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“Epistola: in Carcere et Vinculis”: The Downfall of Oscar Wilde (Presentation)

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Lord Alfred Douglas: A Tainted Relationship

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alred Douglas
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas began in the Spring of 1892, and resulted in an ongoing affair which caused Wilde’s ruin (385). Wilde’s relationship with Alfred Douglas was an amorous relationship which proved fidelity through economic rather than sexual means, as Douglas drove Wilde to ‘acquisition’ other young men. Wilde repeatedly paid Douglas’s debts and supported him, leading ultimately to bankruptcy.  This relationship formed the seed for the later obscenity trials which ruined Wilde.

May 23, 1895 Newspaper with a Headline describing the Verdict of the April Indecency trial. Alfred Taylor was another man who facilitated Wilde's relationships with multiple young men.
May 23, 1895 Newspaper Headline

Alfred’s father, John Douglas, ninth Marquess of Queensberry, warred with his son through Wilde, blaming their gay relationship for ‘Bosie’s’ reckless behavior. Queensberry blamed Wilde for Douglas’s failures at Oxford University, and he quickly began to attack Wilde through letters and public acts  (404). Ultimately, he filed an obscenity charge in order to punish Wilde for his ‘indecent’ acts with Alfred. Queensberry charged Wilde with 15 counts of sodomy involving 12 boys, 10 of whom were named (443). Libel action suit was held on 3 April 1895, and Wilde ultimately lost, condemning him to two years hard labor.

Prison Life

Throughout the process of the trial and ultimate sentence, Wilde served time in five different prisons in the British system. During the trial, Wilde was held in Holloway and Newgate Prisons, before being transferred for his sentence to three different institutions: Pentonville, Wandsworth, and finally Reading Goal (Gagnier 340).

Reading Prison
Reading Goal Prison

Although conditions fluctuated slightly between these different systems, the prison theory behind them was largely the same: solitary confinement and unproductive hard labor. Wilde was kept in a 13x7x9 cell, and was forced to observe a very tightly regimented schedule: “6 a.m. clean cell;  7, porridge and brown bread; exercise for an hour, oakum picking until noon; dinner of bacon, beans, bread, potatoes (cold meat once a week); 12:30-6 oakum picking; tea or gruel and 8 ounces bread; 7 p.m. lights out…One letter could be sent and received per quarter, but letters were allowed for the ‘purpose of enabling [prisoners] to keep up a connection with their respectable friends and not that they may be kept informed of public events.’ No books were allowed the first month” (George Ives qtd. in Gagnier 340). The labor of oakum picking involved unrolling lengths

Male prisoners picking oakum in separate stalls at Holloway Prison 1862.
Male prisoners picking oakum in separate stalls at Holloway Prison 1862.

of rope to remove parts that were rotten or damaged. In De Profundis, Wilde writes of his prison experience, saying: “I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s finger-tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices which each day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate” (1020). The prison officials also ordered that Wilde was not to talk to any other prisoners, and that he be kept in solitary confinement in his cell. Solitary confinement ultimately led Wilde to fear insanity.

A Curious Publication: The Multiplicity of the ‘Original’

After his two petitions for a reduction of his sentence in July and November 1896 were denied at Reading Goal Prison, Wilde finally pled insanity and was ultimately given materials to write De Profundis  (Gagnier 441).

Petition to Reading Prison for release
Petition for release from Reading Prison

As Regenia Gagnier writes: “Wilde pleaded a fear of mental breakdown and decline of literary capability, and the physicians observed that his prose style was too lucid, orderly and polished to cause apprehension on those scores….Yet he was granted books and writing materials, that he “might be free to produce,” (Gagnier 341).

The lore surrounding Wilde’s writing of De Profundis follows that Wilde wrote the work on twenty folio sheets of blue prison paper, receiving one sheet a day. As the Governor of Reading Goal wrote, “Each sheet was carefully numbered before being issued and withdrawn each evening at locking and placed before me in the morning with the usual papers” (qtd. in Complete Letters 683). The process of writing one sheet a day has been questioned by many literary historians, who have written that several sheets appeared to be fair copies and that only two of the twenty sheets of writing ended with a complete sentence (683). This shows that prison guards may have been more lenient with Wilde, allowing him to write several sheets at a  time. Wilde wrote to his friend and former lover Robert Ross (referred to in De Profundis as Robbie) before his release, telling him to publish the letter.  The letter to Robbie, dated 1 April 1897, reads as follows:

“My dear Robbie, I send you, in a roll separate from this, my letter to Alfred Douglas, which I hope will arrive safe. As soon as you…have read it, I want you to have it carefully copied for me…I want you to be my literary executor after my death, and to have complete control over my plays, books and papers….When you have read the letter you will see the psychological explanation of a course of conduct that from the outside seems a combination of absolute idiocy with vulgar bravado….Of course from one point of view I know that on the day of my release I shall be merely passing form one prison into another, and there are times when the whole world seems to me no larger than my cell, and as full of terror for me….As regards the mode of copying:…I think that the only thing to do is to be thoroughly modern, and to have it type-written…I wish the copy to be done not on tissue paper but on good paper such as is used for plays, and a wide rubricated margin should be left for corrections…it may be spoken of as the Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis. (780-782).”

Despite his wishes, prison officials rejected Wilde’s plea for his work to be sent to Robbie April 1,and refused to release the material until his own release.  Wilde therefore handed the letter personally to Ross after his release on May 19, 1897.

Out of this material, Robert Ross published an abridged version in 1905. This version of the document removed much of the importance of Lord Alfred Douglas from the letter, removing the first 28 pages of the work and instead focusing on Wilde’s description of his prison-life and hardship.   Ross later wrote that he abridged the document in order to match the public mood of the times, as he wrote that “Wilde’s name unfortunately did not bring very agreeable memories to English ears: his literary position, hardly recognized even in the zenith of his successful dramatic career, had come to be ignored by Mr. Ruskin’s countrymen, unable to separate the man and the artist” (“A Prefatory Dedication” iv).

1904 Publication of De Profundis by Robert Ross
1904 Publication of De Profundis by Robert Ross

In Ross’s subsequent  version in 1908, he included more of the original, claiming that public opinion was more responsive to a positive image of Wilde, as “English critics have shown themselves ready to estimate the writer, whether favorably or unfavorably, without emphasizing their natural prejudice against his later career” (vi). The introduction to the 1908 edition does not mention Alfred Douglas by name, and Ross simply states that “it is cast in the form of a letter to a friend not myself;” The identity of Lord Alfred Douglas was undoubtably hidden in order to lessen the continued memory of Wilde’s scandal.

Further reprints of the text came after a copy of the ‘original’ manuscript was freed from the British Library, by Wilde’s son Vyvyan Holland. This new version was  published 1949, and is the copy which the “Complete Works of Oscar Wilde” uses.  This text is based off a carbon copy of the original which Robert Ross made initially (Small 2). This version itself was proven to have many inaccuracies to the manuscript, which was later printed by Sir Rupert Hart-Davis in 1962.
Link to a page of the manuscript:

Although all of these different versions differ, scholars have not determined whether any of them constitute an ‘original’ version of the work (2). Similarly, it is impossible to know whether the unedited original is the ‘accurate’ work due to its own inconsistencies. As J.M. Guy writes in “Wilde’s “De Profundis” and Book History: Mute Manuscripts,” “There is no agreement about what might be said to constitute the original print context of De Profundis, since few scholars will concede that the first extant “reproducible” work of that title, brought out in 1905 by Robert Ross and Methuen, has Wilde’s full authority. In this respect, the label “original” is most usually taken to refer to the manuscript held in the British Library and which, it can be argued, Wilde “intended” to make reproducible (if not exactly public) in some limited sense, even if, as we will see, there is no concrete evidence as to whether those intentions were carried out” (421-422).

Analysis and Discussion Questions

1. Wilde says in the first passage that Douglas “passed from Romance to Realism.” In De Profundis itself, Wilde mixes elements of realism, such as his prison conditions and his relationship with Douglas, with a more ‘Romantic’ tone as he evokes philosophical concepts such as art, imagination, sorrow, and Christ in order to come to terms with his prison experience. How should Wilde’s text be read, as a prison writing, love letter, autobiography, or philosophical writing? Should the biographical information included in the text be taken as fact, or is Alfred Douglas’s conduct more multidimensional, just as De Profundis is? Would it gain more critical attention if the work was split into  texts to reflect the fluctuations between letter to Alfred Douglas, commentary on prison life, and philosophical text?
2. Wilde is very particular about exact locations, time periods, and people’s names. Furthermore, he seems to describe things in a routine. For example, he writes on page 1009: “All this took place in the early part of November of the year before last…With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralyzing immobility of a life, every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and walk…according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula…A week later, I am transferred here. Three more months go over and my mother dies.” Do these specific periods of time of weeks and three months show Wilde’s changed perceptions based on prison time? Since Wilde often stayed at a particular prison for three months at a time, can we see other examples of prison life showing through the work? Are Wilde’s recollections of specific dates an indication of his struggle with sanity?
3. Wilde continually indicates the connection between himself as an Artist and his Art. Wilde claims that “an artist, and especially an artist as I am, one, that is to say, the quality of whose work depends on the intensification of personality, requires for the development of his art the companionship of ideas” (981). He also tells Douglas that “while you were with me you were the absolute ruin of my Art, and in allowing you to stand persistently between Art and myself I give to myself shame and blame in the fullest degree” (982-983). Can we separate art from Wilde the Artist? Wilde also states that he “was a man who stood symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age” (1017). Did Wilde’s personality almost become a piece of art on its own, as “Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol” (1026)? Does this work show that for Wilde, life and art must coexist, and should we still examine Wilde’s works with a heavily biographical approach?
4. Wilde often talks about Imagination as the main way to cope with his psychological and physical taxations at prison. As he says on 1059, “Time and space, succession and extension, are merely accidental conditions of Thought. The Imagination can transcend them, and move in a sphere of ideal existences. Things, also, are in their essence what we choose to make them. A thing is, according to the mode in which one looks at it.” Does Wilde’s commitment to the imagination as a creative force relate to any other decadent ideals, such as the Truth of Masks? How do other characters in Decadent literature, such as Des Esseintes, construct their reality through imagination?
5. Wilde discusses Sorrow at many points in the text, specifically relating to his prison experience and to his shame over his downfall. In this regard he writes that “behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. Pain, unlike Pleasure, wears no mask. Truth in Art is not any correspondence between the essential idea and the accidental existence; it is not the resemblance of shape to shadow, or of the form mirrored in the crystal to the form itself…Truth in Art is the unity of the thing with itself: the outward rendered expressive of the inward: the soul made incarnate: the body instinct with spirit. For this reason there is no truth comparable to Sorrow” (1024). Does Wilde’s conception of Sorrow as ultimate Truth indicate a shift in Wilde’s philosophy from that of Masks and the truth of the surface, to a unification of ‘essential’ and ‘resemblance’?


Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988. Print.

Gagnier, Regenia. “”De Profundis as Epistola: In Carcere Et Vinculis”: A Materialist Reading of Oscar Wilde’s Autobiography.”      Criticism 26.4 (1984): 335-54.JSTOR. Web. 26 Feb. 2014. <>.

Guy, Josephine M. “Wilde’s “De Profundis” And Book History: Mute Manuscripts.” English Literature In Transition, 1880-1920 55.4 (2012): 419-440. Academic Search Premier. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

Wilde, Oscar, and Merlin Holland. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “Introduction.” De Profundis ; ‘Epistola: In Carcere Et Vinculis’ Ed. Ian Small. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. N. pag. Print.

Wilde, Oscar, Merlin Holland, and Rupert Hart-Davis. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. London: Fourth Estate, 2000. Print.

Wilde, Oscar. “A Prefatory Dedication.” De Profundis. Ed. Robert Ross. New York: Knickerbocker, 1909. Iii-Ix. Print.

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Stéphane Mallarmé: Symbolism and Decadence (Presentation)

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This painting was done by Mallarmé's close friend, Edouard Manet
This portrait of Mallarmé was done by Mallarmé’s close friend, Edouard Manet in 1876
This photograph was taken by Nadar, Mallarmé's close friend, in 1896
This photograph was taken by Nadar, Mallarmé’s close friend, in 1896

Stéphane Mallarmé, born Étienne Mallarmé, was born in 1842 and died from a larynx problem in 1898 at age 56.  He supported himself with primarily with his post as an English teacher, although he attained much fame as a poet after moving to Paris in 1871.  Although his weak health and depressive nature kept him from finishing a lot of his work, he was famous among the artistic circles in fin de siècle Paris.  His famous Tuesday salon, Les Mardistes, featured artists and intellectuals such as: W.B. Yeats, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, Stefan George, and Paul Verlaine.  He is generally considered a founding father of the symbolist school of poetry, and his poetry has had a lasting influence on cubism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism.

