Primitive marks of modernity: cultural reconfigurations in the Franco-Italian fin de siecle *.
(Benjamin, Illuminations 256)
From Kristeva's The crisis of the European subject to Samir Amin's critique of Eurocentrism (Eurocentrisme) or Chakrabarty's invitation to "provincialize" Europe (Provincializing), one could claim that, if the old continent is dead, its subject does not feel very well either. Even at a glance, indeed, much discourse produced not only on but also by European culture in different spheres of the humanities at the turn of the twenty-first century--despite its divisiveness--seems to revolve around two interrelated points: the demise of a stable European cultural identity, and an inevitable as much as desirable reconfiguration of the relationship between self and otherness--both inside and outside the Western cultural borders--beyond essences and binary oppositions.
For Edgar Morin, for instance, in a shrinking global context that has delegitimized the Eurocentric ideology, the European identity can only be reconceived as a contradictory complex of diverse people, classes and cultures, as an "unitas multiplex" (Penser 27) allowing us to think "l'identite dans la nonidentite" (27) ["identity within non-identity"] ** according to a dialogical principle that does not dissolve duality in unity. For his part, Jacques Derrida denounces the "programme archeo-teleologique" (Autre cap 31) ["archeo-teleological program" (Other beading 27)] of any discourse and counter-discourse about Europe's own identification, seeing them in the service of a centralizing autobiography of Europe, be it a self-accusation or a self-celebration, while Gianni Vattimo highlights that the process of "europeizzazione della terra e dell'essenza stessa dell'uomo" (Fine 162) ['Europeanization of the earth and of the very essence of man' (End 154)] has reached a planetary dimension, and hence thwarts the anthropological adventure of trans-cultural understanding because it erases the difference and the distance between sameness and otherness. The possibility of an authentic encounter with alterity, be it cultural or philosophical, is in itself ideologically determined by the Western cognitive categories that have produced the anthropological and the hermeneutic discourses. Yet, for Vattimo, the cultural "other" is not simply assimilated by a global and strong Western tradition: endorsing the standpoint of anthropologist Remo Guidieri, Vattimo contends that both the homogenizing European heritage and the allegedly radical cultural alterity are reduced to residual manifestations of a hybrid reality that is nothing more than "un immenso cantiere di sopravvivenze" (166) ["a 'construction site of traces and residues'" (Fine 160)].
Vattimo's treatment of sameness and otherness in terres of weakened and belated instances of an all-inclusive condition of marginality can also provide a philosophical framework for Armando Gnisci's critique of Eurocentrism in view of the West's decolonization from itself ("Centrismo" 44-45) and of the rediscovery of ourselves as "meticci" (45) ["racially and culturally hybrid"]. The mixed and decentered subjectivity--hence always already in dialogue with cultural otherness--that Gnisci invites contemporary Europe to endorse is the one embedded in the Italian pronoun "noialtri" and of its equivalents in several other European languages ("nous autres," "nos otros"), a symptomatic inscription of a communitarian self that derives its sense of self-identity from the alterity that coexists with it (Noialtri 73). For Gnisci, the model for this paradoxical European identity as a condition of intrinsic plurality and otherness is offered by the general process of metissage and creolization that Edouard Glissant associates with the Caribbean experience and proposes as the cultural paradigm for the world at large in our fin de siecle.
Glissant indeed highlights "un sentiment de derealisation dans l'Europe actuelle, au moment ou elle tente de se faire" (Traite 105) ["a feeling of derealization in today's Europe, the moment Europe attempts to create itself"]. The deligitimation and crisis of Europe in the current fin de siecle are due, according to Glissant, to "la multiplicite des temps et des histoires qui ont surgi du fond du monde et qui se rejoignent enfin" (106) ["the multiplicity of times and histories that have emerged from the bottom of the world and that finally gather"] to challenge the traditional image that Europe has perpetuated of itself as a historical and philosophical absolute, and to undermine its universalizing rhetoric of identity. To the power of territorial and cultural oppression Glissant opposes the non-hierarchical framework of errantry as "la pensee du relatif" (Poetique 32) ["the thought of that which relates" (Poetics 20)], gravitating around no fixed spatial or conceptual center, and shaping an idea of otherness and of the world resulting from the poetical and aesthetic form of knowledge produced by the imaginary. For Glissant, however, "l'imaginaire n'est pas le songe, ni l'evide de l'illusion" (Traite 22) [the imaginary is not a dream, nor a hollowed-out illusion]. Therefore, contrary to the Western poets' dream of the world, which allegedly went hand in hand with the prospective conquest of the world, the non-normative, creative and emotional dimension of global cultural exchanges envisioned by the aesthetics of Relation renders "les illusions de l'exotisme" (178) [the illusions of exoticism] and their leveling effects an anachronism.
Glissant's remarks from the standpoint of Europe's "other" hence suggest a comparison between what he envisages as the "rhetoriques" of our fin de siecle (105)--namely, a dialectical and relational discourse on and by culture that rejects generalizations and assimilations in favor of the open and opaque plurality of a poetics--and the condition of the previous fin de siecle, the turn of that century which saw the rise of Europe as a synonym for the West, modernity, and civilization--when to recognize the "other" as an aesthetic component, in line with Glissant's cross-cultural poetics, in fact mainly meant to aestheticize the "other" to satisfy the self's fantasy of the "elsewhere" as an ideal object that the West previously defined as reality and value (Poetique 145). It is the space between these two polarities that I would like to explore, focusing on the idea of the aesthetic as a form of Western imaginative cultural production not only functional to the understanding and controlling of other cultures, (1) but also as a form of analysis and practice able to interrogate Europe's own past and present cultural identity and cultural politics.
Can the non-hegemonic politics of diversity and the cross-cultural poetics envisioned in the contemporary debate on Europe relate to a late 19th-century European scenario that seems to authenticate so well the common root of "culture" and "colonization," holding on to the self/other opposition so pivotal in the making of the European identity and of its monologue? Can the age of Gobineau and Lombroso, of Loti and D'Annunzio, still speak to the cultural concerns of our own fin de siecle for reasons other than criticism of its obsolescence? Exchanges, intersections, and parallels between the French and Italian contexts can provide poignant answers to those issues. In the two countries--taken individually, but, even more significantly, in their reciprocal dialogue--notable connections emerge between the arguments of anthropology and of decadent aesthetics as two discourses which, in the fin-de-siecle clash of traditional and innovative visions, engage with the status of European culture and of its alterity. What brings together the purportedly objective science of identity and the self-reflexive art of making up? More than an exchange of tropes. Despite the apparently contrasting aims of the two disciplines, a crossfertilization between aesthetic and ethnographic elements occurs, which operates local ruptures of the positivistic framework by undermining the assumption of civilization as material and rational progress. As such, it also initiates that history of the decentered subject and that dislocation of European metaphysics which coincide with the emergence of the problematic of cultural difference within ethnology (Derrida, Ecriture 414). Just as the global notion of culture produced by late 19th-century anthropology (2) begins to put the Western tradition in perspective by relating it to a primitive alter ego portrayed alternatively as retrograde or progressive, the literary debate involving the supporters of decadent aesthetics against its detractors questions culture taken as the equivalent of advanced European civilization by identifying decadence both with extreme modernity and with its antithesis, represented by the "barbarian" or the "savage." Likewise, the purposelessness and lack of instrumental concerns at the roots of the decadent notion of "art for art's sake" lie behind the anthropological construction of an unpractical "savage" life devoted to the cultivation of beauty as the epitome of wastefulness and ephemerality in contrast with a utilitarian modern West.
My aim here is not so much to discuss the intrinsic validity of the arguments produced in those two intellectual contexts. Rather than lingering on the often blatant oversimplification (if not falsification, be it romanticizing or stigmatizing) that governs such cultural characterizations, I would like to interrogate the purposes and the outcomes of this discursive and historical conjuncture that maps a new cultural geography by blending allegedly scientific and imaginary narratives of alterity. As I will try to show, more often than not it is precisely in the gap between the official agenda and the unwitting implications of this relationship across disciplinary and national frontiers that we can find intimations of a new fin-de-siecle European rhetoric, a discourse of and on European culture which, although not yet producing a postidentitarian argument, suggests Europe's need to relativize and decenter itself, so as to "regarder notre propre culture de facon quasi ethnographique" (Penser 203) ["to look at our own culture in an almost ethnographic way"], as Morin would say.
Refashioning Nature: Primitive Fops
The 1905 volume Il tatuaggio by Italian anthropologist Abele De Blasio opens with the following quotation attributed to Theophile Gautier: "L'uomo piu bruto sente che l'ornamento traccia una linea indelebile di demarcazione tra lui e l'animale, e, quando non puo ricamare i propri abiti, si ricama la pelle" (Tatuaggio, front page). (3) The homage that this scientific study pays to one of the exemplary figures of 19th-century European exoticism and aestheticism is anything but negligible. Drawn and translated from Gautier's personal narrative of a trip to Constantinople in which the author stresses his attraction to a sensual and blatantly idealized cultural alterity, the choice of this excerpt results all the more intriguing once related to De Blasio's overall argument on an allegedly "primitive" practice like tattooing, presented as a contemptible rather than fascinating custom. Indeed, De Blasio's argument starts from the premise that the predominance of tattooing among so-called "savages" results from the "stato psichico piu impressionabile, piu infantile" (Tatuaggio 2) ["more impressionable and infantile psychic state"] of that backward stage of civilization, which, in modern societies, finds equivalents in allegedly anomalous individuals like neurotics, eccentrics, insane and criminals.
