The Romantic Agony  

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"There is a suggestion by Mario Praz in The Romantic Agony that what Blake, De Sade, Nietzsche, Swinburne, Dostoyevsky, Gide, essentially have in common is that they were all sadists, sadism being at best a mere psychological quirk of certain personalities. But then it could well be that the kind of temperament here labelled 'sadistic' is the best equipped for the kind of insight that is at issue." --Introduction to Nietzsche, John S. Moore, 1974

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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli
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The Birth of Venus (detail), a 1486 painting by Sandro Botticelli

Romantic Agony is a book of literary history by Italian scholar Mario Praz. First published in Italy as La carne, la morte, e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica in 1930, it is his best-known work. It is a comprehensive survey of the erotic (Romantic) and morbid (agony) themes that characterized European literature of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Praz's study is concerned with romantic and decadent responses to modernism, a certain psychopathological sensibility in nineteenth century literature. Praz codifies the deviant bourgeois imagination in search of the frisson; sex, horror, the supernatural, making this one of the earliest works of thematic literary criticism of Western literature. The chapter titles are "the beauty of the Medusa, metamorphoses of Satan, the shadow of the divine marquis, la belle dame sans merci, Byzantium, Swinburne and 'le vice anglais'.

Its Italian title literally translates to English as Flesh, Death, and the Devil in Romantic Literature, but the book was published in 1933 as The Romantic Agony (translation by?). The preface to the first English edition defines this as "a study of certain states of mind and peculiarities of behavior, which are given a definite direction by various types and themes that recur as insistently as myths engendered in the ferment of blood" (p. vii).

Philippe Jullian's Dreamers of Decadence (1969) does for the visual arts what Mario Praz does for literature.

Contents

Table of Contents

Author's preface to the first English edition, xv-xxiii

In his preface to the first English edition of 1933, Mario Praz writes: "In no other literary period [the nineteenth century], I think, has sex been so obviously the mainspring of works of imagination."

Introduction, 1-22

The introduction is largely concerned with tracing the roots of the romantic sensibility and of the terms and romantic and romantique in English and French. Much like Todorov des in the first chapter of The Fantastic, this is a genre-theoretical delineation of its subject matter. It places Sade as a forerunner to the romantics. It also puts forward the romantic-classic antithesis by Benedetto Croce, and it mentions notions such as the picturesque, although it does not seem to mention the connected sublime.

Chapter I, “The Beauty of the Medusa,” 23-52

Medusa

Chapter I traces the roots of the pleasure-and-pain and beauty-and-death conceptual combinations, pointing to such essays as On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror and An Inquiry into those Kinds of Distress which Excite Agreeable Sensations by Anna Laetitia Aikin; "On Objects of Terror" by Nathan Drake and "Ode to Fear" by William Collins and other works of Gothic theory.

Chapter II, “The Metamorphoses of Satan,” 53-94

Chapter II "traces the metamorphosis of the satan of Tasso, Marino and John Milton as a literary figure into the "fatal man" of the romantics - the Byronic hero, the male vampire, the criminal erotic." --Howard Mumford Jones, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 51, No. 6 (Jun., 1936)

Chapter III, “The Shadow of the Divine Marquis,” 95-197.

Marquis de Sade

Chapter III is by far the largest chapter and its protagonist is the Marquis de Sade. Here, Praz "enters into an elaborate argument to show that this tendency towards delight in criminal and sexual suffering the novels of the Marquis de Sade gave a special impetus, since, to the type of the fatal man, the romantics added the type of persecuted woman, and under the spell of their admiration for Justine and its companion works, found a special delight in erotic pain." --Howard Mumford Jones, Modern Language Notes, Vol. 51, No. 6 (Jun., 1936)

In chapter III, Praz also marks the fault line between Romanticism and Decadence:

"Baudelaire and Flaubert are like the two faces of a Herm planted firmly in the middle of the century, marking the division between Romanticism and Decadence, between the period of the Fatal Man and that of the Fatal Woman, between the period of Delacroix and that of Moreau."

