CHAPTER THREE: Cosmopolitan Decadence: Writing Inversions
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60 CHAPTER THREE Cosmopolitan Decadence: Writing Inversions Decadence was a symptom of modernity and its cardinal pose. In Latin America, decadence was considered a direct consequence of cosmopolitanism because of its openness to foreign influence. The attribution of decadence was as arbitrary as it was culturally based and biased; in the case of Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes, the threat emanated from the colonial other, yet for much of Latin American state discourses, decadence was a patently European phenomenon represented by figures like Barbey d’Aurevilly and Oscar Wilde. By the turn of the century, antidecadence in Latin America was a catch-all for past and present social ill, of the decadent Spanish past and the contemporaneous immigration of foreign cultural forms. Decadence is a celebration of artifice, of the potential for substituting the “natural” or “real” body and its practices with a set of performances, typically of deviant sexualities and gender identifications. In an iconic definition, Arthur Symons describes decadence as “an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an oversubtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity” (135). For Barbara Spackman, the master trope of decadence is inversion , particularly sexual inversion (“Interversions”). Havelock Ellis, the master of this discourse, defines inversion as “sexual instinct turned by inborn constitutional abnormality toward persons of the same sex” (1); this constitutional deficiency puts inversion squarely in the domain of that close kin of decadence, degeneration . Decadence was often described as degeneration and though they often appear in tandem, David Weir distinguishes them in a concise manner: “Decadence and degeneration have little in common: one refines corruption and the other corrupts refinement” (ix). Decadence is a literary and cultural movement, whereas degeneration described biological forms of decay or devolution; though literary decadence was often interpreted as an expression of “biological degeneracy” (Constable, Denisoff, and Potolsky 7). The terms were used together to amplify and synergize their connotations; for instance, when Nordau contends in his interview with Gómez Carrillo that “Spanish letters and science . . . are in complete decadence and in complete degeneration” (“Las letras y las ciencias españolas . . . Cosmopolitan Decadence 61 están en completa decadencia y en completa degeneración”) (Almas y cerebros 247). Across the Americas, decadence, conflated with degeneration, was virtually synonymous with sexual, gender, and racial deviance as cause of the decline of “civilization,” as an unfortunate condition leading to the weakening of the state, conveniently attributed to alien immigration to a purely heteronormative native soil. Internationally, there were many texts and discourses dedicated to the elimination of the threat of decadence, often the primary target of the state sanitizing discourses. But like most turn-of-the-century scientific discourses about sex, they served only to publicize the acts they describe and sold out faster than the steamiest novel. Nordau’s Degeneration scandalized and intrigued more readers than the most boosterish prose about the new generation of writers of decadent and symbolist proclivities. There was a whole slate of scientific and medical discourses similar in kind to Degeneration that cast an often moralizing and taxonomizing gaze upon aberrant social and sexual practices. The case histories, reports, and studies were symptoms of an Enlightenment-inspired ordering and categorizing discourse of modern state control. Yet, as Foucault notes in his History of Sexuality, the proliferation of scientific discourses about sexual practices gave rise, actually, to categories and species of being and behavior hitherto nonexistent, invisible, or unnamed. As a result of the new publicity attributable to literary and scientific advertising , gay cultures and identities were beginning to emerge in many of the major world cities at the turn of the nineteenth century. Visibility coincided more or less with scandal, when the most socially visible populations were caught acting up and out, when sex crossed with gender and men acted or “posed” in a feminine manner. Sylvia Molloy notes that, in turn-of-the-century Latin American literary cultures, the idea of the “pose” is unequivocally associated with deviance in its reference to Wilde, caught famously “posing as a somdomite” [sic] by his lover’s father—who perhaps misspells the word to seem naïve of its intricacies. Molloy locates a clear association of posing with homosexuality: “Not all turn-of-thecentury posing refers unequivocally to the homosexual, a subject yet to be defined and in whose formulation, both cultural and legal, Wilde’s trials played such a large part. But I would argue that all turn-of-the-century posing does refer equivocally to...


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Subject Headings

  • America -- Politics and government -- 19th century.
  • Latin America -- Civilization -- European influences.
  • Pan-Americanism -- History -- 19th century.
  • City and town life in literature.
  • Cosmopolitanism -- America -- History -- 19th century.
  • Literary movements -- America -- History -- 19th century.
  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Latin American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • America -- Intellectual life -- 19th century.
  • America -- Civilization -- 19th century.
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