Decadence: A Literary History

The Decadent Movement was a late manifestation of Symbolism, principally in literature, that flourished in the final two decades of the Nineteenth Century. It is thought to be a largely British and French movement. It is considered to have lasted from around 1880 to 1895 (Wilde’s imprisonment), with 1914 forming the terminus ante quem for the Decadent Movement, as it was for so many fine de siècle movements. (The stature and reach of the Men of 1914 diminished the standing of the preceding generation.) This collection of academic papers seeks to expand our common understanding of Decadence. Topics include fine art, poetry, theatre, cinema, prose, music, politics, antiquity and other areas, with academic authors addressing Decadence in relation to countries other than Great Britain, France and Belgium.  

There are perennial problems of defining Decadence. Does Decadent art reflect or celebrate – even encourage – degeneration from seemingly stable, ennobling, aspirational moral and aesthetic standards? Editor Alex Murray somewhat fudges the issue, by claiming that conservative “moral hysteria” regarding Decadence was unwarranted, yet this reaction was one that the Decadents instigated, using the succès de scandale as a promotional tool and social ostracization as a badge of honour. Murray discounts the acuity of conservative opposition to what Arthur Symons characterises as “typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct. It reflects all the moods, all the manners, of a sophisticated society; its very artificiality is a way of being true to nature.” Murray notes Paul Bourget’s commentary on Decadence with regard to Baudelaire, which bears lengthy quotation:

In 1883, as part of a series of essays in La Nouvelle Revue on ‘contemporary psychology’, Bourget published a wide-ranging essay on Baudelaire in which he set forth a striking thesis on the nature of Decadence. It is hard to overestimate the importance of Bourget’s articulation in this essay of a ‘theory’ of Decadence. In the most oft-quoted passage Bourget offers a striking triple analogy: in biological terms cells decay, leading to the corruption of an organism; society is an organism, and the individual is a cellular unit; under decadence the energy of the individual refuses to be subordinated to the whole, with the result that broader social energy dissipates and declines. These rules governing the social and cellular order also pertain to ‘the decadence of another organism, language’. Bourget’s analogy then leads to one of the most memorable, if misleading, characterizations of the literature of Baudelaire and others: ‘A decadent style is one in which the unity of the book falls apart, replaced by the independence of the page, where the page decomposes to make way for the independence of the sentence, and the sentence makes way for the word.’

Murray suggests otherwise – stating that Decadent art does have meaning and is purposeful – but what lingers with us regarding Bourget’s critique is that it is one also consonant with our own era’s deconstructionism, Post-Modernism and political cultivation of a fractured society. The decomposition that Bourget sees in Decadence is something that seems apparent in relativism and multi-culturalism. Post-Modernism is an extension of Decadence, using linguistic and semantic games to undermine established orders with the explicit aim of discrediting and defeating “hegemonic majorities” (demographic or political) of masculinity, logic, the scientific method, Christianity, heterosexuality, whiteness and so forth. Bourget’s statement about the decline of unity and stability is significant not for what it tells about Decadence in 1900 but for what it tells us about the situation of Western civilisation around 2000 and immediately after. No matter how unstable, partial and self-contradictory those core values were, we respond to the emotional truth of Bourget’s observation that Decadence is a movement with social implications that atomise populations and undermine commonly held value systems, regardless of the intentions of individual creators, distributors and consumers of that artistic material. However flawed Bourget’s critique is of Decadence, it functions effectively as a critique of decadence.

Stylistically and politically, Decadence is as broad as any other form of Symbolist. However, Murray’s celebration of the recent expansion of the Decadence canon – or an expansion of what we understand to constitute Decadence – means that the inclusion of more women, non-Europeans and minor creators causes a diminution of our understanding of Decadence. By making the Decadent Movement broader, it also makes it (relatively) thinner, more diffuse. It becomes commensurately more difficult to say something meaningful about a movement that has expanded to encompass adjacent areas. This is the iron law of all academic disciplines: the demands of academia mean academics must find new figures to study and professors of new academic fields need to claim attention of other fields by appropriating established subjects to themselves, claiming unique insights. This leads to field creep and therefore dilution. When connoisseurship of a movement becomes a field of academic study – and a discrete body of committed individuals with shared aims and language becomes a tendency or sympathy diffused among unconnected individuals in many places and eras – useful investigation of that subject is doomed to depletion; notwithstanding how cognisant academics are of this tendency, it seems inevitable.  

There are essays on Decadence and the hermaphrodite, gender politics, Christianity and Swinburne’s poetry. Various writers pay attention to Decadence in the literature of the USA, Spain, Russia and Czechia. Hilary Fraser examines how the Renaissance influenced painters the Gabriel Dante Rosetti. Matthew Creasy explains how British Decadents responded to Verlaine. The periodicals of the movement (The Yellow Book, The Savoy) are summarised by Nick Freeman. The role of technology and science in relation to M.P. Shiel and Arthur Machen’s novels by Will Abberley is welcome. He suggests that the authors saw advances in science and technology as a front of rationalism that would founder on the impossibly unarguable redoubts of the occult and spiritual. Rationalism and materialism were foils for Decadent themes of the irrational, private and mystical and the Symbolist dedication to the archaic and anti-productive, for rationalism and materialism were associated with capitalism and bourgeois morality – enemies of the twin Decadent poles of the elevated and the debased. Kristin Mahoney expounds the relation between Decadence and what she calls “camp modernism” – “the persistence of fin-de-siècle styles into the modernists moment, and it similarly calls into question categories of periodization by allowing us to see how late Victorian aesthetics remained vital and present long after the century turned.” She identifies Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett and the Sitwells as exponents of camp modernism.

This is necessarily a specialist volume but one which eschews jargon. Recommended for students and scholars of the Aesthetic and Decadent Movements and late Victorian culture.

Alex Murray (ed.), Decadence: A Literary History, Cambridge University Press, 2020, hardback, 530pp, 14 mono illus., $110/£84.99, ISBN 978 1 108 42629 9

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