Defining Decadence: A Few More Thoughts (Open Forum)


See some of our own initial “definitions” at the start of class:


“During the last half of the nineteenth century, literary movements, schools, cenacles, and ‘isms’ proliferate.  My position is that decadence is the common denominator underlying the extremely complex and diverse literary activities in the mid-to late nineteenth century, and that this substratum of decadence is crucial to the development of the modern novel.”  (David Weir, Decadence and the Making of Modernism, p. xvii)

“Practically everyone who writes about decadence begins with the disclaimer that the word itself is annoyingly resistant to definition.  …  [T]he paradoxical nature of decadence and its resistance to definition are among the most important elements of its meaning.”  (p. 1, 2)

“Nevertheless, by dissociating art once and for all from the goal that has always been assigned it—the faithful imitation of nature regarded as the supreme norm [i.e. mimesis]—the decadent period does constitute an essential line of cleavage between the classical esthetic and the modern esthetic.” (Jean Pierrot, The Decadent Imagination 1880-1900, p. 11)


How did Wilde fit in—in contemporaries’ eyes, and in our own?  Wilde as the quintessential embodiment and model of Decadence?

“There is not a man or a woman in the English-speaking world possessed of the treasure of a wholesome mind who is not under a deep debt of gratitude to the Marquess of Queensberry [Lord Alfred Douglas’ father, who was the cause of the trials for “acts of gross indecency” that ended Wilde’s career] for destroying the high Priest of the Decadents.”  (National Observer, May 1895)

“[C]ontrary to its image as a rarefied ivory-tower aesthetic or merely parodic hiatus before the inception of Modernism, decadence poses serious literary, political, and historical questions.”  (Constable, Potolsky, and Denisoff [eds.], Introduction to Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, p. 1)




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