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Reviewed by:
  • Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature
  • Geoffrey Galt Harpham
Ornament, Fantasy, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century French Literature, by Rae Beth Gordon; xvii & 288pp. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, $42.50.

As Rae Beth Gordon notes in the introduction to her stimulating and original book, ornament, which is devoted to grace, charm, and attractiveness, becomes the object of suspicion and moralizing disdain when it exceeds what numerous commentators refer to as “its proper limits.” The limits are set low by those who wish to maintain the integrity of the center—the melodic line, the text, the main image, the literal sense, the consensual meaning—against the disruptive and excessive forces of the margin. Transgress the margin to which ornament is properly confined, as artists in virtually every medium available in nineteenth-century France did, and a series of crucial binary distinctions collapses, threatening not only the center, but ornament itself, which is defined by its limits, its position on a well-defined edge.

What distinguished nineteenth-century French literature was, from Gordon’s point of view, a sustained interest, among critics as well as artists, in cultivating the creative possibilities opened up by compromising the boundary between ornament and its other. So fertile and successful has this project proven to be that today’s postmodernity has not come to an end of it, continuing to discover its most interesting possibilities on the margin. And within the field of art history, we see that ornament, once widely denigrated as the source of confusion, has become virtually orthodox; as the title of Ernst Gombrich’s book on the subject indicates, ornament is now held to appeal to and gratify The Sense of Order.

Gordon takes advantage of the posthistory of her subject, applying to studies of Nerval, Mallarmé, Gautier, Huysmans a theoretical armature drawn from the psychoanalytic theories of Freud, Winnicott, and Lacan. Drawing attention to a dimension of meaning or intention that has been “suppressed or excluded from the central field,” ornament, she argues, “anticipates the way psychiatry, perceptual psychology, and aesthetics converge in the fin de siècle.” Ornament, in other words, is cognate with the unconscious, and its prevalence in fin de siècle art and literature may be considered a sign of a certain cultural receptivity to the discoveries Freud was about to make, the “French” modality of a phenomenon to which Freud would give a “Viennese” formulation. [End Page 364]

It is fashionable, especially in medieval studies, to focus on the disruptively counter-doctrinal potential of marginal elements such as gargoyles or textual illuminations. But Gordon generally argues another kind of case altogether, one that has, perhaps, even greater contemporary interest. Ornament, she claims, discloses the essential principles of aesthetic production. The expressive power of line, the “sense of order” to which it appeals, the subordination of literal depiction to design, the primacy of relationships over individual figures—all these reflect, as Wilhelm Worringer was explicitly to claim in 1908, energies deriving from the very beginnings of art itself.

Thus, when principles and figures of ornament began to invade the “sense” or “business” of the text itself, as they did in nineteenth-century French literature, what is happening is not only a radical adjustment of a certain conception of ornament, but a large movement of return. Art becomes under these circumstances both decadent and primordial, devoting itself to both meaningless proliferation and to “pure art.” Gordon tracks this ambivalent movement with very considerable assurance and learning in an argument as sinuous as the ornamental line itself. The chapters on Nerval (“Lace as Textual Metaphor”) and Gautier (“Trills, Frills, and Decorative Frames for the Object of Desire”) are particularly illuminating, inspired by a kind of theoretical wit that does justice to their objects. Gordon is somewhat less successful in communicating the relevance to Mallarmé of Lacan, the exposition of whom—of which?—is laborious. But the responsibility probably lies more heavily with Lacan than with Gordon. Labored accounts of Lacan may even be considered as a species of ornament, a refinement and a new barbarism, peculiar to critical discourse in the fin of our own siècle.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham
Tulane University

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pp. 364-365
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