Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Elitist Differentiation: Melancholia as Identity in Flaubert's November and Huysmans' A Rebours

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

Elitist Differentiation: Melancholia as Identity in Flaubert's November and Huysmans' A Rebours

Article excerpt

Both G. Flaubert's November and J. K. Huysmans' A Rebours exhibit great anxiety about preserving a sense of identity in the face of widespread cultural change. To combat this anxiety, the decadent heroes of both novels adopt and embrace melancholic identities. By focusing on how and why their heroes construct melancholic selves, Flaubert and Huysmans afford us a wealth of insight into the anxiety that pervades cultural change, the problematic nature of identity, as well as the cultural, aesthetic, philosophical and individual value that melancholia can hold.

Keywords: ennui; Flaubert; Huysmans; identity; melancholy

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The social and intellectual conditions of nineteenth-century Europe shaped a new self-consciousness: a self-consciousness that decadent poet and critic Arthur Symons termed a 'morbid intensity in seeing and seizing things'; an 'intense self-consciousness' that is 'really a new and beautiful and interesting disease' (Symons, 1999: 1407, 1405). Symons' word choices--particularly the terms 'morbid' and 'disease'--are crucial to recognize, for in the midst of radical cultural alterations such as commercialization, mechanization and progress, all of which appeared to threaten individuality as well as humanity itself, this 'seeing and seizing' was neither uncomplicated nor unproblematic. And because this new self-consciousness revolved around metaphysical issues such as selfhood and identity, the task of introspection easily became untenable, even to many of its strongest proponents. It is no wonder, then, that self-conscious introspection was to many nineteenth-century intelligentsias both a blessing and a curse, both a cure and a disease.

While this 'intense self-consciousness' is visible throughout the nineteenth century, it is decadent writers who provide perhaps the most arresting examples of it, for as they came to realize that any semblance of authentic selfhood might very well be an illusion, many spent their lives attempting to create for themselves highly specific and distinguishable selves. The extremes to which decadents pursued aesthetic and physical pleasures, their attitudes toward sexual/ gender non-conformity, and their focus on 'abnormal' psychological states of mind all reveal the extent to which they felt partially identical with the multitude and, as such, saw an essential need to differentiate themselves. These attitudes also point to a revolt and a reaction against the age itself and elements of the culture as a whole. The age and its elements, it seemed, were only making the world and its people more alike.

Flaubert's November and J. K. Huysmans' A Rebours (Against the Grain) both exhibit this intense anxiety about preserving a sense of identity in the face of widespread cultural change; and both texts do so in a particularly striking way: by illustrating the construction of a melancholic self. While other decadent constructions of selfhood, such as dandyism for instance, are quite conspicuously, as Rhonda Garelick (1998) contends, 'the performance of a highly stylized, painstakingly constructed self' (3), melancholia as a method of fashioning identity is a bit trickier to detect. There are several reasons for this difficulty. First, melancholia, if viewed as Aristotle conceives of it, is an essential part of one's being. Only a select few, those with a high intellectual capacity and who spend a great deal of time brooding over speculative issues, are capable of experiencing the 'genius' of melancholia. With such an essentialist view in mind, the very act of 'constructing' a melancholic self might appear odd or impossible. Second, as Garelick's notions of dandyism intimate, it would seem that, for decadents in particular, constructions of selfhood would be highly stylized and one's identity quite marked. Yet, generally speaking, those who experience melancholia typically enjoy solitude and speculation and seem more than willing to pursue a quiet and unremarkable life. …

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