Definition And Meaning Of Decadence

In the latter nineteenth-century in France, some proponents of the doctrines of Aestheticism, especially Charles Baudelaire, also espoused views and values which developed into a movement called “the Decadence”. This term (not viewed by its exponents as derogatory) was based on qualities attributed to the literature of Hellenistic Greece in the last three centuries B.C., and of Roman literature after the death of the Emperor Augustus in 14 A.D. These literatures were said to possess the high refinements and subtle beauties of a culture and art which have passed their vigorous prime but manifest a special, sweet savor of incipient decay. Such was also held to be the state of European civilization, especially French civilization, as it approached the end of the nineteenth century.

Many of the precepts of the Decadence were summarized by Theophile Gautier in the “Notice”, describing Baudelaire’s poetry, that he prefixed to an edition of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal (“Flowers of Evil”) in 1868. Central to the movement was the view that art is totally opposed to “nature”, in the sense both of biological nature and of the standard, or “natural”, norms of morality and sexual behaviour. The thorough going Decadent writer cultivates high artifice in his style and, often, the bizarre in his subject matter, recoils from the fecundity and exuberance of the organic and instinctual life of nature, prefers elaborate dress over the living form and cosmetics over the natural hue, and sometimes sets out to violate what is commonly held to be “natural” in human experience by resorting to drugs, deviancy, or sexual experimentation in the attempt to achieve (in a phrase echoed from the French poet Arthur Rimbaud) “the systematic derangement of all the senses”. The movement reached its height in the last two decades of the century; extreme products were the novel A rebours (“Against the Grain”), written by J. K. Huysmans in 1884, and some of the paintings of Gustave Moreau. This period is also known as the fin de siecle (end of the century); the phrase connotes the lassitude, satiety, and ennui expressed by many writers of the Decadence.

In England the ideas, moods, and activities of Decadence are manifested, beginning in the 1860s, in the poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, and in the 1890s by writers such as Oscar Wilde, Arthur Symons, Ernest Dowson, and Lionel Johnson; the notable English artist of the Decadence was Aubrey Beardsley. In the search for strange sensations, a number of English Decadents of the ‘90s experimented with drugs and illicit or what were conventionally held to be extra-natural, modes of sexual experience; several of them died young. Representative literary productions are Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), his play Salome (1893). And the poems of Ernest Dowson.

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The emphases of the Decadence on drugged perception, sexual experimentation, and the deliberate inversion of conventional moral, social, and artistic norms reappeared, with modern variations, in the Beat poets and novelists of the 1950s and in the counterculture of the next two decades.

Mario Praz. The Romantic Agony (1933); A. E. Carter, The Idea of Decadence in French Literature, 1830-1900 (1958), Karl Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s (1966); Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (1979); and the collection by Ian Fletcher, ed., Decadence and the 1890s (1979). A useful descriptive guide to books on the subject is Linda C. Dowling, Aestheticism and Decadence: A Selective Annotated Bibliography (1977).



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