Symbolism:  Early Influences

Symbolism, like Decadence, was a reaction against naturalist and realist “anti-idealist” depictions of life.  Instead of depicting the gritty realities of everyday life, Symbolism embraced the imagination, the spiritual, the fantasy, and the dream.  Truth, according to the Symbolists, could only be represented indirectly through symbols, rather than objectively stated.

Symbolism emerged from a school of poetry called Parnassianism.  Parnassianism, influenced by Théophile Gauthier’s motto “L’art pour l’art,” was a reaction against the lyricism and over-sentimentality of Romantic poetry and the Romantic poet seen as a socio-political activist.  The poetry of the Parnassians is characterized by their emotional detachment and avoidance of the first personal pronoun in order to create a  sense of objectivity.  Parnassian poetry is praised for its word play and complexity, but is also often criticized as being “overworked” (the Parnassians loved the sonnet form and alexandrine lines).  Many Symbolist poets (including Mallarmé) published early work in the Parnassien’s journal, Le Parnassien Contemporain.

Distinguishing Décadence and Symbolism:

In 1886, Jean Moréas published the Symbolist Manifesto in a literary supplement of the French newspaper, Le Figaro.  Moréas declared Symbolism as “hostile to plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description.”  In a way, Moréas also rejected the idea of l’art pour l’art :  symbolism was to “clothe the ideal in a perceptible form” whose “goal was not in itself, but whose sole purpose was to express the ideal.”  Once Moréas claimed the term “symbolist,” Symbolism began to distinguish itself from Decadence (Genova 84).

Links to the Symbolist Manifesto: (English); (French)

Symbolism can be said to have grown out of the Decadence aesthetic.  Whereas Decadence features ornamentation, Orientalism, precious imagery, consumerist materialism, and morbid content, Symbolism is oriented more towards the dream, the fantasy, and gestures with words (rather than with objects) to the ephemeral transcendent ideal.

Still, Mallarmé owed a lot to Decadence.  In 1874, Mallarmé founded his own journal, La Dernière Mode, which reviewed such decadent themes such as jewelry, fashion, restaurant menus, soirées and salons, and the theatre.  Mallarmé wrote and designed almost everything in this journal under pseudonyms such as “Miss Satin,” “Mme de Ponty,” and “Ix” (referring to Mallarmé’s poem “Le sonnet en yx“).  The journal constantly refers to itself as a magazine in its second year of publication (e.g. there were ‘letters to the editor’ even in its first issue).

Frontpage of La Dernière Mode

(For more information about La Dernière Mode, see Mallarmé on Fashion by Furbank and Cain)

Poetic method:

Mallarmé was deeply influenced by Baudelaire’s poetry, whose heavy use of imagery and polysemy to convey both a sensual and semantic atmosphere is something that Mallarmé refines constantly throughout his own work.

Mallarmé is famously quoted as saying, “Le vers ne doit donc pas, là, se composer de mots, mais d’intentions, et toutes les paroles s’effacer devant la sensation” (MOC I. pp. 663)  [Poetry should not make itself out of words but rather out of intentions; and all words should efface themselves before sensation]

Words are not to be taken at face value, but rather as gestures towards a truth in sketch form.  Mallarmé’s poetry is therefore associated with the Impressionist school of painting, famous for using gestural forms and colors to outline a truth rather than to represent it realistically.  (For a development of Mallarmé’s impressionism see James Kearns’ Symbolist Landscapes)

In an interview with Jules Huret in 1891, Mallarmé claimed that in poetry:  ‘Il faut… qu’il n’y ait qu’allusion.  La contemplation des objets, l’image s’envolant des reveries suscités par eux, sont le chant: les Parnassiens, eux, prennent la chose entièrement et la montrent: par là ils manquent de mystère.  …Nommer un objet c’est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème qui est faite du Bonheur de deviner peu à peu; le suggérer, voilà le rêve’ (MOC II. 99)

[There must only be allusion.  The contemplation of objects, the image evaporating before the dreams they elicit, make the song (poem).  The Parnassians, they take the thing in its entirety and show it all, in this way they miss the mystery.  To name an object is to eliminate three fourths of the joy of the poem, which is made of the happiness of guessing little by little; to suggest an object- there’s the dream]

Mallarmé also emphasized the importance of emotion in poetry, proposing that “an idea is always wedded to an emotion. Ideas must be felt.  A symbol is a synthesis of signs into a union of concept and feeling” (Smith, 37).

The emphasis on suggesting, rather than naming, creates an intense emphasis on the way that words and ideas become more and more complex and nuanced throughout a poem.  To create this evolution of words is a process that took Mallarmé an extreme amount of time.  For example, in a letter to Henri Cazalis dated 7 January 1864, Mallarmé says that for the poem “L’Azur,” “Je te jure qu’il n’y a pas un mot qui ne m’ait coûté plusieurs heures de recherché, et que le premier mot, qui revêt la première idée, outré qu’il tend lui-même l’effet general du poème, sert encore à preparer le dernier.  L’effet produit, sans une dissonance, sans une fioriture, même adorable, qui distrait,–voilà ce que je cherche” (MOC I. pp. 654).  [I swear to you that there is not a word that did not cost me several hours of research, and that the first word, which dreamed the first idea, as well as extended the general effect of the poem, still serves to prepare for the last word.  The effect produced, without a dissonance, without an embellishment (even adorable, that distracts)– that’s what I’m looking for]


Mallarmé was heavily criticized (and still is to this day) for being too obscure.  Of course, Mallarmé himself considered his poetry only accessible to an elite group of readers.  He claimed, “Si un être d’une intelligence moyenne, et d’une preparation littéraire insuffisante, ouvre par hazard un livre ainsi fait et pretend en jouir, il y a malentendu, il faut remettre les choses à leur place” [If a being of medium intelligence, and an insufficient literary preparation, opens by chance a book thus made and claims to enjoy it, he has misunderstood it, it’s necessary to put things in their places] (Abott 55)

Damian Catani defends Mallarmé’s poetic elitism in the modernist context, however, claiming, “Mallarmé did not seek to derive a universally pertinent source of solace exclusively from language, but from those more concrete, tangible manifestations of modern life that were invariably shaped and motivated by economic or political factors, were instantly recognizable by ‘la Foule,’ [the crowd] and which unlike language, demanded no degree of concentrated intellectual engagement.  Mallarmé’s reason for embarking on non-linguistic avenues of enquiry… is related to his awareness … of living in an interregna, a period of historical transiton in which ‘la Foule’ is not yet ready to grasp his aesthetic in its abstract theoretical form’ (The Poet in Society 13).


Mallarmé published 11 poems in the 1866 edition of Le Parnasse Contemporain, .  His poems appeared alongside Charles Baudelaire (who died in 1867), Sully Prudhomme, Paul Verlaine, Théophile Gauthier, and Mallarmé’s close friend Henri Cazalis.  Mallarmé’s poem “Hérodiade” (or Salome) was his only poem published in the 1871 edition.

This is the publication to which Huysmans makes reference in A Rebours while describing Des Esseinte’s private library,

“A number of sheets bound in onager skin which had been glazed under a hydraulic press, dappled with water-coloured silver clouds, and supplied with endpapers of Chinese flowered silk, on which the slightly faded flower sprays possessed that etiolated charm which Mallarmé praised in such an enchanting poem.  These pages, nine in all, had been taken from uniqued copies of the first two Parnasses, printed on parchment, and were preceded by the title: Quelques vers de Mallarmé, penned by an amazing calligrapher in coloured uncial characters picked out, like those of old manuscripts, with flecks of gold” (159).

The collection Poésies, which includes the poems “L’Azur,” “Les Fenêtres,” and “Hérodiade,” was first published in 1887 by La Revue indépendante.  After Mallarmé’s death the collection was republished in 1899 to include Mallarmé’s comments about each poem’s background and choices.  For example, we learn there that Mallarmé wrote “Les Fenêtres” six months after his father’s death.

Mallarmé was also celebrated in the third article of Paul Verlaine’s publication, Poètes maudits  (Damned poets) in 1904, along with Arthur Rimbaud and Marceline Desbordes-Valraore.  (Link to this article on Wikisource found here)  This type of championship, continued by younger poets, helped to keep Mallarmé’s popularity and poetic legacy alive (Genova 47).

Artistic Influence:

Mallarmé’s poetry was an inspiration for many different artists working in the late 19th century.  His poem “L’après-midi d’un faune” (1876) inspired Claude Debussy to create his symphonic work, Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in 1894:

Which in turn inspired caricatures of Mallarmé as the faun demi-god Pan:  luque

German composer Paul Hindermith wrote a string accompaniment for Mallarmé’s “Hérodiade” in 1944.

(This performance includes a very clear version of Mallarmé’s ‘Hérodiade’ read in French)

Readings:  It may be helpful to get a sense of the richness of the aural and musical quality of Mallarmé’s works to listen to a reading.  Here are some links on Youtube:  L’Azur:  (or, for a more bizarre version try,

Discussion Questions:

Mallarmé was greatly influenced by Baudelaire, and often used his form of the prose-poem.  What connections do you see between their work?  Differences?

Does Des Esseintes’ decadent description of Mallarmé hold up to your own experience of his poetry?

“This poet who, in an age of universal suffrage and a period when money reigned supreme, lived apart from the world of letters, protected by his contempt from the stupidity surrounding him, taking pleasure, far from society, in the revelations of the intellect, in the fantasies of his brain, further refining already specious ideas, grafting on to them thoughts of exaggerated subtlety, perpetuating them in deductions barely hinted at and tenuously linked by an imperceptible thread.  He tied this braid of convoluted, euphuistic ideas with a stylistic knot that was tenacious, solitary, and secret, full of contracted phrases, of elliptical expressions, of daring tropes” (160)

“Alert to the most remote analogies, he would often employ a single term simultaneously giving, by association, the form, scent, colour, quality, and brilliancy of the object or being for which a host of different epithets would have been needed to reveal all its aspects, all its nuances, if it had simply been given its technical name.  Mallarmé thus contrived to eliminate the terms of the comparison which arose of its own accord in the reader’s mind, by analogy, as soon as he had penetrated the symbol, and, avoiding the diffusion of the reader’s attention on to each quality individually suggested by a sequence of adjectives, he concentrated in on one single word, on a totality, and produced, as in the case of a painting, an effect that was unique and comprehensive, a whole” (160)

How does rereading this description of Mallarmé make you think of Des Esseintes and his own aesthetic, given the differences between Decadence and Symbolism?

What aspects of fin de siècle culture we have seen before reappear in Mallarmé’s texts?  How do they relate to Mallarmé’s poetics and aesthetic style?


Abott, Helen.  Between Baudelaire and Mallarmé: Voice, Conversation, and Music.  London: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Catani, Damien.  The Poet in Society:  Art, Consumerism, and Politics in Mallarmé.  New York: Peter Lang, 2002.

Furbank, P.N. and A. M. Cain.  Mallarmé on Fashion: A Translation of the Fashioin Magazine La Dernière mode, with Commentary.  Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2004.

Genova, Pamela A.  Symbolist Journals:  A Culture of Correspondence.  Studies in European Cultural Transition vol. 13. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002.

Huysmans, Joris-Karl.  Against Nature.  Trans.  Margaret Mauldon.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2009.

Kearns, James.  Symbolist Landscapes: The Place of Painting in the Poetry and Criticism of Mallarmé and his Circle. London: The Modern Humanities Research Association, 1989.

Moréas, Jean.  Le Manifeste du Symbolisme.  Le Figaro Supplément Littéraire (18 Sep 1886) : 1-2.  <;

Scott, David.  Pictorialist Poetics.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Smith, Richard Candida.  Mallarmé’s Children: Symbolism and the Renewal of Experience.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Verlaine, Paul.  “Stéphane Mallarmé.”  Les Poètes Maudits (3) 1904: 1-3.  Wikisource.


Nadar photograph:

Manet portrait:

La Dernière Mode print:

Caricature as Pan:

Salomé: The Shockingly Willful Princess (Presentation)

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The Moon as a Mirror of Salomé

The presence of the moon in Salomé is hard to ignore: Oscar Wilde is basically hitting you over the head with it. The importance and meaning of it; however, are much more subtle. In the fascinating article, “Salomé, the Moon and Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics: A Reading of the Play,” the authors, Joost and Court, posit that the moon in Salomé is a Wildean creation and that it effectively works as a mirror of the eponymous character, reflecting back to each character (including herself) their subjective idealized version of her. To Herod, for example, the moon appears as “quite naked” and “reeling like a drunken woman,” which is precisely how he wishes Salomé to be. Salomé, on the other hand, sees the moon as white and chaste which is the way she wishes to think of herself– it represents the idealized version she has of herself. The authors also argue that it is the threat that Jokanaan poses to this idealized version of herself that  compelled Wilde to change the story from that of the Bible and have Salomé ask for the head out of her own will as opposed to at the behest of her mother. Wilde wanted to show that Salomé, herself, wanted to end Jokanaan due to this threat. She is the femme fatale (96-102.)

