Riddick on Hartley, Suwanwattana, and Yee, eds. (2022)

Hartley, Julia, Wanrug Suwanwattana, and Jennifer Yee, editors. French Decadence in a Global Context: Colonialism and Exoticism. Liverpool UP, 2022, pp. x + 287, ISBN: 978-1-80207-056-9

France’s colonial empire reached its apogee at the same time as the high-water mark of the Decadent mode in the 1880s and 1890s. While Decadence went against the grain of many of the -isms that characterized the fin de siècle—rationalism, progressivism, scientism, positivism—it cut both ways with regard to colonialism. On the one hand, boosters of the mission civilisatrice like Jules Ferry used the discourse of decadence to promote colonialism as the means to “regenerate” a French nation defeated at Sedan and facing the specters of the Commune, the rising tide of worker militancy, and changing structures of sex/gender. On the other hand, in tapping the resources of the unconscious to resist the violence of modernization, Decadence anticipated the Surrealist aesthetics that would later infuse Aimé Césaire’s ur-text of Francophone anticolonial literature.

Julia Hartley, Wanrug Suwanwattana, and Jennifer Yee’s edited volume French Decadence in a Global Context: Colonialism and Exoticism offers a variety of approaches to thinking about the connection between colonialism and Decadence. Yee, the author of a number of books and articles linking nineteenth-century literature with the postcolonial paradigm, provides the introduction. Here a distinction is made between what Yee calls “socio-cultural Decadence,” decadence as fin-de-siècle declinist discourse or myth, and “Decadent Orientalism,” the representation of non-European others in Decadent art and literature; where the former is negative about perceived decadence and often, although not always, pro-colonialist, the latter is fundamentally ambivalent.

The chapters appear in alphabetical order; five of the nine perform close literary analyses of texts that are ostensibly colonialist, reading them against the grain in order to unravel ambiguities in their position. Sam Bootle’s “Bibelotic Buddhas: Decadence and its Critics” analyzes Jules Claretie’s 1888 novella Bouddha; Jenai Engelhard Humphreys’s “Sous-mission and the Mission Civilisatrice: Houellebecq’s Parody of Decadence and Empire” reads the author’s 2015 neo-Decadent novel Soumission; Julia Caterina Hartley’s “Gender, Decadence and Orientalism in Jane Dieulafoy’s Journal de fouilles and Parysatis” examines her dig journal from the excavation of Susa (1884–6) and her 1890 novel Parysatis; Valérie Magdelaine-Andrianjafitrimo’s “Judith Gautier, La Conquête du Paradis or L’Inde éblouie: When French Colonization Becomes Indian Epic” looks at the 1913 novel L’Inde éblouie; Wanrug Suwanwattana’s elegantly contextualized “Decadent Colonial Saigon in Fin-de-siècle French Literature” explores three Decadent texts set in colonial Saigon: Claude Farrère’s short story “Les Bêtes” (1904), his 1905 novel Les Civilisés, and Myriam Harry’s 1902 novel Petites épouses.

These chapters provide a salutary reminder that exoticism was never completely efficient in keeping otherness contained within colonialist ideology. For example, Bootle shows that the Buddha tchotchke at the center of Claretie’s novella serves as “the projection of Western fears about the nihilism of progress” (46). Hartley highlights how the gender-fluid Dieulafoy affirmed her credentials as a professional Orientalist through the subversion of gendered exoticist tropes in her representation of Achaemenid queens. Dialectical reading does strain at times to persuade the reader that these texts subvert Orientalism rather than simply participating in it.

Richard Hibbitt’s “Anticolonial Exoticism in Octave Mirbeau’s Le Jardin des supplices” and Aurélien Lorig’s “The Anarchist Denunciation of Decadent Colonialism: Georges Darien, Octave Mirbeau and Jules Vallès” discuss explicitly anticolonialist Decadence. Hibbitt reads Mirbeau’s 1899 Le Jardin des supplices as what he calls “a work of anticolonial exoticism” (99). Hibbitt argues that the text’s merciless satire of both Europe and China posits a kind of beyond or “third space” as an alternative to the binaries of colonial ideology and decadent discourse. Lorig analyzes texts by Mirbeau alongside his fellow anarchists Georges Darien and Jules Vallès, concluding that “their indignation [against colonialism] unveils a historical, political and ideological lie” (173).

Vladimir Kapor’s “Decadent and Anti-Decadent Colonial Networks of the Belle Époque: Littérature coloniale as a Rhetorical Alliance” and Hélène Marquié’s “Exoticism and the Threat of Contagion: Danger or Therapy for Decadent Dance” speak to the usefulness of archival approaches in dealing with a slippery signifier like Decadence. Informed by the Bourdieusian concept of the field, Kapor provides a detailed mapping of two literary networks, one that espoused Decadent aesthetics where the other did not (Claude Farrère and other notable writers were connected to these networks). Showing that despite this difference both groups adhered to what Charles Forsdick and others call the parti colonial, Kapor argues that “during the Belle Époque, the expression littérature coloniale should not be viewed as an aesthetic concept” (122). Marquié uses a cultural historical methodology, also with something of a Bourdieusian flavor, “[analyzing] how, between 1871 and 1914, different dance practices interacted with discourses from other areas which interrogated exoticism, decadence, degeneration and regeneration, around the notion of le génie français” (197). She persuasively demonstrates how discourses of decadence and exoticism, especially “the myth of the Ballets Russes” (218), have distorted dance historiography.

Yee has written in the introduction to a special issue of French Studies, co-authored with Forsdick, that “nineteenth-century literary studies perspectives, whether they take a historicist or formalist approach, have tended to place greater emphasis on literary form and genre than postcolonialism has done until recently.” The main weakness of French Decadence in a Global Context is that it only succeeds intermittently in illuminating Decadence as a historical aesthetics. Indeed, the subtitle (Colonialism and Exoticism) or the title of the 2018 conference out of which it emerged (“Exoticism, Colonialism and Decadence around the fin de siècle”) might more accurately describe the volume. 

Hartley, Suwanwattana, and Yee’s French Decadence in a Global Context is an original work of intellectual curation that continues the project of opening up nineteenth-century French studies to colonial history and postcolonial theory. It is especially generative in terms of the number of less discussed works that it brings to light. Scholars in Francophone postcolonial studies, nineteenth-century French studies, and related fields will find material that is of interest to them. Picking out just a single thread among the chapters, the Decadent representation of sex/gender seems particularly promising for future scholarship in relation to the rich tradition of postcolonial thinking about the family romance.

Richard Riddick
University of Cambridge