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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 always be changing. In the twentieth century this condition has been made unusually plain by the prevalence of manifestoes, demonstrations, defiance of the status quo. Whatever is at odds with the official ideology is apt to look like a decadence; which is why some artists accepted the word as a description of their attitudes, though others, holding that the cause of corruption in society was a stupid adherence to unexamined norms, preferred to pin the label back on their accusers. Baudelaire thought the times to be decadent; but others said he had led poetry “into a noble and glorious decadence.” And many held that the real decadence was subservience to rule.

The present vulgar use of the word reflects its ambiguous history: Watergate, Weimar, a new hairstyle, may all, as Mr. Gilman complains, be described as “decadent,” for all represent a revolt against some norm of conduct; decadent if you disapprove, or even, in some cases, if you approve. Such is the semantic tangle Mr. Gilman seeks to unravel or sweep away. His book, I gather, was to be one of a series in which other difficult concepts were considered at the same length. The requirement was, presumably, to give a reasonably serious but not too academic account of problems in intellectual history. At any rate that is what Gilman has tried to do.

He begins by looking at the “emanations” of the word. It is a bit old-fashioned. It suggests “pleasure of a bizarre, peripheral kind…sensual choices made exactingly among uncommon fragrances and rare colors, in half-light.” But it has another range of connotations: “Onassis’ yacht with paparazzi snapping pictures from the shore…a Roman orgy…Regine’s…fruit-flavored douches and edible panties.” Behind these senses, whether faded or trendy, is a deeper meaning: Decadence is the sense of belonging to a late or final, corrupt stage of a civilization.

Gilman’s tone is mostly polemic. He will track down Decadence, he says—cut off its escape routes, “badger it into revealing as exhaustively as possible what it is and has been and may become as a verbal force.” He is much troubled by the irresponsibility with which we use the word, and also by a failure to recognize that Decadence occurs only in the mind; its phenomena “are not stable realities of the objective world.” However this may be, it remains obvious that what goes on in people’s heads is a very proper concern of the historian, who should be interested in their need for concepts of the kind under discussion.

The idea of decadence has a continuous and varying intellectual history, which Gilman, apparently under constraints imposed by considerations of length, and his own exasperation with the very word, tries, not very successfully, to sketch. He gives a sampling of past usage, mostly drawn from the OED. He observes that the late-nineteenth-century sense (a period style in art) is the product of all manner of specialization; throughout the Christian era it has been possible to lament a wholesale decline in political and private morality, and in the arts. The decline and fall of Rome is a convenient model, and Gilman asks how far the myth and the historical reality diverge. He concludes that Decadence was invented by the ancient world, misled by its veneration for the past.

The countermyth of Progress he dates much later; but it existed, though not under that name, alongside the myth of Decadence; and the coexistence of these contraries is an important part of the subject, here neglected. Occasionally the myths emerge into open conflict, as in the much studied early-seventeenth-century dispute between the parties represented by Geoffrey Goodman, spokesman for the decline of the world, and George Hakewill, who tried to confute that “common errour.” More important still, a quite powerful theory was available to reconcile the opposites. This was the apocalyptic proposition that good times are necessarily preceded by bad ones, in a transitional era of Troubles, which include everything from libertinism and corruption to parricide—a notion which has had a powerful influence in European history for seven centuries at least, and is certainly part of the context of the idea of Decadence.

Gilman is more interested in semantics than in history, which is why he pays more explicit attention to C.E.M. Joad’s Decadence, though as he says it is virtually useless, than to K.W. Swart’s solid and valuable book The Sense of Decadence in Nineteenth-Century France. * Swart says a good deal about the national sense of decadence, almost always in counterpoint with hopes of renovation. In 1848 the experiment in state socialism was decadent or renovatory according to your politics. If you went in, decadently, for Satanism or Sadism, it was because you thought a new world might be born of such practices. The condition of decadence you could blame on Germany, England, the Jews, or America, or artists (a favorite explanation under the Second Empire). In reply the artists stated their preference for the perverse delicacy of post-classical Latin, the sensual experiments of the late Empire (Verlaine called himself the Empire at the end of the Decadence). The sensory and spiritual researches of Huysmans’s character Des Esseintes were an important example of fin-de-siècle Decadent protest against the moral and aesthetic norms of the establishment, and the dreary mechanism of modern cities.

