Part of a growing body of scholarship interested in cosmopolitanism and cross-Channel connections, Matthew Potolsky’s The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley
investigates the transnational affiliations forged by nineteenth-century decadence. Like Regenia Gagnier’s recent Individualism, Decadence and Globalization: On the Relationship of the Part to the Whole, 1859-1920
(Palgrave, 2010), Potolsky’s book explores decadent writers’ critiques of the nation and attention to alternative forms of attachment. What is new in Potolsky’s work is his focus on decadent writers’ debt to tropes of republican politics. Drawing on recent work on republicanism, he argues that these pan-European writers—Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, Walter Pater, Charles Algernon Swinburne, Joris-Karl Huysmans, and Oscar Wilde—fashioned a “decadent republic of letters” bound by taste rather than national affiliation. His comparative approach draws attention to specifically international and counter-national aspects of the decadent movement, whose artists so frequently invoked foreign artistic traditions in mocking their own nations’ complacency. Potolsky begins by discarding the stylistic and thematic definitions of decadence offered by contemporary figures like Paul Bourget and Arthur Symons, presenting the movement instead as “a consciously adopted and freely adapted literary stance” and “a characteristic mode of reception” (4). “Works are ‘decadent,’” he asserts, “not because they realize a doctrine or make use of certain styles and themes, but because they move within a recognizable network of canonical books, pervasive influences, recycled stories, erudite commentaries, and shared tastes” (5). Potolsky suggests that these acts of creative reception produced a new, cosmopolitan community of readers and writers. In borrowing from, expanding on, and locating themselves within a network of texts, he proposes, the decadents constructed “a new and more amenable imagined community … composed of like-minded readers and writers scattered around the world and united by the production, circulation, and reception of art and literature” (6). The first two chapters focus on Baudelaire’s poetry and prose and on later writers’ responses to Baudelaire. While Potolsky acknowledges Baudelaire’s anti-democratic turn after the Revolutions of 1848, his first chapter uncovers a “classically republican valorization of civic virtue” that runs throughout Baudelaire’s body of work. In his critiques of bourgeois liberalism, Potolsky suggests, Baudelaire consistently conceives of art as a public good rather than private property and imagines a community of outsiders (embodied by the dandy and the flȃneur
) who embody “the necessary function of beauty in public life” (31). The third chapter explores the ways in which later writers relied on republican tropes in their development of this vision of aesthetic sociability. Gautier’s “Notice” to the 1868 edition of Les Fleurs du mal
(1857) draws upon the Athenian epideictic genre of the funeral oration in order to refigure Baudelaire as “a warrior for the poetic ideal” who suffered “in the service of an emerging dissident community” (48), and Swinburne’s elegy for Baudelaire, “Ave atque Vale” (1868), utilizes the key classical republican trope of brotherhood in order to present Baudelaire as a revolutionary hero. In memorializing Baudelaire as a martyr for his art, Potolsky claims, these writers also construct an “incipient republic of letters” made up of outsiders, exceptions, and rebels (62). In his third and fourth chapters, Potolsky explores decadent critiques of the nation. Chapter three considers one of the most recognizable features of decadent literature: the collection. Scholars have long noted the significance of collecting within decadent literature, but Potolsky importantly presents these eccentric collections as critiques of the national collections exemplified by the national museum and their ideological counterpart, the national artistic canon. “International, idiosyncratic, and manifestly artificial,” he explains, “these collections stand as an affront to purportedly organic national ...
Carrie Dickison is a Ph.D. Candidate in English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her dissertation, “Curating the Object: Art Collection and Connoisseurship in the Long Nineteenth Century,” explores the nineteenth-century culture of objects through literary depictions of art collecting.