At the outset of the 20th-century, De Blasio is not alone in endorsing the practice of tattooing as a proof of the supposed degeneration of "primitive" people. Two years earlier, in Chiromanzia e Tatuaggio (1903), Luigi Cerchiari had proudly extolled the progresses of anthropology, thanks to which tattooing "da semplice dilettantismo di una barbara estetica, da strana esplicazione di un'arte primitiva, e divenuto indice della civilta assente, indizio di criminalita, di patologia fisica e morale" (Chiromanzia viii) ["from the simple dilettantism of a barbaric aesthetics, and the strange manifestation of a primitive art, has become the index of the absence of civilization, a sign of criminality, of physical and moral pathology"]. Yet, curiously, it is once again Gautier's quotation that appears in Cerchiari's text to support his discussion (145; 162). What is the effect of this emphasis on the aesthetic aspects of bodily decoration--which had captivated the author of Constantinople for a scientific reasoning according to which tattooing, as the "esplicazione del gusto primitivo" (148) ["manifestation of primitive taste"] and the "primo vestimento dei popoli selvaggi" (148) ["first garment of savage peoples"], demonstrates the connection between "i bruti della societa umana" (148) ["the brutes of human society"], that is, uncivilized populations, and "i selvaggi della societa civile" (148) ["the savages of civilized society"], namely, "i violenti dell'etica, della legge" (148) [the violent according to ethics and law]? A closer look at the dominant discourse on primitive culture by turn-of-the century Italian and French anthropologists--a discourse of which the treatment of tattooing synthesizes the main premises--reveals that the insistence upon embellishment and art in primitive culture suggests something more subtle than the West's overt prejudice against its ethnic and social "other." From a simply negative term of comparison exploited by modern European civilization to reinforce its own superiority and to normalize transgressive social practices within its borders, the alleged "savage" predisposition for decoration takes on a more ambivalent function: it produces an image of the deviant individual--be it the obtuse savage with his depraved tastes or the eccentric modern "brute"--which, from the epitome of degeneration, becomes the model for a potential regeneration of Western modernity precisely through the power of aesthetic activity.
In their endorsement of a scientific research aimed at successfully reinterpreting tattooing from a silly and dated aesthetic taste (Chiromanzia viii) to a meaningful aid towards classification of physical, psychic, and moral abnormalities, anthropologists like De Blasio and Cerchiari recognize the pioneering contribution of Cesare Lombroso's L'uomo delinquente. Far from a simple exotic fashion, the painted skin for Lombroso is the tangible proof of deviance and inferiority, common to modern criminals and primitive populations. Tattooing substantiates the continuity between what for Lombroso are the aberrant aspects of less evolved cultures and the lowest social classes of the modern West (for instance, convicts, prostitutes, soldiers, farmers, sailors) (Uomo 336). Its recurrence in those two groups confirms Lombroso's theory on atavism, accounting for the survival and reproduction of customs that Western civilization thinks it had (and should have) overcome:
Nulla di piu naturale che un'usanza tanto diffusa tra i selvaggi e fra i popoli preistorici, torni a ripullulare in mezzo a quelle classi umane che, come i bassi fondi marini, mantengono la stessa temperatura, ripetono le usanze, le superstizioni, perfino le canzoni dei popoli primitivi, e che hanno comune con questi la stessa violenza delle passioni, la stessa torpida sensibilita, la stessa puerile vanita, il lungo ozio, e, nelle meretrici, la nudita, che sono nei selvaggi i precipui incentivi a quella strana costumanza (375). Nothing is more natural than the fact that a custom so widespread among savages and prehistoric peoples reemerges once again among those human categories which, like shallows, keep the same temperature, repeat the customs, superstitions, and even the chants of primitive people, and which share with the latter the same violent passions, the same dullness, the same childish vanity, prolonged idleness, and, in prostitutes, nakedness. Among savages, these are the main incentives to that strange practice.
Predictably in line with the prevalent anthropological discourse produced by positivism on the "other" both within and outside Western culture, Lombroso establishes a negative parallel between modern civilization and its primitive counterpart, and justifies this connection on the basis of behaviors that privilege emotions, aesthetic criteria, and pleasurable activities over rationality, moral norms, and productivity, and that are hence to be eradicated because contrary to a typical middle-class ethics of functionality and practicality. A significant confirmation of the atavistic assumption as a sign of degradation in modern life and of the role that the aesthetic element plays in such an equation comes from an English article by Lombroso, symptomatically titled "The savage art of tattooing," which foregrounds the pernicious repercussions of such a primitive (hence debased) practice upon purportedly acceptable lifestyles, precisely because of its excessive emphasis on appearance and ornamentation:
I have been told that the fashion of tattooing the arm exists among women of prominence in London society. The taste for this style is not a good indication of the refinement and delicacy of the English ladies: first, it indicates an inferior sensitiveness, for one has to be obtuse to pain to submit to this wholly savage operation without any other object than the gratification of vanity; and it is contrary to progress, for all exaggerations of dress are atavistic ("Savage" 793).
Lombroso's censuring standpoint against the primitive and the aesthetic realms rules beyond its homeland. In Les Tatouages. Etude anthropologique et medico-legale (1881), Alexandre Lacassagne--the main representative of the French school of criminal medicine--endorsing the approach of L'uomo delinquente, treats tattoos as "cicatrices parlantes" (Tatouages 99) ["speaking scars"] which do not simply talk about savage customs in a sort of folkloric way but, above all, disclose precious information "sur la nature des idees morales des tatoues" (98) ["on the nature of the moral ideas of tattooed individuals"], in view of their ultimate medical and judiciary treatment. Indeed, although Lacassagne highlights certain differences between Lombroso's and his own explanation on the origin and development of tattooing, and disapproves of excessive legal measures against that practice, he voices the need to rehabilitate tattooed individuals according to conventional moral norms aimed at distancing civilized people from their debased primitive counterparts. Rather than resorting to mere punishment, "[I]l vaut mieux chercher a elever la dignite morale de l'individu, instruire l'homme, lui montrer qu'il se degrade et s'abaisse en se rapprochant du sauvage" (114) ["It is better to try and elevate the moral dignity of the individual, educate man, showing him that he degrades and abases himself as he emulates the savage"].
Lacassagne's attitude follows in the steps of Paul Horteloup, who, in "Du tatouage" (1870), after depriving tattoos of any aura of nobility and putting them in the service of the "medecin legiste qui saura les interroger avec discretion" ("Tatouage" 449) [medical examiner who will manage to interrogate them with discretion], concludes that, while avoiding penalties, it is necessary to educate individuals and to develop their moral sense, persuading them that "ces dessins cutanes, bons pour des barbares, sont une honte pour un homme libre qui a la conscience de sa dignite" (471) ["those drawings on the skin, good for barbarians, are a shame for a free man who is conscious of his own dignity"]. (4)
While of course unacceptable according to our own scientific and ethical standards, the widespread connotation of tattooing as the mark of pathological diversity in the Italian and French anthropological discourse of the late 19th century turns out to be more interesting for what it reveals not so much in accordance with the positivistic premises--"positif," Comte declares, defines the real and the useful in opposition to the chimerical and the idle (Discours 41)--as against their grain. (5) While fostering the normative reading of the savage and civilized tattooed bodies as texts of moral and physical degeneration, as sources of a confession that is extorted from the skin's speaking scars in order to discipline, punish and--in the best scenario--recuperate the deviant subject, the characterization of the tattooed and allegedly abnormal individual in primitive and modern society also reinforces the connection between aesthetic purposelessness and the ritual behavior of "other" cultures that challenge the codified conduct of the "respectable" Western society with a practice that is considered reprehensible because of its uselessness, excess, and self-reflexivity.
By grasping the sort of aestheticization that characterizes primitive social practices and their modern equivalents--although with the intent to denounce them in their own milieu even when the ennobling effect of tattooing is recognized in the geographical elsewhere (6)--Italian and French positivist anthropologists substantiate precisely the link between a presumably unsophisticated "savage" or "primitive" world and the refined sphere of art--a link that is established on the basis of their common disinterestedness. A policing approach to what is perceived as a transgressive body politics in contrast with the modern principles of material progress hence opens up the possibility of an antagonistic reading, that of physical decoration as an instance of beauty not subdued to moral imperatives or rational truths, and independent of any utilitarian concern other than the pleasure of representation for its own sake and of the wastefulness of energy entailed by the process. It is by following the articulation of this sort of counter-discourse that, as I hope to show, we can appreciate the relationship with decadence's reconfiguration of cultural identity and otherness through the aesthetic.
