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Symbolism And The Unconscious

Symbolism was part of a wider cultural trend in which the order, clarity, and hierarchy that had long been associated with traditional academic art were replaced by modes of representation that focused instead on experimentation with representational form and an emphasis on individual sensibility. In this sense, symbolism is connected to Impressionism in painting and naturalism in literature. In fact, many symbolist artists emerged from this naturalist milieu. Unlike naturalism, however, symbolism emphasizes the sensuous suggestiveness of language and form and the tendency of this suggestiveness to solicit individual interpretations from viewers and readers. Because symbolism suggested rather than instructing or describing, and because its subjects were so often themselves dreamlike, it seemed to open the door to a proliferation of fantasies in its audience. Thus the symbolist project was part of broader challenges to the notion of the autonomous human subject—a male subject for whom thought and representation had the potential to be transparent. When the boundaries of this traditional male subject position were opened up, many consequences, both aesthetic and political, followed.

The symbolist movement was one element in a general reconceptualization of human subjectivity that took place just as the existence of the unconscious mind was being imagined by psychologists and sociologists. One salient example of this theorization of the unconscious and the consequent questioning of the nature of subjectivity is to be found in the popular fascination with hysteria, hypnosis, and "suggestion." The power of suggestion was thought to be especially strong when the subject had a weak or nervous personality (for example, children, primitives, and women). There was much debate over whether "normal" men with strong personalities were also subject to the suggestion of others. In 1891, Alfred Fouillee summed up the consequences of recent psychological discoveries, saying "contemporary psychology has wrested from us the illusion of a bounded, impenetrable, and absolutely autonomous ego (p. 811). The discovery of the unconscious led to the possibility that human beings were not truly in control of their thoughts and actions. Works of art were deemed to have the potential to open their audiences to a suggestibility analogous to the state of hypnosis. Thus, paradoxically, the symbolist rejection of material reality in favor of the world of dream took shape at approximately the same time empirical science was confirming the importance of fantasy in daily life.

Conservative critics such as Ferdinand Brunetière in France or Max Nordau in Germany worried that symbolist work, with its incantatory echoing sounds and forms and its refusal to point readers or viewers to clear edifying messages, might encourage a loss of control not only in the artists who produced it but in the audiences who experienced it. Brunetière believed the aesthetic experience should serve as an edifying point of focus for the reasoning mind. He charged that the "empty forms" and "hollow rattling words" of symbolism would "dissolve the unity of the self in a diversity of successive states … give it over to the wandering voluptuousness of dream," which would lead to "the glorification of egoism" rather than the betterment of society (Shaw, p. 192). Nordau's book Degeneration described symbolism as a symptom of a general decline in Western civilization. Yet the very qualities that critics such as Nordau abhorred were the things that made symbolism a turning point in the arts. Symbolism opened new aesthetic possibilities of experimentation and abstraction and created space for alternative subject positions. It created the possibility, that is to say, for many of the wide range of avant-garde movements that followed in the early twentieth century.



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Jennifer L. Shaw

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