Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas
Decadence and Other Essays on the Culture of Ideas is a collection of essays by the novelist, poet, and literary critic Remy de Gourmont. An uncompromising free-thinker, his analytical intelligence is brought to bear on an wide range of topics: the cornerstone of his literary criticism, “The Disassociation of Ideas” is included here along with “Glory and the Idea of Immortality”, “Success and the Idea of Beauty”, “The Value of Education”, “Stéphane Mallarmé and the Idea of Decadence”, and more.
“As you read M. de Gourmont’s work it is not any particular phrase, poem, or essay that holds you, so much as a continuing sense of intelligence, of a limpid, active intelligence in the mind of the writer.... He stirs the ‘sense of the imagination,’ the reader is pervaded by luxurious rest, and then when the mind is most open, de Gourmont darts in with his acumen, a thrust, an incisive or revolutionary idea, spoken so softly.”
- The Disassociation of Ideas
- Glory and the Idea of Immortality
- Success and the Idea of Beauty
- The Value of Education
- Women and Language
- Stéphane Mallarmé and the Idea of Decadence
- On Style or Writing
- Subconscious Creation
- The Roots of Idealism
The Disassociation of Ideas
There are two ways of thinking. One can either accept current ideas and associations of ideas, just as they are, or else undertake, on his own account, new associations or, what is rarer, original disassociations. The intelligence capable of such efforts is, more or less, according to the degree, or according to the abundance and variety of its other gifts, a creative intelligence. It is a question either of inventing new relations between old ideas, old images, or of separating old ideas, old images united by tradition, of considering them one by one, free to work them over and arrange an infinite number of new couples which a fresh operation will disunite once more, and so on till new ties, always fragile and doubtful, are formed.
In the realm of facts and of experience such operations would necessarily be limited by the resistance of matter and the uncompromising character of physical laws. In the purely intellectual domain they are subject to logic; but logic itself being an intellectual fabric, its indulgence is almost unlimited. In truth, the association and the disassociation of ideas (or of images, for the idea is merely a worn-out image) pursue a winding course which it is impossible to determine, and whose general direction, even, it is difficult to follow. There are no ideas so remote, no images so ill-assorted, that an easy habit of association cannot bring them together, at least, momentarily. Victor Hugo, seeing a cable wrapped with rags at the point where it crossed a sharp ridge, saw, at the same time, the knees of tragic actresses padded to break the dramatic falls in the fifth act; and these two things so remote—a rope anchored on a rock, and the knees of an actress—are evoked, as we read, in a parallel which takes our fancy because the knees and the rope are equally “furred,” the first above and the latter below, at the bend; because the elbow made by a cable thus cast bears a certain resemblance to a leg that is bent; because Giliatt’s situation is quite tragic; and, finally, because, even while perceiving the logic of these comparisons, we perceive, no less clearly, their delicious absurdity.
Such an association is perforce extremely fugitive, unless the language adopts it and makes of it one of those figures of speech with which it delights to enrich itself. It should occasion no surprise were this bend of a cable to be called its “knee.” In any event, the two images remain ever ready to be divorced, divorce being the permanent rule in the world of ideas, which is the world of free love. This fact sometimes scandalizes simple folk. Whoever first dared to say the “mouth” or the “jaw” of a cannon, according to which of those terms is the older, was, without doubt, accused either of preciousness or of coarseness. If it be improper to speak of the “knee” of a rope, it is quite proper to speak of the “elbow” of a pipe or the “paunch” of a bottle. But these examples are presented merely as elementary types of a mechanism which is more familiar to us in practice than in theory. Leaving aside all images still living, we shall concern ourselves exclusively with ideas—that is to say, those tenacious and fugitive shades which flutter about eternally bewildered in men’s brains.
(End of excerpt from “The Disassociation of Ideas”)