DACOROMANIA LITTERARIA, IV, 2017, pp. 12–33
“All’s good if it’s excessive.”
Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
I, the Decadent
The term “decadence” generated ample debate during the nineteenth century among historians, philosophers, scholars and writers. Its derived term, decadentism – coined by the low-profile literary critic Anatole Baju and writ large in the title of his magazine, Le Décadent littéraire et artistique, established in April 1886 – enjoyed but ephemeral glory in French culture, that is, until the advent of symbolism (whose name was coined by Jean Moréas in his article of the same title published in the Le Figaro issue of 18 September 1886). However, apart from the conceptual relevance of decadentism as apparent rather through an aesthetic approach, the culture of decadence reached an apogee in 1886 with the publication of K.-J. Huysmans’s novel À Rebours. The novel, a synthesis of decadentism, influenced an entire generation of writers from Oscar Wilde in Britain and Gabrielle D’Annunzio in Italia to Stanisław Przybyszewski in Poland and the rather low-profile C.I.A. Nottara in Romania. Each of these writers looked to the exemplary model by the French novelist to pen their own novels – respectively The Portrait of Dorian Gray, Il Piacere (The Child of Pleasure), Die Synagoge des Satan (The Synagogue of Satan), and Suflete obosite (Tired Souls) – as a model of decadent becoming, of a lifestyle oriented towards the peculiar aesthetics of decadentism, and whose protagonist embodies it in minute detail. What Huysmans’s novel offered, after all, was an undivided ontological assumption of a form grounded exclusively in aesthetic principles. By his emblematic character, Des Esseintes, Huysmans opened the door to a way of conduct, a set of rules, a form of special ascesis which assimilated excess to such a degree as to elevate it to the rank of an aesthetic imperative on the border of a lifestyle – that of the dandy – with a long-standing history. In Huysmans’s novel, sensitivity to the formality of life reached the proportion of a genuine Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”).
What happens when decadence is articulated in the first person? There are countless instances when fin-de-siècle writers assume this lifestyle not exclusively in terms of a rhetoric, but also of a special stylistics. We owe to Paul Verlaine a rigorous identification, within a prodigious generation, of those poets whom he dubs les poèts maudits. His book of the same title, published in 1884, includes Arthur Rimbaud, Tristan Corbière, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marceline DesbordesValmore, Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and Pauvre Lelian, an anagram of Verlaine’s own name. Verlaine’s selection criterion is such as to align poetry with a lifestyle. Decadentism consists in a pose, in an insurgency doubled by a festive “upside down” recognition (à rebours, in Huysmans’s terms), an aesthetic secular damnation. We can note a series of writers who espoused decadence biographically, thus outlining a personal conduct where literature affords the exemplary model, even a decadent art of living, or an art of decadent living.
Verlaine’s celebrated poem Langueur – which some regard as a decadent ars poetica – establishes such a template, profitable for analysis by virtue of its textual conciseness. Published in the volume Jadis et naguère (1884), Langueur starts with a now famous line: “Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence” (“I am the Empire as the decadence/ Draws to a close”). This is one of the most compelling poetic statements, which forges a deliberate alignment of a political form with a poetic one. Yet, identification with an age entails identification with its peculiar sensibility rather than simply with its events, with historical acts. The metaphor’s economy crystallizes incidentals through a decadent sensibility. What does this identification suggest? What strikes here is a certain grandiloquence, the remainder of a romantic rhetoric which appropriates exceptionalism as its own hallmark and makes a show of it. The poem already signals here a form of gesticulation which will become progressively more apparent. However, the identification is nuanced, for it is aligned with a derived temporality which, in turn, heralds another alignment, this time a formal one.
The demise of decadence does not indicate, in Verlaine’s poem, merely a time span, the final, crepuscular (st)age of a political entity, state, empire, etc. Indeed, France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870) and the loss of her role as a major political actor are hinted at in the poem. The phrase “les grands Barbares blancs” (“the tall, fair-haired Barbarians”) alludes to the Germans who, in a typically decadent scenario, act as the destroyer of an empire weakened from the inside. What matters, however, is a style that decadence imposes, which is why subsequent approaches configure the stylistics pertaining to a lifestyle, a manner of being decadent, a decadent lifestyle, or, in Witggenstein’s terms, a Lebensform. The poem evinces an affectation of grandeur, which hearkens back to Nerval’s El desdischado, a voice of superbia attuned to the delectable great disasters.
