Nicolas Tredell is an extramural lecturer in literature at the University of Sussex. His book on literary criticism in the Eighties, The Critical Decade, will be published next year. He is a contributor to PN Review, which has just produced its 75th number.
In Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, the Prince found by the River Thames ‘a more convincing image of the truth of the ancient state than any they have left by the Tiber’. Of course, the truth of the ancient state, like the truth of the British state at the turn of the 19th century, was not necessarily a wholly savoury one. Conrad had already imagined the great imperial waterway as leading to – and from – the heart of darkness, and by 1922, The Waste Land was to find by the Thames the signs of an imperium in full decadence. Glyn Maxwell, in 1992, offers his own vision of riparian decay:’
‘Fin de siècle’: the term suggests a dilution and dispersal of the cultural, social and political energies of a century, an uneasy time of uncertainties as a new era waits to be born. If this was the case in the 1890s, which still provides our chief sense of a century’s ending, how much more so in the 1990s, when the global spread of capitalism swallows alternatives, and generates, inside the whale, a shopping mall of styles, the hypermarket – rather than the museum – without walls. It is this unprecedented fusion of a superficial plurality and an all-encompassing uniformity that produces, for the poet as for others, a situation of unprecedented uncertainty and opportunity.’
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