Tuesday, July 31, 2018


ONE:  Symbolism overview

[Towards the end, after the discussion of Decadence, the texts of TWO, THREE, and FOUR follow.]
In the 1920s Van Wyck Brooks was an American literary critic and historian who advanced a dichotomy of "two publics, the cultivated public and the business the public of theory and the public of activity, the public that reads Maeterlinck and the public that accumulates money." As a characterization of the contrast in our society between the eggheads and the business types, this comment is astute. But who was Maeterlinck, and why did people read him?  

The Belgian Maurice Maeterlinck was the leading Symbolist playwright. How can the theater, concerned as it is with dramatic specificity, have any affinity with Symbolism, with its emphasis on suggestion and indeterminacy? In fact the affinity was real. This apparent anomaly shows that a full understanding of Symbolism will require some serious cultural archaeology, recapturing lost figures and interests.

But first a preliminary approach to defining Symbolism itself.

In ordinary art-historical usage symbolism denotes the evocation of something, usually sacred or conceptual, by adducing a material object, e.g. a lamb for Christ or an anchor for the idea of Hope. Given their conventional status, such symbols lend themselves to fairly easy decoding, provided the viewer is acquainted with the semiotic system employed. Today there exist many dictionaries of symbols, aiding in this task.
The lamb and anchor examples just cited display a quid-pro-quo relationship, as one thing can be read for another. This “common-garden” variety of symbolism occurs frequently in medieval and Renaissance art, where it is addressed by the subdiscipline of iconography.
In the early nineteenth century, however, a new concept of symbolism emerged in which the associations are broader, being suggestive rather than precise. Things in the real world do indeed point to something else. Yet what that something else is one cannot be certain. It might be a host of things--or nothing definite. Symbolism therefore came to stand for fluidity, slippage, indeterminacy, and uncertainty. In this context, peripheral perceptions could become central and vice versa.
The symbolist world view posited two principles: 1) With the appropriate effort, the perceptive observer may intuitively access another realm that lies beyond the everyday world; and 2) In this endeavor there is a need to attenuate the distractions of specificity, for the world of objects occludes the window that the Symbolist is seeking to create as a way of contemplating the other world. 
To a considerable degree these ideas stemmed from German idealist philosophy with its contrast between the phenomenal, visible world and the unseen numinous world. Novalis and Arthur Schopenhauer were particularly influential. Other sources have been traced as far back as the late-antique philosopher Plotinus.
Why was this quest undertaken? As the nineteenth century advanced, many educated persons concluded that the rising tempo of scientific discovery left no room for any belief other than materialism. At the opposite pole were those who, for a variety of reasons, retained their allegiance to organized religion. The Symbolists were inclined to pursue a third path. They held that there must be some way of attaining and deepening a sense of spiritual awareness.
At this crossroads knowledge itself came to the rescue, in the form of the New Science of Mythology. Prior to 1800 mythology had meant primarily the Greco-Roman gods and heroes. This view came to seem too narrow, for a reexamination of ancient vernacular documents provided new information on Celtic and Germanic myth and legend. Even more significant was the study and translation of Indian texts, especially the Vedas, which provided the oldest available mythological data, including ideas and deities that were clearly related to the European ones. Buddhist texts also became important.
These studies gave birth to the discipline of comparative religion, which sought underlying truths beneath the plethora of individual data. In addition to the comparative perspective, scholars like Friedrich Max Müller detected a more general principle, and that was the idea that mythology was simply a sophisticated cloak for perceptions about the natural world, especially those that invoked the solar principle. By depersonalizing mythology, stripping from it the adventitious details of the various gods and heroes, one could reveal the essential truths concealed within. It is significant that in 1880 Stéphane Mallarmé, who was to become the most influential of all Symbolist writers, published a translation (Les Dieux antiques) of a manual of mythology by the English scholar George W. Cox, who was essentially a popularizer of the work of Max Müller.
The era also saw an upsurge of hermetic or occult thought. Eliphas Lévi (Alphonse-Louis Constant) conveyed knowledge of alchemy and Rosicrucianism. In Les grands initiés (1889) the Alsatian writer Edouard Schuré sought to establish the equivalence of religious figures from various traditions--Rama, Krishna, Hermes Trismegistus, Moses, Orpheus, Pythagoras, Plato, and Jesus.
A generation before Freud, thinkers and writers who were broadly Symbolist began to explore the concept of the Unconscious. Indeed, the idea had been current in Central Europe since the publication by the philosopher Eduard von Hartmann of his Philosophie des Unbewussseins in 1868.

Let us now turn to a central event in the narrative. Jean Moréas, a French poet of Greek extraction, launched Symbolism as a literary movement in a manifesto published in Le Figaro littéraire in 1886. Closer inspection shows that the precepts advanced by this document were rather sketchy. Literary progress requires renovation from time to time, the writer maintained. The central concern of the new school must be to clothe the Idea in a sensible form. In their quest for purity of expression the poets must not fear obscurity. As a movement Symbolism represented a reaction against naturalism and positivism, which were viewed as simplistic and unsubtle.
In fact Symbolism was a new name for an existing group known as the Décadents. Moréas had the brilliant idea of rebranding them with the more dignified label of Symbolists. The initial band of practitioners was not very impressive. However, Symbolism gained credibility by annexing to their cause a quartet of luminaries, among the most brilliant poets of any time or country. These were Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé. Baudelaire had died in 1867, while Rimbaud gave up poetry in 1875, to become a gunrunner in East Africa.  
Baudelaire, who ranks as one of the greatest French poets, was also active as a prose writer and art critic. In his Les Fleurs du Mal Symbolists particularly cherished the sonnet “Correspondences.” Here Baudelaire used several metaphors for the riddle of a world that calls out for interpreting in a deep sense, but does not always provide the clearest guidance for doing so. He wrote of Nature as a “temple where the living columns sometimes breathe confusing speech.” He also evoked the human passage through “forests of symbols.” Finally, he taught the doctrine of synasesthesia: “perfumes, colors, and sounds correspond.” Baudelaire’s concepts reflect the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg, the Swedish scientist-mystic.
Initially Verlaine gravitated to the Parnassian movement in French poetry. He established an individual voice with his first published collection, Poèmes saturniens (1867). In the eyes of the general public his copious poetic production became overshadowed by his scandalous private life. He abandoned his wife for his ephebic lover Arthur Rimbaud. Romances sans paroles was the poetic outcome of this period. Verlaine’s lyric gift allowed him to capture the allusive and musical qualities of symbolism to the full.
Arthur Rimbaud was a prodigy who, by the age of fifteen, had won many prizes and composed original verses and dialogues in Latin. He matured rapidly, becoming an anarchist, amusing himself by shocking the local bourgeois with his shabby dressing and long hair. In a letter that has proved influential he wrote of his method for attaining poetical transcendence or visionary power through a "long, immense and rational derangement of all the senses." In 1871 he joined Verlaine in Paris, the beginning of their liaison. After separating from the older poet, Rimbaud wrote his phantasmagoric Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell) in prose, widely regarded as one of the pioneering instances of modern Symbolist writing. His final major work Illuminations includes what are thought to be the first two French poems in free verse. After 1875 Rimbaud wrote no more poetry, preferring to work as a gunrunner in East Africa.  
It was widely recognized that the central figure in the Symbolist movement was Stéphane Mallarmé, rightly famed for his salons, Tuesday gatherings of intellectuals at his house for discussions of poetry, art, and philosophy. His earlier work owes a great deal to the style established by Baudelaire. His mature poetry anticipates many of the interactions between poetry and the other arts that were to blossom in the Dada, Surrealist, and Futurist schools. Often perceived as a formalist, Mallarmé's work was more generally concerned with the dialogue style and content. This is particularly evident in the intricate, innovative Un coup de dés jamais n'abolira le hasard ("A roll of the dice will never abolish chance") of 1897, his last major poem. 
Mallarmé’s poetic credo is hard to summarize, and for many that is the point: poetry is about nuances, not bald statements. With perhaps uncharacteristic clarity, Mallarmé put the matter in this way: “To name an object is to suppress three quarters of the pleasure of poetry, which is meant to reveal itself little by little. To suggest it, that is the dream.”  
Mallarmé's poetry has been the inspiration for several musical pieces, notably Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” (1894).
Inspired in part by Wagner’s ideal of the Gesamkunstwerk, a fusion of the arts, Symbolists paid much attention to parallels between the arts—to one parallel in particular. Paul Verlaine stipulated: "Music above all else." Symbolists took music as their touchstone, because as a medium it stands the farthest from direct representation of the world. The musical ideal also presided over subtle experiments in poetic rhythm. Central to Symbolist poetic practice was muting or veiling, what the composer Debussy referred to as things "à démi voix." (1889). It is this attenuation above all that was prophetic of, though it did not realize, abstraction
As the public became better acquainted with Symbolist poetry, its subject matter was reduced to an easy series of stereotypes. The poets conjured up a décor of forests and parks, pools and fountains, suffused with an atmosphere of legend. Such settings typically enshrined languorous princesses, escorted by unicorns and surrounded by doves, swans, and peacocks, while wearing fantastic jewels. At a deeper level the Symbolists proposed a new approach to myth, utilizing some traditional figures, such as Orpheus, Narcisssus, and Salome. The latter was part of a larger concern with the “fatal woman.” Gender issues were also explored in the theme of the Androgyne. There were also excursions into Northern mythology, especially as mediated by the music dramas of Richard Wagner.
There were also Symbolist novels. By common consent, the most remarkable of these is Joris-Karl Huysmans’ A Rebours (Against the Grain, or Against Nature; 1884). The hero is the reclusive Duke Jean Floressas des Esseintes, the last member of a powerful and once proud aristocratic family. He fills his country house with his eclectic art collection, which includes paintings by Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon. In Latin literature he is attracted only to “decadent” works of late antiquity and the middle ages. Little pleases him among the moderns, apart from Baudelaire and Mallarmé (then little known). He tries his hand at inventing perfumes and he creates a garden of poisonous flowers. A major feature of the house is a mouth organ, in which tubes led to various casks of alcohol. In his view every liqueur corresponded to the sound of a particular musical instrument, so that dry curaçao was like the clarinet, while kümmel recalled the sound of the oboe. At one point Des Esseintes spontaneously decides to visit London, but when he reaches the train station he is disgusted by English voices. Feeling that he now knows what London would be like, he immediately returns home.
Other Symbolist writers of fiction were Auguste Villiers de l’Isle-Adam and the prolific Josephin Péladan. The latter is also known for organizing the Rose + Croix exhibitions of Symbolist paintings, many of them showing occultist leanings.

