Tag Archives: decadence

Oscar Wilde – “The Critic as Artist” (1891)

Another socratic dialogue, this time between Gilbert (the smart progressive one) and Ernest (the not so bright dullard). Gilbert argues for the relevance of criticism, claiming that there have been critical ages without creativity, but never a creative age without criticism; because criticism and self-consciousness are one. The critic’s relation to art is the same as that between the artist and the real world. We need both. Yet criticism does not need to be directed solely at an object. It’s purest form is subjective: directed at the self: it “seeks to reveal its own secret and not the secret of another” (1028). Thus criticism takes on its own aesthetic beauty as it unfurls its own opposition between subject and object. The Critic’s job is to see in the object what the object is not: the non-identical fragment is nothing other than inexpressible, non-signifying Beauty. (1030).

The second part deals with the relationship between aesthetic and ethics. Aesthetic is higher than ethics, because the latter is merely the precondition for the former. He draws an explicit connection to Darwin’s division between natural and sexual selection. Relate this to Mill. Thus the role of the critic is both ethical and aesthetic. Slightly revising Arnold (who says that criticism shapes the intellectual atmosphere of the age) Wilde argues that it also fine tunes one’s intellectual capacity. Criticism is the means by which “Humanity can become conscious of the point at which it has arrived” (1055). It makes us cosmopolitan, etc.


Oscar Wilde – “The Decay of Lying” (1891)

An essay on the relationship between art and nature, it is staged as a Socratic dialogue between the naive but curious Cyril and the dismissive, articulate, intelligent aesthete Vivian. Vivian believes that Art does not imitate Nature, but that Nature imitates Art:

Art is our spirited protest, our galant attempt to reach Nature her proper place. As for the infinite variety of nature, that is pure myth. It is not to be found in Nature herself. It resides in the imagination, or fancy, or cultivated blindness of the man who looks at her. (970)

He critiques the “realists” strain in modern literature (Zola, Eliot, everyone else) as being either non-art or a fasle romanticization of working class conditions. He therefore rejects what he calls “modernity of form” (976). He exclaims, “Certainly we are a degraded race, and have sold our birthright for a mess of facts” (977). His description of how Art incorporates nature is Adornian to the hilt:

Art begines with abstract decoration….Art [then] takes life as part of her rough material, recreates it, and refashions it in fresh forms, is absolutely indifferent to fact, invents, imagines, dreams, and keeps between herself and reality the impenetrable barrier of beautiful style…The third stage is when life gets the upperhand, and dries Art out into the wilderness. This is the true decadence, and it is from this that we are now suffering. (978)

This defense of beauty and of “decadence” more broadly can be related to Pater’s writings in Renaissance, as well as to, perhaps, Aurora Leigh’s stuff on life. Perhaps read Wilde as a response to that vitalist strain. At any rate, makes an interesting capstone text to a 19th century discussion of fact. Transitioning to the 20th-century, one could talk about “Ithaca” chapter in Joyce as yet another step, a fourth stage, in the play between nature and art.

This essay also has the reference to the “cracked lookingglass,” which Stephen will pick up in the beginning of Ulysses. Can connect to Sargasso Sea, perhaps, and to DeKoven’s work on mirrors and water.

The essay ends with four precepts:

  1. Art never expresses anything but itself
  2. All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature
  3. Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life
  4. Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of art

It’s curious that the form of the essay loses it dialogic character and becomes a treatise of sorts. 

Dante Gabriel Rossetti – The Blessed Damozel (1850)

The blessed Damozel leaned out
From the gold bar of heaven;
Her eyes were deeper than the depth
Of waters stilled at even;
She had three lilies in her hand,
And the stars in her were seven.

The opening stanza sets out many of the major tensions that will frame the rest of the poem: between heaven and earth, depth and surface, stasis and motion. One can think of the gold bar as having a reference to the gold standard that England had recently adopted in 1844–as a universal metric for literal exchange, it allows for the figural exchange between these various oppositions. Indeed, the painting “The Blessed Damozel’ has a gold bar running right through the middle of it, separating the flattened portrait of the lady (a face that according to Christina Rossetti was exchangeable with all of the other portraits in Dante’s studio because he only used one or two models) with the ostentatious depth of the “squashed” scene on the bottom.

144 lines in 24 six-inch stanzas. The striking symmetry of the poem itself rides the line between perfection and pure exchangeability. This is of course what Adorno has to say about the artwork as the ultimate or super-commodity–that which is universal and universally exchangeable.

Time: It seems to the Damozel that she has been in heaven for only a day, which is somehow the same as thousands of years. On earth, of course, time is felt.

The language is meant to be simple and natural, an application of pre-Raphaelite principles to poetry. it therefore verges on the sentimental.

In the final stanza, the speaker uses parentheses to insert his factual declaration of sensation: I saw her smile, I heard her tears. That this enters parenthetically points to subordination of these sensory aspects to a form that flattens sensation, impression, reflection, etc. Sensation would rupture the poetic contract that keeps the real and the aesthetic in two distinct realms.

Walter Pater – Marius the Epicurean (1885)

In lieu of a plot summary (which would amount to very little: Countryside, Flavian, Aurelius, Rome, Fire), some questions:

How is their a built-in poetics in a novel that consciously moves away from poetry to prose…as the form appropriate to late Rome (historically transitioning from Paganism to Christianity)?

The novel searches for the good in terms of particular generic aesthetics (porse, poetry, philosophy, etc..): so what exactly is the relation between poesis and ethos? And even though it’s about different genres, there is a question about the form of a novel that tries to hold all these genres together. For instance, what about plot? What about character? Can we think of the interiority of Marius, Aurelius, Cornelius, Flavian, etc.? Relate this to the larger question fo inside and outside…is there a counter-psychology at work that disallows the very production of the “novelistic?” Is this what it means to write a properly historical novel? Need to think about how the past and memory work together (the act of remembering doesn’t really enter the picture, but rather casts it homogenizing hue over the entirety of the novel: Greece, Rome, Shakespeare, Goethe: all exist within the same representational field. Perhaps relate this to Waverly’s “sixty years since” or Middlemarch’s “thirty years” or the practice of historical fiction-making in Scott’s Redgauntlet.

It is impossible to measure the distance between discoure and story. Contrast with Dorian Gray, which is plotless but turns into an adventure novel at the end. Marius does have a fire at the end but it doesn’t resolve much.

Talk about how narrative authority is established–the spatial or temporal distance that is necessary for taking up a narratorial position.

Is Culture synchronic (structural) or diachronic (historical). The answer is always something like structural-historical. Is infinity a synthesis of these positions?

Chapter 5 is about the golden book, the book of books. It plays a crucial role in Marius’ education–in short, “it awakened the poetic or romantic capacity…It made, in that visonary reception of every-day life, the seer, more especially, of a revelation in colour and form” (38). Relate this to the yellow book in Dorian Gray, and also to the golden water in Mill on the Floss, and the golden hair of Sydney Carton’s imaginary son.

Talk about the politics of pastoral: what does it mean to treat the Greeks like children. Discuss the difference between mode and genre. Pastoral mode in a novelistic genre?

How does Pater’s history of a historical transition tell the history of a contemporary transition? What happens when the ontological “perpetual flux” of elemental forces overflows: abolishing historical coordinates and the division between subject and object? And how can one form an ethical relationship to this flux? Does one join it, experience it, attempt to represent it? Can relate this Auror Leigh.