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p. 1Introductionlocked

  • David Weir


The Introduction first considers the etymological and historical meanings of decadence. Different interpretations of the word “decadence” point to historical decline, social decay, and aesthetic inferiority. Decadence today may be best understood as the aesthetic expression of a conflicted attitude toward modernity, which first arose in nineteenth-century France and is best expressed by the author Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). Decadence then “travelled” to London, where Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) became the preeminent decadent writer. Other metropolitan centers that made up part of the urban geography of decadence during the fifty-year period (1880–1930) of decadence’s peak were fin-de-siècle Vienna and Weimar Berlin.

Decadence is a simple word but a complicated concept: the Latin verb decadēre means “to decay,” formed by the root verb cadēre “to fall” plus the prefix de- “down.” The Latin origins of the word are of interest not only to etymologists but also to historians: after all, Latin was the language of ancient Rome, and everyone knows that Rome fell, down, into a state of decay. The fall of Rome furnishes us with the first of several seemingly simple interpretations of the word decadence: historical decline. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire also points to a second shading of the concept: social decay. The political corruption and excessive hedonism of any number of Roman emperors—Caligula, Nero, Elagabalus, to name a few—earned them the epithet decadent, first in the work of professional historians and, later, more broadly, in the popular imagination. Crucially, the personal depravity of a Caligula or a Nero is regarded as an index to the broader degeneration of society at large.

Moreover, the historical decline and social decay of ancient Rome was also reflected in the literature of the age, which leads to a third important sense of decadence: aesthetic inferiority. The art produced in periods of historical decline is regarded as inferior to the work of artists and writers of an earlier age, when the empire or the nation is at the height of its political power and economic influence. Virgil, who wrote during the reign of Augustus Caesar p. 2(r. 27 BCE – 14 CE), is the great poet of empire, but Ausonius, who wrote during the reign of Valentinian (r. 364–375 CE) after Rome had entered the period of its long decline, is a minor writer of the Decadence, not so much a poet as a poetaster, an inferior imitator of the patterns of the past. The historical, social, and aesthetic dimensions of decadence are all covered, but they are also questioned and qualified.

Consider, for example, “the decadence of Rome.” Obviously, the Roman Empire no longer exists. But more than nine hundred million people today speak a language that developed from one of the vernacular dialects of Latin spoken two thousand years ago somewhere in the Roman Empire. French and Spanish, for example, are called Romance languages because they evolved from the language spoken by the Romans who colonized the ancient imperial provinces of Gaul (modern France) and Hispania (modern Spain). Another example of the continuing relevance of ancient Rome is the system of laws used to administer the republic and, later, the empire. A modified version of that system remains in use today, mostly in Europe but also in parts of Asia and Africa that were once under Roman control.

In the United States, the Founding Fathers may have relied more on British common law than on Roman law in crafting the American legal system, but they looked to the Roman Republic as a model of representative government, naming part of that government, the Senate, after its Roman prototype, Senatus. The linguistic, legal, and political resonance of ancient Rome is matched by its ongoing religious influence. The deathbed conversion of Emperor Constantine (r. 306–337 CE) aided the spread of Christianity throughout the empire, assuring the establishment of the Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. Add to all this the achievements of Roman architecture and engineering (the roads, the aqueducts, the sewers) that have had a lasting influence on the built environment of so many cities, and the question quite reasonably arises: “What kind of decadence is this, really?”

p. 3The question arises because decay, it turns out, is oddly generative: the historical decline of Rome ultimately seems less like decadence and more like progress because of the many social and cultural developments that ensued in the wake of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. Rome not only remains the paradigm of decadence, it also provides the pattern for the inevitable linkage of decline and renewal. But this pattern becomes a paradox in the modern era: historical decline and renewal, social decay and regeneration, artistic decadence and avant-gardism appear increasingly interrelated. In fact, modernity itself seems to call for a decadent response of one kind or another, so much so that decadence today may perhaps best be understood as the aesthetic expression of a conflicted attitude toward modernity. Decadence and modernity are not precisely contemporary with one another, but if we think of modernity as the vast complex of social, political, and technological transformations that emerged in the early nineteenth century, decadence—or the perception thereof—was not far behind.