The erosion of the moralizing and normalizing fin de siecle anthropological discourse from within thanks to the power of the aesthetic as a principle of disinterestedness and lavishness comes to the foreground with a vengeance in Il Bel Paese (1876), a scientific novel written by the Italian scientist and popularizer Antonio Stoppani, who, no less than Lombroso and followers, deplores tattooing as a form of barbarism. (7) Parallel to the horror for the diffusion of this practice among "savages" and for its survival in the society of his time, Stoppani's discussion highlights with equal clarity--although once again just to disapprove of them--the sophistication and the excess which, in fact, justify the analogy between those primitive customs and the expressive forms of fashion and ornamentation in late 19th-century Italian society. On the one hand, indeed, tattooing is for Stoppani "un'operazione crudele del pari che stupida" (Bel Paese 161) ["a cruel as much as stupid operation"], just as the fad of pierced ears so frequent among the Italian women of his time are "certamente un avanzo di altre simili barbare costumanze" (163) ["certainly a residue of other similar barbaric customs"]. On the other hand, the copious details in his description of body art demonstrate the appeal that both primitive and modern adornment exerts upon the author. Among non-Western populations, "si fa sfoggio di tatuaggio, come da noi di stoffe, di merletti, e di pettinature" (163-64) ["people sport their tattoos as we do in our country with fabrics, laces, and hairstyles"]. Hence, for instance "[g]li uomini delle isole Radach (Oceania), in luogo di provvedersi il panciotto, se lo incidono addosso [...]: un bel panciotto a due petti, con occhielli, bottonatura e ricami, cui la pelle serve ad un tempo di stoffa e di soppanno" (162) ["the men of the Radack Islands (Oceania), instead of getting a vest, prefer to engrave one on themselves: a nice, double-breasted, embroidered vest, with buttonholes and buttons, for which the skin works at once as fabric and as lining"]. The most striking evidence of the continuity between primitive tattooing and advanced forms of aesthetic practices comes from the natives of New Zealand, "il cui corpo e tutto istoriato di geroglifici, di figure simboliche, tutto rabescato a guisa di uno sciallo di cachemire, o di una di quelle sedie di pelle damascata [... ]. Il volto specialmente e adorno di incisioni, collo spreco che si addice a un frontespizio di una edizione di lusso" (163) ["whose bodies are all historiated with hieroglyphs and symbolic images, full of arabesques like a cashmere shawl or one of those damask chairs [...]. Their faces, in particular, are all decorated with engravings, with the wastefulness that characterizes the front page of a luxury volume"].
Despite Stoppani's avowed revulsion for such a transformation of the human figure, (8) in the analogy between the engraved skin and the extravagant front page of a luxury volume the tattooed primitive body emerges explicitly as the equivalent of an aesthetic object, and, in particular, as a text to be deciphered, hence as the unequivocal locus of symbolization, of a codified manipulation that renders the skin discourse. (9) Stoppani's argument hence foreshadows the prevailing interpretation of tattooing soon to emerge with the new century, that of a sign of cultural consciousness, decreeing the shift from the physical body to the social body by marking the individual's awareness of himself as a social being through an act of representation. (10) The tattooed face in Stoppani's example, however, is not simply any form of representation. The richly decorated skin emerges, specifically, as an instance of lavishness, superfluity and elitism through the reference to the wastefulness and the preciousness of the text to which it is compared, as well as to the correlation between the abundance of ornaments and the individual's "nobilta e [...] potenza" (Bel Paese 163) ["nobility and (...) power"]. These features do not simply invalidate the idea of the body as an expression of the natural by reconfiguring it as a cultural artifact. They also turn the body into an agent and an object of aestheticization with a rhetoric that is more attuned to Levi-Strauss's enraptured description of the mysterious hieroglyphs and the baroque arabesques on the Caduveos' bodies than to the purported disgust in Stoppani's official reasoning. Levi-Strauss's sad fascination in Tristes Tropiques for a spectacular ethnic otherness endangered by the decline of cultural diversity resulting from Western expansion is the flip side of Stoppani's alleged shock for the excessive and self-reflexive display of creative energy at stake in the tattooed body as luxury and wasteful text. Yet at both these extremes, be it intentionally or unwittingly, the aestheticized ethnographic "other" works as Europe's object of desire precisely because it is posited as distant--irremediably on the verge of loss for Levi-Strauss, and separated from European culture for Stoppani as a protection from a sort of dangerous yet tempting return of a repressed alter ego.
In the oscillation between, on the one hand, an official condemnation of primitive aesthetic expenditure haunting the productive European body as a destabilizing revenant and, on the other, the mourning for a native display of ornamental sumptuousness elegiacally portrayed in its extinction, a middle ground is offered by Paolo Mantegazza, for whom the refashioning of nature along the lines of art as a process of sheer expenditure--exemplified by the tattoo--constitutes a viable cultural model able to question the hegemony of European materialism and moralism. Whereas in his travelogue Rio de la Plata e Tenerife he dismisses tattooing as "una delle piu singolari offese che abbia fatto l'uomo alla sua pelle" (Rio 536) ["one of man's most singular offenses against his own skin"], in his lecture notes collected in Lezioni di antropologia he reveals a certain curiosity for the aesthetic underpinnings of tattoos by adopting the term "dandy" (Lezioni I, 430) to portray a native of the Fiji Islands whose face is completely covered with ostentatious decorations. Mantegazza here associates the indigenous tattoo not simply with the generic realm of art, but more subtly with its most aestheticizing, self-referential, and non-instrumental manifestations, (11) insofar as the motif of dandyism applied to the characterization of the savage's ornament blends the extreme artifice represented by art and the alleged lack of sophistication in primitive customs. The native as dandy hence invalidates the antithesis of nature and culture, pointing at what modernist anthropology will describe as the originary complexity of social practices, erasing the distinction between different levels of cultural evolution.
Yet if, as Bourdieu claims, the body is the materialization of class taste (Distinction 210), Mantegazza's argument on corporal decoration reconfigures the natural and the primitive through the civilizing function of art not only as an enfranchisement from savagery (a synonym for the animal state, as in the quote from Gautier's Constantinople), but also as a means of distinction within the cultural realm, that is, as a sign able to elevate the individual from the behaviors and values of the mass. By recognizing the centrality of aesthetic activity in the definition of the human being--"l'uomo si e ornato prima di essersi vestito" (Lezioni II, 751) ["man decorated himself before wearing clothes"]--Mantegazza recodifies the social history of mankind by assimilating different races and levels of civilization, with the intent of transcending the cultural stereotypes of his age. Hence, no less than alleged primitive people, we Europeans are also "instancabili fabbricatori di feticci" (895) ["indefatigable makers of fetishes"]. Likewise, an examination of female ornaments demonstrates for Mantegazza that "selvaggi e regine ariane vanno d'accordo" (756) ["savages and Arian queens get along well"]. At times, despite the numerous intolerant claims on so-called savage races in his writings, Mantegazza even inverts the hierarchy between primitive and more advanced civilizations. He questions the moral superiority of modern Western man, who is for him more cruel and less justifiable than the native (545-6; 552-53), and betrays a certain complacency towards the absence of inhibition, the lack of calculation, and the propensity to expenditure in the savage, who, contrary to the speculating and falsely puritan bourgeois individual, "ama senza previdenza e senza pensare a Malthus" (864) [loves without foresight and without thinking of Malthus].
As a metonymy for a non-instrumental and elitist aesthetic realm, the savage-dandy that attracts the anthropologist's curiosity thus provides an alternative lifestyle simultaneously simpler and more creative, hence symbolically richer than a stultifying Western mass culture ruled by material concerns. Upon these premises, Mantegazza devises a veritable "etnografia del bello" (Lezioni I, 313) ["ethnography of the beautiful"] that is simultaneously a sort of hypothetical moral atlas of all those cultures on which beauty confers the investiture of superiority:
Il bello e e sara sempre piu alto di tutte le vette umane, perche abbraccia il vero e anche il buono. [...] I popoli che piu o meglio degli altri lo hanno adorato, precedettero a tutti nella strada del progresso, furono gli antesignani della civilta, e anche stanchi formeranno l'aristocrazia della vasta moltitudine delle creature umane (Estasi 306). [The beautiful is and will always be higher than any human summit, because it encompasses the true and also the good. [...] The peoples who adored it more or better than the others surpassed everybody else on the road to progress; they were the precursors of civilization, and, even if exhausted, will constitute the aristocracy of the vast multitude of human creatures].
