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  • Decadence and its Creative Aftermath
  • Rajeev Patke (bio)
Beginning at the End: Decadence, Modernism, and Postcolonial Poetry by Robert Stilling. Harvard University Press, 2018. 384 pp. Cloth $39.95.

Books on postcolonial cultures that tackle the genre of poetry are still relatively rare. Robert Stilling's book is thematic in focus and wide-ranging but selective in its approach to authors. In respect of a singular theme as the driving idea for a book on postcolonial poetry, it resembles Jahan Ramazani's book A Transnational Poetics (2009), and in its selectiveness—a chapter per author, with authors drawn from different cultures and societies—Ramazani's earlier book on postcolonial poetry, The Hybrid Muse (2001). The strength of this approach is that if the theme is well chosen and well illustrated, the argument of the book as a whole has cohesion and coherence. The potential limitations of this approach are twofold. When analysis and exemplification are confined to a single author per chapter, the manner in which traits or preoccupations are said to characterize the individual's work gives less than secure purchase for any extrapolations or generalizations that might apply to the society and culture that the author works in, or to other authors writing from the same culture at about the same time. Also, the scope for analysis and exemplification to add up to anything like the narrativity of literary or cultural history remains attenuated since its generalizations arise from a fairly narrow set of discrete bases. [End Page 413]

The theme of Stilling's book is decadence. Charles Baudelaire, speculating in 1857 of the literatures that would emerge from former colonies, and pointing in particular to America and Edgar Allan Poe, anticipated that the new poetries would begin where their colonial masters had left off: in decadence. A hundred years later and attended by far more anxiety than Baudelaire had any reason to bring to the matter, Frantz Fanon worried that "a borrowed aestheticism" and a "path of negation and decadence" was more likely to beset writing from the formerly colonized parts of the globe than the modernity of new beginnings and a new vocabulary of liberation. The second step in the argument is that a rift or divergence is claimed to have resulted between authors preoccupied with issues of form or "the oppositional aesthetic sensibility of decadence," and the needs of new cultural nationalisms.

Given these two hypotheses, a question is inevitable: if postcolonial poetries might be said to have begun in various manifestations of derivative decadence, is that to be seen as a historical process that has room for change over time, or is it to be interpreted as an abiding predicament? How long does a "founding condition," hovering between European decadence and the "unformed possibilities" of postcolonial cultures, continue in an "unformed" state? Does decadence mutate or evolve into something else? Or does it continue as the aesthetic sensibility always more or less oppositional to the discourses of postcolonial nationhood? The question is particularly relevant when we look at the active timeframe of the authors that Stilling has singled out for attention: they are authors active from the middle of the twentieth century to now. Does that imply that the poetic cultures of the formerly colonized have never stepped out of the shadow of decadence all through the twentieth century? Or is that applicable only to the authors selected for scrutiny in this book?

The answer is interesting and selective. The authors brought together share a common strategy. They invoke, and make use of, the idea of European 1890s decadence—for which Wilde becomes the not unexpected presiding figure for this book. For poets thus inclined, extrapolated ideas regarding decadence become a counter to the call in decolonizing cultures to contribute to a national literature defined along specific lines that might be said to represent the kind of earnestness satirized by Wilde. This aim accounts for the somewhat unusual assemblage: two authors from Africa (neither primarily a poet: Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka); one poet from the Caribbean (Derek Walcott); one kashmir-born diasporic poet, whose work and life [End Page 414] were split between India and the USA (Agha Shahid Ali); two non-Caucasian...


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pp. 413-416
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