From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Decadence refers to a personal trait and, much more commonly, to a state of society. In a person, or used to describe a person's lifestyle, it describes a lack of moral and intellectual discipline. In a society, it describes corrosive decline due to a perceived erosion of necessary moral traditions. (A society that discards unnecessary and outmoded values would not be considered decadent.) Due to the subjective nature of morality, whether a society is decadent or not is a matter of debate, though certain historical societies (such as ancient Rome near its end) are generally held to have been decadent, as decadence may lead to objective decline.
Decadent societies are often prosperous but usually have severe social and economic inequality, to such a degree that the upper class becomes either complacent or greedy, while the lower classes become hopeless and apathetic. The middle class may exhibit either or both patterns, or it may vanish entirely. Poor leadership is generally held to be both a cause and a symptom of decadence, as the lifestyle of a decadent individual is usually considered to be incompatible with responsibility. Applied to the arts, decadence implies an elevation of self-indulgence and pretension over effort and talent; when applied to science and the professions, it describes an erosion of professional ethics. Individual or collective greed is generally disliked in societies with strong moral beliefs, and for this reason, societies that nurture it are sometimes accused of decadence.
Societies that persist in a state of decadence may become unable or unwilling to commit to their own upkeep and fall into decline. One historical perspective on ancient Rome is that it became decadent due to a succession of poor emperors like Nero and Caligula. While they ruled centuries before the date of Rome's fall, their leadership may have played a role in its decline. This point of view may also be biased by ex-post interpretation : beyond his eccentricity Nero was also viewed as a good ruler and very popular during his reign, and Caligula only reigned a few years. Machiavelli attributed Roman decadence to the rise of Christianity. See also: Roman decadence.
Contemporary post-industrial societies such as the United States and Western Europe are sometimes accused of decadence, the argument being that consumerism, materialism, and selfishness have eroded traditional moral values of community, democracy, and the work ethic.
In literature, the Decadent movement—late nineteenth century fin de siècle writers who were associated with Symbolism or the Aesthetic movement—was first given its name by hostile critics, and then the name was triumphantly adopted by some writers themselves. These "decadents" relished artifice over the earlier Romantics' naive view of nature (see Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Some of these writers were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.
A dandy (also known as a beau, or gallant) is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self.
The model dandy in British society was George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778–1840), an undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, and an associate of the Prince Regent, who was not from an aristocratic background and whose greatness was "based on nothing at all," as J.A. Barbey d'Aurevilly observed in 1845. He was ever unpowdered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain, dark blue coat, perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing much perfectly starched linen, all freshly laundered, and composed with an elaborately knotted cravat. From the mid-1790s, Beau Brummell was an early incarnation of the celebrity.
During his heyday, Brummell's dictat on both fashion and etiquette reigned supreme. His habits of dress and fashion were much imitated, especially in France, where, in a curious development, they became the rage, especially in bohemian quarters. There, dandies sometimes were celebrated in revolutionary terms: self-created men of consciously designed personality, radically breaking with past traditions. With elaborate dress and idle, decadent styles of life, French bohemian dandies sought to convey contempt for and superiority to bourgeois society. In the latter 19th century, this fancy-dress bohemianism was a major influence on the Symbolist movement in French literature.
Charles Baudelaire was deeply interested in dandyism, and memorably wrote that a dandy aspirant must have "no profession other than elegance ... no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons ... The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror." Other French intellectuals also were interested in the dandies strolling the streets and boulevards of Paris. Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote The Anatomy of Dandyism, an essay devoted, in great measure, to examining the career of Beau Brummell.
Decadence was the name given, originally by hostile critics, to a number of late nineteenth-century writers who valued artifice over the earlier Romantics' naïve view of nature. Some of them triumphantly adopted the name, referring to themselves as Decadents. For the most part, they were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and were associated with Symbolism and/or Aestheticism.
This concept of decadence dates from the eighteenth century, especially from Montesquieu, and was taken up by critics as a term of abuse after Désiré Nisard used it against Victor Hugo and Romanticism in general. A later generation of Romantics, such as Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire took the word as a badge of pride, as a sign of their rejection of what they saw as banal "progress." In the 1880s a group of French writers referred to themselves as Decadents. The classic novel from this group is Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature, often seen as the first great decadent work, though others attribute this honor to Baudelaire's works.
In Britain the leading figure associated with the Decadent movement was Oscar Wilde.
The Symbolist movement has frequently been confused with the Decadent movement. Several young writers were derisively referred to in the press as "decadent" in the mid 1880s. Jean Moréas' manifesto was largely a response to this polemic. A few of these writers embraced the term while most avoided it. Although the aesthetics of Symbolism and Decadence can be seen as overlapping in some areas, the two remain distinct.
This fertile culture of Berlin extended onwards until Adolf Hitler rose to power in early 1933 and stamped out any and all resistance to the Nazi Party. Likewise, the Nazis decried Berlin as a haven of vice. A new culture developed in and around Berlin, including architecture and design (Bauhaus, 1919–33), a variety of literature (Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1929), film (Lang, Metropolis, 1927, Dietrich, Der blaue Engel, 1930), painting (Grosz), and music (Brecht and Weill, The Threepenny Opera, 1928), criticism (Benjamin), philosophy/psychology (Jung), and fashion. This culture was often considered to be decadent, and socially, morally, destructive.
Film was making huge technical and artistic strides during this period of time in Berlin, and gave rise to the influential movement called German Expressionism. "Talkies", the Sound films, were also becoming more popular with the general public across Europe, and Berlin was producing very many of them.
The so-called mystical arts also experienced a revival during this time-period in Berlin, with astrology, the occult, and esoteric religions and off-beat religious practices becoming more mainstream and acceptable to the masses as they entered popular culture.
Berlin in the 20s also proved to be a haven for English writers such as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, who wrote a series of 'Berlin novels', inspiring the play I Am a Camera, which was later adapted into a musical, Cabaret, and an Academy Award winning film of the same name. Spender's semi-autobiographical novel The Temple evokes the attitude and atmosphere of the place at the time.
Use in Marxism
Vladimir Lenin continued and extended the use of the word "decadence" in his theory of imperialism to refer to economic matters underlying political manifestations. According to Lenin, capitalism had reached its highest stage and could no longer provide for the general development of society. He expected reduced vigor in economic activity and a growth in unhealthy economic phenomena, reflecting capitalism's gradually decreasing capacity to provide for social needs and preparing the ground for socialist revolution in the West. Politically, World War I proved the decadent nature of the advanced capitalist countries to Lenin, that capitalism had reached the stage where it would destroy its own prior achievements more than it would advance.
One who directly opposed the idea of decadence as expressed by Lenin was José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930). He argued that the "mass man" had the notion of material progress and scientific advance deeply inculcated to the extent that it was an expectation. He also argued that contemporary progress was opposite the true decadence of the Roman Empire.
- Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet. ISBN 0-374-13567-3
- Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity. ISBN 0-8223-0767-7
- Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (1930). ISBN 0-19-281061-8
- Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence (2000). ISBN 0-06-017586-9
- Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau
- Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918)
- Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire