The Devil's Advocates: Decadence in Modern Literature

The Devil's Advocates: Decadence in Modern Literature

The Devil's Advocates: Decadence in Modern Literature

The Devil's Advocates: Decadence in Modern Literature


"It is a feat to demystify decadence genially while dealing with unsavory material usually presented complicitously. But Whissen achieves even more. He is not looking at counterculture literature but at mainstream literature in which the reader either senses something decadent in the writer's attitude or identifies some rhetorical device associated with the decadence. . . . He focuses chiefly on authors who have been studied from other perspectives (e.g., Gide, Mann, James, Dinesen) or who have hardly been studied at all (e.g., Maugham, Firbank, Capote, Suesskind, Stephen King)." Choice


Decadence is a term we all use quite freely and with a fairly good idea of what we mean by it. But even when we know what we mean, we are not always sure we know what it means. Unfortunately, most attempts to pin it down invariably end in frustration.

Rigorous scholarly minds have wrestled with the term with only mixed success. Those who stay within the narrow confines of late nineteenth- century French and English literature have reached a somewhat uneasy compromise on the term's usefulness in describing a significant literary affectation of that period, but the use of the term in any wider context continues to be hotly debated. In the preface to Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890s, Karl Beckson says that the attempt to state precisely what decadence means "has led numerous literary historians to dash themselves on the semantic rocks" (vii). The frustration of it has even tempted some scholars to abandon the attempt. In fact, in Decadence. The Strange Life of an Epithet, Richard Gilman argues almost too convincingly in favor of banishing "this injured and vacant word from history." Otherwise, he says, it "will go on recommending itself to the shallow, the thoughtless and imitative, the academically frozen: monkey- minds" (180).

Who can resist a challenge like that? Gilman is right, of course, in lamenting the fact that decadence is an overused and overworked word and in fearing that one more attempt to define it will only add to the confusion surrounding it and contribute to its uselessness. However, there are certain threads running through modern literature that can be appreciated only if they can be seen as interwoven parts of the fabric known as decadence.

In Decadence: A Philosophical Inquiry, a thorough and provocative (if somewhat prejudiced) analysis of the subject, philosopher C.E.M. Joad says that he . . .

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