Mario Praz’s book, The Romantic Agony was published in 1933. I happen to think that my psychedelic Jagger image is just as appropriate to a discussion of it as the 16th century paintings that grace the cover of my Oxford paperpack edition. Probably more so, though Mario would have probably vomited at the thought of Jagger on the cover of his book.
The book, is discussed in this article at a “wiki site” (something I don’t understand too well) that seems to be presided over by the blogger Jahsonic, an affable fellow who shares many interests of anyone interested in this post.
In the text, Praz delves in great detail into the morbid sexual imagery that infuses much of romantic literature during the 19th century. The book contains lengthy excerpts – often in French – has a fantastic index, and a table of contents worth browsing in its own right. Starting pre-romance, with the Shadow of the Divine Marquis, he sets the stage for what will come in his discussion of authors down to the time of the Symbolists and Decadents, and D’Annunzio.
I learned of this book from another, Dreamers of Decadence, by Phillipe Julien, a study of the art of the late 19th century Symbolists. At the time I read these books, I was about sixteen years old, which tells you something about where my head was at. I later kicked myself for not developing a syndicate to buy up art of this period, considered kitsch and dreck in the early 70s, but which I, in a rare bit of financial acuity, knew would soar in value soon. And so it did! Every style has its day, and a second day, and another…With the hippies of the 60s growing up, abstract expressionism and modernism was bound to go out and the overheated sensibilities of the decadents would find buyers again. Thus, we come to Mick Jagger again, the watered down Satan of rock ‘n’ roll.
Praz’s book is of a type that doesn’t get written much these days, I think. I loved the scholarly apparatus of the notes, the clear sense that a scholar was at work here, one who knew his field, and could show the evidence for his point of view. So much love for the texts – he is not a critical vivisectionist, though he has his opinions!
Yes, I spent many happy hours searching for the juicy parts, reading them over and over, imagining their effect on certain attractive young women I fancied. I even read passages to one of them, during a romantic evening a deux. I think it was the passage in which Swineburne compared his passion to rats gnawing on a corpse…you never know what will grab a girl, do you?
Finally, I must quote Praz on the Divine Marquis:
Let us give Sade his due, as having been the first to expose, in all its crudity, the mechanism of homo sensualis, let us even assign him a place of honour as a psychopathologist and admit his influence on a whole century of literature; but courage (to give a nobler name to what most people would call shamelessness) does not suffice to give originality to a thought, nor does the hurried jotting down of all the cruel fantasies which obsess the mind suffice to give a work mastery of style…The most elementary qualities of a writer – let us not say, of a writer of genius – are lacking in Sade.
Such wonderful good sense! Such a sure grasp of values! Much as I love the surrealists, I always found their championing of Sade a little tiresome. The fact is, Sade is boring! He is not a fine writer. People who regard any discussion of sex or perversion as thrilling may find him congenial, but he really only has three or four things to say, and he says them at length, over and over. (Philosophy in the Bedroom is his only piece that I can recall as having a sustained and interesting argument. And he is arguing, always…) Would that this quotation by Praz were repeated everytime a new book, film, or play comes out with Sade as the misunderstood poete maudit.
They say that if you will sup with the devil, bring a long spoon. Praz could have broken bread with Satan himself, with no fear for his soul.