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Mario Praz. The Romantic Agony. New York: Oxford University Press, 1933. xxiv + 457 pp.
Reviewed by Janine C. Hartman (Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Ideas (August, 2000)
Hartman on Praz’s The Romantic Agony
Note: This review is part of the H-Ideas Retrospective Reviews series. This series reviews books published during the twentieth century which have been deemed to be among the most important contributions to the field of
intellectual history.
In 1933 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.
ers’ obsessions, maps to nightmare. The lineages of
the artist’s vision, sensation, isolation and suffering so
beloved of writers like Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Charles
Baudelaire, Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert and many less
known stretch back through this thematic sampler into
the Gothic, Samuel Richardson’s novels of the female
menaced, and Irish translations of German ghost stories.
Such “outsider” archetypes as the damned poet, vampire,
and detective became familiar nineteenth century characters. They were given particular definition and exposure through the new mass market of serial novels in
newspapers and magazines, as well as opera and program
music. The preoccupation with intensity, concentrated
knowledge or feeling, whether transcendence or damnation, is omnipresent. The Romantics invoke it with Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Wagner, celebrate with hallucinatory language like Charles Baudelaire’s Fleurs du mal,
lapidary diversions like Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales or
Theophile Gautier’s Emaux et Camees.
Stylized, elegant alienation from life combined with
artistic engagement to produce the solitary hero, the poet
or dandy, the devouring woman, the writer as anatomist.
Sade’s fantasies of domination and extreme stimula- By the 1850’s these roles existed as life stages for certain
tion, set in isolated castles and peopled by masters, vic- talented male (and occasionally) female bourgeois writtims, and fatal women were the forbidden literature of ers, who commoditized their imaginative explorations of
the nineteenth century middle class, and, with Shake- bohemia, a dramatized Middle Ages, the Orient (real and
speare, the chief inspiration for English and French ro- embellished) and pharmaceutical alternative consciousmantic writers. These texts are windows upon writ- ness. The middle class that made the Industrial Revo-
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lution and new urban civilization also spawned its most
earnest critics, and their reading public. Generations of
new writers from Keats to Wilde to D’Annunzio lived
,and wrote on the extremities of sensuality, drama, and
the supernatural for the vicarious excitement of an increasingly trammeled bourgeois public.
ety bemused by technology driven change lost emotional
certainty in political and religious forms. It expressed
these anxieties through Romantic sensibility and a desire to measure and mirror political decadence in cultural
mediums, and new rituals and religions; the cult of taste,
religion as picaresque, the poet as legislator, transcendence solely as personal gratification. Praz pioneered
The overly refined, time-weary writer becomes a
this particular geistgeschichte taking up in 1933 where
cliche by the time Anatole Baju founds “Le Decadent” and Gautier had left off. The appetite for intensity, its satBritish sophomores treasure yellowbacked French novels isfaction, and purchase, continued into a twentieth and
as “Baedekers of vice.” J.K.Huysmans’ A Rebours, taken twenty first century.
as a guide for aspiring aesthetes, is a series of catalogues
on interiors, possessions, poses, for “off the shelf” origiNineteenth century Europe’s neurasthenia vanished
nality. Walter Pater’s Marius The Epicurean performs the in World War I. It returned in Weimar and Italy, with the
same function for the English. In both cases, possessions literary generation depicted in Martin Green’s Children
signify personality and a nice deployment of language of the Sun. Some excellent studies of romanticism mining
and surfaces substitutes for the examined life.
Praz’s critical vein include Jacques Barzun’s Classic, Romantic, Modern; H. G. Schenk’s The Mind of the European
Praz’s broad reading organized and analyzed most Romantics, M. H. Abrams’ The Milk of Paradise, Althea
images, tropes and experiences defined as romantic or Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Ellen Modecadent by contemporary practitioners and their eneers’ The Dandy, Morse Peckham’s The Triumph of Romies. In particular the themes he harvested from litmanticism, Paul Zweig’s The Heresy of Self-Love, Roger L.
erature had great currency in nineteenth century the- Williams’ The Horror of Life, and Walter Kendrick’s The
ater, and extraordinary play in painting, twentieth cen- Secret Museum: Pornography in Modern Culture. The list
tury cinema and popular culture. An historian seeking could extend much further.
sources for Gustave Moreau’s Salome, Irma Vepp, Hugo’s
Esmeralda, or Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula should
Reissued in the 1950s and 1970, Praz’s book influbegin here. Scholars of the horror or supernatural genre enced important investigations into cultural despair, hiswill find the basis for Poe’s Roderick Usher and Anne torical pessimism, Sade, gay and lesbian studies, womRice’s Vampire Lestat, as well as every hopeful shock ens’ studies, Orientalism, the Gothic, criminal and drug
and upgraded Oscar Wildeism present on Gothic web- pathologies, music, the occult, symbolism, aesthetic
sites and television familiar to their undergraduates. This Catholicism and suicide. Art historians, literary histolandscape also produced the basis for much of Hugh Ken- rians, social historians, and students of urban mentalner’s Dublin’s Joyce, marrying the aesthetic to the Vic- ite build upon Praz’s watershed study whenever they attorian heroic investigator, an adventurer into the para- tempt to chart the modern personality and its culture’s
normal most recently incarnated in The X-Files, according homage to fear, passion, and beauty. Oxford University
to the Paris daily “Le Monde”. The individual confronts Press might consider reprinting it for the next generathe world, life, sensation, and acts or rejects, he believes, tion of “Men in Black” just discovering “spleen, ideals,
always on his own terms. The reader, whether follow- and sympathetic horror.”
ing Balzac’s poets, or Don Delillo’s rock star in Ten Jones
Copyright (c) 2000 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This
Street, is immersing himself in a print virtual reality and
work may be copied for non-profit educational use if
a zeitgeist peculiar to an alienated, leisured, urban class.
proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other
A cosmopolitan and increasingly self-conscious soci- permission, please contact [email protected]
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Citation: Janine C. Hartman. Review of Praz, Mario, The Romantic Agony. H-Ideas, H-Net Reviews. August, 2000.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=4423
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