Decadents and Aesthetes
 

Sin is no sin when virtue is forgot.
It is so good in sin to keep in sight
The white hills whence we fell, to measure by . . .
Ah, that's the thrill! . . .
First drink the stars, then grunt amid the mire.

Richard Le Gallienne, from "The Décadent to His Soul"

Oh Wilde, Verlaine, and Baudelaire,
their lips were wet with wine,
Oh poseur, pimp, and libertine!
Oh cynic, sot, and swine!
Oh voteries of velvet vice! . . .
Oh gods of light divine.

Robert Service

 

For students and scholars of nineteenth-century literature and culture, the term "Decadence" conjures various images of 1890s England:
1. 'perversity' and 'degeneration' in life and art -- celebrating the "unnatural" and "unhealthy"
2. a devotion to artifice -- fetid hothouses, where monstrous and seemingly artificial orchids are cultivated as a challenge to nature and assertion of human cunning
3. an artistic and literary protest against a spiritually bankrupt civilization
4. experimentation in life and art -- a Blakean belief that "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom"

See also the Victorian Web's description of Decadence

The attempt to state precisely what Decadence and Aestheticism mean has led numerous literary historians to dash themselves on the semantic rocks, if you will. For most modern critics, the term "Decadence" -- when used to describe certain Victorian works--does not carry negative connotations. In the 1890s, however, it generally implied marked condemnation and on mnay occasions was used to characterize the artist's moral and spiritual depravity. In 1893, Arthur Symons turned its negative suggestions into praise by describing Decadence as a "beautiful and interesting disease." As expected, the term started to lable both the artists and their works. A similar phenomenon surrounds the term "Aesthete," which in the 1880s evoked visions of effeminate poets holding various floral displays in characteristic poses (see below), as in the case of Oscar Wilde, who welcomed the label. Aestheticism implies certain attitudes rather than forms of behavior, attitudes associated wtih the concern over aesthetic form and experience divorced from moral judgment.

When The Yellow Book appeared in April 1894, a "universal howl" went up, wrote John Lane, its publisher, beacuse of Aubrey Beardsley's cover and title page designs. The London Times decried Beardsley's efforts as "repulsive and insolent" and condemned the entire enterprise. The Westminster Gazette clamored for an "act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal." In general, the periodical was interpreted as a deliberate and dangerous assualt upon respected codes of decency. Not since the publication of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866) had there been such a sensation in the literary world. Swinburn had been charged with perversity, unwholesomeness, and morbidity--terms later flung at the Aesthetes and Decadents, who wore them as badges of their sensitivity and superiority. In this they had been instructed by artists and writers in France who declared that the bourgeoisie was not only their natural enemy but also their sport, for in order to demonstrate moral superiority, the would have to shock and dazzle the dull and mettled middle class -- "épater le bourgeois" (to shock the bourgeois) became the battle cry.

As part of this movement or desire to shock, artists and writers endowed artifice with metaphysical significance. After all, humans in a state of nature were evil and virtue, since it was artificial, was good. In his "Eloge du maquillage" (Praise of Cosmetics), Baudelaire writes: "All that is beautiful and noble is the result of reason and calculation. Crime, the taste for which the human animal draws from the womb of his mother, is natural in its origins. Virtue, on the contrary, is artificial and supernatural, since gods and prophets were necessary in every epoch and every nation to teach virtue . . . the good is always the product of some art." The employment of make-up, therefore, results in the transcendence of nature: "Woman performs a kind of duty when she endeavors to appear magical and supernatural; she should dazzle men and charm them; she is an idol who should be covered with gold in order to be worshipped." Similarly, the Decadents' fascination with such drugs as hashish and opium -- and their preference for absinthe (the official beverage of the movement)--enabled the ego to transcend itself and thus improve its natural state.

