ost studies of the late nineteenth century French and British Decadents examine their writings, the visual arts associated with them, and the critical reception they received. Richard Gilman's Decadence does this, too, but his book emphasizes fundamental flaws in the very concept of decadence, which he argues is based upon a faulty anthropomorphic analogy. According to him, therefore, "If 'decadence' is anything it is an epithet, and epithets of an aggressive and not merely descriptive kind . . .disguise a loss of power and give off a simultaneous feeling of wishfulness and fear" (157; emphasis added). As he correctly points out, "Decadence has always been made to function as a presumed mode of behavior or action that stands as evidence of a withdrawal from normality" (159)
No writer on the subject would disagree with this last statement, and both writers who considered themselves Decadents and those who labelled others to be so made this assumption. Gilman, however, convincingly argues that the basic notion of decadence has no real value, because it is based upon a false premise — that the arts, culture, and societies follow the pattern of an individual human life, or as Oswald Spengler put it in The Decline of the West: "Every culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age." Gilman points out, correctly I think, that this is nonsense, for
there is only the most dubious historical evidence that civilizations do grow old, stagnate, and die, and none at all for the belief that this occurs according to some iron law whose workings mirror the stages of an individual destiny. The Roman Empire did not grow old and die; it underwent assaults and transformations. The British Empire did not obey a principle of decadence; it lost strength and was finally dissolved through the operation of certain political and economic facts, none of which was inexorable.
What history appears to show, instead of a law of decadence, are the simultaneity of decline and advance ("There are no mere phenomena of decay; every decline is also a rise," R. W. Collingwood has written), and the potential convertibility of one form of human enterprise into another. The evidently powerful produces the secretly so; the appearance of weakness is discovered as actual strength, and the reverse; culture wanes in order to renew itself; empires "die" so that their parts may live; the immoral is the proof of the moral. [162-63]
Gilman compares these complex historical processes to the physical law of the conservation of energy and further argues that "if there is a "falling away" from a standard it can mean that the standard is outworn, lifeless, or an obstacle to growth, which has been true in every period of innovation — at bottom a movement of renewal — in the arts and other human realms" (163). Although Gilman does not say so, one might infer from his remarks that the proper analogy for societies and cultural forms is a family or group rather than the individual.
What is false in political history is also false in the history of the arts and culture.
The belief that there are periods in the arts when, after a brilliant flowering, decline sets in and an ertswhile robustness lapses into debility and enervation goes on being held in the face of the clearest truth that powerful art does not "give way" to weak art, turning into it like an organism running down, although what we think of as strong art may indeed be succeeded by the weak. The idea would seem to derive from the same anthropomorphic bent, the same impulse to interpret from analogy to the body's fate, . . . at work in the political and social spheres. . . . But the problem with thinking of those presumably inferior cultural eras as "decadent" begins with the historical fact that in art both the imitative and the crude — the seemingly bereft of skill — have been accorded the designation. And you cannot have it both ways: the imitative strives to be like the model; the crude or primitive represents precisely a failure to be like it, to reach its level." (149)
As Gilman shows, virtually every new departure in the arts has been attacked as decadent — something true of the reception of all major twentieth-century writers, every new school of painting, and all new developments in music. Those who use the idea of decadence, in other words, tend to miss the value of the new. To Gilmans's position, I would two points, the first an example what he describes: Matthew Arnold, though he did not use the word "decadent," acted as though his time, one of the great ages of poetry and poetic experimentation in English, was an age devoid of poetry because poetry had changed. Tennyson, the Brownings, the Rossettis, Meredith, Thomson, Swinburne, even his close friend Clough, who was a far better poet than Arnold was willing to believe — he missed them all, did this Oxford Professor of Poetry!
My second point: Looked at in the context of the literary modernism that followed, those poets termed Decadents turn out to be less the attenuation of the high Victorians and more those who prepared for Eliot, Pound, and others. One can find many examples, but imagery and allusion provides the best place to make the case that the Decadents of the 1890s served the same function for Modernism as did the so-called Pre-Romantics for Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the second-generation Romantics. In particular, look at the way Swinburne and the decadents used biblical and other complex allusion: pre-nineteenth-century poetry tended to employ such allusion only in specifically religious poems or redactions, such as Paradise Lost, of scriptural narrative; some Victorian poets, like the Brownings and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, use scriptural allusions, particularly typological ones, for secular purposes — say, as Robert Browning does in The Ring and the Book and "The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed's," to establish the poet's attitude toward characters. The Aesthetes and Decadents in contrast use biblical allusion, as they do ideas of sin and death, largely for effect and very personal, even idiosyncratic meanings, just as does T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland. Swinburne use of detailed scriptural allusion in political polemics anticipates, for example, much that follows in the prose and poetry of Modernism.
Links to Related Material
Gilman, Richard. Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet. N.Y.: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1979.
Last modified 22 March 2007