Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence

Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence

Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence

Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence

Synopsis

When Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency in 1895, a reporter for the National Observer wrote that there was 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 marquis of Queensberry for destroying the high Priest of the Decadents. But reports of the death of decadence were greatly exaggerated, and today, one hundred years after the famous trial and at the end of another century, the phenomenon of decadence continues to be a significant cultural force.Indeed, decadence in the nineteenth century, and in our own period, has been a concept whose analysis yields a broad set of associations. In Perennial Decay, Emily Apter, Charles Bernheimer, Sylvia Molloy, Michael Riffaterre, Barbara Spackman, Marc Weiner, and others extend the critical field of decadence beyond the traditional themes of morbidity, the cult of artificiality, exoticism, and sexual nonconformism. They approach the question of decadence afresh, reevaluating the continuing importance of late nineteenth-century decadence for contemporary literary and cultural studies.

Excerpt

Liz Constable, Matthew Potolsky, and Dennis Denisoff

Stripped of its mysticism, its necessity, of all its historical genealogy, the idea of literary
decadence is reduced to a purely Negative idea, to the simple idea of absence.

Remy de Gourmont, “Stéphane Mallarmé and the Idea 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 for destroying the high Priest of the Decadents,” exclaimed the National Observer when Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency in 1895. This image of Wilde as the quintessential embodiment and model of decadence — and its apparent containment —reflects a diverse collection of cultural anxieties and biases that were not, of course, to be dispatched with one individual, despite the newspaper claims. The Observer’s confident obituary of decadence was greatly exaggerated, and today—just over one hundred years after the famous trials — cultural phenomena designated as decadent continue to exercise a significant force. Indeed, contrary to the sometimes narrow connotations of its name, decadence was in the nineteenth century and has more recently proved to be a concept whose analysis yields a very broad set of resonances and associations. Many of these associations open up new perspectives on the fin(s)-desiecle(s), and extend the critical field of decadence beyond its conventional reduction to a few stock themes proffered by a small group of late nineteenth-century European writers and artists subsequently deemed “decadent” by critics. The study of decadence — and, as we shall suggest, the study of many recent studies of decadence — indicates that, contrary to its image as a rarefied ivory-tower aesthetic or a merely parodic hiatus before the inception of Modernism, decadence poses serious literary, political, and historical questions. This collection of original essays by major scholars in . . .

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