When we complain that someone is living decadently, it is to condemn them for their life of luxury without purpose. However, in the world of literature, decadent writers such as Oscar Wilde not only broke the boundaries of accepted behaviour, but also changed the conventions of writing in a productive way. Kostas Boyiopoulos, author of The Decadent Image, explains how we should think about literary decadence, and what writers from the turn of the century can teach us about own age of consumerist pleasure.
For many people the word “decadent” probably conjures up images of A-list celebrities lazing around on beaches. But what does “decadence” mean in the world of literature?
It depends on where you want to set the bar. Lazing on the beach with a dozen jewel-clad naked virgin youths of both sexes tending to your every whim as if you were a drill-sergeant, whilst you are flanked by a sweating highball glass of Bloody Mary on your right to match the colour of the deep sunset in flight and a platinum tray full of French-named delicacies gleaming on your left. Or an opulent party of an A-list celebrity à la Eyes Wide Shut. This is more like it if you want to capture “decadence” in a more authentic manner, along with the undercutting irony that accompanies the word “authentic.”
Such sumptuous scenes are bread-and-butter for literary decadence. And yet decadent literature can be much more and much less than that, extravagant as well as restrained.
Decadent literature prizes sin and perversity, immorality, the thrill of transgression. For this reason, the mystery and pomp of Roman Catholicism, especially its rite of confession, for instance, appealed to Decadent writers. Equally significant is artificiality: nature, as Oscar Wilde lucidly explains, is inferior to art because of its lack of design. The city (especially by night), that hotbed of affected culture teeming with furtive, lascivious pleasures, was preferred. Other features include morbid beauty, degeneration, unnatural and exotic sexualities, agitated nerves, disease, melancholy moods, and self-indulgent imagination. Decadence is cousin to Aestheticism which advocated art for art’s sake. Hence it favours style over content; it highlights the detail, the turn of phrase, the obscure word, at the expense of the cohesion of the whole.
When did writers start thinking about “decadence” in this kind of way?
The term gained currency in the late nineteenth century. It was an ever-specialised post-Romantic afterthought, as I explore with Dr Mark Sandy in our forthcoming coedited collection of essays on Decadent Romanticism. The Industrial Revolution, colonialism, and Darwinist materialism contributed to a carefree, refined civilisation which was backlashing against hordes of “philistines” and their hypocritical morality. Both favourable and adverse, these are the ideal conditions for decadence to thrive. The defining text of Decadence is J.-K. Huysmans’s À Rebours (Against Nature) (1884), that gospel of the new creed that exerts a poisonous influence on Dorian Gray. The long Fin de siècle, and especially the 1890s in England, is the period in which Decadence gained a quasi-official status.
You’ve mentioned Dorian Gray, who is pictured in Oscar Wilde’s famous (or infamous) novel of that name. Why is Oscar Wilde so synonymous with decadence at the turn of the century?
There is no celebrity today who combines Wilde’s life as an immaculately designed performance, his extraordinary aura, his unequalled gift of wit, and his artistic genius.
Imagine Wilde living today, in an age that is both more relaxed in its moral codes and besieged by cultural overload. There is no celebrity – be it in the film industry or any other field – who combines Wilde’s life as an immaculately designed performance, his extraordinary aura, his unequalled gift of wit, and his artistic genius. Wilde was a one-off (with the possible exception of Byron in that respect); he was the fullest embodiment of that mind-blowing decadent paradox in which life can be a work of art. For this reason generation after generation of academic researchers and creative writers alike are under his spell. The fact that there is an on-going subspecies of Oscariana in which fictions, short stories, and graphic novels are churned out with Wilde as a character is quite startling.
Wilde shook the British Empire to its foundations, not only because of his extravagant, provocative public lifestyle and sexuality, but because of his ability to gracefully infiltrate Victorian society and attack its hypocrisy from within. That’s why The Importance of Being Earnest (performed 1895) is as important in contributing to the legacy of decadence as an anathema sported as a badge of honour as are The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890/1) and Salome (1890/4) with their sizzling, luxurious language.