The conflicted sense of modernity that decadence describes arises first and most clearly in nineteenth-century France. The English word “decadence” derives from French décadence, an etymological fact that might serve as a capsule description of a much broader cultural development: in the modern era, just about every manifestation of decadence owes its origins, either directly or indirectly, to a loosely affiliated group of artists and writers who lived and worked in Paris. French decadence should really be called “Parisian decadence” because decadence is deeply urbanist. The philosopher Walter Benjamin famously termed Paris the “Capital of the Nineteenth Century” since for him the city illustrated, better than most, the social and demographic trends that constitute modernity: the mass migration of people from the country to the town, the growth of consumer culture, the advent of new technologies (in transportation, architecture, infrastructure), and many more developments that we take for granted today.

p. 4The proponents of modernity interpret its effects as progress, and indeed it is the case that most of the changes in the built environment that Louis-Napoléon contemplated and that Baron Hausmann executed in Paris during the Second Empire (1852–1870) improved the lives of its citizens (sanitation and transportation are two obvious areas of improvement). But not everyone experienced this new urban modernity as progress; those who didn’t regarded progress itself as decadence. The accelerated rhythm of modernity, the up-tempo cadence of daily life, was, for some, de-cadence.

The one author who best expressed the conflicted attitude toward modernity in nineteenth century Paris was Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). In an essay on Edgar Allan Poe, Baudelaire called progress “that great heresy of decline” and regarded it as nothing more than “an idiot’s delight.” What Haussmann called improvements Poe preferred to term “rectangular obscenities.” The critic Théophile Gautier (1811–1872) ascribed that assessment of modernity to Baudelaire himself while also praising the poet for writing in “the decadent style, which is simply art that has reached the extreme point of maturity which marks the setting of ancient civilizations.” In Gautier’s formulation, then, the Paris of Baudelaire, the capital of nineteenth-century progress, is also the capital of an ancient civilization in decline. More important, the modern urban world, with all its temptations and contradictions, calls for a new kind of artistic response—a new kind of artist, really. Gautier saw Baudelaire as precisely the poet of modern life who possessed the new aesthetic sensibility necessary to capture the complexities of that life. No doubt he was able to do this because Baudelaire himself had described that sensibility in one of the most important documents of decadence: “The Painter of Modern Life” (1863).

Baudelaire’s essay is ostensibly an appreciation of Constantin Guys (1802–1892), an illustrator whose sketches appeared in British and French newspapers. Guys is not named directly, referred to only as “Monsieur M. G.” or “Monsieur G.”—an indication, perhaps, that Baudelaire is more concerned with the nature of modern life and p. 5the problem of “painting” or representing it than he is with the work of a particular artist. The essay begins by describing the traditional aesthetic category of Beauty in an untraditional way: Beauty is really twofold, containing “an eternal, invariable element” and “a relative, circumstantial element.” This second element is modernity, “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and immutable.” This is not a very complicated idea of modernity—all Baudelaire is asking of art is that it reflect present reality—but it was revolutionary at the time. The kind of rapid technique required to capture contemporary scenes and events necessarily breaks with the careful, studied art of classicism, and the focus on the present breaks with the penchant for the past that we identify with romanticism. The kind of art Baudelaire has in mind, then, seems a lot like what we now call modernism.

But it isn’t really, or isn’t fully, because Baudelaire expresses a number of reservations about the pageant of modern life he sees all around him. The disaffection he feels is conveyed though the opposition of two important terms: “flâneur” and “dandy.” The first term describes a man who lounges about the cafés or saunters down the boulevards, taking pleasure in observation alone. As a “painter of the passing moment,” Monsieur G. has much in common with the flâneur because he takes interest in that moment but without participating in it: “The artist lives very little, if at all, in the world of morals or politics.” That world is the domain of the dandy, who is not a “passionate spectator” like the flâneur, but someone who “aspires to insensitivity.”

The dandy, in short, is blasé—“for reasons of policy and caste.” The comment about caste becomes clear when Baudelaire explains that the dandy necessarily possesses an “aristocratic superiority of mind.” By this point in the essay, it is clear that Baudelaire is really talking about himself as the painter—or the poet—of modern life, and that modern life is really a form of decadence, because “dandyism appears above all in periods of transition, when democracy is not yet all-p. 6powerful, and aristocracy is only just beginning to totter and fall.” It follows that “dandyism is the last spark of heroism amid decadence.” Both of the character types that Baudelaire describes—the flâneur and the dandy—are, like the decadent, creatures of modern urban society. Like the flâneur, the decadent observes but does not participate in modern life, possibly taking some pleasure in what he sees, but not much. Decadents are more like dandies, especially in their cultivation of aristocratic tastes and in their revulsion over the rise of democracy and the emergence of mass society.

