«Small, Douglas Robert John (2013) Dementia's jester: the Phantasmagoria in metaphor and aesthetics from 1700-1900. PhD thesis. ...»
This logic of exclusivity informs many – if not all – of Des Esseintes’s aesthetic decisions. He despises oriental rugs because of their commonplace vulgarity, such that ‘upstart tradesmen could now buy them in the bargain basement of any department store’.85 He dislikes ‘those works that it is good form to enthuse over’ and dismisses Molière and Rabelais as ‘knockabout turns given by clowns at a country fair’.86 Des Esseintes’s desire for exclusivity, however, exposes the important contradictions that underlie the decadent phantasmagorical collection: it attempts to reject the materialistic, capitalistic impulses of late nineteenth-century society by attributing a higher, ‘magical’ property to its objects. But in doing this it conforms to the Marxist illusion that commodities do not emerge from human labour but from a magical non-place of the market. Similarly, as Rita Felski points out, the desire for exclusive objects, for ‘ever more arcane objects not yet trivialised by mass reproduction, echoes the same cult of novelty which propels the logic of capitalist consumerism’.87 In this respect, Des Esseintes’s attitudes provide us with a useful template for decadent social ideology and for decadent literature’s use of the phantasmagoria.
Huysmans, Against Nature, 16.
Huysmans, Against Nature, 134.
Felski, The Gender of Modernity, 99.
Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace, 67.
The depth of his disgust is obvious, as are the principle reasons for it: the proliferation of the middle-class values of conformity and capitalism throughout the whole of society.
Although the rejection of the middle class is less obvious in The Picture of Dorian Gray it can still be clearly seen, as Gagnier points out, in the total absence of that class from the novel; as a ‘reaction against middle class materialism, Wilde divided the world of Dorian Gray between the upper and lower classes exclusively’.90 The novel’s plot alternates between the world of idle aristocrats and artists, and the
Huysmans, Against Nature, 202-203.
Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace, 57.
193 poverty of the Vane’s theatre and the ‘streets like the black web of some sprawling spider’91 to be found in the East End. Interestingly, Wilde’s description of Dorian’s
trip into the East End parallels the threatening exoticism to be found in his collections:
‘Most of the windows were dark, but now and then fantastic shadows were silhouetted against some lamp-lit blind. He watched them curiously. They moved like monstrous marionettes, and made gestures like living things’.92 Like the foreign musicians, the inhabitants of poverty-stricken parts of London are portrayed as vaguely fantastical and inhuman; they have the same mixture of the exotic and the malevolent. In this way, they are paradoxically linked to the upper class world of elite consumption and refinement. Dorian’s aristocratic world of art galleries, operas and collections is a world of aesthetic spectacle; the squalid East End represents another – but similar – kind of spectacle. Only the middle class is ignored because only the middle class is boring, only the middle class is utterly devoid of the exotic and the shocking.
Gagnier interprets the vitriolic reaction against Wilde’s book in terms of the class conflict it enacts through this omission. Middle class journalists and critics interpreted Wilde’s elision of the middle class and middle class morals as a provocative refusal of those same morals: ‘The reviewers felt that Wilde violated the social function of art – that is, to present the normative values of society, to present the middle class. In exclusively representing the part of society that he did – idle aristocrats and romantic artists – Wilde offended an ethic of industry and productivity’.93 The bourgeois ethic of industry was the very thing that both the French and English decadents sought to define themselves by opposing. Not just Wilde, but other decadent writers and artists such as Machen, Whistler, Beardsley and Shiel attempted to construct specifically ‘anti-bourgeois identities … that signalled their resistance to Victorian middle class consumer culture’.94 This sentiment naturally manifests itself in decadent literature and explains both the decadent use of the phantasmagorical aesthetic as well as their sometimes paradoxical interaction with the forces of capitalism – especially as contained in the phantasmagorical collection. This desire to create an identity and mode of living that would militate against the stifling influence of middle-class conformity also explains the decadent preoccupation with
Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 177.
Gagnier, Idylls of the Marketplace, 65.
Kirsten MacLeod, Fictions of British Decadence: High Art, Popular Writing and the Fin De Siècle (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 12-13.
194 dream and with escaping from ‘the real’. In this context, ‘the real’ can be understood to be almost synonymous with those virtues espoused by the bourgeoisie: thrift, industry, propriety and practicality – specifically a practical engagement with the world of commerce and finance. Bourgeois values are apparently located in the everyday and the unimaginative; by a process of reaction, the dream comes to emblematise the opposite of this: individuality, license and indulgence. The act of dreaming also helps to signal an independence from the capitalist system. The dreamer can afford the time it takes to do nothing; the active bourgeoisie on the make dare not take the time to dawdle. The ascent (or descent) into dream is, therefore, the great realisation of both individuality and economic indifference. This goes a long way toward explaining Pierrot’s observation about the generality with which the word ‘dream’ is used in this period. As we saw, Pierrot wrote that the concept of dream seemed to have lost a precise meaning in the late nineteenth century and to have ‘become merely a synonym for escape from the real’.95 This is, in fact, completely accurate. The idea of dreaming becomes an idea of negation; the act of dreaming becomes an act designed to outrage bourgeois sensibilities. By rejecting ‘real life’, the decadent rejects middle class definitions of maturity, masculinity and economy. It apparently elevates them out of the lower realms occupied by the bourgeois and into a higher state of individuality, creativity and aestheticism.
