One metaphor for
this collision of new and old is the slow, irresistible movement of
continental drift. Consider how the Indian peninsula has, over the millenia,
imperceptibly shouldered into the huge Asian landmass. The consequent
pressure resulted in the vast, chaotic folds of the Himalayas, taken here to
represent a century of perplexity and transition. On the one hand, we have
the immovable mass of Asia, that is, the order of representations that tends
to change slowly if at all (in this case, the Catholic heritage of Europe).
On the other hand, we have a continent adrift, that is, the changes in
lifestyle set in train by the unprecedented development of industry in the
19th century. Theories alone, after all, have never overthrown a society.
Philosophers have always criticised traditional views, yet this has never
prevented the survival of a deeply traditional society in rural areas.
Indeed, nothing might have changed if men and women in great numbers had not
been torn away from their native environment and precipitated into radically
different circumstances. It was this dizzying collision between symbolic
representations and everyday lifestyle which ultimately threw up Himalayan
ridges where once there had been rolling plains.
This collision is the
subject of a painting, The Great Upheaval (Le Grand Chambardement) by
the Belgian Symbolist artist Henry de Groux.
The Sacred Wood.1882
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
Kunstmuseum Basel, Basel
The artist and his family
twice had to flee cholera epidemics. In this unfinished work, there
is nothing archaic about Bocklin's vision of "the plague". Today,
the image might be taken to refer to a contemporary reality such as
It depicts men and women, some on horseback, others on foot, leaving a
place of devastation. In the foreground lies a large broken cross. The
enclosure in which it stood has been laid waste like the area around it,
and the inhabitants are impelled to move on. A closer look belies one's
first impression; this picture does not represent the kind of exodus
made familiar by the last two European cataclysms, but a purely
spiritual "upheaval". An entire society takes leave of a familiar and
beloved land and sets off into exile, into the unknown.
This melancholy constatation is central to the Symbolist outlook. At the end
of the 19th century, while science and positivism triumphantly announced a
brave new world founded on reason and technology, some people were primarily
aware of the loss of an indefinable quality which they had found in the
former cultural system, in the values and meanings signified by what we
might call its "emblematic order".
It is thus no accident that a broken crucifix lies at the heart of Henry de
Groux's painting. In all its ambiguity, the cross is the central symbol of a
representation of the world that acknowledges more than one plane of
reality. In the Christian world view, there is the created world of nature,
and an increate, divine order which stands above it. (Or, to take a more
secular perspective, the real might be contrasted with what Guillaume
Apollinaire, in a coinage that met with unexpected success, termed the
"surreal".) The positivist, on the other hand, acknowledges only one level
of reality: nature. In his perspective, the "other" world is merely an
illusion. To which some were inclined to retort: "You tell us that the other
world is illusory. Perhaps it is. But it is there that we choose to live."
It is with these people that our book is primarily concerned.
This sort of response might be prompted by a religious frame of mind. Or it
might be motivated by a taste, perverse or otherwise, for solipsistic
self-indulgence. The "other world" might be the world of the Divine; it
might equally be a world of artistic delectation, that parallel world in
which the fictitious des Esseintes, hero of J.-K. Huysmans' Against Nature,
and his contemporary, the very real King Ludwig II of Bavaria, sought to
In either case, we recognise a degree of neurosis or madness. But that is
not the whole point. The question that we must ask is this: were the
depressions of des Esseintes and the eccentricities of Ludwig of Bavaria the
result of some specifically cultural malaise? To understand this question,
we must sketch in some background. Twentieth century anthropology presents a
culture as a web of values and meanings which allows men and women to decide
where they stand and how to find their way in the world. It is therefore no
coincidence that those who most deplored the loss of meaning and value were
most receptive to Symbolism.
"It is all too clear," wrote the Symbolist poet Gustave Kahn, "that these
people move only in search of resources, and the source of dreams is running
dry." While the logic of science, industry and commerce might be capable of
satisfying the practical needs of society and the individual will to power,
Gustave Kahn's metaphor suggests a thirst that can be quenched only at the
source of dreams. The metaphor of dream perhaps offers too many hostages to
the critical spirit of the time, which was all too inclined to identify
dreams with the unreal. Nevertheless, even those for whom the positivist
world view was a source of dissatisfaction and anguish tended to be
overwhelmed by the compelling force of its oppressive, virile power.
|Bocklin's strong personality found in
antiquity a vast repertory of
allegorical and svmbolic subjects.
Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe
Keller was a history painter who developed
an enthusiasm for Bocklin late
in his career.Тhis homage, painted after Bocklin's death, is redolent of
the heady perfume of Symbolism.
It looks, then, as if we do indeed possess some sort of cultural key to
the melancholy not merely of an imaginary personality like des Esseintes, but
of the works of so many minor but significant Symbolist poets: Georges
Rodenbach, Henri de Régnier, Camille Mauclair, Charles Guérin, Marie
Krysinska, Jean Lorrain, Grégoire Le Roy and Pierre Louys. The industrial
world might be described as a compound of fire and steel, and the Symbolist
poets, impotent sons of a domineering age, sought refuge in air and water:
"The water of the old canals is cretinous and mental
So dismal between
the dead towns...
Water so lifeless, that it seems fatal.
Why so naked and
so barren already? And what is
the matter with it, that, entirely given over
somnolence, to its embittered dreams, it has thus
become no more than
a treacherous mirror of frost
in which the moon itself finds it painful to
Georges Rodenbach's verse is eloquent of the mood of depression and decline
that characterises the Symbolist state of mind. Symbolist poets were
inclined to evoke the moon rather than the sun, autumn rather than spring, a
canal rather than a mountain stream, rain rather than blue skies. They
complained of sorrow and ennui, of disillusionment with love, of impotence,
weariness and solitude, and they lamented their birth into a dying world.
