- 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...