The anthropologists' insistence (for diverse goals, as we have seen) upon the "savage"'s attention to corporal ornamentation as the sign of enculturation promoted by the purposelessness of the aesthetic acquires further significance if connected to the rising sensitivity in the literary milieu for a parallel between the primitive temper and aesthetic inclination as prerequisites for an authentic civilizing process. In Le Peintre de la vie moderne, for instance, Charles Baudelaire delineates a sort of originary human complexity that situates the "noblesse primitive de l'ame humaine" (Oeuvres 810) ["primitive nobility of the human soul" (Painter 32)] in art as a redeemer of the natural. While not avoiding the typical cliche of his time, which assimilates the primitive man's early evolutionary stage to a child-like condition, Baudelaire also questions the Western, progress-oriented prejudice that tends to deny aesthetic consciousness to allegedly less developed civilizations:
Les races que notre civilisation, confuse et pervertie, traite volontiers de sauvages, avec un orgueil et une fatuite tout a fait risibles, comprennent, aussi bien que l'enfant, la haute spiritualite de la toilette. Le sauvage et le baby temoignent, par leur aspiration naive vers le brillant, vers les plumages barioles, les etoffes chatoyantes, vers la majeste superlative des formes artificielles, de leur degout pour le reel, et prouvent ainsi, a leur insu, l'immaterialite de leur ame (810). [Those races which our confused and perverted civilization is pleased to treat as savage, with an altogether ludicrous pride and complacency, understand, just as the child understands, the lofty spiritual significance of the toilet. In their naif adoration of what is brilliant--many-coloured feathers, iridescent fabrics, the incomparable majesty of artificial forms--the baby and the savage bear witness to their disgust of the real, and thus give proof, without knowing it, of the immateriality of their soul (Painter 32)].
Therefore, if "[t]out ce qui est beau et noble est le resultat de la raison et du calcul" (810) ["Everything beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation" (Painter 32) ], this does not mean for Baudelaire to celebrate rational and material speculation but, rather, to claim that the self-consciousness and sophistication of art promote a cultural manipulation of the natural. In line with Mantegazza's standpoint, art here emerges as a symbolic activity which, at any level of human evolution and in any cultural context, turns the individual from a brute into a noble being by inscribing specific values in his life, namely, beauty, disinterestedness, and a penchant for the superfluous as opposed to what is perceived as necessary and practical. The fact that these are the principles of an aestheticist and decadent conception of art may surprise less in the case of a literary figure like Baudelaire, who is considered the initiator of decadence, than in the case of an anthropologist like Mantegazza. Yet, in fact, with Mantegazza European scientific thought brings to the foreground and endorses what many fin-de-siecle anthropologists, as we have seen, end up substantiating in a negative way. While according to the ethics of his brutally positive age (I, 127) the highest level of cultural progress needs to be legitimized by the truth of men who measure and weigh and who are obsessed by the question "E utile? A quoi bon?" (II, 633) [Is is useful? For what purpose?], Mantegazza's own cultural vision is unquestionably closer to Gautier's belief that "des qu'une chose devient utile, elle cesse d'etre belle" (Poesies xi) ["once a thing becomes useful, it is no longer beautiful"], or to Baudelaire's confession "Etre un homme utile m'a paru toujours quelque chose de bien hideux" (Oeuvres 407) ["Usefulness to the community has always seemed to me a most hideous thing in a man" (My Heart 178)]. Indeed, the authentically civilized individual for Mantegazza is and must be naturally inclined to pleasure and purposeless beauty, and animated by a self-reflexive morality according to which "la vita sia lo scopo della vita" (II, 580) ["life must be the aim of life"].
Upon these premises, the anthropologist's native as fop and the decadent fop as native, as we will see, hence become two facets of the same image representing an ethics of resistance to the instrumentality of the modern West, in favor of another kind of modernity, paradoxically informed by its primitive cultural counterpart, and coinciding with the production and consumption of an evanescent beauty.
The Savage Mind of Decadence
In their arraignment against the "stupid" and "savage" practice of tattooing, Lombroso and Cerchiari explicitly indict "la moda, questa tiranna dei costumi" (Chiromanzia 169) [fashion, the tyrant of costumes] for contaminating modern society with traces of primitive practices by making traditions and tastes mutable and transitory. Yet in the aesthetic discourse of the fin de siecle, fashion best embodies the essence of modernity, paradoxically by reproducing the very characteristics that the anthropologists ascribe to primitive customs. Indeed, the ephemerality and the vanity that allegedly defines the tattooed native's penchant for personal embellishment become central to the modern concept of beauty.
Fashion is precisely the phenomenon that allows Baudelaire to theorize the historicity of the beautiful, that is, an idea of modernity founded upon the aesthetic experience of transience, against the notion of a unique and absolute beauty. As emerges from the first chapter of Le Peintre de la vie moderne--"Le Beau, la Mode et le Bonheur"--happiness is inseparable from the fleeting nature of contemporary beauty. In his "Salon de 1846," Baudelaire had already underlined the relativity of the concept of beauty, observing that "tous les siecles et tous les peuples ont eu leur beaute, nous avons inevitablement la notre" (oeuvres 687) ["every age and every people have had their own form of beauty, we inevitably have ours" (Selected 104)]. However, in Le Peintre de la vie moderne this relativity is more explicitly linked to evanescence. There existed "une modernite pour chaque peintre ancien" (797) ["Every old master has had his own modernity" (Painter 13)], yet precisely because modernity corresponds to "le transitoire, le fugitif, le contingent" (797) ["the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent" (Painter 13)], the aesthetic canons of those artists, just like the garments in their paintings, are by now passes, old-fashioned. The painter of modern life pursues "la beaute passagere, fugace, de la vie presente" (815) ["the fugitive, fleeting beauty of present-day life" (Painter 40)], jubilating in front of novelty and of its intrinsic ephemerality. (12) Baudelaire's endorsement of modernity as a self-annihilating present that inscribes in beauty the fleeting nature of fashion does not only challenge the positivist anthropologist's condemnation of fads as responsible for the disgusting return of savage customs. In addition to reevaluating what the West officially deplores in the primitive world, it also provides the basis for a reconsideration of the relationships between modernity and decadence, and for a reappraisal of decadence's contribution to the fin de siecle discourse on cultural diversity against the hegemony of Western mass monoculture.
Baudelaire's connection between modernity and decadence emerges very well from Gabriele D'Annunzio's article on Felicien Rops, where the French painter is extolled for his "modernita profonda" (Pagine 37) ["profound modernity"] which brings him spiritually close to Baudelaire. "I fiori della sua arte sono fiori del male, fiori che sorgono nutriti dalla putredine della vita contemporanea. Egli e uno di quelli che si chiamano decadenti e che amano e studiano la decadenza e vogliono nella decadenza rimanere" (37) ["the flowers of his art are flowers of evil, flowers that blossom nourished by the rottenness of contemporary life. He is one of those called decadents, who love and study decadence, and want to remain in decadence"]. Invalidating the equation of decadence and crisis, Rops embodies decadent pleasure by luxuriating in transience: "co 'I suo bulino illustra i baci e le carezze, mirabilmente" (37) [with his burin he represents kisses and caresses, wonderfully] while a crucified hetaera announces that "I tempi sono prossimi" (37) [the end is approaching]. Through the example of Rops's aesthetic creation on the verge of annihilation, D'Annunzio reconfigures decadence as the enthusiastic expression of temporality, welcoming it, rather than condemning it, as the aesthetic manifestation of a modernity marked by intrinsic aging. In his argument we can already find the premises of Italian philosopher Gianni Carchia's interpretation of decadence as the "struttura estetica del moderno" ("Estetica" 63) ["aesthetic structure of the modern"], displaying the "caducita del nuovo" (63) ["transience of the new"]. The new of modernity is "cio che scorre via, cio che nasce per svanire, cio che e posto per esser tolto" (62) [that which slips by, that which is born to vanish, that which is laid down to be taken away]. It is precisely in the "tra-passare effimero del nuovo" (63) ["ephemeral trespassing of the new"] that--according to Carchia--modernity manifests itself as &cadence in terms of anticipation of death.
Far from the equivalent of decay as illness or exhaustion, the formulation of decadence as mortality endorses an ephemeral and transient present, which opposes the principles of instrumentality, self-preservation and unlimited growth thrusting technical-scientific progress. Yet, I argue, decadence challenges the advancement of rational speculation not so much through an ascetic negation of the world a la Schopenhauer (which is what Carchia claims), as through a fullness of life pleasurably squandered for its own evanescence. It hence makes the dissipation of beauty inseparable from the beauty of dissipation, inaugurating what I define as an aesthetics of temporality founded upon the irrational expenditure of sensations for their own sake. Against the speculative and instrumental logic of the society of its time, decadence conceives of aesthetic creation as a transitory, purposeless, hence superior, activity. (13) Significantly, in this cult of a perishable beauty aimed at challenging material preoccupations we find the very premises underlying the practice of tattooing as the epitome of the native's way of life in many fin de siecle Italian and French anthropological accounts, namely, as we have seen, the idea of aesthetic activity as an unproductive and wasteful occupation in contrast with the prevailing values of a utility-oriented modern West.
