The Hero in French Decadent Literature

The Hero in French Decadent Literature

The Hero in French Decadent Literature

The Hero in French Decadent Literature

Excerpt

What is the French decadence? It is a term bandied about, a glib characterization of a gilded epoch, the Second Empire of Napoleon III. The word "decadence" is at once a sobriquet for the historian, a reproach for the moralist, a condemnation for the literary purist. There immediately emerges the cliché of the superannuated aesthete, the dandy twirling his gold-headed cane, as he leers over his absinthe at a voluptuous woman strolling down the boulevard. Hence in the popular mind the literature of the decadence, exuding decay, is superficially preoccupied with the exotic and the erotic. The decadent hero is a kind of pervert, and the decadent writer, by consensus, is obsessed with the strange and the inconsequential.

Such a picture is almost totally false. The decadent writer is most often a Péladan who, wretched novelist though he is, piously laments the collapse of French morality; or a Huysmans, who yearns for and, in his labyrinthine ways, returns to his natal Catholicism; or a Verlaine, who, torn between flesh and the spirit, etherealizes the most carnal pleasure and ever remains at heart a religious poet. So it is that, paradoxically, the decadence is fundamentally a literature of deep religious concern. Its protagonist, or hero, incarnates the problem.

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