In “Helas!” Oscar Wilde laments his generation and its movement’s departure from the ideals and artistic philosophies of the Classical world. The “stringed lute” (2) is the soul of Oscar Wilde and anyone who lives the Aesthetic lifestyle. The mission is to “drift with every passion” (1) and to indulge the desires of the soul and its attraction to beautiful and pleasurable things. This lifestyle is embodied in Des Esseintes’ self-isolation and withdrawal into a world of artistic contemplation as well as Dorian Gray’s hedonistic bender in Wilde’s own novel. In “Helas!” Aestheticism is portrayed as fatuous and non-productive. The movement and its use of the soul is described with phrases like “boyish holiday” (6) and “idle songs” (7) to downplay its gravitas, especially as compared to the more mature philosophical goals of Classical philosophers.
Wilde describes the opportunity he passed up to follow in the path of his Grecian idols and aspire to lofty and noble truths: “Surely there was a time I might have trod/ The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance/ Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God” (9-11). Here, Wilde uses a musical metaphor to juxtapose the material world and the world of Platonic forms. “Dissonance” is the former, a fate of failure that can be transcended by the “one clear chord.” It’s left to the reader what that chord might be, but in context I would guess it is a “Eureka” moment during deep philosophical contemplation or a stroke of artistic genius that captures an otherworldly beauty.
The ancient world, even if you narrow it down to just Greek philosophers in a specific time period, contained a diversity of philosophical voices with endorsements of multitudinous lifestyles and moral choices. It is revealing to see how Wilde characterizes the plethora of ideas in a poetical line or phrase. At the very least it can help the reader guess what philosopher or what school of philosophy Wilde might be referencing. For instance, the phrase “ancient wisdom, and austere control” (4) points to the moral philosophy of virtuous self-restraint or maybe Stoicism. These ideas clash, in Wilde’s mind, with the zeitgeist of his time—a tendency towards luxury, self-indulgence, pleasure, and dabbling.
Are there any positives to the choice that Wilde thinks his movement has made? The overall tone and title imply that the negatives outweigh the positives, but there are hints of the rewards of Aestheticism and Decadence. For example, the poet for a moment seems to reminisce about an experience of sweetness and interpersonal connection that his lifestyle afforded him: “With a little rod/ I did but touch the honey of romance” (12-13). Still, the pessimistic finale upstages the brief mention of benefit: “And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?” (14). Here, Wilde gives a clear nod to his Classical intellectual ancestors with the use of the phrase “soul’s inheritance”. He regrets that the Aesthetic lifestyle seems a slap in the face and rejection of the truths and beauties that were passed down to him when he read the Classics.
Transcendence of Art Forms: A Study of Literary Synesthesia
FRENCH 112: Final Project
Where Shakespeare’s drama meets Beethoven’s music, here we experience the ideal work of art. The union of lyricism and symphony, the “two great halves of a universal whole,” was introduced by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) as the supreme art form (Bentley, 289). The German composer and critic presented to mid-19th century Europe the term Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” He revolutionized classical opera into “music dramas,” where the poet adapts his own epic to his musical composition. The artist is at once poet and musician, stimulating all senses to reach aesthetic beauty.
Unable to see his operas produced while in exile, Wagner occupied his time writing, attributing the failures of the 1848 Revolutions to the loss of Ancient Greek principles (Wagner, 30). In the wake of the Revolutions of 1848, ad hoc revolutions based on political discontent across Europe, and his exile from Germany, polemicist Wagner wrote about the role of art in society in his long essay “Art and Revolution” (1849), the first of a series of three essays. He presented the decay of his society in stark contrast to the ideal of Ancient Greek drama, which combined dance, music, and poetry into a singular coherent whole. He expounds how the Greeks perfected Drama in their unity of artworks “that lived in the public conscience.” The decay of Drama, and hence Art, is attributed to the component art forms “pursuing its own development […] in lonely self-sufficiency […] in the conscience of private persons” (Wagner, 52). As the hero, Wagner applied this unification principle to his own work.
