The New Decadence
Decadence has always had its problems with discipline. It is, after all, the very language of overindulgence, of the kind of excess that overflows the "healthy" and "good" as it runs toward "sickness" and "corruption." And it is all this excessiveness that makes it difficult to pin down exactly—which is one reason why decadence's problems with discipline also register as its problems with the discipline. Overwhelming by nature, decadence tends to frustrate the scholarly will to classification. Even in its most concentrated form—the 1890s decadence of Europe and England—it appears, at best, as the blurry edge between the major periods of the Victorian era and modernism. Thus, it often evades direct treatment. Too eccentric to figure prominently on many course syllabi, too shapeless to make into one of the reified categories of the academic job market, decadence rarely rises to the level of that solid object capable of sustaining a substantial critical industry.1
So, historically, the scholarship that does take up decadence has enacted its own kind of eternal return where in each instance it starts back at the beginning in order to address what this beguiling term actually signifies. This is not to say that these projects are not useful or important, only that they spend much of their time on definition. I [End Page 213] have in mind a book like Matei Calinescu's Five Faces of Modernity (1977), a taxonomic study of the historical reactions to modernity, in which decadence stands as a sort of dark avant-garde that makes clear, and even relishes in, the crises of a modern society "whose central values are change and novelty."2 Or David Weir's Decadence and the Making of Modernism (1995), which opens on the very problematic I am discussing here: "Practically everyone who writes about decadence begins with the disclaimer that the word itself is annoyingly resistant to definition."3 Charles Bernheimer offers one of the more provocative responses to this issue in Decadent Subjects (published posthumously in 2002), where he embraces the notion that decadence fails to cohere into a stable category, but in doing so shows that all of this indeterminacy is what lends the term its power in the first place.4
Three recent studies of decadence—Vincent Sherry's Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (2014), Alex Murray's Landscapes of Decadence (2016), and Robert Stilling's Beginning at the End (2018)—respect this indeterminacy without letting it become all-consuming. Together they move decadence criticism forward by looking beyond its classificatory struggles to the ways in which decadence—as an aesthetic, a philosophy, and a worldview—is employed in variety of historical and geographical contexts that fall outside of its usual confinement to a single decade in a select few locations. Recalling the sort of expansion that the field of modernism underwent during the turn to a "new modernist studies," through which modernism was pluralized and proliferated in the name of multiple modernisms, these studies trace the broader contexts of decadence as a diverse set of aesthetic and cultural practices.5 At the same time, the difference between modernism and decadence here provides a useful opportunity to reflect on the purpose and impact of such scholarly turns. This, then, is what a "new decadence" looks like.
It begins with Sherry's Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence, the major contribution of which comes in placing decadence within an expanded historical framework that stretches from about 1820 to 1920.6 Such a periodization is notable for the way it has decadence overlap with modernism—revealing the close affinity between these two categories that, as Weir has recently pointed out, already exists in many language traditions but remains stubbornly unobserved within the scholarship on English literature.7 In Sherry's formulation, modernism is decadence (as the self-conscious intensification of it), and both terms are responsive to an even larger category of post-Romanticism in which possibility seems to stall out because of the sense of "lateness" that hangs over "contemporary time" (Reinvention, 4). Indeed, much of modernism appears to suffer from just such a historical hangover, but without its "decadent" label. Responding to this fact, an early part of the book therefore traces how decadence was edited out of modernism's legacy—important texts for perpetuating this deletion include Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1899) and Edmund Wilson's Axel's Castle (1931)—and replaced with a sanitized version of itself, "symbolism," in a "critical swerve that bespeaks the nervousness in that replacement, that suppression" (11).