Having achieved its maximum strength in the period 1886-1895, Symbolism remained controversial. Its opponents tagged it with the sobriquets of decadence and the fin-de-siècle.
The first formal adherents of Symbolism were French and Belgians writing in French. Close relations, political as well as literary, with England facilitated the movement’ s migration into that country. Arthur Symonds published the first account in English, The Symbolist Movement in Literature, in 1899. A group of minor poets, including Ernest Dowson, John Gray, and Lionel Johnson, may be regarded as Symbolists. Oscar Wilde is sui generis.
Looking more widely Symbolist qualities have been detected in such figures as Stefan George, Rubén Darío, William Butler Yeats, and the early Ezra Pound. However, these major figures did not formally subscribe to the Symbolist program. Matters were different in Russia.
Russian Symbolism assumed a variety of forms, which can only be sketched here. The poet Valery Bryusov claimed to have created, almost single-handedly, Russian Symbolist poetry. In order to project an image of Symbolism as a major movement, Bryusov adopted numerous pen names, while publishing three volumes of his own verse entitled Russian Symbolists. Anthology (1894-95). Bryusov's campaign succeeded, for several young poets were drawn to Symbolism as the latest fashion in Russian letters. Notable among them were Konstantin Balmont, who believed in first inspiration and sometimes intentionally left his verse unrevised, and the pessimistic Fyodor Sologub, who styled himself the “bard of death.” Innokenty Annensky was known primarily for his masterful translations of French Symbolists and Euripides. Annensky managed to find Russian equivalents for the essential intonations of Baudelaire and Verlaine, while the subtle music, ominous allusions, arcane vocabulary, and the spell of minutely changing colors and odors were all his own. As Symbolism gradually spread across the Russian Empire, Moscow asserted itself as its principal center. Three of these Muscovite poets--Alexander Blok, Andrey Bely, and Sergey Solovyov--were all indebted to the latter's uncle, the philosopher Vladimir Solovyov. In their recondite poems, redolent of religious hymns, they paid tribute to Solovyov's mystical concept of Eternal Womanhood.

At first glance, the theater, with its emphasis on dramatic situations and vivid characterization, would not be hospitable to Symbolism. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, Symbolism found favor in the theatre antidote to the naturalism prevailing in the medium, which had, many felt reached a dead end. Symbolist directors employed lighting, gesture, pauses, and the intonation of the actors’ speech to create a mood independent of the referential character of the words. A notable exponent was Aurelien-Marie Lugné-Poe, who founded the Théatre de l’Oeuvre in Paris in 1893. Lugné-Poe’s productions of Maeterlinck, Ibsen, and Strindberg “introduced a new minimalist aesthetic to the French stage—décor stripped down to its bare essentials, emphasis on cryptic lighting effects, actors transposed into mere shadows (or symbols) dispersed across dreamscapes” (Richard Sieburth). A little later Edward Gordon Craig was to pioneer an even more drastically simplified stage presentation. Craig aspired to reduce the actors to marionettes.
The play Pelléas et Mélisande (1892) is the masterpiece of the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck. It is set at an indeterminate place during an indeterminate period. The origins of Mélisande, the heroine are never explained. Against these indeterminate features Maeterlinck tells his story of the forbidden, doomed love of the title characters.
The play has been the basis of several pieces of music. Nowadays even better known than the play is the opera by Claude Debussy (1902), which builds upon the Symbolist features of the play adding music that is perfectly suited to it, and thereby creating a composite work of art, one of the ultimate aspirations of the period. Earlier, in 1898, Gabriel Fauré had written incidental music for the play, from which he later extracted a suite. The Finnish composer Jean Sibelius also wrote incidental music for it in 1905. The story is also the basis for the Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s early symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande of 1902-03.

As early as 1889 critics and others began to speak of Symbolism in painting. The principal French painters associated with symbolism were Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau, and Odilon Redon. Very different from one another, these three all had established reputations before the publication of the Manifesto. Rallying to the cause were Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, and the Nabi group. There was a signification Belgian contribution, of which the names of Fernand Khnopf and James Ensor are outstanding.
Symbolism in art is a "greedy" concept, ever seeking to expand the bounds of its empire. Currently, it is rampant in the interpretation of later Victorian art, including such figures as Edward Burne-Jones, Frederick Lord Leighton, and Aubrey Beardsley. Burne-Jones had previously been pigeonhole as a "continuation of Pre-Raphaelitism." And except for an attraction to classical subject matter, what do Leighton and Beardsley have in common?
Still, if one attends to a reasonable core group, symbolist painters addressed a variety of themes. Mythology was a significant area of interest. Classical subjects, such as Orpheus and Narcissus, appeared, seen through a kind of haze of ambiguity that was preferred to the clear light of earlier Neo-classicism. In addition, Northern myths and medieval legends figured prominently. Some turned to Satanism. All this subject matter was viewed in the light of a kind of twilight of culture (recalling the decadence motif, to be discussed presently). 
The precariousness of the self was expressed in various ways, including dreams and death. Settings often involved transposition to troubling places. The cosmos appeared, but interpreted in the spirit of Weltschmerz, a weariness with the world.
An old theme was renewed in Central Europe in a new concept of the evocative landscape in which scenes became, as it were, mirrors of the soul. This approach began precociously with the northern landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich in the early nineteenth century. In his several versions of “The Isle of the Dead” the Swiss Arnold Boecklin shifted the focus of interest to the Mediterranean. While they are little known today, artists such as Ludwig Brach, Max Klinger, and Franz von Stuck exploited this vein in many evocative, subtly disturbing works.
A search for innocence was generally found to be problematic. Adolescent awakenings were ambivalent. Men found themselves confronted with the femme fatale, personified by Salome and Judith. Many paintings appeared of these two archetypal figures. It was left to Eduard Munch, however, to achieve a more general presentation of woman as a site of attraction and danger, at the same time.
Hope was found only in Arcadia and Paradise—and the latter was often understood as a Lost Paradise. Synaesthesia, the simultaneous experience of perfumes, colors, and sounds, offered consolation.
The melancholy and pessimism residing in the iconography of Symbolism coexisted with the recurrence of the decadence theme towards the end of the nineteenth century. Previously, decadence had been viewed with dread and loathing, as a symptom of societal breakdown. However, writers such as Huysmans and Verlaine "detoxified" the term, ascribing positive qualities to it. Efforts were made to detect specific qualities of decadent art works. These in turn led to the reevaluation of previously disparaged art styles, such as the baroque and especially late antique art (as seen in the research of the Viennese art historians Alois Riegl and Franz Wickhoff). The qualities of stylization, frontality, and replication noted in the late-antique works of the Roman Empire contributed to a general tendency towards abstraction. Similarly, the new admiration for Byzantine art, particularly mosaics, helped to nudge (as it were) progressive tastes towards less naturalistic styles.
František Kupka and Vassily Kandinsky, two artists who became pillars of abstraction showed significant Symbolist qualities in their early work. In the first few years of the twentieth century Kandinsky painted a series of atmospheric paintings evoking the chivalric culture of medieval Russia that are clearly Symbolist in their evocative, almost haunting vagueness. For a time Kandinsky allied himself with the composer Arnold Schoenberg. He also experimented with dramatic presentations--some simple treatments, others more fully worked out. There seem to be nine major texts, all from the Murnau period, 1908-14. Of these efforts only “The Yellow Sound” is well known today. Assisted by the composer Thomas von Hartmann and the dancer Alexander Sakharov, Kandinsky acknowledged Wagner as his inspiration of the idea of the union of the arts.

