Jan 1, 2010

Decadence, symbolists, and the fin de siècle

Decadence was a cultural attitude manifested in the late nineteenth century, containing two primary features: (1) a belief that certainty in knowledge, science, morality, and society was gone, which demanded a new attitude in life and art to compensate for the loss of certainty, an attitude that privileged sensations, impressions, epiphanies over systematic theorizing; and (2) that art and morality were distinct realms. Art was completely autonomous, free of ethical boundaries.

The term has also been used to describe the decline of civilization preceding its fall in the cycle of history. In the late 19th century there was a strong sense that Europe had reached the end of an age, or fin de siècle. Definitions of decadence vary widely. Jacques Barzun, in From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present, stipulates a broad meaning for the term: "All that is meant by Decadence is 'falling off'. It implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns, but peculiarly restless, for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss if faces is that of Possibility. The forms of life as of art seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the inevitable result. Boredom and fatigue are great historical forces" (Barzun xvi). Barzun's suggestion that Decadence be opposed to Possibility is instructive. A decadent period doesn't mean people stop working, doing, making, imagining. It means they lose faith, certainty in the possibilities of hope and progress.

You can think of Decadence as a dialectical antithesis of progress. The 19th century lived through earth shattering advances: in industrial production (industrial revolution, capitalist accumulation); social organization (bourgeois revolutions and class warfare, imperialist expansion and the rise of nation states, urbanization, the factory system); scientific and intellectual advancement (e.g. evolutionary theory, positivism, historical materialism, the philosophical systems of Hegel and others); and technological revolutions (telegraph, telephone, railroads, electricity). The furiously energetic march of progress generated a kind of blind faith in the promises of science and technology to solve our ills through the machinations of social engineering, a devoted allegiance to the pleasures of commodity fetishes and consumption, and the voracious appetite for knowledge, while at the same time the upheaveals brought on by revolutionary change engendered a world weariness, an overwhelmed sense of ennui in intellectual and artistic circles (not to mention the very real suffering and hardship felt among the proletariat and subjugated peoples of the globe on the wrong side of capitalist accumulation). The Decadent imagination congeals around the social and intellectual instability and uncertainty hollowed out by the ethic of production and profits, and the secularizing influence of civil society: you find Decadence on the other side of 19th century dilemmas: the religious crisis of faith vs. doubt, the alienation of the individual in the face of social conformity and division of labor, the crisis of self indulgence as compensation for the devaluation of moral values among the leisure classes amid an undifferentiated milieu of rampant vulgarization, Philistinism, mass production, and mass media. Decadence can be viewed as a perverse reaction to conventional values, a visceral retreat from the vulgar, and as a cultural byproduct as destabilizing tendencies within civilization wear away the confidence and hubris associated with progress (hence the attraction to historical descriptions of decadence preceding the inevitable decline and fall of great powers).

Decadence as an artistic movement in the west flourishes in the last couple decades of the 19th century, radiating from France outward and beyond to the 20th century, which in toto can be seen as a tortuously decadent century across all scales: intellectual, cultural, political, economic. Europe erupts in two world wars, killing tens of millions and shattering the positivist dream of progress. The latter half of the century sees the ascendancy of America as the dominant world superpower, while Europe recedes: a slow fade of self-aware decadence, captured ably in films such as Fellini's La Dolce Vita. America, deluded by blissful ignorance and blind to its own imperial identity, can't recognize its gargantuan vulgarity, and is dismissive of the decadent pose. Reality has yet to set in. Occasionally, when reality pokes through the daze, as it did on September 11, 2001, Americans confront self-awareness, but such bouts with reality are quickly smeared over by layers of illusion, diversion, and chest thumping. This doesn't make Americans any less Decadent, any more than the addict who refuses to admit his addiction but for those select times he "hits bottom".

In his "'Decadence in Later Nineteenth Century England'", R.K.R. Thornton identifies a core dilemma faced by the decadent subject:
"[T]he Decadent is a man caught between two opposite and apparently incompatible pulls: on the one hand he is drawn by the world, its necessities, and the attractive impression he receives from it, while on the other hand he yearns towards the eternal, the ideal, and the unworldly. The play between these two poles forms the typical Decadent subject matter and is at the root of much of the period's manner.... [T]he incompatibility of the two poles gives rise to the characteristic Decadent notes of disillusion, frustration, and lassitude at the same time as the equally characteristic self-mockery" (qtd. in Fletcher 26).
The material world of sensation and impressionism draws us in. We are invited to enjoy the moments as they pass, to savor and use them for our pleasure, yet we're also sickened, revolted by the vulgarity of too much banality, too much ugly pain and verisimilitude or the cultural overdosing on commodified pleasures, of having too many choices and too much stuff. We seek escape into the timeless pleasures of art and aestheticized religion. The distinguishing feature of the decadent for Thornton is the "retreat from reality", which plays out in any of several ways: "lack on intensity...effete casualness, the languid withdrawl", which he calls "superficial retreat"; and the subtler retreat of escaping or transforming reality for the sake of art and the artificial, going beyond while keeping one foot anchored in the real world (Fletcher 28).


Chronology of decadence -

texts and artwork

The Death of Sardanapalus by Delacroix, Mademoiselle de Maupin by Gautier, The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole, The Romans of the Decadence by Couture, Works by Edgar Allan Poe, Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire [online edition] - Salummbo by Flaubert, The Man of Genius by Cesare Lombroso, Olympia by Manet, Beata Beatrix by Rosetti, Oedipus and the Sphinx and Salome by Moreau, Poetry by Stephane Mallarme, Chants de Maldoror by Comte de Lautremont, Poetry of Swinburne, Les Diaboliques by Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly, Nana by Zola, A Rebours and Las Bas by Huysmans, Le Vice Supreme by Josephin Peladan, Complaintes by Jules Laforgue, Hommage a Goya and Illustrations to Flaubert's Temptation of St. Anthony by Odilon Redon [artchive bio/gallery] [webmuseum], Symbolist Manifesto by Jean Moreas, Monsieur Venus by Rachilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome by Oscar Wilde, the art of Aubrey Beardsley, Degeneration by Max Nordau (criticism of decadence), Bruges-la-Morte by Rodenbach, The Symbolist Movement in Literature by Arthur Symons (criticism), Sin by Franz von Stuck, Orpheus by Jean Delville, The Yellow Book (British journal), The Caresses by Fernand Khnopff, Judith I by Klimt
films: La Dolce Vita -

sources and influences

Vico's cyclical history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, The French revolution, Romanticism (particulary the poetry of Blake, Coleridge, Keats), The Lady of Shallot by Tennyson (1832), The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, Franco-Prussian War (1871), American Nervousness by George Beard (discusses neuresthenia), The Renaissance by Walter Pater (1873), Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater (1885), International labor strikes of 1886, Trials of Oscar Wilde (1895), Studies on Hysteria by Bruer and Freud, The Rhymers Club

after-effects & legacies

Yeats, Joyce, T.S. Eliot - Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West - Hugh Kenner's The Pound Era - Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" - Christopher Lasch's Culture of Narcissism [amz].


Barzun, Jacques. From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present. New York: Harper Collins, 2000.
Buckley, Jerome Hamilton. The Triumph of Time: A Study of the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1966. [amz]
Fletcher, Ian, ed. Decadence and the 1890's. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980. [amz]
Sambrook, James. "Aspects of the Fin de Siècle" in The New History of Literature: The Victorians. ed. Arthur Pollard. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1987.
Weir, David. Decadence and the Making of Modernism [google print]