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Getting Over It:
Messing Around at the Fin de Siècle
Allison Pease. Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. xvi + 244 pp. 24 illustrations.
Jil Larson. Ethics and Narrative in the English Novel, 1880-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. 176 pp.
If, as Terry Eagleton has it, "the fin de siècle arrived early this century" (11), let us hope that it also stays late—so long as it remains the inspiration and topic for such intriguing scholarly work as these two new books from Cambridge UP. Although no one expected the year 2000 to provide a clean and easy break with what preceded it (one only needs to look to the Edwardian period and the uneasy beginnings of modernism to see how messy things are likely to get), it is a relief to know that the critical juggernaut that saw us through the millennium is still going strong. Beginning in the late 1980s and gathering strength during the 1990s, the publishing craze in fin-de-sièclestudies has brought us a particularly rich body of work on matters decadent and degenerate, and it has given us a new intimacy with an intriguing cast of characters—New Women and dandies, empire boys and orientalists, bloodsucking [End Page 444] fiends and dissidents of all stripes. Fueled not just by the calendrical anniversary, but also by a real or desired identity between the present turn of the century and the past one, these studies of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries register both a critical urgency and whiff of melancholy. For some, the present fails to make it up to the politically activist and sexually anarchistic bar of the past. For others, like Elaine Scarry, the turn of the century itself becomes a bar to identity and understanding:
The nineteenth century, the thing by which we knew ourselves if only because it steadily neighbored us with its differences, will suddenly be out of our reach, interrupted by this other overfull thing, this big thing in the way, the twentieth century, which will seem strangely intrusive in its adjacency, even though it is constituted by our own acts and objects, our wars and our poems. The beloved predecessor [. . .] will slip over the horizon [. . .] and be demoted to the nonprecursor status, the diffuse pastness, of the eighteenth century or the Renaissance. (13)
Even for those for whom the nineteenth century cannot get out of the way fast enough, there is a sense that modernism itself is receding, no longer our immediate past but the beginning of the previous century, now buried under an increasing pile of "posts." The collective critical fear seems to be that we have been or will be diminished, unmoored, and that writing about the last fin de siècleis an act of recovery both essential and endangered, an act that can tell us where we have been and where we are going.
Not that anyone is really mooning about over it. If the last fin de sièclehas any lesson to teach about dealing with upheaval and transformation, it is to enjoy your symptom, and critics of the current fin de siècle seem prepared to do just that, turning loss into pleasure and anxiety into influence. A hallmark of the previous fin de siècle(and perhaps of all such transitional periods) was to embrace contradiction rather than to resolve it, and so we remember it as a period of cultural exhaustion and utopian ferment, high civility and low barbarism, aesthetic distance and messy involvement, of pure art and the commodity form. These binaries were anything but stable, but then that was the point—and the [End Page 445] cause (or effect) of the uncanny doubleness that reigned over the cultural landscape. The period that gave us Jekyll and Hyde, Marlow and Kurtz, Dorian and Dorian, was finally as befuddled about boundaries as it was agitated over demarcating them. It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that one of the most...