Posted on:Tuesday 25th August, 2020
Decadence remains a sort of blind spot in literary history. It inherits the themes of decay and fatal heredity from naturalism whilst nurturing a care for style and a sense of abstraction akin to symbolism.
It is neither a movement nor a school; it is rather a state of mind that can be retrieved under different shapes in French writing in the mid-1880s to 1900, in the aftermath of catastrophic defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, but that can also be seen as stretching right through from the 1850s to the 1920s. It is hard to imagine a closer fusion between a character and an artistic era than that between Salomé and the Belle Epoque. The biblical tale of the young girl dancing in front of the old king and asking, as a reward, for John the Baptist’s head under the impulse of her mother, was of course present in earlier times; yet by the 1890s, Salomé was more than a fashionable topic. She became the stereotype of the femme fatale, undergoing many different and at times contradictory metamorphoses. Whether lustful or chaste, dumb or erudite, seductive or indifferent, the indirect murderer of John the Baptist could be any woman able to make a man lose his head. On a more symbolical and poetical level, to many writers and painters, the dancer represented the inevitable entropy of the time, the gradual loss of sense and purpose and the collapse of structured, life-giving speech. However, Decadent era writers also created breath-taking figures of female benevolence.
My forthcoming book, L’Anti-Salomé, représentations de la féminité bienveillante au temps de la Décadence (1850-1910), is at the crossroads between a personal reading of the fin-de-siècle as made visible through its female characters and an academic approach aiming to bring back to light writers who have been overlooked by the canon but who were influential in their own day. I fell into nineteenth-century literature as a teenager, sliding from Baudelaire to his heirs. I preferred Jean Lorrain to Huysmans, Marcel Schwob to Maupassant, Barbey d’Aurevilly to Zola, yet all of these writers were travel companions into adulthood. One thing captivated me: although most of them would be remembered for their depictions of deadly women, they also created breath-taking figures of benevolence. By focusing solely on deadly women, whether to present them as the incarnation of evil or to make them the new norm of liberated womanhood, the thematic approach to the fin-de-siècle as applied by Mario Praz in La Carne, la more e il diabolo (1930) and by Mireille Dottin-Orsini in Cette femme qu’ils disent fatale (1993) leads to overlooking the complexities of fin-de-siècle axiology (value and valuation).
One of the delightful aspects of the fin-de-siècle is its permanent crossing of references and self-reference. When Verlaine writes – ‘et je suis décadent’, he refers to the 1890s as much as to the decline and fall of the Roman empire. As the philosopher Vladimir Jankélévitch would note, the fin-de-siècle state of mind is decadent insofar as it keeps contemplating itself. This dissociation is, somehow, the starting point of a division, a corruption of the classical unity of being and will. If des Esseintes (in Huysman’s Au Rebours) and le duc de Fréneuse (in Jean Lorrain’s Monsieur de Phocas) are haunted by the artist Gustave Moreau’s Salomé, it is because she makes visible the division they perceive within themselves. The fin-de-siècle is too conscious of itself, and the poignant, frenetic outbursts of des Esseintes or Fréneuse are only understandable when taken with a pinch of salt. Sarcastic as Decadence may be about itself, its representations of femininity can testify to the unexpected permanence of an ideal — a female-shaped ideal.
The main figures of the fin de siècle have been seen as scandalous, at times in a very fashionable way, because they intertwine horror and beauty, sacrilege and devotion, elegance and coarseness. Nowadays, many of these writers run the risk of being ‘cancelled’ in the reshaping of the canon because by modern standards, they are unbearably misogynistic. Discovering this judgment on writers I cared for led me to identify the instances in which this alleged misogyny is obviously based on a misreading.
L’Anti-Salomé introduces the reader to feminine figures who, albeit present to the fin-de-siècle mind, have been overshadowed by Salomé. The opposition between the dancer whose obedience to her mother causes the death of the logos and the Virgin whose obedience to God the Father cooperates in the incarnation of the Word seems clear. The Virgin Mary would seem to be the obvious anti-Salomé. In the United Kingdom, Saint John Henry Newman and Marie Corelli both see in Mary of Nazareth an example of accomplished benevolent womanhood. Following the Catholic tradition, Mary is indeed the one who restores what has been lost through Eve. However, this exemplary status does not come without its own complexities. If Mary gives birth to God, she also partakes in his death on the Cross. The Mater Dolorosa as seen by Catulle Mendès or Jean Lorrain is far from being univocal. In their rewritings of the Pietà, both writers would make the mother expiate her pride — even the pride of her motherly love — by attending, and even causing, the death of her child. Far from being sacrilegious, this humanisation of the Virgin sheds light on the interweaving of life and death in the crucifixion story.
