More than I love French Champagne, Belgian Diamonds, Russian Furs, Swiss Chocolates, Italian Cinema, Classical Music, and a Roulette Table in Monte Carlo, I love the decadence of literature. Truly and admittingly it is an addiction to me. Quite often I find myself immersed in the Paris Review when I cannot sleep or when I awake. And if one in my world is unfamiliar with the publication, I often find, I have very little in common with such a person.
Where did my craving for literary art begin? Roughly at 12 years of age. I was on an evening flight from San Francisco to San Diego. Seated on a PSA plane — yes the white, orange, black and red aircraft with the painted black smile on the face— I reached into the seatback pocket and found an old book. It was an old copy of Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest. Reading for me at that time in my life was difficult. I wrestled with dyslexia in the slightest form. However, on this evening, long before smartphones, I gave the book a shot to fill the 75 minute flight time.
From an early age, I relished in twisted humor. So as I read, every clever sentence struck me in a particular way that no other written work of art ever had… I was hooked. As the night chased the last bit of daylight into the western skies, I fell in love. I needed more. However, it was 1985, and record stores were more plentiful than book stores. So it took me a little while before I’d be able to get my youthful hands on more literature from the Decadent Movement era.
In the years that followed, I would slowly and secretly acquire more pieces of Victorian and Romantic literature that so tantalized my literary palette. Why was I secretive about my lust for more curious and shrewd reads? It was the 1980s. My friends were into The Cure, Billy Idol, and Madonna. The closest thing to poetry that they were listening to was the obscurity of lyrics from Siouxsie Sioux.
In 1989, however, I publicly professed my love for my books when Victoria’s Secret released its collection of books, Victoria’s Words of Love, Images of Love, Victoria’s Secret Gardens, and Beauty of Love. The lingerie company released these publications which were comprised of poems and paintings from the Victorian Era. You better believe I purchased many of those box sets for my friends. All done so I’d receive social acceptance in the era of 80’s pop culture.
And what did I admire so much about the Decadent Movement? Unlike that of the modern era, Victorians passionately believed that literature and art fulfilled vital ethical roles. Literature provided men and women of the era examples of correct behavior: it allowed them to identify with situations in which good deeds were rewarded, or it provoked tender and corresponding emotions. At best, the sympathies stirred by art and literature would inspire many to take action in the real world. The supporters of aestheticism, however, disagreed, arguing that art had nothing to do with morality. But rather, art was primarily about elegance and the pure pursuit of beauty.
What was controversially more? The aesthetes also saw these qualities as informative principles for life. They argued that the arts should be judged on the basis of form rather than morality. The famous motto “art for art’s sake” sheathes this particular view. It meant apprizing the sensual qualities of art and the sheer pleasure it provides. “Art for art’s sake” grew to be identified with the energy and creativity of aestheticism — but it also became a cuneiform way of expressing the fears of those who saw this uncoupling of art and morality as genuine danger. Aestheticism unsettled and challenged the values of mainstream Victorian culture. As it permeated more widely into the general culture, it was relentlessly satirized and condemned.
By the late 19th century, another term had become correlated with this focus on “art for art’s sake”. Its genesis was common with that of aestheticism and the two terms often overlap and were occasionally used interchangeably. ‘Decadence’ was initially used to describe writers of the mid-19th century in France, especially Baudelaire and Gautier. By the late 1800s, decadence was in use as an aesthetic term across the whole of Europe. The word literally means a process of ‘falling away’ or obsolete. In relation to art and literature, it beckoned a set of entwined qualities. These included the notion of profound refinement; the valuing of artificiality over nature; a position of ennui or apathy rather than of moral fervor or the value of hard work; an interest in mulishness and paradox, and in transgressive modalities of sexuality. One of the most important explicators of decadence was the poet Arthur Symons, whose essay ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature” (1893), described decadence as ‘a new and beautiful and interesting disease’. For Symons — as well as for others who were captious rather than captivated and enraptured— decadence was the literature of a modern society marinated in licentiousness and sophistication.
In France, decadence became identified with a type of poetry illuminated by the writing of Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, and also with the fiction of Joris-Karl Huysmans. Huysmans’s most infamous work, Á Rebours — published in 1884, it was translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain — is largely believed to be the notorious ‘poisonous’ book that seduces Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Huysmans’s novel caused outrage when it was released. Focused almost exclusively on the inner life of its ailing aristocrat protagonist, Des Esseintes, the novel delineates his obsessive sensual inquiries. Dorian Gray’s passion for studying and collecting jewels or perfumes or ecclesiastical vestments, and surrounding himself with exotic and sensual objects, reflects Des Esseintes’s pursuit of ever more cultivated sensory experiences.
In England, it was the flamboyant Wilde himself who was established as central to the English decadent culture, along with Arthur Symons and the poet, Ernest Dowson. Wilde was crucial because of his high visibility in fashionable London salons, clubs, and theatres. He dressed flamboyantly, donning fashions that others replicated. He was a radiant self-publicist and joked that his life was a work of art. Other essentially central poets include Lionel Johnson and John Davidson. Although often undervalued until our modern era, women also contributed to the decadent style. The most important voice was “Michael Field”, the name under which two women, Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, co-wrote. The Rhymers’ Club, set up by poets William Butler Yeats and Ernest Rhys in the 1890s, also explicitly rejected literary exactitude and embraced experimental modes of writing. ‘Symbolist’ poetry was intimately oriented with aesthetic and decadent styles: all of them poised to explore the beauty of peculiar, impressionistic, and distinctive moments.
My teenage years were spent indulging in these books while listening to 18th-century classical music. Little did I know that they would be highly influential in the development of who I grew to become; a sarcastic, indulgent, and wry libertine of yesteryear.