Yet the connection between the discourse that decadent aesthetics produces on itself and the anthropological discussion of primitive culture becomes even more meaningful insofar as it is precisely the motif of an ambivalent cultural and ethnographic otherness that shapes the debate engaging the supporters and the detractors of &cadence. If for the anthropologists the savage-dandy embodies the alternatively degenerate or idealized alter ego of the utilitarian and practical Western culture, likewise decadence, with its cult of refinement and sophistication par excellence, locates itself at the apex of the civilization of its time but simultaneously negates its forms and values by defining itself through what is perceived as its opposite, namely, the uncouth and uncultured barbarian, belonging to the wider semantic field that, in the fin de siecle cultural discourse, encompasses the alterity of the natural, the primitive and the savage alike. Just as the aesthetic element within the anthropological discourse undermines (deliberately or unwittingly) the ideology of material progress, the anthropological paradigm contributes in its turn to the development of the decadent conception of art as a ritual practice at once more sophisticated and more "primitive" than the activities of modern society, and represented, no less than "savage" or "barbarian" customs, as a degrading extreme or as a regenerating alternative to a fin-de-siecle Europe perceived at the climax of rational progress as much as at the end of civilization.
As James Clifford claims, "[t]wentieth-century identities no longer presuppose continuous cultures or traditions" (Predicament 14) but, rather, delineate a "more ambiguous and historically complex" (16) scenario in which the loss of "certain orders of diversity" (16) coexists with the reinvention and revival of other cultural heritages. In the French and Italian fin de siecle, decadence already draws the premises of a hybrid and subversive form of cultural representation delegitimizing the "single progressive or entropic metanarrative" (17) of mass monoculture. The ethnographic alterity that decadence incorporates in its own ambivalent self-definition problematizes the uniformity of culture strictly perceived as a synonym for advanced civilization. (14) Indeed, the "barbarian" motif works not simply as a negative paradigm to question the alleged superiority of Western modernity, but also as the epitome of creativity and innovation.
Baudelaire himself exhibits the vitality of this condition associating it with the "other" of Western culture. The graceless "barbare du Nord" (CEuvres 952) ["Northern barbarian"] kneeling in front of Roman beauty has for him primitive charm and grace because he uses words in a new fashion. The marvelous language of Latin decadence can most appropriately express the passion of modern poetry precisely thanks to "le solecisme et le barbarisme" (952) [solecism and barbarism]. Le Peintre de la vie moderne further clarifies the misunderstanding according to which barbarousness in art allegedly corresponds to nothing more than "quelques dessins informes" (CEuvres 799) ["defective drawings" (Painter 15). Barbarism is, rather, "un art parfait" (799) ["a perfected art" (Painter 15) like Mexican and Egyptian art, deriving from the "besoin de voir les choses grandement >> (799) ["need to see things broadly" (Painter 15)], and it will shake up contemporary aesthetics, paralyzed "dans la confusion des decadences" (800) ["in such a slough of decadence" (Painter 17). Baudelaire here assimilates decadence to automatism of perception, and locates in barbarism the source of innovative energy par excellence. Not accidentally, confronted with the exhilarating variety of ideas and sensations generated by the cosmopolitan scenario of the 1855 Universal Exhibition, Baudelaire had already relativized aesthetic criteria and cultural hierarchies underlying that "tout peuple est academique en jugeant les autres, tout peuple est barbare quand il est juge" (CEuvres 723) ["every people is academic in judging others, every people is barbaric when being judged" (Selected 116)]. Hence, an obsessive admiration of technical progress--steam, electricity, or gas lighting--not only offers an illusory sense of superiority to the Western civilization of his time, but in fact appears to Baudelaire as "le diagnostic d'une decadence deja trop visible" (725) ["the symptom of an already too obvious decadence" (Selected 121)]. By contrast, it is the love of beauty and the rejection of technical and material advancement that deserve to be extolled as reinvigorating principles.
More subtly, however, what emerges from an analysis of the cultural question in the fin de siecle is the fact that the paradigm of ethnographic difference is adopted as a contrastive category both by decadence and by its detractors, according to their respective (and predictably divergent) objectives. Just as in the anthropological discourse the image of "primitive" people represents both the debased and the regenerating counterpart of modern society--as the discussion on tattooing well exemplifies--, the relationship between decadence and barbarism lends itself to a double standard, depending on the perspective from which it is viewed. For the apostles of the bourgeoisie and of the aesthetic and moral orthodoxy, the decadents deserve the epithet of "barbarians" for their transgressive art and way of life. At the same time, however, it is precisely the bourgeoisie's alleged lack of aesthetic sense, and its vulgar cult of materiality and acquisitiveness that result "barbaric" in the decadent frame of mind. While Verlaine, posing as "l'empire a la fin de la decadence" (CEuvres 370) ["the Empire at the end of decadence"], watches "les grands Barbares blancs" (370) ["the great white Barbarians"], Anatole Baju in L'Ecole decadente bridges the gap between a refined but inactive European culture and the violence of primitive roughness by recoding the two conditions and blurring their boundaries. It is naturalism that, for Baju, embodies barbarism in its most degrading underpinning, namely, the cultural mirror of an abject mass without ideals, responsible for the current state of decadence (Richard, Mouvement 24). At the same time, however, the decadent adepts of his literary movement will fight the stagnation of the cultural establishment with a renewed primitive energy. Ultimately, the very characteristics attributed respectively to decadence and to barbarism turn out to be interchangeable and often indistinguishable, with the effect of relativizing and problematizing these aesthetic and cultural categories. For instance, Joris-Karl Huysmans's A Rebours--symptomatically praised by Arthur Symons for its "barbaric" style ("Decadent" 234)--celebrates not only refinement against primitive crudeness and the vulgarity of the natural, but also sophistication as savagery--Salome "plus raffinee et plus sauvage" (A Rebours 148) ["more refined and yet more savage" (Against 145)], Goya's "verve sauvage" (A Rebours 203) ["savage vigour" (Against 196)], the natural maneuvers of the South Seas primitive people, "le cadre barbare et splendide" (A Rebours 298) ["magnificent and barbaric frame" (Against 291)] of Flaubert's works, or "le gout barbare et charmant" (A Rebours 124-25) ["the barbarous, fascinating taste" (Against 123)] of Gothic jewelry. Likewise, Mallarme extols the "ruisseau primitif" (CEuvres 211) ["primitive stream"] of Wagner's music for be stowing a singular happiness, "neuf et barbare" (211) ["new and barbarous"].
Even more explicitly, Maurice Barres in Sous l'oeil des Barbares transcends a mere overturning of the features and values underlying the dichotomy of decadence and barbarism. Against a facile assimilation of "barbares" to "philistins" or "bourgeois" (Culte 16), the novel highlights the radical otherness of the barbarian and its oppositional force. Recuperating what for him is the Greek sense of "barbarians" as simple strangers, alien to Greek culture independently of their degree of civilization, Barres refashions that dichotomy associating barbarism with all that is "non-Moi" (17) ["not I"], positing a hindrance to the free development of the self. As it strategically upholds Barres's theory of the "Culte du Moi," this argument also exposes an inevitable alterity at the roots of identity. The "double verite" (17) ["double truth"] which for Barres contributes to the definition of identity foregrounds the arbitrariness with which certain traits and values are attributed to decadence and barbarism according to the cultural and political aims they are expected to support in each particular context.
As is also confirmed by the Italian cultural and aesthetic discourse, we are hence confronted with the same kind of duplicity emerging from the anthropological discussion of the tattooed savage as Janus-like figure: the cultural "other" is either invested with the nobility of the rehabilitating model or marked with the inscription of moral and aesthetic debasement, in line with the specific agenda at stake. An eloquent Italian example is offered by the argument that Vittorio Pica--the leading promoter of French culture in turn-of-the-century Italy--adopts to attack the Italian resistance to decadent aesthetics, the allegedly dangerous and contemptible lad that crossed the Alps from France to threaten verismo. On the one hand, decadent art for Pica is made by neither madmen nor fools but rather by real artists who manifest an "ultra-eccezionale ed ultra-aristocratica" ("Arte aristocratica" 191) ["ultraexceptional and ultra-aristocratic"] aesthetic predisposition. Their aversion to all that is vulgar and commonplace results from a hypersensitivity that is typical of the "civilta estrema, inclinante fortemente alla decadenza, di alcune grandi citta moderne" ("Arte aristocratica" 244) ["extreme civilization of some big modern cities, strongly inclining towards decadence"]. On the other hand, however, their apparent state of apathy seems to confirm the "degenerazione di una razza" (Letteratura, 42) ["degeneration of a race"]. Pica hence challenges the distinction between the static refinement of the decadents and the healthy cult of progress. In his discussion of Mallarme, for instance, he denounces the vulgarity of his time as a false appearance of civilization and celebrates the "felicita barbara e nuova" (134) ["new and barbarous happiness"] that Wagner' s performance stirs in the audience. As he recognizes the superiority of Mallarme and of his followers, Pica attacks the narrowmindedness of the mass that ridicules and boycotts aesthetic innovation, hence implying that it is the extended society and its official culture that are uncivilized. The quote by Vigny that he chooses to substantiate this point underlines even more explicitly the tendentious use of the concept of barbarism to condemn an allegedly disquieting novelty: to those lazy minds who always love to hear what they heard the day before, "tout ce qui est nouveau [...] semble ridicule, tout ce qui est inusite barbare" (139) ["all that is new [...] seems ridicule, all that is unusual barbarous"]. The argument in favor of the vigorous ingenuity of decadence and, simultaneously, the awareness of the relational value of barbarism and civilization culminate with Pica's essay on Maurice Barres. In addition to recognizing the French author's pivotal function in the affirmation of decadence, here Pica subtly grasps the role that the figure of the barbarian plays in Barres's works, namely, as was observed earlier, that of an "other" devoid of any apriori connotation--an "other" deploying its alterity contextually, in antithesis to the realization of the self (154).
