Decadence, Degeneration, and the End: Studies in the European Fin de Siècle
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Art and literature during the European fin-de-siècle period often manifested themes of degeneration and decay, both of bodies and civilizations, as well as illness, bizarre sexuality, and general morbidity. This collection explores these topics in relation to artists and writers as diverse as Oscar Wilde, August Strindberg, and Aubrey Beardsley.
61. For Baudelaire’s notion of “zoocracy,” see C. Baudelaire (1981) “Edgar Allen Poe, His Life and Works,” in Selected Writings on Art & Artists, trans. P. E. Charvet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), pp. 162–87, here 164. For Rodó’s citation of Morice, and Morice’s views on the mediocrity of the masses, see C. Morice (1889) La literature de tout à l’heure (Paris: Perrin), p. 2. H. Taine (1965) History of English Literature, trans. H. Van Laun (New York: Ungar), p. 18. Taine and
the poet Karl Wolfskehl. The two men often refer to Cavafy and George, ascribing to their poetry common characteristics of the Gnostic theories. Nevertheless, a comparison between Cavafy and George from this perspective would be “hardly useful” for the history of literature, as Chryssoula Campas has remarked; see C. Campas (2010) “Athen und Ägypten. Helmut von den Steinen, Übersetzer von Kavafis,” in C. Campas and M. Mitsou (eds.) Hellas Verstehen. Deutsch Griechischer Kulturtransfer im 20.
were tied behind him with a knotted cord, and whose breast was stabbed with many red wounds” (YK 60). The image may well have been inspired by Guido Reni’s painting of Saint Sebastian, one of Wilde’s favorites.37 The use of Aestheticism mitigates the actual meaning of the depiction, which is that a man was savagely killed for having loved a woman above his rank; and yet, as in the baroque painting, in which the somewhat indolent pose of Reni’s Saint Sebastian tones down the atrocity of the
(delicate) face like a porcelain statuette. The woman he becomes infatuated with is described as his contrary in both physical and psychic respects. She is strong, and her hard form and gray eyes indicate strong sexuality with their “dim glow”; her whole being exudes the spirit of lust. He finds himself engaged to the woman, but his increasing anxiety cannibalizes his passion until he finally escapes the abject relationship before the marriage takes place. The seemingly limited focus on sexual
reversion, defining biological degeneration as a specifically pathological variation from the norm. Two years prior to Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Morel had published his Traité des dégénérescences physiques, intellectuelles et morales de l’espèce humaine et des causes qui produisent ces variétés maladives (Treatise on Physical, Intellectual and Moral Degeneration of the Human Species), in which he described degeneracy as a “pathological deviation from the primitive or normal type of