- Examining the Decadent Sensorium
OSCAR WILDE’S DORIAN GRAY, that Decadent purveyor of memorable epigrams, announces while surveying London with appropriately “listless eyes” that he wishes to “cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul!” And he was not alone, as the twelve essays in Decadence and the Senses point out. Fascination with sensation was a defining feature of Decadence from the moment of its birth and remains a key element in critical assessments of Decadent texts. Thus, these essays, which emerged from the 2014 “Decadence the Senses” conference held at Goldsmiths, University of London, aim “to explore the Decadent sensorium,” according to editors Desmarais and Condé. They cover an impressive range of ground as they do so, including in their analytical purview Decadent literature, art, music, dance, and film. This diversity, one of the most valuable aspects of any collection of conference proceedings, extends also to the contributors. Spanning the academic timeline from graduate students to emeritus faculty, authors included here hail from departments of literature, language, [End Page 525] art history, and comparative studies. Such interdisciplinarity, another strength of this collection in particular, highlights the fact that recent research on cultural-historical understandings of the senses ranges far and wide. It is one feature that points to the timeliness of this collection which, if not an ideal source for locating large, concept-driven formulations of Decadence, will prove useful to scholars seeking specific analyses of specific Decadent texts and authors.
The notion of the “sensorium,” invoked often by the editors and individual authors, provides a useful way of thinking about the conversation taking place in Decadence and the Senses. A “sensorium” can refer both to the part of the brain that functions as the subject’s locus of sensation or, in contrast, to the individual parts of the body that serve as the subject’s sensory apparatus. One question arises immediately from such a definition: are we to think of sensory impressions as products of mind or body, or both? With the exception of David Weir’s “Afterward,” to which I will return, the essays in this collection come down firmly on the side of the body. They consider a number of different sensations (taste, touch, sound, and smell, of course, but also pain, desire, appetite, disgust, weariness, apathy, and more) as bodily phenomena with bodily implications. Desmarais and Condé duly recognize that recent studies of the “social and cultural significance of the senses” explore the relationship of the senses “to biology (particularly neurology), psychology, the environment and the human imagination.” Catherine Maxwell’s essay on “Perfume in the Decadent Literary Imagination” ventures briefly into this territory, as she explores the bio-physics of the scent (“lactonic … with coconut, hay and peach facets”) of the tuberose. But by and large, the contributors remain resolutely situated in the flesh, rather than in the mind (that lovely lump of flesh that Decadent authors seldom manage to render sensuously appealing).
In the course of their explorations, the authors collected here make a number of interesting observations about mostly well-known Decadent artists and works. Writing about J. A. M. Whistler and the critic, essayist, and poet Arthur Symons, Nick Freeman suggests in “The Art of Seeing” that readers can find the echo of Whistler’s “chromatic minimalism” and “subjective interior perception” in Symons’s poetry. Also focusing on Symons’s poetry as well as that of Mallarmé, Katharina Herold observes that typography, as well as content, might have a [End Page 526] kinesthetic effect on readers, extending the sense of bodily movement invoked by certain poems. In “Michael Field’s Sapphic Palate,” Sarah Parker points out that the often-invoked “flavor” of love—“bittersweet” or, more correctly, “sweetbitter”—originates in Sapphic fragments and is appropriated by Michael Field who return the sensation, in their poetry, to its lesbian context. I found Maxwell’s discussion of the tuberose, and more specifically Walter Pater’s conscription of that flower to describe his own rarefied prose style, to be particularly interesting, as Pater’s writing is...