French Literature From 1800 to the First World War Part III

Symbolism and Decadence

Symbolist poetry developed as a counter-movement to positivism and naturalism. She did not want to offer an image of reality, but rather to evoke layers of being and consciousness hidden behind the external appearances: the ambiguity of the symbols took the place of conceptually definable ideas; the poet wants to indicate darkly (French »suggérer«), not to name. Characteristics of symbolist poetry are v. a. poetic encoding, analogy of different areas of meaning and being, suggestive associative sound effects, synesthesia, superimposition of (heterogeneous) images and high linguistic musicality (which P. Verlaine in his poem »Art poétique«, 1885, called for).

Traditional logical connections were broken up and an intoxicating momentum of language unleashed (A. Rimbaud, “Le bâteau ivre”, 1883, German “Das drunken Schiff”, and “Illuminations”, 1886, German “Illuminations”); the poet saw himself as a rapt prophet (Rimbaud, “Lettres du voyant”, 1871; German “Letters of the Seer”). The result was a poetic language that is no longer strictly bound to meaning, but works with suggestive sound effects (S. Mallarmé, “L’après-midi d’un faune”, 1876, German “The afternoon of a faun”, and “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard «, 1897, German» Throwing the dice does not cancel out chance «). The lyric poetry of Rimbaud and Mallarmé released possibilities for the use of language, which were taken up and developed by surrealism, which strived for access to the subconscious, and the cipher-like, hermetic lyric poetry of the 20th century. The prose poem “Chants de Maldoror” (1869; German “Gesänge des Maldoror”) by Lautréamont is one of the most important reference texts of Surrealism  - like Rimbaud’s work Expression of Anarchy and Revolt. Other symbolist poets were among others. J. Moréas, J. Laforgue, G. Kahn, P. Fort, H. de Régnier, T. Corbière, R. Ghil, F. Jammes, É. Harden and G. Rodenbach. The symbolist theater relocated the plot completely inside the characters and thus abolished the spatial-temporal reality. In the novel, too, the turn into the interior of consciousness was carried out (J.-K. Huysmans, »À rebors«, 1884; German »Against the grain«), other authors countered the scientific belief of the Third Republic with a turn to mysticism (Huysmans), to the fantastic, to occultism (P. A. M. de Villiers de l’Isle Adam) and to exoticism (P. Loti). The poetry of “Décadence” and “Fin de Siècle” can hardly be separated from symbolism, with their cult of the aesthetically over-refined, nervous and morbid and a pessimistic attitude that grew out of the awareness of a late cultural phase. At A. France, the fin-de-siècle mood is balanced by skepticism, irony and an aesthetic classicism. The turning away from positivism was also expressed in the spiritualistic philosophy of H. Bergson. Check to see more about France and other countries in the world.

Literary tendencies at the turn of the century

Against the positivist-determinist zeitgeist as well as the secular policy of the Third Republic, the movement of the Renouveau catholique formed towards the end of the century (initially mainly with L. Bloy, Huysmans, P. Claudel, C. Péguy, Jammes), which was looking for a renewal of literature and society based on faith. It was partly associated with efforts for national renewal after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/71 and after the domestic political crises of the Third Republic (especially the Dreyfus affair), which had led to a polarization of public life. The nationalist movement (whose conservative-anti-democratic wing was organized in 1898 in the »Action française«, among others around C. Maurras and L. Daudet) led authors to turn away from the aesthetic individualism of literary decadence. B. M. Barrès, who turned to Catholic nationalism and a mystical cult of the homeland (»Les déracinés«, 1898). This contrasted with attempts to reconcile national and socialist ideas (Péguy) and the cosmopolitan attitude of R. Rolland.

In 1909 the influential literary magazine “La Nouvelle Revue Française” (NRF) was founded (under the direction of J. Rivière, later by J. Paulhan), which – without ideological ties – promotes literary life in the sense of sublimated form consciousness and analytical-psychological design and was thus directed against naturalistic and partly symbolistic concepts. Published by the NRF publishing house, among others. the works of P. Claudel, A. Gide, M. Proust and P. Valéry.

Coming from symbolism, Gide opened up new ways for the psychological novel to portray the self-discovery intended from internal contradictions and the liberation from traditional (especially moral and religious) ties (»L’immoraliste«, 1902, German »Der Immoralist«; »Les caves du vatican «, 1914, German» The dungeons of the Vatican «). Proust undertook an analysis of French society from the end of the 19th century to the end of the First World War in his novel “À la recherche du temps perdu” (1913–27; German “In search of lost time”). Aesthetically groundbreaking was the process of (involuntary) memory tracing the capture of reality, which broke up the outer, factual-chronological sequence through overlapping narrative layers and elevated the inner, experienced time to the design principle. Valery had given up symbolist poetry at an early age and tried out a strictly intellectual literature with the novel-like text “Une soirée avec Monsieur Teste” (1895; German “Herr Teste”), which was later added several times. The poems that he only published again from 1917 (“La jeune parque”, German “Die Junge Parze”; “Charmes”, 1922, German) reveal his search for the pure idea that has overcome all coincidences.

French Literature From 1800 to the First World War 3