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literature

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Decadence  
 
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Huysmans

This moment of crisis holds a pivotal position within the narrative of a central Decadent text--Huysmans's À rebours, which Arthur Symons (1865-1945) called "the breviary of the Decadence." Des Esseintes, the hero of Huysmans's novel, ultimately embraces the Church, foreshadowing the author's own turn to Catholicism.

À rebours had a major effect on the Decadent Movement in France, England, and elsewhere. Its influence is most notable in Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which Huysmans's text is indirectly referenced and often echoed. Though Dorian is too far gone, by the time he realizes the results of his decadence, to recant, Wilde succeeded in converting to Catholicism on his death bed.

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Other French Decadents

Other French literature associated with the Decadent Movement includes Élémir Bourges's (1852-1925) novel Le crépuscule des dieux (1883), Catulle Mendès's (1842-1909) collection of short fiction Lesbia (1887) and his lesbian-themed Méphistophéla (1890), Stéphane Mallarmé's (1842-1898) Symbolist work, and Jean Lorrain's (1856-1906) writings. Lorrain's friendship with Wilde was a major link between the French and English Decadent Movements.

The English Decadents

English Decadence, as an aesthetic approach, was less extravagant and less flaunting than its French counterpart. The term decadent was used in England as early as 1837, appearing in Thomas Carlyle's (1795-1881) History of the French Revolution.

Precursors

The major precursors of the English Decadents were Gautier, Baudelaire, Rossetti, and the Romantics, particularly John Keats (1795-1821). Although Rossetti was not fond of Aestheticism or artifice, many Aesthetes and Decadents appreciated his aesthetic tastes and the strong eroticism of his work.

Swinburne

Swinburne, arguably the first English Decadent, was influenced by both de Sade and the l'art pour l'art movement. In 1862, he wrote an essay defending Baudelaire's work from an Aestheticist standpoint, thereby defining the concept for an English readership. A conflation of decadence and Aestheticism can be seen in his collection Poems and Ballads (1866), which was attacked for its sadism and satanism.

Swinburne's aestheticized Decadent writing, in its accentuation of , also helped formulate the character of the fragile dandy, parodied in the journal Punch and in Max Beerbohm's (1872-1956) essay "No. 2, The Pines" (1920).

Pater

Another important text in the English Decadent Movement was Pater's Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), particularly its influential "Conclusion," with its claim that "art comes to you professing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments' sake."

Pater's text also reinforced the Decadent penchant for corruption and the pleasures of vice, as in its essay on Leonardo da Vinci. Wilde, according to William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), referred to The Renaissance as "the very flower of decadence," whereas Symons wrote that Pater would follow Baudelaire in bettering nature.

The Appearance of Decadent Journals

Much of the English Decadent Movement's literature appeared in journals. The explicitly Decadent and homosexually themed journal, The Chameleon, appeared in England in 1894, with Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas both contributing. The most famous Decadent journal was The Yellow Book, which ran from 1894 to 1897.

One of its most popular articles was Beerbohm's essay "In Defense of Cosmetics," which, Beerbohm responded to critics, was a satire of the Decadent school.

Beardsley

The art editor of the journal was Beardsley, who was the most talented of the fin-de-siècle Decadent artists and who often caricatured other Decadents and Aesthetes in his work, particularly Wilde. Beardsley's Decadent drawing is known not only for "the Beardsley curve" and his balanced imbalance (precursors of Art Nouveau techniques), but also for its depictions of lesbians and grotesquery, and its apparent revelry in the macabre and fetishistic.

Beardsley's greatest literary work was the incomplete and highly erotic The Story of Venus and Tannhauser, which was published in the journal The Savoy and then, in expurgated version, on its own as Under the Hill (1897). Beardsley probably based his version of the narrative to some degree on the opera by Richard Wagner (1813-1883), whose work Beardsley admired and whom Nietzsche defined as a decadent artist. The Canadian decadent writer, John Glassco (1909-1981), wrote a completion to the narrative, published with Beardsley's text in 1959.

The Decadent Movement in England ended almost overnight, with the Wilde trials in 1895.

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