The Difference between Wilde’s Salomé and the Salomé of the Bible

Dierkes-Thrun points out this agency and independence on the part of Salomé in the Introduction to her book, Salomés Modernity (1-2.) In his article, “Distance, Death and Desire in Salomé,” Donohue points out another important difference between Wilde’s play and the Bible’s account of the story. In the Bible, Salomé agrees to dance for Herod and he then offers her anything she’d like. In Wilde’s play; however, Herod asks her to dance for him and offers to give her anything she’d like and then Salomé agrees to dance with him (125.) In my opinion, this change in sequence was made with the purpose of showing that Salomé was conniving– she danced knowing full well what she would get and then actually asked for it. The fact that, in contrast to the Bible, Wilde’s Salomé asks for the head under her own steam and not at the behest of her mother also serves to illustrate this willfulness and adds to this willful characterization the agency needed to carry out her caprices.

Reception and Controversy around Salomé 

Unfortunately, many people did not see these two marked differences as proof of an original undertaking. Donohue also points out that many people, particularly in Britain, accused Wilde of plagiarism (123.) More importantly, however, Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays, E.F.S. Pigott, denied a license for performance on the basis of a prohibition against Biblical characters on the stage (118.) As Dierkes-Thrun points out, however, this was a law from the 16th Century that was rarely enforced. Furthermore, Pigott privately admitted in a letter that he was much opposed to the mixture of female sexuality and Biblical blasphemy calling the work, “half biblical, half pornographic” (4.) Unfortunately, this had sad consequences for Wilde. Due to the ban, the actress he wanted to play Salomé and who had originally agreed to do so, Sarah Bernhardt, backed out ( Donohue118.) The play was finally put on in 1896 in Paris while Wilde was serving for his conviction on “acts of gross indecency” (Donohue 119.) The play became well known on the continent and was especially well received in France by the public and by the intellectualls but the British kept ignoring it (Donohue 119-122.) It is this difference in reception, in the understanding of his work that compelled Oscar Wilde to declare that he would much rather be a French citizen (Dierkes-Thrun 5.)

Aubrey Beardsleys’ Climax, for Salomé (1894.) 


Discussion Questions

1. Joost and Court point out that the moon is not only a mirror of Salomé, it shows people her mask.They cite the Tetrarch who says “Only in mirrors is it well to look, for mirrors do but show us masks” (98.) In this play we see an added layer of illusions: mirrors. Do they allow us to see the truth better or do they simply allow us to see the truth of how we perceive the person? In other words, do they infringe on our access to objective perceptions about others but give us access to our true subjective perceptions of them? Sometimes, the way we see a person or the way we want a person to be is hard to come to terms with. Does the added layers of the mirror that reflects some of us back to us but also shows us the masks of others in this light allow us to come to terms with these facts?

2. Throughout the play, the moon and Salomé are referred to almost interchangeably. This has the effect of ambiguity: in some cases it is really not clear which of the two a particular character is referring to. In the French, this ambiguity would have been further reinforced by the use of the gendered pronoun “elle” which could refer to both Salomé or the moon, as it is a feminine noun. Even in the English this ambiguity can be observed to some extent. The moon, for example, is personified, she is referred to as a dancing princess (583, 588) and as a woman in various instances. The Princess, on the other hand, is described as pale (584, 593) and as rising (585.) How does this contribute the idea that the moon is a mirror or mask of Salomé? Does the excessive similarities between the two weaken or strengthen this thesis? How does it influence our understanding of Salomé?

3. Joost and Court also point out that Salomé is literally a lunatic play in which its characters, including Salomé, are driven mad by the moon (99.) I would posit, however, that Salomé drives every other character mad and that the moon only drives her mad. This can be evidenced by the fact that the Young Syrian has the first line in the play in which he looks at Salomé before the moon is mentioned (583) and by the fact that Herod calls for Salomé before he sees the moon (586.) Salomé, on the other hand, first observes the moon and the idealized version of herself she sees reflected in it and then starts acting strangely (586.) What significance does this have for the influence of the moon in the play? Does it only affect the other characters indirectly, through the influence of Salomé? Or does the influence it has on Salomé parallel (mirror) the influence Salomé has on the other characters?

4. Following from this influence she has on the different characters, Salomé definitely is a femme fatale. She causes the death of two men (one who was feared even by the king) and manages to make the king act completely against his will. She doesn’t have the same influence over her mother, for example, a female character. Joost and Court point out that Herodias is the only character who does not reflect her perception of Salomé onto the moon because she knows who she really is (98.) Is Salomé able to become a femme fatale and wreak the havoc she does because of the masking effect the moon has, because the male characters are able to lie themselves into ignoring her true nature simply by reflecting the qualities they want of her onto the moon?

5. The biographer Richard Ellman, in his book Oscar Wilde, theorizes that there is an autobiographical element to be found in Herod (90.) Although this is not a theory I think I can pursue with my limited knowledge of Wilde’s life, I would like to use this idea to explore the possibility of seeing Herod as a sympathetic character. Yes, Herod is a lusty old man that blatantly desires to sleep with the young daughter of his wife. But he can also be see as a man that is bewitched by a desire that is not allowed to him by society. He can be seen as a man that is so bewitched that he gives up his agency to see the desire fulfilled to a very small degree. He is also a man that then has the unattainable object of his desire cause him to destroy her. Seen in this light, the misfortunes that befall Herod in this play are tragic. Can he be seen as a sympathetic character? Do you feel sympathetic for him?


Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. 1st American ed. New York: Knopf , 1988.

Joost, Nicholas and Franklin E. Court. “Salomé, the Moon and Oscar Wilde’s Aesthetics: A Reading of the Play. PLL 8 Suppl. (1972): 96-111.

Raby, Peter. The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003.


Online presentation: Salome’s composition in context

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Circumstances of composition:

By the time of his 1891 return to Paris, Wilde had established himself as a successful man of letters and was a frequent guest of ascendant French poet Stephane Mallarme. Wilde’s presence at Mallarme’s mardis, colloquia of French literary luminaries, signaled his arrival to the ranks of the literary elite and provided him with a cadre of preeminent French writers (Marcel Schwob, Pierre Louys, and Andre Gide were his closest friends in Paris) whom he would soon consult during Salome’s composition. The topic of Salome held interest not only for Wilde but also for many of Mallarme’s associates; Wilde was the beneficiary of having been surrounded by some of the greatest French literary minds of the time who also happened to share interest in Salome. Wilde, Ellman writes, “pervaded Paris.” He was the “great event” of French literary salons, remarkable for his promiscuous consumption of opium-tinctured cigarettes and absinthe. Most salient, thought, was the extent of Wilde’s interest in Salome: he was nothing short of consumed. He held a knowledge of Salome iconography that was close to comprehensive and was reported to talk every day about her–women in the streets assumed her figure, and jewelry in shopfronts he imagined decorating her body. Wilde’s focus was singular. His treatment of Salome, however, was not originally conceived of as a work of theatre. First he experimented with prose, then verse, and then, one night after telling his rendering of Salome’s story to a salon of young French writers, wrote the story as a play. Even then, as a play, it was not necessarily a work of theatre; Wilde was initially reluctant to put the play on stage. Eventually, however, perhaps out of a desire to best Mallarme or to cast Sarah Bernhardt as the eponym, it was staged (Ellman). On the whole, it is important to understand Salome as a work composed in Paris with the aid and encouragement of a consortium of French writers.

Wilde’s Salome in context: the heritage of the story of Salome:

Wilde was not the first to treat the story of Salome. Indeed, his rendition is one among a legacy of works by such writers as Heinrich Heine, Gustave Flaubert, Mallarme, Jules Laforgue, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. The story’s ultimate provenance is found in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, but Wilde’s Salome bears little resemblance: the tradition he inherited had expanded on the gospels so liberally that the story had become “fundamentally transformed” (Thrun 15). Wilde drew especially from Mallarme’s dramatic poem “Herodiade.” Mallarme is responsible for the recasting of the story of Salome as that of her “search for ideal beauty” and, more basically, for establishing Salome (Herodiade in Mallarme’s poem) as the central figure (Thrun 17). It is in “Herodiade” that such modernist points of interest as “existential isolation, human alienation, and rebellious modern individualism” take form, and it was under Mallarme’s framework of modernity that Wilde composed his account of the Salome story. But where Mallarme’s Herodiade remained mired in stasis, “a passive, artificial, self-absorbed, and conflicted figure,” Wilde’s Salome, with her shocking and resolute decision, “suggests the possibility of an individually-willed escape from the deadening ennui of Herod’s court” (Thrun 25). Wilde, then, is more optimistically disposed toward the human condition in modernity, more willing to embrace transgression as an appealing and worthy alternative to conformity to a stultifying morality .

Wilde also drew influence from Flaubert, who introduced Wilde to the idea of lust as a compelling analog to desire for the divine. In the historical novel Salammbo and prose poem The Temptation of Saint Anthony sexual desire and religious experience often intermingle. The Queen of Sheba tempts Anthony in Temptation and Salammbo’s entreaties to the goddess of fertility are couched in terms of the sex act–the prevailing image is that of an orgasm (Thrun 26). Wilde develops this trope in Salome. Her desire, unlike that of Flaubert’s characters, is absent of a metaphysical character: she wishes to join herself only physically, not spiritually, to the prophet. Found in Saint Anthony is a prefiguration of sorts of the conflict in Salome. At play is the tension between asceticism and concupiscence that drives so much of the intrigue of Salome. The Queen, like Salome, is at once the “heartbroken lover and the ruthless femme fatale,” and is that which tempts a religious figure. In Wilde, however, the paradigm is reconstructed (Thrun 29). His world is “post theological,” one which in the transcendence previously associated only with religion is obtainable through aesthetic and erotic transgression (Thrun 34).

In Huysmans’ A rebours Wilde found inspiration for Salome’s “smoldering sensuality and ruthless femme fatale qualities” (Thrun 34). Huysmans’ Salome was a “goddess of hysteria,” something of an antithesis to Mallarme’s conception of Salome as virginal and innocent. Des Esseintes in A rebours is transfixed by Moreau’s depiction of Salome. The paintings, and perhaps even the state they conjure in Des Esseintes, are a “mixture of sexual transgression and quasi-metaphysical sublimity” that hold similarity to the ecstasy of Salome’s kissing the prophet’s severed head. Des Esseintes achieves a kind of metaphysical ecstasy that is absent of a religion–it is purely aesthetic–in much the same way Salome’s climactic moment is not spiritual, but physical (Thrun 37). The “aesthetic ideal,” has been set as the equivalent “to the religious one” (Thrun 38).

Salome’s final monologue can be understood as the quintessence of aestheticism. She, in the words of Walter Pater, “‘burns with this hard, gem-like flame’,” and has, at least for a moment, lived in a complete ecstasy that is, again, notable in its absence of a traditional morality. It not despite of transgression, but because of it, that in Wilde’s Salome transcendence is achieved (Thrun 45). Nowhere is more apt Marx’s pithy statement: “all that is solid melts into air.”

Moreau’s Salome:

Discussion questions:

1. What fruit does an examination of Salome in light of our knowledge of the Queen of Sheba in Temptation bear? As noted above, there is unusual dichotomy at play: they are vulnerable, desirous, but also dangerous, embodiments of the femme fatale. What is the definition of femininity that is advanced–is there even one?

2. In Salome’s ecstatic final monologue she speaks of Jokanaan’s head as a “ripe fruit”; she is “hungry” for his body; his voice was “a censer that scattered strange perfumes” (Wilde 604). Her desire is couched in terms of the senses in a way that evoked the experiences of Des Esseintes in his palace of fine taste. Is it valid to assert that Salome and Des Esseintes have very similar goals–transcendence through a moment of complete aesthetic ecstasy?

3.  Is Wilde’s Salome an optimistic play? Does Salome successfully come to terms with her existential isolation, or is Wilde’s alternative to the framework of morality he resists unsatisfying?

4. Often in Salome it is mentioned that Salome is being observed: by Herod, by the young Syrian. But he by whom Salome wishes most to be observed, Jokanaan, refuses. “I do not wish to look at thee,” he says (Wilde 591). Is the act of looking transgressive? Again it seems that a reference to Des Esseintes, who spends so much of his time observing, is productive. (Note: on 604, Herod cries, “I will not look at things, I will not suffer things to look at me.”)

5. Why is Salome so attracted to Jokanaan? Like the attraction of Raoule for Jacques, Salome’s desire for the prophet is seemingly unaccountable. He is remarkably unprepossessing and yet she is consumed by her desire. What should we make of this?

Works Cited

Thrun, Petra. Salome’s modernity: Oscar Wilde and the aesthetics of transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. Markham, Ont.: Viking, 1987. Print.

