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Decadence and the Making of Modernism
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What is Decadence? Most literary reference books don't list it as a movement; at most it's defined by time, place, a loose collection of titles, authors and little magazines, and how it shades into more established movements such as aestheticism, symbolism, naturalism. Weir, a professor of comparative literature and foreign languages, does a splendid job of breaking down the elements of decadence and of synthesizing current thinking on both it and modernism. Before going on to discuss Huysmans's A rebours-perhaps the only unarguably decadent novel-Weir describes the elements of decadence found in Flaubert's SalammbĂ´, the Goncourt brothers' Germinie Lacerteux and, in England 20 years later, Walter Pater's Marius the Epicurean. He then makes convincing arguments for the unmediated influence of decadence on modernist literature. Regarding Joyce, he shows not only that ``the unity of the book is decomposed... to give place to the independence of the word'' (to eviscerate Havelock Ellis), but also the heavy use of cultural references. He demonstrates that there is a deliberate anti-decadence in Gide's L'Immoraliste, which eschews decadent artificiality and sickness for a modernist health and naturalism. While Joyce, Gide, Flaubert, Huysmans are well known, Weir thankfully doesn't assume more than a passing acquaintance with his examples of decadence in decay-Octave Mirbeau's Le Jardin des supplices, Ben Hecht's Fantazius Mallare and James Huneker's Painted Veils. Following decadence from romanticism to his postface on post-structuralism, Weir's study is intriguing, well-written and widely accessible. (Dec.)

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