The Symbolists rank as the first avant-garde movement in Western culture. Disregarding appeal to familiar patterns and appeals, hey were unafraid of being difficult and hermetic. The demands they made on their audience were extraordinary, so much so that it sometimes seemed that their only public was each other. Of course there was always the possibility of recognition later. Wagner’s works were termed the music of the future. The German composer actually lived to see that future come true. Not so Vincent Van Gogh, who reputedly sold only one painting in the course of this lifetime.

Notwithstanding their shared hermeticism, Symbolism was not so much a style or a movement as a kind of climate of opinion that gripped Europe from 1885 to 1905 or so. Why did it do so? The simple answer is that it was a reaction, a kind of collective burrowing beneath the sand to escape acknowledging the triumphs of material civilization. Perhaps this stance also has to do with a major psychosociological reality: the alienation of the artist (in the broad sense) after the French Revolution. Artists were adrift but also free: free to be flaming leftists or apolitical aesthetes, also free to speak obscurely among themselves.  
From the foregoing it should be evident that Symbolism, while pervasive in its time, cannot figure unproblematically as the source of twentieth-century abstraction. This so because of its retention of referential elements. In Symbolism there is the story that isn’t told—and the story that is told. One cannot have the former without the latter. 

REFS. a) General: Frantisek Deak, Symbolist Theater: The Formation of an Avant-Garde, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1993; David Michael Hertz, The Tuning of the Word: The Musico-Literary Poetics of the Symbolist Movement, Carbondale, Il; University of Southern Illinois, 1987; Jean-Nicolas Illouz, Le Symbolisme, Paris: Livre de Poche, 2004 (best recent synthesis); Henri Peyre, What is Symbolism? Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1980; Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, New York: Oxford University Press, 1970; Dee Reynolds, Symbolist Aesthetics and Early Abstract Art: Sites of Imaginary Space, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995; René Wellek, "The Term and Concept of Symbolism in Literary History," in his Discriminations: Further Concepts of Criticism, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970, pp. 55-89.
b) Art specific: Jean Clair et al., Lost Paradise: Symbolist Europe, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1995 (indispensable); Henri Dorra, ed., Symbolist Art Theories: A Critical Anthology, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994; Ingrid Ehrhardt and Simon Reynolds, eds., Kingdom of the Soul: Symbolist Art in Germany, 1870-1920, Munich: Prestel, 2000; Robert Goldwater, Symbolism, New York: Harper & Row, 1979; Sharon Hirsh, ed., "Symbolist Art and Literature," Art Journal, 45 (1985); Rodolphe Rapetti, Symbolism, Paris and New York: Flammarion, 2006; Andrew Wilton and Robert Upstone, eds. The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain, 1860-1910, Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997 (accompanied an exhibition at the Royal Academy; seeks to extend the concept to British artists not normally regarded as Symbolists).  
c) Decadence: Liz Constable, Dennis Denisoff, and Matthew Potolsky, eds. Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999; Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, 1880-1900, University of Chicago Press, 1981; John R. Reed, Decadent Style, Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1985.


A biological metaphor sustains the idea of decadence. In this view civilizations are born, enter into a lusty adolescence and a confident maturity, only to sink into a feeble old age. The process is inevitable and irreversible. If we find ourselves living in a decadent age, we must make the best of it.

The great historical exemplar, discussed by Montesquieu and Gibbon, was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This debacle was seen as the inevitable conclusion of the great cycle of classical civilization. A visual landmark attesting this belief is Thomas Couture’s huge canvas.“The Romans of the Decadence,” the sensation of the Salon of 1847. Later, under the Symbolist writers and artists, the figure of Salome gained prominence. In addition to suggesting that the social milieu in which she lived was decadent (contrasting with the purity and asceticism of her prey, John the Baptist), this legendary woman signified the femme fatale and illicit love (necrophilia).

Historians tended to focus on the spectacle of the decline of a single civilization, that of ancient Rome. Others observers went further, advancing the view that historical patterns repeat themselves. Thus one could pinpoint the decadence of pharaonic Egypt and ot imperial China under the Manchus. One must even confront the dreaded possibility that we ourselves are living in an era of decadence.

What is the “we”? Some countries, it seemed, were declining faster than others. As early as 1850 Charles-Marie Radot had written a book titled De la decadence de la France. Many pointed to the country’s declining birthrate as a definitive (and alarming) proof of this decline. Others spoke of “la decadence latine,” the decline of all of Southern Europe. This was contrasted with the ebullience of “young” peoples like the Germans and the Americans.

Conservatives seized upon the concept of decadence as a stick to beat the present with. Everything had been better, as they liked to think, in the “good old days.” Today this vein of thinking is evident in those who decry the prevalence of rock-and-roll, the decline of marriage, and the drug culture. In former times these ills did not exist. Tolerance of them can only be a sign of the decline of civilization.

In short the original concept of decadence was an overwhelmingly negative one. It was left to the poet Charles Baudelaire to present a positive alternative in remarks he made about Edgar Allen Poe in 1857 (I translate freely). “At its zenith the sun shown pitilessly, crushing everything with its harsh, white light. But before long it will illuminate the Western horizon with its gorgeous colors. In these effecs produced by the dying sun some poets find delightful novelties. They discover astonishing colonnades, cascades of dark metal, fiery paradises, in short a melancholy splendor, the pleasure of remorse, all the majesty of the dream, the memory of opium.” (Note the evocation of hard drugs, used by many creative persons in the first half of the nineteenth century.)

In effect Baudelaire tamed the concept of decadence, paving the way for more positive versions. During the 1880s the term was adopted as a talisman by a number of writers, above all Paul Verlaine. Others held that the negative connotations could not be completely bleached out; hence Moréas’ rebranding (“Symbolisme”) in his 1886 Manifesto.

As an aside it is worth recalling some other attempts at defanging negative expressions. Some did not catch on. The Marquis de Sade was an early practitioner of this device. For the term “contre-nature” (against nature) he proposed antiphysique. Even in French this term remains rare. Interestingly, he termed masturbation, which he praised, pollution. Recent decades provide a number of salient examples. In my view the jury is still out on “queer.”

We often forget that a number of now-standard terms for artistic styles began as terms of opprobrium The word baroque, for example, was shunned by many leading artists and critics of the era because it connoted irregularity and excess. Fauve means “wild beast.”

Moreas’ new label attracted many new followers, attracted by the positive aura of the word Symbolism. Yet some stubbornly clung to the term decadence. Anatole Baju conducted a magazine entitled La décadence littéraire et artistique (1886-89). Paul Verlaine remained fond of the term-—which did in fact fit the squalid circumstances of his personal life. In a series of critical pieces Verlaine introduced another expression that was to enjoy some popularity: les poètes maudits, the accursed poets.

