Félix Fénéon (1861-1944) was a key figure in the cultural and intellectual life of the Belle Époque: a big influence, a discriminating critic and judge, a networker—and also uncommonly discreet. An authority, and reticent. Well known and unknown. Scary, and mild. “Doux,” Valéry observed, “et impitoyable.”
This seminar will study the last thirty years or so of the 19th century from his perspective.
In the 1880’s when he was in his twenties, he had his hand in the lively proliferation of small avant-garde reviews that characterized the symbolist period in France. He introduced Verlaine in La Vogue, for example, and it was there that he published the first edition—his own—of Rimbaud’s Illuminations. A year earlier, in1885, Mallarmé, having published nothing for over six years, gave him “Prose (pour des Esseintes)” for the Revue indépendante, and then “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui.” Fénéon contributed his own regular columns on new books and art exhibits to these journals and to several others; a little later, at the start of the 90s, he wrote about painting for anarchist journals like Le Père peinard. His favorites were “unexpected” young poets and painters: symbolists like Laforgue, post-impresionnist painters like Seurat and Signac. But his friendship with Mallarmé was deep.
After he lost his day job at the Ministry of War on account of his arrest and trial for anarchist activities, he was hired by the Revue blanche—cultural and intellectual headquarters of the period. It stood out, at a time when social critique was common in Parisian periodicals, for its regular publication of artists and intellectuals outspokenly unwilling to separate culture from politics. Fénéon remained its indispensable editorial secretary until it ceased publication in 1903. He published texts there by Moréas, Laforgue, Jarry, Apollinaire, Léon Blum; he got Debussy to contribute a regular column, and persuaded his colleagues to publish several “Divagations” by Mallarmé. He was friends with the painters closely linked to the Revue: Vuillard, Bonnard, Vallotton… He initiated reportages, notably on the Paris Commune, and on the “lois scélérates” (legal assaults on freedom of speech and of the press passed by the National Assembly at the height of the anarchist scare in 1893-94.
So, he is a kind of hub, for late 19th century culture and politics. This seminar will take his commitments, activities and style as a context for the study of individual writers (Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Verlaine, Laforgue), more general developments (the “crisis in verse,” pointillism in painting; the heightened importance of journalism; fashion; decorative arts); problems or questions regarding the relations between art and politics, high culture and labor. Primary materials will include texts by Mallarmé and other, younger poets (perhaps especially Mallarmé, though), and by Fénéon himself. Secondary materials will include critical essays by Rancière, Lacoue-Labarthe, J.-Cl. Milner, B. Marchal, as well as writing on Fénéon by Joan Halperin and Jean Paulhan. If possible, material from art books and catalogues will be made available.