Synthesizing the poetic, visual, and musical into the realm of drama, Wagner realized his concept of Gesamtkunstwerk in his four opera cycle Der Ring Nielungen(1848-1874). [click here for a trailer of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s production of 2012] However, Wagner did not coin this term. Indeed he only used the exact term Gesamtkunstwerk on but few occasions, in his essay “Art and Revolution,” and in the second essay of the polemic series “Artwork of the Future” (1849). Still, the term became essential to his conception of aesthetic ideals. Wagner demanded two main factors be present in a total work of art: “poetry, carried to its utmost limits in drama; and music carried to its utmost limits as the interpreter and deepener of dramatic action” (Bentley, 309). To apply Wagner’s definition of Gesamtkunstwerk as the perfect artwork for unifying all art forms evokes “synesthesia,” the harmonious associations of disparate artistic sensations. Synesthesia extends beyond mere automatic sensory experience to also include the evocation of past experiences.
While Wagner’s use of the term Gesamtkunstwerk likely applies solely to his notion of operatic drama, here we will explore how the elements of Gesamtkunstwerk also work their way into the great Symbolist and Decadent literary oeuvres. We will demonstrate how Baudelaire’s poem “Correspondences” and Wilde’s play Salomé, although not per se operatic, in fact achieve Gesamtkunstwerk because their works satisfy all the necessary elements of a total work of art.
The collaboration of all art forms interested the French Symbolists. At the origin of the Symbolist movement is Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), acclaimed French poet and critic. While Baudelaire had no formal musical training, he reveled in Wagner’s talent “à peindre l’espace et la profondeur, matériels et spirituels,” (to paint space and depth, material and spiritual) (Baudelaire, 217). Baudelaire, with a level of narcissism, viewed himself as the translator of the soul, the musician of French poetry. Upon hearing Wagner’s music, Baudelaire wrote “Il me semble que cette musique était la mienne” (it seems to me that this music is mine) (Marie, 49). In Wagner, Baudelaire found synesthesia and Gesamtkunstwerk.
Our French poet, struck by the magnificence of Wagner, wrote a critical text to music called “Richard Wagner et Tannhäuser à Paris” (1861). [click here for full text] Baudelaire cites Wagner himself, explaining how the unification of art forms “contribuent ensemble à jeter l’esprit dans cet état de rêve qui le porte bientôt jusqu’à la pleine clairvoyance, et l’esprit découvre alors un nouvel enchaînement des phénomènes du monde, que ses yeux ne pouvaient apercevoir dans l’état de veille ordinaire” (together contribute to throw the spirit in this dream state that soon transports to the full clairvoyance, and the spirit discovers a new sequence of phenomenon in the world, that the eyes could not see in the ordinary waking state) (Marie, 50). Achieving this higher spiritual state can be effected when the artist supplies the audience with a total work of art, drawing upon synesthesia to manifest this transformation. Baudelaire inscribed the first two stanzas of his famed poem “Correspondences” (1857) as the translation of Wagner’s music. [click here for the full poem] He saw – and heard—a symbiosis of sound and color of the Idea.
La nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles ;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.
(Nature is a temple, where the living
Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech;
Man walks within these groves of symbols, each
Of which regards him as a kindred thing.
As the long echoes, shadowy, profound,
Heard from afar, blend in a unity,
Vast as the night, as sunlight’s clarity,
So perfumes, colors, sounds may correspond.)
(translated by James McGowie).
When we examine a poem, on the surface not a “total work of art” in the broad Wagnerian sense, elements of Wagner’s intuitive concept are still evoked. Baudelaire applied his esprit beyond allegories and representations, advancing symbols to stimulate a transformative state of mind. The Symbolist artists also exercised this practice, a similar state of mind induced by Gesamtkunstwerk. When reading the poem, Baudelaire transports his audience beyond mere synesthesia, the association of between sounds, scents, and sight.
The synthesis of impression, combining and confusing “les parfums, les couleurs et les sons” materializes into the “forêts de symboles.” Yet, unlike the synesthesia of associations, this poem evokes a unity between these correspondences. In the first quatrain, “nature” is expressed as a system of perpetual analogies, where everything accords. Human beings are not aware of a total unity of nature, but “man” may experience soft sounds “doux comme les hautbois,” or fresh scents “parfums, frais comme les chairs d’enfants.” These associations are not random, they “se répondent,” the five senses answering, indeed echoing, one another. In this fashion, we experience an element of the Gesamtkunstwerk, here reflected both in symbols and sensations.
