The concept of decadence dates from the eighteenth century, especially from the writings of Montesquieu, the Enlightenment philosopher who suggested that the decline (décadence) of the Roman Empire was in large part due to their moral decay and loss of cultural standards. When Latin scholar Désiré Nisard turned toward French literature, he compared Victor Hugo and Romanticism in general to the Roman decadence, men sacrificing their craft and their cultural values for the sake of pleasure. The trends that he identified, such as an interest in description, a lack of adherence to the conventional rules of literature and art, and a love for extravagant language were the seeds of the Decadent Movement.
French Decadent Movement
The first major development in French decadence would come when writers Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire used the word proudly, to represent a rejection of what they considered banal "progress." Baudelaire referred to himself as decadent in his 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal and exalted the Roman decline as a model for modern poets to express their passion. He would later use the term decadence to include the subversion of traditional categories in pursuit of full, sensual expression. In his lengthy introduction to Baudelaire in the front of the 1868 Les Fleurs du Mal, Gautier at first rejects the application of the term decadent, as meant by the critic, but then works his way to an admission of decadence on Baudelaire's own terms: a preference for what is beautiful and what is exotic, an ease with surrendering to fantasy, and a maturity of skill with manipulating language.
Though he was Belgian, Félicien Rops was instrumental in the development of this early stage of the Decadent Movement. A friend of Baudelaire, he was also a frequent illustrator of Baudelaire's writing, at the request of the author himself. Rops delighted in breaking artistic convention and shocking the public with gruesome, fantastical horror. He was explicitly interested in the Satanic, and he frequently sought to portray the double-threat of Satan and Woman. At times, his only goal was the portrayal of a woman he'd observed debasing herself in the pursuit of her own pleasure. It has also been suggested that, no matter how horrific and perverse his images could be, Rops' invocation of supernatural elements was sufficient to keep Baudelaire situated in a spiritually-aware universe that maintained a cynical kind of hope, even if the poetry "requires a strong stomach." Their work was the worship of beauty disguised as the worship of evil. For both of them, mortality and all manner of corruptions were always on their mind. The ability of Rops to see and portray the same world as they did, made him a popular illustrator for other decadent authors.
The concept of decadence lingered after that, but it wasn't until 1884 that Maurice Barrès referred to a particular group of writers as Decadents. He defined this group as those who had been influenced heavily by Baudelaire, though they were also influenced by Gothic novels and the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Many were associated with Symbolism, others with Aestheticism. The pursuit of these authors, according to Arthur Symons, was "a desperate endeavor to give sensation, to flash the impression of the moment, to preserve the very heat and motion of life," and their achievement, as he saw it, was "to be a disembodied voice, and yet the voice of a human soul."
In his 1884 decadent novel À Rebours (English, Against Nature or Against the Grain), Joris-Karl Huysmans overthrew the past, subordinated nature to the human creative will, and suggested the primacy of, but inherent disillusion in, pleasure. He also identified likely candidates for the core of the Decadent Movement, which he seemed to view Baudelaire as sitting above: Paul Verlaine, Tristan Corbière, Theodore Hannon, and Stéphane Mallarmé. His character Des Esseintes hailed these writers for their creativity and their craftsmanship, suggesting that they filled him with "insidious delight" as they used a "secret language" to explore "twisted and precious ideas."
Not only did Against Nature define an ideology and a literature, but it also created an influential perspective on visual art. The character of Des Esseintes explicitly heralded the work of Gustave Moreau, Jan Luyken, and Odilon Redon. None of these artists would have identified themselves as part of this movement. Nevertheless, the choice of these three established a decadent perspective on art which favored madness and irrationality, graphic violence, frank pessimism about cultural institutions, and a disregard for visual logic of the natural world. It has also been suggested that a dream vision that Des Esseintes describes is based on the series of satanic encounters painted by Félicien Rops.