In order to supply an alternative history, Sherry turns, first, to early Romanticism, where the Wordsworthian "spot of time" initially holds the promise of allowing youthful memories to come to bear on the present moment of adulthood and reenergize it (37). This reinvigoration can also be directed toward political ends: "As conceived and practiced, the spot of time is homologous with the cultural structuring and imaginative production of a renewal of historical time, which appears as the profoundest imaginative possibility of revolution" (39). But its promises are ultimately deflated by the repeated failures of European revolution, after which such a Romantic notion of time can only appear as a hollow shadow of itself. Sherry then shows how a second generation of Romantics—De Quincey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, and Lord Byron are glimpsed here—internalize this failure as the feeling of "aftermath" and "absconded possibilities" (45). Such historical loss becomes the common factor of an emergent decadent aesthetics in which this temporal breakdown is, over and over again, transformed into an opportunity for imaginative exploration: Baudelaire and Poe pioneer a "poetics of afterward" that examines how the nowness of modernity is always falling away from the present and so remains forever just out of reach; and later aesthetes like Swinburne, Rossetti, and Dowson figure this "seconded state" in the formal techniques of their poetry by crafting verses of echoing repetitions (63, 69).
The impressive breadth Sherry exhibits in the first part of his study only widens in later parts. Next, the decadent sensitivity to an anti-progressive modernity becomes the basis for a [End Page 214] "profounder modernism" able to encompass an array of fringe modernists—Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, G. K. Chesterton, and Frederic Manning—as well as more familiar names—Henry James, Joseph Conrad, D. H. Lawrence, and Rebecca West (92). This proposition builds to its pinnacle in Sherry's reading of how West and Manning's World War I novels record the ways in which "the technology hitherto associated with Progress was coming to its appallingly inverse apocalypse and revelation in the day-by-day-mayhem" of the war (147).
Such wartime ravages—the mounting death tolls provided the real-world stuff of a decadent modernism—also play into Sherry's reading of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, who, despite their late entry, comprise the true core of this project. The standard line on both of these poets is that they repudiate their juvenile infatuations with decadence. The nuance Sherry adds here is easily appreciated. Sherry argues that, yes, the younger Pound is seduced by decadence, but also that this is a decadence he matures into during the war: an interpretation of "Homage to Sextus Propetius" illustrates how the Latinity and mixture of styles of this poem register a sense of decline made real by the war. This is followed by a reading of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) as a poem obsessed with the signal trope of decadence, "the narrative of genius dying young," that is here fashioned into a modernist thematic (202). The Eliot chapter works similarly. Sherry focuses on how a repetitive, "mechanical" cadence carries decadence across Eliot's early poetry, especially his quatrains (242). This decaying music culminates in an iconic modernist poem that Sherry positions as the emblematic text of modernist decadence: The Waste Land. In attending to the cut-out parts of the poem (a "shadow" text that continues the theme of decadence's suppression), Sherry exposes its more decadent rhythms; for what does Eliot's famously "fossilized" landscape represent other than a late hour in the day in a world that comes after (264, 262)?
The ambition of Sherry's book sometimes has it soar past some potentially rewarding lines of inquiry. For instance, the conclusion's brief look at the rhythmic "automation of language" in the writings of Djuna Barnes and Samuel Beckett from the 1930s and 1950s, respectively, raises the unaddressed specter of decadence's relationship to what other critics have called "late modernism."8 This isn't a criticism really. The book, a retelling of the story of two major literary-historical periods, leaves these more focused engagements to other critics—like Murray, whose Landscapes of Decadence relentlessly localizes decadence through its place-specific writing. And while such an approach comes with its own restrictions, it is just as capable of taking decadence in new directions. Or, as Murray writes, "One of the goals of this study is to expand and extend Decadence by paradoxically narrowing its focus to the representation of place."9
Murray understands "Decadence" as a set of stylistic strategies aimed at challenging conventions by pushing them to the point of "dissolution," and so distinguishes it from "decadence" as the more general watchword for conservative reactions to cultural decline (Landscapes of Decadence, 6). Though the protests of decadence are many, Murray is primarily interested in the resistance it offers to traditional notions of place in an era of intensely nationalist thinking. His investigation is thus structured around several distinct late-Victorian locations, some of which are identifiably decadent—such as Naples, Paris, and London—while others—Oxford, Wales, and New York—are less so. The goal is not to re-classify all of these places as truly decadent destinations so much as it is to dwell on their multiple, and often quite varied, representations. What makes some of these representations explicitly decadent, Murray argues, is the way they challenge an "easy means of mapping morality onto place" (9). This is the idea that a given place is inherently virtuous or corrupting. Decadence functions otherwise. Tracking the development of "Decadent landscape writing," Murray (not unlike Sherry) turns back to early Romanticism to see how decadents intensified Wordsworth's emotional landscapes by combining them with Walter Pater's aestheticist notions about the primacy of the artist's imagination in depicting inanimate objects (13). The result is a self-reflexive landscape that "foreground[s] the artificial nature of place"—the idea that landscapes, rather than being natural products, are always steeped in aesthetic representation (23).