In his Alexandrian sonnet, Baudelaire added a further layer of musicality. His prosodic lyrics are harmonious, tying together syllables of its title throughout the poem. This first syllable, [kɒ] from “correspondences,” appears in line 2 “confuses,” line 5 “comme,” “échos,” and “confondent,” line 7 “comme,” line 9 “comme,” line 10 “comme,” line 11 “corrompus,” and line 13 “comme.” Another syllable is [põ] from “correspondences.” This syllable appears and accumulates through phonetics in line 2 “parfois sortir de confuses paroles,” line 5 “longs…confondent,” line 6 “profonde,” line 8 “parfums…respondent,” and line 11 “corrompus…triomphants.” This reverberation of sounds flowing through the poems demonstrates a musicality and lyrical wholeness, both key elements underlying Gesamtkunstwerk. [click here to listen to the poem read in French]
Returning to Wagner’s theory from the essays “Art and Revolution” and “Artwork of the Future,” this incorporation of musicality to prose realized the harmony of Modern Speech: This harmony, “in itself a thing of thought,” (Bentley, 303) expresses a bond between absent and present emotions. Likewise, Baudelaire’s poem demonstrates this transformative thought, carrying sensations beyond the quotidian into the realm of spirituality. The first stanza, for example, hints at a nostalgic view of nature degraded by sin. However, the celebration of this ecstasy of the senses prevails. Nature, a quasi-divine living temple where man wanders blindly, aids this “man” to participate in a full experience. Still, Nature is not the sole link between the sensory and the spiritual. A transcendent element corresponding to these aspects is required.
The poem itself manifests these correspondences. The language in the art of the poem suggests a “higher plan of spiritual awareness,” joining Nature with art (Varty, 140). The Symbolists practiced how to establish these repetitive links that bind the world, both real and imaginative, together. Baudelaire’s repetition of similes (“comme”) demonstrates the “capacity of man to escape his dereliction thanks to the synthetic power of imagination,” (Michon, 23). Not any “man” can connect distant words; the exception is the poet. The poet uses these similes to synthesize the disarray of sensory experience into organized, spiritual transcendence.
This unity of disparate artistic elements exhibited in the poem reminds us of Gesamtkunstwerk, the integration of music and lyric that carries the reader towards a higher state. Baudelaire’s symbolist document connects the reader with nature and the metaphysical world. Our poet is able to impart these correspondences only through words. Yet, these words are arranged in such a way as to manipulate and unite musical tones, dramatic effect, synthesized emotion, and past experience. Through forceful sensory presence coupled with repetitive musicality supplied by the poet, the reader may achieve the “temple,” a spiritual realm no unlike that envisioned by Wagner. While “Correspondences” is but a poem in form, its power of language functions as a total work of art, precisely the objective aspired by Gesamtkunstwerk.
Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé functions much in this same way. As a written play, it, like Baudelaire’s poem, is not, at first glance, what Wagner’s envisioned in Gesamtkunstwerk. Still, the play itself, destined for the Symbolist stage, achieves the criteria for a total work of art. Before the staging, the work creates the elements of harmony sought by Wagner.
The style in Salomé relies heavily on repetition. Salomé’s phrases are periodic and insistent. “I will kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan” or “suffer me to kiss thy mouth, Jokanaan” are repeated twelve times throughout the play (Wilde, 590-605). Perhaps Salomé’s self-echoing is a sign of obsession, but she is not the only character who repeats phrases. Another example is the Page of Herodias who warns “something terrible may happen” five times, repeated by Herod just before the execution “I am sure that some misfortune will happen” (Wilde, 584-604). This use of repetition, as we observed with Baudelaire, adds a dimension of musicality to the words.
As Wagner uses leitmotifs, the short, constant musical phrases associated with a person, place, or idea in his operas, so does Wilde in his plays. Although not composing music, Wilde applies this very technique. The moon, gaze, and death are all reoccurring symbols that are intimately and concretely related to a person or idea. In this sense, the musicality of the motif is infused directly with the theater character: One recognizes the play’s characters, not only by the spoken word, but also by the “musical” themes with which they are associated. Wilde himself reflected on “the refrains whose recurring motifs makes Salomé so like a piece of music and bind it together as a ballad” (Wilde, 1026). Words arranged by the artist affect a quality as if borrowed from music, exhibiting a total work of art.
Another insistent motif employed by Wilde is color. Every object possesses color, from the scenery of the terrace in “green bronze,” to the three “purple, yellow, and red” wines Herod drinks, to the gold and silver of the Chaldeans. This “color symphony reaches its height” as Salomé states her obsessive desires “which she can only express in colors” (Jackson, 12). By use of motifs, expressed as similes, Salomé is consumed by Jokanaan’s white body, repeating shades of “white” seven times, his black hair, repeating “black” five times, and his red mouth, repeating shades of “red” thirteen times. This symphony of color is only described in the play, not seen by the reader, yet these motifs of color still infuse the experience, giving rise to the sensory element intrinsic in Gesamtkunstwerk.
