Posted on:Tuesday 29th December, 2020
During what has been the strangest of years, the R&V blog has proved a great silver lining on an otherwise dark bank of clouds. I initially expected that these blogs would be read only by a handful of people, and that the response to them would therefore be muted. So, it has been wonderful to see the number of readers increasing every month, with some blogs attracting well over 300 substantive readers, many of them accessing the content online or via social media. Even better have been the many heart-warming messages from R&V members thanking us for the blogs, and telling us what a difference they have made under lockdown. Given that we have now published well over 50 pieces, I thought that this was a good moment to formally thank our amazing contributors and to review some of the strong themes that have emerged…
As some of you will recall, the blog feed was launched by me in March with a piece about Proust and Twickenham, inspired by my own decision to read À la recherche du temps perdu under lockdown. I returned to the same theme in May in a blog piece about being disillusioned in the Bois de Boulogne. By then the Proust theme had also attracted superb pieces by Jennifer Rushworth about the fictional Vinteuil Sonata in the novel and David Perry about Proust’s servant Céleste Albaret. And in a piece which almost perfectly embodied the French idea of L'esprit de l'escalier Jennifer Rushworth contributed a second piece about the role of music in the narrator’s final farewell to his friend Saint-Loup. In the process I think that the articles have provided a salutary reminder of the central importance of Proust’s novel to our perceptions of the Decadent era.
Speaking of the Ur-texts of Decadence, Against the Grain by Huysmans also made an early appearance in my blog piece in April and has recurred as a subject and a reference throughout the year, showing that it has lost none of its interest as a defining text for the era and for the modern sensibility. In particular, we featured a wonderful piece by the distinguished translator Brendan King, about the importance of Huysmans’s work as an art critic and how it informed both his writing and public taste. In the same spirit we featured an escapade with Jessica Gossling into the strange occult ornamentals of the Welsh Decadent Arthur Machen.
Inevitably, we have also featured blogs about the art of translation itself, perhaps one of the most constant themes of the Decadence Movement both then and now. This has included an insightful interview by Valentina Gossetti with Rimbaud’s Italian translator, a fantastically inventive blog by the rhyming translator Tim Adès about translating the Rimbaud poem Voyelles, and a bright and wonderful piece by the distinguished poet Chris Beckett about translations of contemporary Amharic poetry, inspired by Rimbaud. And in early December Stefano Evangelista gave us a brilliant piece about Lafcadio Hearn and untranslatability.
Music has been an important theme of the blog feed right from the start. Apart from the Proust pieces mentioned above, we have featured fascinating pieces by the musicologist Caroline Potter about Erik Satie at the Montmartre club Le Chat Noir and about the much under-rated piano concerto of the female composer Germaine Tailleferre. And Richard Stokes has written about the famous setting of Verlaine poems by Fauré in La Bonne Chanson. More surprising perhaps was the obvious importance of Richard Wagner as the progenitor of the Decadence Movement. This seems to come from the fact that he was so much ahead of his time, with music being in the vanguard of a movement of ideas which was only properly manifested itself more generally in literature towards the latter end of the 19th century. At Easter I wrote a blog about Parsifal, followed by another piece about the staging of the opera. The same theme took us in one leap into Matthew Creasy’s blog about the Decadent artwork and design of Silverpoints by Charles Gray, which features a translation of Verlaine’s poem about Parsifal.
We have also discovered a rich theme in cinema. In Total Eclipse the scholar of cinema David Weir gave us timely reminder of the flawed 1995 Hollywood movie about Rimbaud and Verlaine starring Leonardo DiCaprio and David Thewlis. And the film critic Ian Christie’s extraordinary account of the role played by the poets in the self-discovery of the Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein was an absolute revelation. Some of my favourite blogs have explored the complex and fascinating connections between Rimbaud and Verlaine and sexual identity, including the circus choreographer Struan Leslie’s fascinating account of his own Queer aesthetic.