The first half of the book is devoted to fleshing out this idea of decadent landscapes. It begins with Naples, a place strictly associated in the Victorian spatial imaginary with corruption and licentiousness. Yet Murray shows how the responses to such a place are still manifold. For instance, Vernon Lee stresses the seemingly decadent idea that places are largely products of the individual mind but also digs into Italy's past hedonism to warn of the "dangers of becoming [End Page 215] intoxicated by a foreign place" (31). This places her on the side of decadence's detractors, where she is joined by John Meade Falkner, who epitomizes a "symptomatic model of the association between place and morality" with his representations of Naples's contaminating influence (42). John Addington Symonds counteracts this simplistic mapping: an example of the Decadent landscape writer, Symonds not only rewrites the associations surrounding Naples (supplying light where darkness reigned previously), but also makes use of a jarring prose style that sits awkwardly atop the landscape in order to suggest the way place exists beyond language, in some murky "unrepresentability" (51). This intense abstraction of place carries over into the following chapter, which takes up the relationship between Paris and London. Paris, that capital of aesthetic culture, drew in many potential decadents; George Moore, for example, was "bitten by the Bohemian life" when he first visited there in 1873 (62). What he took away from his stay, Murray contends, was a "mode of writing place [that] worked to foreground transience, desire and impermanence," one that he would import back to London to transform that city into a new site of transgression (67). Murray also tracks how Moore's style develops from a detached naturalism to a more subjective impressionism. The torch of the latter is then passed on to Arthur Symons, whose portraits of both Paris and London rely on an "impressionistic conflagration" so overwhelming, so abstract, that the two cities become virtually indistinguishable (75).
The second half of the book opens onto a broader landscape, setting out to discover a similar treatment of place in a variety of other locations. A high point is the chapter on Oxford, in which the tradition of the "Oxford pastoral" poem registers "different Decadent responses to the dramatic changes that Oxford underwent over the course of the nineteenth century" (89). Oscar Wilde incorporates the modern Oxford into Matthew Arnold's idealized Hellenic vision of it to undermine such nostalgic modes of representation, while Irish American Louise Imogen Guiney attempts an earnest recovery of Oxford's repressed Catholic history. A third poet, Lionel Johnson, was then "torn between Arnold's Hellenic pastoral and the call of religion and tradition" (117). The next chapter moves to Wales, which, in its remoteness from other parts of the Empire, becomes a symbol for how to either recuperate English modernity (Ernest Rhys) or transcend it entirely (Johnson). At times, this chapter can seem overly concerned with early fantasy writer Arthur Machen, whose alchemical pursuits require a great deal of explication before getting to the payoff of his supernatural idea of place.
A final chapter on New York City is more rewarding, as the strident newness of that city would apparently make it inhospitable to decadent growth. But Murray artfully uncovers the push and pull by which New York decadence "was always in the thrall of European aesthetic traditions while it simultaneously tried to distance itself from it" (158). Edgar Saltus, "the first American Decadent," took European aestheticism and applied it to New York's unchecked development to show how progress could invert itself into ugliness (161). And in Carl Van Vechten's writings the city's constant changes spurred on the production of an extremely vibrant decadent impressionism, which in turn highlights decadence's surprising success in relocating to 1920s America.
