‘La Maladie Fin de Siècle: Decadence and Disease’, Conference Review

Flore Janssen reviews the conference ‘La Maladie Fin de Siècle: Decadence and Disease’, Birkbeck, University of London, Wednesday 26 June 2019 

‘La Maladie Fin de Siècle: Decadence and Disease’ was inspired by Arthur Symons’s remark in his essay ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ (1893) that decadence was ‘a new and beautiful and interesting disease’. The one-day symposium took place at Birkbeck, University of London, on Wednesday 26 June 2019 and was organised by postdoctoral researcher Dr Sasha Dovzhyk and supported by the Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund and the Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. It brought together international and interdisciplinary scholars of decadent literature and culture to discuss the ‘the languages of disease, their conceptualisation during the long fin de siècle, and the effect they have had on the present perception of physical and mental health’, as the Call for Papers phrased it.

The structure of the day reflected the interdisciplinary focus of the event. Two panels addressed in turn ‘Narratives and Representations’ and ‘Pathologies and Aberrations’. They were followed by a screening of two recently recovered examples of Russian and Ukrainian Decadent silent cinema, introduced by Olga Kyrylova (National Pedagogical University, Kyiv, Ukraine), who had discovered and restored the films. The day concluded with reflections on the films from a panel including, alongside Kyrylova, Kate Hext (Exeter), a literary scholar, Philip Cavendish (UCL SSEES) an expert in Russian film, and Anne Hanley (Birkbeck), a medical historian. This unusual finish worked both to illustrate the movement that had been discussed throughout the day with reference to visual examples, and to make a new contribution to the idea of a decadent aesthetic by means of the little-known Russian and Ukrainian films.

The papers on the two panels spoke well to one another as well as to the conference theme, and this allowed discussion to identify new questions for scholars of decadence as well as medical humanities. The first panel, ‘Narratives and Representations’, explored the relevance of ideas surrounding disease in decadent writings. With reference to illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke to Edgar Allen Poe’s story ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ (1842), Joseph Thorne argued that these decadent artists, who both suffered with tuberculosis, embraced disease as a form of resistance to capitalist systems of production and consumption. Rejecting capitalism’s judgment of individuals’ value on the basis of their productivity, both revelled in their own physical decay. Rob Harris’s paper on the impact of Arthur Symons’s own ill health on his writing and on his critics’ perception of him similarly pointed to the language of disease as representing creativity in the context of industrial modernity. Ana Parejo Vadillo’s exploration of the shared diaries of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, the artists who collaborated as Michael Field and who were both diagnosed with cancer around the same time, revealed that they experienced their illness not as a fight, as the experience of cancer is often portrayed, but rather as a form of religious passion, penance, or martyrdom which was strongly informed by their Catholicism. These papers were united by a common sense of illness as a ‘discredited muse’ for artistic production and as a form of decadent martyrdom. While medical perspectives on disease narratives tend to disavow the possibility of pleasure in the experience of disease, each of these decadent artists appears to have found some form of pleasure in their illness. Discussion suggested that this offered a good argument for medical humanities to study the experience of disease not solely in its relation to health.

The second panel, ‘Pathologies and Aberrations’, focused on the representation of disease as a defining personal characteristic in decadent writing. Rebecka Klette discussed how growing awareness of syphilis in decadent culture led to the emergence of ‘syphilophobia’ and how this fear of syphilis featured as a ‘marker of modernity’ in Scandinavian decadent fiction. Aaron Eames’s paper examined the role and representation of epilepsy in early biographies of Oscar Wilde by Robert Sherard, which ascribed Wilde’s transgressive behaviour to epileptic fits. The idea of epilepsy as linked to criminality, which can be traced back to Cesare Lombroso, allowed Sherard, who had been a personal friend of Wilde, to defend his subject as a moral being whose illness brought on ‘epileptic aberrations’ in his normal behaviour. Kate Hext in turn explored decadent portrayals of morphia addiction as linked to transgressive sexuality through the example of Eric Stenbock’s story ‘La Girandola’ (c. 1890). The tale sees a doctor turn detective to analyse the reasons for the on-stage suicide of a morphine-addicted ballet dancer. Each paper investigated diagnoses of diseases made by authors, critics, and biographers rather than doctors, highlighting the cultural currency of disease narratives and how these could be applied to analyses of decadence.

Maladie Fin de Siècle conference poster

Many of the themes that emerged from discussion around the two panels were reflected in the two films screened: Satan Married Them (1917) and The Happiness of Eternal Night (1915). Both films explored sexual and moral transgression, one through the character of an unhappy widow who seeks the help of a sorceress to advance herself, and the other through the story of a young blind woman who gains and then loses her sight through medical interventions in the context of a love triangle. Supernatural influences were present in both stories, in the form of the androgynous Tartar sorceress and a Medusa-like ghost who appears in a stormy night to reflect the protagonist’s own horror-stricken face. (This also made a neat reference to the conference poster, designed by Hanna Strizh, which used Robert Strüdel’s representation of tuberculosis as a Medusa.) Olga Kyrylova explained that film-makers were drawn to the decadent body as fundamentally ‘lacking’ and therefore well-suited to the shadowy cinematic body – an idea echoed by the frail bodies of both films’ female protagonists who appear nervous and restless throughout. As Kyrylova pointed out, this was particularly true in Satan Married Them, where the protagonist, feverish, hollow-eyed, and possessed by the devil, embodies many characteristics of decadence. Interestingly, the script of the film was derived from a novel by a self-professed spirit medium who claimed to be literally a ghost-writer for the spirit of the Earl of Rochester whose own transgressive attitudes and behaviours made him the ultimate example of a decadent writer.

The panel discussion that followed the films raised several key questions regarding decadence as a cinematic movement. Most importantly, they asked how decadent film may be defined. Are decadent films adaptations of decadent texts, or do they only have to portray a decadent aesthetic or address decadent themes or tropes? The panellists pointed to the importance in both films of sensuality. Touch is significant in The Happiness of Eternal Night to give some sense of the blind protagonist’s experience, while in Satan Married Them the corpse smell of lilies recurs to evoke the presence of the protagonist’s deceased first husband.

‘La Maladie Fin de Siècle’ was a highly coherent, thought-provoking conference that asked essential questions relevant not only to the decadent experience and representation of disease but to medical humanities as a wider discipline. Key among these were: how can medical humanities consider disease separately from its relation to health? What is the cultural value and impact of diagnoses made by those without medical training? What connections can be made between illness and religious faith, and how are they relevant? And how can we understand the creation of an atmosphere of disease evoked in visual and literary art? Aubrey Beardsley’s and Harry Clarke’s use of disease as a form of socio-economic resistance and Katherine Bradley’s and Edith Cooper’s experience of cancer as a Messianic passion provide important examples of patients’ different approaches to their own diseases, while Robert Sherard’s interpretation of Oscar Wilde based on his own diagnosis of epilepsy offers a sense of how disease may be (mis)appropriated as a reading of character. ‘La Maladie Fin de Siècle’ gave a valuable insight into how and why not only decadent artists, but also decadent art, its subsequent critics, their interpretations, and perhaps our own, may have been ailing.

Flore Janssen received her PhD from Birkbeck, University of London, in 2018. She subsequently held a postdoctoral fellowship at Birkbeck supported by the Wellcome Institutional Strategic Support Fund to explore links between medicine and social activism in the period 1880–1900. In October 2019 she will take up a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Institute of English Studies, University of London. She is currently Digital Humanities Project Officer at the Salvation Army International Heritage Centre. She tweets as @femlitcake.

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