We encounter here a form of sensibility specific to the age that has imbued the everyday, which literature – whether poetry, prose or drama – best reflects. The first identification Verlaine offers via the poetic voice is one with the spirit of the age, a Weltanschauung transposed here through a metaphor typical of decadence: that of an Empire in its decline. “La grandeur et la décadence” is a cliché which corresponds to a fin du siècle obsession that Balzac would employ in the title of his novel Histoire de la grandeur et la décadence de César Birotteau (1837), The Rise and Fall of César Birotteau. From the fall of the Roman Empire to the fall of César Birotteau there’s a leap which the nineteenth century saw fully manageable, a leap from the destiny of an empire to that of an average bourgeois and the world he built into existential patterns.
History unfolds as a spectacle, a dramatization in which the decadent self participates as a spectator. Participation entails here the existence of a form of mediation which the spectacle affords. Yet there is more to it. The decadent self offers itself as a spectacle, and witnesses history as a spectateur désengagé. The personal spectacle which the self presents is that of a stylistics peculiar to decadence which imposes a certain conduct, a formal plan averse to any other kind of investment, a mode. The savour of le mieux de la fin, a brief respite of calm, of relative poise under duress, is the privileged moment.
In his Sade, Fourrier, Loyola, on Sade’s scenography in Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, ou l’École du libertinage, Roland Barthes analyses the transformation of horror into an elaborate set, a theatre minutely devised for the four Sadian perverts within a micro-society organized in accordance with a caricatural utopian model tipped to the dystopian. The relative distance between the spectator and the actors of this drama is marked here through a play of incidentals extended as an echo or semi-blindness: “Là-bas on dit qu’il est de longs combats sanglants” (“I’m told that [down there] bloody battles rage hard by”). Yet, it is lived indirectly, it is a form of living mediated aesthetically as is typical of a decadent sensibility. What does theatricality entail? Not necessarily enhanced, deliberately emphatic gestures, but also the need to render form expressive again, to strengthen representation through gestures. When gestures become saturated, namely mannerism, gesticulation starts making a show of itself rather than conveying a certain content. This poetic I, or if you wish poetic subject, becomes the subject of mannerism, rather than of history.
Poetic gesticulation frames the acrostic within a form at once ritualized and derisory, so that poetic gesticulation is in fact a stylistics – a special one: of “the aureate diction”. The rococo was the imperial gilded style, the style of the decadent empire. The crepuscule thaws into choreographic form. Everything is form and abides by a rule set by the style. We witness here an expression of saturation where everything is closed, from the opportunities for delight to the discourse itself, such as in Mallarmé’s poem Brise marine: “La chair est triste, hélas! et j’ai lu tous les livres” (“The flesh is sad – and I’ve read every book”). What is left is no longer the substance but its reflexion, its jocularity, its representation, the choreography of surfaces. We see here an emphatic touch drained of vitality and reduced to mere stylistic shape. Decadent culture, like the life forms it generates, is one of excess, if a paradoxical one, an excess sprung from a lack typical of saturated universes which, in their turn, become mannerism-ridden universes, namely such universes which cultivate form, expression, outline, and so on.
A writer may assume a decadent style as lifestyle also through the mediation of the institution of literature. What happens when a philosopher assumes decadence not simply in their life or bibliography, but also at their intersection? In Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, the volume editors, Liz Constable, Dennis Dennisoff and Matthew Potolsky, discuss the attitude evolved by those who dabble in decadence in terms of dramas of differentiation. The editors refer here to a dissimulated apotropaic rite whereby scholars set themselves apart from, so as to ward off, the pejorative-malefic potential of decadence and decadentism, by disclaiming any affinity with the subject of their investigation. In fact, the editors never contemplate the opposite of this attitude. Simply stated, there also exist, at the opposite end, dramas of identification, or dramas of proximity. Among the philosophers who have made decadence not just their topic but also their own existential dimension, two names stand out by far: Friedrich Nietzsche and Emil Cioran. Both assume decadence as a lifestyle – of their own lives… [PDF]