These leitmotifs are given caustic expression in the poetry of Jules
Laforgue. In his work too, the moon, evening and autumn are predominant, but
they are found there in the company of a ferocious wit:
"Everything comes from a single categorical imperative,
but what a long arm it has, and how remote its womb!
Love, love which dreams, asceticizes, and fornicates;
Why don't we love one another for our own sakes in our own little corner?
Infinity, where did you spring from? Why are our proud senses
something beyond the keyboards bestowed,
do they believe in mirrors more
fortunate than the Word,
and kill themselves? Infinity, show us your
"Infinity, show us your papers!" The tone is one of truculent defiance, and
it is characteristic of those who discover the relativity of a culture which
they had innocently believed to be the vehicle of absolute truth. Symbolism
was imbued with a powerful nostalgia for a world of meaning which had
disintegrated in the space of a few brief decades. This is the reason for
the melancholy and anxiety expressed whenever an artist looks beyond the
surface of things. For if a whole series of Symbolist artists strike one as
sickly and emollient - one might cite
Edgar Maxence and
is because they chose to ignore reality; they preferred to offer a
comforting illusion in perpetuating what had already ceased to exist.
To what, then, does the "symbol" at the heart of Symbolism stand opposed? By
now, our answer is clear: to the limited "reality" of the age, to the given,
to the profane. A symbol, by its very nature, refers to an absent reality In
mathematics it signifies an unknown quantity; in religion, poetry or art, it
lends substance to an unknown quality - a value that remains out of reach.
In a religious context, this quality is unknown (or unknowable) because it
belongs to a different order of reality - a supernatural order - and can
therefore be signified only by a sacred object. The sacred, in this view, is
merely a semantic category, and should not be confused with the divine; as
the Chinese sage puts it, one must not confuse the moon with the finger that
points to it. But even the irreligious must acknowledge that there are
things to which we cannot directly refer. We need symbols to communicate
This is true of the emblematic categories of culture which
have not yet attained the threshold of language, but which draw their
substance from a vast network of implicit values which structure the
hierarchy of the world for each individual consciousness, signifying the
position it occupies within this hierarchy. It is also true of the future,
which is constituted as much by man's hopes, fears, and waking dreams, as by
the unavoidable material conditions imposed by history. So much human energy
is expended in reaching beyond the narrow field of the given, as Laforgue
"Why are our proud senses
mad for something beyond the
do they believe in mirrors more fortunate than the
and kill themselves? Infinity, show us your papers!"
This is the core of the conflict between the two world views: on the one
hand, a given and immutable world, favourable to trade and industry but
indifferent to the values which lend substance and savour to life; on the
other a world dialectically related to a transcendent model (religious,
visionary or poetical) that spurs the individual to action by proposing a
creative transformation of the given. Western civilisation in the 19th
century underwent a surgical operation which severed these two components of
our relation to the world. From that point on, it seemed, reality could no
longer lend its weight to the dreamer, nor dreams bestow wings upon reality.
The two were at war.
It is thus apparent that Symbolist art does not merely touch upon
long-standing illusions which society was finally learning to overcome. Nor
is it simply the naive expression of some first, tentative forays into the
realms of the unconscious, a world soon to be charted so thoroughly. It goes
much further than that, pointing to the constantly shifting state of culture
and to what the eminent Hellenist E. R. Dodds termed an "endogenous
neurosis". This explains why a significant part of Symbolist art reflects a
new uneasiness in the relations between men and women. For culture does not
only confirm the individual's personal identity, it also provides the
foundation of his or her sexual identity. Though this identity has a
physiological foundation, it is also, inevitably, a cultural construction. A
breach or dislocation in the body of culture will inevitably affect the mode
of interaction between men and women. Here the relevance of Georges Duby's
analysis of the Middle Ages is clear: "Fissures appear at the points of
articulation; they grow gradually wider and eventually split the body apart,
but they almost always turn out to exercise their corrosive effect only
insidiously. In spite of the illusion fostered by the apparent tumult of
merely superficial agitation, it is always in the very long term that their
reverberations bring about collapses, and these are never more than partial
since indestructible vestiges always subsist."
It is thus the nature of Symbolist art to attempt to record a process which
had till then been massive, involuntary and very largely unconscious -
though the collective will and the decrees of those in power had always had
some power over it. The role of symbols as the traditional cement of the
community had been tested during catastrophes. But by orcibly removing
unprecedented numbers of men and women from the countryside and transforming
them into the atomistic individuals of the newly created proletariat, the
Industrial Revolution not onli made adjustment more difficult; it modified
the order of priorities. "Grub first," as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil's
Threepenny Opera puts it, "Morals later!" For the new city-dwellers,
solidarity in obtaining the necessities of life replaced the former
community of meaning.
The upper class had greater leisure to ponder the loss of meaning implied by
the new order of things. Involvement in militant activity might do duty for
a sense of community among the impoverished; for the rich, all sense of
community was lacking. Symbolism is thus the negative imprint of a bygone
age rich in symbols and the expression of yearning and grief at the loss of
an increasingly idealised past. Those who had the means to do so sought
solace from the brutal pursuits of the world by sipping at the soothing
philtre of the arts. But even they were confronted with anxiety and
nightmares from which none could then hope to be exempt.