- The Devil's Advocates: Decadence in Modern Literature
Anyone who has tried to introduce a degree of clarity to the devilishly elusive term "decadence" knows how frustrating and unrewarding that effort can be because it inevitably ends in redefining terms, recreating categories, or realigning themes and subjects either by exclusion or inclusion. Most of these efforts, even when they have a contribution to make, remain in one way or another unsuccessful. A work such as Jean Pierrot's The Decadent Imagination 1800-1900 may succeed simply because it devotes itself so singlemindedly to cataloguing subjects and traits associated with literary decadence. At the other end of the spectrum, Linda Dowling's Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siècle is entirely successful because instead of trying to redefine decadence she demonstrates a specific relationship between literary art and attitudes toward language.
Thomas Whissen does not succeed in either of these modes, although he leans heavily on the pattern of cataloguing represented by Pierrot to establish his case. In a rueful Preface, Whissen acknowledges the problem of dealing with decadent literature but concludes that his effort at tracing decadence in modern literature is worthwhile. "I think I share enough of the decadent temper to be able," he says, "like a geiger counter or a dog sniffing for drugs, to detect the presence of decadent elements wherever they appear in modern literature." Likening one's critical intuition to a canine instinct is a dubious form of self-justification, but the candid admission that his is to be a simple presentation of subjective judgment is disarming and makes a good deal of what follows acceptable if not entirely convincing.
Whissen's claim is that traces of the decadent movement can be found throughout modern literature, and his plan is to indicate some of these traces in familiar and less well-known examples. But a serious qualification appears in the very opening of his Introduction where he says, "Although elements of [End Page 685] decadence can be found in literary works of all periods, decadence is essentially a modern movement." But if some of the elements identified with decadence can be traced back, say, to Lord Chesterfield and De Sade, why should modern manifestations of these elements be attributable to decadent influence?
In each chapter of his book, Whissen takes up some supposedly decadent trait, such as hedonism, fastidiousness, irreverence, and so on, and then demonstrates how that feature manifests itself in modern literature. By considering "the pursuit of pleasure without any social responsibility" a decadent trace, he is able to ring in F. Scott Fitzgerald, Christopher Isherwood, J. D. Salinger, and others as exhibiting decadent traces. This is to ignore that many writers before the decadent movement, from Lord Rochester to Bulwer Lytton, depicted, either approvingly or otherwise, characters who pursued pleasure with no social responsibility in mind.
Two works that Whissen refers to frequently as recent manifestations of decadence are Paul Rudnick's Social Disease (1986) and Patrick Süskind's Perfume (1986). And these works do seem to share some traits with the kind of excessive decadent productions such as A rebours and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but Whissen seems entirely uninterested in determining if there is any comparable literary merit to these works. Rudnick's and Süskind's novels at least seem to share a complex of traits associated with decadence, but elsewhere Whissen seems ready to incorporate individual works or whole bodies of writing because they exhibit at least one such trait or have a sort of general aroma of "decadence." Thus Graham Greene's "cantakerousness, his taste for the seedy, his sympathy for wise losers and weary cranks, all make him a confederate in the decadent camp." Whissen may have smelled out this trace of decadence in Greene, but doing so does not help his reputation as a bloodhound.
This particular passage hints at another fault in Whissen's approach—his tendency to confuse artists with their works. It is a feature of his blithely subjective approach, but it leads to...