- Beauty Raises the Dead: Literature and Loss in the Fin de Siècle
In Beauty Raises the Dead: Literature and Loss in the Fin de Siècle, Robert Ziegler uses psychoanalytic theories of mourning to analyze the relationship between decadent authors' melancholy and the art they produced. Instead of seeing decadent literature as simply a product of the melancholic imagination, Ziegler argues that the fundamental experience of decadent creativity was part of a complex process of mourning; the work of art itself thus comes to compensate for the loss it works through. The limits of this process—and the obstacles it creates for the artist—are what distinguish the work of individual decadent authors as they struggle to come to terms with their competing desires.
Ziegler's study, which brings together thoughtful readings of texts by such writers as Lorrain, Rachilde, Villiers, Mirbeau and Huysmans among others, seeks in part to offer a new definition of a movement that has often eluded simple categories. For Ziegler, the decadent text grapples with the cycles of life—birth, childhood, aging, loss, death—at the same time as it struggles with the processes of invention and creativity. He writes: "In embracing the pain of separation, killing the past, and mourning continuously, the Decadents found the inspiration to keep themselves alive in art" (262). Through Ziegler's psychoanalytic optic, which draws on Melanie Klein, Freud, and several others, decadence defines itself as a depressive child in opposition to naturalism, the parent it has rejected, and its texts work through that traumatic relationship. Although this paradigm might appear to suggest an Oedipal rejection of paternal authority, it is paradoxically the loss of the mother that Ziegler traces most expansively in his reading of some of decadence's most provocative texts. In a chapter on Villiers and Rodenbach, Ziegler explores the use of what Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok call incorporation (a glossary of psychoanalytic terms can be found in the back to help through the scientific vocabulary), a process by which loss is addressed through an attempt to incorporate its object into the ego in order to make it part of the self. Ziegler uses this notion to read the obsession with dead women in Villier's "Véra" and Rodenbach's "Bruges-la-Morte," an obsession that works through the original and universal maternal loss that all children experience. Villiers, through [End Page 133] the character of the Count d'Athol, ultimately repudiates the dissatisfying illusion of incorporation, while for Rodenbach, incorporation attests to the value of a life whose loss is irreconcilable. The art that remains, on the other hand, transforms trauma into beauty. The other chapters also pair up texts: chapter three brings together Rachilde's La Jongleuse with Lorrain's Monsieur de Bougrelon in an exploration of matricide; chapter four studies creation in Mendès and Schwab; and the final chapter reads Huysmans with Mirbeau in a discussion of art and utopias.
In many cases, Ziegler draws on the authors' personal histories to further his psychoanalytic readings of the characters they created. Rodenbach's childhood exposure to death explains his hero's torment, and Rachilde's promotion of female sexual autonomy in La Jongleuse is seen as a reaction to her mother's attempts to subvert her own daughter's success. Ziegler's broad psychoanalytic strokes sometimes leave questions open. It seems to me, for example, that the relationship to the loss of the mother that fuels all of Ziegler's readings might not be the most operative paradigm for Rachilde—the lone woman writer in a male authorized tradition, whose troubled relationship with her father seems as relevant to her writing as her mother's disapproval. The author's gender in this case ought to significantly alter the Freudian dynamic that Ziegler has identified at the heart of the decadent project. Likewise, it seems counter-intuitive that Huysmans's rebellious relationship to naturalism, and particularly to Emile Zola, is also filtered through the biographical reading of the former's troubled relationship towards...