The older term continued to enjoy some favor abroad. In November 1893 the Englishman Arthur Symonds published a critical article entitled “The Decadent Movement in Literature” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. At the turn of the century, though, after the Wilde scandals had subsided, he published an enlarged version in book form. The new study bore the title The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Decadence was dead, or so it seemed, while Symbolism had entered into a dignified old age.

The writings and works of art that have been identified over the years as decadent are exceedingly various. It would seem vain to attempt any general set of characteristics that would govern a posited “decadent style.” Yet some have made the attempt. Early on, Paul Bourget perceived a general tendency to disorganization in which the creator of a decadent work deliberately decomposed it into parts. Detail triumphs over the whole. This idea is certainly suggestive. On the one hand, it helps in the appreciation of certain works of the Roman “decadence,” such as the relief carvings of the Arch of Constantine (CE 315). On the other hand, the criterion may help to understand the break-up of neo-impressionist works into a sea of little dots, though these are supposed to fuse visually for the observer who stands at a proper distance from the canvas. In Cubism, the fragmentation becomes blatant.

Another hallmark of decadence is artifice. The elaborate and highly wrought are preferred over the simple and natural. Some have been impelled to defend cosmetics, others lying (Oscar Wilde). An interesting twist on this idea is Huysmans’ take on two powerful locomotives. Are not such means of transportation (not to speak of the automobile, which arrived five years after Against Nature) artificial and indeed unnatural? Indeed with television, the computer, and cell-phones we could be said to be living today in a hyperdecadent world, in which artifice ever triumphs over nature. It is only when we take that long-postponed trek to the wilds of Alaska that we put such indulgences behind us.

REFERENCES. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, New Haven, 1990; Louis Marquèze-Pouey, Le Movement décadent en France, Paris, 1986; Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, Chicago, 1981; John R. Reed, Decadent Style, Athens, OH, 1985; David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, Amherst, MA, 1995. On England, see Ian Fletcher, ed., Decadence and the 1890s, London, 1979.


 There were beneficial results stemming from Sir William Jones’ discovery of the kinship of Sanskrit with (most) European languages. The discovery resulted in the founding of the discipline of Indo-European linguistics. 2) The revelation fostered a new approach to mythology on a comparative basis. This approach eliminated the monopoly of Greco-Roman myth, encouraging questions about the function of myth in general. 3) By showing the kinship of Europeans with the Indians, the discovery helped to undermine the ideologies of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and racism.

There may be a downside: the tendency to ignore the specificity of various cultures. Anyone who has visited India knows that there is much to assimilate there that is distinctive. But there was worse for, paradoxically, this reorientation in the world of scholarship served to reinforce a certain type of racism. The root problem is the confusion of language with culture. Consider the cases of the Hungarians and the Basques. Neither is Indo-European in terms of language, but they share the same culture with their neighbors.

At any event, the spread of the idea that there is an Indo-European mentality, helped to foster a parallel idea that there is a Semitic mentality. In other words, language determines culture. Hence the invention, ca. 1880, of the term Anti-Semite. There was also a borrowing of symbolism: the Aryan label and the swastika. Visitors to South Asia are sometimes dismayed to see this emblem publicly displayed. But they had it first. Derived from an expression for “well-being,” it originally connoted a wish for prosperity.

2) We dealt last time with Nietzsche’s first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music. A broader consideration of the philosopher’s entire oeuvre reveals a number of disconcerting features. A Social Darwinist, he believed that life was permeated with a struggle for dominance. Conflict, and even war, were inevitable. Nietzsche was opposed to democracy and socialism, which he viewed as relicts of the ideology of pity inherited from Christianity, which he disliked. An elitist, he dismissed the views of “the herd.” He regarded social stratification as inevitable. He was a misogynist.

With all these deficits why is he is he still read and admired? The recent decline of the left has something to do with it, though Nietzche has his admirers on the left too. Perhaps the attraction boils down to this. Living in an age of uncertainty; we can no longer casually accept any of the old prefabricated world views. In this situation Nietzsche insists that we must embrace the relativism of all values—including his own. Instead of accepting things ready-made, we must attempt the arduous task of c o n s t r u c t i n g our own foundations.]


If decadence is Symbolism’s evil sibling, aestheticism is the gentle one. So much so that the trend was held to lack backbone, and was often the object of satire, as in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Patience.”

The roots of the aesthetic trend lie in the principle of “art for art’s sake,” propagated by Théophile Gautier in France. However, the epicenter was late-Victorian England. Yet connections that ranged as far away as Japan, whose society was regarded as the archetype of the aesthetic approach. Hence the vogue for japonisme.

Aestheticism was more a general tendency than a movement. However, the key ideas can be readily reconstructed. They are as follows. With the proper effort one can achieve a more or less seamless harmony linking one’s personality and life style with one’s clothes and surroundings. The theater for this achievement is the home, sometimes termed the House Beautiful. Domestic surroundings were regarded as a haven from a heartless world. And it was the industrial revolution, with its filth, noise, and pollution that constituted that world. As the industrial revolution had started in Britain, reaching its height—-and nadir--in Dickensian London, it is not surprising that that nation should have created this riposte.

Advocates of social change tended to regard the aesthetic trend as an evasion, a turning away from the urgent task of reform. Aesthetic surroundings indeed provided a refuge for the well to do, but what about the toiling masses? Still, as the career of William Morris (a socialist) shows, it was possible to combine the two: the aesthetic and the socially progressive. Followers of Morris’s arts-and-crafts approach said that they were the advance guard of a campaign for decent surroundings for everyone. They published books and manuscripts showing how even people of modest means could create beautiful furniture and textiles, even whole houses, with their own hands. In this way, they anticipated the “small is beautiful” trend—-and more broadly for the Green Movement.

It is probably fair to say that James Abbott McNeill Whistler did not subscribe this democratic side. Yet he made other contributions. He was a pioneer in the use of Japanese motifs as emblems of the aesthetic life, as seen in “Caprice in Purple and Gold: The Golden Screen" (1864-65; Freer Gallery), showing his kimono-clad companion Jo Heffernan immersed in this eminently cultivated life style.

Thomas Jeckyll, an interior architect, had created the basic structure of the Peacock Room in the London house of the shipping magnate Leyland. Yet it was Whistler who gave the final, decisive touches to this opulent jewel box (now a permanent fixture of the Freer Gallery). While Leyland halved Whistler’s bill, he continued to enjoy the exquisite cage of the Peacock Room, the setting for his elegant dinners. We can imagine these events as the ultimate expression of aesthetic refinement.

Philip Webb’s Red House at Bexley Heath near London represented an even more complete realization of the aesthetic ideal—a whole building with all its furnishings. The house was built for William Morris and his wife Jane. Their pre-Raphaelite friends pitched in to create the furnishings. Unfortunately, these were later sold off, and the house is still (I understand) undergoing restoration. The building itself, blending Gothic and Renaissance features, is an example of the Vernacular Trend, exploiting all that was best in Olde England. Note the nationalist touch. The industrial revolution had important consequences, some deleterious, but as we learn in 1066 and All That, Britain was still Top Nation.


Today many extol colors as the key to personality assessment and a major asset in controlling behavior. In my view, however, such endeavors are unrealistic. The associations of colors are extremely variable, sometimes volatile. Fifty years ago a red was a leftist or Communist, now it is dweller in the “red states” of the heartland, probably conservative. The meanings of color are culturally determined.

We turn now to attitudes to color among the Symbolists, and during the later 19th century more generally. For Paul Verlaine, who showed little response to the visual arts, colors are to be avoided (“Pas de couleur”), for music is the thing. Colors interfere with our quest for the nuance. For this reason we must prefer the chanson grise.

Be that as it may, we might think that “off shades” would be the characteristic color preference of the late 19th century. As such terms as violet, lilac, and lavender suggest, these shades project a decadent aura. Yet these color intermediates, generally residing in the red to purple range, are less salient in the period than one might think.

