The cultural phenomenon known as "decadence" has often been viewed as an ephemeral artistic vogue that fluorished briefly in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. This study makes the case for decadence as a literary movement in its own right, based on a set of aesthetic principles that formed a transitional link between romanticism and modernism. UnderstoodThe cultural phenomenon known as "decadence" has often been viewed as an ephemeral artistic vogue that fluorished briefly in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. This study makes the case for decadence as a literary movement in its own right, based on a set of aesthetic principles that formed a transitional link between romanticism and modernism. Understood in this developmental context, decadence represents the aesthetic substratum of a wide range of fin-de-siecle literary schools, including naturalism, realism, Parnassianism, aestheticism, and symbolism. As an impulse toward modernism, it prefigures the thematic, structural, and stylistic concerns of later literature. David Weir demonstrates his thesis by analyzing a number of French, English, Italian, and American novels, each associated with some specific decadent literary tendency. The book concludes by arguing that the decadent sensibility persists in popular culture and contemporary theory, with multiculturalism and postmodernism representing its most current manifestations....more
Paperback, 232 pages
January 1st 1996
by University of Massachusetts Press
(first published December 1995)
This is what happens when the thesis controls the author, instead of the other way around; when the author, for all that he is mostly a straightforward and clear writer, has an unvoiced assumption that pushes the argument in strange directions.
David Weir’s book is now twenty years old, so it cannot really be judged fairly by more recent developments in literary criticism—in particular, the book still seems scarred by the debates over the canon and postmodernism, which was then ascendant but hasThis is what happens when the thesis controls the author, instead of the other way around; when the author, for all that he is mostly a straightforward and clear writer, has an unvoiced assumption that pushes the argument in strange directions.
David Weir’s book is now twenty years old, so it cannot really be judged fairly by more recent developments in literary criticism—in particular, the book still seems scarred by the debates over the canon and postmodernism, which was then ascendant but has mostly been domesticated now. Nonetheless, Weir clearly overemphasizes the canonical importance of the high modern writers and is too quick to dismiss anything that doesn’t fit their model—even as he is trying to make the case for a literary genre, Decadence, which received few positive remarks at the time. Indeed, his case for the Decadent movement is mostly that it set the stage for Modernism, and is, in fact, encysted within a number of important Modern works. (Although mostly it continues in a degraded form.)
Weirs gets most of his points across in a throat-clearing forward in which he points out that Decadence, though connected to other movements—the Belle Epoque and Bohemia, Romanticism and Naturalism—and influential on them, was also its own genre, worth noting—at least as a table-setter for modernism.
The first proper chapter surveys various definitions of Decadence offered by other literary critics, noting their radical differences—Decadence was a continuation of Romanticism. No, it was a repudiation of it! It was a sterile genre! No, an inventive one. He tries to synthesize these various efforts by arguing that Decadence is necessarily oppositional, and so its characteristics are influenced by what it is opposing. This is a bad definition, and one that gets him into trouble at the end of the book. He does better when he notes that Decadence can both continue and alter Romanticism, sometimes in sterile ways, sometimes in innovative ways. (Indeed, one of Weir’s bad habits is reifying everything.) He is also better served by listing its various characteristics, innovation and language that calls attention to itself—mining the past but in linguistically innovative ways—a move away from conventions and a reworking of the aesthetic code in light of the decline of classical and Christian values. Because he is so intent on linking it to Modernism, though, he downplays other qualities, particularly its perversity, and explicitly denies any connection to diabolism. (Diabolism is a separate tradition for him, and traditions cannot mix in his world, without cheapening them, so wen diabolism does become wedded to Decadence it is a Bad Thing.)
After the chapter one definitions follows four chapters reading particular works of Decadence, highlighting the qualities that prefigured Modernism. Chapter two is on Flaubert’s Salmmbô and its poetical language, which became an object unto itself: the language called attention to itself and sometimes refused to describe its subject, abandoning its mimetic duties. Chapter three considers the Goncourt brothers’s Germinie Lacerteux as a way of noting that Decadence was akin to Naturalism, both deterministic and pessimistic outgrowths of Romanticism, though Decadence valued cruelty and perversity more than did Naturalism. Chapter Four looks at Walter Pater and English Decadence. Pater was not really seen as a Decadent writer until later, when Decadence became more codified—my word, not his—but was influential on two generations: Oscar Wilde and his cohort, whom Weir does not like, and then Joyce. Chapter Five looks at that codification of Decadence in Huysmans’s A Rebours, and then continues to examine wider developments within the Decadent Movement. The Decadent hero becomes an early example of the modernist antihero, and Decadent downplaying of narrative also prefigures modernism. (At one point, Weir remarks that these traits are much more importantly understood as influences on Modernism than as qualities of Decadence itself.) It is in this chapter that he dismisses Wilde, his epigrammatic style—which he does not like—and his Satanism, which he opposes to the more useful Luciferian impulse: Satanists are evil for evil’s sake,their rebellion eventually becoming embarrassing, while Luciferians settle down to make their Hell in Heaven. (He says in an epigram—indeed, Weir himself has a penchant for writing epigrams, even if he doesn’t like it when other people do it.)