Presentation: Odilon Redon and The Temptation of Saint Anthony

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Part I: Background and Analysis of Odilon Redon’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”

Odilon Redon (1840-1916) was born in Bordeaux, France, and studied art in Paris. (Cotter, 2005) Redon was an avid reader of Decadent era authors Baudelaire, Edgar Allan Poe, and Flaubert in his youth, spending much of his time in solitude. In Paris, he developed an individual style, becoming best known for his charcoal sketches and lithography. His art, heavily inspired by his childhood in the countryside as well as gothic folklore, was distinct in that “instead of choosing between imagination and mimesis, fantasy and nature, Redon deployed one to get the other” (Hauptman, 24). When describing his artistic philosophy, Redon writes: “It is only after making an effort of will to produce a meticulous depiction of a blade of grass, a stone, a branch, a bit of old wall, that I feel almost tormented to create something imaginary” (25). Gustave Flaubert’s novel “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” is characterized by a scintillating imagery of all things fantastical, serving to illustrate an intense religious and moral critique: due to this, it is not surprising that it caught Redon’s artistic taste.

When The Temptation of Saint Anthony was published, Redon was immediately shaken by the intense characters and images described by Flaubert. He commented on the novel: “It is a literary marvel and a mine for me” (Dickey). In 1888, Redon decided to release a collection of ten lithographs[1] illustrating Flaubert’s novel. The novel easily resonated with Redon’s style: as an artist concerned with nature, the grotesque and the fantastic, Flaubert’s supernatural scenes were a treasure trove of artistic inspiration. As art historian Stephen F. Eisenman comments, “Like Flaubert, Redon saw himself as unique, an accident, a monster, and all the more remarkable an artist for these very reasons” (Eisenman, 25).


Cover of Lithograph Collection, “The Temptation of Saint Anthony: Illustrations” By Odilon Redon. (MoMA)

In the collection of lithographs “The Temptation of Saint Anthony”, Redon transposes certain images of the text into black and white marks on paper. Each image is captioned with a direct quote from Flaubert’s novel, describing the exact scene being illustrated. His images “read like anagrams,” inviting the viewer to “create order out of the apparent chaos” (Eisenman, 25).


“Saint Anthony: Beneath her long hair, that covered her face, I thought I recognized Ammonaria.” To Gustave Flaubert, 1889. (Wilder, 2012).

In the image above, Redon depicts Ammonaria, the virgin who suffers martyrdom in his hallucination of Alexandria. This image was not in the original portfolio “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” but published later in a larger volume of prints titled “Dedicated to Gustave Flaubert” in 1889. Redon created ten separate proofs of this image, highlighting its importance. (The Fitzwilliam Museum) This image truly exhibits Redon’s mastery in the use of light and shadow, as well as an ability to capture Flaubert’s scene in a moment in time. Eisenman describes this piece as an “odd stillness which obscures the exact nature of the depicted action. Is the tormentor bringing back the flagellum or casting it forward? Does the woman recoil from the blows or turn expectantly to receive them? Do we receive an ambient of pain or desire?” (216) These questions immediately bring up Flaubert’s thematic concerns of sin, guilt, violence, and self-inflicted pain.

Decadence can be “described as a series of refusals: of the visible world, of religious faith, of love, of community, of nature,” causing artists to turn instead to “the exquisite refinements of sensation.” (Hauptman, 23).  Odilon Redon is invariably presented as an artist of this era, a creator of those soul-wrenching images that touch upon these refusals. Incidentally, Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans, prior to the release of Au Rebours, writing at the time, reviewed the collection of Lithographs in his work “Le Salon” of 1879:

“Another artist has recently come forward and offered to France the painting of the fantastic; I wish to speak of M. Odilon Redon. Here is the nightmare transposed into art. Plunged into a macabre milieu, imagine somnambulistic characters, twisted with fear, having a vague kinship to those of Gustave Moreau,  and perhaps you will have an idea of the bizarre talent of this most singular artist.” (Eisenman, 102)

Huysman was so roused by this collection, that he later “paid homage to Odilon Redon in his classic novel Au Rebours, in which the main character Des Esseintes collects prints by Redon… A move that helped catapult Redon into the mainstream [of the Decadent movement].” Huysman’s praise did not go unreciprocated; after reading Au Rebours, Redon released a lithograph titled “Des Esseintes,” depicting this antihero of decadence in black and white (Dickey).

There is a certain darkness that defines Redon’s depictions of St. Anthony’s visions. Unlike the past artistic interpretations of the Temptation of Saint Anthony, these sketches plumb specific moments of the sensual, phantasmagorical experience of Saint Anthony’s night in the desert. In the image below, Redon captures the moment in which Anthony questions the Devil on the purpose of God. The chalk-white face of the Devil is cocked at an unnerving angle, appearing to stare intently at something behind the spectator. The inscrutability of the Devil’s expression captures the ambiguity of his aims; is he merely challenging Saint Anthony’s beliefs, or is there a stronger reason behind his critiques, perhaps rooted in truth?


“Saint Anthony: What Is the Purpose of All This? The Devil: There Is No Purpose!”, by Odilon Redon from his “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” (Dickey).

The hair and shadow behind the Devil melts into the shaded figure of Saint Anthony, in contemplation behind the Devil. While the Devil’s facial features are clearly defined, Anthony’s expression is blurred in gray shading. Emile Hennequin, a young admirer of Redon’s, accurately captured this unsettling quality in his description of the collection as “a treasure of dreams and suggestions which should be used cautiously.” These dreams and suggestions seem to lie in the obscure expressions of Flaubert’s characters.


“And in the same disc of the sun shines the face of Jesus Christ,” Odilon Redon. Plate X in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1888. Lithograph. (Wilder).

The tenth and final image of Redon’s original collection is the depiction of the last scene of The Temptation of Saint Anthony: “Even in the midst thereof, and in the very disc of the sun, beams the face of Jesus Christ. Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotion” (Faubert, 191). And thus, the novel is finished, leaving us with a vast sense of contradiction; is the nightmare truly over? Can Anthony go back to his previous life of ascetiscism, even after this night of unholy terrors and religious challenge? Redon illustrates this jarring image of Jesus Christ as a sun in the midst of a brooding, explosion-like black shadow. This intense black radiating from the sun inevitably taints the image with a feeling of mystery and uncertainty, a feeling akin to what the reader is left with at the end of the novel.

Part 2: Discussion Questions (Part 2 of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, pg. 115-191)

1. When the Goddess of Idean appears, the faithful band of followers begins a worshipping frenzy, which quickly transforms into a scene of self-flaggellation, and the sacrifice of a lamb:  “She is sorrowful, let us be sorrowful! Our suffering is necessary in order to please her! Thereby your sins will be remitted. Blood purifies all– flings its red drops abroad like blossoms!” (134). While he says nothing of this, when the lamb is being sacrificed, Anthony is “siezed with horror.”

Why does he seem to recognize the slaying of the lamb as a more barbaric sacrifice than self-flagellation? Does this serve to point out the hypocrisy of his beliefs? Is he unable to see fault or sin in self-inflicted pain?

2. Caught in a whirlwind of these indulgent pagan Gods, Anthony laments sorrowfully of the “souls that may have been lost to these false Gods.” (141) Hilarion in response, states: “But luxury, in its greatest fury, has all the disinterestedness of penitence. The frenzied love of the body accelerates the destruction thereof– and proclaims the extent of the impossible by the exposition of the body’s weaknesses.” Hilarion seems to accept that by putting a premium on the body, degeneracy is inevitable. However, is the appreciation and celebration of the physical, the exposition to sensory pleasures, not also a means for vulnerability? How does this challenge Anthony’s idea of vulnerability? If one can commit penitence through the flesh, why can one not commit sin through the flesh?

3. The Devil tells Anthony: “But evil and good concern only thee– even like the night and day, pleasure and pain, death and birth, which are relative only to one corner of space, to a special centre, to a particular interest.” He pushes even further, stating: “The knowledge of things come only to thee through the medium of thy mind. Even as a concave mirror, it deforms the objects it reflects, and thou hast no mean whatever of verifying their exactitude.” (168) The Devil’s assertions go back to Plato’s Theory of Forms– essentially, he seems to tell Anthony that he will always be chained inside the cave, living in a subjective reality.  Have all of Anthony’s ant-temptation thoughts and actions throughout the nightmare been in vain? Is the presence of his doubt a confirmation that he has already inherently been tempted? How does this relate back to Hilarion’s accusation of his chastity as corruption?

4. At the very end of the novel, an intertwining of Lust and Death occurs, creating a fantastical creature: “It is a skull, crowned with roses, dominating the torso of a woman nacreously white. Below, a shroud starred with specks of gold forms something of a tail, and the whole body undulates, after the fashion of a gigantic worm erect on end.” (178) Anthony recognizes this creature as “The Devil yet again, under his twofold aspect: The spirit of fornication, and the spirit of destruction.” (179) Why does Flaubert choose to introduce a fusion of Lust, a temptation, and Death, a fear, into a depiction of the Devil? Does this portray Anthony’s greatest want and his greatest terror?

5. The final line of the novel is ” Anthony makes the sign of the cross, and resumes his devotions.”  (191) Why does he so swiftly back to devotion after this nightmare? Is Flaubert taking an “easy way out,” so to speak, or is this a way for him to leave the reader on edge?

 – E.P.
Bibliography/Works Cited:
Flaubert, Gustave. The Temptation of Saint Anthony. New York: Random House, 1992. Print.
Hauptman, Jodi, and Odilon Redon. Beyond the Visible: The Art of Odilon Redon. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2005. Print.
Eisenman, Stephen, and Odilon Redon. The Temptation of Saint Redon: Biography, Ideology, and Style in the Noirs of Odilon Redon. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1992. Print.
Wilder, Courtney. “Explorations in Darkness and Light: Odilon Redon.” The Getty Iris., n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2014.
Dickey, Colin. “The Redemption of Saint Anthony.” Rev. of Odilon Redon’s “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” Public Domain Review (2012): n. Web. 21 Feb. 2014.
Cotter, Holland. “Mind of a Writer, Hand of an Artist.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2005. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
“Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.” Lithography in the Nineteenth Century. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.
Odilon Redon. Odilon Redon: Interactive Exhibit. N.d. Museum of Modern MoMA. Web.
“The Fitzwilliam Museum : À Gustave Flaubert.” The Fitzwilliam Museum News. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

[1] Sketches created by writing in greasy crayon on slabs of stone and then printing them with rolled-on ink. The word is so called from the Latin for stone,litho, and mark, graph. (Met Museum)

Presentation: The Learned Dreamer: Temptations, pt. 2

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The Temptation of St. Anthony by Bosch

The Learned Dreamer

Michael Foucault says of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, “It may appear as merely another new book to be shelved alongside all the others, but it serves, in actuality, to extend the space that existing books can occupy” (Foucault xxvii). Indeed, the characters with which St. Anthony interacts throughout the temptations are brought to life through the vigorous study of other texts. Flaubert is in conversation, then, with ideas and archetypes from throughout the centuries. The theatrical nature of the work allows Flaubert’s characters, such as the Queen of Sheba or King Nebuchadnezzar, to be seen as reenactments of older characters. The dreamlike quality of the visions makes the characters seem like products of St. Anthony’s unconscious, smoky figurines crafted in an instant by the incredible power of the dreaming mind. However, as Foucault notes, the figurines are actually sculpted through vigorous studying on Flaubert’s part: “fantasies are carefully deployed in the hushed library” (Foucault xxvi). Taking a closer look at some of the characters and concepts in The Temptation of St. Anthony will enhance our appreciation for Flaubert’s attention to detail and his desire to participate in the textual universe of the library.


Orientalism is the constructed imagine of “Eastern” people and society by those in the “West.” The concept is elaborated on in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which goes into detail about the construction, its ancient roots, and its contemporary effects: “The Orient was almost a European invention, and had been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences… the main thing for the European visitor was a European representation of the Orient…” (Said 1). Because the characters and visions in Flaubert’s work are vivified through the imaginative power of St. Anthony’s subconscious (using his vast textual knowledge as a basis), so too is the Orient an actual place in the book with personified representatives. Just as the Devil is a constructed, personified representative of all that is evil in the world, so too is the Queen of Sheba the Orient personified, with all its lust and luxury. The Queen of Sheba, though in the first half of the book and not the second, has important reverberations throughout the text because she is everything that St. Anthony, as a Western ascetic, is supposed to hate. Still, she is everything he wants, his mirage, his unreal oasis in the driest desert of his fast: “And he sees before him… clad in robes of green… camels’ heads with halters of red silk… precious glimmering things are laid upon the ground… a woman so splendidly clad that she radiates light about her” (Flaubert 36). What Flaubert has done here is masterful—his recreation of the Queen of Sheba has the precise, seemingly arbitrary detail reminiscent of ancient texts (12 camels, 268 golden beads, 6 wise eunuchs, etc.) because she is a product of reading those texts and therefore her image bares a shimmer of what she is made of. Still, for St. Anthony in the state he is in, her presence is tantamount to reality: “There is a natural brown spot upon her left cheek” (Flaubert 57). In this moment of the text, the Queen of Sheba occupies two spaces. First, she is the personification of the Orient of luxury, of desire, a thousand year old parchment that St. Anthony has read again and again sitting alone in a library. But heat, and fasting, and pain, and doubt make the mind play tricks. She is, second, a woman standing in front of him and he has never wanted something so much in his life and there has never been anything more real.

