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THEOPHILE GAUTIER AND THE CONCEPTION OF DECADENCE A. E. CARTER L IKE all authors who write too much and too long, Theophile Gautier survives in fragments. Two novels (Mademoiselle de Maupin and Le Capitaine Fracasse), half a dozen short stories, a few pages of the "2000 feuilletons," a phrase or two, usually quoted out of context ("1'ai toujours prefere la statue It la femme et Ie marbre a la chair"; "Je suis un homme des temps homeriques"), and some poems of a Parnassian character ("Symphonie en blanc majeur"; "L'Art") which every student of nineteenth-century literature is expected to read: this is about all ; and, considering the mass of print Gautier produced in nearly half a century of labour, it is not much. Of course his modest glory is secure: as a forerunner of the Parnassian school he will always have a place in the anthologies. Yet if there is little else in his work that deserves attention as literature , there is much that merits study as influence. For Gautier's influence was immense, and not only on the Parnassians. He had more to do than any other single writer with the fonnation of what is known as the fin de siecle or Decadent school of the eighties and nineties. In this role, he is much more important than as the poetaster of Emaux et camees.' Everyone has read his famous essay on Baudelaire, written for the 1868 edition of Les Fleurs du mal, and Havelock Ellis long ago, in the essay on Huysmans in The New Spirit, recognized its importance as a definition of decadence. Yet for some reason (perhaps because we persist in seeing Gautier as a neo-pagan Parnassian and nothing else) it is usually considered a piece of bravura, a homage rendered by "Ie bon Theo" to a comrade of his youth, a sympathetic effort to understand the eccentricities of a poet with whom he had little in common. On the contrary, this Notice is in many ways a final statement of theories which had preoccupied Gautier for nearly forty years; its ideas and a great deal of its phraseology exist in his poems, novels, and critical articles from 1830 on. The hatred of nineteenthcentury democracy and its theories of progress and utility, the cult 1 Mario Praz has discussed Gautier's contributions to decadent eroticism in La Carne~ La mOTte e il diavolo nella letteratuTa Tomantica (Firenze, Sansoni. 1930j new ed., 1948) . But since the purpose of his study was, as he says himself (p. xi) , to discuss Ia 5ensibilita erotica, he does not mention the other ways in which Gautier was a precursor of the Decadent movement. A brief note (p. 192) calls attention to the similarity between Fortunio and D es Esseintes. ,3 Vol. XXI, no. 1, Oct., 195 1 54 THE UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO QUARTERLY of artificiality, the decadent hero, the femme fatale, the taste for the abnormal and the diseased: all these themes which he attributes to Baudelaire are to be found in the disparate volumes of his own works and the scattered pages of his feuilletons. I The central idea in Gautier's work is his cult of art- l'Art pour I'Art. It is the source of a paradoxical aesthetic state which later distinguishes all the Decadents. He hated nineteenth-century civilization because it was bourgeois and utilitarian and progressive, lacking both colour and panache, with none of the mystic glamour of the absolute monarchy and the absolute church; and he liked it because it was artificial, offering the artist new and curious forms of expression . Like a good Romantic, he thought contemporary Paris hideous, with its gas-light, smoke, mud, stench of chemicals ("atmosphere de gaz hydrogene" as he called it in Fortunio ); and he found its theory, the theory of nineteenth-century democracy, as distasteful as its practice. He even approved of Charles X for suppressing the liberty of the press.' When all allowance is made ·for his love of paradox, this boutade is still significant, especially when we compare it with the anti-democratic professions of later writers such as Baudelaire and Huysmans. Yet while his love of beauty led him to dislike...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 53-63
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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