Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Baudelaire, Degeneration Theory, and Literary Criticism in Fin De Siecle Spain

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

Baudelaire, Degeneration Theory, and Literary Criticism in Fin De Siecle Spain

Article excerpt

This article seeks, through an analysis of the response of 'psychologist critics' inspired by degeneration theory to the work of Charles Baudelaire in fin de siecle Spain, to determine the originality of the application of this theory to literary history and criticism of the fin de siecle; to argue that this period of literary history cannot be studied meaningfully other than by reference to an international context; and to challenge the assumption that cultures considered at that time and subsequently to be peripheral were indeed cultural backwaters unreceptive to the literary developments of the day.


The three aims of this article are to pose a question, to redress an omission, and to engage with a preconception in respect of the fin de siecle. The first aim derives directly from the circumstances that bring together the four elements in the title. The second and third derive indirectly from these same circumstances, but it is as necessary to address them as it is to seek an answer to the question.

The question to be posed is this: to what extent did a mode of critical discourse on literature--one that claimed to be grounded in scientific psychology, itself inspired and informed by developments in the biological sciences--that emerged and gained a certain prominence during the period constitute a significant departure from the critical practice hitherto predominant? In other words, to what extent can this critical approach be considered authentically innovative during a period of cultural history when, as the term fin de siecle implies, a sense of the old and of decline was as acute as that of the new and of rebirth?

The omission to be redressed concerns the prevalent approach to study of the fin de siecle. The fin de siecle is acknowledged to be an international phenomenon. Nevertheless, it continues to be studied predominantly from the perspective of discrete national or linguistic manifestations. In some cases so pervasive is this focus that the cosmopolitan dimension of the fin de siecle is lost from sight as the home-grown variant monopolizes attention. To cite just one instance, of the seventy-seven extracts gathered in a recently published introductory 'reader' to the fin de siecle, only nine had not originally been published in Britain by British or native English-speaking authors. Seven of these nine inclusions, moreover, are English translations of the originals made in the late 1890s or early 1900s and so have already been filtered through an Anglocentric selection process. What is more, the view that reference to a nationally specific 'Victorian' fin de siecle is legitimate and unproblematic is taken for granted. (1) The persistence of national literature both as a concept in literary criticism and theory (including comparative literature) and as a principle of organization in university departments of literary studies may go a long way to explaining this trend. Moreover, this quite possibly serves to disguise some of the limitations of the study of literature from a uniquely or exclusively national perspective. A second objective of this article is thus to foreground how the international is always at play in national manifestations of the fin de siecle.

The preconception with which the discussion is to engage may also explain instances of excessive national specificity in the study of the period under examination. The assumption in question would have it that national cultures considered to be peripheral within the context of the fin de siecle merit this designation by virtue of an imperviousness to the developments that characterize fin de siecle culture; that they were, in effect, unreceptive, immune, or even hostile to the influences at work during the period. The third aspiration, then, is to counter this assumption.

In pursuit of these aims this article will explore the reaction in a Spanish context of literary critics versed in degeneration theory to the work of Charles Baudelaire. …

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