In 1858 the English chemist William Perkin invented a stable dye producing the color mauve from coal tar. The fashion industry took up the new shade almost immediately, precipitating a fad known as “mauve measles.” Not an enthusiast, Whistler remarked: “Mauve is just pink trying to be purple.” At all events, the fashion was slow to reach America, so that the 1890s are sometimes known as our Mauve Decade.

On the whole designers and artists preferred standard hues, chosen from the basic six of the standard color wheel, plus the “counter-colors” black and white.

Baudelaire claimed that “Perfumes, sounds, and colors respond to one another.” But which to which? Rimbaud’s sonnet of the vowels provided an answer, attempting to stipulate connections. Generally speaking, though, each of the favored hues attracted favor for its own sake.

Black: This was the color of Des Esseintes’ dinner party. Black was also associated with Satanism (with its black mass) and Anarchism (since 1834). Writers like Balzac and Baudelaire complained about the increasing dominance of black clothes for men. “We look as if we are always in mourning.” Gender contrasts appear in many paintings of the time (e.g. Renoir, “Dance at Bougival,” 1883), with the woman in white, the man in black. In this way, what was assumed to be the “natural complementarity” of male and female was pointed up. There was also a class distinction. Black was the power color of successful men, setting them off from workmen (who tended to wear blue and other hues).

Yet the bichromatic convention was violated by John Singer Sargent’s sensational “Madame X,” actually a portrait of Virginie Gautreau, who had been born in Louisiana. Her pose is at once provocative and reticent. The painting seemed to have touched off a minor fashion flurry (though most costume historians believe that it was not until Coco Chanel revived the fashion in the 1920s that the “little black dress” became a standard of women’s attire). In the 1930s Marlene Dietrich could still shock by appearing with top hat, coat and tails.

Looking back in history, the first great wave of black garments was in Spain, as seen in the grandees in El Greco’s “Burial of Count Orgaz.” Ostensibly this fashion was set by Charles the V, the most powerful monarch of his time. The underlying concept is that only upstarts, like England’s uncouth Henry VIII, need show off their flashy garments. The truly powerful individual practices a version of “less is more,” eschewing any unnecessary gaudiness. Power is inherent, and not to be enhanced by such superficial accoutrements as clothing. In short, if you’ve got it, you needn’t flaunt it.

Sticking to the Spanish theme, towards the end of his life Francisco Goya is thought to have created fourteen black paintings on the walls of his country house, la Quinta del Sordo. Recently, the Spanish art historian Juan José Junquera has expressed doubts about their authenticity, basing his conclusions on a series of original documents. Whoever painted them (and it is hard to dismiss the idea that they are in fact by the master himself), these powerful works are wonderful attestations of the “power of blackness.” One black painting represents “Saturn Devouring His Son.” On closer inspection the boy seems too old, since Saturn is supposed to have eaten the babies right after they were born. It may be that Goya, a close student of folklore, was a pioneer in the flexible interpretation of classical mythology we have ascribed to the Symbolists.

For a long time Odilon Redon restricted himself to chiaroscuro designs, either drawings or lithographs. The lithographs were generally released in sets (6-10), contributing to his renown. One set, dedicated to the memory of Goya, is a free set of variations with little direct connection to the Spanish artist—what is probably a more sincere form of homage. The one shown in class, the “Marsh-Flower,” reflects Redon’s fascination with aberrant biological forms, in this case a plant that is giving rise to human faces. A similarity to Lucian’s “True History” was noted.

In three separate series Redon took up Gustave Flaubert’s Temptation of Saint Anthony. The two slides shown follow the text fairly closely. After Flaubert’s death in 1880, the book became a cult item among the Symbolists (Khnopf also illustrated it). The book itself is a vast panorama of religions, from Isis, Oannes, and Mani to the historical Buddha (not to mention the classical deities), reflecting the new comparative approach to mythology. Long before, of course, Hieronymus Bosch had provided the archetypal rendering of the saint’s tribulations in art.

White: The other “counter-color,” white also found much favor among late-19th century artists. The title of Whistler’s “Symphony in White” suggests a synaesthetic motive. Yet Khnopf’s portrait of his sister is probably a more consummate work. Minor artists, like Henri Le Sidaner (“Sunday,” 1898) came into play. The Revue Blanche (cover by Pierre Bonnard) was the key literary review of the Parisian ‘nineties.

However, the real triumph of white occurred after the turn of the century. In his Glasgow lunchrooms, Charles Rennie MacIntosh seems to have been the first major architect to adopt the color. A little later Le Corbusier made gleaming white surfaces the hallmark of his mature architecture (though he also executed a few houses in pastel colors). Le Corbusier’s white preferences were echoed by other architects of the International Style, so that it became usual that buildings “avoid color” (that is, be mainly white). It is only with postmodernism in architecture that other colors have made a comeback.

In painting Malevich’s “White on White” is a touchstone, though most of his work uses other colors. Today Robert Ryman prefers to paint only in shades of white, and so does (very largely) Cy Twombly. Rachel Whiteread’s monumental works tend to be in white plaster.

Blue. The history of blue reveals a remarkable ascent, a kind of rags-to-riches story. Little regarded in classical antiquity (where it could even be used to represent death), the color gained traction in the Middle Ages, when it was associated with the Virgin Mary. Today majorities in many countries affirm that blue is their favorite color. (For the fortunes of blue through the centuries, see the beautiful book by Michel Pastoureau, Blue: The History of a Color, Princeton University Press, 2001).

Whistler made brilliant use of blue, sometimes in association with other colors. As previously noted, Edvard Munch picked up the fever. After the turn of the century Picasso entered his Blue Period, to be succeeded by a preference for pink (the so-called Rose Period).

Yellow: Historically, this hue has been burdened with an unsavory reputation. According to Herman Pleij: “Yellow was the color of sorrow, covetousness, hunger, and death.” Leaves turn yellow in fall (decline); jaundice (hepatitis) makes the eyes yellow (sickness). Yellow also drew some stigma as a cheap stand-in for gold, that truly noble color. Medieval aristocrats wore yellow as a sign of defiance.

Some of this yellow-negativity clung to the English ‘nineties, consorting with a new fashionability. The signature periodical was The Yellow Book, 1894-97. Ostensibly Aubrey Beardsley adopted the hue from the covers of French novels (as seen in several paintings by Van Gogh, an avid consumer of such texts). Why French publishers preferred this color is unclear. Perhaps it was to increase the shelf life of books on poor paper, which were bound to turn yellow anyway. (Late 19th century American publishing forged a more plebeian connection. The “yellow press” was what we would now call tabloids, exploiting popular interest in gossip and scandal.)

All in all, the idea of the ‘nineties as the “yellow decade” was largely limited to England. Still there were some Continental analogues. Even though the original Breton crucifix cited by Gauguin in his 1889 painting was ivory-colored, he chose to make it yellow. This change corresponds to the preference of many painters at the time for “pure hues” taken straight from the tube. A year later Ranson imitated Gauguin’s form in his “Christ and Buddha.” Buddha, looming in the foreground, is blue

Dislike of yellow has not been universal. In imperial China the color was considered auspicious, and reserved for the emperor. Today, the negativity has largely faded, and yellow adorns taxis, school buses, and the raincoats of traffic guards. Evidently the intention is to make them noticeable, thereby reducing the likelihood of accidents. Yet the pejorative connotations of yellow did not entirely disappear, as seen in the yellow star the Nazis imposed on the Jews. We still term a cowardly person “yellow.”

CONCLUDING NOTE. Not inappropriately, most studies of color in art deal with the physical means (pigments) and with the optical processes triggered by our perception of colors. Recently, a discussion has developed concerning the cross-cultural terminology of color (the so-called Kay-Berlin controversy), with possibly important consequences regarding the universality of concepts..

Out concern is different: it is with the aura of associations summoned by color. In this realm one may consult two volumes by John Gage: Color and Culture: Practice and Meaning from Antiquity to Abstraction (Little, Brown, 1993) and Color and MeaningArt, Science and Symbolism (U. of California Press, 1999). These works of synthesis make valuable points. Yet they seem relatively weak on the late-19th century connotative values of individual hues that have been our theme in the above discussion.