With this close attention to place, Murray highlights an important comparative dimension to decadence. Yet he stops short of examining the issues of race, empire, and globalism that frequently accompany such a framework (an absence most strongly felt in reading about Van Vechten, whose proximity to the Harlem Renaissance begs questions about decadence's racial politics). It is exactly this set of concerns, however, that serves as the motivating force behind Stilling's Beginning at the End. While the previous books each played an important role in expanding decadence, Stilling's perhaps best embodies the possibilities represented by a new decadence for the way it attends to decadence's transnational afterlife in postcolonial literatures. The book starts by pointing out how postcolonial thinkers—like Frantz Fanon, Derek Walcott, and Chinua Achebe—worried over the way newly decolonized states inherited the culture of declining empires, exposing the former to a "secondary decadence" that threatened revolutionary energy.10 Such an anxious engagement with decadence is therefore one important strand of this story, but it isn't the only one. As Stilling goes on to demonstrate, regardless of these enervating connotations, decadence still offered such writers a vocabulary for naming "the tectonic friction between rising and falling empires and the condition under which the art of those nations and cultures caught between them is produced" (Beginning at the End, 11–12). And what's more, "postcolonial writers and artists were increasingly willing to make use of the fin-de-siècle decadents' [End Page 216] most critical and oppositional tools, their wit, satire, paradoxical formulations, attention to form, resistance to realism, sexual dissidence, and revisionist approach to history, to critique what they saw as the failures of postcolonial societies" (12).
What follows next is a dazzling confluence of fin-de-siècle aesthetics and postcolonial thought. Take, for example, Indian American poet's Agha Shahid Ali's imaginative interchanges with Wilde. Although Wilde's treatment of exotic fabrics—epitomized by the "Dacca gauzes" in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1899)—could be read as mere orientalism, Stilling locates behind this an appreciation of material production that places Wilde against the British Empire and its decimation of the Indian textile industry.11 Such an attention to craft highlights Wilde's unique sense of form, which, Stilling argues, is based in "materiality" and "the fragility and susceptibility of material things to the passage of time" (54). This idea sits well with Ali, who weaves Dorian's fabrics into his ghazals, originally an Arabic form that flourished among eighteenth-century Urdu poets. In fact, through a similar attention to form, Ali explores the ghazal's decadent history (under the Mughal empire) and subsequent decline (as a disfavored form during anti-colonial periods) before submitting it to the kind of refurbishment that puts "the very brokenness of traditional forms on display" (83). Another example comes in Walcott's experiments with impressionism. For Walcott, the Caribbean artist is caught between two options, both of them decadent. The first is to adapt to a modernist impressionism that has been driven to "absurd levels of self-involved abstraction" (91). The other is to embrace an indigenous political art, but this "can quickly develop into another, more homegrown variety of decadence, one that manifests itself in an artificial African tribalism" (98). Walcott wants to resist such blunt radicalism as much as he wants to avoid simply copying European art. So, in a final compromise, he draws on the life of painter Camille Pissarro (who was born in Saint Thomas) to supply impressionism with an alternative genealogy based in the Caribbean.
Though the focus of these chapters is on poetry, Stilling asserts early on that the concepts with which he is dealing also matter for other genres. The claim actually understates the case to be made here, which is that this book offers a cross section of decadence's incorporation into various media, pointing to a media history that becomes more and more important as we track decadence's influences into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The first two chapters show an interest in how decadence is mediated through textiles and painting; a third takes up film and other visual arts. It centers on the work of the British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, who draws from fin-de-siècle decadence an "antirealism"—that is, its investment in artifice at the expense of mimesis—to challenge shared perceptions of reality (135). Through Shonibare's use of ornate decorations and elaborate masquerades in his photo projects and films, "realism drops out of the equation as [his] work insists that both Africa and Europe must work through their own illusions" concerning the decadent theater involved in most empire making as well as in the toxic corruption of some postcolonial states (150).