Salomé is not only symphonic in its emphasis on color, but the rhythm and repetition that “follow a musical technique” (Jackson, 13). In this way, Wilde’s written play is able to combine drama and music, precisely as Wagner envisioned in total work of art. Moreover, the play was intended to be staged for the Symbolist theatre. Symbolist theater “sought to provoke a cumulative overflow of sensual impressions” and to “transport the audience into a strange, fascinating aesthetic universe of emotional excess” (Dierkes-Thrun, 62). Many experts have written about staged Salomé as a total work of art, yet, even in this form, the staged play does not fit, at least at first glance, Wagner’s definition of Gesamtkunstwerk. Wilde does, however, apply Wagner’s principles in order for this oeuvre to function as Gesamtkunstwerk.
We could describe Salomé as “total theatre” that “strives to orchestra sound, light, movement, costumes and décor, speech, music, and dance, blending visual and aural effects to create one whole and indivisible staged entity” (Tydeman and Price, 3). Wilde never had the opportunity to witness the staging of his play, yet as a proponent of Wagner’s concept, he saw the stage as the “meeting-place of all the arts” (Tydeman and Price, 3). Wilde envisioned “a highly stylized stage set, costumes, and performance style that would produce such comprehensive sensation and synesthesia” (Dierkes-Thrun, 62). [click here and scroll to page 47 to see Wilde’s own stage sketch] In addition, Wilde planned color schemes and even braziers of perfumes, clearly imagining Salomé “as a fest for the senses, combining Wagner’s and the Symbolists’ synesthetic ideals of Gesamtkunstwerk production” (Dierkes-Thrun, 63). The complete indulgence in the sensory experience allows the audience, like the reader of Baudelaire, to transcend the ordinary, natural world, achieving a higher, spiritual realm, the transcendent realm of Gesamtkunstwerk.
The staging of Wilde’s script, first as a Symbolist play, then as a modern opera, more clearly meets the criteria for Gesamtkunstwerk because their productions can serve the sensory experiences of touch, smell, sight, and sound, all elements within a total work of art. The first performance of Salomé was produced and directed by Max Reinhardt (1873-1943), an Austrian stage director. The “displacement of language by sound, movement and dance” of Wilde’s play, “led Reinhardt to a quasi-operatic form of production” (Tydeman and Price, 32). Reinhardt desired to “reinvent the theatre as a space that would speak to all the senses and provide a stage for ‘the music of the world’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 64). Putting to the stage Wilde’s envisioned play, without technically producing Wagner’s music-drama, Reinhardt celebrates Gesamtkunstwerk.
Reinhart’s staging directly influenced Richard Strauss (1864-1949), a German composer, who attended Reinhart’s opening night. Strauss transformed Wilde’s play into an operatic rendition, literally the music-drama Wagner conceived. Critics described this modernist oeuvre as “ ‘a harmonic tour de force,’ ” an “ ‘intentional cacophony’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 65). The music is thunderous and sensational, ubiquitously using “dissonances, bitonal surprises, and dramatic effects”, as Strauss intended for “something monstrous, stimulating the nerves in the extreme’ ” (Dierkes-Thrun, 66). As Wilde intended, and as Wagner specified, Strauss’ operatic Salomé overwhelms the senses in true expression of Gesamtkunstwerk.
Richard Wagner illustrated how the combination of words, movement, and orchestra may achieve a total work of art. When separated, each art form is inherently limited. Wagner identified the integrated combination of all forms of art as a superior artwork. Gesamtkunstwerk not only induces synesthesia, but also transforms thought, allowing the audience to achieve a higher spiritual realm. To produce the objectives of Gesamtkunstwerk, a work of art does not have to literally embody the operatic music-drama, like Wagner composed. Baudelaire, in his poem “Correspondences,” through prosodic and synesthetic speech, supplies his reader with glimpses of a metaphysical journey. Likewise, Wilde presents his Salomé reader with indulgence of the senses, painting his words and weaving rhythmic fabric into the script. The written play rises above its mere words to evoke spiritual transcendence. In this way, both this poetry and this script function as a total work of art.
The supreme art form, whether operatic or literary, may achieve Gesamtkunstwerk, uniting sensations and experience to materialize thoughts in a harmonic cacophony of the senses. The audience or reader does not need to see and hear opera to experience the transcendent spiritual realm envisioned by Wagner. Where poetry and theatre, each an independent art form, satisfy the elements of a total work of art, synesthesia and transcendence are achieved.
