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Nineteenth-century Decadent literature either describes aspects of decadent life and society or reflects the decadent literary aesthetic.

Defining "Decadence"

Decadence (from the Latin de, down, and cadere, to fall) has three related principal meanings. In its most general sense, the term refers to a society's decay, its fall from a position of strength and prosperity to a state of weakness and ruin. Decadence also refers to any ideological appreciation, and therefore support, of social decay.

Whereas the first definition presents the term as an inevitable process signified by a society's relation to past societies, the second definition suggests that decadence is an individual approach to life and that social decay can be consciously perpetrated.

During the nineteenth century, decadence acquired a third, closely related, aesthetic meaning that led to the formation of the Decadent Movement.

Historical Formulations of the Concept of Decadence

Although the term decadence entered European discourse in the Middle Ages, earlier formulations of the concept are apparent. These include the Indian notion of the Age of Kali and the Greek and Roman belief in a previous Golden Age from which their civilization had fallen. With the rise of Christianity, which both Voltaire (1694-1778) and Edward Gibbon (1737-1794) suggest was an inherent part of the Roman Empire's process of decay, decadence also became part of the concept of apocalypse, foreshadowing the end of the world.

During the modern era, images and legends of the decline of the Roman Empire formed the most popular conception of ancient decadence as an inevitable process of social transformation. Roman decadence is analyzed in, among other works, Charles-Louis le Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu's (1689-1755) Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734) and in Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788).


Although Montesquieu presented the Roman fall as an unavoidable process, the decline is often seen to have been perpetrated by specific individuals, most notably the Roman emperor Nero (A.D. 37-68). Reported to have adopted Greek affectations and to have married a castrated male slave, Nero was a great fan of the writer Petronius, who is most famous for his novel The Satyricon. Viewed as an irresponsible and hedonistic ruler, Nero has often been seen to epitomize social decadence, even though he lived over 300 years before the major sacking of Rome by Alaric.

de Sade

Closer to the time of the Decadent Movement, the works of the Marquis de Sade also foreshadow the prominence that the concept of decadence as a lifestyle ideology gained during the nineteenth century. De Sade's appreciation of hedonistic nihilism and artificiality stand in stark contrast to Jean-Jacques Rousseau's (1712-1778) claims that the development of knowledge and culture promoted immorality, excess, and idleness.


Another major thematic, as well as stylistic, influence on Decadent literature was the Gothic novel, and the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). Decrepit, isolated mansions; feeble, aristocratic lineages; and hypersensitive, refined bachelors are some of the stock elements of Decadent writing that can be traced to such writers as Poe and Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823).


In a sociopolitical vein, the Romantics' notion of individualism and their revolt against classical form and conservative morality helped formulate decadence into a self-conscious lifestyle choice that allowed individuals not only to accept but to celebrate preferences and tastes that were traditionally seen as deviant, immoral, and counterproductive.

The strongest argument for a connection between Romanticism and a literary or aesthetic form of decadence during the first half of the nineteenth century was made by Désiré Nisard (1806-1888), in his antiromantic work Etudes de moeurs et de critique sur les poètes latins de la décadence (1834). Though focusing on late Roman poetry, the work succeeds in criticizing contemporary Romantic writing for its artificiality and deceptiveness, thus lending support to the frequent claim that the Decadent Movement represents the final phase of the Romantic era.

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Decadent artist Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations for Oscar Wilde's Salomé display both an interest in grotesquery (top), and lesbianism (below).
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