Chapter six is the heart of the book, making the case for Decadence insinuating itself into Modernism. He is clear that Decadence is not Modernism’s only influence, and that Modernism did not grow out of Decadence: the relationship was more complicated. One version of this connection can be seen in James Joyce, whom Weir reads very interestingly. He focuses on “The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man,” which he sees not as a conventional bildungsroman, but as an ironic appropriation of Decadence. The artist is not a young man chronologically, but as a type common at the time, a young man being someone drawn to certain Decadent tropes. For Joyce, though, Stephan Dedalus being this type of young man prevents him from being a true artist. He cannot break through from his imagination to the real world and see it as a source of art. Thus, there is a genetic connection between Joycean modernism and Decadence, as well as obvious stylistic ones, including language calling attention to itself, and the thematic concern with cultural collapse.
Gide represents a different way that Decadence fed into Modernism—a negative way. Gide’s Modernism negated Decadence. Influenced by Neitzsche, Gide did not like either Decadence’s pessimism nor its compensatory tropes—rehabilitation. The Modern was supposed to be new and Gide rejected all of the Decadent concern with decline and the past. He emphasized not sacrifice, death, immolation of society by Barbarians to create something new and better, but the Nietzschean idea of a Dionysus creating a world beyond the old values.
The final substantive chapter then looks at what Weir considers Decadence’s more baleful effects on modern writing—what he calls the decline of Decadence. The villain here is James Huneker, who brought a more popular version of Decadence to America, influencing the likes of H. L. Mencken. For Weir, this version of Decadence was necessarily a parody of what came before—he follows Bourdeiu in arguing that any object from the past, brought into a new ‘cultural field’ is a parody. But it’s worse than that: Hunker changes Decadence in ways that Weird does not approve of. He pays less attention to aristocrats and more to the Bourgeois (which is why he is rejected int eh socialistic Thirties); he merged Decadence and diabolism—which is bad because mixing is bad for Weir; and he popularizes the form, which is also bad, although Weir never says why exactly. (One assumes it is because the only good literature for Weir is High Modernism. So if the road does not lead to Joyce, it’s the wrong road.)
Second only to James Huneker as bad guy is Ben Hecht. Weir notes that Decadence was important to the Chicago Renaissance in the years just before World War I. At the Daily News, where Hecht and Burton Rascoe wrote, Decadence was considered the height of Modern writing; and Margaret Anderson’s Little Magazine also published Decadent works. (Weir points out Anderson’s publication was not important until she moved to New York, and escaped these bad influences.) It is true that Hecht was an ass—he celebrated adultery, and rubbed it in his wife’s face, even though he thought its best quality was that it made one have to lie and be a hypocrite. But this turn toward the personal doesn’t fit with the rest of the book, and seems calculated mostly as a way to bring down Hecht. (It’s not like all the Modernists were moral exemplars.) The point is stretched too far when Weir comes close to blaming Hecht for the Leopold and Loeb murders, since Loeb was a fan of Hecht’s works, which often put forth a simplified Nietzscheanism, with good and evil no longer mattering.
Away from the personal, this evaluation of Hecht—on literary terms—seems reasonable. The Decadence of his books, like those of James Huneker, did turn the subtle interactions of the Decadents into simple dualisms; he did favor illusion over reality rather than put them in tension the way Baudelaire did. Nonetheless, Weird is still unfair to some of Hecht’s works from he 20s, complaining about them because they mixed German Expressionism with Decadence—again, that fear of mixing genres—and not trying to understand them on their own terms. He is especially concerned that Hecht went on to become a movie writer and director, and that Decadence crept into movies through him and others like him. Somehow we are meant to see this as bad, even as we are meant to admire the persistence of Decadence.
The final chapter is long and confused, the book brought down by its own assumptions. In the end, Weir argues that PostModernism as really just a kind of Decadence—a literature of opposition, a transitional period to something else—and that we were then living at a new fin de siecle when Decadence was dominant. None of this makes a wit of sense 20 years on, and I’m not sure it would have been convincing at the time.
The other problem with this ending—and with the chapter on the decline of Decadence—is it does not look at the other cultural place Decadence clearly ended up: the horror writings of Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith—especially Smith-with their love for linguistic play, aesthetic style, and allowing the words to subvert their mimetic duties. As well, their is concern with cultural decay, with perversity. And the diabolism is of a very different quality than what Weir condemned in other authors. But to get here he would have had to admit that popularization was not necessarily a bad thing, and he could obviously not do that. So again, the book is too driven by its thesis.
I learned a few things, the book is well written, but it is ultimately far too limited by its own vision....more
David Weir received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University. He is the author of Decadence and the Making of Modernism (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), James Joyce and the Art of Mediation (University of Michigan Press, 1996), Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), Brahma in the West: William Blake and theDavid Weir received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from New York University. He is the author of Decadence and the Making of Modernism (University of Massachusetts Press, 1995), James Joyce and the Art of Mediation (University of Michigan Press, 1996), Anarchy and Culture: The Aesthetic Politics of Modernism (University of Massachusetts Press, 1997), Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance (State University of New York Press, 2003), Decadent Culture in the United States: Art and Literature against the American Grain, 1890-1926, and American Orient: Imagining the East from the Colonial Era through the Twentieth Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2011)....more