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Mystics and Libertines

Renée Faubion,

Course Description

The second half of the nineteenth century is often said to have been dominated by Realism. It is certainly the case that Realism and its grim cousin, Naturalism, were extremely popular at this time. Nearly simultaneously, however, a cluster of artists and thinkers—the Aesthetes, the Decadents, and the Symbolists—flatly rejected Realism; they found it bland, and (rather perversely) even unrealistic. Oscar Wilde is perhaps the best-known among these opponents of Realism. Significantly, Wilde is known today as much for his personality as for his writing—not surprising, given that one of the core concerns of this collection of artists was the process of self-construction.

In fact, although the Aesthetes, Decadents, and Symbolists were sometimes dismissed as crackpots and hedonists preoccupied with pleasure and surface, their work was actually conceptually rich. They contemplated beauty and its relationship to death and decay; they considered the nature of time—how should we understand the impact of a second?—pondered the self as an artistic creation, and reflected on the links between the sensual and the spiritual. The range of their work is exceptional; it includes the morbid beauty of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, his meditations on identity in his landmark essay on the Dandy, and the mysticism of Russians such as Mikhail Vrubel and Andrei Bely, along with Wilde’s witty, wicked stories, plays, and essays. Both playfully irreverent and deadly serious, the work of these artists and thinkers remains influential today, helping to shape our sense of beauty, of reality, and even of identity.

Readings and Texts

Charles Baudelaire, selections from Fleurs du mal 
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray 
Oscar Wilde, Salomé 
Aleksandr Blok, selected poems 
Andrei Bely, Petersburg 
Marcel Proust, Swann in Love (found in Swann’s Way) 

Students will also read a selection of essays from Wilde, Baudelaire, Bergson, Nietzsche, and a collection of other writers, as well as viewing paintings by Vrubel, Whistler, Rops, Gustav Moreau, and others

Student Requirements

A formal presentation providing an interdisciplinary analysis of a text (literary or philosophical) or a work of art from the Aesthetes or Decadents; a short essay accompanying the presentation; a research project; careful preparation and thoughtful and consistent engagement in class discussion.

About the Instructor

After receiving degrees in Russian from Trinity University and the University of Kansas, Renée Faubion earned a second M.A. and a Ph.D. in English at UNM. She has published work on Tim O'Brien and on H.D. and has won four awards for excellence in teaching.