Richard Gilman

The murderer, the torturer of children, or the great betrayer like Judas is in a moral condition distinguished from that of decadence (if indeed decadence has anything to do with morality) by his absolute break with the acceptable. Dostoevsky understood as much as anybody ever has about distinctions of this kind. For example, Raskolnikov, in his hermetic criminality (think of how a moment after the murder of the old woman he feels himself to be in a silent, glacial world) is an entirely different species of moral being from, say, Nastasya Filippovna, whose testing of her suitors by flinging the packet of rubles on the fire, in The Idiot, would seem to be a superb example of what we like to think of as a decadent act.

The formulation might then be made: however extreme so-called decadent behavior might be, it retains its connections to the unproscribed. One can think of it as a more or less distant segment of an arc whose beginning is fully within our ordinary sphere of appetite and action. The Russian theologian-critic Vyacheslav Ivanov described decadence as the 'feeling, at once oppressive and exalting, of being the last of a series.' Whatever the hyperbole here, the point is that if decadence exists at all, it isn't self-contained or an abrupt departure from standards. It is not a break but some sort of extension. One might offer a tentative definition (keeping in mind that the description is of an idea, not a proven reality): decadence is a moribund or late—not necessarily 'last'—corrupted stage of one or another aspect of civilized existence, a stage, also, in its widest application, of a civilization itself.

This is the meaning obscured behind all those aphrodisiac images of studied sensuality and refined vice that the word first presents to us; and it is also the meaning most familiar to us in formal cultural history. There it refers to specific periods and styles in art and literature that are supposed to have been marked by debility and lack of original force in comparison to the 'health' of immediately preceding epochs: Mannerist painting; various types of Rococo; the writing and art of the late Roman Empire; certain fiction, poetry, and painting of the late nineteenth century in Europe. Applied this way, the designation releases ideas of excess, loss of vigor, tyranny at the hands of the past (a despotism acquiesced in, however), a concern with manner at the expense of substance, a hunger for the deviant as a positive principle. It is not, after all, such a great theoretical distance from these notions to the life of the word in popular idiom now.

'What decadence in literature really means,' Arthur Symons wrote in 1887 in his Essay on Meredith, 'is that learned corruption of language by which style ceases to be organic and becomes, in the pursuit of some new expressiveness or beauty, deliberately abnormal.' This is no doubt accurate, by which I mean it is true to what was thought about decadence in scholarly circles at the time and for the most part still is. But in the face of the naked word such studiousness and sobriety are difficult to maintain against the gravitational pull of the word away from the conceptual or evaluative and toward the fleshly, the flagrantly pictorial. One result of this tropism of 'decadence' toward the sensual is that the word loses any status it might have had as a moral, spiritual, or cultural term and takes on the bristling physiognomy of an expletive. This is an outcome we are familiar with in verbal matters. We need to give life to our abstractions; we can't go around with such gases in our heads. Abstractions make science possible, it's true, but they tend to bully affective life into confusion and incoherence.

This means that there is a price to pay whenever we try to locate abstractions in energetic, specific reality. Like so many words that originate in grand categories of the mind or imagination, 'decadence' has been debased into a label, a wholly imprecise means of evocation or identification. More than that, one can see in the process a certain borrowing of prestige or size, something that happens when we call a man a 'prince' or speak of a physical action as 'sheer poetry' or remark that there's 'the devil to pay.' 'Philosophy' is an obvious word of this kind: the downward path is from the 'rational investigation of the truths of knowledge, being, or conduct' to a car dealer's principles of salesmanship. 'Tragedy' is another: from the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles to a fallen souffle, a lost dog, or Watergate.

We indulge in such random and inappropriate usages with 'decadence' these days, applying it with waning disapprobation and a more or less furtive fascination to eating habits, interior decoration, styles of dress, and of course many crepuscular sexual practices and tastes. Or else, less stylishly, we wield it moralistically, brandishing it at the most dissimilar phenomena: corrupt politics, the mores of the jet set and hard-core skin flicks, topless waitresses and gold toothpicks. What 'decadence' is almost never any longer used to describe—as a little research will indicate it once so soberly and almost exclusively was—are broad cultural movements or the conditions of life of entire societies; except, that is to say, in the case of Chinese or soi-disant Maoists' characterizations of bourgeois or capitalist societies and even of the Soviet Union.

The New Decadence has been the subject of dozens of admiring—or at least far from disapproving—magazine articles, the kind by which editors fulfill their desperate obligation to be 'with it.' A writer on food resists the temptation, she tells us, to indulge in a restaurant's 'gorgeously decadent' desserts. Playboy runs a report on the opulent world cruise of the liner France under the title 'One More Crack at Glorious Decadence.' A far-out rock-theatrical group calls itself, with oxymoronic flair, the Decadent Poor. Sally Bowles' encomium, 'divine decadence, darling,' passes into the chitchat at Maxwell's Plum. It is all something of a joke, a cuteness about moral being and behavioral risks; it's a bit of camp about what was surely a troubled spiritual condition that some of our predecessors took pains to try to identify.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.