The Setting Sun of British Decadence: Material and Formal Aspects of the Term
The metaphor linking the idea of decadence with the image of a sunset captures an ambivalence typical of the term: it is uncertain whether this image emphasizes the sun’s sinking movement or its radiance, the sadness evoked by the sun’s decline at the end of the day or the uplifting of mood caused by the intensely coloured sky the moment the evening is about to begin. Starting from this metaphor, this essay proposes to consider contradictions entailed in the term “decadence,” looking at its material and formal aspects. The material aspect is viewed as manifest through thematic motifs — of individual malady, social pathology, the sensational thrill and scholarly interests — and visible in what this essay terms three “comforts”: the relish of an aesthetic moment, a fascination with decay, and a passion for collecting. However, by noting that these material attitudes (or “comforts”) have their aesthetic or “formal” consequences (such as impressionism, gothicism, and infra-realism), this essay changes its focus to the formal aspects of decadence, considered both in terms of their limitations and benefits. The faults of decadence are understood as Nietzsche would have it: as typical of an epoch overwhelmed with forms it could not absorb. The benefits, in turn, are seen through an analogy between decadent literature and the art of painting. In fact, this essay stresses a likeness that emerges when decadence is compared to Italian mannerism: both can be viewed as reservoirs of mature, if over-sophisticated, forms. So eventually, while discredited for its material decline, decadence is presented as deserving appreciation for its formal aspect: as a summation of aesthetic forms and the transition to the aesthetically new — to modernism.