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  • Essays on Decadence
  • Jad Adams
Paul Fox, ed. Decadences: Morality and Aesthetics in British Literature. Stuttgart: Ibidem, 2006. viii + 399 pp. Paper 33 Euros.

The vigorous endurance of fin-de-siècle ideas is apparent in this welcome collection of fifteen essays. Far from being dead hothouse flowers, displayed in glass cases to preserve them from further decay, Decadent notions are vigorously seeding new fields of endeavour. Part of this vigour is demonstrated by the number of contributing scholars who gained their Ph.D.s this century.

In a genuinely international collection, published in Germany, contributors come mainly from North America and the United Kingdom but also from Switzerland, Poland and the United Arab Emirates. This last is from the editor, Paul Fox, in one of the best essays, "A Moment's Fixation: Aesthetic Time and Dialectical Progress," showing how the Decadent movement broke away from the late-nineteenth-century faith in progress based on a linear model of time to substitute a temporal model "that opposed the weight of history along with its expectations for the future." It was an aesthetic of the moment, with the artist being the site of the experience: "The primary distinction between the art of a Kipling and that of the Decadents is that the former invests his text with what he considers to be given truths. The latter has an aesthetic version of history that is provisional, contingent upon the constitution [End Page 225] of the artist from moment to moment." Much of this collection takes its theme from this notion—of the artist rejecting the past as a given to relish the subtleties of present nuance.

The collection offers a grand sweep from London in the 1880s to Northern Ireland in the 1990s. There are the usual suspects of Wilde and Symons but other essays in the collection, e.g. Ewa Macura's on Woman and Labour, rightly bring women such as Olive Schreiner into the Decadent fold, dealing in this case with concepts of Decadence and femininity. Sarah E. Maier, grappling fiercely with the work of George Egerton, addresses the way in which the New Woman became identified with the Decadent male artist because (in terms first set out by Linda Dowling) the ambitions of both presented "a profound threat to established culture."

Peter G. Christensen, writing on Vernon Lee's Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady, suggests that Lee uses Decadence less as a literary strategy than a set of tropes in order to call the reader to remember the loss of native Italian Renaissance culture under foreign cultural and political domination. Such a vision, across cultures and time frames (a twenty-first-century scholar on a nineteenth-century writer describing sixteenth-century decline) is typical of this lively collection. Mercifully, the editor has decided not to spend too much time on definitions, merely taking a capital letter to indicate aesthetic Decadence and lower-case for moral decadence.

One of the most original pieces is Heather Marcovitch's "The Obscure Camera" on Decadence and moral anxiety in Goodbye to Berlin. The rise of the Nazi Party in late-Weimar Berlin is seen though the eyes of Christopher Isherwood in a world where prostitutes, demimondaines and Jewish businessmen are all categorised under the same brushstrokes as Decadent. The anxious contradiction Marcovitch brings out is that Isherwood's central character's homosexuality has to be submerged or he too would have to be seen as a degenerate threat to German moral integrity and he would lose his supposed "camera-like" impartiality.

"Decadence in Post-Colonial British Dilemmas" by James Whitlark sees the working out in the late twentieth century of the Decadent ideas of fin-de-siècle writers such as H. G.Wells. Wells's Eloi, the descendants of the privileged nineteenth century class, are encountered by his time traveller from the end of the nineteenth century as beautiful, frail and sick. Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time trilogy with its individual titles from the work of Wratislaw and Dowson depicts a time traveller from the far future whose culture is situated in the ruins of [End Page 226] New York where British imperialism is long since forgotten...


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