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Decadence

161. Decadence

  1. Buddenbrooks portrays the downfall of a materialistic society. [Ger. Lit.: Buddenbrooks ]
  2. cherry orchard focal point of the declining Ranevsky estate. [Russ. Drama: Chekhov The Cherry Orchard in Magill II, 144]
  3. Diver, Dick dissatisfied psychiatrist goes downhill on alcohol. [Am. Lit.: Tender is the Night ]
  4. Gray, Dorian beautiful youth whose hedonism leads to vice and depravity. [Br. Lit.: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray ]
  5. Great Gatsby, The 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald symbolizes corruption and decadence. [Am. Lit.: The Great Gatsby ]
  6. House of Usher eerie, decayed mansion collapses as master dies. [Am. Lit.: Fall of the House of Usher in Tales of Terror ]
  7. Lonigan, Studs Chicago Irishman whose life is one of physical and moral deterioration (1935). [Am. Lit.: Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy, Magill III, 10281030]
  8. Manhattan Transfer novel portraying the teeming greed of the citys inhabitants. [Am. Lit.: Manhattan Transfer ]
  9. Nana indictment of social decay during Napoleon IIIs reign (1860s). [Fr. Lit.: Nana, Magill I, 638640]
  10. Remembrance of Things Past records the decay of a society. [Fr. Lit.: Haydn & Fuller, 630]
  11. Satyricon novel by Petronius depicting social excesses in imperial Rome. [Rom. Lit.: Magill II, 938]
  12. Sun Also Rises, The moral collapse of expatriots. [Am. Lit.: The Sun Also Rises ]
  13. Sound and the Fury, The Faulkner novel about an old Southern family gone to seed: victims of lust, incest, suicide, and idiocy. [Am. Lit.: Magill I, 917]
  14. Warren, The Haredales house, mouldering to ruin. [Br. Lit.: Barnaby Rudge ]
  15. Yoknapatawpha County northern Mississippi; decadent setting for Faulkners novels. [Am. Lit.: Hart, 955]

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decadence

dec·a·dence / ˈdekədəns/ • n. moral or cultural decline, esp. after a peak or culmination of achievement. ∎  behavior reflecting such a decline. ∎  luxurious self-indulgence.

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decadence

decadence XVI. — F. décadence — medL. dēcadentia, f. dēcadēre DECAY.
So decadent XIX.

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Decadence

DECADENCE

Decadence was an artistic current that flourished in Europe at the turn of the century, primarily in France and Britain; it was most often expressed in prose, but also influenced poetry and the visual arts. As the name suggests, Decadent art of the 1880s and 1890s was associated with the discourse of cultural pessimism that had been developing among European intellectuals since the late eighteenth century and that had only become intensified by the more specific discourse of "Degeneration" during the fin de siècle. Cultural pessimists of the early to mid-nineteenth century had identified many sources of political, social, cultural, and spiritual decline in European civilization. These ranged from the assault on nature by the Industrial Revolution, the threat to traditional forms of society represented by the French Revolution, the challenge to the concept of a rational and autonomous human agency adumbrated by the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), the rebuke to the Enlightenment idea of progress embodied by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, and the under mining of revealed religion and the anthropocentric cosmos heralded by the theory of evolution advanced by Charles Darwin (1809–1882).

By the late nineteenth century, the idea that modernity signified a decline rather than an advance had been given memorable expression by the German journalist Max Nordau (1849–1923) in his widely translated Entartung (1892; Degeneration). Nordau specifically targeted modern artists as emblematically degenerate figures, physically damaged from the enervating effects of urban life and mentally deranged by the excessive introspection encouraged by a psychologizing age. Artists themselves addressed the themes of decline and degeneration: as early as the 1830s, French Aesthetes advocated a turn away from life to "art for art's sake," whereas the naturalists of the fin de siècle dispassionately charted the stunted lives of those afflicted adversely by their heredity and environment.

The Decadent artists of the 1880s and 1890s combined the Aesthetes' preference for art over life with the naturalists' unstinting depictions of decline, disgrace, and desolation. But they did not just reflect the discourse of degeneration in their works: they also responded to it by celebrating the perverse. They turned the idea of decadence into a productive aesthetic sensibility, one that paradoxically became more vivid and alive as it embraced decay and death. Their works often chronicled the hypertrophy of the senses experienced by the truly perceptive in the face of modern flux and change; as well as the ennui suffered by the gifted trapped in a bourgeois world that extolled soulless productivity. The Decadents also accepted willingly their allotted role as afflicted martyrs in the service of art, gleefully describing the heterodox practices and aristocratic prejudices that set the artist apart from the leveling tendencies of the age. Decadent works often celebrated deviant sexualities and amoral behaviors as deliberate affronts to middle-class morality and looked back nostalgically to periods in which aristocratic taste and refined pleasures were not overshadowed by populist prejudices.

