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literature

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Decadence  
 
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Decadence and Aestheticism

Even though the terms Decadence and Aestheticism have often been applied to late nineteenth-century literature interchangeably, not all Decadent literature is part of Aestheticism, just as not all Aesthetic literature can be called Decadent.

Generally speaking, Aestheticism applies the concept of l'art pour l'art (art for art's sake) to art, whereas Decadence applies it to life and society, though Decadence also has other crucial defining characteristics, such as its interest in mind-altering drugs, the imagination, and physical and mental degeneration and alteration. However, even during the heyday of the Decadent Movement, the term Decadent was used to refer to both lifestyle and literature.

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Distinguishing Decadent Living from Decadent Works

Decadent literature is writing that either describes aspects of a decadent lifestyle or reflects Decadence through the deformation and refinement of style, form, syntax, and language.

Comparable tactics can be found in some nineteenth-century art, such as the paintings of Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) and the drawings of Felicien Rops (1833-1898) and Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898).

Most of the authors associated with the Decadent Movement are known for their writing rather than their lifestyles, just as a number of the Decadent authors who wrote about homosexuality or lesbianism were not overtly gay. A Decadent approach to life and society was theoretically desirable, but it was rarely actually practiced by the authors.

Some examples of writers who arguably lived Decadent lives are the homosexual Count Eric Stenbock (1860-1895), in England, and Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) and Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), in France, though their literature is not the clearest reflection of Decadence.

The Shift from the Communal to the Individual

The general notion of decadence in the nineteenth century involved the claim that when a society reached its peak of prosperity, it would no longer have to concern itself with such things as subsistence or regeneration. Therefore, attention would shift from the communal to the individual, with individualism gaining greater import. During a period of social decay, society would be in a state of regression, but it would be marked by artistic genius.

The French Decadents

In 1876, Paul Bourget (1852-1935) argued that a period of decadence is superior to those epochs concerned with the livelihood of the community because of the "intensity of its geniuses" and its "daring artists."

Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) similarly states that the style of decadence in literature and art reflects a civilization at the ultimate point of maturity as it attempts to communicate the most elusive remnants of its being, even while it pushes itself to neurosis, depravity, and madness.

Gautier's 1868 "Notice" to Charles Baudelaire's (1821-1867) Les fleurs du mal (1857) depicts the Decadent Movement as the positive product of a period of decomposition. Baudelaire similarly correlates, in the first edition of Les fleurs du mal, "the language of late Latin decadence" and "the modern poetic world."

Decadence as a Reaction to Dehumanization and Alienation

The nineteenth-century Decadent Movement also reflects the sense of dehumanization and alienation that contemporary progress fostered primarily among members of western European society. Ironically, to signify humanity's position above the secular realm that produced the state of social discord that the Decadent authors were experiencing, they turned their praise to the artificial, itself often a product of the same process of mechanization.

An appreciation of artifice, the argument goes, advertises humanity's freedom from, and superiority over, the secular realm. Since virtue was seen to belong to a higher realm, a logical correlation existed between the natural and evil, on the one hand, and the artificial and virtuous, on the other. The cult of the "unnatural" thus could be justified as a valorization of virtue.

In accord with the tenets of Aestheticism, the proponents of Decadence, disavowing any relation between art and the natural or secular, claimed that life should be viewed from an aesthetic perspective and that art need not serve any moral, political, or utilitarian purpose. Aesthetic strategies of representation that supported social values of morality, industry, perpetuity, and naturalness were challenged by an aesthetic valorization of immorality, indolence, decay, and unnaturalness.

The Affiliation of Gay Sex with the Decadent Movement

The nineteenth-century view of same-sex physical intercourse as unnatural, or "artificial," was a central reason for the affiliation of gay sex with the movement. The connection is especially clear in, for example, Jean Lombard's (1854-1891) novel L'agonie (1888) and Joris-Karl Huysmans's(1848-1907) À rebours (1884).

In addition, the valuation of an ideal, artificial world over conventional lifestyles, as well as the overt disavowal of moral values, was also a major reason for the affiliation of male homosexuality and lesbianism with Decadence.

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