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  • Decadent Style with a Symbolist Worldview:Andrei Bely, Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, and the Perils of Surfaces

In his stodgy and moralizing old age, Lev Tolstoy professed no warmth or empathy towards modernist aesthetics. Yet he was remarkably well informed about the developments in European verse in the final decades of the nineteenth century. In his 1898 treatise What is Art? (Что такое искусство?), the 70-year old Tolstoy laments “[i]t has finally come to this: that not only are haziness, mysteriousness, obscurity, and exclusiveness (shutting out the masses) elevated to the rank of a merit and a condition of poetic art, but even inaccuracy, indefiniteness, and lack of eloquence are held in esteem.”1 He launches into invectives against Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Maeterlinck and reveals a more than passing awareness of at least 21 other writers and intellectual figures of the fin de siécle.2 He quotes quite liberally from their work and his brief chapter on the “so-called art of the Decadents” contains the complete or nearly complete texts of seven “Decadent” poems. Of particular note in Tolstoy’s catalogue is the extent to which it borrows from a singularly important document on contemporary French literature—Jules Huret’s Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire. When this collection of questionnaire responses and vignettes was first published in book form in 1891, it served as a moment of summation and reflection for its immediate audience. Yet when it reached a reading public that had only begun to encounter Symbolist and Decadent literature, as was the case in Russia, Huret’s work became a sourcebook, and for some even a manifesto, on the nature of the new art.3 Consequently, Huret’s presentation of recent developments in French literature achieved a resonance [End Page 269] and authority among the audiences for which his book was an initial contact with the authors and movements it details. His categorizing of twelve authors as “Symbolistes et Décadents” (the largest group of the collection) would have a lasting impact on the perception of modernism. The apparent artistic and biographical confluence of Symbolism and Decadence that Huret identifies in hindsight would become an active and productive element for discussions and appropriations of the movements from the 1890s onward. Despite their frequent amalgamation into a single aesthetic unit, Decadence and Symbolism demonstrated significantly divergent responses to the shifting epistemological and artistic forces shaping modernity. While it can be a commonplace for critical accounts of the period to conflate the two, a core contingent of writers and thinkers sought to maintain the distinction between them. An appreciation of how they did so enables us to comprehend better these complex and contradictory elements of literary modernism’s early development.

A fundamental stumbling block for a discussion of Decadence as an independent literary movement is its sometime Doppelgänger Symbolism. Intended to combat the historical and often biographical overlap between the practitioners of Symbolism and Decadence, a clear differentiation between the two demonstrates the disparity of their aesthetic projects. Simply put, a Decadent style is often markedly at odds with a symbolist worldview.4 That is not to say that the two traits are incompatible in a single author or even in a single work. However, when they are both in evidence, a clear conflict between the two becomes manifest, as this essay will demonstrate. In Russia, the juxtaposition can be even starker as a consequence of the belated development of Russian modernism. The abruptness of Russia’s initial encounter with modernism and the rapidity of its adoption among a vocal group of poets caused a notable degree of ambiguity in the process of naming this group and its aesthetic program. While “Symbolism” was the dominant designation for the literary school that ushered Russia into a modernist worldview, it is not the only term in use at the time. The epithets attached to this moment in Russian literature are often presented in contemporary descriptions as a list: “Symbolism, Decadence, and the new art.”5 When this terminological knot, along with the aesthetic and epistemological implications it conveys, is untangled, an understanding of the distinct roles of Symbolism and Decadence emerges. The Russian case offers a glimpse...


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pp. 269-282
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