We have an early form of aestheticism to thank for the rise of religionby Andy Martin / August 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
In January 1857, at a trial in Paris, the prosecuting counsel shot himself in the foot. He made a stronger case for the defence than did the defence. The defendant was not so much an alleged perpetrator as a book. The book in question was Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The book was accused, by virtue of its depiction of adultery, of being an offence to society, to morals, and to religion. It was liable to encourage adultery among wives (the depiction of husbands’ adultery did not seem to pose a similar threat to French civilisation). So much was clear. But there was a point that the prosecutor, almost despite himself, kept returning to: the book was “beautiful.” He kept quoting passages from the text and lauding their style, even if the content was deemed to be illegal and obscene.
Madame Bovary and Flaubert were acquitted. Found innocent on account of beauty. Style, henceforth, was officially deemed to outweigh and eclipsemere information about what sometimes goes on in horse drawn-carriages with their curtains closed driving around Rouen and elsewhere. In the same year, Charles Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal was not quite so fortunate and its poems, specifically about lesbians (the original title of the collection was, after all, Les lesbiennes), were banned, thus ensuring their popularity. But the Parnassian movement that grew up around the same time, represented by poets such as Théophile Gautier and Leconte de Lisle, and encapsulated in the resonant phrase, “L’art pour l’art” (which would be taken up by figures as disparate as the art critic Walter Pater, the painter James Whistler and Oscar Wilde), was not exclusively poetic. Or rather, it could be said that prose also became poetic, or became capable of being understood in terms of its form rather than its functionality. Naturalism (the neo-realist literary movement nominally represented by Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant) morphed into a mystic reverence for purity (as exemplified by Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé).
In 1859 Charles Darwin published his On The Origin of Species. The public prosecutor in Paris, who—gloriously—would himself go on to publish a volume of obscene poems, had presumably given up trying to prohibit books that constituted an offence to religion. But Darwin’s work, which we can now understand as a primordial form of structuralism, offered to do away…