Like the early Romantics, Decadent artists turned to art as a source of transcendence in a secularizing age, but unlike the Romantics they did not believe that art expressed some underlying spiritual force that could reconcile the human mind with external nature. For such "late romantics" as the Decadents, nature as revealed by contemporary science was as ugly and bereft of spiritual significance as modern civilization; transcendence could only be found through the deliberate artifice represented by art. In consequence, Decadent literature privileged a finely wrought and ironic style, one that flaunted its artificiality and was tailored to express exquisite perceptions that would transport the reader out of the ordinary world into a baroque world of the imagination. With few exceptions, Decadent artists tended to be male, and Decadent works tended to be misogynistic: women were often depicted as prisoners of organic nature, alluring "femme fatales" who could not resist their instinct to reduce men to their fallen level. Conversely, the "unnatural" in all its guises—art, homosexuality, supernatural or scientific creations, altered states of consciousness—was a dominant concern in Decadent works.

Decadence as a literary current emerged in its most characteristic form in France. There were a host of factors that prompted public discussion of degeneration, including France's humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871; statistics revealing that birthrates were declining and suicides increasing; an upsurge of labor unrest and feminist agitation; lurid media depictions of the spread of syphilis and the recourse to crime, drugs, alcohol, prostitution, and homosexuality. Writers such as Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880), Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867), and Arthur Rimbaud (1854–1891) had demonstrated that such insalubrious facts could be both transmuted and transcended by making them the subject of art, and in 1886 Anatole Baju (1861–?) provided a label for this literary trend by publishing Le Décadent, a literary journal that continued through 1889. The public image of Decadence was given its most forceful expression in À Rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), which the contemporary English critic Arthur Symons (1865–1945) called "the breviary of Decadence" and Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) chose as the book that contributed to the corruption of Dorian Gray. Its aristocratic protagonist, Des Esseintes, repudiates the natural and social worlds by retreating into a self-created world of the most refined sensory pleasures. Among other notable artists deemed "Decadent" by themselves or by others were Jean Lorraine (1855–1906, the pseudonym of Paul Duval), Jules-Amedee Barbey d'Aurevilly (1808–1889), Rachilde (1860–1953, the pseudonym of Marguerite Eymery Vallette, one of the few women identified with the Decadents), Joséphin Péladan (1858–1918), Jean Moréas (1856–1910; the pseudonym of Yannis Papadiamantopoulos), Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (1838–1889), and Octave Mirbeau (1850–1917).

The Decadent current in Britain was influenced by France—Wilde was a frequent visitor to Paris and served as an important intermediary—but it tended to be more conservative than its French counterpart. British artists, unlike the French, found it hard to separate the values of art and society: the aestheticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, for example, was associated with a medieval moral and spiritual order, and Walter Pater (1839–1894) came to regret his famous aestheticist injunction "To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame" because he feared misleading impressionable readers. Wilde's own decadent aperçus were paradoxical expressions delivered with such irony that they did not really threaten, and in his essay "The Soul of Man under Socialism" he continued to link art with social policies. Wilde's most "decadent" work, the play Salomé (1894), had a negligible impact in England, partly because he originally wrote it in French, and partly because it was banned from the London stage by the Lord Chancellor. Decadence in England tended toward the risqué rather than the perverse, although it did approach the latter in the sinuously erotic drawings of Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) for the Decadent periodical Yellow Book, published between 1894 and 1897. It was only when Wilde was convicted of homosexuality in 1895 that Decadence in England rapidly moved in public perception from the risqué to the perverse—and, as a matter of policy, the suppressed. Many jettisoned the term that Wilde's conviction had brought into opprobrium, embracing the term symbolism in its place: most notably when Symons's 1899 survey of recent artistic trends was retitled from The Decadent Movement in Literature to The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Nevertheless, there were English writers whose Decadent works approximated that of their French peers, among them Count Eric Stenbock (1859–1895), R. Murray Gilchrist (1868–1917), and M. P. Shiel (1865–1947).

While France and Britain were the most visible founts of the Decadent current, other European nations served as tributaries. In Russia, Vsevolod Garshin (1855–1888) and Leonid Andreyev (1871–1919) produced works classified as Decadent, as did Gabriele D'Annunzio (1863–1938) in Italy, and Frank Wedekind (1864–1918) and Hans Heinz Ewers (1871–1943) in Germany. Decadence was a symptomatic expression of the concerns of the fin de siècle, and dissipated in the early decades of the new century. But its preoccupations with the beauty of the perverse and the autonomy of imaginary worlds continued to influence cultural expressions through the twentieth century.

See alsoBaudelaire, Charles; Beardsley, Aubrey; Degeneration; Homosexuality and Lesbianism; Huys-mans, Joris-Karl; Prostitution; Wilde, Oscar.

bibliography

Hustvedt, Asti, ed. The Decadent Reader: Fiction, Fantasy, and Perversion from Fin-de-siécle France. New York, 1998.

Pierrot, Jean. The Decadent Imagination 1880–1900. Translated by Derek Coltman. Chicago, 1981.

Showalter, Elaine, ed. Daughters of Decadence: Women Writers of the Fin-de-siécle. New Brunswick, N.J., 1993.

Weir, David. Decadence and the Making of Modernism. Amherst, Mass., 1995.

Michael Saler

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