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ELT 44 : 2 2001 The Decay of Decadence Michael St. John, ed. Romancing Decay: Ideas of Decadence in European Culture. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999. xviii + 280 pp. $78.95 IN RECENT YEARS, much scholarship has been expended on the subject of "decadence" and "degeneration" in cultural studies. Apparently , as the present volume testifies, Michael St. John believes that there is more to be said in Volume 3 of the Ashgate series, Studies in European Cultural Transition. In the nineteen essays, however, many of them are unclear as to the distinction between "Decadence" and "decadence " (the former referring to the new aesthetic in the late nineteenth century; the latter term characterizing, for example, moral and political decline). In two of the essays, the authors rely on the OED and Chambers 's dictionary for their definition of "decadence." Informed readers oÃ- ELT are likely to expect, in the essays on literature , the use of the capitalized form of the term, as employed by such critics as Arthur Symons in his seminal article "The Decadent Movement in Literature" (1893) and by R. K. R. Thornton in The Decadent Dilemma (1983). In the Ashgate volume, only one or two essays make an attempt to clarify what Symons and subsequent writers have established concerning Decadence. St. John's introduction establishes the approach and the justification for the ever-widening meanings of "decadence": "In this volume it has been the political connotations of any definition of decadence that have proved particularly striking___Describing anything, or anyone, as decadent , involves reference to an ideal from which the subject thus described declines[;] this in turn implies ways in which that subject must be thought of and treated in society." The first essay by David Salter, "Redeeming the Decadent City: Changing Responses to the Urban and Wilderness Environments in the Lives of St. Jerome," begins with an odd remark: "From ancient times, decadence has been seen as a characteristically urban vice." The essay following, by St. John on Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, perceives a "dichotomy that could be observed between medieval political ideals and real courtly politics." Other essays are on such varied topics as "decadence " in Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore; "Decadence, Divinity and Dissent in the Restoration"; "Resisting Decadence: Literary Criticism as a Corrective to Low Culture and High Science" (on the critic I. A. Rich220 BOOK REVIEWS ards); and "The Decadent University: Narratives of Decay and the Future of Higher Education." The essays on literary topics are generally better written, although, as stated, with little attempt to distinguish between Decadence and decadence, except for Nicholas Zurbrugg's "Beyond Decadence: Huysmans , Wilde, Baudrillard and Postmodern Culture," which relies on quotations with "Decadence" capitalized from Renato Poggioli's The Poets of Russia, 1890-1939 (1980). Despite Zurbrugg's occasionally opaque prose, much of the discussion of Decadence, drawn from Poggioli, is sound. Of considerable interest is Zurbrugg's discussion of Marinetti's Futurism, which glorifies war and machinery in opposition to the Symbolist/Decadent aesthetic. Subsequently, Baudrillard, "like the modernist decadent poets before him," opposes "the negative impact of new technologies 'extirpating all the magic from thought. ...'" Nicholas Daly's "Somewhere There's Music: John Meade Falkner's The Lost Stradivarius," the novel published in 1895, attempts parallels between it and The Picture of Dorian Gray, but the only identifiable connection is that both novels tell "a tale of a handsome youth led astray by an older man"; however, Dorian Gray is not "led astray," for he is not an innocent youth influenced by Lord Henry Wotton, as Wilde makes abundantly clear: Dorian is "dimly conscious that entirely fresh influences were at work within him. Yet they seemed to him to have really come from himself." Later, alluding to Lord Henry's "influence," Wilde adds that "still more poisonous influences ... came from [Dorian's] own temperament ." Daly insists on the plot parallels and the "homoerotic thematics " in the two works, but the essay reveals more differences than similarities in the novels. In Martin Halliwell's "Books and Ruins: Abject Decadence in Gide and Mann," in which "decadence" remains problematic, Gide's The Immoralist and Mann's Death in Venice are discussed. But what does one...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 220-222
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
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