[Prefatory note. One way of tracking the postclassical image of Orpheus is through opera. Monteverdi and Gluck created notable examples, but the libretti omit the final phase in Thrace. Haydn’s splendid "Orfeo ed Euridice," 1790, recently broadcast, does deal with the maenad attack in a somewhat sanitized version. Possibly, Offenbach’s 1858 "Orphée aux Enfers" (Orpheus in the Underworld), a comic opera that generated much commentary and cartoons, provided some of the background for Moreau’s painting of seven years later. Such considerations belong to the thematic approach, which will be addressed in the latter part of the course.]

The first lecture alluded to the “chain of custody” scheme, whereby the spirit of advanced art was claimed first by impressionism, then by postimpressionism, followed by fauvism and cubism. Voila! Abstract art is the “inevitable” result. We noted several problems with this formalistic monism.

Another issue is where does Symbolism fit in? In truth there is no single Symbolist style. Moreau remained largely faithful to his academic training. Redon, with the value contrasts of his “noirs” and the jewel-like color of his later style, is romantic. Khnopf is a kind of pre-Raphaelite. And so on. Thus Symbolism is a tendency, not a style.

Or perhaps, as we suggested last time, it is an ethos or a world view. In this light one may be tempted to seek a “perennial Symbolism” (paralleling “perennial abstraction”). The names of Chirico, Whistler, Cocteau, and Beckett came up. It is best to avoid this expansionist temptation, at least for the present, sticking to the historical core.

One way of defining Symbolism is in terms of absences.

1) Breaking with a venerable European tradition, the Symbolists abjure clarity and directness of statement. For this reason didactic works, such as those of conventional religious imagery, are generally excluded.

2) Also missing is the related project of enlightenment. They are more concerned with obnubilation: what you think is bright and clear is dark and murky.

3) There is a death of irony. Symbolists seem to lack a sense of humor. Or if they have it, it is not qua Symbolist. Oscar Wilde had a marvelous sense of irony and humor, but in his one Symbolist work, Salome (written in French) he renounces it. There is nothing funny about Salome. This lack is striking in the era of Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Alphonse Allais, and the invention of the comic strip. Sometimes, though, there is a kind of bitter satire, as in the coarse graphic works of Félicien Rops.

4) System is eschewed. For this reason comparisons with philosophy and religion only take us so far.

5) Even in a patriarchal era, the Symbolists seem to be notably misogynistic. The Salome theme-—part of the larger preoccupation with the femme fatale-—is characteristic. The Symbolists were virtually an all-male club. Exceptions are the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore (1786-1859), whom Verlaine admired, and Rachilde (Marguerite Eymery). Monsieur Vénus, Rachilde’s 1884 novel, boldly addresses the issue of sex roles, with Raoule, the heroine, playing the man’s part. Among painters the lesbian Romaine Brooks may rank as a late-blooming Symbolist. Perhaps, then, there is some redeeming quality in the way that Symbolists raised the issue of sex roles. Indirectly, there may be a connection with “Sapphic Paris,” so welcoming to creative women from foreign lands.

Viewed as such, this onslaught of deficits raises a question. In presenting, and indeed advocating for the Symbolists, are we not trying to turn a collection of quaint knickknacks into profound evidences of the Absolute? The answer, I think, is that all historical inquiry is “dated” to some degree or other. Yet with their affinities with postmodern indeterminacy, the Symbolists seem to have acquired new relevance.

We now return to the question of mysticism.

Maurice Maeterlinck translated John of Ruysbroeck from the Dutch. The writer was a Flemish priest (d. 1381) who retired to a hermitage with a few followers. He would wander in the woods writing down his ideas as they came to him. “We are one with God,” he observed. He was accused of pantheism. God does not reside in some remote spot, looking down on humanity, but pervades the universe. Spinoza equated God with nature. Some find the idea in the Upanishads. The idea that the divine is ever present (even though we may not realize it) has affinities with Surrealism.

Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) was a distinguished Swedish scientist who experienced a religious conversion in his middle years. He claimed to have talked with angels, devils, and spirits while visiting Heaven and Hell. Christ commanded him to proclaim the doctrine of the Second Coming. To spread his message Swedenborg founded his New Church, which still thrives in a number of countries.

Swedenborg influenced a number of artists, notably William BLAKE (cf. his daring observations in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”) . He also had adherents among American painters, such as George INNESS. In France he influenced Balzac (who produced two Swedenborgian novels) and Baudelaire. The latter’s “Correspondences” is a kind of Symbolist charter (see text in Dorra). In this sonnet Baudelaire set forth three types of correspondence. Horizontal links occur between different entities in the visible world (this corresponds to common garden symbolism). Vertical links connect elements of the phenomenal world with their numinal counterparts. Finally, synaesthesia connects experience in one sense with another, as in “scarlet sounds,” “loud colors” and so forth. Synaesthesia, especially in the appeal to music, became an important component of abstraction.

As it happens, three of the four paintings presented last time as typical Symbolist productions incorporate classical mythology (the works by Moreau, Redon, and Khnopf). However, the artists tend to “tweak” the stories, so as to provide a personal interpretation. This practice assumes that mythology is familiar, but also presupposes that a certain loosening of its canons has taken place.

In Greek mythos simply meant “plot.” Today, the word myth has two meanings, broadly speaking: 1) something that is not true; 2) a profound truth presented in an allegorical fashion.

This loosening just noted is the product of the New Science of Mythology, of which an extended discussion ensued. In the course of the presentation it emerged that three major explanations for the origins of mythology have been dominant. 1) Euhemerism assumes that the gods and goddesses were originally human beings who were immensely charismatic. First they ascended to the status of heroes (cf. (Hercules and Orpheus), and then achieved full divinity. Perhaps in future centuries such figures as John Lennon and Marilyn Monroe will make such an ascent. 2) The gods and goddesses are simply names for natural forces, e.g. Helios, the sun, and Selene, the moon. Sometimes, as with Apollo and Diana, these forces have other names. 3) Mythology reflects social stratification. Thus there are three types of deities representing sovereignty (Zeus, Mitra) , power (Ares, Indra, Athena), and fecundity (Aphrodite and many others). Early European and Indian society was divided into three classes--priests, warriors, and producers.

In might have been expected that with the rise of Christianity, classical mythology would die out. In fact this lore survived through the Middle Ages. In the early Renaissance classical myths received powerful support from the Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino, who sought a kind of universal understanding of religious truth.

Sandro BOTTICELLI’s “Birth of Venus” (ca. 1482) is a celebrated attestation. The classical goddess emerges from the water on a shell, blown towards shore by the Zephyrs, symbols of spiritual passions, and with one of the Horae, goddesses of the seasons, handing her a flowered cloak. Contrary to our off-hand modern view, the naked goddess is not a symbol of earthly love (lust) but of spiritual love—she is Aphrodite Urania (as distinct from her humbler sister Aphrodite Pandemos; see Plato’s Symposium). Her origins were explicated by a strange story, in which Ouranos, the sky god, suffered castration at the hands of his own son, Kronos or Saturn, who threw the genitals into the sea. One motivation for allegorical interpretation of such myths is to mask such indecencies, which caused embarrassment even to the ancient Greeks.

Anthropologists surmise that mythology may be universal. All the same, for a long time Greek mythology (and its Roman adjunct) mythology enjoyed a uniquely privileged status. Books by Hesiod and Ovid, supplemented by a tradition inaugurated by Giovanni Boccaccio, provided a rich repertoire. Yet during the 19th century this Greco-Roman monopoly ceased, for two other types of mythology became known. Copiously attested in written records, these “other” mythological systems cast light on poorly understood parts of Greco-Roman mythology. The first of these sisterly rivals was Norse or Germanic; the second Indian.

Remarkably, traces of Germanic mythology survive in our days of the week; Tuesday (Tur), Wednesday (Woden), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). In fixing dates we unknowingly pay tribute to these deities. (As they say, maybe it can’t hurt.) Around 1800 scholars began to study and translate the Old Norse myths where these deities are ensconced. Wagner adapted this store of Germanic mythology in his Ring cycle, and Wagner was a big favorite among the Symbolists. The set of four operas ends with the Twilight of the Gods, or Götterdämmering. This is an image of cosmic decline, reflecting the Scandinavian myth of Ragnarok.