It seems to be a feature of the Decadence Movement that, the more you look at it the more widely it grows in all directions. For me some of the most interesting pieces have been about the amazing women whose stories are only now being celebrated as they should be. This has included superb pieces by Anne Jamieson about the convention-busting Lesbian couple and writing partnership known as Michael Field, Eleanor Keane about the astounding Renée Vivien, and Jane Desmarais about the tragically self-destructive Adela Maddison. Sometimes one subject has led naturally to another. Marie Daouda’s fascinating piece about the connections between Decadence and Catholic religiosity (the Anti-Salomé) seemed serendipitously connected with my colleague David Hunter’s earlier piece about the painter Henri Regnault, whose most famous painting is of a gold clad Salomé, and who died in the violence of the Paris Commune.
David Hunter has been one of the most talented and prolific contributors to the blog feed. Amongst other blogs he has contributed rich and thought-provoking pieces about the influential orientalist Judith Gautier, the postcard poems of the poet Mallarmé, a portrait of the poet Apollinaire in the trenches of the First World War, another of the mighty Victor Hugo in exile in the Channel Islands, an account of the French resistance poet Robert Desnos, and also one of the unfortunate poet Alfred Mérat, who became the butt of a famous joke played by Rimbaud and Verlaine. All of these great topics have circled in interesting ways around the lives and legacies of the two poets.
The blog has followed these threads further into topics such as the misery of absinthe with Joyce Glasser (the paradise of poets), artistic creativity with Hervé Constant, the startling prices paid for Rimbaud and Verlaine related artefacts at auction with Thomas Venning, and the final unpublished Rimbaud novel of the Northern Irish writer Brian Moore with Robert Smith. We have explored sense of place with Katherine Shingler in Rimbaud’s hometown of Charleville-Mézières. We have even explored contemporary Dandyism and Drag with Alice Condé, and the intellectual and fashionable debts owed to the Decadent Movement by these more recent eruptions of artistic self-expression, non-normative sexual identity, and style. Through all these pieces apparently 19th century cultural themes end up providing penetrating reflections on culture and society in the here and now.
A philosophically Decadent perspective has perhaps provided a useful prism through which to look at our strange and traumatic year. After all, De-cadence is all about a falling away into desuetude, and the confounding of our complacent notions of progress. My blogs have certainly provided a means for me to explore some very contemporary preoccupations, and to reflect on the role of the arts more generally as a contributor to a civilised society. These have included pieces about the role of the arts in ancient Athens (the arts paradigm), radicalisation (the Road to Tabor), selling out to those in power (A pact with the devil), how the arts should respond to a global pandemic (Courage in a time of plague), and the call for integrity (Philoctetes).
We have also indulged ourselves in two blogs about food, dining out with the Free French in Soho during the Second World War with Debra Kelly and enjoying some literary leftovers with Ruth Cruikshank. And we have taken time to celebrate some great individuals who have sadly died this year, including tributes to the poet Derek Mahon, by Robert Stilling, and to the musicologist Ornella Volta, by Caroline Potter.
Last, but not least, the poets Rimbaud and Verlaine have themselves been a constantly fertile sources for blogs. With Ryan Ruby we have explored synaesthesia in Rimbaud’s Omega, with Hugues Fontaine we have followed in his footsteps on journeys in Africa and he has followed me on my bicycle to County Cork. With Matthew Creasy we have gone to meet Verlaine with George Moore, and with Adam Feinstein we have observed him being rude to the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. And, with Matthew Creasy again, we have learned about Alex Zorn’s stunning sketch of Verlaine at the Hunterian museum in Glasgow. These two harlequin-like characters keep cropping up in the most unlikely of settings, spreading a creative and self-questioning chaos in their wake.
As at the time of writing there seems to be little prospect of these artesian wells drying up anytime soon. On the contrary, the success of the blog seems to be tapping into a flow of new ideas and encouraging new writers to contribute. Like everyone else I am hoping that the arrival of vaccines will allow a gradual return to a normal existence in 2021, including a return to ‘live’ literary events and to the concert hall. In the meantime, it has been an enormous pleasure to share such a lively stream of ideas and artistic content with you all through the health crisis.
May I take this opportunity to wish you every happiness and good fortune in the New Year!
Chief Executive of the Rimbaud and Verlaine Foundation