That Fin-de-Siècle Feeling
- Vanessa R. Schwartz (Author)
Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Susan J. Navarette (Author)
The Shape of Fear: Horror and the Fin de Siècle Culture of Decadence. University Press of Kentucky (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Wilhelm Emilsson
These two books are examples of how scholarly interest in the end of the nineteenth-century has increased dramatically as we move closer to the end of the twentieth. This interest is not surprising, for the parallels between the nineteenth-century fin de siècle and our own are striking. Lady Bracknell’s line from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, "We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces," seems even more relevant today than it was when the play opened in 1895. In both periods, an obsession with style is conjoined with the uncomfortable feeling that behind the world’s dizzying play of surfaces there may be nothing—except more play. Artists and thinkers of both times are haunted by a paradoxical sense of ennui and excitement. The end of the nineteenth century saw the beginning of cultural trends that are still gathering momentum: philosophers revalued all values, aesthetes and decadents pushed artistic and moral boundaries, feminists attacked patriarchy, mass culture threatened to topple high art from its pedestal, and cracks appeared in the struc- ture of scientific orthodoxies. Earlier in the century, Darwin had woken the Victorians from their intellectual slumber by changing the very concept of nature. Stability, it turned out, was not quite natural. Darwin pictured life as an endless evolution going nowhere in particular. The only thing that was certain at the end of the nineteenth century was that nothing was certain, as ancient absolutes were being replaced by modern paradigms of relativity.
How do people react to the flux of modernity? Some look with Kurtz into its dark, hollow heart and gasp: "The horror! The horror!" Others unite with the shoppers of the world and, with varying degrees of subtlety, celebrate the great spectacle of life. In The Shape of Fear, Susan J. Navarette explores the first option. In Spectacular Realities, Vanessa R. Schwartz examines the second. Navarette focuses on a wide range of fin-de-siècle horror fiction, and rather than dismissing the genre as trivial, shows how it has its origins in some of the central tendencies of nineteenth century thought, especially the degenerative prophesies of Victorian science. The pursuit of science is an enormously complex activity, and one could argue that Navarette overemphasizes its pessimistic aspects. The late nineteenth century is, after all, the time of a wide-spread belief in the omnipotence of science and technology. There is, however, no denying the influence of the darker currents she chooses to discuss. One of the characteristics of the period was the way the belief in progress was haunted by fears of regress. Turn-of-the-century intellectuals were obsessed by the entropic forces that threatened their civilization: Cesare Lombroso argued that crime was a throwback to primeval behaviour, and his disciple Max Nordau detected signs of cultural decay in every corner. Furthermore, the second law of thermodynamics led to speculations about the ultimate "heat death" of the universe. In The Shape of Fear, Navarette shows how both the form and content of fin-de-siècle horror fiction reflects these anxieties. She examines classics such as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, as well as texts by largely ignored authors like Walter de la Mare, Vernon Lee, and Arthur Machen. The best thing about Navarette’s work is the way she combines the sociological orientation of cultural studies with a nuanced aesthetic sensibility.
She has what some cultural critics seem to lack, a genuine appreciation of literature as literature. Her book is a good example of how the aesthetic and the sociological approaches can complement each other.
However, Navarette’s love of texts actually leads to some of the stylistic problems in her study. Her sentences are filled with bits of quotations which tend to interrupt the flow of her writing. More paraphrases would have been a definite improvement. Her prose is overripe, resonating with clever echoes of great nineteenth-century stylists from Poe to Pater. This approach is in keeping with her subject matter, of course, but sometimes her points get lost in the folds of gargantuan paragraphs. These flaws lessen, but do not ruin, the effect of her book. Anyone interested in horror fiction, and the relation between late- Victorian literature and science will find much of interest in The Shape of Fear.
Berating the entertainment business has been a favourite pastime of intellectuals for a long time. In Spectacular Realities, Schwartz abstains from this rather petty habit. She does not accept the standard view of the urban crowd as an alienated horde drifting in a wasteland of cheap thrills. Instead, her detailed examination of fin-de-siècle Paris shows how mass culture helped give shape to the experience of urban dwellers and bring together different classes in an enjoyment of the spectacle of city life. She is quick to point out that she is not claiming that individuals of various backgrounds experienced the city in identical ways. Rather she offers her book as a corrective to overly gloomy and hostile views of life in a capitalist economy. (Foucault’s wonderfully paranoid theory of the panopticon and Debord’s The Societof the Spectacle are two influential views which she calls into question.)
Schwartz’s account begins with a look at the kaleidoscopic life on the grands boulevards of Paris. As on of her sources puts it: "Paris did not merely host exhibitions, it had become one." Schwartz analyses the various processes whereby reality was sensationalized and spectacularized by newspapers, wax museums, panoramas, dioramas, and film. A macabre expression of this process is the way Parisians flocked to the Morgue to view corpses that had been fished out of the Seine. The result was to turn Parisian men and women of all classes into flÃ¢neurs. Until now, flÃ¢nerie has been theorized as a prime example of the privileged male gaze, but Schwartz argues convincingly that the process of relating to reality by consuming it as a spectacle is a fitting way of describing the peculiarity of the urban experience for both genders. In her book, Schwartz avoids the pitfalls of either a naive celebration of, or a cranky attack on, mass culture. The strength of her work is that it offers far more concrete analysis and less arbitrary judgements than we usually see in discussions of popular culture.
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MLA: Emilsson, Wilhelm. That Fin-de-Siècle Feeling. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 11 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #161-162 (Summer/Autumn 1999), On Thomas King. (pg. 230 - 231)
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