The University of Georgia Press
Besides moral insanity and emotionalism, there is to be observed in the degenerate a condition of weakness and despondency, which… assumes the form of pessimism, a vague fear of all men, and of the entire phenomenon of the universe, or self-abhorrence. (Max Nordau) In the light of this quotation, discuss literary representations of the degenerate in at least two texts. Literature of the Fin de Siecle: Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire as Aesthetes and Decadents The literature that marks the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century effectively achieves the shift from artistic traditionalism to modernism.
The Decadent Movement comprises many literary trends and techniques, such as Aestheticism, Impressionism and Symbolism for instance, uniting them by means of a common creed. While Decadence is specific of French literature where it has made itself known through the works of Baudelaire, Verlaine, Huysmans and many others, there are important instances of the same movement in the English literature as well, mainly in the works of Wilde, Pater or Swinburne. As its name hints, the Decadent Movement can be characterized as a lapse from the idealistic stances that preceded it, be it the Romantic or the Classic idealism.
At the same time, Decadence is equally far from realism, mainly because it is characterized by an exaggerated, pessimistic view of reality, which emphasizes the sinful and horrifying condition of man on earth. Thus, the Decadent Movement in literature is the one that introduces and promotes the ugly and the low in aesthetics. Thus, on the one hand, the decadent movement deplores and abhors the “natural” (as it becomes obvious from Huysmans’ Against Nature) while longing for the unnatural and the ideal. Through its pining for an escape from the immediate reality, Decadence resembles the Romantic Movement.
The difference however is that the Romantics founded their aesthetic ideal on the exotic and the lurid or the sensational, while the Decadents emphasize the lurid and the horrifying aspects of immediate reality, building their aesthetics, paradoxically, on ugliness, sinfulness, debauchery and evil. The main landmarks of the Decadent creed are thus nihilism, spleen, the rejection of the common morality which is based on the distinction between evil and good and the idealization of art and beauty as the only true values.
As Arthur Symons points out in his study on “The Decadent Movement in Literature”, decadence actually delights in and draws its essence from a “spiritual and moral perversity”: “[Decadence] has all the qualities that mark the end of great periods, the qualities that we find in the Greek, the Latin, decadence: an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an oversubtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity.
If what we call the classic is indeed the supreme art—those qualities of perfect simplicity, perfect sanity, perfect proportion, the supreme qualities—then this representative literature of to-day, interesting, beautiful, novel as it is, is really a new and beautiful and interesting disease. ”(Symons, 32) Indeed, the Decadent artists do not only outline and deplore the base and horrifying aspects of life and the human condition, but actually found their aesthetics on a sort of moral insanity, on debauchery and perversity.
Charles Baudelaire is probably the Decadent poet par excellence, and one of the main initiators of this movement. His main volume of poetry and the one that best expresses the Decadent creed is the famous Fleurs du Mal, with its English translation as the Flowers of Evil. The title of the collection already arrests the attention towards the baffling and startling association between the aesthetic and the beautiful (the flowers) and the moral depravity or evilness (evil). The phrase thus announces the distancing from the usual Classic or Romantic ideal of perfection, symmetry, angelic purity and so on.
The place of the traditional ethics is taken by a sort of moral and spiritual insanity and perversity, a curiosity and a delight in crime, sin and unhealthiness. This does not result however from a mere rejection of reality and a desire to escape it. Instead of constructing worlds of fantasy and exoticism to rise above the immediate reality as the Romantic would do, the Decadent engulfs himself even more in abject scenes of the quotidian, common life, choosing to become even more engrossed in the disgusting and abhorred present.
One of the most famous and more telling poems in Baudelaire’s verse collection is the Hymn to Beauty. The title can be deceiving by its hint to the Classical tradition. After reading the poem however, the reader discovers that it is not a usual hymn at all. The moral perversity which is prevalent in Decadent poetry can already be detected: beauty is no longer an abstract ideal of perfection, which is automatically joined with purity and virtue. By contrast, beauty is ambivalent, both divine and infernal, abject and superior at the same time, benevolent or sinful: “Do you come from Heaven or rise from the abyss,/ Beauty?
Your gaze, divine and infernal, / Pours out confusedly benevolence and crime, / And one may for that, compare you to wine. ”(Baudelaire, “Hymn to Beauty”, 63) This indicates that Baudelaire finds the aesthetic to be not merely the Classical, cold, perfection, but also the spiritually perverse. In a way, beauty can be found anywhere, in the most unlikely forms, not only in the highest spheres. It can come from the stars or from the “black pit”, causing disaster or joy at the same time: “Do you come from the stars or rise from the black pit?
