and the symbolist stage, Michael Holland the kinaesthetics of chance - Mallarme's "Un Coup de des" and avant-garde choreography, Dee Reynolds
Villiers, Verne, Lumiere - the business of immortality, Ian Christie text and image, allegory and symbol in Gustave Moreau's "Jupiter et Semele", Peter Cooke between medicine and hermeticism - "the" unconscious in the "fin de siecle". Part 2: primitivism, celticism and morbidity in the Atlantic "fin de siecle", Scott Ashley
Belgian symbolism and the question of Belgian literary identity, Patrick Laude temporary aesthetes - decadence and symbolism in Germany and Austria, Robert Vilain the war of the wor(l)ds - symbolist decadent literature and discourses of power in finisecular Spain, Richard A. Cardwell
French symbolism and Italian poetry, 1880-1920, Shirley W. Winall from Mallarme to Pound - the "Franco-Anglo-American" axis, Patrick McGuinness.

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