The great historical exemplar, discussed by Montesquieu and Gibbon, was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. This debacle was seen as the inevitable conclusion of the great cycle of classical civilization. A visual landmark attesting this belief is Thomas Couture’s huge canvas.“The Romans of the Decadence,” the sensation of the Salon of 1847. Later, under the Symbolist writers and artists, the figure of Salome gained prominence. In addition to suggesting that the social milieu in which she lived was decadent (contrasting with the purity and asceticism of her prey, John the Baptist), this legendary woman signified the femme fatale and illicit love (necrophilia).
Historians tended to focus on the spectacle of the decline of a single civilization, that of ancient Rome. Others observers went further, advancing the view that historical patterns repeat themselves. Thus one could pinpoint the decadence of pharaonic Egypt and ot imperial China under the Manchus. One must even confront the dreaded possibility that we ourselves are living in an era of decadence.
What is the “we”? Some countries, it seemed, were declining faster than others. As early as 1850 Charles-Marie Radot had written a book titled De la decadence de la France. Many pointed to the country’s declining birthrate as a definitive (and alarming) proof of this decline. Others spoke of “la decadence latine,” the decline of all of Southern Europe. This was contrasted with the ebullience of “young” peoples like the Germans and the Americans.
Conservatives seized upon the concept of decadence as a stick to beat the present with. Everything had been better, as they liked to think, in the “good old days.” Today this vein of thinking is evident in those who decry the prevalence of rock-and-roll, the decline of marriage, and the drug culture. In former times these ills did not exist. Tolerance of them can only be a sign of the decline of civilization.
In short the original concept of decadence was an overwhelmingly negative one. It was left to the poet Charles Baudelaire to present a positive alternative in remarks he made about Edgar Allen Poe in 1857 (I translate freely). “At its zenith the sun shown pitilessly, crushing everything with its harsh, white light. But before long it will illuminate the Western horizon with its gorgeous colors. In these effecs produced by the dying sun some poets find delightful novelties. They discover astonishing colonnades, cascades of dark metal, fiery paradises, in short a melancholy splendor, the pleasure of remorse, all the majesty of the dream, the memory of opium.” (Note the evocation of hard drugs, used by many creative persons in the first half of the nineteenth century.)
In effect Baudelaire tamed the concept of decadence, paving the way for more positive versions. During the 1880s the term was adopted as a talisman by a number of writers, above all Paul Verlaine. Others held that the negative connotations could not be completely bleached out; hence Moréas’ rebranding (“Symbolisme”) in his 1886 Manifesto.
As an aside it is worth recalling some other attempts at defanging negative expressions. Some did not catch on. The Marquis de Sade was an early practitioner of this device. For the term “contre-nature” (against nature) he proposed antiphysique. Even in French this term remains rare. Interestingly, he termed masturbation, which he praised, pollution. Recent decades provide a number of salient examples. In my view the jury is still out on “queer.”
We often forget that a number of now-standard terms for artistic styles began as terms of opprobrium The word baroque, for example, was shunned by many leading artists and critics of the era because it connoted irregularity and excess. Fauve means “wild beast.”
Moreas’ new label attracted many new followers, attracted by the positive aura of the word Symbolism. Yet some stubbornly clung to the term decadence. Anatole Baju conducted a magazine entitled La décadence littéraire et artistique (1886-89). Paul Verlaine remained fond of the term-—which did in fact fit the squalid circumstances of his personal life. In a series of critical pieces Verlaine introduced another expression that was to enjoy some popularity: les poètes maudits, the accursed poets.
The older term continued to enjoy some favor abroad. In November 1893 the Englishman Arthur Symonds published a critical article entitled “The Decadent Movement in Literature” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. At the turn of the century, though, after the Wilde scandals had subsided, he published an enlarged version in book form. The new study bore the title The Symbolist Movement in Literature. Decadence was dead, or so it seemed, while Symbolism had entered into a dignified old age.
The writings and works of art that have been identified over the years as decadent are exceedingly various. It would seem vain to attempt any general set of characteristics that would govern a posited “decadent style.” Yet some have made the attempt. Early on, Paul Bourget perceived a general tendency to disorganization in which the creator of a decadent work deliberately decomposed it into parts. Detail triumphs over the whole. This idea is certainly suggestive. On the one hand, it helps in the appreciation of certain works of the Roman “decadence,” such as the relief carvings of the Arch of Constantine (CE 315). On the other hand, the criterion may help to understand the break-up of neo-impressionist works into a sea of little dots, though these are supposed to fuse visually for the observer who stands at a proper distance from the canvas. In Cubism, the fragmentation becomes blatant.
Another hallmark of decadence is artifice. The elaborate and highly wrought are preferred over the simple and natural. Some have been impelled to defend cosmetics, others lying (Oscar Wilde). An interesting twist on this idea is Huysmans’ take on two powerful locomotives. Are not such means of transportation (not to speak of the automobile, which arrived five years after Against Nature) artificial and indeed unnatural? Indeed with television, the computer, and cell-phones we could be said to be living today in a hyperdecadent world, in which artifice ever triumphs over nature. It is only when we take that long-postponed trek to the wilds of Alaska that we put such indulgences behind us.
See also Nietzsche and Symbolism, below.
REFERENCES. Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, New Haven, 1990; Louis Marquèze-Pouey, Le Movement décadent en France, Paris, 1986; Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination, Chicago, 1981; John R. Reed, Decadent Style, Athens, OH, 1985; David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, Amherst, MA, 1995. On England, see Ian Fletcher, ed., Decadence and the 1890s, London, 1979.