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MIXING MEMORY AND DESIRE IN LATE VICTORIAN LITERATURE By John R. Reed (Wayne State University) In I894, Richard Le Galllenne, In "A Conspiracy of Silence," asked the surprising, but characteristically decadent question, "Why do we go on talking?" We talk, he said, "Mainly about our business, our food, or our diseases," and our conversation is submerged in a flood of facts, until the glorious, but imprecise conversation of friends, lovers, or "holiest converse of all, the mystic prattle of mother and babe," is lost In the rushing demand for matter to stock "pigeon-holes of memory."^ Le Galllenne considered this modernized memory a degradation, because , for him, memory was once a honeycomb, a hive of all the wonderful words of poets, of all the marvellous moods of lovers. Once It was a shell that listened tremulously upon Olympus, and caught the acents of Gods; now It [was] a phonograph catching every word that [fell] from the mouths of the board of guardians.2 Le Galllenne and others like him longed for an imaginative medium that would Identify cultural past and present with Individual past and present. Art required articulation, but memory did not. Memory was a realm neither unreal nor true; Ideally malleable to the imaginative idealist. Its charm was in Its evocations, and Its evocations were consequent upon silence. Memory seemed the last magic In a world increasingly Intent upon replacing charms with appliances; and its highest sorcery was silence. One remedy for sensitive spirits confronted with a discordant present was withdrawal. Le Galllenne, like certain of his contemporaries , found the past alluring. A pleasant confusion of utterance and time permitted the agreeable illusion of a vanished age of mystery and charm. More specifically, for the learned, the classical age, represented by Its art, became emblematic of that which abides. An esthetlcally "recollected" past promised attractive refuge because through its speechless art. It provided sensations subject to the reflective will. A quiet volitional confinement within the greater penitentiary of loud modern existence might facilitate the incorporation of the cultural past into the private memories of the individual. In his apostrophe to the "Happy monks of La Trappe," for example, Le Galllenne envied a life converted to a private reflective museum shut off from the insensitive clamor of the modern world. But thus to make the world's past one's own memory for brooding upon in silence was not the only solution. Another alternative was In turning outward, looking to the material world and to the future. Le Galllenne voiced an attitude shared by more notable contemporaries when he hopefully anticipated "an imminent Return to Simplicity - Socialism the unwise it call [sic]."-' But If the conversion of the past into a private memory was intellectual legerdemain, the placing of recovered simplicity in the future could often be mere private dreaming. The discontented poetic soul might anticipate a flat that would, with one grand social revolution, convert a cacophanous, bustling urban civilization into a peaceful pastoral community, as William Morris did In "The Day is Coming" and other poems. Though Morris did not stop there. Le Galienne called this a return to simplicity, as though there was a time, within memory, that enjoyed an Ideal simpleness. Modern hopes for the future would then be only a conversion of that memory Into a new reality. But not all of the hopeful writers of the late nineteenth century were so easily persuaded. Oscar Wilde, in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," was prepared to admit that past eras, Hellenic or Renaissance, approached the simplicity of true individuality without achieving it. Yet, even for Wilde "The new Individualism is the new Hellenism,"^ a conversion of a cultural memory into an improved future. The circular pattern remains the same. In much of the writing of this period dealing with the past and the future, the true fascination remained private and reflexive, not social and historical. Admirations of the past and hopes for the future were frequently by-products of the persistent concern of late nineteenth-century writers with the fashioning of the Self. Socialism to Wilde meant the assurance fbr all men of Individualism, the achievement of a Utopia in which the State provided...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 1-15
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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