Paris was not the only capital of the nineteenth century that produced a culture of decadence that celebrated some aspects of modernity but resisted others, but it was the first. Paris produced the first poet (Baudelaire) to be retrospectively described as decadent by the first critic of decadence (Gautier). Paris also boasts the first novelist of decadence in Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907), whose novel À Rebours (1884) had enormous influence on the next generation of decadents (the title of the novel has been translated as Against the Grain and Against Nature). That generation was mostly British, so one can say that decadence in the nineteenth century “travels” from Paris to London, and it does so because so many Londoners of the time who were interested in literature and art traveled to Paris and brought decadence back home with them.

The best known of these London decadents is undoubtedly Oscar Wilde, whose distinction lies in combining the French decadent tradition exemplified by Huysmans with the British aesthetic tradition exemplified by Walter Pater (1839–1894), a classics professor who taught Wilde at Oxford University. The title character of Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), is both an aesthete and a hedonist, a lover of fine art and a connoisseur of opium. The novel also contains suggestions of male homosexuality that are so compelling that passages from Dorian Gray were read at Wilde’s trials as evidence against him for committing the crime of “gross indecency.” Wilde’s conviction and imprisonment in 1895 had a profound and disturbing effect on what was by that time a p. 7decadent movement, and not just in England. American decadents in Boston, for example, were thoroughly shaken by what happened to Wilde and feared that the same thing might happen to the queer members of their own movement, since same-sex love was a criminal offense in the United States just as it was in Great Britain.

Paris and London are the cities most central to the development of decadence. But Paris and London are obviously not the only metropolitan centers where urban renovation, population migration, technological transformation, political reformation, and other markers of modernity occurred during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Vienna is another nineteenth-century capital of modernity that makes up part of the urban geography of decadence, and so is Berlin. But the political and social conditions most conducive to the culture of decadence do not coalesce in the case of Berlin until the twentieth century, during the period of the Weimar Republic (1919–1933). Decadence is hard to date, and not everyone would say that it extends so far into the twentieth century as the end of the Weimar era. A case can be made, however, that decadence reached its peak in the second decade of the Third Republic in France (the 1880s), in the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign in Great Britain (the 1890s), in the middle decade of Archduke Ferdinand’s status as heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary (the early 1900s), and in the tumultuous decade of the Weimar Republic (the 1920s).

These decades of decadence are of course approximate—there are things to say about decadence before 1880 and after 1930—and during that fifty-year period decadence is not centered exclusively in Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin. Boston decadence is contemporary with London decadence, just as Hollywood decadence matches (in more than one way) that of Berlin in the 1920s. As decadence travels from one city to another, its inherent artistic and social dimensions undergo a series of transformations. London decadence appears to integrate aesthetic style and personal behavior more so than Parisian decadence does. In Vienna, the p. 8identification of decadence with the diminishing aristocratic class begins to change and the “bourgeoisification” of decadence begins. By the time decadence reaches Weimar Berlin it is no longer the province or the practice of elites. Ultimately, this democratization of decadence results in its migration into popular culture. Indeed, decadence has enjoyed a considerable afterlife in that over-the-top culture known as camp, which the critic Susan Sontag helpfully clarified as an ability to discriminate between inferior art and deliberately inferior art—“the good taste of bad taste.”

That definition of camp should not be taken as a definition of decadence, although the camp sensibility does demonstrate the conflicted attitude toward modernity that we have identified with decadence. Our initial attempt to define decadence was etymological and historical, and that effort remains meaningful. But decadence is more than decline, decay, and degeneration, whether artistic, historical, or social. We need to keep those meanings in mind, certainly, while also keeping in mind a number of nuances and implications. Think of decadence as an ornate, highly artificial object that resembles nothing in nature, represented on a slide projected through an old-fashioned magic lantern, seen through a series of colored filters, each color representing a different aspect of decadence. The object, in other words, takes on a different coloration depending on the filter. One filter darkens the object and makes decadence look like pessimism; another gives it a luscious hue that makes it look like hedonism; a mottled, greenish filter turns the object rotten, suggesting degeneration; still another imparts a lavender glow and connotes, somehow, “the love that dare not speak its name” (the phrase Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover, used to describe homosexuality). But whatever coloration decadence takes, it is typically the expression—the projection—of urban experience.