The Buddha

Mary Orr advocates for a reading of Temptation that gives more credit to Flaubert for his portrayal of certain characters that draw from Southeastern Asian religions, such as the Buddha. Orr, too, recognizes the mastery of Flaubert’s character portrayals through the mind of St. Anthony, but for different reasons: “Antoine’s reading of them provides a much more dynamic model than critical theories of text—source hunting, genetic criticism, intertextuality—for how to read the ideas of his age” (Orr 115). I think it’s hard to deny the presence of an intertextual space existing upon which stands the stage of Temptation, to me it seems the work upon which all of the figures are based. Still, I agree with the goal of her paper, which is “to shock and shift ‘writerly’ critical positions to ‘readerly’ ones” (Orr 116). In other words, to understand that Temptation is less about authorship than it is about readership, reception, and the imagination of the subconscious. When the Buddha gives his traditional narrative of undergoing torments to purify himself of desire, St. Anthony interjects, “I also endured all that in other days!” (Flaubert 125). Buddha, here, does not even seem to notice what St. Anthony is saying. The interjections read like scribbled annotations in the margins of a book. Their interaction has been made real and established as an intertextual relationship, but the give and take, the substance behind real human interactions, can not take place with a book. The siren call of the Queen of Sheba, Buddha’s inspiring story of his hardships—they play their record on repeat for all to hear. St. Anthony can insert his experiences, proclaim his desire, and try to relate to what he has read but his words fall on ears long buried.


Hilarion, on the other hand, is someone St. Anthony knew, a disciple and former student. His presence is intermingled with that of the entirely textual figures like the Buddha. His interactions with St. Anthony, while also imagined, are based on memories. Memories are records of real interactions with give and take and unique, customized reactions. Hilarion is there with St. Anthony in part to mock him, and to grow and feed on the pain. After the Buddha disappears, Hilarion remarks, “Thou hast even now beheld the belief of many hundreds of millions of men” (Flaubert 126). This can be read as mocking St. Anthony’s experience, which is far from unique. Laurence Porter, in his paper about the role of the devil in various 19th-century texts, casts Hilarion as a foil to St. Anthony: “Flaubert underlines the fact that Hilarion has emerged from the saint’s preconscious” (Porter 327). Porter goes on to say that Hilarion changes throughout the text, becoming more and more a reflection of St. Anthony’s subconscious perception of his biggest weakness: “Initially the disciple represents an apparently harmless, and even admirable disguised form of Saint Anthony’s pride in his intellect and desire to influence others…he risks becoming infatuated with his own singularity, at the expense of his devotion to God” (Porter 327). This argument is compelling to me because it rejects the tempting idea that maybe the Queen of Sheba’s beauty or one of the various feasts or hordes of wealth is St. Anthony’s biggest issue. No, Hilarion, because he is real to St. Anthony, a person who looks back unlike the texts St. Anthony has developed relationships with, the disciple is the most likely to judge St. Anthony and deliver the most unique criticism that only he can deliver.

Discussion Questions

1. “The souls of the Gods are attached to their images… Those possessing the beauty of forms might seduce. But the others… those of loathsome or terrible aspect… how can men believe in them?” (Flaubert 117). At times ascetic and aesthetic ideals seem drastically opposed, in other instances they are difficult to distinguish. After all, Temptation, a book about the feverish dreams of a desert dwelling saint was Oscar Wilde’s favorite. On page 117, Flaubert unites the Platonic, the ascetic, and the aesthetic with an observation about the necessity of beauty to attract believers. How does the concept of beauty function here and what are its philosophical implications? How would Oscar Wilde read this?

2. “I also endured that in other days!” (Flaubert 124) St. Anthony’s comments to certain figures, like the Buddha, often border on marginalia. To me, these are the most distinctively “readerly” moments in Temptations. How do moments like these function, and how do they contrast/work with more theatrical elements of Flaubert’s work?

3. “Anthony dreams of the Mother of Jesus. She speaks: Thou didst emerge from the Orient, and didst take me, all trembling with the dew, into thy arms, O Sun! Doves fluttered upon the azure of thy mantle… and I abandoned myself wholly to thy love, delighting in the pleasure of my weakness. Alas! Alas—Why didst thou depart, to run upon the mountains?” (Flaubert 137) In a book full of the weird, this may have been the most bizarre moment for me. What is going on here? I might read it as a blending of the Christian tradition with Greco-Roman myths, where a beautiful young woman will be seduced or taken by a god in the form of a bull or a ray of light. Is this simply a feverish dream? Foucault and others say the dream is carefully constructed… what then is a passage like this so carefully constructed to do?

4. “Aye! The love of death is strong. Many an anchorite has succumbed to it.” (Flaubert 174) Suicide and the lure of death is one of the strongest temptations for St. Anthony. On 174, the philosophy of suicide and self-destruction is discussed, and it is reminiscent of Freud’s death drive. How does psychology function here and how does it interact with literature and theater? Does St. Anthony’s psychology somehow shape his readings, point his questions, or aid in the conjuring of the characters?

5. “Anthony thinks he sees a caterpillar between two leaves: it is a butterfly that takes flight.” (Flaubert 189) Many concepts are at play in the final pages. Nirvana, the constant flux of the universe, pantheism, release, etc. What is the meaning of the ending of the book? In other words, what exactly has occurred in the final pages? Has St. Anthony reached Enlightenment? Have his perspectives evolved? How much has he changed since the start of the book?


Flaubert, Gustave, Lafcadio Hearn, Michel Foucault, and Marshall C. Olds. The Temptation of St. Anthony. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Orr, Mary. “Antoine, Reader of His Age: The Textual Tentation and Its Intertexts of Science.” Dix-Neuf 15.1 (2011): 115-26. Print.

Porter, Laurence M. “The Devil as Double in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Goethe, Dostoevsky, and Flaubert.” Comparative Literature Studies 15.3 (1978): 316-35. JSTOR.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage, 1979. Print.


“The Temptation of St Anthony (Bosch Painting).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Feb. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2014.

–Presentation by SVZ

The Temptation of Saint Anthony–presentation

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Life of Flaubert

Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12th 1821 to Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, a distinguished doctor, and Anne Justine Caroline. He grew up in Rouen in Northern France. In 1841 he was sent against his will to study law in Paris but it was there he began to make influential friends and move in literary circles, which stimulated his writing. He never married and it is likely that his relationship with the poet Louise Colet, which lasted from 1846 to 1854 was his only serious romantic relationship. Flaubert died on May 8th 1880 probably as a result of his syphilis.

Epilepsy or Religious Vision?

One night in 1844 Flaubert was riding in a cabriolet with his brother and another cabriolet was approaching them from down the road. As the other cabriolet passed an inn on the side of the road their bright lights crossed and Flaubert, upon seeing this was overcome by an extreme attack. He described it “like being swept away in a torrent of flames…sudden lightning…an instantaneous irruption of memory…a letting go of its entire contents…it seems like everything in your head is going off at once like a thousand fireworks (Wall 79).” Flaubert’s family hoped this was a one-time scare but over the course of the next two weeks he experienced four further attacks. Considering what we know today it is likely that Flaubert suffered from epilepsy, but medical knowledge of the day could not identify the cause of Flaubert’s attacks. In any case, Flaubert would not have approved of attaching a medical explanation to his malady. He called these instances his “nervous attacks” and once he realized he could survive them he began to experiment with his condition and it prompted in him an affinity for extreme varieties of religious experience and ecstatic visions.  He claimed to have experienced genuine mystical experiences at various stages of his life. Concerning these hallucinations he said, “On my great days of sunshine I have sometimes glimpsed a state of the soul superior to life itself and for which glory would be irrelevant and happiness itself of no consequence (Unwin 10).” Given the significance Flaubert lends to religious mystical hallucinations, it is no surprise that this is the premise for The Temptation.

Sexual Exploits

For health reasons, Flaubert retired to his family home in Le Croisset, a suburb of Rouen, and he supposedly lived quietly and devoted himself to writing to the point where he was known as the Hermit of Croisset. But Flaubert was also one of the best-travelled men of his generation and he practiced “sexual tourism.” He documented his travels in the Middle East from 1849-1851 and he described his sexual exploits there in his letters to his friend Louis Bouihlet. The coarseness with which he talks about these intimate experiences is shocking and reflects his grotesque, carnal and physical view of life. It is believed that it was during this time that he contracted syphilis.

The Writing of The Temptation of Saint Anthony

 The Temptation of Saint Anthony                                              The Temptation cover (1895).jpg

The inspiration for The Temptation most likely comes from a painting Flaubert saw by Breugel depicting the temptations of Saint Anthony. It is said that nothing else in the museum interested him but that painting completely fascinated him. Another more humble inspiration for The Temptation is that as a child Flaubert used to attend a sort of puppet show depicting the life of Saint Anthony.

Flaubert finished the first manuscript of The Temptation in 1849, which he read to his friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet who subsequently advised him to throw it into the fire and forget about it. He worked on the second version in 1856 after he finished Madame Bovary. In the second version Flaubert made some changes to the first version, shortened it and made it less romantic but it was virtually the same work. He would have published it then but he was afraid of experiencing the same backlash he had received from Madame Bovary. In 1857, after Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert and his publisher were tried for an “outrage to public morals and religion.” Even though the case was finally acquitted the enmity and misunderstanding Flaubert experienced left him disenchanted. So Flaubert put down The Temptation again and began writing Salammbo. The third version of The Temptation, which he published in 1974 while he was writing Bouvard et Pechuhet, was entirely rewritten and had been reduced to a third of the size of the first work. It was a lot less romantic and emotional and much more intellectual and abstract. Some significant changes include a pig which was Anthony’s companion in the first two versions but was cut out of the third version and the description of a Greek landscape in the beginning of the third version which isn’t in the other two versions.

The Temptation essentially represents Flaubert’s unattainable dream of what he wanted his works to be- silky, supple, delicate, spontaneous, harmoniously revealed through rapturous phrases, but also what they must never be if they were to see the light of day. Although The Temptation was eventually published it is likely that Flaubert really viewed it as a personal work for his own benefit. The Temptation existed before any of Flaubert’s other essential works and it was repeated as a kind of ritual purification exercise, a temptation to overcome before each of his major texts. It is suspended over all his works. It possesses all the excess imagery and somber prose and abundance that he had to repress in his other texts for the sake of clarity. Flaubert said about The Temptation, “I plunged furiously into Saint Anthony and began to enjoy the most terrifying exaltation. I have never been more excited (Bloom 46).”

Flaubert and Religion

Flaubert had a somewhat cruel outlook on human folly and failure but he saw it as a way of better perceiving emotions and states of mind without sentimentality to contaminate it. He maintained the uniqueness of every emotion and sensation and he thought it was his duty to apprehend these things attentively and alertly.

Given the contemplative ascetic dimension to his approach it is not surprising that there is a mystic quality to his writing. He was fascinated with religion and even though he didn’t believe in god he transferred the idea of mystical contemplation to his writing as an alternative. The 19th century saw the general disenchantment with religion but Flaubert’s work is filled with saints, monks and mystics, and the history of religion. For Flaubert, modern life used the quest for eternal transcendent truth to replace the quest for god.

This complicated relationship that Flaubert had with religion can be seen by the way he approaches religion in The Temptation. He cites many biblical inconsistencies that are starting points for the widespread undermining of religious authority but he also shows respect for the religious perspective in general for the way it offers entry into a world that enhances every day reality.

There are also clear similarities and differences between Flaubert and Saint Anthony. Flaubert gives Saint Anthony many of his own doubts and beliefs and both Saint Antony and Flaubert have the capacity for heightened imaginary experience, which is both glorious and monstrous. Saint Anthony was a man of deep faith who had much to lose. Flaubert had nothing to lose because he had no faith. Flaubert wanted to make Anthony reach the position, which he found himself in, of utter and complete skepticism where he could come to no conclusion, therefore, the final temptation is the longing for ultimate truth.

Flaubert and his Critics

Critics focus on Flaubert’s misanthropy, and they say that his fascination with stupidity and grotesqueness contaminates his art. Flaubert has a pretty cruel outlook on human folly compared to the optimistic prose of the time. Nineteenth century French literature is a period of great epics, which on a whole describe the ascent of mankind and were inspired by a fundamentally positive attitude towards humanity, but Flaubert wished to denigrate man and reveal his weaknesses. He wanted to show how man has always been ignorant and blinded by his vanity when in actually there was nothing stable and therefore man was doomed to fail. The Temptation of Saint Anthony might have been a response to the quest for totalitarianism that was an obsession in France at the time and through The Temptation Flaubert demonstrated the absurdity of this view and also the degree to which writing was a personal enterprise for him. Not surprisingly, this made people uncomfortable and Flaubert was described by Henry James as “almost insanely excessive (Unwin 16).”

