The Decadent Republic of Letters
Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley
Publication Year: 2012
While scholars have long associated the group of nineteenth-century French and English writers and artists known as the decadents with alienation, escapism, and withdrawal from the social and political world, Matthew Potolsky offers an alternative reading of the movement. In The Decadent Republic of Letters, he treats the decadents as fundamentally international, defined by a radically cosmopolitan ideal of literary sociability rather than an inward turn toward private aesthetics and exotic sensation.
The Decadent Republic of Letters looks at the way Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Algernon Charles Swinburne used the language of classical republican political theory to define beauty as a form of civic virtue. The libertines, an international underground united by subversive erudition, gave decadents a model of countercultural affiliation and a vocabulary for criticizing national canon formation and the increasing state control of education. Decadent figures such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, Aubrey Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde envisioned communities formed through the circulation of art. Decadents lavishly praised their counterparts from other traditions, translated and imitated their works, and imagined the possibility of new associations forged through shared tastes and texts. Defined by artistic values rather than language, geography, or ethnic identity, these groups anticipated forms of attachment that are now familiar in youth countercultures and on social networking sites.
Bold and sophisticated, The Decadent Republic of Letters unearths a pervasive decadent critique of nineteenth-century notions of political community and reveals the collective effort by the major figures of the movement to find alternatives to liberalism and nationalism.
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
Series: Haney Foundation Series
The Decadent Republic of Letters
Introduction. “Workers of the Final Hour”
With surprisingly few exceptions, the history of the decadent movement has been told from the perspective of a single national tradition— with due acknowledgment of the French (most often), English, American, or German origin of this or that key figure or contributing intellectual thread. Written as part of a growing interest among scholars in cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and cross- Channel ...
Chapter 1. “Partisans Inconnus”: Aesthetic Community and the Public Good in Baudelaire
Several months after the December 1851 coup d’état that launched Louis Napoleon into power and replaced the unstable French Second Republic with the veritable police state of the Second Empire, Baudelaire wrote in a letter to his trustee Narcisse Ancelle that recent events had left him “physically depoliticized [dépolitiqué].”1 ...
Chapter 2. The Politics of Appreciation: Gautier and Swinburne on Baudelaire
In the introduction to his section on the decadents and aesthetes in Degeneration, Max Nordau offers a suggestive analogy for Baudelaire’s influence over later writers in the decadent movement. “As on the death of Alexander the Great,” he writes, “his generals fell on the conqueror’s empire, and each one seized a portion of land, so did the imitators that Baudelaire numbered ...
Chapter 3. Golden Books: Pater, Huysmans, and Decadent Canonization
Just prior to the famous passage in which he dreams of retreating to a “desert hermitage” set apart from the banalities of modern society, Des Esseintes fulminates about two problems: “He was constantly coming across some new source of offence, wincing at the patriotic or political twaddle [balivernes patriotiques et sociales] served up in the papers every morning, and exaggerating ...
Chapter 4. A Mirror for Teachers: Decadent Pedagogy and Public Education
I argued in the last chapter that decadent writers after 1870 make collecting and canon building a means of critiquing the rising tide of nationalism that followed in the wake of German unification. Manifestly artificial, and selected according to the perverse tastes of the collector, decadent collections oppose the putatively organic traditions represented by the canon of national ...
Chapter 5. A Republic of (Nothing but) Letters: Some Versions of Decadent Community
I noted at the beginning of Chapter 3 that Des Esseintes leaves Paris for the isolated “ark” he creates in the countryside out of an acute disenchantment with contemporary communities. The last of his line, he lacks a family, feels no connection with his old friends, can no longer accept the teachings of the church, and regards nationalism with unmitigated disdain. But this does not ...
Postscript. Public Works: Stéphane Mallarmé’s “Le Tombeau de Charles Baudelaire”
In 1892, Stéphane Mallarmé helped organize a committee to raise money for a monument in memory of Baudelaire. The committee tapped Auguste Rodin to design the monument, but he never completed the commission (the monument was not erected until 1902, several years after Mallarmé’s death; it was designed by a young sculptor ...