To be sure, more reactionary approaches to the connection between the idea of &cadence and of its primitive alter ego gain ground in fin-de-siecle Italy, especially in conjunction with the nation's aspiration to a political and moral rebirth deemed possible not so much by a barbarian horde as by an elitist oligarchy able to restore an allegedly superior form of civilization. At the same time, however, it is once again an ambivalent and relative notion of barbarism that animates the project of Carducci's Odi Barbare, aimed at contrasting what the author perceives as the decadence of post-unification Italian culture. By retrieving the meters and the rhythm of ancient Greek and Latin poetry Carducci intends to infuse a sort of primordial purity and power into Italian culture. Yet, despite the supposed nobility and regenerative force of this literary model, the remoteness of classical prosody from contemporary poetic standards would make those odes sound "barbaric," that is, rough, to a Latin audience.
The conceptual duplicity of decadence and barbarism, and their complex interconnectedness find even more poignant examples in D'Annunzio's works, where they alternatively connote vulgarity and primitive vigor, as we can infer from Le Vergini delle Rocce. On the one hand, the "vento di barbarie" (Vergini 57) ["gust of barbarity"] thrashing Rome sweeps away beauty and imagination to promote the exclusive exercise of useful activities. On the other hand, however, the "antiche forze barbare" (37) ["ancient barbarous energies"] that are still alive in the protagonist's soul are precisely the reserve of energy that should allow him to transcend the debasement of his age and to reinstate the intellectual and political authority worthy of his lineage. Once again, we are not far from Baju's aesthetic project, directed against a decadence of which his art was accused, and which in fact he perceives as the distinctive trait of the society he opposes.
Borrowing from Mallarme's Edgar Poe, we could hence claim that the decadents aspire to give "un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu" (CEuvres 71) ["a purer sense to the words of the tribe"], that is, they entrust to the disinterestedness and ephemerality of art in order to transcend the mass's aesthetic and ethical mediocrity provocatively described as "tribal" in the derogatory sense of "uncultured." However, they pursue their objective precisely by resorting to that very tribal condition, which they recodify as a synonym for a more originary, authentic, and nobler state. While recent reevaluations of decadence see its undermining of conventional borders as a political gesture (Constable et al. 25), not enough attention has been paid to the implications of the decadent discourse for cultural politics in particular. In fact, however, if paradox is the trope that best characterizes the decadent rhetoric (Riffaterre in Constable ed. 66), the disconcerting polarity it creates between representation and its subsequent falsification also works as a strategy of cultural delegitimation. Indeed, in line with the paradoxical mode, the discourse that decadence produces on itself in relation toits cultural climate can be said to re-present the scenario of late 19th-century European civilization in such a way that modernity conceived in terms of progress and rationality appears simultaneously as that savage state which Baudrillard in our more recent fin de siecle associates with Western materialism (Amerique 97). This erasure of boundaries between opposites does not collapse differences to turn culture into an entropic metanarrative (Predicament 16-17). Rather, it reconfigures culture as an intrinsically hybrid form, as the locus of a tug of war between emergence and homogenization, loss and invention (Predicament 17), against the presumption of teleology and wholeness. Through the anthropological paradigm, decadence interrogates the status of culture with the tools of cultural consciousness, occupying that perpetually displaced position which alone, according to James Clifford, can respond to overlapping cultural traditions: "offcenteredness in a world of distinct meaning systems, a state of being in culture while looking at culture" (9). Speaking its savage mind, decadence does not only engage the fin de siecle European milieu in a dialogue with a different "other," but also obliges it to recognize culture as a perpetual condition of in-betweenness, entailing a dialectical confrontation with its own discontinuity.
Epilogue and Epigones
Does the fin de siecle defeat the alliance of culture and colonization? What does its cultural politics say to the more recent turn of the century and of the millennium, an equally transitional moment where, as Homi Bhabha claims, "space and time cross to produce complex figures of difference and identity, [...] inclusion and exclusion" (Location 1) beyond singular "conceptual and organizational categories" (1)?
From the repulsive and immoral tattooed savage-dandy to the redemptive wasteful native and the noble barbarian--harbingers of artistic health as an antidote to Western modern utilitarianism--, the engagement with cultural diversity in the Franco-Italian fin de siecle may be indicted for wavering between a stigmatization of alterity and its exotic idealization, two extremes in which the "other" inside or outside modern European culture remains instrumental to a certain Western agenda.
In many ways, the voyage of late 19th-century anthropology and decadent aesthetics towards ethnographic alterity can be said to culminate in a fictional encounter, founded not so much upon authentic intercultural relationships as upon those "artistic nostalgias" which Pica emblematically acknowledges in his writings on Japan, in the exotic footsteps of Loti and Bonnetain. As a fascinating--because unreal--cultural "other," Japan is the favorite land of Pica's poetic reveries, set against a pathetic and vulgar real Orient, sadly Westernized by ruthless European market mechanisms. For Pica, therefore, despite the apparent intercultural sensitivity in his essays on decadence, it is far better not to encounter this "other" culture he allegedly yearns for, precisely to avoid the risk of directly recognizing to what extent a bleak and speculative European modernity has inexorably degraded the delicacy and the artistic splendor of that "singolare ed incantevole [...] paese di sogno" ("Arte aristocratica" 229) ["singular and enchanting [...] dream country"]:
Chissa se il tanto desiato viaggio in Giappone non mi procurerebbe una dolorosa delusione? Non sappiamo forse che la prodigiosa arte giapponese da circa cinquant'anni si e trasformata in una speculativa produzione di oggetti adatti ai bisogni prosaici degli europei e di assai discutibile buon gusto e di nessuna originalita? E Loti e Bonnetain non ci hanno forse descritta la recente e peccaminosa smania dei Giapponesi, uomini e donne, di abbandonare le loro splendide vesti multicolori per i nostri tristi abiti europei, che li rendono grotteschi? (231) (15) [Who knows whether the journey to Japan I so much longed for would not bring me a painful disappointment? Do we not know that the extraordinary Japanese art of fifty years ago has turned into a speculative production of objects suitable to the prosaic needs of Europeans, of very questionable taste and with no originality? And have Loti and Bonnetain not described to us the recent and sinful yearning of the Japanese, men and women alike, to abandon their magnificent colorful garments for our dull European clothes, which make them look grotesque?]
This exotic representation of cultural alterity (be it primitive or sophisticated or both at once), so exemplary of the Western poets' dream of the world according to Glissant, may hence be said to reproduce a cultural politics conforming to the rhetoric of what Mary Louise Pratt has defined as "anti-conquest," namely, "strategies of representation whereby European bourgeois subjects seek to secure their innocence in the same moment as they assert European hegemony" (Imperial 7).
However, in the European construction of a cultural "other" as an ambivalent mirror for a rehabilitating and simultaneously indicting self-image so pervasive in the anthropological and aesthetic discourse of the French and Italian fin de siecle we can also begin to see further implications of this blatantly idealized approach. What can be dismissed as a fantasy of otherness can also play the more constructive role that Victor Segalen in those very years ascribes to exoticism, namely, that of producing "la notion du different; la perception du Divers; la connaissance que quelque chose n'est pas soi-meme" (Essai 36) ["the notion of difference; the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one's self" (Essay 19)]. In other words, the power of aesthetic judgment does not only create a space for cultural domination but also fosters an imaginative and intellectual freedom that suggests other perspectives.
Precisely "le pouvoir de concevoir autre" (Essai 36) ["the ability to conceive otherwise" (Essay 19)]--as Segalen observes--against the cultural essentialism of an alienated European modernity that had wiped out diversity with its all-encompassing speculative preoccupations will make savages and barbarians come back in the intellectual discourse of the new century as repositories of symbolic capital against Europe's capitalistic hegemony and the European cultural identity as capital discourse (Derrida, Autre 34). The creative effervescence of Durkheim's totemic communities, Mauss's gift-economy, and Bataille's notion of depense well testify to a return to archaic and primitive culture as guarantors of nobler impulses like "la joie a donner en public; le plaisir de la depense artistique genereuse; celui de l'hospitalite et de la fete privee et publique" (Mauss Sociologie 263) ["the joy of giving in public, the delight in generous artistic expenditure, the pleasure of hospitality and of the public or private feast" (Gift 67. Translation slightly modified)]. These practices confer to the modern profit-oriented individual the prestige of barbarous chiefs precisely because they presuppose less prosaic ethical principles than the "froide raison du marchand, du banquier et du capitaliste" (270) ["the cold reasoning of the business man, banker or capitalist" (Gift 73)].
