Science in Decadent Literature


What is the role of science in Decadent literature? In a good number of the works we have read there has been at least one mention of science made. The anatomical venus is a nod to science in M. Venus and Anthony is tempted by science in the form of the Devil himself. Wilde also writes about science quite often. For example, in Wilde’s “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” he claims that past villains such as Nero and Tiberius, “have passed into the sphere of art and science, and neither art nor science knows anything of moral approval or disapproval,” (1107).  In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Alan Campbell plays a small but prominent role and seems to be a tool with which Wilde can make statements about science. Campbell is always a dedicated scientist, but during his relationship with Dorian he develops an appreciation of art as well. Once the relationship ends badly though, Campbell seems to want to distance himself from art as much as possible. He stops playing the piano and violin and begins to dislike even hearing music. Wilde writes “he was so absorbed in science that he had no time left in which to practice,” (122). For Campbell, art has become associated with Dorian and it is too painful for him to deal with. He wants to get as far away from art as possible and the apparent opposite is science.

There are many other examples, but a pattern emerges. It seems to me that science is obviously different from art and in some ways its complete opposite. Wilde has pointed out some fallacies of science and seems to hold art above it. However, Wilde does not completely reject science. Art and science share some powerful similarities. They are not held to moral standards and allow us to get at the truth objectively. While very different, they seem to be held in a similar plane. There is a higher power to both and Wilde, as well as his contemporaries, seem to respect science at some level. But of course art will always win out over science in a Decadent world.  IPN


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Filed under Week 9 Reviews: Wilde's "Portrait of Mr. W.H," Mallarmé’s “The Windows" and "The Azure”

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