In treating French Decadence this book has little to add to Swart, and indeed might have used him better. Nor is it the guide one would choose to the English Decadence, which, though imitative, has an importance wrongly belittled by such remarks as this:

Apart from Wilde and Beardsley, the Decadent/Aesthetic period in England had little effect on the subsequent course of her art and literature. It is easy to forget that the nineties were dominated by writers like Shaw, James, Wells, Belloc, Kipling, Housman, and Francis Thompson, all entirely uncongenial in both temperament and style to the aesthetes and decadents.

Gilman’s object is to distinguish Wilde, a hero to him, from the lesser men; but he cannot achieve it with this very curious list, or by omitting mention of Yeats, who not only wrote magnificently about The Tragic Generation and The Trembling of the Veil, but was permanently affected by his friendships with Arthur Symons, Lionel Johnson, and Ernest Dowson (the last of these here strangely coupled with Theodore Wratislaw as “derivative and insubstantial”). Apart from Wilde and Symons (of whom he says too little) Gilman seems on rather distant terms of acquaintance with the writers of this rich and curious period; a measure of his distance may be his citing of Osbert Burdett’s The Beardsley Period as a recent book (it was published in 1925), and his misspelling Burdett’s name.

Here is a tale of missed opportunities. The omission of Yeats is paralleled by that of Thomas Mann, from Budden-brooks (1901) on an obsessive pathologist of decadence, and that of D.H. Lawrence, who set himself up as prophet of its last phase. Nor is that the end of omissions and desiderata. Gilman’s remarks on Baudelaire suggest that he is aware of the beginnings, in that poet, of a sociology of decadence; this sociology was refined by Walter Benjamin (see, for example, the extraordinary essay “On Some Motifs of Baudelaire,” in Illuminations). There is also a technology of decadence, as we came to see thirteen years ago when Brian Reade’s Beardsley exhibition emphasized the artist’s dependence on new photo-mechanical modes of reproduction. More obviously still, there is a symptomatology of decadence, to be illustrated not only from the vulgar writings of Max Nordau but from contemporary neurology, with its interest in atavism, and from the early Freud and Budden-brooks.

Such are some of the directions a study of this kind might have followed. Gilman’s doesn’t; he seems to want to have done with the word Decadence once and for all. It explains nothing: “If decadence is anything it is an epithet,” runs one of the blanker sentences. “Decadence drifted more and more towards the status of a pure epithet.” It is “a scarecrow, a bogy, a red herring.” Decadence and Progress are “two sides of an illusion” (though Wilde is commended for having served “the forward movement of civilization”). Useless, however, to hope that these denunciations will persuade everybody to give up using the word: “it will go on recommending itself to the shallow, the thoughtless and imitative, the academically frozen: monkey-minds.”

Strong language; but the inquiry to which it imparts a final angry flourish is not serious enough to justify it. Occasionally it looks like being so—as when Gilman speaks of Huysmans’s “blasphemous new vision” as “an extension of that counter-universe, which had been taking shape for years, opposed both to scientific rationalism and the entire humanistic tradition in literature and the other arts.” There is truth in the observation that the author of A Rebours was as much the originator of a new sensibility as the inheritor of an old one. But it is here, precisely, that the argument needs to be continued. Mario Praz announced The Romantic Agony as “a study of Romantic literature (of which the Decadent Movement…is only a development) under one of its most characteristic aspects, that of erotic sensibility.” What one would like to see is a study of the continuing transmutation of Decadence, in relation to a whole constellation of related ideas, in the present century.

Praz’s decadent types—the Medusa, Satan, Sade, and so on—change but persist; such associated phenomena as ennui, spleen, various kinds of occultism, have also their modern representatives. Most of all we need a history of the related concept of sensibility. Rémy de Gourmont invented the expression “dissociation of sensibility,” and Eliot used it for his own quite different purpose; but Ezra Pound, who repeatedly cited Gourmont as a necessary master of modern writers, took the idea in its proper sense: the separation, by intelligence, of ideas conventionally associated, for instance, sex and aesthetic delicacy.

