The Grammar of Decadence: Perversity, Paradox and Perplexity

  • Suzanne Nalbantian


The seeds of Decadence* were sown in the transitional period in Western literature from 1870 to 1900. To associate the word simply with the Aesthetes of the 1890s is reductive because Decadence was not Aestheticism but an aesthetic of transition expressing a crisis in values and language in the Western world. Nor was this a conscious programme as fashioned by the literary schools of the time, for it emerged unconsciously in the texture of the prose of major novelists of the period extremely sensitive to the gruelling moral traumas over and above their literary allegiances.


Ivory Tower Literary School Major Novelist Yellow Book Moral Turpitude 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    See Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses (Paris: Gallimard, 1966) pp. 396–7. This and all other translations from the French quoted in this book are mine.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Preface to The Case of Wagner (1888), where Nietzsche distinguished himself from Wagner, stating: ‘I am just as much a child of my age as Wagner — i.e., I am a decadent. The only difference is that I recognized the fact, that I struggled against it…. My greatest preoccupation hitherto has been the problem of “decadence”’ — The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol. 8, ed. Oscar Levy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1964) pp. xxix–xxx.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Viking Press, 1968) p. 208. The translations of Nietzsche quoted in the text are Kaufmann’s.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Ibid., p. 208. Actually Muschel can mean mussel and Nietzsche might have had that image in mind for a symbol of a living entity rather than the notion of an inert shell.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Ibid., p. 208.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Ibid., p. 209.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ibid., p. 483.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Roger Bauer’s article tracing this, ‘Décadence: histoire d’un mot et d’une idée’, in Cahiers roumains d’études littéraires (Bucharest, 1978) pp. 55–78.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    From Preface by Théophile Gautier to Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal (Paris: Lemerre, 1868) p. 20.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See J. K. Huysmans, ‘Préface écrite vingt ans après le roman’, in A Rebours, ed. Marc Fumaroli (Paris: Gallimard, 1977).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Huysmans, A Rebours, p. 190.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Ibid., p. 191.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    See Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem, ‘Prose pour Des Esseintes’ (1884). According to the notes of the Pléiade edition of Mallarmé’s works (Paris: Gallimard, 1945), this poem was written in response to a letter of 1882 from Huysmans indicating the plan of A Rebours and asking Mallarmé to send him some poems.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Huysmans, A Rebours, p. 332.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Arthur Symons, A Study of Oscar Wilde (London: Charles J. Sawyer, Grafton House, 1930) p. 24.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Christopher S. Nassaar, Into the Demon Universe: A Literary Exploration of Oscar Wilde (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974) p. 66.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Oscar Wilde, ‘The Decay of Lying’, in Complete Works (London: Collins, 1948) p. 978.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Arthur Symons, ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’, in Dramatis Personae (Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, rpt 1971) pp. 96–7.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Ibid., p. 116.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    Preface to first issue of The Savoy (January 1896) cited by Frances Winwar, Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Nineties (Garden City, NY: Blue Ribbon Books, 1941) p. 244: for a discussion of the yellow symbolism, see this book.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    Guy Michaud in his Message poétique du Symbolisme (Paris: Librairie Nizet, 1947) identifies a Belgian group of young poets such as Rodenbach, Verhaeren, Samain, Laforgue, Moréas as Decadents. Michaud envisages Decadence as a lyrical stage in the poetic revolution that was Symbolism.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine (Paris: Lemerre, 1883) pp. 22–3.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Ibid., p. 14.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Ibid., p. 25.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., p. 25.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Max Nordau, Degeneration, trans. from the second edition of the German work by George L. Mosse (New York: Howard Fertig, 1968) p. 2.Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Oswald Spengler’s term in The Decline of the West (1918–22) to identify Western man in the post-Medieval period. See The Decline of the West, 2 vols (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1926–8); originally published as Der Untergang des Abendlandes, 2 vols (Munich: C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1918, 1922).Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Critical literature on decadence has been profuse but the definition of the term among literary critics remains eclectic; so much so that Henri Peyre called for the dismissal of the term. There are those who envisage it as an ultimate phase of Romanticism, the leading proponent of which is Mario Praz (The Romantic Agony, 1933, rpt London: Fontana Library, 1960). Others, in sharp contrast, regard it in connection with Modernism: Matei Calineseu’s is the most comprehensive survey as he views its interface with the avant-garde in his book entitled Faces of Modernity (Indiana University Press, 1977). Jean Pierrot, who emphasizes the Aestheticism of the decadent period delimited as 1880–1900 in his book L’Imaginaire Décadent (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1972), views its intermediary status between Classicism and Modernism. Renato Poggioli, whose intention was to write a book on the subject under the Baudelairean title The Autumn of Ideas, distinguished decadence from the avant-garde by its firm identification with the past. In his dialectical view of the term, he associated it with Barbarism, which he regarded as the natural nemesis of a decadent civilization — see his article ‘Qualis Artifex Pereo! or Barbarism and Decadence’, in Harvard Library Bulletin, XIII, 1 (Winter 1959) pp. 135–49. Another cultural view of decadence is A. E. Carter’s The Idea of Decadence in French Literature: 1830–1900 (University of Toronto Press, 1958) which regards it as a serious preoccupation in the nineteenth century’s spiritual assessment of Western civilization. Other critics see it in more parochial national contexts such as George Ross Ridge in The Hero in French Decadent Literature (University of Georgia Press, 1961) and William Eickhorst in Decadence in German Fiction (Denver: Swallow, 1953). In a recent challenge of the word in Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), Richard Gilman brings out its variableness as well as its diachronic and cyclical prevalence throughout literature and therefore desists from identifying and pursuing any single facet of its meaning.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    See Suzanne Nalbantian, The Symbol of the Soul from Hölderlin to Yeats (New York and London: Columbia University Press and Macmillan, 1977).Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    For a provocative discussion of a synchronic view of the apocalyptic paradigm, see Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (Oxford University Press, 1966). His frame of reference is entirely different, as he identifies links between Ancient and Modernist ‘absurd-oriented’ literature (skirting the fin-de-siècle period) and regarding the apocalyptic paradigm as especially endemic to modern fiction.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Suzanne Nalbantian 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Suzanne Nalbantian
    • 1
  1. 1.Old Westbury, Long IslandUSA

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