The second competitor, India, was perhaps even more important. New comparative material appeared in the wake of the fundamental discovery of Sir William Jones (1784). For the first time, Jones demonstrated conclusively that Sanskrit was a sister language to Greek and Latin. He noted pitar (=pater), bhratar (=frater, brother), agni (=ignis) and thousands of other correspondences. By showing that Indian languages were not exotic products of “barbarism,” Jones poked a big hole in the ideology of imperialism, which relied on the assumption of the “otherness”of the subject peoples. . His findings were instrumental in founding the science of Indo-European linguistics, whose comparative perspectives extended from India and Persia in the East to Ireland and Scandinavia in the West.

If words could be compared, why not myths? The Vedic documents, the earliest surviving Indo-European texts, contain much mythological material

At first a good deal of confusion reigned, for assimilating new truths is always difficult, particularly when they go against ingrained beliefs—-in this case the idea of the inherent superiority of Europe. In this way Schopenhauer conflated Brahmanism (which he studied in the Upanishads) with Buddhism. Once the latter became known it was understood in terms of simple categories, such as “nothingness.” While that idea exists (as the shunyata), there is much more to Buddhism. In these initial speculations, Buddha was even identified with Wotan! Comparison sometimes goes too far.

Some attempts to combine religion are deliberate, reflecting the idea that there are truths common to all religions. This idea, already adumbrated by Ficino, seems to underlie Paul RANSON’s “Christ and Buddha” (ca. 1890-92).

Eventually, it emerged that the leading advocate of the Indological approach to mythology was Friedrich Max Müller, a German savant who settled in England. This scholar was responsible for a whole library of translations, the Sacred Books of the East. Many of these volumes are still consulted. He was an almost fanatical exponent of the idea that the ancient gods and goddesses represent natural forces, especially the sun.

Max Müller’s ideas reached France by an indirect route. Reverend Cox, his disciple, condensed them into a single book, which adds Norse and Indian examples to the Greco-Roman core. This book in turn was translated by no less a figure than Mallarmé, in his Les Dieux antiques of 1885.

One more figure must be cited in this reorientation of mythology. Friedrich Nietzsche’s first book,The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872), represents a turning point in the understanding of ancient Greece. The German thinker posited a basic polarity of two drives, one ruled by Apollo, the other by Dionysos. The first, the Apollonian component, reflects the principles of rationality and clarity that the conventional wisdom had long taken to be the exclusive hallmarks of ancient Greek civilization (“Noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur,” as Winckelmann put it) The Dionysian pole is one of ecstasy and excess. For the Apollonian reverie, a dream or order, clarity, and rationality, it substitutes frenzied intoxication. The Dionysian is the irrepressible, overflowing surge of life itself. A typical Apollonian gathering would be a committee meeting, governed by Robert’s Rules of Order. A Dionysian gathering would be an orgy. Yet we cannot allow the Dionysian impulse to rage unchecked. Civilization requires the interplay of both, but the Dionysian is primordial, for it is the ultimate principle of creativity. The Dionysus pole comes to the fore in music (Nietzsche is thinking of Wagner), while the Apollo trend is dominant in the visual arts. The whole construction is part of Nietzsche’s “metaphysic of the artist,” the assumption that the creation of great art is society’s highest task. The world itself is governed by a kind of artistic interplay of opposing forces. Nietzsche’s ideas remain controversial among classicists, but have insinuated themselves into the ground structure of our thinking about culture, and perhaps life itself.

In our own day, the heirs of Nietzsche’s Dionysian principle are such beat writers as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Rock and Roll has also been named. These allusions make Nietzsche’s point that the contrast of Apollonian and Dionysian does not simply apply to ancient Greece, but reflects fundamental human drives.

The final unit of the lecture broached the question of words. Time permitted only a discussion of Decadence, the rival of Symbolism ostensibly replaced by the latter term in 1886. The ultimate reference point for decadence is the Fall of the Roman Empire, leading (ostensibly to the Dark Ages). The painting by Thomas COUTURE (1847) offers a lurid portrayal of supposed Roman excesses.

We must avoid this fate ourselves. But can we? It may be inevitable. With this prospect some discovered (rightly, I think) attractive features in “Dark Age” art, such as the splendid Byzantine mosaic of the Empress Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna (547). Des Esseintes showed a predilection for sophisticated literary works of Late Latinity.

The word decadence is an example of “detoxification” of negative terms. For further information, see Decadence, below.

Several strands come together in a beautiful poem by Paul Verlaine, “Languor” (1884).

“I am the Empire at the end of the decadence,
Watching great and white barbarians pass by
As I doodle my lazy acrostics
Scribed in gold beneath a play of languid light.

“Lonely would weighted down by ennui,
There, they say, it’s long and bloody war.
Ah, what if slow and weak desire stopped
Trying to make life sing with color?

“What if the need to die there went?
Everything’s been drunk. Stop laughing, Bathyllus.
Everything’s been consumed. Nothing left to say.

“Just a silly poem for the fire,
Just a wanton slave neglecting you,
Just afflictions of ennui sprung from God knows where.”
(trans. Martin Sorrell)



In his book Human Accomplishment (New York, 2003) Charles Murray has identified fourteen meta-inventions that occurred since ca. 800 BCE. There are six in the arts, three in philosophy, three in mathematics, and two in the sciences. The three in the visuals arts are naturalism (the ancient Greeks), perspective (Italy, ca. 1400), and abstraction (Europe, 1909-14). One may quarrel with the details of Murray’s analysis. About abstraction, though, he is surely correct. This was a revolutionary development in Western art that calls for tenacious, serious examination, with regard to its nature and above all as to the causal factors that shaped it.

[One should set aside a preliminary objection, namely that abstraction is no novelty of a hundred years ago, but has always existed. It is true that, since neolithic times, there has been a perennial abstraction, but Western art banished these patterns to the margins, relegating them to the so-called minor of decorative arts. Early twentieth-century abstraction is not “decorative.” It boldly assumes the place formerly occupied by figuration, landscape, and still life. For further documentation, see the essay on Perennial Abstraction, below at this site.]

One common explanation for the rise of abstraction ascribes it to kind of chain reaction set off by the tiny dots making up the surface of the impressionist paintings of CLAUDE MONET and his colleagues. Thus impressionism began postimpressionism. In turn postimpressionism begat fauvism, fauvism begat cubism, and finally cubism begat abstraction. This occurred, according to the influential theory of Clement Greenberg because of the essential flatness of painted surface. One this condition was tacitly acknowledged in impressionism, what followed was inevitable. This story is one of progress towards a goal, in short, of teleology.

Others have noticed that the development was not unique to the visual arts, for a similar evolution has been evident in music, where Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system is analogous to abstraction and literature (Stein’s Tender Buttons, ditto). The reason for these correspondences has been sought in technological determinism, viz. the extraordinary inventions in information storage and transmission (film, telephones, and radio) and transportation (automobiles, aviation). While it is easy to affirm this connection, it breaks down under close analysis. As seen in class, GIACOMO BALLA and LE CORBUSIER drew very different conclusions from their devotion to the automobile.

In fact the rise of abstraction is overdetermined. That is to say, a number of factors have converged. Over the years I have become convinced that the most important of these conditioning factors is the Symbolist Movement.

Officially, Symbolism (with a capital s) was launched by an 1886 manifesto of Jean Moréas in a Paris newspaper. (Excerpt in Dorra; full text in a separate entry below.) The writer rebranded the old term decadence, judged too negative. According to the manifesto, Symbolism had been existence for some time. Already present in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire (died 1867), it may have been anticipated by the American Edgar Allen Poe (died 1849). Moréas ignored the visual arts, but others detected the connection (above all, Huysmans, who included it in his programmatic novel Against Nature of 1884).

Four examples provide an initial clarification of visual symbolism.

1) MOREAU’s Orpheus (1865) draws upon a classical myth of the death of Orpheus, but modifies it in a significant way, by making the woman a Thracian instead of an inhabitant of Lesbos (Ovid). This change creates an almost eerie sense of mystery, as to why this woman, possibly one of the poet-singer’s slayers, should assume a reverential pose. As a symbol of creativity, Orpheus was honored throughout the 19th century. Later, Apollinaire purloined the name for the “Orphic Cubism” of the Delaunay’s.

REDON’s “Cyclops” is a much freer adaptation of classical mythology. The circular eye and head of the creature reflect the artist’s obsession with spherical forms. The giant may also be connected with Redon’s interest in the bypaths of biology. The scintillating colors of this late work add to the appeal.

