Touch: Unfeeling Decadence

Desmarais, Jane H.. 2021. Touch: Unfeeling Decadence. In: Jane Desmarais and David Weir, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Decadence. New York and London: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780190066956 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

This article explores the representation of touch in a selection of naturalist and decadent novels in the contexts of late nineteenth-century consumerism and widespread fears about contamination from sexually transmitted disease, principally syphilis. It argues that while the tangible material world does matter to decadence (Émile Zola), touching the (female) body engenders fear and disgust that often leads to fragmentation, unfeeling, and aversion (J.-K. Huysmans). Touching the body or body part, if touching occurs at all, is often portrayed as a transgressive and dangerous act that threatens to contaminate and corrupt (Rachilde, Octave Mirbeau). In Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Il piacere (Pleasure, 1889), a novel that explores the themes of beauty and desire, touch is invoked at least as much as the other senses and is at times foregrounded in the haptoglyphic and synecdochic imagery of hands and fingers, but the tactile act serves only to emphasize what cannot be possessed and the pleasure and pain of touching too much.

Item Type:

Book Section

Identification Number (DOI):


body, consumerism, contamination, haphephobia, haptic, naturalism, synecdoche, synesthesia, syphilis, trauma

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


October 2021Published

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

07 Jan 2022 12:16

Last Modified:

07 Jan 2022 12:16


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