 In Richard Wagner’s Prose Works (1895), p.34, where the word is translated as ‘great united work’; p.52 where it is translated as ‘great unitarian Art-work’; and p.88 (twice) where it is translated as ‘great united Art-work’. In the translation, the actual term “Gesamtkunstwerk” never appears, yet, there are frequent references to this “perfect,” “noble,” “highest” art form.
Works Cited and Consulted
Behr, Shulamith, David Fanning, and Douglas Jarman. Expressionism Reassessed. Manchester [England]: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Bentley, Eric. The Theory of the Modern Stage: an Introduction to Modern Theatre and Drama.Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.
Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity : Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011.
DiGaetani, John Louis. Richard Wagner and the Modern British Novel. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 1978.
Jackson, Halbrook, Wilde, Oscar, and Alfred Bruce Douglas. Salome: a Tragedy In One Act. New York: The Heritage Press, 1945.
Marie, Gisèle. Le Theatre Symboliste: Ses Origines, Ses Sources, Pionniers Et Realisateurs. Paris, A.-G. Nizet, 1973.
Michon, Pascal “Rhythm, Organization of Signifiance and Subjectivity in Baudelaire’s Correspondances,” Rhuthmos, 25 June 2010 [online]. http://rhuthmos.eu/spip.php?article78
Powell, Kerry. Oscar Wilde and the Theatre of the 1890s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Tydeman, William, and Steven Price. Wilde–salome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Varty, Anne. A Preface to Oscar Wilde. London: Longman, 1998.
Wagner, Richard, and William Ashton Ellis. Richard Wagner’s Prose Works. 2nd ed. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1895.
Wilde, Oscar. Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. 5th ed. Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003.
I am no collector of paintings or prints, and I am definitely not the type to sit in front of a Rothko painting for hours finding depth in the three layers of colour in Rothko number 205. Still, even I, in my self-righteous disdain for pictorial art’s bourgeois appeal, recognize the potency of art.
The art of painting or print is preoccupied with representation of the real and true object on a two dimensional plane. This representation obviously suggests a masking of reality and creating a mirage of the truth, which is also ultimately decadent literature’s main feature. Inversion and the concept of the mask as the ultimate truth are two defining hallmarks of decadence, and through close reading and analysis of the fin du siècle texts we have explored both rather extensively this quarter. It is no wonder then that alongside decadent literature existed an entire art movement that attempted to represent the scenes from the fin du siècle texts. The lithographic prints of scenes from Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony by Redon for instance, not only immortalize the texts in pictorial form, but also provide a medium suited to the nature of the texts. In his portrayal of the flagellation scene, Redon’s usage of the lithograph blurs the scene and hides a true nature of the events unfolding in the scene. This obscuring of events offers suggestions of an inverted reading into the scene—a reading that might suggests an inversion of good and evil or a celebration of crime and vice.
Since the lithograph is in a two-dimensional plane, the depth perception becomes blurred, warping the entire scene. The man performing the whipping appears far from the woman, and one cannot discern the position of his arm, because of the flat plane medium. The scene looks impossible in that the man appears unlikely to cause harm to the woman, suggesting that the flagellation is not necessarily a punishment, but maybe a tease, which the woman is coyly accepting. This obscuring of the scene allows for an alternate reading of the scene, in the same way Gustave Flaubert’s text also presents the scene somewhat ambiguously.
Another example of this parallel between the decadent texts and their illustrations lies in the work of Audrey Beardsley in illustrating Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Though consociates, the two artists were not friends and in spite of the impression of Wilde’s play on him being so potent as to spur him to illustrate its climactic moment entirely autonomously, Beardsley shared the opinion of many of the two men’s contemporaries that the originality of Wilde’s work was questionable. This artistic feuding aside there are great parallels in the Beardsley’s illustrations and Wilde’s preceding text. In Beardsley’s illustrations, he presents a self satisfied Salome, smugly sitting on a phallic symbol, sneering at the symbol. She is portrayed with a very composed hairstyle to depict her control in the situation and there is a confident air in her presentation. The representation of the Salome in Beardsley’s work is that of a woman who is powerful, comfortable and satisfied with her newly discovered power. This is the Salome in the play by Oscar Wilde, and in this situation again, prints represent the fin du siècle text. Her satisfied expression can also be attributed to self pleasuring activity (similar to the seemingly masturbatory scene in Monsieur Vénus), for it can be argued that her dress is disguising just that beneath it, perhaps symbolising the gratification she feels in her dominion in negotiations with Herod.
