Genova on Kociubińska, ed. (2019)

Kociubińska, Edyta, editor. Le dandysme, de l’histoire au mythe. Peter Lang, 2019, pp. 218, ISBN 978-3-631-74562-5

This edition of essays addressing the rich cultural figure of the dandy offers remarkable thematic and methodological variety, as the collection stresses the complex and sometimes contradictory nature of “dandyism,” the definition of which critics continue to debate. While some essays follow a traditional grounding in the three foundational “B”s of dandy studies (“Beau” Brummell, Charles Baudelaire, and Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly), others bring new and inventive perspectives to a topic abundantly scrutinized, particularly in English and French criticism. The diversity of subject matter (and eras studied) broadens significantly the impact of the dandy in such spheres as literature, visual arts, music, history, philosophy, and politics, accentuating the ongoing fascination with the elusive dandy legacy. Despite distinctions among these various areas of praxis and study, certain threads recur across the texts, lending coherence to the compilation as a whole. 

Certain contributors accentuate a single writer: Edyta Kociubińska centers on Brummell, as she traces the ascension and decline of a man so essential to the birth of English dandyism (and who carried on a thorny relationship with the future King George IV). Sihem Gounni explores Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, uncovering thought-provoking connections among the notions of death, religion, and drama, building constructively on the theories of René Girard, including a morbid preoccupation, described as a kind of ontological disease, with the figure of the Other. Alexandre Bies studies Oscar Wilde, showing the paradoxical distinctions between the life and work of this fin-de-siècle icon, highlighting the negative effects of the fast-paced social changes with which Wilde grappled, clarifying his own self-identity when faced with growing bourgeois values and the increasing industrialization so intimidating to a personality as artistic as Wilde’s.

Other critics concentrate principally on a specific literary manuscript or fictional character. Céline Hromadova (in the sole contribution to evaluate the work of a female) examines Françoise Sagan’s first play, Château en Suède (1960), showcasing the protagonist, Sébastien Van Milhem. Hromadova asserts that Sébastien incarnates the stereotypical nineteenth-century dandy, suffering from alienation and ennui and employing his eccentricity to fight bourgeois hypocrisy. Suggesting Sagan’s own ambivalent dandyism, she argues that the author’s themes were contemporary, but her formal aspects remain conventional (despite a creative integration of baroque style and marivaudage, while her characters openly display their awareness that they are players on a stage). Malgorzata Sokołowicz analyzes an 1832 poetic work by Alfred de Musset, Namouna (1832), and she proposes three types of dandyism (Oriental, Byronian, and literary) that produce a multifaceted description of the dandy, who materializes as an ambiguous individual radiating opposing features. She accents the dynamics between the author/narrator and the reader, demonstrating that by combining burlesque and serious elements produces success in Musset’s experimentation with dandy complexity. Fabrizio Impellizzeri focuses on the motif of love in his examination of Jean de Tinan as an example of amorous self-destruction, portraying Tinan as a beau ténébreux who succumbed to the power of desire. Impellizzeri depicts Tinan’s work as a témoignage of the times, and as a personal crisis echoing that of a larger social problem. He also addresses Tinan’s fragmented dandy writerly style, indicating how language can serve as a mirror of the soul.

An engaging perspective emerges in pieces applying comparative approaches to French dandyism and other cultures. Eric Hendrycks researches Barbey’s Memoranda and the writer’s correspondence with a friend, Guillaume-Stanislas Trebutien, proposing that the numerous Spanish terms and references in Barbey’s writing embody a dandyesque mask, especially notable in his use of the Spanish language to construct his own autobiographical portrait. Equally interested in the influence of Spain is Mathew Rickard, who investigates the image of the seventeenth-century Don Juan to question the complicated relationship of religion and sexuality. He emphasizes the homosexual implications inherent in Don Juan’s legend in the œuvres of Prosper Mérimée and Barbey, stating that transgressive masculinity can be affirmed in a hegemonic society through subverting conventional religious and sexual paradigms. Carole Viñals chooses to study a twentieth-century Spanish journalist, Francisco Umbral, referencing a notorious nineteenth-century Spanish dandy, Mario José de Larra, and she explores the hypersexualization of the dandy, incorporating criticism by Philippe Sollers and stressing a connection between the dandy and Friedrich Nietzche’s surhomme. Then, Gilbert Pham-Thanh moves us eastward, in a heady philosophical reading of dandyism through the thought of François Jullien, the prolific philosopher/critic/Sinologist. The argument targets short English satirical poems from dandyism’s early days, as Pham-Thanh presents the fluid evolution of dandies, resisting the stasis with which they were represented in those poetic texts. Utilizing such notions as Jullien’s dé-coïncidence and connivence, as well as Vladimir Jankélévich’s concepts of je ne sais quoi and presque rien, the essayist discusses how dandies, depicted in these poems as ridiculously useless, escape traditional occidental characterizations through the lens of later theorists.

Other contributors take on different art forms: Valérie Bajou researches the identity of painters as a reflection of dandy style, emphasizing celebrated portraits or self-portraits; many of the works are displayed in the Château de Versailles, where Bajou serves as the curator for nineteenth-century French art (the inclusion of images would have greatly enhanced this piece, which is true for many of these commentaries). Regarding music, Léa Cassagnau considers dandy elements in twentieth-century punk rock, concentrating on an influential precursor, Richard Hell, and on the concept of the “loser” as an embodiment of key dandy traits. Asocial, individualistic, neurotic, even perverse, Hell, like the dandy, appears as both victimized and aggressive, finally emerging as the true director of his provocative performative gestures. 

The subject of politics might not immediately come to mind with regard to the dandy, but some analyses reveal the profound influence of political forces on the development of dandyism. Maria Beliaeva Solomon writes of dandys militants in a Romantic context (Gérard de Nerval, Théophile Gautier, etc.), as they manifest the phenomenon of the mal-du-siècle; she reflects on the impact of gilets rouges, Jeunes-France, and bouzingots (a term used in various forms to evoke individuals wreaking havoc), relating them to gothic imagery, archaisms, and emblematic dandy subordination. Jean-Christophe Nadeau concentrates on the disappearance of conventional “elegance” in late nineteenth-century dandyism, when faced with the expansion of democracy, underscoring the distinction between being born “elegant” and becoming rich, as he unveils an unexpected puritanism in actions of revolt.

Finally, notwithstanding the overall impressive nature of this edition, there are nonetheless  technical issues that detract from the realization of its full potential. Many of the essays include copious references to acclaimed dandyism critics, which produces here substantial repetition and can at times undermine the originality of some contributions. Also, along with stylistic infelicities in several of the English abstracts, we see an inconsistent format for translations in the texts: whereas most pieces evoke only French sources, and some essayists translate into French (or identify translators) of their English or Spanish original quotations, others include only the original, with no French translation. While this choice may limit the work’s readership, ultimately, however, this publication is a welcome addition to students and scholars interested in the intriguing dandy persona.

Pamela A. Genova
University of Oklahoma