Down There on a Visit

Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet

by Richard Gilman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 180 pp., $8.95

It is easy to deplore the use of certain ready-made concepts such as “Baroque” or “Romantic” or “Decadent.” They may short-circuit genuine historical or stylistic inquiry; they may obscure rather than illuminate the real problems. But they constitute genuine problems in themselves. Why do we find them convenient? Why will they not confine themselves, in an orderly way, to their business? We may insist that they should be used only to describe the art of clearly defined periods; they ignore us, and attach themselves to any art, of whatever period, that vaguely resembles that of the period we have in mind. “Mannerist” has been applied to the poetry of the first-century poet Martial; it is used as a rough synonym of “Baroque”; for the art of an intermediate period between Classic and Baroque; and for something that goes on all the time as “a complementary phenomenon of the Classical of all periods,” to quote Ernst Curtius, who took the last view, and also thought Mannerism predominantly Spanish.

“Baroque” is famous for meaning far too many different things; the standard historian of its uses, René Wellek, laments its indiscriminate extension, but nevertheless thinks we ought to go on employing it to mean “the style between the Renaissance and Classicism” and holds that it has, on balance, been more useful than not. “Baroque” began life as an insult, and still perhaps retains a certain derogatory connotation; but it can in principle be used as a neutral period description. “Decadent” also began as an insult, though some practitioners seized on it as a welcome description of their way of disagreeing with the establishment. Like “Baroque,” therefore, it retains both its dyslogistic force and its utility as a way of referring to a period.

The word was first used not of the arts but of nations or empires, perhaps even of the world at large. The decadence of Rome was a type; but behind even that ancient example there was, from the earliest times, the theory of the decay of the world itself, the decadence of humanity from an unfallen state—the fact, for so it might appear, that men were smaller of stature, shorter of life, less heroic, more prone to sickness, than they once were, and each generation more corrupt than the last. When this old all-embracing theory no longer seemed to hold good, one spoke of the decadence of a race or a civilization, and provided different explanations. A nation might decline in such a way that it showed in the health of its citizens (more than half of English volunteers for the Boer War were turned down on medical grounds) or in an increase of poverty, or a collapse of moral standards. The causes adduced might then be, say, a falling birthrate, a neighbor’s technological superiority, international Jewry, the failure of organized religion, or the wickedness of artists.

Artists are especially easy to blame; in our culture it is a condition of the continuance of the arts that they should…

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