At the outset of the twentieth century, what remains of the ambivalent ethnographic "other" inside and outside late nineteenth-century European culture is its positive, redeeming facet, the one which is able to show the modern West that its morals can become a supreme art if rechanneled towards lavishness through practices and institutions in which the aesthetic side is central (Mauss, Sociologie 279; 274). The premises of this modernist primitive impulse that appeals to sumptuary expenditure as an aesthetic and ethical regenerating principle against a rational and acquisitive modern Europe can be found precisely where the fin-de-siecle anthropological and decadent discourses on cultural alterity intersect. It is here, as we have seen, that we can perceive the gradual formation of a two-directional relationship according to which beauty is considered a form of unproductive wastefulness, and wastefulness, in its turn, a form of beauty.
At the same time, however, this pioneering disciplinary crossover also provides an internal critique of Europe's project of self-redemption through non-Western models. By laying bare--unwittingly or intentionally--the intrinsic duplicity of the savage and barbarian "other" in and out of European culture, the anthropological and decadent discourses of the Franco-Italian fin de siecle do not only begin to destabilize the triumphant idea of monolithic culture in the singular, but also unmask the idealization of what Vattimo presents as "il fantasma del primitivo puro" (Fine 167) ["the phantom of the purely 'primitive'" (End 158)] constructed by Europe as the repository of values lost by the West. By obliging European culture to face the relativity that undoes the possibility of an authentic encounter with radical "otherness," the fin de siecle already underscores the aporias tainting the dream of innocence of its own modernist epigones.
Before Marinetti's anticipation of Italy's greatness thanks to the Futurists' role as "barbari raffinatissimi, ma virilissimi" (Teoria 548) ["very refined but very virile barbarians"], Bontempelli's project to "tornar primitivi," (Avventura 188) [become primitive again] through art's new myths, or his avowed adhesion to Fascism as to "un franco primitivismo politico" (188) ["a frank political primitivism"], the fin de siecle already shows that the primitive marks that the new century will attempt to reinscribe in its own Western modernity are simultaneously the scars with which Eurocentered hegemony disfigures non-Western cultural paradigms as it appropriates them for an invigorating reconfiguration of itself. If all late nineteenth-century Europe contributed to the making of Conrad's Kurtz (Heart 50) (the most poignant metaphor for an alienated European subject that attempts to reconcile itself with its own essence by suppressing cultural otherness), in this same context we also find a self-conscious and illusion-breaking standpoint that obliges Europe to confront the ambivalence of its own narrative authority as well as of its object of representation. This discursive strategy can be considered a first instance of Europe's decolonization from its own homogenizing principles, a move towards a self-refashioning and a transcultural condition in which the power of aesthetic and ethnographic representation does not merely serve material and ideological possession but also begins to foster a "mixed, relational, and inventive" identity (Predicament 10).
This seemingly happy ending does not intend to close the chapter on the demise of Europe's monogenealogy and monologue. The dualism that still informs the overall cultural discussion in the intellectual context here examined is still far from Morin's European ideal of unitas multiplex, the cultural diversity without hierarchies of Gnisci's "noialtri," or the global creolization of Glissant's poetics of Relation. If we can conclude that the late nineteenth-century generates a critique inside the European culture that produced the cultural instruments, it could be objected that--to borrow Derrida's words--this is a "difference a soi qui reste avec elle-meme" (Autre cap 30) ["difference to itself that remains with itself" (Other 25)], still allowing Europe to define and cultivate itself through what is most proper to it, namely, the idea of an advanced point of exemplarity. But cultures, as also Bhabha reminds us, are "never unitary in themselves, nor simply dualistic in the relation of Self to Other" (Location 36). That which has to be considered--and which is often missing in the European cultural politics of the previous fin de siecle, when, as Glissant remarks, the relativization of History did not entail acceptance of the peoples' histories (Traite 106)--is the Third Space of the "act of cultural enunciation" (Location 36) that informs any cultural performance, underscoring its "discursive embeddedness" (36) and its "cultural positionality" (36).
In order for the new Europe to advance toward what it is not, to produce a culture of oneself as a culture of the other (Derrida, Autre 16), it has to recreate itself as that contradictory and ambivalent Third Space beyond polarities, the locus of an "inter," of cultural meaning as negotiation, translation, reappropriation, not only beyond national borders but also beyond "the exoticism of multiculturalism" (Bhabha, Location 38). Of the need for this relocation and dislocation of European culture, and of the pivotal role of aesthetic representation in this incomplete project we can catch a glimpse in a passage by the contemporary Italian writer Claudio Magris, with which, we might argue, the new European discourse of self-alienation for the articulation of cultural difference joins the Caribbean discourse. If for Glissant "La nation n'est pas separation; c'est un mode de la relation, non alienee, a l'autre, qui ainsi devient autrui" (Discours 462) ["The nation is not based on exclusion; it is a form of disalienated relationship with the other, who in this way becomes our fellow man" (Caribbean 250)], for Magris
Le linee di frontiera sono anche linee che attraversano e tagliano un corpo, lo segnano come cicatrici o corne rughe, dividono qualcuno non solo dal suo vicino ma anche da se stesso [...]. La frontiera e duplice, ambigua; talora e un ponte per incontrare l'altro, talora una barriera per respingerlo. Spesso e l'ossessione di situare qualcuno o qualcosa dall'altra parte; la letteratura, fra le altre cose, e pure un viaggio alla ricerca di sfatare questo mito dell'altra parte, per comprendere che ognuno si trova ora di qua ora di la--che ognuno, corne in un mistero medievale, e l'Altro. (Utopia 52) Borders are also lines that traverse and dissect a body, that mark a body like scars, that divide somebody not only from one's neighbor but also from oneself [...]. The border is twofold, ambiguous; sometimes it is a bridge to meet the other, sometimes a barrier to reject the other. Often it is the obsession of situating somebody or something on the other side; literature, among other things, is also a voyage striving to debunk this myth of the other side, to understand that anybody is sometimes on this side and sometimes on the other--that anybody, as in a medieval mystery, is the Other.
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* An abridged version of this article, titled "Othering Europe: the primitive marks of fin de siecle culture," was presented at Brown University on March 3, 2004.
** Unless otherwise stated, all English translations are my own.
(1.) Here I am referring to Timothy Reiss's treatment of "fictive imagination" as an exemplification of his own notion of "cultural instruments," that is, normative cultural productions through which the West has not only approached and analyzed other cultures but also exerted its hegemony over them (Against autonomy 2-3).
(2.) The 19th-century reference text for this extended, ethnographic conception of culture beyond the humanistic association of "culture" and "cultivation" is Edward B. Tylor's Primitive Culture (1871), where culture is defined as "that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and other capabilities and habits" (Primitive I, 1), and which links "the civilization of lower tribes" (I, 1) to that of "the higher nations" (I, 1).
(3.) L'homme le plus brut sent d'une maniere instinctive que l'ornement trace une ligne infranchissable de demarcation entre lui et l'animal ; et, quand il ne peut pas broder ses habits, il brode sa peau>> (Gautier, Oeuvres, VII, 107). [The brutest individual instinctively feels that ornamentation draws an untrespassable line of demarcation between himself and the animal; and when he cannot embroider his own clothes, he embroiders his skin]. Special thanks to Professors Paolo Tortonese and Serge Moussa for helping me locate the source of Gautier's quotation. Unless otherwise stated, English translations are my own.
(4.) Two other important representatives of the French medico-legal school, Ambroise Tardieu and Erneste Berchon, while not formulating explicitly moral verdicts on tattooing, mainly linger on this practice for its contribution to the medical study of human beings, as a mark facilitating "la reconnaissance de certains individus" (Tardieu "etude" 206) ["the identification of certain individuals"]. Berchon admits that, because of their diverse patterns and <<languages>>, tattoos are more meaningful than scars or generic skin marks; yet he automatically ranks tattooing among the "mauvaises habitudes" (Histoire 62) ["bad habits], due to <<un moment d'oisivete, d'oubli ou de debauche>> (64) [a moment of idleness, forgetfulness or debauchery], and underscores above all its life-threatening dangers.
(5.) Although several contemporary studies on tattooing mention Lombroso's theories and other contributions of his time (for instance, Gell, Wrapping 11-14; Sullivan, Tattooed 23-24; Caplan, Written 158-59), their prevailing aim is to highlight the aberrant aspects of those discussions, and the criminological or medical standpoint they share. No attention is devoted to the role that aesthetic elements play in that framework despite the anthropologists' avowed purposes, or to their wider implications for Lombroso's century and beyond. For his part, Leschiutta hints at the modernity of the usage of the tattooed body against the control imposed by positivist taxonomies and the productivity required by capitalism, but does not elaborate on those observations, other than to claim that Lombroso is not interested in the usage of the body as an expressive means ("Pergamene" 132; 134).