The type of the persecuted woman

persecuted woman

Clarissa Harlowe

Clarissa Harlowe

La Religieuse

La Religieuse

Therese Philosophe

Therese Philosophe

Les liaisons dangereuses

Les liaisons dangereuses

Marquis de Sade

Marquis de Sade

Restif de la Bretonne

Restif de la Bretonne

Chateaubriand

Chateaubriand

Diffusion of the persecuted woman theme

Damsel_in_distress#The_18th_and_19th_centuries, Intertextuality between The Monk and Clarissa, User:Jahsonic/shift in 19th century culture from the persecuted maiden to the femme fatale

Praz takes as his archetypes Gretchen of Goethe's Faust, Justine of Sade, Antonia and Agnes of The Monk. They were all "born" in the space of two years.

The Monk

The Monk

Radcliffe

Radcliffe

Female writers

Female writers

Beatrice Cenci

The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts

Melmoth

Melmoth

Tales of terror

Tales of terror

The Dead Donkey

The Dead Donkey

The Devil's Memoirs

The Devil's Memoirs

Pétrus Borel

Pétrus Borel

Baudelaire's literary roots

Baudelaire

Delacroix

Delacroix

Baudelaire

Baudelaire

In a subchapter titled "the erotology of Baudelaire" Praz mentions guesses about Baudelaire's impotence:

"[The] case of Baudelaire's exotic exclusiveness will be understood, and of his strange conduct towards Madame Sabatier, and it can be why so many people give credit to the rumour reported by Nadar. (Baudelair's impotence, generally admitted in this case, is denied by Flottes.)"

Flaubert

Flaubert

Lautréamont

Lautréamont

Chapter IV, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” 199-300

The title of this chapter refers to the concept of the fatal woman. Praz notes that "The male, who at first tends towards sadism, inclines, at the end of the century, towards masochism." 19th century art had indeed a predilection for imagery of captive females (damsel in distress, persecuted maiden).

La Belle Dame Sans Merci is also the title of a poem by Keats and a painting by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1877–1958), a British artist, described as "The last of the Pre-Raphaelites".

The femme fatale archetype exists in the history, folklore and myth of nearly every culture in every century. Ancient mythical, legendary and historical archetypes include Lilith, Delilah, Salome and Jezebel, the Sirens, the Sphinx, Scylla, Clytemnestra and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

See also: shift from damsel in distress to femme fatale

Chapter V, “Byzantium,” 303-434

On the last phase of decadence, which professor Praz appropriately calls "Byzantium," ...

Appendix, “Swinburne and ‘Le Vice Anglais,” 437-457.

le vice anglais

On George Selwyn, Swinburne, Hankey and Wilde and the British predilection for sadomasochism and the archtetype of the sadistic Englishman.

Praz traces the literary trope of the sadistic Englishman in French and Italian literature to George Selwyn, Frederick Hankey and Algernon Swinburne. He finds this stereotype in the novels La Faustin by Edmond de Goncourt, Il Piacere by Gabriele d'Annunzio and Monsieur du Paur by Paul-Jean Toulet.

See British erotica and The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon

"Baudelaire en vers et Flaubert en prose"

"Baudelaire en vers et Flaubert en prose" said Péladan in 1885: the analogy could not be juster and is today taken for granted. Baudelaire and Flaubert are like the two faces of a Herm planted firmly in the middle of the century, marking the division between Romanticism and Decadence, between the period of the Fatal Man and that of the Fatal Woman, between the period of Delacroix and that of Moreau.

A character of Peladan's invention says this in Curieuse!.