Capitalizing on the momentum of Huysmans' work, Anatole Baju founded the magazine Le Décadent in 1886, an effort to define and organize the Decadent Movement in a formal way. This group of writers did not only look to escape the boredom of the banal, but they also sought to shock, scandalize, and subvert the expectations and values of society, believing that such freedom and creative experimentation would better humanity.
Not everyone was comfortable with Baju and Le Décadent, even including some who had been published in its pages. Rival writer Jean Moréas published his Symbolist Manifesto, largely to escape association with the Decadent Movement, despite their shared heritage. Moréas and Gustave Kahn, among others, formed rival publications to reinforce the distinction. Paul Verlaine embraced the label at first, applauding it as a brilliant marketing choice by Baju. After seeing his own words exploited and tiring of Le Décadent publishing works falsely attributed to Arthur Rimbaud, however, Verlaine came to sour on Baju personally, and he eventually rejected the label, as well.
Decadence continued on in France, but it was limited largely to Anatole Baju and his followers, who refined their focus even further on perverse sexuality, material extravagance, and up-ending social expectations. Far-fetched plots were acceptable if they helped generate the desired moments of salacious experience or glorification of the morbid and grotesque. Writers who embraced the sort of decadence featured in Le Décadent include Albert Aurier, Rachilde, Pierre Vareilles, Miguel Fernandez, Jean Lorrain, and Laurent Tailhaide. Many of these authors did also publish symbolist works, however, and it unclear how strongly they would have identified with Baju as decadents.
In France, the Decadent Movement is often said to have begun with either Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature (1884) or Baudelaire's Les Fleur du Mal. This movement essentially gave way to Symbolism when Le Décadent closed down in 1889 and Anatole Baju turned toward politics and became associated with anarchy. A few writers continued the decadent tradition, such as Octave Mirbeau, but Decadence was no longer a recognized movement, let alone a force in literature or art.
Beginning with the association of decadence with cultural decline, it is not uncommon to associate decadence in general with transitional times and their associated moods of pessimism and uncertainty. In France, the heart of the Decadent Movement was during the 1880s and 1890s, the time of fin de siècle, or end-of-the-century gloom. As part of that overall transition, many scholars of Decadence, such as David Weir, regard Decadence as a dynamic transition between Romanticism and Modernism, especially considering the decadent tendency to dehumanize and distort in the name of pleasure and fantasy.
Distinction from Symbolism
Symbolism has often been confused with the Decadent Movement. Arthur Symons, a British poet and literary critic contemporary with the movement, at one time considered Decadence in literature to be a parent category that included both Symbolism and Impressionism, as rebellions against realism. He defined this common, decadent thread as, "an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity." He referred to all such literature as, "a new and beautiful and interesting disease." Later, however, he would go on to instead describe the Decadent Movement as an "interlude, half a mock interlude" that distracted critics from seeing and appreciating the larger and more important trend, which was the development of Symbolism.
It is true that the two groups share an ideological descent from Baudelaire and for a time they both considered themselves as part of one sphere of new, anti-establishment literature. They worked together and met together for quite a while, as if they were part of the same movement. Maurice Barrès referred to this group as decadents, but he also referred to one of them (Stéphane Mallarmé) as a symbolist. Even Jean Moréas used both terms for his own group of writers as late as 1885.
Only a year later, however, Jean Moréas wrote his Symbolist Manifesto to assert a difference between the symbolists with whom he allied himself and this the new group of decadents associated with Anatole Baju and Le Décadent. Even after this, there was sufficient common ground of interest, method, and language to blur the lines more than the manifesto might have suggested.
In the world of visual arts, it can be even more difficult to distinguish decadence from symbolism. In fact, Stephen Romer has referred to Félicien Rops, Gustave Moreau, and Fernand Khnopff as "Symbolist-Decadent painters and engravers."
Nevertheless, there are clear ideological differences between those who continued on as symbolists and those who have been called "dissidents" for remaining in the Decadent Movement. Often, there was little doubt that Baju and his group were producing work that was decadent, but there is frequently more question about the work of the symbolists.