All the themes and images that were absorbed into the Decadent movement can be found in Karl Huysmans' novel A Rebours (1884), usually translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature. Its sexually perverse hero Des Esseintes, like many fictional Decadents, is an aristocrat. He is the last of a tainted line, who suffers from severe neurosis and indigestion, for which he takes--with considerable pleasure--enemas to provide nourishment. His genius is devoted to the cultivation of artifice and the abnormal. Thus, in his strange house outside of Paris, where he has secluded himself from a hated bourgeois society and lives in a constant state of ennui or life-weariness, he becomes absorbed in erotic/scandalous literature, exotic gems, hothouse flowers, monstrous orchids, drugs, alcohol, and sexual/moral corruption. Interestingly, like Des Esseintes (who, at the end of the novel, returns to bourgeois society to embrace the church), Huysman and countless other Decadents became devout Catholics.

The other book that fueled the movement was Walter Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance(1873).Pater was and Oxford don and Oscar Wilde's professor/mentor. With Renaissance, he established his reputation as an exemplar of Victorian aestheticism and a proponent of the doctrine of art for art's sake. The famous "Conclusion" talked of the flux of life and of the necessity of experiencing with intensity the constantly fleeting impressions: "To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life . . . Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end . . . For art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."

Read excerpt from Walter Pater's Conclusion to The Renaissance. (Focus on the third and fourth paragraph)

Oscar Wilde
The playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is most often remembered today as a GLBT martyr; he was sentenced two years hard labor in Wandsworth prison and Reading Gaol for the crime of sodomy. However, before his conviction on charges of "gross indecency," he was already famous as the outrageously effete "evangelist" of an artistic movement called Aestheticism (which celebrated the pursuit of beauty as the highest good and sought to overthrow the notion that a work of art had to serve some higher moral purpose). Wilde practiced the aesthetic credo, "Art for Art's sake," in his own life and appointed himself an arbiter of sophistication and good taste.

The role of the artist changed, too. The Decadent artist upturned moral values and refused a social role in society (he/she was an iconoclast). Wilde was one of the principle exponents of the ‘new aesthetic’ in England, following the ideas of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, mainly Rossetti and Swinburne, but going further into the realms of aestheticism by adding Pater and the Decadent traditions. According to his theory, the artist was free and superior to other men. Artists avoided the common everyday life to look for an escape into an idealized beauty that existed principally in the imagination. By the end of the century, Aestheticism developed into Decadent art, which presented the fin-de-siecle malaise (or the maladie fin-de-siecle) that haunted European intellectuals. Critics have likened Wilde to Lord Byron for several reasons: both thought that life itself was a work of art, both had a heightened sense of the Artist as a superior man, and both hated and feared mediocrity and risked scandal and public censure rather than live ‘normal’ lives.

Decadence
In the broad sense, a historical period marked by decline or decay. The term became associated with a group of 19th-century, fin-de-siècle authors/artists who sought inspiration, both in their lives and in their writings, in aestheticism (art for art's sake). In reaction to the naturalism of the European realists, the decadents espoused that art should exist for its own sake, independent of moral and social concerns. The epithet was first applied in the 1880s to a group of self-conscious and flamboyant French poets, who in 1886 published the journal Le Décadent. The decadents venerated Baudelaire and the French symbolists, the group with whom they are often mistakenly identified. In England the decadent movement was represented in the 1890s by Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, and Aubrey Beardsley (read "Ballad of a Barber" here) and the writers of the Yellow Book. J. K. Huysmans's À Rebours (1884) and Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) present vivid fictionalized portraits of the 19th-century decadent-his restlessness, his spiritual confusion, and his moral inversion.

Timeline of the Decadent Movement

For Monday, review the lists below. Which of the items reflect a Decadent sensibility and which do not? Why?
(Focus on the "Why?")

hothouse flowers
natural silk suit
dyed hair
sex with your spouse or lover
painted lips
streetlights
walking a lobster
a beautiful sunset
an ornate china teapot

wild flowers
velvet suit
naturally red hair
sex with a prostitute
rosy lips
moonlight
walking a dog
an opium/absinthe hallucination
an ornate china teapot that doesn't work