KHNOPF’s “I Close My Door Upon Myself” (1891) takes its title from a poem by Christina Rossetti. The woman is modeled on the artist’s sister Marguerite. While this connection is not incestuous, it does reinforce what might be termed the “calm claustrophobia” of the scene. The flowers (irises and a poppy) suggest transience, and perhaps even death. The marble head of Hypnos, Greek god of sleep, presides over the scene. This figure connects with the Symbolist fascination with dreams.

MUNCH’s “Night” stems from the artist’s brief Parisian period (1889-90), when he was introduced to Symbolism by his friend, the Danish poet Immanuel Goldstein. It is almost a monochrome, dominated by blue, a color much in vogue at the time (Whistler, Mallarmé, Darío). “Night” is best regarded not simply as a portrayal of the artist’s dismal quarters in Saint-Cloud, but as a rendering of his state of mind. In its muted way, it forecasts Munch’s later obsessive angst.

[For images, try googling these art works.]

We now turn to a first pass at a challenging task, and that is to characterize the Symbolist ethos or world-view. Initially we acknowledge that Symbolism posited two procedures: 1) with the appropriate effort, the perceptive observer may intuitively access another realm that lies beyond the everyday world; and 2) in this endeavor there is a need to attenuate the distractions of specificity, for the world of objects occludes the window that the Symbolist is seeking to create as a way of contemplating another world.

Applying these principles, Symbolism came to stand for fluidity, slippage, indeterminacy, and uncertainty. In this context, peripheral perceptions could become central and vice versa. It is tempting to identify Symbolism with contemporary postmodernism. Yet that is probably an oversimplification.

Let us return to point two. Put baldly, as above, that is probably overstated. While the Symbolists show affinities with transcendental idealism, they refused to be pinned down. In philosophy transcendental idealism appears in one of two main guises. The first is Plato’s two-worlds theory, in which the things we encounter in our everyday lives are inadequate copies of the archetypes, the Forms or Ideas, which dwell in a kind of supernal realm. Kantian idealism is less definite. Kant proposed a dichotomy between the phenomenal and numinal realms. The first is what we see and experience in our daily lives; the latter interpenetrates it. We can be absolutely certain that the numinous realm (“the thing in itself”) exists, but must remain agnostic as to its contents.

Yet earlier versions of transcendental idealism tend to posit that something inspiring or uplifting lies beyond the veil. We seek to pierce it for relief from the disappointments and heartache of everyday existence. The Symbolists seem to believe that no such consolation is readily available. We can only gesture towards things that may lie in the Beyond. Moreover, their character may not be uniformly positive, for they may be laced with forbidden material, such as incest, sexual variation, and sadism. Enter at your peril.

Now we leave these gloomy precincts, at least for a while. Another interesting parallel is with the Christian religious mystics of the late Middle Ages, who flourished mainly in Germany, the Netherlands, and England. In our quest for union with God we must renounce the tools of the intellect. We must frankly recognize that we dwell in the Cloud of Unknowing, as an anonymous English mystic put it. Ignorance, if it can lead us on this path, must be frankly embraced. However, these mystical approaches differ markedly from the way of the Symbolists. The earlier traditions assume that we can indeed “break on through to the other side,” as Jim Morrison would put it. Instead we must honestly acknowledge the possibility that there may not be any “other side,” and even if there is, there is no guarantee that we can attain any definite knowledge of it. Were we to do so, we might find that circumstances there are less pleasant than we imagined. As the old saying has it, ignorance is bliss. But we are better off without the narcotic of such assurances.

Stimulating as these parallels are, it must be conceded that the Symbolist Movement is neither religious nor philosophical—though it has affinities with both. One philosopher did influence the Symbolists. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) attacked the logocentrism of philosophy, its overemphasis (in his judgment) on the sovereignty of the intellect. Instead, he stressed the role of a vast impersonal factor he termed the Will. The operations of this inescapable ground of being are in large measure inscrutable, but they are inescapable. Schopenhauer’s disciple Eduard von Hartmann popularized the idea of the Unconscious forty years before Freud. Symbolism shares with Surrealism a desire to explore hidden aspects of human experience.

The prospect of our engulfment in Schopenhauer’s vast empire of the Will may seem daunting, even terrifying. But there is one readily available antidote, and that is the arts. Their real purpose, Schopenhauer avowed, is to hold the Will at bay. Among the arts, music is supreme. The Symbolists agreed with him: “De la musique avant toute chose” (Verlaine).

[Btw, I was mistaken in saying that Schopenhauer was the first major Western philosopher to be influenced by Asian thought. The first was probably Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), who used Chinese sources (including the I Ching) to help in formulating his concept of the differential calculus.]

As the 19th century advanced, many educated persons concluded that the rising tempo of scientific discovery left no room for any belief other than materialism. At the opposite pole were those who, for a variety of reasons, retained their allegiance to organized religion. The Symbolists were inclined to pursue a third path. They held that there must be some way of attaining and deepening a sense of spiritual awareness.

The Symbolist Movement sought to challenge a tradition in Western country that had been honored for centuries. That is the idea that we must strive for “clear and distinct ideas.” In the view of its supporters, this is an asymptotic process. We may never arrive at complete clarity, but the main thing is gradually to eliminate zones of imprecision. This endeavor links up with another project, loosely termed Enlightenment. The Enlightenment project seeks to challenge and defeat various forms of superstition. In the view of many, this means not just challenging false beliefs, but even revealed religion itself. Needless to say, all forms of mysticism-—including “new-fangled” ones imported from Asia-—are anathema to this view.

According to the Symbolists the highminded quest for ever-increasing clarity is vain and inadequate. The most important truths cannot be expressed in any definite form. Verbal and mathematical formulations give us only information about the least important aspects of reality. As Wittgenstein said, “[A]bout that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.” For the Symbolists, though, complete silence would mean giving up. We must not do this.

What is really important is intangible reality. This reality, the true reality, can only be hinted at. But that is an indispensable task. For this purpose the devices of suggestion and nuance must be relentlessly deployed. Hence Mallarmé’s 25%/75% split. Naming or description provides only 25% of the value of the poetic transaction. The other 75% obtains through suggestion.

At first sight it seems odd that the Symbolist should work, in the first instance, in the medium of words. Words had in fact been the primary vehicle of the striving for clarity noted above. However, Symbolists noted that words contained all sorts of hidden connections, devices we term metaphors, puns, sound affinities, and so forth. These devices can be turned to good use to subvert the Clarity project.

As noted above, in order to achieve its aims Symbolism seeks the attenuation of specificity. Art being specific creates a problem. However, Symbolist artists like Moreau, Redon, and Khnopf found ways around this obstacle, so that there is in fact Symbolist art.

Perhaps the ULTIMATE LESSON of the Symbolist challenge may be this epistemological truth: “Knowing is inseparable from the not-known. And the not-known may not even be knowable. ” Symbolism offers a lesson in intellectual humility.

A concluding footnote concerns the conventional view of symbolism. The "Adoration of the Lamb" from the Ghent altarpiece and Bartholdi's colossal Statue of Liberty illustrate the ordinary use of the term. These instances display a one-for-one correspondence between the symbolic token, on the one hand, and the person or idea for which it stands, on the other. The Bartholdi work is an example of the device of personification, an invention stemming from Greek and Roman art that is used to denote concepts, cities, and countries. Once one knows the appropriate code the answer to the puzzle is readily obtained. Such links are the subject matter of the discipline of iconography. There are many useful reference works in which such correspondences are listed in alphabetical order.

Two proto-Symbolist works, GIORGIONE’s “Tempest” and CASPAR DAVID FRIEDRICH’s “Two Men Contemplating the Moon,” document an entirely different approach. Here no code is available. Such works convey their meaning by connotation instead of denotation.

It is true that symbols of the conventional type sometimes make their way into works of the true Symbolist type. A case in point is the lyre (an attribute) in MOREAU’s “Orpheus.” However, this device is not the main point. Instead it serves as hook to involve us in the classical subject matter-—which the artist then treats in a special subjective way.

In short, we must bear in mind the distinction between symbolism and Symbolism. The latter is the main theme of this course.



Post a Comment

<< Home