(6.) For instance, the "genuine disgust" and "horror" ("Savage" 803) that Lombroso feels for the "atavistic and savage" (803) residues that have contaminated the hearts of tattooed individuals coexist with the recognition of the true aesthetic value of tattoos in certain tribes (802). Similarly, although Cerchiari vehemently condemns what for him is the depraved and invincible taste of abnormal and barbarian individuals (Chiromanzia 149), he also concedes that, for instance, in Polynesia tattooing is "una vera arte e i tatuatori non dissimilmente dagli artisti europei sono divisi in iscuole" (225) la veritable art, and tattooers, not unlike European artists, are divided into schools]. Lacassagne, after acknowledging Darwin's insistence upon embellishment among so-called savages (Tatouages 73), endorses the idea of tattooing as ornament, relating it to an innate human propensity for symbolism and fetishism (88). For its part, Berchon's article "Le tatouage aux iles Marquises" equates the tattoo to "un signe de distinction ou de noblesse" (99) [a sign of distinction or of nobility] inscribed in those remote populations, although, significantly, when it comes to modern Western civilization, the same practice is treated only as a reservoir of scientific data useful to hygiene and prophylaxis. Likewise, tattooing for Cerchiari is a mark of "dignita e di onore" (Chiromanzia 166) [dignity and honor], yet this is not sufficient to alter his verdict on modern tattooing, which simply likens "gli anormali ai selvaggi" (171) [abnormal people to savages].
(7.) Conceived as a scientific novel, Stoppani's work is characterized by a higher level of literariness than the non-fictional writings discussed so far, and plays a narrative and popularizing function that does not seem to have much in common with the more rigorous informative role officially declared by anthropological works. Despite this genre discrepancy, however, Stoppani's vision and rhetoric are in fact not very different from those of many allegedly scientific texts of the same period.
(8.) "Si direbbe che quei cannibali abbiano voluto spegnere, colla deformita del viso, quel raggio divino che pur sempre traspare dal volto dell'uomo, perche solo vi apparisse l'avvilimento di questa povera umanita colpevole, inselvatichita, degradata al livello delle belve feroci" (Bel Paese 162). ["One could argue that those cannibals, with the deformity of their faces, wanted to extinguish that divine ray which usually glows on the human face, so as to display only the degradation of these poor, guilty, wild beings, degraded to the level of untamed beasts"].
(9.) As a confirmation of how the cliches on tattoos migrate across textual genres and purposes, Stoppani's analogy between the tattooed body and the novel also appears in an article by Mutius who in his turn refers to the findings of Giglioli, who saw an individual "sulla cui pelle svolgevansi tutte le peripezie di un romanzo, o gli eventi notevoli di qualche leggenda popolare" ("Curiosita" 787) [on whose skin all the vicissitudes of a novel were displayed, or the remarkable events of some popular legend]. By assimilating inscriptions on the skin to an explicitly verbal form and not only to an iconographic symbol, Stoppani already grasps what Mauss, among others, will take for granted, namely, the fact that the tattoo is a primitive form of writing (Manuel 99). Lombroso also refers to tattoo as to "il geroglifico del selvaggio" (Uomo, vol. I, 347) [the savage's hieroglyph], although, once again, he is not interested in analyzing the cultural implications of this alleged symbolic activity. For a more recent discussion of the semiotic value of tattooed skin as a frontier between nature and culture see Maertens, Dessein.
(10.) For instance Emile Durkheim will depict tattooing as a particular form of symbol that incarnates collective feeling : "Quand des hommes de culture inferieure sont associes dans une vie commune, ils sont souvent amenes, comme par une tendance instinctive, a se peindre ou a se graver sur le corps des images qui rappellent cette communaute d'existence" (Formes 406) ["When men of an inferior culture are associated in a common life, they are frequently led, by an instinctive tendency, as it were, to paint or cut upon the body, images that bear witness to their common existence" (Elementary 264)]. Although Durkheim's claim about supposedly "inferior" cultures does not eliminate completely the hierarchical perspective adopted by his predecessors with a slant in favor of the modern West, it is significant that, according to Durkheim, the communitarian dimension is generated by a sort of emblem considered "en dehors de tout calcul et de toute reflexion" (Formes 406) ["without reflection or calculation" (Elementary 264)], and analyzed in its cultural significance independently of value judgments on its motivations. For his part, Marcel Mauss will also interpret the tattoo as a body technique producing a human symbol "de grade ou de naissance" (Manuel 97) [of rank or of birth], and Claude Levi-Strauss, discussing the corporal paintings among the Caduveos, will highlight the sociological function they play by conferring human dignity through the passage "de la nature a la culture, de l'animal 'stupide' a l'homme civilise" (201) [from nature to culture, from the stupid animal to the civilized individual].
(11.) Mantegazza's choice of the term "dandy" is not isolated, and, perhaps, not even original, insofar as the same connotation was already adopted, for instance, by John Lubbock, one of Mantegazza's reference points. In The Origins of Civilization, after having emphasized the absence of practical concerns in the culture of the savage--who undergoes the inconvenience of clumsy ornaments just "for the sake of appearance" (43), and who follows only his personal taste in the choice of motifs for tattooing--Lubbock reinforces his perception of the primitive passion for bodily decoration as a clearly defined aesthetic consciousness by borrowing in his turn the term "dandy" from another scholar to connote a primitive individual with a particularly gaudy look: "Schweinfurth describes a dandy, belonging to the Dinkas, a negro tribe of the Soudan, whose hair was dyed red, and trained up into points like tongues of flame, standing stiffly up, all round his head" (53). Although Lubbock no less than his Italian and French counterparts continues to uphold the primacy of the modern West, his insistence on the absence of speculation and on the mainly aestheticizing attitude of primitive man suggest a curiosity that goes beyond his avowed cultural vision.
(12.) Baudelaire's reflection hence significantly revises the position of Giacomo Leopardi, who had already identified the philosophical discovery of modernity with the end of the time of immortality, hence with a condition in which "Moda" (Operette 34) [Fashion] and "Morte" (34) [Death], both born of "Caducita" [Transience] (35), work together to "disfare e [...] rimutare di continuo le cose di quaggiu" (35) [undo and [...] constantly change earthly things]. Where Leopardi expresses disenchantment vis-a-vis the temporality of the new, Baudelaire manifests a euphoria that brings him closer to Georg Simmel's discussion of fashion. Borrowing Simmel's words, it could be argued that fashion constitutes for Baudelaire "a new element of attraction" (Individuality 302) precisely because it is "a simultaneous beginning and end" (302), combining "the charm of novelty" (302) with "that of transitoriness" (302).
(13.) A more detailed discussion of decadent beauty in terms of expenditure of sensations, with wider aesthetic and anthropological implications for the European fin-de-siecle and for the modernist cultural context can be round in Pireddu, Antropologi.
(14.) Therefore, the transience and the complicity between old and new that shape the concept of decadence do not in fact turn decadence into a passive victim of the tragedy of history--as Renato Poggioli defined it--which, as the highest representative of civilization at its peak, chooses to open the gates of the city to its barbarian destroyers ("Qualis" 138). Beyond the persisting interpretation of the fin de siecle as the locus of an inveterate strife between the alleged crisis of Western civilization and the supposed nemesis of culture, embodied by the uncouth and strong barbarian, decadence should rather be seen as a meeting point and a synergy of contrasting impulses--exhaustion and renewal, degeneration and regeneration--hence welding together the apex of civilization and the destructive force of the barbaric spirit as two articulations of a single condition of cultural diversity.
This interpretation mirrors what has also been observed about the state of culture in our more recent European fin de siecle. Morin, for instance, opposes the idea of the end of European history and civilization, and rather delineates "l'ere barbare des idees" (Penser 198) [the barbarian age of ideas] as a dialectical condition in which "discours catastrophique" (216) [catastrophic discourse] and "discours euphorique" (216) [euphoric discourse] coexist. Likewise, for Vattimo, the alleged end of history as a teleological construct inaugurates the new human experience of hermeneutics as a constant process of reinterpretation based upon the ambiguity and the reciprocal contamination of newness and sameness. For a discussion of the coexistence of barbarism and modernity in the late 19th century as well as in the most recent fin de siecle see Mestrovic, Barbarian. For an overview of the complexity of the fin de siecle state of mind see Weber, France; Townshend, "Fin de siecle", Alexander, Fin de siecle.
(15.) Pica's regret for the destruction of an aesthetically refined "other" culture by the ruthlessness and coarseness of a profit-oriented Europe is curiously specular to Mutius's remarks on the difficult survival of the art of tattooing: "Oggi (...) la dove il commercio con gli europei e piu attivo, l'uso del tatuaggio tende a diminuire; ed e curioso che il contatto con gli europei va mano a mano distruggendo l'antica eleganza dei disegni" (Mutius 788) [Today [...] wherever trading with the Europeans is more active, the practice of tattooing tends to decrease; and it is curious that contact with the Europeans is progressively destroying the ancient elegance of their patterns].
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|Publication:||The Romanic Review|
|Date:||May 1, 2006|
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