/ Destiny, bewitched, follows your skirts like a dog;/ You sow at random joy and disaster,/ And you govern all things but answer for nothing. ”(Baudelaire, “Hymn to Beauty”, 63) For the first time thus, beauty appears to have a new and unprecedented power all to itself, a force that is unknown in the literature before the Decadent period. It is precisely the intense fascination that it produces and in its enthralling effect that beauty manifests its true power entirely. Baudelaire raises the aesthetic ideal to a higher standing than it had ever known.
Because it can not be seen as something cold or detached, but rather as something that has the power to enslave and bewitch, beauty can not be entirely good and consequently cannot spring from heaven only. Thus, Baudelaire completely reverses the traditional views of morality and beauty. The aesthetic does no longer exclude horror, sin or crime: “You walk upon corpses which you mock, O Beauty! / Of your jewels Horror is not the least charming,/And Murder, among your dearest trinkets,/ Dances amorously upon your proud belly.
”(Baudelaire, “Hymn to Beauty”, 63) It is obvious then that whether it is evil or good in itself, the power and the value of beauty stays the same. Thus, beauty can come from or produce either evilness or goodness, but in itself it is the only redeeming power. This notion of salvation through beauty is very different from what the previous literature had prescribed. Even if it has the a malignant potential in itself as well, beauty is the only thing that can take the edge of horror from life and the world: “From God or Satan, who cares?
Angel or Siren,/ Who cares, if you make, — fay with the velvet eyes, /Rhythm, perfume, glimmer; my one and only queen! / The world less hideous, the minutes less leaden? ”(Baudelaire, “Hymn to Beauty”, 63) Another poem that significantly underlines the propensity towards moral depravity and the praise of ugly is one of the pieces that have the same title: Spleen. In this poem, Baudelaire voices his intense and commanding despair.
With a over-acute self-consciousness, the poet places himself at the middle of a horrible and gloomy universe that resembles a dungeon, from where not even hope can escape: “When the low, heavy sky weighs like a lid/ On the groaning spirit, victim of long ennui,/ And from the all-encircling horizon/ Spreads over us a day gloomier than the night;/ When the earth is changed into a humid dungeon,/ In which Hope like a bat/ Goes beating the walls with her timid wings/ And knocking her head against the rotten ceiling…”(Baudelaire, “Spleen”, 71) The title as well as the content of the poem, emphasize the somber mood of the verses.
The spirit of the poet is trapped in a harsh dungeon, weighing like a heavy lid, from which the soul cannot escape. The universe becomes enclosed and claustrophobic, the only feeling left to the poet being that of despair, anxiety and spleen. The pessimism is found in the extreme: the world offers absolutely no possibility for something superior or consolatory. The strange thing however is that the poet does not want to be soothed or comforted, as the spleen can be mistaken in his imagination for the ideal.
Death and anguish thus become poignant and inescapable conditions, towards which the poet however tends with his entire curiosity: “And without drums or music, long hearses/ Pass by slowly in my soul; Hope, vanquished,/ Weeps, and atrocious, despotic Anguish/ On my bowed skull plants her black flag. ”(Baudelaire, “Spleen”, 71) The “black flag” that is enthroned over the poet’s mind is obviously a symbol of the absolute state of despair in which he willingly plunges: his soul is thus engulfed in a nihilistic state, in which the victory of evil is consummate.
There many other poems yet that seem to be a complete revocation of the traditional feelings and values, specific of the Decadents. In The Desire for Annihilation for instance, Baudelaire openly states his longing not for death or un-being as such, but for a total state of subjugation to the unrelenting nihilism and spleen. Although the poem seems a declaration of the absolute despondency that seizes the spirit unable to find comfort in love, nature or any other type of consolation, in fact the verses rather give expression to a hedonistic state of mind.
The state in which the poet is in is obviously one devoid of any pleasurable sensations as such, and yet the sullen spirit seems to find delight precisely in its fallen condition or decadence: “Conquered, foundered spirit! For you, old jade,/ Love has no more relish, no more than war;/ Farewell then, songs of the brass and sighs of the flute! / Pleasure, tempt no more a dark, sullen heart!
”(Baudelaire, “The Desire for Annihilation”, 86) The next lines of the poem are even more revealing, as the poet, instead of looking for shelter from his fall, is anxious to mingle his own substance with that of the sweeping avalanche that takes him downwards: “Adorable spring has lost its fragrance! / And Time engulfs me minute by minute,/ As the immense snow a stiffening corpse;/ I survey from above the roundness of the globe/ And I no longer seek there the shelter of a hut.