Other critics thought Flaubert’s writing was a boring and monotonous succession of grotesques. Maxime Du Camp said ““We listened to the words of the sphinx, the chimera, the queen of Sheba, of Simon the magician…A bewildered, somewhat simpleminded, and, I would even say, foolish Saint Anthony sees, parading before him, different forms of temptation (Bloom 46).” But Flaubert’s friends were enthralled by the book citing its “richness of his visions” (François Coppee), its forests of shadows and light” (Victor Hugo) and its “hallucinatory mechanism” (Hippolyte Taine) (Bloom 46).

Flaubert’s Ambiguities

Flaubert held art at supreme value, yet he mused that art might be no more than a joke or a harmless obsession without meaning. His writings put into question the novelist’s apparent judgments on the world and he writes in such a way as to challenge the very novelistic authority upon which his narrative depends.

The paradoxical nature of Flaubert’s writings can be found in his uncompromising attempt to raise creativity to a higher plane but also the ambivalence that was the defining characteristic of his stance as a writer.

Flaubert’s cult of impersonality ran counter to contemporary expectation that works of literature should reveal its author’s opinions and personality. His writing was a strategic activity designed to accommodate the ambiguity of his position.

Discussion questions:

1. “It was by my order that this multitude of holy retreats was constructed…I have cured the sick from far off; I have cast out demons; I have passed the river in the midst of crocodiles; the Emperor Constantine wrote me three letters….But what works have I not accomplished! For thirty years and more I have been dwelling and groaning unceasingly in the desert! Assuredly there is no human being in a condition of such unutterable misery! (Flaubert, 18)”

How does Flaubert view Saint Anthony? Does he see Saint Anthony as admirable or pathetic? There are many similarities and differences between Flaubert and Saint Anthony so does Flaubert see himself in Saint Anthony or is he mocking him?

2. “He extends his hand to seize the loaf. Other loaves immediately present themselves to his grasp. For me!…all these! But… Anthony suddenly draws back. Instead of one which was there, lo! There are many!…It must be a miracle, then, the same as our lord wrought!…Yet for what purpose? Ah! All the rest of these things are equally incomprehensible! Demon, begone from me! Depart! Begone! He kicks the table from him. It disappears. (Flaubert, 25)

How is Anthony so sure at this point that these visions are from the devil who is out to get him? Why can’t the appearance of fresh bread be perceived as a miracle for someone who has shown devotion to god? As opposed to some of the temptations Saint Anthony sees later, there is nothing wrong with eating loaves of bread. Anthony is a holy man yet he rejects the idea that a miracle would be bestowed upon him. What does this say about his mindset and his relationship with religion that he is so sure the bread is a trick and not a miracle?

3. “He rushes into his cabin and seizes a bunch of things with metallic hooks attached to their ends, strips himself to the waist, and, lifting his eyes to heaven, exclaims:

Accept my penance, O my God: disdain it not for its feebleness. Render it sharp, prolonged, excessive! It is time, indeed!—to the work!

He gives himself a vigorous lash—and shrieks.

No! no!—without mercy it must be.

He recommences (Flaubert, 35).”

What is the purpose of Flaubert’s writing style, of Saint Anthony’s narration spliced by third person narration? Why does Flaubert use the structure of a play, utilizing divisions into dialogues and scenes, scene descriptions and blocking directions, if there was never any indication that he intended it to be performed? What does he gain from using this style and how does this style effect our perception or understanding of The Temptation?

4. “Anthony, from afar off, reads all these thoughts upon his brow. They penetrate his brain, and he becomes Nebuchadnezzar…He feels a sudden pain in his hand—a pebble has accidentally wounded him—and he finds himself once more in front of his cabin (Flaubert, 34)”

“He flings down the torch in order to embrace the glittering heap, and falls flat upon the ground. He rises to his feet. The place is wholly empty (Flaubert, 27).”

What causes Saint Anthony to snap out of his hallucinations? When he becomes Nebuchadnezzar and subsequently turns into a beast it is a pebble that pierces his hand that causes him to awake from the reverie and he finds himself back in front of his cabin. When the gold and jewels start pouring out of the cup he is brought back to reality when he falls. Is it just by accident that these hallucinations end or is there significance to the points at which he returns back to reality? Is there a common theme to the seemingly incidental occurrences that jolt him out of his hallucinations?

5. “Hypocrite! Burying thyself in solitude only in order the more fully to abandon thyself to the indulgence of thy envious desires…Thy chastity is but a more subtle form of corruption, and thy contempt of this world is but the impotence of thy hatred against it! (Flaubert, 48)”

How does Flaubert’s approach to religion compare to the Huysmans’ or Wilde’s? Huysmans and Wilde seem to consider religion as a path to decadence but Flaubert seems to see religion and decadence in irreconcilable tension, their ideals being completely opposing.


Bloom, Harold. Gustave Flaubert. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. Print.

Flaubert, Gustave, Lafcadio Hearn, Michel Foucault, and Marshall C. Olds. The Temptation of St. Anthony. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print.

Starkie, Enid. Flaubert: The Master; a Critical and Biographical Study (1856-1880). New York: Atheneum, 1971. Print.

Unwin, Timothy A. The Cambridge Companion to Flaubert. New York: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Wall, Geoffrey. Flaubert. Barcelona: Paidós, 2003. Print.


Presentation: “Pen, Pencil and Poison” and the Multiplicity of the Artist

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A drawing of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.
A drawing of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.

I. Publication Contexts: The Fortnightly Review and Intentions

“Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde’s history of Thomas Griffiths Wainwright, appeared in two separate versions in 1889 and 1891. The first was published by Frank Harris in the January 1889 edition of the periodical The Fortnightly Review. (Janet E. Courtney wrote an account of Harris’s tenure as editor several decades later, in 1930; you can find it here.) The second, revised version of the essay appeared as one-fourth of Intentions, Wilde’s book on artistic criticism, published in London by Osgood, McIlvaine and Co. in May 1891. The same publisher released “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” later that year (Danson 1).

The four texts that compose this book – “The Decay of Lying,” “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” “The Critic as Artist,” and “The Truth of Masks” – date from various points in the late 1880s and early 1890s, though Wilde scholars offer different opinions on the specific dates. Lawrence Danson states that they were written between 1885 and 1890 (8). Richard Ellmann situates them later, in “the three years following [Matthew] Arnold’s death” in 1888 (“The Critic as Artist as Wilde,” xi). Despite these divergent views, Ellmann, Danson, and Josephine M. Guy all connect “Pen, Pencil and Poison” to Wilde’s 1886 lecture on the eighteenth century forger Thomas Chatterton (Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 299; Danson 90; Guy xxx, 412). As Guy notes, the “lecture…is itself a kind of forgery, for it is composed mainly of cut-and-paste pages from two contemporary biographies” – a writing technique that Wilde would echo in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” (412).

Wilde may have had several motives for publishing Intentions. Perhaps the most obvious is his desire to assert his worth as a critic. According to Danson, Wilde sought “to secure a powerful position at the centre of the culture whose values he was subverting and whose laws he was flouting […] With these essays/dialogues/fictions (destabilizing the genres was part of the plot), Wilde tried to create the conditions for his own social and literary success. They were his boldest attempts to write himself into history by rewriting history” (6). This “rewriting” entailed displacing the critics who were then in vogue, the most important of whom were Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater. Recent scholarship suggests that Intentions served as a coded challenge to Pater in particular. Josephine Guy argues that the “subtext” of “Pen, Pencil and Poison” was a “pointed analogy between Wainewright and…Pater” (xxxii), and observes that “the list of interests attributed to Wainewright can also be identified with Walter Pater” (418). Coupling this with a more direct approach, it “explicitly borrow[s] some of the best-known passages in the preface to [Pater’s book] The Renaissance” (xxxv). Ellmann implies in “The Critic as Artist as Wilde” that Pater was aware of this challenge, and that his positive comparison of Intentions to Matthew Arnold doubled as “a reminder…not to ignore him” (xi).

The title page of W. Carew Hazlitt's edition of Wainewright's works.
The title page of W. Carew Hazlitt’s edition of Wainewright’s works.
Algernon Charles Swinburne.
Algernon Charles Swinburne.

II. Sources for “Pen, Pencil and Poison”

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1794-1847) would have been well-known – or at least moderately well-known – in Wilde’s time. Wainewright had been dead for nearly half a century when Intentions was published in 1891; in the interim, numerous scholars and writers had taken it upon themselves to tell his story, often recounting it as an entertaining or scandalous aside in books about his contemporaries like William Blake. Wilde explicitly references many of these texts, including Algernon Charles Swinburne’s William Blake: A Critical Essay (1866), Alexander Gilchrist’s The Life of William Blake (1863), various essays by Thomas De Quincey, and W. Carew Hazlitt’s edition of Essays and Criticisms by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (1880). Charles Dickens also fictionalized Wainewright in “Hunted Down” (1859). According to Josephine Guy, this wealth of commentary meant that Wainewright “was somewhat ‘old news’ by the end of the [1880s], and it is not immediately obvious why any periodical editor would have wanted to publish an essay on him” (xxxi).

Wilde appears to have taken the biographical details in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” from the sources above, and his essay is for the most part factual, with the exceptions of a few minor fabrications by Wilde and some (likely accidental) confusion of proper names. Wainewright’s uncle “Thomas Griffiths,” for instance, was in fact named George Edward Griffiths (Peach; Guy 440), while Wainewright’s “strange mad fascination” with “a woman whom he loved” (Wilde 1103) has not been traced to any sources, and “appears to be [Wilde’s] invention” (Guy 442).

In many parts of the essay, however, Wilde paraphrases or even copies verbatim from other texts, particularly Hazlitt’s. Even the title – the catchy, alliterative “Pen, Pencil and Poison” – was a direct quote from Swinburne rather than Wilde’s own creation. As Guy notes, the essay also is rife with quotes, both cited and uncited, from Pater (xxxv), Matthew Arnold (425), and Wainewright himself (414).

Rembrandt's "The Three Crosses."
Rembrandt’s “The Three Crosses.”
Giorgio Ghisi's "The Death of Procris," after Giulio Romano.
Giorgio Ghisi’s “The Death of Procris,” after Giulio Romano.

III. Observations and Discussion Questions: Multiplicity of Art/Multiplicity of the Artist

1. Throughout the essay, Wilde links Wainewright to France and compares him to French writers and literary characters. The narrator first ties him to characters created by Balzac and Stendhal, remarking that “[t]here was something in him of Balzac’s Lucien de Rubempre. At times he reminds us of Julien Sorel” (1095), and he later comments that “[l]ike Baudelaire he was extremely fond of cats” (1095). The catalog-like description of Wainewright’s interests – “Greek gems, and Persian carpets, and Elizabethan translations of Cupid and Psyche, and the Hypnerotomachia, and book-bindings, and early editions, and wide-margined proofs” – also reminded me of Huysmans (1095). Moreover, Wainewright travels to Boulogne, Brittany, and Paris when he decides “to go abroad till he could come to some practical arrangement with his creditors” (1103). Should we interpret this French connection as significant? Does France embody both art and the artist, and if so, why might it hold such a strong allure for Wainewright and for the narrator?

2. Wilde’s essay reprints selections from Wainewright’s art criticism, most notably extended descriptions of Rembrandt’s The Crucifixion (possibly The Three Crosses, pictured above) and Giulio Romano’s Cephalus and Procris. Although Wilde devotes a fair amount of time to mocking Wainewright’s writing style, he also praises his attempts “to translate [his] impressions [of the work as an artistic whole] into words” (1098), and goes so far as to state that “[t]he conception of making a prose poem out of paint is excellent” (1100). These examples appear to support his view that “[i]n a very ugly and sensible age, the arts borrow, not from life, but from each other” (1100). Can we relate this idea to other works we’ve read so far – for instance, to the Preface in The Picture of Dorian Gray – in order to link separate pieces of Wilde’s art to one another? Does Wilde’s conflation of life with art complicate or upend the sentiment he espouses here?

3. Wilde frequently creates humor by juxtaposing the morbid and the lighthearted. When Wainewright poisons his sister-in-law Helen Abercrombie, the essay’s tone undergoes a jarring shift from earnest remembrance of the deceased to impersonal analysis of Wainewright’s art: “When they returned, Helen Abercrombie was dead. She was about twenty years of age, a tall graceful girl with fair hair. A very charming red-chalk drawing of her by her brother-in-law is still in existence, and shows how much his style was influenced by Sir Thomas Lawrence, a painter for whose work he had always entertained a great admiration” (1103). Similarly, after his host in Boulogne “died…in his presence, …he left Boulogne at once for a sketching tour through the most picturesque parts of Brittany” (1103). Do these passages contradict or support Wilde’s insistence that “[t]here is no essential incongruity between crime and culture” (1106)? Or do they merely prove that Wainwright “is far too close to our own time for us to be able to form any purely artistic judgment” (1106)?

