restricted access Decadence and the Making of Modernism, and: The Ghosts of Modernity (review)
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Reviewed by
David Weir. Decadence and the Making of Modernism. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1996. xxii + 232 pp.
Jean-Michel Rabaté. The Ghosts of Modernity. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996. xxii + 258 pp.

Stemming from different, if not divergent, critical and rhetorical traditions, elaborated independently and drawing on their own materials, Decadence and the Making of Modernism and The Ghosts of Modernity ultimately pursue the same goal: bo th set out to redefine the modern epoch and its aesthetic. But it is not merely the identical focus that renders the two projects comparable, aware as we should remain of the distinction between modernism, a rather recently articulated aesthetic notion, a nd modernity, a literary-philosophical period spanning several centuries. It strikes me that Weir and Rabaté alike attempt to reconstruct modernism and modernity respectively against a cultural backdrop also sharing certain emblematic features. And it would be fitting to reunite these features, I think, under the overarching trope of the haunting past. Interestingly, both critics scrutinize the modern response to a “spectral” history: a history that roams the decaying present, ironically pointing a t its “belatedness,” artificiality, and mimetic obedience to a cultural memory such a present cannot but recapitulate, much though it struggles to “forget” and make everything “new.”

Decadence and the Making of Modernism, to begin with, rereads certain “touchstone” novels of the second half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth to retrace “the emergence of modernity through different varieties of nine teenth-century decadence.” Simply put, Weir aims at laying bare the “debt” the modern novel owes to decadence. And I must say that the minute analyses of “touchstone” French, Italian, British, and American fictional works following [End Page 501] an introductory chapter on “The Definition of Decadence” do support Weir’s central thesis. According to it, “decadence was as crucial to the development of the modern novel as symbolism (a movement parallel to decadence and sometimes in competition with i t) was to the development of modern poetry.” A “common denominator” of an otherwise puzzling multitude of late nineteenth-century fictional practices, decadence comes off in Weir’s interpretation less as a period—the usual take on the phenomenon—and mor e as a “dynamics of transition” from romanticism to modernism and, as such, “crucial to the development of the modern novel.”

Concentrating on this dynamics in its first part, Weir’s book sheds light on the reformation of the inherited “aesthetic codes” effected by Flaubert, the Goncourts, Pater, Huysmans, D’Annunzio, Wilde, and George Moore. What deserves special credit in thes e initial five chapters is the critic’s constant effort to ground his conclusions in careful stylistic analyses, which, it seems to me, follow in the prestigious tradition of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (which Weir quotes). Discussing Salamm bô, Weir points out the ways the spatial elements’ dominance over the temporal and the related expansion of the descriptive undercut description’s traditionally mimetic function. Granted, Salammbô’s “decadence” primarily shows throu gh in the novel’s subject matter, to wit, in its dwelling on a “decadent” moment of ancient history, which mobilizes allusions to Flaubert’s France. The “excessive” obsession with style, the critic insists, is nonetheless equally determinant. A “pure spec tacle of style,” the text develops a “system of language” while displacing the stock conventions by which realistic fiction achieves “a sense of vraisemblance.” Of course, the notion particularly applies to the Goncourts’ naturalistic project, G erminie Lacerteux, which Weir discusses next. Historical, ethnic, and cultural in Flaubert’s portrayal of Carthage, in Germinie the “preoccupation with decay and decline” zeroes in on the pathological individual taken as a socially and psychologically relevant sample. Further, not only does Pater’s Marius the Epicurean tellingly spotlights, much like Salammbô, a “time of decadence,” namely, Marcus Aurelius’s reign; but, as Weir puts it, through its language it also “brings nothing forth except itself,” which makes Marius a “radical revision of the form of the novel, so much so that the traditional categories of generic classification seem irrelevant.” Likewise, the critic clearly demonstrates [End Page 502] how Huysmans’s À Rebours, featuring a “self-consciously decadent” style...