A Baedeker of Decadence: Charting a Literary Fashion, 1884-1927

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During the final decades of the nineteenth century, a common mind-set emerged among many intellectuals-"la décadence." Many novels and novellas of the period were populated with protagonists who were fragile, refined, self-absorbed, and preoccupied with a trivially exquisite aesthetic. A Baedeker of Decadence presents thirty-two international works of literary decadence written between 1884 and 1927. George C. Schoolfield, a world authority on the decadent novel, offers an entertaining and wide-ranging commentary on this highly significant literary and cultural phenomenon. Schoolfield tracks down the symptoms of decadence in narrative works written in more than a dozen languages, providing synopses and passages in English translation to give a sense of each author's style and tone. Schoolfield throws new light on the close intellectual kinship of authors from August Strindberg to Bram Stoker to Thomas Mann, and on the ingredients, themes, motifs, and preconceptions that characterized decadent literature.

Author Biography: George C. Schoolfield is professor emeritus of German and Scandinavian literature, Yale University. He is the author, editor, or translator of numerous books, among them A History of Finland's Literature, for which the Swedish Literary Society in Finland awarded him its prestigious Tollander Prize.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300047141
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2003
  • Pages: 432
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Table of Contents

1 France: Joris-Karl Huysmans 1
2 Ireland: George Moore 16
3 Italy: Gabriele D'Annunzio 29
4 Sweden: August Strindberg 43
5 England: Oscar Wilde 58
6 Holland: Louis Couperus 71
7 Norway: Arne Garborg 85
8 Belgium: Georges Rodenbach 100
9 Poland/Prussia: Stanislaw Przybyszewski 117
10 Finland: Karl August Tavaststjerna 132
11 Ireland: Edith Oenone Somerville and Violet Martin Ross 147
12 Austria: Leopold von Andrian, Rainer Maria Rilke 164
13 Poland/Prussia: Stanislaw Przybyszewski 182
14 Wales: Arthur Machen 198
15 England: Bram Stoker 215
16 Portugal: Jose Maria Eca de Queiros 233
17 Spain: Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan 247
18 Germany: Thomas Mann 267
19 Sweden: Oscar Levertin, Gustaf af Geijerstam, Hjalmar Soderberg, Kjell Stromberg 286
20 Denmark: Herman Bang 305
21 Australia: Henry Handel Richardson 327
22 The United States: James Gibbons Huneker 356
23 Iceland: Halldor Kiljan Laxness 373
Bibliography 401
Index 409
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First Chapter

A Baedeker of Decadence


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2003 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-04714-1

Chapter One



Daniel, interpreting Nebuchadnezzar's dream about the great image, his "head of gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, [h]is legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay," bravely prophesied to the monarch the decline and destruction of empires, his own and those to come. The Neo-Latin and vernacular lyric of the Renaissance liked to ponder the ruins of Rome and of other cities of the empire; looking at Trier, Augusta Treverorum, the German humanist Conrad Celtis beheld a "Rome reduced to shards, thick clusters of shrubs growing in the atrium."

When À rebours (Against the Grain, Against Nature) appeared, in April 1884, it summed up currents that had been in the cultural air for a long time. In 1734, Montesquieu published Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et leur décadence; some thirty years later, Edward Gibbon brought out the several volumes of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88). The word decadence itself-meaning a falling away from a previous state ofstrength-had come very much into scholarly and publicistic currency by the 1830s; Désiré Nisard used it copiously in his Études de moeurs et de critique sur les poètes latins de la décadence of 1834; here, he tried to single out some of the elements of a "decadent style" in Roman literature of the Silver Age, in his essay on Lucan: "[Art] lies entirely in the details, in the depiction of material objects: the moral sentiment has been excluded from it ... the soul has naught to do here ... everything is for the pleasure of the eyes ... Lucan casts himself into the most perilous novelties ... he violates the language in order not to be imitative ... the poem of Lucan [the Pharsalia] is a work of erudition, although surely not of critical erudition." These words could very well be from a description of À rebours, lying fifty years in the future.