This method of establishing the superiority of the decadent personality to the middle-class, ‘gentlemanly’ personality, also has the effect of placing the decadent into a different relationship with the market. As well as allowing for a personal kind of superiority – an imaginative, creative superiority – it also gives rise to an apparent superiority of taste. The cultivation of the imagination also leads to a cultivation of the sense of aesthetics. While the bourgeoisie consumes without discrimination, buying only what is in fashion, assuming that financial cost automatically translates into aesthetic quality, the decadent claims a superior taste. The decadent consumes only those things of which the public is ignorant, only those things which, by their oddness or exoticism, seem to suggest some other, stranger type of experience. Here too, the idea of the dream becomes an important factor. As we have seen, in the phantasmagorical collection, objects assume dream-like properties, they become embodiments of the dream-life. As such, they acquire a ‘dream value’ which is
Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 182.
195 (allegedly) fundamentally superior to any real life values – values that the bourgeois might be able to understand and process into their world view. In this way, objects are valued because of some fantastical component that escapes easy definition and also escapes from conventional economic categorisations: in decadent materialism, the physical market value of the object is superseded by another value, one based on a set of highly personal, highly fabulous associations.
How effective is this method of rejecting conventional market materialism though? After all, by injecting an element of the magical into an object, decadent materialism found itself returning to the Marxist illusion that the market itself was somehow magical. Similarly, this quest for exclusivity echoes the functioning of fashion and advertising. Elite consumption is governed by the same rules as bourgeois consumption. Those who wish to assert their aesthetic and cultural superiority have to be constantly ‘on the move’, always in search of the avant-garde and the new, while entrepreneurs and their customers follow on behind them, refitting their discoveries for sale to the masses. Less enterprising consumers constantly attempt – with more limited means – to imitate the fashions of these pioneers in order to feel like they too belong to a cultural elite, while the elite themselves do the very same thing: constantly seeking to find new ways to affirm their uniqueness before the mob arrives and threatens to make them look just like everyone else. Because of this, the decadent’s ‘attempt to create a uniquely individual style reveals his inevitable reliance upon the very categories of evaluation against which he ostensibly pits himself’.96 There are, therefore, two contradictions inherent in decadent materialism, trapped as it was between the Marxist illusion of the marketplace and the inexorable power of consumerism to absorb and distribute their stylistic uniqueness. Something
of this kind of contradiction can perhaps also be seen in the decadent’s social agenda:
their desire to bamboozle the middle classes. Kirsten MacLeod goes into great detail to establish that, while the decadents might have aspired to the position and pose of aristocratic dandies, they often came from middle class backgrounds – albeit in the professional middle class of doctors, lawyers, clergymen and civil servants, rather than in the capitalistic, entrepreneurial business middle class.97 To an extent, by ‘fashioning
Felski, The Gender of Modernity, 99.
See MacLeod, Fictions of British Decadence, 21-37.
196 their self-image as aristocrats and bohemians who held bourgeois society in contempt, decadents mystified their class origins’.98 It is important to understand, though, that this apparent contradiction does not automatically establish a fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of decadent ideals. Their objections to middle class capitalism and conformity remain valid despite their own backgrounds. The decadent critique of the middle-class was a middle-class critique of itself; middle-class subjects who objected to the values that were imposed on them by their own background. Their adoption of the pose of aristocratic indolence and monetary indifference was an attempt to find an alternative way of life. In the process, this gives an internal criticism the semblance of an external one: the middleclass criticising itself, but doing so with the voice of the aristocracy. While it does not invalidate decadent criticisms, however, this apparent contradiction does inform the decadent use of phantasmagorical materialism. On the one hand, it is important to understand the often inherently artificial, constructed nature of the decadent identity and on the other it is worth highlighting the insecurity that this artificiality and these contradictions produced. The phantasmagoria was in many ways an ideal aesthetic for the decadents to adopt. It was an aesthetic of resistance, so it seemed to defy traditional bourgeois standards of restraint, aesthetic unity and aesthetic uniformity; it was an aesthetic of dream, so it symbolised the triumph of individual imagination and an escape from normality; it was an aesthetic of collection so it allowed for an unashamed indulgence in materialism and a celebration of elevated taste. In many ways, though, the decedents found themselves in a mirror image of the position in which the eighteenth-century curiosity satirists had found themselves. While the satirists had set out to mock the curioso’s pretentiousness, economic naiveté and contravention of sexual and social mores, they were often seduced by the aesthetics of curiosity. From the other side, as it were, the decadents sought to reject bourgeois materialism and moral conformity but found they could fully escape neither. Wilde, for example, found it necessary to impose a somewhat contradictory moral onto Dorian Gray. Despite the book’s love of objects and material finery, it is Dorian’s love of a purely superficial existence that ruins him. Throughout the book he loses his identity as a moral human being, being reduced to nothing but the mere surface of his painting. Similarly, ‘to a great extent, Dorian Gray is about spectators, from
MacLeod, Fictions of British Decadence, 22.
197 spectators of the beauty of others such as Basil of Dorian’s and Dorian of Sybil Vane’s to “spectators of life”, as Wilde called Wotton’.99 Huysmans resolved the contradictions of the decadent phantasmagoria more effectively with comedy, making Des Esseintes both a tragic outsider and a pretentious buffoon.