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Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 316
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    Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature
    Book Description:

    In this examination of the role of ornament in nineteenth-century French literature, Rae Beth Gordon shows that ornament, far from being a simple accessory, raises problems that are at the very heart of aesthetic experience: limits and their transgression, illusion and seduction, pleasure and tension, harmony and confusion, excess and marginality. After placing texts by Nerval, Gautier, Mallarm, Huysmans, and Rachilde within the context of the history and techniques of the decorative arts, she reveals in these works the powerful role played by decorative figurations of syntax, diction, and composition. Gordon's detailed textual analyses yield spatial parallels with specific ornamental configurations (interlace, arabesque, decorative frame, horror vacui, trompe l'oeil). These patterns are then studied in relation to a dynamics of desire. Ornament, taken as the site of desire and illuminated by the theories of Charcot, Clrambault, Freud, Winnicott, and Lacan, highlights important differences between romanticism, symbolism, and decadence. Not only does the author relate ornament to artistic representations of the sublime, the grotesque, and hysteria, but she also reveals that the function of ornament in literature anticipated psychiatric and aesthetic research on decorative form in the fin de sicle.

    Originally published in 1992.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6266-5
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xvii-2)
    (pp. 3-28)

    Virtually every definition of ornament connotes the inessential, the superfluous, or the superficial, the “merely” decorative. Ornament, as commonly understood, is an accessory designed simply to please and is therefore fundamentally without meaning, if not morally reprehensible.¹ If this book redefines ornament, it does so not in terms of a fixed definition, but rather within a circumscribed cultural moment and place: France from 1830 to 1900. I therefore began by looking at definitions and elaborations of the concept in the writings of aestheticians, and then proceeded to examine the use of ornamental language and the description of decorative objects in...


    • 1 The Enchanted Hand: Schlegel’s Arabesque in Nerval
      (pp. 31-54)

      In one of the dreamlike, visionary scenes in Gerard de Nerval’s Aurelia, the narrator wanders through an “unfinished structure” where he sees artisans modeling a monstrous animal animated by a fiery stream “[qui] se tordait, pénétré de mille filets pourprés … [et] se revêtait d’une végétation instantanée d’appendices fibreux” ([which] twisted about, penetrated by a thousand purple threads … [and] clothed with an instantaneous vegetation of fibrous appendages). This chef d’oeuvre seems to him to contain the secrets of divine creation. What is more, the artisans are shaping ornaments that are self-engendering: “Les ornements n’étaient ni martelés ni ciselés, mais...

    • 2 Lace as Textual Metaphor in Nerval’s Sylvie
      (pp. 55-77)

      Essays centered on the idea of self-reflexive writing began multiplying at about the same time as certain texts by Nerval were enjoying a remarkable rise in critical attention (Les Chimères, Aurélia, andSylvie). Nonetheless, the presence of a thematics of writing in the last two chapters ofSylviehas not encouraged many critics to linger on the self-reflexive aspect of the novella.¹ I propose thatSylviecontains a metaphor for its composition and mode of production—lace and lace making—and that, in the paradigm /lace = text/ words likeembroidery, tapestry, thread, braid, garland, handiwork, denouement,and so on,...

    • 3 Trills, Frills, and Decorative Frames for the Object of Desire
      (pp. 78-106)

      As the reader may recall from the Introduction, in mid-nineteenth-century France, decorative art, “more than all others,” was perceived as giving “free rein to fantasy and caprice” (Souriau,Suggestion, 94). Since ornament stimulates the Imaginary, it is only natural that one should often find it associated with desire. Thus, in nineteenth-century texts, one will find ornament playing an equally important role in the fantastic tale and in descriptions of the Object of desire.

      Ornament takes on a new symbolic dimension in attaching itself to the Object of desire as a material extension of the person. It becomes the metonymic representation...

    • 4 The Evil Eye: Ornamental Vision as the Sublime
      (pp. 107-144)

      In Gautier’sJettatura, the fundamentally ambiguous nature of ornament is radicalized: as pleasurable aesthetic contemplation—a feast for the eyes—and as dangerously seductive. This was already the case in Nerval’s “La Pandora,” but what makes the Gautier text more radical is both its focus on the problem of the gaze and the clarity with which it posits the opposition (or identity) of visual delectation and death. This couple is made evident, poised on the second page of the novella, in the quotation “Vedi Napoli e poi mori,” highlighted by its status as cliché, by the use of italics, and,...


    • 5 Trompe l’Oeil in the Poems of Mallarmé
      (pp. 147-175)

      Space in architecture, in design, in decoration, is interpreted as an environment that favors “the breaking up of volumes, the play of empty space, the sudden gaps, [and] the multiple planes, colliding, that break up/shatter light” (Focillon,Vie des formes, 38). Mallarmé’s poetic architecture is known to be structured by voids and by a complex play of reflections. Studied in the light of theories of the decorative arts, the above polarity is seen to have a directing force: ornament. It is ornament that is refracted in “multiple planes” that “shatter/refract the light.” “Multiple planes” in Mallarmé’s poetry may be conceived...

    • 6 Aboli Bibelot? Excess, Void, and Objectless Desire
      (pp. 176-200)

      Henri Mayeux, one of the most widely read aestheticians of the fin de siècle, ponders the meaning of a particular type of ornament, one we might relate to the obstinate gaze into the void I examined in the last chapter: “How many times does one not see, in architecture as well as in furniture, painting or bronzes, an assemblage of decorative accessories, an ornate frame bordered by figures, chimera … merely serve to valorize … an empty medallion” (Mayeux,Composition, 174) (fig. 5, top). One may say that ornament navigates, circulates around the void so that the void might have...

    • 7 Ornament and Hysteria: Huysmans and Rachilde
      (pp. 201-239)

      In the Introduction, I stressed the importance of Islamic art in the nineteenth century (beginning with the 1828 restoration of the Alhambra). We saw that the principles of this abstract, geometric art inspired and fascinated aestheticians, architects, and writers. Indeed, the purely abstract nature and the astounding complexity of Islamic art combined to suggest to these admirers the ideas of apparent chaos, hidden order, and especially infinity. InAbstraction and Empathy, Wilhelm Worringer contrasts the Greek aesthetic (as paradigm of the urge to empathy) with the aesthetics of primitive peoples and of Islam and the Far East, where abstraction expresses...

    (pp. 240-244)

    The qualities of ornament that I have brought out implicate the reader in the process of discovery of form, migrating (as Norman Bryson puts it) from the (writer’s) moment of founding perception to the moment of reception.¹ Each chapter in this book has evoked a new way in which the reader is propelled to re-create the ornamental structure of the text. One’s perception of the “total arabesque” or of the arrangement of the elements in the text is the moment when one seizes the textual means of production, the crafting of the text. That is why ornament is so often...

  10. Appendix
    (pp. 245-248)
  11. Notes
    (pp. 249-280)
  12. Index
    (pp. 281-288)