Again in 1835, there had appeared a book evidencing a curiosity, to be associated with decadence, about sexual aberration-aberration that (as every reader of Petronius and Suetonius knew) was part and parcel of the Roman decline. Theóphile Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin has, of course, a contemporary setting, but, before the book turns to the narrative account of transvestism and lesbianism, the long preface looks to the past, to two empires that had declined and fallen. Like Sardanapalus, the last king of Assyria (whose death, amidst nude female bodies, had just been painted, in 1827, by Delacroix), Gautier would give a "large prize to anyone inventing a new pleasure"; the bill of fare, he continued, at the Café Anglais in Paris was a poor and primitive thing compared to that even of Trimalchio's feast in Petronius' Satyricon: the French Regency, with its culinary and erotic extravagances, was only a wretched imitation of the "great voluptuaries of Baiae, Capri, and Tibur." (The classic illustration of this Roman world of elegance and orgies was given, shortly, by Thomas Couture, in Les Romains de la décadence of 1847, showing Romans spread out at their banquet tables, amidst girls and boys who rather modestly offer sexual thrills.) This world of exquisite pleasure, though, was shot through with anxiety: if the Romans had had extravagantly developed appetites, on all scores, they had also become womanish and effete and had been destroyed by the barbarians. In Sylvie of 1854, Gérard de Nerval, looking back a decade or so to his youth, put it this way: in the midst of brilliant talk in "the ivory tower of the poets,... our discussions rose to such a height that the most timid of us would sometimes go to the window to see if the Huns or the Turcomans or the Cossacks had at last come to cut short the argumentations of sophists and rhetoricians." And, as morals went by the board, in the search for new thrills, and as the apprehensive looked for the barbarians to appear at the door or in the atrium, language itself fell into fascinating decay. In his introduction to the collected edition of Baudelaire's works of 1868, Gautier describes the Word (with a capital W) as being summoned to "express everything," "pushing it to the last extreme." This is a locus classicus on the decadent style in literature, and deserves to be quoted at length. "In this connection, one may recall the language, already marbled by the greening of decomposition and, as it were, gamy, of the later Roman Empire and the complex refinements of the Byzantine school, the final form of Greek art fallen into deliquescence. But such, no doubt, is the necessary and fatal idiom of these peoples and civilizations when artificial life has replaced natural life, and has developed unknown needs in mankind." Three years later, on March 1, 1871, troops of the German Empire, just proclaimed at Versailles, marched into Paris (in his journal Edmond de Goncourt notes: "I hear music-their music"), and the brief reign of the Commune showed a more terrifying kind of barbarism, or so it seemed, come from within French society itself.

By the 1870's, the word décadent cropped up everywhere; the young critic and inexhaustible novelist-to-be, Paul Bourget, wrote that "we accept this terrible word decadence, without pride and without humility." But pride, on the part of those who were shortly to describe themselves as decadents, was surely there; maybe Verlaine mocked their bored arrogance when, in the sonnet "Langueur" of 1883, he set down the famous lines: "I am the Empire at the end of decadence, / Watching the great blond barbarians pass, / While composing acrostics of indolence / With a stylus of gold where the sun's languor dances." Languor, the inability to act, and ennui, became signs of the decadent attitude, signs cultivated and gladly borne. Bourget put it neatly, speaking again from outside the phenomenon, in his Essais de psychologie contemporaine of 1883: "If the citizens of a decadence are inferior as workers for the nation's greatness, are they not much superior as artists of the interiors of their soul? If they are clumsy at private or public action, is it not precisely because they are so terribly well suited to solitary thought? If they are poor reproducers of future generations, is it not precisely because the abundance of subtle sensations and the exquisiteness of rare sentiments have made virtuosi of them, sterile but refined, virtuosi of pleasure and of pain ... a German chieftain of the second century was more capable of invading the empire than a Roman patrician was of defending it ... [a patrician] erudite and refined, curious and disabused ... is it not the fatal lot of the exquisite and the rare to be wrong in brutality's presence?"

The perception of decadent self-congratulation to be sensed in these lines, or in the decadents they described, the new Romans of the late Empire, is striking, and it is to be found elsewhere, put much more eloquently by true believers-true believers who liked to think that they comprised a very small and select cult indeed. In 1893, almost a decade after the appearance of À rebours, at a time when decadence was in full flower (was it a plant like those monstrosities favored by Des Esseintes?), the Austrian poet and critic Hugo von Hofmannsthal, not yet nineteen, in an essay on D'Annunzio's L'Innocente (where a nobleman sees to it that his infant son catches a mortal cold) spoke about the sensibilities of those who truly could understand the Italian's work: "We observe our life, we empty its goblets prematurely, and yet remain infinitely thirsty.... We have, as it were, no roots in life and wander, clairvoyant and yet day blind shadows, amidst the children of life. We! We! I know full well that I do not speak of this whole and mighty present generation. I speak of a few thousand people, scattered throughout the great cities of Europe." How finely sad or sadly fine it was to be a decadente superiore, in the term of the Italian physician Cesare Lombroso, or a Degenerierter höherer Gattung ("a degenerate creature of a higher species"), as the consoling Dr. Deroge calls his young friend Edmond Veraine in Gerhard Ouckama-Knoop's novel of 1898, Die Dekadenten (The Decadents), a member of the doomed and happy-unhappy few. The very year that Hofmannsthal wrote his apostrophe, a Dane, Johannes Jørgensen (who eventually, like Huysmans, would embrace Roman Catholicism), had a character in his novel, Livets Træ (1893, The Tree of Life), proclaim: "I am a Darwinist and a decadent. I believe that the brutal will live and the beautiful will die ... The earth will be filled with the crudest and roughest plants, while those that are beautiful and tender grow ever rarer, and are destroyed." Taking examples from Danish dendrology, Jørgensen's Niels Graff goes on: "The ugly fir tree is crowding out the bright and gentle beech in our islands ... everything we love, art, poetry, the exquisite, the rare, belongs to what will die." Finally, Jørgensen tells us who the fir trees are: "It is the Prussians and the Yankees who will inherit the earth, covering it with their millions as though with a huge monotonous fir forest." The Prussians, of course, had conquered and mutilated Denmark in the war of 1864, they would defeat France in 1870-71; as for the Americans, we immediately recall Des Esseintes's cry of pain in the last chapter of À rebours, to the effect that "the vast bagnio of America has been transplanted to the continent of Europe: this was the limitless, unfathomable, immeasurable scurviness of the financier and the self-made man." At the end of the passage quoted above, Jørgensen cries out: "Look at France, dying, alone and expelled from society, on the edge of Europe-the last guardian of the holy flame." In his diary for 1877, the Genevan Henri Amiel stated that French literature, personified by the poet Théodore de Banville, made him think of Pergamos and Alexandria and the "epochs of decadence, when beauty of form conceals poverty of thought and a spent heart," but added that "[t]he German is a barbarian from his cheekbones to the soles of his feet."

