Conference Report: Cosmopolitanism, Aestheticism, and Decadence, 1860-1920

Cosmopolitanism, Aestheticism, and Decadence, 1860-1920,  University of Oxford, 17-18 June 2014

Report by Katharina Herold (University of Oxford) and Eleanor Reeds (University of Connecticut)

Speakers from an international range of institutions came together for a lively intellectual investigation into the agents of these movements, the means by which they achieved cultural significance, and their current relevance in times of globalized literary exchange.

In his opening keynote address, Jonathan Freedman (University of Michigan) outlined the vital influence of Jewish intellectual and artistic circles on Oscar Wilde’s life and work. Drawing parallels between the outsider status of Jews and the Irish, Freedman examined the shaping influence of Wilde’s collaborators such as Simeon Solomon and Ada Leverson, as well as Jewish literary and political responses to Wilde’s work. Unsurprisingly, this apparently supreme cosmopolitan artist was a felt presence throughout the conference. Ellis Hanson’s (Cornell University) paper, for example, argued that Wilde used the hotel as a narrative and philosophical trope for modernist unpredictability, while Wilde’s legacy as a cultural icon amongst the early twentieth century Latvian literary circle, the “Dzelme Group”, was the subject of a paper by Ilze Kačāne (Daugavpils University, Latvia). The concluding address of the conference by Michèle Mendelssohn (Mansfield College, Oxford) included a consideration of Wilde’s status as a self-made icon in his own lifetime.

Yet other less canonical figures of cosmopolitan aestheticism also emerged. Karen Skinazi (Princeton University) and Lori Harrison-Kahan (Boston College) shared their recovery of the work of the Jewish-American journalist and novelist, Miriam Michelson, who was interested in the performativity of both gender and ethnicity, particularly amongst Asian immigrant communities on the West Coast. Christina Iglesias (Columbia University) considered martyrdom as a rare prototype of female agency in the autobiography of the Theosophist Annie Besant while Charlotte Purkis (University of Winchester) discussed the critic Gertrude Hudson’s use of a male cosmopolitan persona. Zohar Maor (Bar-Ilan University/Herzog College, Israel) considered Max Brod’s mystic Aestheticism. An essayist and critic in his own right, Brod’s writings on ‘indifferentism’ shaped a new understanding of cosmopolitanism that advocates internationalism whilst celebrating national differences.

The central keynote by Stefano Evangelista (Trinity College, Oxford) continued the trend of exemplary cosmopolitan biographies. His introduction to Lafcadio Hearn traced the Greek-born Anglo-Irish aesthete’s journey from adventurer in America to translator and professor of the European Decadent canon in Japan and provided a spotlight on the often forgotten reception of Europe in Asia. Building on Evangelista’s excellent overview of Hearn’s life and works, Catherine Maxwell (Queen Mary, University of London) focused on Hearn’s olfactory sensibility as a cosmopolitan ‘flaireur’. Such a typology reminds us, of course, of the flâneur, a figure whose troubling incarnation as the inscrutable connoisseur was the subject of a panel that ranged from Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor to M.P. Shiel’s detective fiction. After papers by Douglas Small (University of Glasgow), Peter Bailey (College of the Bahamas), and Joanna L. Turner (University of Texas, Austin), the limitations of flânerie were considered in Oliver Bock’s (Friedrich Schiller University, Jena) presentation on the anxiety of New Yorkers regarding the possibility of any such transatlantic import.

Thus the aesthete’s yearning for imaginative and literal mobility emerged as a central topic of interest. David Barnes  (Somerville College, Oxford) traced the Ruskinian voice as a critical travel guide for the Victorians in E.M. Forster’s Italian novels and Lene Østermark-Johansen (University of Copenhagen) established Walter Pater’s Imaginary Portraits as his European project, focusing on his notion of ‘Andersstreben’. Magda Dragu’s (Indiana University, Bloomington) paper discussed Kurt Schwitters’ multi-medial works in which the cosmopolitan principle of bringing heterogenic elements together dominates.

Despite the apparent rootlessness of the cosmopolitan and the independence of the text formed—as Andrea Selleri (University of Warwick) argued—through the aesthetes’ frequent ironic self-distancing from their works, the shaping influence of particular material contexts remained central to many papers.  One such context—the global art economy—allowed Andrew Stephenson (University of East London) to account for the differing transatlantic receptions of the French-trained artist, John Singer Sargent. Having been perceived as modernizing the British tradition of portraiture, Sargent’s aristocratic admirers in the UK rejected the vivacious products of his American commissions as distastefully market-driven. The transatlantic man of letters, Henry James, was the subject of a panel that formed part of the conference’s fruitful investigation into forms of publication. Margaret Deli (Yale University) spoke on James’s late novel, The Outcry (1911), which was modeled on The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs and celebrates the nationalistic importance of  ‘the wonderful modern science of Connoisseurship’, while Kate Hext  (University of Exeter) discussed James’s problematic affiliation with The Yellow Book.

A dedicated panel on print culture offered insight into the underestimated fin-de-siècle lineage of the little magazines of the Modernist period. Matthew Sellers (Wolfson College, Oxford) discussed the fractured aesthetic of the trilingual Cosmopolis and Alex Murray (University of Exeter) described The Senate as a short-lived periodical that was committed to a patriotic Tory traditionalism even as it advocated new artistic movements. Diana Sanz Roig (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) also highlighted the significance of magazines such as Prometeo in her analysis of the wider cultural networks—including salons, professional associations and government institutions—that promoted the minority Spanish and Latin American culture of aestheticism. The cultural innovations that we might assume to be limited by the domesticity of the novel form were also exposed as Maeve Adams (Manhattan College) argued that the novel permitted capital to gain stable value in the context of human relations while Gregory Brennen (Duke University) emphasized the critical importance of marriage in offering a new model of political governance in Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Redux.

The relationship between the individual and the nation lies, of course, at the heart of cosmopolitanism as it asks one to feel at home everywhere and nowhere. David Hull (University of Sussex) traced the impact of the First Balkan War on Ezra Pound’s poetry as Pound interpreted the nationalistic efforts of the Balkan nations battling the powerful Ottoman Empire as a call to personal freedom. Such a freedom was fundamental to the aestheticist project but, as a range of speakers emphasized, the instability and inscrutability of cosmopolitan identities remains a critical issue. It was at stake in the contemporary reception of Walt Whitman’s homosexuality amongst British musicologists—as discussed by Sarah Collins (University of New South Wales)—and by figures such as John Addington Symonds, the roots of whose democratic thought were examined by Lucy Hartley (University of Michigan). Such obfuscation’s current incarnation was evident in Richard Kaye’s (Hunter College/The Graduate Center at CUNY) call for the integration of queer theory and gender studies in academic accounts of nineteenth-century British art. Appropriately, Mendelssohn’s final keynote argued for the continuing need for symptomatic reading as the preoccupation with sight as a gateway to synesthesia exists alongside the encoded and unsayable in the fin-de-siècle.

Thank you to the Kent Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (KIASH) and the Faculty of English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford for supporting the conference, and to the organizers—Emily Coit, Michael Collins and Sara Lyons.


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