To Zola, the Holy Virgin bears an unexpected seductiveness. She lures Serge Mouret into what vitalism perceives as a morally decadent mystical eroticism, something that he opposes to the healthy impulse of Albine, the ‘new Eve’ who says, echoing the serpent in the garden, ‘Nous ne mourrons pas’ (‘We shall not die’). Zola’s benevolent heroines, chiefly Marie in Paris, are actually heavily indebted to the Marian ideal, uprooted and planted in a more secular soil. Zola’s view of femininity is entirely part of his political programme, and its social eschatology, aiming towards progress, is indebted to the same religious motive of ‘recreating Eve through Mary’. This fantasy of recreating the original woman is pervasive in late nineteenth-century imagination, as can be seen in the character of Ayesha in Rider-Haggard’s She. Ayesha is a primeval Eve converted to benevolence through love. Her death confirms the suspicion around carnal femininity, not only bound to death, but giving birth to death at the same time as it gives life. It is not Eve but Lilith who ends up representing incorruptibility. Tapping into Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings and poetry, Marie Corelli and Marcel Schwob both elaborate on the fancy that the first wife of Adam was not drawn from man’s flesh but from pure spirit. However, as George Macdonald’s Lilith, a Romance shows, both Eve and Lilith — and for that matter Adam too — need to undergo a form of purifying chastisement. The fin-de-siècle interest in sexual queerness makes much more sense when read in the perspective of this obsession with an original or eschatological state of purity. Far from being limited to a sense of debauchery, homosexuality is presented by Renée Vivien, Luis d’Herdy and Liane de Pougy as a way out of carnal procreation and its irremediably fatal outcome.
Erroneously labelled as secular or even anti-religious, the fin-de-siècle spirit actually expresses itself in extremely Catholic words. That an individual may vicariously suffer for the salvation of others pervades the antique novels of Jean Bertheroy as well as Georges Rodenbach’s Musée de Béguines and Le Bon amour. It is as though the Baudelairean heritage could not be severed from the influence of Joseph de Maistre (the counter-Enlightenment philosopher). Self-sacrifice and penance become the touch stone to identify characters whose actions can become edifying, that is to say, who can be influential in the creation of a reformed polis or in establishing a precedent of benevolence. In the way they are perceived by the fin de siècle, Joan of Arc and Mary Magdalene have a lot in common. Both are, somehow, too complex to be imitated; yet both are admirable. After the defeat of 1870, both Huysmans and Léon Bloy depict Joan of Arc as a ‘monster of sainthood’, a figure too complex to fit into the sanctoral cycle (the usual liturgical calendar) and yet crucial to the edification of France. As for Mary Magdalene, she allows the fin de siècle to overturn the stereotypes of hysteria. For René Emery, she embodies the revolt of the oppressed and the social salvation through Christ’s message of justice and mercy. On a more poetical level, Marcel Schwob gives Monelle a cohort of sisters — among whom is Dostoyevsky’s Sonya — whose vocation is to give the poet-as-prophet a word of comfort before they disappear in the dark. It is through Monelle that the narrator receives a new poetic art. The muse simultaneously inherits orphic and Christian traits, becoming the junction point between life and death.
Who, then, would the anti-Salomé be?
None of the female figures discussed above could be understandable without the dark lines around which the fin-de-siècle sense of reversibility is built. It might seem that Decadence writes and paints a lot about women. Yet, it is chiefly writing about itself. There is nothing misogynistic in representing a lost ideal in the shape of a loving, longed-for woman. L’Anti-Salomé wishes to show that self-sacrifice is the last heroic trait Decadence clings to, and saves, by transferring it from the failed male hero to the potentially redemptive female intercessor. Ultimately, the anti-Salomé could be any of the passing figures meant to accompany the dying and the dead through the anguish of human finitude.
Marie Daouda is a Stipendiary Lecturer in French at Oriel College, Oxford. Previously she studied French and English literature at La Sorbonne in Paris and at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale. Her book, L'Anti-Salomé, représentations de la féminité bienveillante au temps de la Décadence (1850-1920) is being published shortly in a French edition.