For me there is also much to be said about Wilde’s poetry which is somewhat underrated. I examine his poetry in my monograph entitled The Decadent Image coming out next month. Here is the last stanza from ‘In the Gold Room: A Harmony’ that arrests the spirit of decadence on a variety of levels:
And her sweet red lips on these lips of mine
Burned like the ruby fire set
In the swinging lamp of a crimson shrine,
Or the bleeding wounds of the pomegranate,
Or the heart of the lotus drenched and wet
With the split-out blood of the rose-red wine.
There is something of Baudelaire and Swinburne here. But of course, this is an evocation of a Whistlerian tonal composition. Style reigns supreme. At the same time Wilde masterfully conjures a vision of visceral sexuality through these highly charged and inventive gem and fruit similes. One wonders whether the kick in the speaker is due to the kiss or the similes themselves. Here you have it, decadent poetic style and sex in a single gesture.
Which other writers besides Wilde are interesting to look at through in a decadent light?
Apart from Wilde’s poetry, in my book I look at the work of Arthur Symons and Ernest Dowson. Symons, poet of the city, essayist, short-storyist, and editor of The Savoy (1896; with the illustrator Aubrey Beardsley) was the most consistent Decadent in Britain. He was a cosmopolitan and a true ambassador of Decadence, arranging for his idol Paul Verlaine to come to London for a lecture tour in 1893. Dowson, who wrote melancholy, atmospheric poems and short stories of unsurpassable mastery and beauty, was a self-destructive vagabond, the model-poet of the decadence; the figure at the heart of what Yeats called ‘the tragic generation.’ There are many angles, takes, and formulations of what Decadence is these days. What I am interested in are the paradoxical tensions – strangely erotic tensions – between the artificiality of representation and the immediacy of indulging the senses; this is the central concept I explore in The Decadent Image. The 1890s was a period of ‘minor’ figures, slim volumes, Little Magazines, and brief successes. Other Decadent minor poets in this vein include Lionel Johnson, John Gray, ‘Michael Field’, Vincent O’Sullivan, Olive Custance, and Rosamund Marriott Watson.
Moreover one other ideal platform for Decadent writing in its probe into labyrinthine situations and paradoxes in the human psyche was the short story. Aesthetes and Decadents used this form to venture into fragmented experience, morbid psychology, male and female hysteria, the confusion of art with life, creativity, obsession, and urban Gothic fantasias. I recently coedited an annotated anthology, The Decadent Short Story, which showcases the amazing variety of that form and its instrumental role in fuelling Modernist attitudes. Besides some of the aforementioned, authors that wrote Decadent short stories include Henry Harland, Charles Ricketts, Hubert Crackanthorpe, R. Murray Gilchrist, M. P. Shiel, and particularly New Women writers who had a knack for literary experiment: Vernon Lee, Charlotte Mew, Ella D’Arcy, and Victoria Cross.
So, coming back to where we began this conversation, what does decadence of the 1890s tell us about our own culture today?
The images that naturally came to your mind in your first question – basking on the beach or attending high-class opulent parties – are a legacy of fin-de-siècle decadence. The concept has seeped into our everyday life; even gobbling up a Thorntons chocolate delight can be regarded decadent nowadays. But there is something problematic in this. To use an analogy from the stock market, decadence is a stock share that is steadily on the rise for the last hundred years, but its value overall has dropped because of cultural inflation. By this I mean that our capitalist societies are more tolerant, open to and explorative of artificial tropes, sensuous inundations and specialised sexual images, so much so that the exclusivity and shock factor of decadence has been flattened out because it has become the norm, as Professor Regenia Gagnier has argued. Its sophistication has worn off amidst the oceans of consumerism. This forces the label to be readapted and redefined, take up new inflections and reset its limits. Decadence, of course, as it turned from artistic movement to stylistic and thematic tendency in the twentieth century keeps leaving its mark on literature and cinema today. Perhaps, the most enduring value of decadence to culture is that it provides a much needed space for frivolity, for interrogating convention, and for little rebellious acts of taste. It is a useless oasis in a desert of usefulness, in a desert where the increasing commodification of everything might lead to dystopian, oppressive paths.
Kostas Boyiopoulos’s book The Decadent Image: The Poetry of Wilde, Symons, and Dowson is published by Edinburgh University Press. A collection of essays on Decadent Romanticism: 1780-1914, co-edited with Mark Sandy, is available through Ashgate.