- Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence by Vincent Sherry
In Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence, Vincent Sherry offers a provocative new account of modernism’s roots in nineteenth-century poetry. According to Sherry, modernism, for all its protestations against what Ezra Pound once derisively referred to as the “decayed-lily verbiage [of] the Wilde school,” is less a rejection than a reimagining of decadence (11).1 Indeed, occulted within Pound’s famous injunction to “make it new” is a relationship to time that Sherry views as decadent to its core. Reminding us that this slogan, now taken as emblematic of high modernism, was not coined by Pound until 1934 when modernism was entering its twilight years, Sherry reads within the modernist desire for newness a “long submerged but always growing apprehension about the value of novelty and progress.” As he puts it, “modernism” and “decadence” are “dual names for [a] joint condition” (34): [End Page E-22]
if we think of modernism . . . as a poetics of the new, as the record of the next day of Now, decadence presents an aesthetic of the old, as the register of the last day of Then. In the most intense experience of Now in the radical time of modernism, however, Now is already going over into Then—into the temporal imaginary of decadence.(32–33)
Drawing on a range of philosophical and critical thought—Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin in particular—Sherry argues that modernism reaches its “most novel self-consciousness” when it recognizes its own decadent origins (90). Stressing the middle syllable of decadence in order to emphasize the “meaning of the Latin casus ‘fall’” (91), Sherry offers an expansive use of the term. “Decadence,” for Sherry, is more than just a banner under which to classify fin-de-siècle aesthetes like Wilde, Swinburne, and Gauthier, but a profound mood of discontent that manifests itself as an “awareness of the backward character of human history” (100).
However, as Sherry convincingly shows, critical accounts of modernism have long sought to cover up both the influence of the decadents and the concern with decay that writers such as Pound and Eliot clearly inherited. Sherry traces this suppression to Arthur Symons’s The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899), an influential study that served as a young T. S. Eliot’s first introduction to poets such as Jules Laforgue who greatly inspire his own early work. Symons’s book was, in fact, based on an earlier essay from 1893 entitled “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” Sherry attributes Symons’s sanitization of decadence into symbolism in part to the scandal of Wilde’s trials for indecency, as well as the growing influence of Yeats’s beliefs in the occult powers of the symbolic, and he charts how the erasure of decadence quickly became canonized through the scholarship of Edmund Wilson, Hugh Kenner, and Frank Kermode, for whom modernism, understood as novelty for its own sake, finds its most immediate origins in the poetry of the French symbolists. Starting with Wordsworth’s “spots of time,” and moving through De Quincy, the Shelleys, Baudelaire, Marx, Poe, and Yeats, Sherry proposes a less conventional lineage, highlighting a poetics of belatedness and decline “that emerges out of the undoing of the primary value of the romantic first of all” (66). While such an account runs the risk of transforming all the nineteenth century into a kind of long fin-de-siècle, Sherry carefully argues that this poetics reaches its zenith in the 1890s “when temporal specificity is intensified by the otherwise arbitrary chronology of a century’s end, which . . . sharpens the sense of the present” (99). The long chain Sherry constructs from the early twentieth-century avant garde back to romanticism is compelling and helps elucidate his conception of a modernism “against itself.” As Sherry puts it, in
the struggle to enunciate and assert its self-consciousness, the sensibility of modernism sometimes denounces decadence as its opposite and putative enemy, but their connection comprises and meaningfully exceeds any ready, general formulation as the antagonism of parent...