Immortality through Art: The Evolution of a Decadent Theme in Four Novels within and beyond the Fin de Siècle

Abstract: Abstract Stajic Löfgren, Tia. Immortality through Art: The Evolution of a Decadent Theme in Four Novels within and beyond the Fin de Siècle. University of Gothenburg: Department of Languages and Literatures, 2012. This study traces the development of the immortality-through-art theme in four novels published between the fin de siècle and the 1960s: Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) and Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). While previous studies have focused on related matters such as the death theme, and, to some extent, the influence of fin de siècle aesthetics in these novels, they have not dealt with the immortality-through-art theme. As I demonstrate, the four novels in my study in various ways explore the proposition associated with decadent aesthetics that art can confer immortality. I argue that while Wilde’s novel depicts the use of art as a substitute for life and a prospect of immortality, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, and, primarily, The Crying of Lot 49 progressively question the role of art as a substitute. They also increasingly acknowledge death as an existential human condi-tion. My approach builds on Ernest Becker’s theory of the denial of mortality, which derives from the work of Freud. According to Becker, while in classical periods art and love were ideal and non-carnal and hence could potentially be employed as immortality strategies, these creative strategies are destined to fail in the secularized modern age. Asserted in the face of seriously weakened transcendence, the fin de siècle appropriation of art as a compensation for mortality is belated, but develops in its later versions into a greater acceptance of human predicament. This development is manifest in the chronological sequence of the four novels examined, from 1891 to 1966. Key words: decadence in literature, immortality-through-art theme, secularization, art, mortality, love.

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