Not everyone, to be sure, was as enthusiastic about the antivulgarian message of À rebours as Jørgensen: Huysmans-bashing-and then decadent-bashing-became a popular occupation of moral-minded contemporaries. The German-Hungarian journalist Max Nordau, in the chapter "Ego-Maniacs" of his Entartung (1892-93, Degeneration), decried, for example, "the drivel about teas, liqueurs, and perfumes," put together-in imitation of the French Parnassians-"by ransacking technical dictionaries," the "mechanical fish" in Des Esseintes's aquarium windows in his dining room are "the dream of an ironmonger, retired from business and become an idiot." The Belgian Iwan Gilkin, who decided (not altogether incorrectly) that "the best part of [À rebours] is its critique of furnishings and painting and letters," found that "the personage of Des Esseintes drowned in this deluge of digressions," and scored, among other things, the banquet held by Des Esseintes, to celebrate the loss of his potency, as "infantile baroqueness." He concluded that the book was like "a torch falling into a well, illuminating the growing depravity of art, the burgeoning perversion of intelligence and of the senses. For several years now, critics have compared contemporary decadence with that of the old Roman Empire. The reading of À rebours makes this comparison striking."

The Austrian Hermann Bahr (who borrowed from À rebours with both hands for his own decadent novel, Die gute Schule [The Good School] of 1891) spoke of the decadents, with Huysmans as their main figure, in this way: "Since they have lost nature, they have lost art as well. It is their nature to be inartistic, since they are unnatural." Nietzsche, excoriating Wagner with terms he had learned from Bourget, wrote, in Der Fall Wagner (1888, The Wagner Case), that "Life, equal vitality, the vibration and exuberance of life are repressed into the smallest formations, the remainder is poor in life. Everywhere paralysis, strain, or hostility and chaos ... the whole does not live at all any more: it is composed, calculated, artificial, an artifact." (In decadence, Bourget had found "an independence of single cells," no longer serving the whole.) Lombroso called the decadents "a new variety of literary madmen ... literary mattoids [those slightly mad], in all their old vanity, but with the appearance of novelty." Even Arthur Symons, who coined the phrase about À rebours as "the breviary of decadence," and who was in much an admirer of decadent letters, as we shall see, felt obliged to tell the readers of Harper's Monthly Magazine (again in 1893), with a strong undercurrent of censure, that the literature of decadence-Huysmans again named as its chieftain-was the perfect expression (and but another term for) the "maladie fin de siècle, certainly typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct ... it has all the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence: an extreme self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity."

But the praise was equally strong; in the same passage, Symons called "this representative literature of today ... a new and beautiful and interesting disease." Ola Hansson, the Swedish critic and novelist, wrote: "Let us enjoy the beauty of this literature, which seems to us to be like a woman's face, in which the veins can be perceived beneath the sickly white skin. And in whose eyes with their hectic death-shimmer and mute but tormented question we behold a reflection of this life, which is a riddle, its only sure element decay." Plainly, Symons and Hansson see an attraction in decadence quite apart from (if related to) its disgusting illumination of the malaise of the time-the slimy walls of a well-noted by Gilkin. Havelock Ellis, however, in 1897, made a tribute to the book that was direct; it was a revolt against a nature that had on its side "the blind forces of robust vulgarity." "So the more fine-strung spirits are sometimes driven to a reaction against nature like that of which Huysmans has been the consistent representative." For Symons, again, in his essay on Huysmans (1892), the book's "fantastic unreality, its exquisite artificiality" are "the logical outcome of that hatred and horror of human mediocrity, of the mediocrity of daily existence, which we have seen to be the special form of Huysmans's névrose."


Excerpted from A Baedeker of Decadence by GEORGE C. SCHOOLFIELD Copyright © 2003 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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