The Language of Decadence

By Kelly, Gregory | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

The Language of Decadence


Kelly, Gregory, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Linda Dowling. Language and Decadence in the Victorian Fin de Siecle. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986. 294 pp.

Linda Dowling's Language and Decadence is a major contribution to the scholarship on Victorian fin de siecle. Assiduously researched, tightly structured and dearly expressed, her argument is as fascinating as it is persuasive: the English literary Decadence emerged as a complex reaction to the anti-logocentric implications of continental philology. To approach the period, she maintains, with an all-purpose iconography of effete, effeminate literatti hankering after delicious sins is to leave it largely unexplored. Such a misguided methodology leads only to the high-browed gossip of Rupert Croft-Cooke's Feasting With Panthers. What is needed instead is a study which maps the infiltration of German linguistic philosophies into nineteenth-century debates on the cultural significance of literature, and how the age's prominent authors accommodated the conclusions of these debates. Over the five chapters that comprise her magnificent book, Dowling shows herself to be a superb cartographer of this epoch in intellectual history.

She begins with the most difficult part of her thesis, the construction of a linguistic context for discussing Victorian Decadence. Looking back from Pater to Locke, she outlines how skeptical epistemologies engendered a counter-movement which she terms "Romantic Philology," an attitude towards language positing its one-to-one correspondence with absolute terms such as God, self and culture. The names invoked in this chapter read like a roll-call of eighteenth-century European intelligentsia: de Condillac, Horne Tooke, Herder, Lowth, Hegel, and yon Humboldt, to name a few. This cast of characters plays a supporting role to her central discussion of how Wordsworth and Coleridge differed in their respective approaches to the speech/writing heirarchy of conventional metaphysics. Wordsworth elevated the "purified" speech of rural folk over poetic artifice, but in so doing nearly rejected the value of an English literary tradition. The growth of British nationalism and the decline of belief in the Bible as a source of unmediated truth gave an edge to Coleridge's contention that writing should be the superior term of the hierarchy; his "lingua communis" was to form the new cultural canon. Unsurprisingly, the realignment of speech and writing as they relate to spirit and materiality would not turn out to be as simple as either Wordsworth or Coleridge would have had it.

In the second chapter, Dowling expands on the theme suggested by its title, "The Decay of Literature." Here she shows how the Coleridgean ideal was undermined by the research of the New Grammarians. Sharing Wordsworth's emphasis on spoken dialects of the present over recorded writings of the past, they viewed language as an organism, one subject to the growth and decay of any life-form. This philological fashion produced a crisis: on the one hand, conservative Victorian thinkers turned to literature as a means of preserving its "centre"; on the other, contemporary linguistic investigations indicated that writing is the mausoleum of deceased languages. It was in this context, Dowling argues, that the Decadence was born. "The Fatal Book," both the subject and title of the third chapter, concerns the response of late Victorian writers to the dilemma facing them. Dowling commences this section with Pater, whose work she feels was "an attempt to rescue from the assaults of scientific philology and linguistic relativism an ideal, however diminished and fugitive, of literature and literary culture" (104). That ideal was based on his practive of euphuism, a scholarly method of writing for scholarly readers. …

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