From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Turning to the critics for the definition of Decadence is much like listening to the famous orchestra of the King of Siam, where each musician plays the way he wants to and without paying any attention to the score." --Gustave Leopold van Roosbroeck in "Legend of the Decadents" (New York 1927)
Decadence (originally meaning "decline") usually means a perceived decay in standards, morals, dignity, religious faith, or leadership among the members of the elite of a large social structure. By extension, it may mean a decline in art or literature, or (very loosely) to self-indulgent behaviour.
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. Later it was triumphantly adopted by some of the writers themselves. The Decadents praised artifice over nature and sophistication over simplicity, defying contemporary discourses of decline by embracing subjects and styles that their critics considered morbid and over-refined. Some of these writers were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.
Use of the term decadent frequently implies moral censure that such declines are objectively observable and that they inevitably precede the destruction of the society in question; for this reason, modern historians use the term with caution. The word originated in Medieval Latin (dēcadentia), appeared in 16th-century French, and entered English soon afterwards. It bore the neutral meaning of decay, decrease, or decline until the late 19th century, when the influence of new theories of social degeneration contributed to its modern meaning.
Roman decadence defines the gradual and moral decline in the ancient Roman republican values of family, farming, virtus, and dignitas. It is personified by the 'mad emperors' and Valeria Messalina and is said to have led to the decline of the Roman Empire.
Some contemporary critics of Roman decadence, such as Cato the Younger, attributed its rise to the influence of the Hellenistic philosophy epicureanism, while modern historians such as Edward Gibbon ( The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, was published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788.) and Cyril Robinson also attribute increasing Roman affluence and the pacifying luxury it afforded.
The Borgias Valencian-Italian noble family who became prominent during the Renaissance. They are remembered today for their corrupt rule when one of them was Pope. The Borgias have been accused of many different crimes, generally on considerable evidence, including adultery, simony, theft, rape, bribery, incest, and murder (especially murder by arsenic poisoning). The most famous account of their debauchery is described in the "Banquet of Chestnuts".
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.
- The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
- Degeneration (1892) by Max Nordau
- The Decline of the West (1918) by Oswald Spengler
- The Romantic Agony (1930) by Mario Praz
- Five Faces of Modernity (1977|1987) by Matei Calinescu
- From Dawn to Decadence (2000) by Jacques Barzun