/ Avalanche, will you sweep me along in your fall? ”(Baudelaire, “The Desire for Annihilation”, 86) Thus, paradoxically, the poet takes pleasure in his own dejection, seeking a hedonistic revival precisely in the fallen state of his soul. The culmination of this hedonistic state derived from abjection and pain, can be found in another poem, called Obsession. Here, Baudelaire gives full vent to his nihilistic mood and declares his hatred for everything that traditionally elevated the human spirit.
God’s creation, the world itself is only a tormenting and hateful reality, disharmonious and lurid: “Great woods, you frighten me like cathedrals;/ You roar like the organ; and in our cursed hearts,/ Rooms of endless mourning where old death-rattles sound,/ Respond the echoes of your De profundis. / I hate you, Ocean! your bounding and your tumult,/ My mind finds them within itself; that bitter laugh/ Of the vanquished man, full of sobs and insults,/ I hear it in the immense laughter of the sea.
”(Baudelaire, “Obsession”, 95) As such, the poetic imagination becomes dejected in the extreme with an obsessive desire for absolute annihilation, for the absolute darkness that is the only thing able to soothe the poet’s mind. Night would be the closest thing to an ideal state of things, if it weren’t for the stars whose light speak a known language: “How I would like you, Night! without those stars/ Whose light speaks a language I know! / For I seek emptiness, darkness, and nudity!
”(Baudelaire, “Obsession”, 95) The soul of the poet thus longs for the absolute void, where nothing can remind him of the actual reality. In another poem, Destruction Baudelaire definitively joins the Demonic pleasures and temptations with art and aestheticism: “The Demon is always moving about at my side;/ He floats about me like an impalpable air;/ I swallow him, I feel him burn my lungs/ And fill them with an eternal, sinful desire. / Sometimes, knowing my deep love for Art, he assumes/ The form of a most seductive woman,/ And, with pretexts specious and hypocritical,/ Accustoms my lips to infamous philtres.
”(Baudelaire, “Destruction”, 101) The decadent poetry of Baudelaire appears thus as a conjunction of the abject and the aesthetic feelings, until the two opposites can actually be confused. Critic Edward Kaplan emphasized that the Decadent poetry proposed for the first time an ethics that surpassed the classical and peremptory distinction between good and evil: “This presymbolist poetry, enriched with synesthesia—a confluence of music, odor, sight, and touch—preserves the Ideal within the world and renders mortality bearable.
A nuanced ethics must surpass the simplistic dualism of good and evil, for these opposites are normally mixed, sometimes confused. ”(Kaplan, 12) Thus, Baudelaire’s poetry is in itself a pertinent definition of decadence and its aesthetic creed. The English literature is also an important expression of decadence, through the works of Wilde and Swinburne mainly. Oscar Wilde’s famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is evidently his best expression of decadence.
The story is one of the most elaborate manifests in favor of aestheticism. The perfect symbiosis between the portrait and is subject or between artistic representation and reality, expresses the definition of life and reality as art. What Wilde does in his novel is to try to transform art into reality, instead of merely keeping a mirror up for reality and give it artistic expression. Like in Baudelaire’s poetry, Wilde’s novel praises beauty and art over the ethics and the common distinction between good and evil.
The main character of the novel, Dorian Gray progresses with the action of the book from a state of innocence and purity (when he poses for Basil for the portrait) towards a state of almost absolute corruption. Gradually, he becomes more and more selfish and cruel, until he gives himself almost completely to evil and criminality. He performs all forms of evil, from murder to various types of cruelty and debauchery. As a response to one of his fantastic wishes, Dorian manages not only to keep his youthful beauty intact despite the merciless passing of time, but his image also remains untainted, reflecting nothing of his evil, hidden nature.
Instead, all his evilness and its effects are miraculously transferred to the portrait drawn by Basil that becomes now a vivid picture of Dorian’s soul rather than his features. As Nassaar evidences, Dorian thus passes through various stages of depravity, but his death eventually demonstrates that human nature is always “gray”, that is, balanced between good and evil: “Although he clearly leans toward Wotton, he is still balanced between good and evil, for his conscience is still alive and there are certain crimes, such as deliberate murder, that he would shrink from committing.
In the fourth stage, all control is lost. He murders Basil, then tries to kill his conscience, which he identifies with his picture. Instead, he himself dies: human nature is “gray” and no one can become completely evil. ”(Nassaar, 22) The miraculous transference of the effects of an impure conscience from the living subject to its art representation emphasizes the decadent creed expressed by Wilde: art is the only perfect representation of beauty and any moral distinctions in a work of art are superfluous.
