‘A Memnon waiting for the day’
Ancient Egypt in the aesthetic and decadent imaginary
in Victorian literary culture and ancient Egypt
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This chapter turns to ancient Egypt in the literature of the aesthetic and decadent movements, exploring how this differs from the so-called classical ‘ideal’ of Greece and Rome. Beginning with Baudelaire’s influential use of ancient Egypt in the ‘Spleen’ poems of Les Fleurs du mal (1857), it locates three interrelated, but also competing and seemingly contradictory, discursive deployments of ancient Egypt in literature of the period: firstly, in an argument derived from Hegel’s Aesthetics (1818–29), Egypt as ‘Symbolic’ mystery, whose art is underdeveloped by comparison to the ‘Classical Ideal’, waiting for the day of the ‘Greek spirit … with its power of speech’; secondly, Egypt as a site of ennui, where the ‘symbolic’ dimensions are linked intrinsically to a melancholic decadence and to death; and thirdly, Egypt as exoticism, and Orientalist sensuality, linking also to the significance of contemporary fin-de-siècle Egypt in homosexual culture. This chapter examines Walter Pater’s essay on ‘Winckelmann’ from The Renaissance (1873), and Oscar Wilde’s poem The Sphinx (1894) amongst other materials to argue that ancient Egypt was a marginal but nevertheless significant subject for the aesthetes and decadents.

Editor: Eleanor Dobson


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