Also rather unfortunately, a self-proclaimed artless unenlightened individual has spent quite a little time writing about the impact of artistic representation. Perhaps my disdain is my mask.
Word count 565
Brick and Lady Gaga
Decadence, or rather decadence as I have experienced it, seems preoccupied with waging a war against ‘mainstream’ morality. The fin de siècle writers like Oscar Wilde and in some ways precursors of decadence like Charles Baudelaire, define themselves through the conflict and contrast against what would be considered moral, and this contradiction attempts to indicate the irrelevance of morality in artistry and in the living of artistic life. The paradox however is that these really deliberate, sometimes extreme attempts at inversion and contrast, instead of rendering morality irrelevant, only serve to indicate its importance, and reinforce its validity. In The Picture of Dorian Gray’s preface, Oscar Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” This statement asserts the idea of ‘l’art pour l’art”, used to defend his own work from moral criticism of its subject matter. Paradoxically, his own work is a moral condemnation of the attractive features of Decadence and of living life as if it were art, and therefore beyond good and evil. Dorian at the end of the novel is undone by his own desire for experience for experience’s sake, and similar harsh fates are at the end of the stories of all the books we have read this quarter. Is morality then irrelevant to art and life as art? It is hard to believe this, especially when even the artists who believe this seem incredibly involved with consequence, which is itself very sated with the existence of morality.
Another factor that greatly limits the decadents in their quest to present art as amoral is their reliance on language as a vehicle for their cause. Words are not amoral, and by making decisions about word choice, we constantly work with the paradigms of morality and immorality. In Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde shares an exchange about definition of love, religion and the self, and he ends by writing that “To define is to limit.” This is the truth of words, which in their attempt to enable communication require definition and connotation. The definition and connotation of words leads to their moralization. A word like ‘sin’ for instance, even when qualified by adjectives like beautiful and wonderful, still carries its baggage of negativity. Decadents like Oscar Wilde can only attempt to cloak negative words with positivity, but this does not change the reality of those words’ moralization. The artificial, even when packaged as true, cannot shed the definition that limits it, and as unfortunate as that it, it is incontrovertible. Charles Baudelaire, who is credited for starting the inversion that has become associated with decadence, inverts the understanding of beauty to include the dark, sinister and monstrous. He writes “Your gaze bestows both kindnesses and crimes” and “Are you from heaven or the nether world?” and in both instances it is clear that he attempts to portray beauty, which is seen as absolutely positive, as also potentially evil and dark. This is obviously apparent to the reader, but the weakness of this attempted inversion is that it will only be seen as that—an inversion. Beauty will still remain within the limits of its definition and the inversion will only exist as mask or a quirk, but never an absolute reversal. ‘Crime’ does not become positive simply because it is equated with beauty. Its elevation ultimately comes from its redefinition, and not play on words with limited meaning. Charles Baudelaire makes several attempts at this inversion in The Sick Muse, The Swan and The Venal Muse and in each case the limitations of language cripple his attempts at an absolute reversal of the sentiments and value.
Note: I too am aware of the limitations of language in my blog post. Perhaps a new hybrid language is severely needed.
Brick and Lady Gaga
How exactly does a desire come upon an artist’s soul? The short poem in prose The Artist by Oscar Wilde suggests that it is an unconscious act—the external becomes internal, perhaps by mere chance or a stroke of luck during an inconspicuous evening. Desire immured the artist without previous notice. This also happens in Monsieur Venus after Raoule leaves the flower shop for the first time; “The woman who vibrated within her saw nothing in Silvert but a beautiful instrument of pleasure she coveted and, in a latent state, that she already held fast in her imagination” (Rachilde 19). This unexpected desire drives Raoule to want to utilize Jacques as her bronze– to fashion images from his body, to bring about pleasure that endures for a moment. Another example of an instantaneous desire that seems to come from nowhere appears in Wilde’s Salome. Salome speaks to the prophet and a single desire comes to her mind, to kiss his mouth. Salome will even go as far as slaying him to realize her desire. In this way, Salome’s dance of the seven veils is the artistic act that fulfills her desire. This desire is immortalized at the end of the play through John the Baptist’s death– he becomes an image of an irrational whim, of the pleasure Salome momentarily acquires from kissing him. “I am athirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor fruits can appease my desire.” (Wilde 604) Similarly and quite literally, the unexpected desire that went into the soul of Wilde’s artist was the desire to create an image of the The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment, and naturally the question “what is the pleasure that abideth for a moment?” arises. The Artist wants to immortalize that which arouses his fancy momentarily– he wants to transform the ephemeral into an eternal object of beauty– much like Jacques at the end of Monsieur Venus. “On the bed shaped like a seashell, guarded by an Eros of marble, rests a wax figure covered with transparent rubber skin.” (Rachilde 209) Jacques’s ephemeral beauty becomes an eternal object of admiration; Raoule as artist converts her momentary pleasure into an eternal wax image.