As Wilde states in the famous preface to his novel, the outwardly beautiful can only breed beautiful meanings to the to the cultivated and intelligent mind: “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. ”(Wilde, 3) Beauty and art are self-sufficient truths that need no further explanation or elaboration.
As such, the artist’s mind cannot be bothered by futile moral sympathies. To Wilde, the mingling of art and morality can only result in a mannerism of style that would be both unbearable to the true artistic sensibility and uninteresting: “No artist has ethical sympathies. An ethical sympathy in an artist is an unpardonable mannerism of style. No artist is ever morbid. ”(Wilde, 3) Wilde thus praises aesthetic beauty as the essence of art, in its purest form.
Intellect itself is superfluous when mingled in the pure substance of art: “Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus, and you–well, of course you have an intellectual expression and all that. But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face. ”(Wilde, 10) Art is ever narcissistic and hedonist, deriving pleasure only from itself. This creed can obviously be translated as art for art’s sake, a pure artistic ideal, devoid of any moral distinctions. This decadent theory of art is present at every step in Dorian’s evolution.
Although at the beginning he is still morally pure and he sincerely longs for Sibyl’s love, he is obviously fascinated only by the romantic and elevating view of love as aesthetic pleasure, a view that he obviously derives from his literary and artistic quests. The comparison that Dorian makes thus between Romeo and Juliet’s story and his own, is very telling: “You, who know all the secrets of life, tell me how to charm Sibyl Vane to love me! I want to make Romeo jealous, I want the dead lovers of the world to hear our laughter, and grow sad. I want a breath of our passion to stir their dust into consciousness, to wake their ashes into pain.
”(Wilde, 61-62) Even more significantly, when the girl is so fully moved and drunk with love that she fails in her performance of Juliet on the stage when Dorian is among the spectators, his selfishness and inhumanness begin to show as he completely rejects his former lover. Dorian was in love with love itself and with the artistic qualities of Sybil, but not with her as a person. Art transformed into life, the picture taking Dorian’s place in reality, becomes cruel and inhuman precisely because it lacks any moral skills. Thus, on the Decadent scene, Wilde proposes a morally empty world, filled instead with the beauty provided by pure art.
As in Baudelaire’s poetry, there is a sharp cut between art and morality, and a hedonist pursue of the artistic instead of the ethical. Even when Dorian pleads for goodness and purity in front of the skeptical and cynical Harry, he only demonstrates that his only perception of goodness is an involuntary association of beauty with something positive and pure. He significantly states that he does not want his soul to be “hideous”, confusing beauty and morality: “I know what conscience is, to begin with. It is not what you told me it was. It is the divinest thing in us. Don’t sneer at it, Harry, any more-at least not before me.
I want to be good. I can’t bear the idea of my soul being hideous. ”(Wilde, 109) It is precisely against this common confusion that Wilde’s work draws the attention: as the reader can see, Dorian is extremely beautiful but extremely selfish and eventually proves almost amoral. One of the most important creeds of the Decadent literature is the fact that it seeks a detachment from the moral Puritanism of the previous ages: “Yes, there was to be, as Lord Henry had prophesied, a new Hedonism that was to recreate life, and to save from that harsh, uncomely Puritanism that is having, in our own day, its curious revival.
”(Wilde, 147) As the portrait is a “complete” mirror that comprises the soul also and not only its surface, so the soul of art is the same thing as its body, in a pure and consummate artistic form: “For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into its secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul. ”(Wilde, 120) Thus, the main tenants of the Decadent Movement are a rejection of traditional Puritanism and an emphasis on aestheticism instead and the value and power of beauty as a force in itself.
Both Baudelaire and Wilde thus severed ethics and aesthetics in their works, pointing that the essence of art consists in the pure pleasure one deducts from it. The aesthetic pleasure is thus sufficient in itself to elevate the soul, and any moral lesson incorporated in art will only ruin it. Thus, art becomes a purpose in itself, announcing the advent of the modernist era in literature. Works Cited: Baudelaire, Charles. The Flowers of Evil translated by William Aggeler, Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954 Kaplan, Edward K.
“Interpreting the Prose Poems: An Amalgam beyond Contradictions,” in Baudelaire’s Prose Poems: The Esthetic, the Ethical, and the Religious in “The Parisian Prowler, ” The University of Georgia Press, 1990, pp. 1-18. Nassaar, Christopher S. “Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and Lady Windermere’s Fan. ” Explicator 54, no. 1 (fall 1995): 20-24. Symons, Arthur. “The Decadent Movement in Literature. ” DISCovering Authors. Online ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 6 Jan. 2008 <http://find. galegroup. com/ips/start. do? prodId=IPS>. Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.Sample Essay of Paperial.com