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literature

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Decadence  
 
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Gautier

Though the Decadent Movement was not clearly defined until the second half of the nineteenth century, Gautier, who was not wholly enamored of the term decadence, popularized the associated concept of l'art pour l'art and articulated some of the fundamental tenets of Decadence as early as 1836.

In his defensive preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), which Mario Praz refers to as "the apologia of lesbian love" and "the Bible of Decadence," Gautier argues that only that which is useless can be truly beautiful and that morality is not a product of books.

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By implying that his text does not influence social morality but exists for its own useless sake, Gautier opened a space for Decadent art and for decadent social transgressions. Gautier's formulation of amoral art was admired by Walter Pater, himself a central influence on the dominant version of Decadence that formed in England.

Mademoiselle de Maupin represents a number of decadent traits, principal among them being the transvestism and same-sex eroticism instigated through subterfugal cross-dressing, with the desire for a variety of sexual pleasures forming the principal narrative.

The hero, D'Albert, wants to be a woman in order to experience new sensations, and the titular heroine ultimately makes love to both D'Albert and his mistress. While the gender ambiguities in Gautier's work allowed him to depict gay male and lesbian eroticism at a time when such representations were generally seen as illegal, they did so by defining sexuality through the Decadent aestheticization of the experience.

Gautier's representations of homosexual and lesbian desire are followed by more overt depictions of in Verlaine's work and the praise for lesbianism in the writing of Baudelaire and Pierre Louÿs (1870-1925).

The same aesthetic control found in Mademoiselle de Maupin is presented in two other works by Gautier--Fortunio (1837), which foreshadows the writings of both Baudelaire and Huysmans, and Une nuit de Cléopâtra (1838).

Unlike the titular heroine of Mademoiselle de Maupin, Gautier's Cleopatra is not in search of an ideal sexual experience but simply wants a distraction from her life of material excess. The heroine sees her carnal fling with a man, and his subsequent execution, as a purely aesthetic experience. Life becomes art and, of particular interest to readers who saw themselves as threatened for their sexual inclinations, the heroine is shown to be beyond the moral charges of society.

Baudelaire

Baudelaire took Gautier's concept of otherworldly sexual desire one step further in his novella La Fanfarlo (1847), in which the hero of the work, rather than aestheticizing his experience, becomes attracted to his own mental perversity. Echoing the mentally deranged introspection of the antiheroes in works by Poe, the artistic fulfillment of the protagonist of La Fanfarlo is attained through a psychological self-aestheticization.

Poe's Decadent writing was admired not only by Baudelaire, but also by Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), and the Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). The self-alienating focus on one's mind as art that is found in La Fanfarlo stands in contrast to the external self-aestheticization of such dandies as Beau Brummel (1774-1840) and Oscar Wilde, the latter's approach implying a need for social interaction.

La Fanfarlo presents another important tactic in Decadent literature--the representation of narcissism, with its traditional implication of homosexuality and lesbianism. In preparation for a sexual interlude, the actress, Mademoiselle Fanfarlo, has Samuel Cramer (a self-portrait by Baudelaire) dress as Columbine, one of her roles. Baudelaire thus imagines himself having sex as a woman who is imagining having sex with herself.

More complex and violent representations of narcissism can be found in Poe's short story "William Wilson" and Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Decadence and Religion

Another major element of Decadent writing, in both France and England, is the issue of religion, particularly Catholicism. A central paradox in Decadence is the fact that pure artifice, regardless of how much it is emulated, can never be attained. Ultimately, a Decadent individual, whether real or fictional, must either see the Decadent program as a failure or proceed to a higher artifice that is defined as unattainable within the secular world--a spiritual artifice.

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