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Classical Antiquity at the Fin de Siècle: Art, Sexuality, Religion and Madness

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Module description

The modules offered in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand, there is no guarantee every module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary between years.

The end of the nineteenth century in western Europe witnessed a series of intense debates about art, sexuality, religion and madness, which shaped and continue to shape our understanding of ourselves and the societies we live in. These debates reflected deep fascination with, and profound anxiety over, the complexities of modern life. The urban landscapes of London, Paris and Vienna set the stage for these exciting debates.

This module examines how intellectuals of this period repeatedly turned back to ancient Greece and Rome to conceptualise their ideas about aesthetics, desire, God and the mind. How did the reception of ancient art

provide the parameters for arguments about modern art and the modern artist? In what ways did Greek and Roman notions of sexual desire inform modern debates and ideas about sexuality? How did modern visions of early Christianity offer a vocabulary for voicing religious doubt, dissent and debate? In what ways did the reception of the ancient world offer modern psychology and psychoanalysis a set of tools for conceptualising the mind and its workings?

This module surveys a range of some of the most important, challenging, difficult and thought-provoking intellectuals of the fin de siecle. It will begin by examining the work of queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick as a useful frame for understanding this period of intellectual history. The module will continue by opening with the debate between Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater about the relationship between art and society, as both writers turned back to ancient Greece to articulate their ideas about the purpose of modern art and its relationship to morality. The module then examines the significance of classical archaeology for cultural life at the end of the nineteenth century.

The module moves on to examine the importance of ancient Greece for fin-de-siecle debates about female desire and the New Woman with a focus on Vernon Lee and 'Michael Field'. The module turns to explore the centrality of Dionysus in the writings of Pater and Friedrich Nietzsche, who both questioned the idea that modernity was characterised by polite and civilised values. Joris-Karl Huysmans, Against Nature and Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray are the next focus of the module, in order to examine how their decadent visions of modern art and life emerged out of a reception of ancient Rome.

The module then moves on to consider the huge popularity of historical fiction in the late-Victorian period, which repeatedly focussed on early Christian life in imperial Rome. Finally, the module concludes with Sigmund Freud's fascination with antiquity in his explorations of modern sexuality and madness.

Assessment details


1 x 3000 word essay

Teaching pattern

10 x 2-hour seminars (weekly)

Module description disclaimer

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Please note that the module descriptions above are related to the current academic year and are subject to change.