Hors collection, 01/01/2009

Destruction and the Gift

Geneviève Sicotte
cover

In his book Degeneration, Nordau criticized the writers of his time for their ‘insatiable desire to accumulate useless trifles,’1The author wishes to acknowledge financial support from the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture (FQRSC) and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This paper and all cited quotations, unless otherwise indicated, were translated from the French by Jessica Moore. Max Nordau, Degeneration [1892], translated from the Second Edition of the German Work (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), ser. Bison Book, p. 27. a desire which, according to him, was the sign of a collectionist, fetishist, and typically degenerate neurosis. Indeed, despite their love of abstraction, Symbolist authors give a great deal of importance to objects. Beginning with the first theoretical essays, Symbolists assert that works of literature must always be mediated by the physical world2On that subject see Laurent Jenny, La fin de l’intériorité: théorie de l’expression et invention esthétique dans les avant-gardes françaises (1885-1935), (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2002), pp. 16-18.. In the words of Jean Moréas, the idea ‘must never let itself be deprived of the sumptuous zimarras of exterior analogies’; in his opinion, physical phenomena, or objects, must be described not in and for themselves (as Realism and Naturalism would have it), but because they allow the reader to have a better grasp of the Idea which would otherwise remain inexpressible3See Jean Moréas, ‘Manifeste du Symbolisme’, Le Figaro , supplément littéraire, 18 September 1886, pp. 150-151.. Gustave Kahn, for his part, calls for the ‘objectification of the subjective’4“Le but essentiel de notre art est d’objectiver le subjectif (l’extériorisation de l’Idée) au lieu de subjectiver l’objectif (la nature vue à travers un tempérament)”; Gustave Kahn, quoted by Paul Adam in Symbolistes et Décadents (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1989), ser. Textes Littéraires, LXX, ed. by Keith Cameron, p. 6. through a process that involves, among other things, the multiplication of objects, which become essential indications of subjectivity and interiority. For George-Albert Aurier5George-Albert Aurier, ‘Le symbolisme en peinture’, in Textes critiques: 1889-1892: De l’impressionnisme au symbolisme (Paris: École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1995), ser. Beaux-Arts Histoire, ed. by Denis Mellier, Marie-Karine Schnaub and Pierre Wat, p. 33. as well, ‘objects cannot have value as mere objects. They can only appear as signs. They are the letters of an immense alphabet that only the man of genius knows how to write with.’ These signs, Aurier continues, lack the ability to become autonomous and must always remain in the service of the idea: ‘to write one’s thoughts, and one’s poems, with these signs — remembering that the sign, though indispensable, is nothing in and of itself and that the idea alone is everything — this is the task of the artist, whose eye has been able to discern the hypostases of tangible objects.’6Ibid. Thus the authors of the time appropriate the world of objects. However, Symbolist objects, unlike the supposedly trivial artifacts of Realism and Naturalism, are replete with meaning, and this is why Symbolist texts abound with trinkets, fine fabrics, jewels and treasure chests, which appear not as referential icons of the physical world, but rather as signs to be decoded, entry points for the reader into the non-material world of art.

* * *

Cet article a d’abord été publié en tant que chapitre dans l’ouvrage Symbolist Objects: Materiality and Subjectivity at the Fin-de-Siècle, dirigé par Claire I. R. O’Mahony (Rivendale Press, High Wycombe), en 2009.

  • 1
    The author wishes to acknowledge financial support from the Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la société et la culture (FQRSC) and from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). This paper and all cited quotations, unless otherwise indicated, were translated from the French by Jessica Moore. Max Nordau, Degeneration [1892], translated from the Second Edition of the German Work (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), ser. Bison Book, p. 27.
  • 2
    On that subject see Laurent Jenny, La fin de l’intériorité: théorie de l’expression et invention esthétique dans les avant-gardes françaises (1885-1935), (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2002), pp. 16-18.
  • 3
    See Jean Moréas, ‘Manifeste du Symbolisme’, Le Figaro , supplément littéraire, 18 September 1886, pp. 150-151.
  • 4
    “Le but essentiel de notre art est d’objectiver le subjectif (l’extériorisation de l’Idée) au lieu de subjectiver l’objectif (la nature vue à travers un tempérament)”; Gustave Kahn, quoted by Paul Adam in Symbolistes et Décadents (Exeter: University of Exeter, 1989), ser. Textes Littéraires, LXX, ed. by Keith Cameron, p. 6.
  • 5
    George-Albert Aurier, ‘Le symbolisme en peinture’, in Textes critiques: 1889-1892: De l’impressionnisme au symbolisme (Paris: École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts, 1995), ser. Beaux-Arts Histoire, ed. by Denis Mellier, Marie-Karine Schnaub and Pierre Wat, p. 33.
  • 6
    Ibid.
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