[NB] Symbols and Signs of Decline: Fin-de-siecle France

I’ve been thinking about the Symbolist and Decadent movements of the fin-de-siecle life more generally (which makes Gordon’s recent post timely in a sidelong way; this is the other side of France’s enshrining of Reason, the aesthetic Avignon). Obviously, there is more than a superficial resemblance between Europe on the cusp of the 20th century and the United States on the cusp of the 21st, but there is something else going on, too. Beneath the parallels in situation, there is an inheritance. We aren’t just ‘repeating’ the decline of fin-de-siecle Europe, in part because we are encountering it with the legacy of fin-de-siecle Europe available to us.

That legacy is mostly unconscious, to be found in the circulation of well-worn truisms, a sense for certain artistic styles, and a few social tropes. Still, that isn’t nothing, not by a long shot. That sort of thing can be activated, reactivated, deepened, by circumstance. It can inspire and motivate, even if the subtler distinctions and directions are unavailable.

This is also the matrix from which Spiritism emerges. When it travels across the waters, it arrives in the wake of this matrix. When we look at the twins of Umbanda and Quimbanda, we can see that their differences parallel those of  Balzac and Baudelaire. This isn’t to say that they are exactly derivative of Balzac and Baudelaire, but that they sit atop a common movement of spirit and life.

(In this vein, remember that modern France is born alongside the Haitian Revolution. Some of the fin-de-siecle forms are themselves elaborations of the gothic styles that develop in the face of the colonial experience. And that some of the aesthetic forms fo Haitian Vodou may be elaborations of French forms derived from Commedia dell’arte. And that these revolutions tie back to the American Revolution…Back and forth, back and forth, across the waters of history whose depths we cannot see.)

Okay, back to center. One could wander forever in this labyrinth.

It can be a little hard to pin down either Symbolism or Decadence so I’m going with some imperfect but workable definitions. Symbolist works sought to express esoteric, hidden truth through allusive imagery while Decadent works explored the purely aesthetic dimensions of artistic representation. We can distinguish, then, a Symbolist concern with meaning from a Decadent concern with affect.

Abstract differentiation aside, there was a lot of overlap between the two movements. After all, the truth to which the Symbolists referred couldn’t be directly spoken or explained, only pointed at, so it could be awfully hard to distinguish a strong affective reaction (as sought by Decadents) from a powerful encounter with truth (as sought by Symbolists). Moreover, as the Decadents explored novel forms to seek out new forms of affective presentation, Symbolists could follow after using those forms to elaborate their allusive, imagistic alphabet.

Often, it makes more sense to talk of Symbolist and Decadent modes, because the two ‘movements’ are often conjoined in the same person who varies in how they present themselves.

I’ve talked about Baudelaire before and he forms part of the fabric of this discussion, along with Walter Benjamin’s study of him. Benjamin’s insights into the role of global capitalism during this period provide us context. The arcades provide the artist with a repertoire of novel forms, drawn from the world over and stripped of their original context. The Decadent-Symbolist approach draws inspiration from this unmoored (or, as we might say, Ukiyo-e, floating) world and can be seen as an effort to (1) confront this world, (2) explore how it can be deliberately cultivated, and (3) study the implications of its existence for human experience.

This orients us, again, within the broader discussion about the trash heap world and its potentials for redemption, here defined by the confrontation and cooperation between meaning (Symbolism and its search for esoteric realities expressed by indirect signs) and affect (Decadence and its search for novel perceptual experiences embodied in novel artistic forms). Which puts us sidelong to issues of sympathy and contagion, metaphor and metonymy.

It also puts us face to face with the conjoining of Saturn and Venus, our own deathly ancestress who consumes all immortality. The Symbolist-Decadent work sings in praise or awe of a deathly force that conjoins luxury and decline.

This conjunction owes something to the commercial horizon because (1) the image of decline provides a rubric for understanding out-of-context artifacts as freed from the meaning given them by the living who used them, (2) the whole notion of objet d’art distinct from their cultural milieu raises the question of meaning’s separation from the image that expresses it, suggesting questions of life, death, and rebirth, and (3) captures the commercial context in which this becomes possible (i.e., luxury and commodity).

But there’s more to it than that. While we can talk about the metaphor of death as a useful way to think about the separation of meaning and object, the imagery that returns again and again through the Symbolist-Decadent frame is more potent and frequent than the metaphor alone merits. While we can think about it as a metonym for the decline of a society, for its dissolute favoring of foreign forms over native meaning, that, too, does not quite encompass it.

We can get a glimpse of that when we appreciate the images alongside which death appears. We find not just images of luxury and decay, but of demons and devils. Alongside death there is not just the peaceful settling to rest, but the threat of demonic rebellion.

Rebellion. Revolution. The idea of that haunts the Symbolist-Decadent frame, because its aesthetic and truth effects demand a form of tranquillity, a passive observer who even if they are horrified has the opportunity to reflect on and savor that horror or grief as a subjective experience. That frame depends upon a calm that the Symbolist-Decadents know is fragile (here Sartre’s observations about the false consciousness of the Third Republic comes into play, too). The world that delivers the arcades stocked with goods sits atop restless bloodshed.

In the figure of death, though, we find the end of that subjectivity, swallowed up first in a chaos from which it cannot distance itself, and then thrust into the dark silence of oblivion, its allusive truth revealed as the looking away from the harsh face of their situation, a careful myopia that watches the play of ripples and dark forms in the water, ignoring what will burst through the surface and overturn the boat in which they sit.

Then just the stars glittering on the scythe in the silence that follows. The engines of destiny and fate continue.

Thought ain’t even a bone; words and images are not nearly sharp enough to leave their marks in the soul that death gathers. They can at best guide the diamond tip which is to be found in the substance of our life:

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense;
To seize and clutch and penetrate,
expert beyond experience

He knew the anguish of the marrow
The ague of the skeleton;
No contact possible to flesh
Allayed the fever of the bone.

—T. S. Eliot, “Whispers of Immortality”

The sense of the operation lies not with the words, but with the ague.

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3 thoughts on “[NB] Symbols and Signs of Decline: Fin-de-siecle France

  1. Pingback: [NB] Myth and structuralism | Disrupt & Repair

  2. Pingback: [NB] Bland Insight | Disrupt & Repair

  3. Pingback: Scholarly Witchcraft | Disrupt & Repair

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