What Pound admired was this dissociation, this breaking up of officially structured thought and feeling, so that the elements might be more clearly perceived. Why was Pound moved, as late as 1921, to translate Gourmont’s Physique de l’amour, which came out in 1903? Gourmont considers the sexual act (“the most important of all acts”) as it occurs throughout nature, and in this context he places human love. We cannot think that Pound, who added to his translation an extraordinary essay on sex and intelligence, valued the book for its biological information. What he liked was its intelligence about sensibility, its declaration that intelligence was indeed “but the ripe fruit of the general sensibility”; and the effect of intelligence/sensibility so conceived must be to reject altogether existing official beliefs which prevent our seeing life as it is.

To attempt a dissolution of the compounded official view is to risk being called Decadent. The point was to effect a necessary deformation of an official sensibility. The “Decadent” writer might well accept the title if it could be seen as a simple description of this project. That is why linguistic Decadence was seen as the necessary deformation of official forms of language. As Gilman notes, Arthur Symons associated the style of Mallarmé with “the kind of depravation undergone by the Latin language in its decadence”—and held this “depravation” necessary to “the exact noting of sensation.” “Exact noting” is precisely what Gourmont’s “dissociation of sensibility” was supposed to make possible; it was as necessary in language as in erotic life. Hence the wide spread of the idea of Decadence. Symons observed that such achievements were “typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action.” Decadence was accordingly both a linguistic phenomenon and a pathological; it dealt in la névrose, in the maladie fin de siècle, in the perverse ecstasies of the tradition chronicled by Praz. Symons could call a music-hall dancer “a Maenad of the Decadence.”

Thus it is easy to see how a serious use of the concept, and what may look like fashionable abuse of it, go together. On the one hand there is the program of Baudelaire, followed in different ways by Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Huysmans, Proust: transformer ma volupté en connaissance. On the other the road leads to the vulgar modern senses deplored by Gilman. But the first depends to some extent on the second; for higher up that road are the relevant notions of sensibility, the vague intimations of apocalypse and the swarming decay of great cities, that add to the idea of Decadence its urgency, its sense of standing at the end of one time and the beginning of another. Notions of this kind are part of the material of such different poets as Yeats and Eliot, such different novelists as Musil and Joyce.

It may be objected that every important new movement in the arts is a protest against officially sanctioned structures of thought and feeling, in the interest of a cleansed sensibility that will produce new knowledge. So to speak of Decadence in the arts as merely such a protest is insufficiently precise. Wordsworth, who has no place in the history of Decadence, also wanted a new sensibility, and thought it could be got by reforming poetry (not deforming it, for he thought it was already deformed). He would have echoed Baudelaire’s manifesto but rejected its implementation. In fact, the element of perversity, of luxury, of world-rejecting languor, seems essential to true Decadence. The transformation of sensibility and intelligence cannot be brought about by people of bourgeois manners. Artists, bent on this transformation affront the official mind and the official morality; hence the trials of Les Fleurs du mal and of Madame Bovary and, at a time when Decadence was exposed to the glare of a more modern publicity machine, the trials of Wilde.

And when we think of the fin de siècle contests we are reminded that here are the origins of modern literature. The old patterns recur; the decadent books (The Rainbow, Ulysses, Lady Chatterley’s Lover) are presented to juries, who must decide whether they offend current standards of public morality. What they all intend to do is to purify sensibility; to see life intelligently, without the intervention of the official formulas governing erotic discourse. The prosecution calls them decadent; the defense calls them purgative and renovatory. All agree that the times are bad; but one party takes these books as symptoms of the evils of the times, the other as a means to heal them. Antithetical concepts, decadence and renovation, are, as so often in history, twinned. Their joint history remains to be written.


Disappointment September 27, 1979

  1. *

    Humanities Press, 1964. John Senior’s The Way Down and Out (Cornell University Press, 1959) escapes notice altogether. See also Helmut Gerber, “The Nineties: Beginning, End or Transition,” in Edwardians and Late Victorians, edited by Richard Ellmann (Columbia University Press, 1960).

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