We should not expect to find every aspect of decadence in the same work at the same time. Truly representative, comprehensive p. 9examples of decadence are hard to find. But one poem comes closer than most: Paul Verlaine’s sonnet “Langueur.” The poem is presented in French because so much of it has no exact equivalent in English, starting with the title. Yes, “Langueur” means “languor” or “lassitude,” but the sense of weary listlessness comes across better in the French word, which has the accent on the second syllable rather than the first so it can be lazily drawn out, matching sound to sense.

Likewise, a straightforward translation of the first line—“I am the Empire at the end of the decadence”—misses the limping rhythm of the French alexandrine, the twelve-syllable line divided into groups of three. The line was a staple of the clear, balanced prosody of French classicistic poets and dramatists like Racine p. 10before Verlaine, following his romantic precursors, loosened up the line and made it more flexible and expressive. In fact, the first four lines of the poem are mostly about literary style during a decadent period. The poem opens by personifying the Roman Empire itself in the last days of decline, passively watching its own destruction by the giant barbarians from the north (les grands Barbares blancs) while composing “indolent acrostics in a golden style” (des acrostiches indolents/D’un style d’or). In an acrostic, the first letters of each line spell out a word or phrase, so the form is by definition highly artificial, as is the notion of a golden style, that is, a style that is needlessly ornate.

Verlaine’s “Langueur”

Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence, Qui regarde passer les grands Barbares blancs En composant des acrostiches indolents D’un style d’or où la langueur du soleil danse.
L’âme seulette a mal au cœur d’un ennui dense. Là-bas on dit qu’il est de longs combats sanglants. Ô n’y pouvoir, étant si faible aux vœux si lents, Ô n’y vouloir fleurir un peu cette existence!
Ô n’y vouloir, ô n’y pouvoir mourir un peu! Ah! tout est bu! Bathylle, as-tu fini de rire? Ah, tout est bu, tout est mangé! Plus rien à dire!
Seul, un poème un peu niais qu’on jette au feu, Seul, un esclave un peu coureur qui vous néglige, Seul, un ennui d’on ne sait quoi qui vous afflige!
Paul Verlaine (1884)

The setting for this lazy literary activity is most likely sunset, since the sun itself seems to have been affected by the mood of weariness (la langueur du soleil). Despite vague reports of a long, bloody battle (de longs combats sanglants), the speaker of the poem does not feel threatened at all—only bored: the lonely soul is heartsick with a feeling of ennui so intense, so “dense,” that he has no energy for anything, not even, it seems, his own death. He wishes not to be able (Ô n’y pouvoir) to act on his desires: what he wants is not to want (Ô n’y vouloir). Because there is nothing more to drink or eat (Ah, tout est bu, tout est mangé!), the speaker doesn’t want to live so much as he wants merely not to die. Actually, the line expresses a view of life that is even more compromised than that, since the desire not to die is qualified as a wish not to die “a little” (un peu), as if death were a matter of degree. Languor or weariness is taken to such absurd lengths here that we can understand why the speaker has to tell his slave Bathyllus to stop laughing (Bathylle, as-tu fini de rire?). Finally, even though there is nothing more to say (Plus rien à dire!), the speaker, who is, after all, “the Empire,” manages to say three things more:

Only, a slightly silly poem that one throws on the fire, Only, a somewhat dissipated slave who neglects you, Only, a feeling of nameless ennui that afflicts you.

p. 11

1. Paul Verlaine, shown in 1891 with a glass of absinthe and an inkwell, embodies the mood evoked by “Langueur,” the sonnet that helped establish decadence as a cultural movement.

p. 12Each of these lines sums up a significant aspect of decadence that we have so far identified. The first implies decadence as a form of mannered, overwrought, and therefore inferior art: the “slightly silly poem” is nothing if not excessively precious, just a collection of “indolent acrostics.” The second suggests the sense of personal depravity that we associate with such emperors as Nero and Caligula, a meaning supplemented by the name Bathyllus, which by the late nineteenth century had assumed homoerotic connotations. The last line, at first, seems less specifically decadent than the other two, but the poem is set during the decline of the Roman Empire, which would seem to call forth a more urgent emotion than some vague “feeling of nameless ennui.” These three varieties of decadence—the precious poetry, the diffident homoeroticism, and the indifference to historical decline and personal decay—were all elements of Verlaine’s own brilliant but troubled career. That career took him from Paris to London and back to Paris again, where he watched the Second French Empire crumble and wrote a poem about the fall of the Roman one, where all decadence begins. So if we are to follow Verlaine’s decadent itinerary, we must first go to Rome.