Wasted in the 1880s: The Decadent Movement

| 10/18/2011 3:34:48 PM

Joris-Karl Huysmans 

There are plenty of people who wear morbidity and fatalism as an aesthetic pose—hello, goths, zombies, Diamanda Galas, and black metal fanatics—but after reading Marc Katz’s essay in The Believer about the 1880s literary movement known as decadence, it becomes clear that most of them are mere dabblers in the dark arts. 

Consider the protagonist of “the bible of decadence,” the 1884 novel Against Nature, by J.K. Huysmans. Duke des Esseintes is a wealthy, burned-out opium smoker who, tired of hosting funeral-themed dinner parties, holes up in a villa and “spends the novel in pursuit of a final thrill: creating an aesthetic domain so self-contained that it suggests a tomb”: 

He starts by ordering specialty items, including a damask cope from a defunct guild of weavers in Cologne, several blue fox pelts, and an aventurine-studded box containing “Pearls of the Pyrénées”—candied lozenges made of orchids and “female essence,” used to enhance his sexual memory. He also covers a live tortoise with a pattern of occidental turquoise and cymophanes. He then lets it roam around in the semidarkness to throw off glints of color, until it asphyxiates in a corner under the weight of the jewels. 

Katz’s essay traces the sociopolitical factors that led up to Against Nature—among them “satiety, colonial overreach, and an increasing inability to imagine the future convincingly”—as well as the book’s brief but intense influence on Europe’s creative classes, among them Oscar Wilde, who so loved the doomed elegance of Against Nature that he brought the book along on his honeymoon and used it as an inspirational backdrop for The Picture of Dorian Gray. 

And no wonder: For a writer prone to flights of linguistic fancy, the elaborate descriptive language of decadence was a macabre wonderland. To many others, writes Katz, 

Decadent taste takes some getting used to, though. Writers like Huysmans worked right at the edge of oblivion, with symbols that were ethereal and obscure: serpents twined with human hair; fields of hemlock; succubi; monstrous, purple-draped catafalques; syphilitic flesh; stagnant lakes engulfed by shadows. This wasn’t mere morbidity. The decadents found spoilage to be exhilarating, so long as it could be used to creative advantage. 

After decadent art became something of a sensation, writes Katz, Huysmans found it hard to shed the baggage the novel brought him, and he went in the opposite direction, taming down his writing, undergoing a religious conversion and ending up in a cloistered abbey—an unexpected course, to be sure, but a kinder fate than what his acolytes wanted, which apparently was for him to share the fate of the jewel-encrusted tortoise. 

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