In Wilde’s The Artist, in order to transform the momentary into the eternal, the artist goes on to scourge for bronze, for apparently he could only think in bronze. Questions surge once more—what does it mean for an artist to only think in bronze? Why only bronze, why not clay, why not marble? The artist seems to be defined by a monotonous affinity to bronze, by both its rigidity and its molten mutability, by a single target– a desire– that has already been struck before the artist launches his arrow. Ironically, Wilde’s artist cannot find any bronze for it had disappeared. Yet the text immediately contradicts itself and the artist finds bronze in the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever. There seems to be a distance between the artist and The Sorrow that endureth for Ever, almost as if he’d never encountered it but then the reader is told that this image had been made by the artist himself, and that he’d set it ‘on the tomb of the one thing he had loved in life.’ Salome is a more concrete example of this episode– she paradoxically shatters her eternal sorrow for momentary pleasure while simultaneously immortalizing both. Her dance is a momentary pleasure that becomes eternal once John the Baptist is slain. As the artist looks to fashion a new image, The Pleasure that Abideth for a Moment—The Sorrow that endureth for Ever stands in the way. The bronze that the artist finds is a representation of the opposite of what he initially sought to fashion. He still holds the desire to fashion his new image, but he can only find bronze in the image he had previously made. So the artist decides to melt the image of The Sorrow that endureth for Ever, and the image is no longer—the sorrow did not endure for ever. The name of the image becomes a paradox—for The Sorrow that endureth forever is now nothing but molten bronze– it’s almost as if Wilde were revealing that the sorrow never was, and that it only abideth for a moment. Yet out of this molten form he materializes his initial desire to create The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment. So now the artist’s only source of bronze, the only medium he can effectively think ‘in’, is the image of The Pleasure that abideth for a Moment—it is not the pleasure itself, but only its image. The image stands as a paradox against the concept it evokes, for the image is now more than just a moment– it is unfleeting unlike the pleasure it alludes to.And the artist fashioned this image from the image of the sorrow that endureth for ever, not from the sorrow itself. All the artist has and will ever have is the transmutable substance of his images. Bronze, a substance that has particular properties but that can be shaped to represent an image of anything else, is language for Wilde.
This decadent thought, as evident through Wilde and Rachilde, is in line with symbolist thought, as well as Flaubertian thought. Language is the medium, the bronze from which images can be momentarily sculpted, from which limits can be exposed and surpassed. In Mallarme we read of the ‘Azur’ that incarcerates the poet in a struggle between representation and reality. Language is the medium through which all these insufficient allusions, evocations and concepts are revived. Without language there would be no bronze to invoke and describe the gap between matter and thought that is made evident through Mallarme’s poetry, Wilde’s paradoxes, Rachilde’s gender inversions, and Flaubert’s temptations. All of these authors wrote to unveil the boundaries of language while simultaneously surpassing them. It’s as if a state were to choose its own borders only to expand beyond them. Desire for the artist therefore eludes the concept– desire is a limit that is broken and defined simultaneously– desire is bronze that shifts from image to image through language.
In his discussion a “Crisis in Poetry,” Mallarme discusses how poetry is a way to express the intangible– the emotional truth, to say, behind spoken language. He calls languages imperfect, in that “the diversity of tongues on earth keeps everyone from uttering the word which would be otherwise in one unique rendering, truth itself in substance” (75, Mallarme.) This eternal imperfection of expression between human beings (through verbal conversation) struck me as the driving force of the poet. The dissatisfaction with common expression is so deeply rooted in us, as spoken word is momentary, sometimes careless, and often hastily crafted. The poet, according to Mallarme, seeks to crystallize the pure emotions that day-to-day speech cannot quite catch.