4. The humorous depiction of murder in “Pen, Pencil and Poison” provokes comparisons to “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”; additionally, the two works were published by the same company only months apart. Beyond surface resemblances, they also may offer opposing perspectives regarding the question of fate. Danson writes that Intentions deals with “the dilemma that figures as the two faces of Dorian Gray, the aspiration freely to create one’s personality or personalities or masks, versus the fear of fatality” (Danson 19). How does Lord Arthur Savile’s fear of the chiromantist’s prediction contrast with Wainewright’s motives, which range from the purely economic to the arbitrary (Wilde notes that “[h]is aim [in killing his friend in Boulogne] was simply to revenge himself on the first office that had refused to pay him the price of his sin” [1103])? Is there a difference in the end?

5. “Pen, Pencil and Poison” is subtitled “A Study in Green.” Near the end of the essay, Wilde examines this color in the context of a novel by Émile Zola: “M. Zola, in one of his novels, tells us of a young man who, having committed a murder, takes to art, and paints greenish impressionist portraits of perfectly respectable people, all of which bear a curious resemblance to his victim. The development of Mr. Wainewright’s style seems to me far more subtle and suggestive” (1106). The color green has a number of connotations in the texts we’ve read: it can evoke poison, as it seems to do here, as well as drugs like hashish (for instance, in Monsieur Vénus) and even the emotion of envy. Why does Wilde discuss green most explicitly at this moment in the essay, in the context of a book by another author and as part of an effort to insult that author?

IV. Bibliography

Algernon Charles Swinburne. Photograph. “Algernon Charles Swinburne.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

“Algernon Charles Swinburne.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

“Chatterton, Thomas.” The Poetry Foundation. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

Courtney, Janet E. “The Fortnightly Review under Harris, 1886-1894.” The Making of an Editor. 1930. The Fortnightly Review. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Danson, Lawrence. Wilde’s Intentions: The Artist in His Criticism. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hunted Down. 1859. University of Adelaide. 6 Feb. 2013. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Ellmann, Richard. “Introduction: The Critic as Artist as Wilde.” The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde. By Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1969. ix-xxviii. Print.

—. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Print.

Ghisi, Giorgio. The Death of Procris. c.1540. Engraving. LACMA. “The Death of Procris.” LACMA. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 .

Guy, Josephine M. Criticism: Historical Criticism, Intentions, The Soul of Man. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Vol. 4. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Morrison, Robert. Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). Queen’s University. 6 Feb. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Peach, Annette. “Wainewright, Thomas Griffiths (1794-1847).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2004. Web. 7 Feb. 2014 <;.

Reeves & Turner. Essays and criticisms by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, now first collected with some account of the author, by W. Carew Hazlitt. Title page. 1880. Open Library. 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 <;.

Rembrandt. The Three Crosses. 1653. Drypoint. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “The Three Crosses.” Wikipedia. 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2014 <;.

Thomas Griffiths Wainewright. Drawing. “Thomas Griffiths Wainewright.” By Peter Hammond. Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society. Web. 10 Feb. 2014 .

Wilde, Oscar. “Pen, Pencil and Poison.” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2003. 1093-1107. Print.

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Presentation: Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

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Part I: Influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray

1926 Translation of Against Nature, with the caption: “the book that Dorian Gray loved and that inspired Oscar Wilde”

As illustrated by our paired reading of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature, Wilde’s work owes a certain debt to “the yellow book” of Huysmans (96). Wilde’s reviewers immediately made this connection, disparagingly noting the influence of “the garbage of the French Décadents” (Beckson, 69) and “the leprous literature of the French Décadents” (Beckson, 72). Dorian’s fascination with “the yellow book” begins at the end of chapter ten (96-97) and occupies all of chapter 11 (97-109). Now that we have read part of Against Nature, Wilde’s description of “the yellow book” does sound remarkably familiar:

It was a novel without a plot, and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian, who spent his life trying to realise in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. (96)

As Lucius Cook puts it in his study of the French influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray, “No other book answers so clearly to this description” (31).

Like des Esseintes, Dorian develops a variety of eclectic, passing obsessions, including a superficial interest in Catholicism (100-101), perfumes (101), concerts of exotic music (101-102), jewels (102-103), and embroideries and tapestries (104-105). Not only does the content of chapter 11 mimic the episodes of Against Nature in miniature, but Wilde also mimics Huysmans’ style. Even if the reader were not familiar with Against Nature, chapter 11 has a distinctively different style than the rest of the novel, with dialogue and witty one-liners being replaced by exhaustive descriptions of objects and scenes.

In his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joseph Bristow points out that although “the yellow book” inspires Dorian to pursue an aesthetic life, he does so in a rather unoriginal manner: “Instead of taking independent-minded inspiration from this unique French novel, he pursues the bluntest imitation of it” (xvi). Given the fact that Wilde’s imitation of Husymans’ style parallels Dorian’s imitation of des Esseintes’ life, we could charge Wilde with the same criticism that Bristow applies to Dorian. Yet, Dorian explicitly (and Wilde implicitly) expresses the “anxiety of influence,” as when he acknowledges that des Esseintes is “a kind of pre-figuring type of himself” and that the novel is “the story of his own life, written before he had lived it” (97). This awareness starts to sound particularly like the concern of an author when Dorian contemplates his family’s portrait gallery:

Yet one had ancestors in literature, as well as in one’s own race, nearer perhaps in type and temperament, many of them, and certainly with an influence of which one was more absolutely conscious. There were times when it appeared to Dorian Gray that the whole of history was merely the record of his own life, not as he had lived it in act and circumstance, but as his imagination had created it for him, as it had been in his brain and in his passions. He felt that he had known them all, those strange terrible figures that had passed across the stage of the world and made sin so marvellous, and evil so full of subtlety. It seemed to him that in some mysterious way their lives had been his own. (108, emphases mine)

Rather than being swallowed up by his predecessors, Dorian responds to the presence of literary and historical ancestors by appropriating them. In his mind, he upends the sequence of history; rather than his life being a repetition of past lives, he considers past lives to be an imitation of his own. I would venture that Wilde is doing something similar with chapter 11 and perhaps throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. Although chapter 11 provides the most intense section of allusion to Against Nature, Huysmans’ text looms throughout The Picture of Dorian Gray. By confining a concentrated imitation of Against Nature to a single chapter, however, Wilde seems to contain Huysmans’ influence to a certain extent and wield it for his own purposes (I hope we’ll get a chance to discuss what exactly these purposes might be in class: see discussion questions).

Faust, etching by Rembrandt
Faust, etching by Rembrandt
An illustration (A.D. McCormick, 1898) based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe
An illustration (A.D. McCormick, 1898) based on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym by Poe
Title page of Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance
Title page of Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance

Huysmans is only one of the myriad influences on The Picture of Dorian Gray that critics have identified. Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance was another prominent influence (Bristow, xxvii). Lord Henry Wotton in particular quotes, paraphrases, and even misquotes Pater (Monsman, 1). Scholarly reviews of studies on Wilde’s sources sound like a Huysmans-esque list of Western literary history, with other potential influences including Poe, Balzac, Bulwer-Lytton, Disraeli, Suetonius, Walpole, GibbonGoethe, Radcliffe, Maturin, Tennyson, Arnold, D.G. Rossetti, Symonds, Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and journalist George Augustus Sala (McCormack, 110). In her essay “The Origins of the Aesthetic Novel: Ouida, Wilde, and the Popular Romance,” Talia Schaffer provides convincing evidence of the striking similarities between the popular romances written by Ouida (the pen name of Maria Louise Ramé) in the 1860s-1880s and Wilde’s novel, from thematic similarities (the cynical, apathetic, and tasteful dandy figure; homoeroticism) to stylistic ones (epigrammatic dialogue). An even more obscure source study suggests that The Picture of Dorian Gray belongs to a Gothic subgenre dubbed “‘magic portrait’ fiction” (Powell, 148).

I personally noted resonances with Faust, specifically Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus (although critics generally seem to refer to Goethe’s Faust). In terms of general plot parallels, Dorian refers to his portrait as his “soul,” suggesting a kind of Faustian bargain in which he has exchanged his soul for eternal beauty (116). More specifically, Basil’s desperate attempt to get Dorian to repent for his sins is quite similar to the end of Dr. Faustus, when Faust’s fellow scholars exhort him to ask God for mercy, but Faustus insists that it is too late (just as Dorian says, “‘It is too late, Basil’” [116]).

Part II: Discussion Questions

1. In the Preface, Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book” (17). Towards the end of the novel, when Dorian blames Lord Henry for having poisoned him with a book, Lord Henry echoes the principles of the Preface: “‘As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all’” (156). When Dorian fears that James Vane is haunting him for his connection with Sybil’s death, he reassures himself that the immoral are only punished in fiction, not in life:

Actual life was chaos, but there was something terribly logical in the imagination. It was the imagination that set remorse to dog the feet of sin. It was the imagination that made each crime bear its misshapen brood. In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all. (144) (note the similar “That is/was all” ending to both Henry’s line and Dorian’s narrated thoughts)

Yet, Dorian is “punished,” in the sense that he dies at the end of the novel in an attempt to destroy what he believes to be the source of his guilt. Furthermore, the language of Dorian and the narrator becomes increasingly religious in the final chapter, as Dorian wavers back and forth between guilt and indifference. How do we reconcile the disjunction between morality and art proclaimed by the Preface, Lord Henry, and Dorian  himself with the ending of the novel? How does Wilde’s (a)morality compare to that of Huysmans or Rachilde?

2. Throughout the novel, Wilde uses free indirect discourse to narrate Dorian’s thoughts. Wilde frequently becomes so immersed in free indirect discourse that Dorian’s thoughts begin to sound like the narrator’s own proclamations. The most pronounced example of this stylistic device comes at the end of chapter 11, when Dorian muses on the importance of aesthetics:

For the canons of good society are, or should be, the same as the canons of art. Form is absolutely essential to it. It should have the dignity of a ceremony, as well as its unreality, and should combine the insincere character of a romantic play with the wit and beauty that make such plays delightful to us. Is insincerity such a terrible thing? I think not. It is merely a method by which we can multiply our personalities.

Such, at any rate, was Dorian Gray’s opinion. (107, emphasis mine)

The “I think not” is particularly jarring—who is the “I”? Although the following paragraph announces that the “I” is Dorian, the passage in which it occurs feels more like something the narrator might say (particularly in light of the statement that insincerity is a method to multiply one’s personality). Similar moments of free indirect discourse that turn into narratorial dictums occur on p. 137 (“One had to pay over and over again, indeed. In her dealings with man Destiny never closed her accounts”) and p. 157 (“Not ‘Forgive us our sins,’ but ‘Smite us for our iniquities,’ should be the prayer of a man to a most just God”).

What is going on in these moments? What do we make of the ambiguity generated by Wilde’s slides between free indirect discourse and overt narration?

3. Why does chapter 11 so closely mimic the style and content of Against Nature? Is it an homage, a parody, an appropriation, mere imitation, or something else? What purpose does it serve in the novel? And what of all the other allusions and potential sources that crop up throughout the novel (Faust, Poe, Pater, etc)? How does Wilde interact with his “ancestors in literature”? Considering the proliferation of allusions in Against Nature and even Monsieur Vénus, can we formulate a Decadent theory/approach to allusion?

4. Alan Campbell is quite a mysterious presence in The Picture of Dorian Gray. His name first appears more than halfway through the novel (at the end of chapter 13, p. 119), and he disappears almost without any notice (Lord Henry mentions “Alan Campbell’s suicide” as a kind of afterthought on p. 151). Furthermore, we never learn what exactly Dorian threatens him with in order to convince him to dispose of Basil’s body (125). Should we consider the secrecy surrounding Alan Campbell to be an example of Eve Sedgwick’s concept of preterition, of absence as an indicator of presence (i.e. the secret history of Gray and Campbell suggests that they were lovers)? Yet, the way the reader learns of Campbell’s suicide is so bizarre that it seems to require further explanation—why is it so buried within the text? On a related note, how does homoeroticism in The Picture of Dorian Gray compare/contrast with representations of sexuality in Monsieur Vénus?

