- Beyond Modernism
THE ESSAYS COLLECTED in Decadence in the Age of Modernism, edited by Kate Hext and Alex Murray, emerged from a 2015 conference exploring the lingering influence of decadence and aestheticism in the twentieth century, and they ask readers to consider a number of compelling questions. The largest, perhaps, concerns influence itself: how do we identify literary influence and, more pointedly, to what end? With all due respect to the much-influenced and much-influencing T. S. Eliot, what purpose does tracking, tracing, delimiting the "dead poets" who continue to "assert their immortality" in the work of later writers serve? That one author was reading another, that he or she employed tropes or visited topics traversed by earlier thinkers, seems de rigueur. Do not all of us write—think—with the literature of innumerable others in our bones?
Perhaps. But what this collection does quite well, in its strongest moments, is expand the question of influence beyond individual writers and texts so that it becomes an occasion to consider, for example, the way that literary movements move, the strange magic by which those cloudy networks of texts that we have designated as literary periods become different literary periods. The question of how aestheticism becomes decadence becomes modernism is, after all, a question about how time is felt and how an author's sense of self in time evolves in response to events like war, technological change, or the realignment or social mores. So while the editors write that Decadence in the Age of Modernism "is about English-speaking writers of Faulkner's era and the ways in which decadent aesthetics and principles shaped their work," this volume allows readers to think much further, to consider not simply where decadence rears its head after 1900 but how modernism was shaped and continues to be reshaped by writers whose engagement with decadence we tend to minimize or overlook.
Hext and Murray, and the eleven other scholars whose work is represented in the collection, thus propose that among the "manifold modernisms" currently engaging critics—global modernism, camp modernism, intermodernism, and so forth—we include "decadent modernism." "Include," however, is misleading; while decadence itself has long been dismissed and its most notable representatives relegated to non-canonical positions in literary history, this volume demonstrates that decadent modernists are modernists. Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D. H. [End Page 472] Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, and Edna St. Vincent Millay all figure largely in chapters that consider these canonical figures alongside writers less familiar not to them, but to us: Carl Van Vechten, Ada Leverson, Saki, Margaret Sackville, Ronald Firbank, Bruce Nugent, and others. Scholars of decadence are used to seeing decadent ideas represented in modernist literature as targets of satire or straightforward criticism. Far less studied, but no less common, it appears, are those literary engagements that suggest (as historian Osbert Burdett remarked) that British decadence "may have stood for something more enduring than we thought." The enduring nature of decadent ideals, as evident in the work of canonical and noncanonical modernists, forms the substance of this collection.
The chapters excel, first, in their close readings of familiar modernist texts that suddenly become unfamiliar, or at least newly interesting, when examined in light of their decadent influence. Vincent Sherry places Woolf and Joyce alongside Samuel Beckett and Djuna Barnes to construct a kind of miniature history of decadence as "an evolving consciousness within modernist literature." He notes that although scholars have long assumed an "essential disconnection" between decadence and modernism, novels as different as The Voyage Out, Ulysses, Nightwood, and Beckett's The Unnamable share similarly decadent interests when considered as part of the same "long turn of the century" literary period. Howard J. Booth carefully reexamines a number of Lawrence's letters, essays, and early novels to recover the Swinburnian roots Lawrence's conception of Pan and investment in mythopoeia. Booth argues that Lawrence's anti-Cartesianism and interest in embodied form—subjects that have been of much critical interest to modernist scholars—emerge from nineteenth-century aestheticist and decadent...