Highlighting the fact that decadence and postcolonialism share an investment in imperial decline, the last two chapters turn specifically to matters of history. The first of these considers another British Nigerian writer, Bernardine Evaristo, and her adoption of a fin-de-siècle historical revisionism to reimagine third-century Roman Londinium as the multicultural precursor to contemporary Britain in her verse novel The Emperor's Babe (2001). An important part of this reading has to do with how imperial decline and the decay of a state-sanctioned language enables the development of heterogeneous, barbarian dialects and thus how, very intentionally, "the language of Evaristo's text, like the poetry of the Latin Decadence, bears witness to the breakup of empire and its linguistic aftermath" (195). The concluding chapter reflects on a similar kind of revisionism, but one that, in this case, arises from the archive. In this chapter, Stilling looks at Northern Irish poet Derek Mahon's self-reflexive approach to depositing his archive at Emory University—a process he presents in the very poetry he compiles there as being entangled with the coercive commercialism of American cultural imperialism. Yet Stilling shows how Mahon also constructs a decadent archive that has a "propensity to unsettle received understandings of literary inheritance as old documents rise up from their dusty coffers to accuse the living of complicity in modernity's barbarism" (234). In other words, as opposed to the fixity of published writing, the constant flux of the postcolonial archive offers Mahon a site of critical revision—revision of both his own writings and the scholarly narrative that surrounds his generation of Irish poets. [End Page 217]
That Stilling's book ends with an Irish poet in the American South in the 1990s speaks to that long, strange reach of decadence. From this perspective, his book stands as an inquiry into the ways decadence has been taken up at a far remove from the fin de siècle, "sometimes earnestly, sometimes ironically, almost always ambivalently" (287). This casting outward, I would finally suggest, brings decadence into direct contact with the conversations surrounding the globalizing tendencies of the new modernist studies—a critical framework at times maligned for the way that it seems to foist Western aesthetics and ideology upon people and places outside of Anglo-American traditions. Not unimportant here is the way that certain strains of modernism, in their fetishization of "the new," carry with them, and sometimes extremely uncritically, the particular logic of consumer capitalism that manifests itself as novelty doomed to obsolescence. But decadence, again, operates differently. It admits obsolesce at the outset. It is doomed from the start, and so represents a far less heroic and celebratory strain of modernism, one that is much more self-critical, self-defeating even. Or, as Sherry puts it, decadence pivots on a "modernity against itself"—and in this way, it presents opportunities for thinking about a form of modernist aesthetics that circulates within a global frame while simultaneously pointing to its own destructive impulses, its own corrupting influences (98). This, quite interestingly, would be the heralding of a transnational modernism against itself.
1. One exception here has to do with criticism on decadence and sexuality, though the emphasis in these studies typically lands on the latter term instead of the former. See, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990); Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990); and Cassandra Laity, H. D. and the Victorian Fin de Siècle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
2. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity: Modernism, Avant-Garde, Decadence, Kitsch, Post-modernism (1977; rpt., Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987), 3.
3. David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), 1.
4. See Charles Bernheimer, Decadent Subjects: The Idea of Decadence in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Culture of the Fin de Siècle in Europe, ed. T. Jefferson Kline and Naomi Schor (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), especially 1–6.
5. See Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz's often-cited article, "The New Modernist Studies," PMLA 123, no. 3 (2008): 739–48.
6. Vincent Sherry, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
7. David Weir, review of Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence, by Vincent Sherry, The Review of English Studies 66, no. 275 (June 2015): 591–93.
8. Barnes and Beckett both play a large role in Tyrus Miller's Late Modernism: Politics, Fiction, and the Arts between the World Wars (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).
9. Alex Murray, Decadent Landscapes: Literature and Place at the Fin de Siècle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 26.
10. Robert Stilling, Beginning at the End: Decadence, Modernism, and Postcolonial History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 4.
11. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ed. Joseph Bristow (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 118.