Essais de psychologie contemporaine  

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"The ten essays that make up the Essais de psychologie contemporaine first appeared in La Nouvelle Revue between 1881 and 1885 as “Psychologie contemporaine—Notes et portraits.” A first volume—containing this study of Baudelaire, as well as essays on Renan, Flaubert, Taine, and Stendhal—was published in 1883 (Paris, Lemerre); the second, containing studies of Alexandre Dumas fils, Leconte de Lisle, the Goncourt brothers, Turgenev, and Amiel, appeared in 1885 as Nouveaux Essais de psychologie contemporaine (Paris, Lemerre). Bourget’s piece on Baudelaire is remarkable for its analysis of the psychological origins of the spleen to which the poet gives expression in Les Fleurs du mal, and for the critic’s compelling definition of decadence, a literary movement which had yet to be codified. As will soon become clear, for Bourget neither social nor personal corruption excludes the possibility of the highest aesthetic achievement.

Included below, in addition to the pages on Baudelaire, is a study of Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe, first appended to the essay in the 1899 edition of Bourget’s Œuvres complètes (Paris, Plon), that sheds light on what Bourget characterizes as Baudelaire’s “moral malady."" —Nancy O'Connor[1]

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The Essais de psychologie contemporaine[2][3], published in 1883 by Alphonse Lemerre, is the title of the first collection of essays by French author Paul Bourget (1852 - 1935), born from a series of articles written for the journal Le Parlement between 1881 and 1883. Bourget later continued these chronicles in Le Journal des débats and at the same time in the Nouvelle revue, up until 1885.

In the first of these essays, "Psychologie contemporaine; Notes et Portraits: Charles Baudelaire", Bourget tries to analyze the reasons for the decadence of the West, a sensibility today known as the decadent movement. In this essay is a subchapter which bears the title theory of decadence.

Havelock Ellis writes of this theory of decadence in Affirmations (1898):

the theory of decadence, [elaborates] the analogy to the social organism which enters the state of decadence as soon as the individual life of the parts is no longer subordinated to the whole. "A similar law governs the development and decadence of that other organism which we call language. A style of decadence is one in which the unity of the book is decomposed to give place to the independence of the page, in which the page is decomposed to give place to the independence of the phrase, and the phrase to give place to the independence of the word."

He establishes in these essays the character of a new literary genre opposed to the omnipresent Naturalist novel. Although this theory of decadence only cover four pages in his Essais, they have contribtued greatly to the reputation of this work.

The ambition of Bourget is, in this vast study, to explain how Baudelaire, Renan, Flaubert, Taine or Stendhal, contributed to psychological analysis in world literature. For Bourget these authors are witnesses of the decomposition typical of the fin-de-siècle.

The Essais, republished in 1885 under the title Nouveaux Essais de psychologie contemporaine[4] with added articles on Alexandre Dumas fils, Leconte de Lisle, the Goncourt brothers, Turgenev, and Amiel, are above all, a new approach to literary criticism, more geared towards psychology and considering the work as an living organism. The essays are considered the start of psychoanalytic literary criticism.

Nietzsche read Paul Bourget's essays in 1883, from which he borrowed the French term décadence.

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