One never can say what one means to say, or it would lose its “charm,” a word so often used by the charismatic Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This charm that Lord Henry speaks of: is it the masking of the intangible? Is it the packaging itself of this emotional truth, as unsettling or wonderful as it might be? In a certain way, poetry is the “perfected aesthetic” of modern language– the superficial beauty, if translated to physical terms, which can evoke that slippery, inexplicable emotion that the poet, the artist, is constantly attempting to capture. The reader looks to poetry as a sort of mirror, and instead finds a depth that must be scavenged for the “pure notion” that Mallarme prizes.
“You noticed, one does not write luminously on a dark field; the alphabet of stars alone, is thus indicated, sketched out or interrupted; man pursues black on white” (76).
The blackness of this ink on paper can be interpreted as the deep well that is created with each poetic phrase, the realm in which the emotional truth exists. The reason why one does not write “luminously,” or completely revealingly, is because the poet shades and masks his truth in his art, and the reader seeks out this dark, mysterious space with the desperate hope of finding the intangible.
By reading Mallarme’s discussion, I was brought back to Lord Henry’s influential speeches to Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
“But a chance tone of colour in a room or a morning sky, a particular perfume that you had once loved and that brings subtle memories with it, a line from a particular poem that you can come across again, a cadence from a piece of music you had ceased to play– I tell you Dorian, it is on things like these that our lives depend.” (155, Wilde).
Here, Lord Henry refers to several sensations that are converted to triggers for a memory: the waft of a perfume is considered analogous to the line of a forgotten poem; similarly, both can arouse dormant sensations and thoughts that are often hidden in oneself. Once again, this idea of a elusive, masked truth arises again: There are inevitably thousands of feelings and memories that are so deep seated within the body’s “slowly built-up cells,” (155) that we can easily forget or misplace them. The role of the line of poetry is to not only to inspire sensation, but also to revitalize potentially tucked-away truths. So much of the objective “beauty” or charm of a poem is the packaging, which can be created through form, phrasing, and emphasis. This aesthetic mask ultimately serves to stir the reader in a particular manner, such that he/she can reveal the intangible, unspoken truth to the self.
In “The Azure,” Stéphane Mallarmé uses apostrophe, a device of figurative language whereby the poet addresses an absent person or force that is often an abstract concept, to invert the typical effect that beautiful things have on the viewer. While a typical person would take comfort or happiness in the sight, of, for instance, a clear sky, the subject of “The Azure” feels the opposite. The far-superior aesthetic tastes of Stéphane Mallarmé’s subject causes the sight of beautiful things to depress rather than inspire because they remind him of the world of ideal Platonic forms that he will never reach: “The everlasting Azure’s tranquil irony/ Depresses, like the flowers indolently fair,/ The powerless poet who damns his superiority” (Mallarmé 1-3). Here, the “powerless poet” is doomed by “his superiority” in that his good taste sentences him to a life of longing for something that he can never possess. In the following excerpt, the poet calls on the fogs to obscure his vision of the sky, in an inversion of the typical human-aesthetic desire to see clear skies: “Oh fogs, arise! Pour your monotonous ashes down… To darkly drench the livid swamp of autumn days” (9, 11). The divergence between the desires of the poet and the average man is probably designed to highlight the “superiority” that is articulated in the first stanza. Further on in the poem, Stéphane Mallarmé makes yet another inversion—he addresses (and adds a positive epithet to) a force of nature that mankind typically scorns: “And you… Sweet Boredom, to block up with a never weary hand/ The great blue holes the birds maliciously have made…” (13, 15-16). In conjunction with personification of the birds (assigning a malicious intent to nature), an atypical apostrophes functions here to set the poet apart from the reader. Maybe it will make the reader question his happiness the next time he or she looks up and is comforted or made happy by the sight of a beautifully clear, blue sky. Maybe the reader will be reminded that the beauty signifies a world of ideal Platonic forms of which he or she will never be a part. Towards the end of the poem, the poet sort of gives up on the idea of ignoring or forgetting about the beauty that is all around him. The blue sky “triumphs” and seems to gloat in its possession of an impossible, unobtainable beauty: “But vainly! The Azure triumphs and I hear it sing/ In bells, Dear Soul, it turns into a voice the more/ To fright us by its wicked victory…” (27-29). The use of apostrophe recalls the dichotomy between material and immaterial realms. That is the dichotomy that brings pain to the poet. Apostrophe is a call from across that chasm, from the poet in the material world to the siren call of the immaterial world as it is represented in a beautiful sight like the sky. One can only wonder why “the powerless poet” keeps writing about what is distressing him so much.