On Delacroix, the Romantic, and Moreau, the decadent

"Delacroix, as a painter, was fiery and dramatic; Gustave Moreau strove to be cold and static. The former painted gestures, the latter attitudes. Although far apart in artistic merit (after all, Delacroix in his best work is a great painter), they are highly representative of the moral atmosphere of the two periods in which they flourised -- of Romanticism, with its fury of frenzied action, and of Decadence, with its sterile contemplation. The subject-matter is almost the same -- voluptuous, gory exoticism. But Delacroix lives inside his subject, whereas Moreau worships his from outside, with the result that the first is a paniter, the second a decorator."

Reviews

In a Note to the Second Edition of The Romantic Agony, Praz complains that Lewis in Men without Art calls his compilation a "gigantic pile of satanic bric-a-brac" and that Montague Summers in his Gothic Quest dismissed it as "disjointed gimcrack."

Review by Janine C. Hartman

In 1933 [1930] Praz produced this impressionistic and encyclopedic study of romantic or decadent responses to modernity, titled, in Italian, La carne, la morte, e il diavolo nella letteratura romantica. The preface to the first English edition defines this as "a study of certain states of mind and peculiarities of behavior, which are given a definite direction by various types and themes that recur as insistently as myths engendered in the ferment of blood" (p. vii). This book traced patterns of consciousness in nineteenth century and Renaissance sensibilities. Praz codified the deviant bourgeois imagination in search of the frisson; sex, horror, the supernatural, in chapters with evocative formulations: "the beauty of the Medusa, metamorphoses of Satan, la belle dame sans merci, Byzantium, Swinburne and 'le vice anglais." But most importantly, this study of poetry, plays and novels falls under "the shadow of the divine marquis"-the marquis de Sade. Though deploring the infant Sade publishing industry, then under the aegis of French Surrealism, Praz accepts Sade as the mythmaker of the educated erotic sensibility, the imaginative grotesquerie, the advocate of pain for aesthetic appreciation of all experience. --Reviewed by: Janine C. Hartman , Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Cincinnati. Published by: H-Ideas (August, 2000), http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=26206966636723 [Jan 2005]

Review by Jerome J. McGann

In the introductory chapter of his famous study, The Romantic Agony, "The Beauty of the Medusa," Mario Praz lays the foundations for the entire work that follows--a learned and demonstrative complaint against the radically aberrant quality of much Romantic art. Praz is a compelling critic of his subject, not because his moral judgments are the same as Eliot's (though they are), but because his methodology--to collect and compare the images, themes and motifs which preoccupied Romantic minds--is both unimpeachable and highly suggestive. The genius of his book is in its categories, the chapter headings. --http://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/shelley/medusa/mcgann.html [Jan 2005]

Related

agony - decadent movement - 19th century literature - literary criticism - romanticism

Themes and tropes

algolagnia - androgyny - bloodshed - decadence - decadent movement - exoticism - femme fatale - fatal man - the French "frenetic" school - incest - lesbianism - masochism - necrophilia - persecuted maiden - perversion - picturesqe - rebel type - romanticism - sadism - Salome - satan - sex in literature - terror - vampirism

Protagonists

Gabriele D'Annunzio - Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly - Honoré de Balzac - Maurice Barrès - Charles Baudelaire - Aubrey Beardsley - Petrus Borel - Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly - Restif de la Bretonne - Byron - Jacques Cazotte - Chateaubriand - Delacroix - de Quincey - Diderot - Dostoevsky - Alexandre Dumas, père - Flaubert - Gautier - Goethe - Goncourt - Gourmont - Heine - Victor Hugo - J. K. Huysmans - Villiers de l'Isle-Adam - Janin - Keats - Laclos - Lautréamont - Lewis - Claude Lorrain - Pierre Louÿs - Maeterlinck - Maturin - John Milton - Octave Mirbeau - Gustave Moreau - Musset - Charles Nodier - Walter Pater - Péladan - Poe - Prévost - Rachilde - Ann Radcliffe - Samuel Richardson - Félicien Rops - Rossetti - Sade - Sainte Beuve - Schiller - Shelley, P. B. - Eugène Sue - Swinburne - Thérèse Philosophe - Richard Wagner - Oscar Wilde



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