The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley

The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley

The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley

The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley

Synopsis

While scholars have long associated the group of nineteenth-century French and English writers and artists known as the decadents with alienation, escapism, and withdrawal from the social and political world, Matthew Potolsky offers an alternative reading of the movement. In The Decadent Republic of Letters, he treats the decadents as fundamentally international, defined by a radically cosmopolitan ideal of literary sociability rather than an inward turn toward private aesthetics and exotic sensation.

The Decadent Republic of Letters looks at the way Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier, and Algernon Charles Swinburne used the language of classical republican political theory to define beauty as a form of civic virtue. The libertines, an international underground united by subversive erudition, gave decadents a model of countercultural affiliation and a vocabulary for criticizing national canon formation and the increasing state control of education. Decadent figures such as Joris-Karl Huysmans, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, Aubrey Beardsley, and Oscar Wilde envisioned communities formed through the circulation of art. Decadents lavishly praised their counterparts from other traditions, translated and imitated their works, and imagined the possibility of new associations forged through shared tastes and texts. Defined by artistic values rather than language, geography, or ethnic identity, these groups anticipated forms of attachment that are now familiar in youth countercultures and on social networking sites.

Bold and sophisticated, The Decadent Republic of Letters unearths a pervasive decadent critique of nineteenth-century notions of political community and reveals the collective effort by the major figures of the movement to find alternatives to liberalism and nationalism.

Excerpt

Community is made of what retreats from it.

—Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community

With surprisingly few exceptions, the history of the decadent movement has been told from the perspective of a single national tradition—with due acknowledgment of the French (most often), English, American, or German origin of this or that key figure or contributing intellectual thread. Written as part of a growing interest among scholars in cosmopolitanism, internationalism, and cross-Channel and transatlantic connections, The Decadent Republic of Letters regards decadence as fundamentally international in origin and orientation. The various names artists and critics have applied to fin-de-siècle literary movements tend to be identified with a single national tradition. Aestheticism was largely a British movement; Symbolism developed in France. Decadence, by contrast, was an international movement from the beginning, and had a lasting impact around the world well after the turn of the century. This book focuses chiefly on French and English writers of the second half of the nineteenth century, but the stylistic and thematic paradigms I tease out of the movement were adapted by writers from the United States, Latin America, Central Europe, and other regions. Defined by more than the familiar set of images, themes, and stylistic traits normally associated with the movement, decadence, as I present it here, is a characteristic mode of reception, a stance that writers take in relationship to their culture and to the cosmopolitan traditions that influence them.

This stance originates in a transatlantic encounter: Charles Baudelaire’s translations of and critical writings on Edgar Allan Poe. These texts provided . . .

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