Nineteenth Century French Studies 31.3&4 (2003) 348-350
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Ziegler, Robert. Beauty Raises the Dead: Literature and Loss in the Fin de Siècle. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2002. Pp. 189. ISBN 0-87413-773-X
Beauty Raises the Dead is the book of a scholar who has published more on Decadent authors than perhaps any other nineteenth-century specialist, and this long before it became a fashionable research subject. His unwavering focus on the literary productions of a wide range of writers (from Jean Lorrain to Marcel Schwob, Octave Mirbeau, and Catulles Mendès, to name a few) has been a contribution of immeasurable value to the field. It is remarkable that Beauty Raises the Dead, Ziegler's first book, comes after, and not before, a series of studies on Decadence published in the last fifteen years: for example, Pierre Citti's Contre la décadence: Histoire de l'imagination française dans le roman, 1890-1914 (1987); Séverine Jouve's Les Décadents: Bréviaire fin de siècle (1989); Barbara Spackman's Decadent Genealogies: The Rhetoric of Sickness from Baudelaire to D'Annunzio (1989); Jean de Palacio's Figures et formes de la décadence (1994); Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence (1999), edited by Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky; and Dieu, la chair et les livres: Une approche de la décadence (2000) edited by Sylvie Thorel-Cailleteau. That Ziegler's work does appear now as opposed to earlier also serves to contextualize the reception that it implicitly anticipates and to distinguish it in important ways from the works just mentioned. His examination of Decadence does not take as its point of departure the need to define and legitimize research of Decadent authors. His own multiple articles on individual authors and novels along with the articles by other contemporary scholars by their very existence establish Decadence's historical place and the literary worth of its proponents, whose works demonstrate similar stylistic, aesthetic, and thematic concerns. Taking this as a given, Ziegler is singularly freed from the ideological constraints experienced by those who feel the need to operate as apologists of Decadent literature, and can explore the theoretical opportunities that the texts themselves offer. He chooses here a psychoanalytical approach to treat, not the cult of the artificial, nor perversion, illness, and the morbid (although they do figure in his discussions), but the very process of Decadent creation itself. Implicated in this process is not so much many Decadents' initial espousal and, often later, rejection of a shared epithet, but the repercussions of that ambivalence which has been linked to their break with Naturalism: "Given its [End Page 348] uncertain parentage," Ziegler reminds the reader, "Decadence becomes the bastard child of naturalists guilty of betraying the principle of hereditary accountability" (30). Reconstituting this lost parent through art becomes the work of the Decadent writer.
In his Romantic Agony Mario Praz cautioned scholars not to use Decadent novels as documents supporting a pseudo-medical treatise on psychopathology. Ziegler is careful to draw a distinction between ordinary people who undergo object loss in childhood and who may subsequently seek out creative outlets, and the Decadent writer for whom art is the only means for working through the mourning of that loss. While he does examine the narratives of the novels to a certain degree in light of their authors' biographies, his purpose is neither to condemn nor diagnose the "illnesses" of both author and work, but rather to reveal the dynamics of aesthetic creation that inform the period's productions.
Beauty Raises the Dead discusses in detail eight novels and their writers, paired off for the similarities in the way they represent their objects of loss. Ziegler's study of Villier de l'Isle-Adam's Véra and Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte investigates mourning and the incorporation of the deceased beloved through the veneration of the relics that resurrect her as well as, in the case of Rodenbach, kill her a second time. Rachilde's...