The Decadent Republic of Letters

The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley

Matthew Potolsky
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    The Decadent Republic of Letters
    Book Description:

    While scholars have long associated the group of nineteenth-century French and English writers and artists known as the decadents with alienation, escapism, and withdrawal from the social and political world, Matthew Potolsky offers an alternative reading of the movement. In The Decadent Republic of Letters, he treats the decadents as fundamentally international, defined by a radically cosmopolitan ideal of literary sociability rather than an inward turn toward private aesthetics and exotic sensation. The Decadent Republic of Letters looks at the way Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Algernon Charles Swinburne used the language of classical republican political theory to define beauty as a form of civic virtue. The libertines, an international underground united by subversive erudition, gave decadents a model of countercultural affiliation and a vocabulary for criticizing national canon formation and the increasing state control of education. Decadent figures such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, Aubrey Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde envisioned communities formed through the circulation of art. Decadents lavishly praised their counterparts from other traditions, translated and imitated their works, and imagined the possibility of new associations forged through shared tastes and texts. Defined by artistic values rather than language, geography, or ethnic identity, these groups anticipated forms of attachment that are now familiar in youth countercultures and on social networking sites. Bold and sophisticated, The Decadent Republic of Letters unearths a pervasive decadent critique of nineteenth-century notions of political community and reveals the collective effort by the major figures of the movement to find alternatives to liberalism and nationalism.

    eISBN: 978-0-8122-0733-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[viii])
  3. INTRODUCTION. “Workers of the Final Hour”
    (pp. 1-19)

    With surprisingly few exceptions, the history of the decadent movement has been told from the perspective of a single national tradition—with due acknowledgment of the French (most often), English, American, or German origin of this or that key figure or contributing intellectual thread. Written as part of a growing interest among scholars in cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and cross-Channel and transatlantic connections, The Decadent Republic of Letters regards decadence as fundamentally international in origin and orientation. The various names artists and critics have applied to fin-de-siècle literary movements tend to be identified with a single national tradition. Aestheticism was largely a...

  4. CHAPTER 1 “Partisans Inconnus”: Aesthetic Community and the Public Good in Baudelaire
    (pp. 20-44)

    Several months after the December 1851 coup d’état that launched Louis Napoleon into power and replaced the unstable French Second Republic with the veritable police state of the Second Empire, Baudelaire wrote in a letter to his trustee Narcisse Ancelle that recent events had left him “physically depoliticized [dépolitiqué].”¹ The Bonapartist coup has long been regarded as a crucial turning point in Baudelaire’s political development. In the years leading up to the Revolutions of 1848, Baudelaire was an enthusiastic partisan of socialist and republican political theorists such as Charles Fourier, Auguste Blanqui, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. He participated actively in the...

  5. CHAPTER 2 The Politics of Appreciation: Gautier and Swinburne on Baudelaire
    (pp. 45-69)

    In the introduction to his section on the decadents and aesthetes in Degeneration, Max Nordau offers a suggestive analogy for Baudelaire’s influence over later writers in the decadent movement. “As on the death of Alexander the Great,” he writes, “his generals fell on the conqueror’s empire, and each one seized a portion of land, so did the imitators that Baudelaire numbered among his contemporaries and the generation following—many even without waiting for his madness and death—take possession of some one of his peculiarities for literary exploitation.”¹ With his typical blend of blindness and surprising insight, Nordau here identifies...

  6. CHAPTER 3 Golden Books: Pater, Huysmans, and Decadent Canonization
    (pp. 70-102)

    Just prior to the famous passage in which he dreams of retreating to a “desert hermitage” set apart from the banalities of modern society, Des Esseintes fulminates about two problems: “He was constantly coming across some new source of offence, wincing at the patriotic or political twaddle [balivernes patriotiques et sociales] served up in the papers every morning, and exaggerating the importance of the triumphs which an omnipotent public reserves at all times and in all circumstances for works written without thought or style.”¹ Patriotism and poor literary judgment might seem to be distinct concerns, but the two offenses are...

  7. CHAPTER 4 A Mirror for Teachers: Decadent Pedagogy and Public Education
    (pp. 103-130)

    I argued in the last chapter that decadent writers after 1870 make collecting and canon building a means of critiquing the rising tide of nationalism that followed in the wake of German unification. Manifestly artificial, and selected according to the perverse tastes of the collector, decadent collections oppose the putatively organic traditions represented by the canon of national classics, foregrounding the ideological alchemy that transforms a mere list of books into a reflection of the “national character.” Working against the imagined community of the nation, decadent collectors and canon builders address a sympathetic community of outsiders united by their devotion...

  8. CHAPTER 5 A Republic of (Nothing but) Letters: Some Versions of Decadent Community
    (pp. 131-163)

    I noted at the beginning of Chapter 3 that Des Esseintes leaves Paris for the isolated “ark” he creates in the countryside out of an acute disenchantment with contemporary communities. The last of his line, he lacks a family, feels no connection with his old friends, can no longer accept the teachings of the church, and regards nationalism with unmitigated disdain. But this does not mean he gives up entirely on the possibility of sympathetic communication with others. Indeed, he shares with the patriots he despises a sense that reading and writing are tied to the formation of communities. The...

  9. POSTSCRIPT. Public Works: Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire”
    (pp. 164-174)

    In 1892, Stéphane Mallarmé helped organize a committee to raise money for a monument in memory of Baudelaire. The committee tapped Auguste Rodin to design the monument, but he never completed the commission (the monument was not erected until 1902, several years after Mallarmé’s death; it was designed by a young sculptor named José de Charmoy). Although Mallarmé yielded the lead role on the commission to the older poet Leconte de Lisle, he was instrumental in crafting another monument for Baudelaire: the January 1895 issue of the Parisian literary journal La Plume. The issue included original poems about Baudelaire, critical...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 175-204)
    (pp. 205-224)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 225-230)
    (pp. 231-232)