In a website associated with Dr. Petra Dierkes-Thrun's Stanford University course, Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents (2014), a student named Reed created a blog post that is the basis for much of what follows.
Both groups reject the primacy of nature, but what that means for them is very different. Symbolism uses extensive natural imagery as a means to elevate the viewer to a plane higher than the banal reality of nature itself, as when Stéphane Mallarmé mixes descriptions of flowers and heavenly imagery to create a transcendent moment in "Flowers."
Decadence, in contrast, actually belittles nature in the name of artistry. In Huysmans’ Against Nature, for instance, the main character Des Esseintes says of nature: “There is not one of her inventions, no matter how subtle or imposing it may be, which human genius cannot create . . . There can be no doubt about it: this eternal, driveling, old woman is no longer admired by true artists, and the moment has come to replace her by artifice."
On Language and Imagery
Symbolism treats language and imagery as devices that can only approximate meaning and merely evoke complex emotions and call the mind toward ideas it might not be able to comprehend. In the words of symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé:
Languages are imperfect because multiple; the supreme language is missing... no one can utter words which would bear the miraculous stamp of Truth Herself Incarnate... how impossible it is for language to express things... in the Poet's hands... by the consistent virtue and necessity of an art which lives on fiction, it achieves its full efficacy.
As Moréas would go on to assert in his manifest on symbolism, words and images serve to dress up the incomprehensible in such a way that it can be approached, if not understood.
Decadence, on the other hand, sees no path to higher truth in words and images. Instead, books, poetry, and art itself as the creators of valid new worlds, thus the allegory of decadent Wilde's Dorian Gray being poisoned by a book like a drug. Words and artifice are the vehicles for human creativity, and Huysmans suggests that the illusions of fantasy have their own reality: "The secret lies in knowing how to proceed, how to concentrate deeply enough to produce the hallucination and succeed in substituting the dream reality for the reality itself."
On Reality, Illusion, and Truth
Both groups are disillusioned with the meaning and truth offered by the natural world, rational thought, and ordinary society. Symbolism turns its eyes toward Greater Purpose or on the Ideal, using dreams and symbols to approach these esoteric primal truths. In Mallarme's poem “Apparition”, for instance, the word “dreaming” appears twice, followed by “Dream” itself with a capital D. In “The Windows,” he speaks of this decadent disgust of contentment with comfort and an endless desire for the exotic. He writes: “So filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous, sprawled in comforts where his hungering is fed.” In this continuing search for the spiritual, therefore, Symbolism has been predisposed to concern itself with purity and beauty and such mysterious imagery as those of fairies.
In contrast, Decadence says there is no oblique approach to ultimate truth, because there is no secret, mystical truth. They despise the very idea of searching for such a thing. If there is truth of value, it is purely in the sensual experience of the moment. The heroes of Decadent novels, for instance, have the unquenchable accumulation of luxuries and pleasure, often exotic, as their goal, would have space in its search for thrills for even the gory and the shocking. In The Temptation of Saint Anthony, decadent Gustave Flaubert describes Saint Anthony's pleasure from watching disturbing scenes of horror. Later Czech decadent Arthur Breisky has been quoted by scholars as speaking to both the importance of illusion and of beauty: "But isn’t it necessary to believe a beautiful mask more than reality?"
Ultimately, the distinction may best be seen in their approach to art. Symbolism is an accumulation of “symbols” that are there not to present their content but to evoke greater ideas that their symbolism cannot expressly utter. According to Moréas, it is an attempt to connect the object and phenomena of the world to "esoteric primordial truths" that cannot ever be directly approached.
Decadence, on the other hand, is an accumulation of signs or descriptions acting as detailed catalogs of human material riches as well as artifice. It was Oscar Wilde who perhaps lay this out most clearly in The Decay of Lying with the suggestion of three doctrines on art, here excerpted into a list:
- "Art never expresses anything but itself."
- "All bad art comes from returning to Life and Nature, and elevating them into ideals."
- "Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life"
After which, he suggested a conclusion quite in contrast to Moréas' search for shadow truth: "Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art."