5. “‘You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram,’” Dorian comments, in a particularly epigram-heavy chapter (147). Parts of The Picture of Dorian Gray read more like a play than a novel (particularly chapter 18, when Dorian makes this quip). The narrator, whether in moments of free indirect discourse or in overt narration, is also partial to epigrams. In his introduction to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Joseph Bristow notes that Wilde recycled his favorite epigrams in several of his works, linking one of Lord Henry’s epigrams to a quote from Wilde’s play Vera; or, the Nihilists and Lady Windermere’s Fan: “It became Wilde’s habit to reuse his favourite epigrams, which he frequently compiled in notebooks, sometimes on more than one occasion” (xxix). What effect does Wilde’s epigrammatic style have? How does the proliferation of epigrammatic dialogue change the form of the novel? To connect back to question 3 (on the link with Huysmans), how does Wilde’s epigrammatic style differ from the style he adopts in chapter 11? Does the effect of an epigram differ when voiced by a given character (i.e. Lord Henry) vs. the narrator?

From Kate Beaton's "Hark! A Vagrant"
From Kate Beaton’s “Hark! A Vagrant”

Works Cited

Beckson, Karl. Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1970. Print.

Bristow, Joseph. Introduction. The Picture of Dorian Gray. By Oscar Wilde. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

Cook, H. L. “French Sources of Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray.” Romanic Review 19 (1928): 25. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Mccormack, Jerusha. “Wilde’s fiction(s)”, The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. 96-117. Cambridge Companions Online. Web. 04 February 2014.

Monsman, Gerald. “Pater’s Portraits: The Aesthetic Hero in 1890 (Part II).” Expositions [Online], 3.1 (2009): 23-40. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Powell, Kerry. “Tom, Dick, and Dorian Gray: Magic-Picture Mania in Late Victorian Fiction.” Philological Quarterly 62.2 (1983): 147. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2014.

Schaffer, Talia. “The Origins of the Aesthetic Novel: Ouida, Wilde, and the Popular Romance.” Wilde Writings: Contextual Conditions. Ed. Joseph Bristow. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003. 212-229. Print.


Against Nature cover:

Rembrandt’s Faust etching:,_Faust.jpg

Arthur Gordon Pym illustration:

Pater cover:

Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant:


Word Count: 2059

Presentation: Huysmans’ Odyssey from Naturalism to Catholicism: Presentation

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 Joris-Karl Huysmans

“Il existe de par le monde des gens qui, divisant mon œuvre en deux parties: avant ma conversion, après ma conversion, voudraient absolument me persuader que je dois retirer, faire disparaitre, anéantir la première. Ces gens ne comprennent pas qu’il y a dans la vie et dans l’œuvre d’un artiste, une unité, et que, notamment, cette œuvre forme un tout.”

“There exists the world of people who divide my work in two parts: before my conversion and after my conversion, and who would absolutely want to persuade me that I must retire, efface, annihilate the first. These people do not understand that in life and in the work of an artist there is a unity, and that, notably, this work forms a whole that is everything.” Interview with Joris-Karl Huysmans, La Liberte, 29TH of April 1904.

The question of who Joris-Karl Huysmans is often arises with a certain ambiguity; he has been described as a naturalist writer, a decadent, a catholic, a mystic, even a hagiographer (Smeets 9), but do any of these terms describe him or is the plural synthesis of each that does? And if so, how could he have first been a naturalist writer abiding to Emile Zola’s materialist rules of engagement with literature and society, then have made a radical turn towards decadence only to end as a catholic—do these shifts in mentality not contradict each other, or is it precisely because of the contradiction that they make ‘sense’?

J.-K Huysmans was born on February 5th of 1848 and was baptized the next day as Charles-Marie-Georges (name he would repudiate in his literary career).

His father passed away in 1856 and in 1857 his mother remarried to M. Jules Og, the same year Les Fleurs du Mal was published.

In 1870 he is mobilized in the Garde Nationale’s 6th Battalion for the Franco-Prussian war and is confined to a series of hospitals with dysentery.

In 1874 he publishes his first novel Le Drageoir a epices.

In 1877 he writes four articles on Emile Zola and eventually befriends him, as well as Flaubert and Edmond de Goncourt. These encounters initiate his immersion into naturalism, a movement which upholds that only natural and material laws and forces operate in the world, as opposed to supernatural and spiritual ones. During this period he becomes acquainted with naturalist theories of hysteria, mainly those of Jean-Martin Charcot, who begins to describe ecstatic phenomena in materialistic and psychosexual terms (Hanson 109). Psychology gains prominence at the end of the nineteenth century and casts a shadow on Christian mysticism by directly addressing the erotic effusions inherent in its beliefs. Ecstatic accounts of religious figures such as Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Catherine of Siena, Blessed Christina of Stommeln, and Saint John of the Cross begin to be questioned as cases of hysteria, and thus reduced to nonsense.

In 1884, A rebours is published and Huysmans is widely acclaimed and recognized (much to Emile Zola’s dismay). It becomes evident that he draws much of his decadent aesthetic from the juxtaposition of religious and psychological discourses of hysteria. Interestingly enough, Huysmans’ accentuation of the textuality of faith and desire and the exaltation of language’s role in both, is closer to modern psychoanalysis than to Charcot’s theories since instead of dismissing the language of hysterics as nonsense, Huysmans seeks to symbolically decompose the content of hysterical discourse, especially dreams. Huysmans also develops a notion of the “unconscious”, and an uncanny textual understanding of hysteria that eerily resonates with Freud’s work. A rebours is a demonstration of the divine unconscious which Huysmans unveils through his ecstatic and obsessive language. (Hanson 112)

The same year he establishes a friendship with Leon Bloy and meets Paul Verlaine who is considered by many as a drunkard and a sodomite yet whom Huysmans considers “a great poet, the only Catholic poet”. In fact in 1903 (after his conversion to Catholicism) Huysmans published an edition of Paul Verlaine’s religious poetry that praised him and his work. But how can Huysmans claim that Verlaine is a Catholic poet when he commits sinful acts, when his words may not be in tune with his actions? It is through such apparent contradictions that Huysmans’ mysticism, decadence, Catholicism and anti-naturalism intermingle to reveal the paradox of decadent Catholicism: the harmonious coexistence of depravity and divinity, of dissonance and assonance, of brutality and grace as well as hysteria and mysticism (Hanson 111)

Following his decadent vein Huysman publishes En Rade in 1887 and La-Bas in 1891 before converting to Catholicism in 1892.

He would then publish En Route in 1895, La Cathedrale in 1898 and L’Oblat in 1903. “[the novels] trace the spiritual development of Durtal, one of Huysmans’ alter egos, from his life as a jaded sinner in La-Bas to his later incarnations as a penitent convert, connoisseur of religious art, and Benedictine oblate.” (Hanson 109)

An Illustration of Huysmans’ Spiritual Naturalism

There is a particularly vivid example of Huysmans’ aesthetic use of the unconscious as a source of the divine through his prodigious use of language when he offers the reader a gruesome, perverse and enlightened description of Mattias Grunewald’s crucifixion in the opening chapter of La-Bas. Huysmans thus branches out into a sort of “spiritual naturalism” (Hanson 120)—he uses Zola’s techniques to transmit his mystical hysteria across to the reader. Spirituality arises from the unbearably naturalistic elements of Grunewald’s painting.

hand detail grunewald crucifixion grunewald's crucifixion feet

“Huysmans finds sadistic inspiration in detailing the suffering of Christ on the cross. He defines the spiritual through images of splitting and fragmentation. He speaks of wounds dripping with blood and pus, arms dislocated and ripped from their sockets, straining muscles, labored tendons, fingers contorted into a gesture of supplication, reproach, and benediction.” (Hanson 121)

“Around this ulcerated head there filtered a glowing light; and a superhuman expression illuminated the effluescence of the skin, the epilepsy of his features” (18-19 Huysmans)


 “The difficulty is to be in the desired state of soul- though I have seen, in all this, such curious things, and for that matter I have such a hysterical soul, that I believe I might find a retreat to La Chartreuse exasperating from that perspective- and to cast aside all this carnal filth that tempts me not immoderately J.-K Huysmans

Huysmans Medical Diagnoses

Huysmans suffered from and was diagnosed with dysentery, cancer, impotence, headaches, neuralgia, neurasthenia, melancholia, and recurring dyspepsia.


Huysmans would socialize with people who, as himself, threaded the line between madness and reason- people often deemed to be neurotic. One of which was Berthe Courriere. “Not only was Courriere a Satanist who, according to Rachilde, fed consecrated hosts to stray dogs from her shopping bags, but she was also committed to insane asylums, in 1890 and in 1906” (Hanson 128)

He also had a deep affection for Anne Meunier, whom he would visit every Sunday in the asylum until she died of a general paralysis.

Christianity and Sodomy

“Satanism itself, so far as not merely an affectation, was an attempt to get into Christianity by the back door.” T.S Eliot

In En Route Huysmans utilized a similar metaphor to describe his relationship with the Devil (Hanson 139) “[imagination] will be the badly closed door of your person, and it is through there that the devil will enter and expand himself in you.” (Huysmans 94)

There are many instances in his novels and letters to friends where he condemns sodomy as a sinful and degenerate act that inverses gender roles and is by no means acceptable. However, Huysmans would maintain an aversion to sodomy while paradoxically venturing into homoeroticism himself and maintaining close relationships with known homosexuals such as Paul Verlaine and Jean Lorrain (Hanson 140)

Brief note on Huysmans’ Naturalism, Decadence and Catholicism

If one is to divide Huysmans’ literary career in three stages (mainly naturalism, decadence and Catholicism), and venture into the intricacies of his aesthetic beliefs, the seemingly contradictory stages dissolve and conjoin to form a harmonious and complementary set of aesthetic values which are in tune with each other. In order to grasp his spirituality Huysmans first understood the essence of naturalism and where it was, in his view, at fault. For a large part Huysmans believed that naturalism failed to address the spiritual elements of literature and consciousness. As such he began to write decadently, to tune himself to the negative of that Other divinity which he avidly sought and which he would later find in his conversion to Catholicism. In such a way Huysmans’ aestheticism reveals the paradoxical nature of his perception of reality and spirituality, one filled by the artistic power of the imagination as apparent through religious hysteria and mystical experiences.

Against Nature: Chapters VI-X

Chapter VI

“This was simplicity itself; his name was Auguste Langlois, he worked for a cardboard-maker, his mother was dead, and his father beat him mercilessly.” (58)

“Des Esseintes shrugged: ‘You’re not with me; no, far from it,’ he said; ‘the truth is that I’m simply trying to produce a murderer. Now pay close attention to my reasoning. This boy’s a virgin, and he’s reached the age where the blood begins to seethe; he could chase the girls in his neighborhood, he could have some fun but go on behaving decently, he could, in a word, enjoy his little share of the humdrum happiness which is the lot of the poor. On the other hand, by bringing him here, by showing him a luxury which he didn’t even suspect existed and which will necessarily imprint itself on his mind; by giving him such a windfall every couple of weeks, he’ll become accustomed to these pleasures which his means do not permit him to enjoy, let’s suppose that he’ll need three months for them to become absolutely essential- and by spacing them out as I shall do, I do not run the risk of sating him- so, at the end of the three months, I shall put a stop to the little income which I’m going to advance you for this good deed, and then he’ll steal, to be able to come here; he’ll do something quite desperate so that he can tumble about on this couch, under these gas-lights!” (59-60)

‘the fact is that since pain is an effect of education, since it deepens and sharpens in proportion as ideas spring up, the more one will develop in them those fiercely long-lasting seeds of moral suffering and of hatred.’ (61)

How does this chapter address the notion of art as crime, or crime as art? Is there a distinction between the two and how does this play out in the text as well as in this example. What of the textuality of the Des Esseintes desired crime?

Chapter VII

‘ever since my childhood, and without my ever being aware of it, I’ve carried this unfermented leaven with me; even the predilection I always felt for religious artefacts may perhaps be proof of it.’ (65)

What is Des Esseintes relationship with religion and how does it compare to religion’s relationship to art? How are they similar or how do they differ? What do these say of the spiritual and art?

Chapter VIII

“ ‘it’s true that most of the time Nature is incapable of creating, all on her own, such noxious, degenerate species; she provides the raw material, the seed and the soil, the nurturing womb and the elements of the plant which man then grows, fashions, paints sculpts as he chooses…” (77)

How is Nature different than man? What does this chapter suggest of man and nature, is man then not natural? What is the role of Des Esseintes’ dream after the floral scene?

Chapter IX

just as a strapping young fellow will fall in love with a frail girl…’ (85)

How does the episode with Miss Urania compare to that of Jacques and Raoule?

Chapter X

If his imagination truly masters reality and the nature of all things, what does his inability to control his imagination (as with the frangipani aroma) reveal?


Banks, Brian R. The Image of Huysmans. New York, N.Y.: AMS Press, 1990.

Hanson, Ellis. Decadence and Catholicism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

J.-k. Huysmans : Littérature Et Religion : Actes Du Colloque Du Département Des Lettres De L’institut Catholique De Rennes, [décembre 2007]. Rennes: Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2009.

Smeets, Marc. Huysmans L’inchangé : Histoire D’une Conversion. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.

Vircondelet, Alain. Joris-karl Huysmans. Paris: Plon, 1990.