Contagion, Decadence, Contingency: Debating and Examining Deconstructions and Reinforcements of Imageries and Mythologies of Purity and Contamination in Victorian Popular Fiction

My participation in the 14th Victorian Popular Fiction Association Annual Conference (13-15 July 2022)

Thanks to the support of EUROSUD Studies and Career Development Fund, I was able to participate in the 14th Victorian Popular Fiction Association Annual Conference held at the University of Loughborough from the 13th to the 15th of July 2022. During the three work-intensive days of the conference, a wide range of scholars and researchers in the field of Victorian Literature Studies presented papers related to this years’ conference general topic “Purity and Contamination in Victorian Popular Fiction and Culture”. Although relying on different theoretical and methodological approaches of Literary Studies, Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies, all papers had one thing in common: they all analyzed representations of purity and contamination in Victorian popular fiction, offering new perspectives on the mechanisms of construction of imageries and mythologies of purity and contamination in Victorian imagination. The topics of the papers, among others, included: Gothic monsters, contaminated aesthetics, purity and contamination in detective and sensation fiction, sin and moral corruption in fiction, imperialism and travel fiction etc. One of the highlights of the conference was undoubtedly the keynote lecture “Poisoned by Books: Reading and Writing in the fin-de-siècle Gothic” given by Prof. Andrew Smith.

On the second day of the conference, I had the opportunity to present my paper “Mythology of Purity and Contamination of Decadent Imagination in Machen’s Horror Fiction”. My presentation started with a close reading of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, an intriguing autobiographical quest for the sources of author’s own “degradation” which is, ultimately, found in utter “contamination” of Wilde’s aesthetics by the “perverse” aestheticism of his lover, Lord Douglas or Bosie. Namely, in De Profundis Wilde depicts his fall under the influence of Bosie’s lifestyle as a process of being “lured into the imperfect world of coarse uncompleted passion, of appetite without distinction, desire without limit”, whereby Bosie’s lifestyle and its underlying notion of aestheticism are represented as the source of contamination of Wilde’s aesthetics and ethics which, being “lured into perversity”, ultimately became detached from its initial “pure” form. Taking De Profundis as the epitome of the mythology of “purity” and “contamination” of the decadent aesthetics (and decadent imagination), my paper briefly touched upon consolidation and reinvigoration of such mythology not only in decadent literature of fin de siècle but also in anti-decadent literary criticism of critics such as Benedetto Croce and Mario Praz. Ultimately, my paper focused on the analysis of Arthur Machen’s early horror fiction – the novella The Great God Pan and the short story The Inmost Light – demonstrating how in both texts decadent imagination was represented both as a possible source of ideological “contamination” and as a “pure” aesthetic and political vision of re-sacralization of modernity, whereby characters of mad scientists represent the “contaminated” decadent imagination, while modern flâneurs embody its “pure” form. After the end of my presentation, a lively and rich discussion continued.

All in all, I benefited immensely from attending the conference and being able to share my research with renowned scholars in the field in which I would like to continue my PhD studies in Comparative Literature. Not only did I gain a better insight into the research field, but I also gained additional impetus for carrying out my research in an interdisciplinary and transnational academic environment.

By Sebastian Kukavica – 2020-22 Student Cohort