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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: May 2011

60 - Decadence


As a manifestation of a set of intellectual and artistic preoccupations, elements of decadence exist throughout French literature in writers as diverse as Sade (Justine [1791]; republished 1884), Flaubert (Salammbô [1862]), Barbey d'Aurevilly (Les Diaboliques [1874]), Gautier (Mademoiselle de Maupin [1835]), Villiers de l'Isle-Adam (L'Eve future [1886]), and Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal [1857]). An interest in decadence was not a uniquely French phenomenon but occurred in the work of writers and artists throughout Western Europe in the latter years of the nineteenth century. However, this chapter focuses primarily on the movement known as Decadence which flourished in France in the years between the catastrophic French defeat at Sedan (1870) and the Dreyfus Affair (1898–9). Decadence, which is related to, but not the same as, terms like ‘modernism’, ‘fin-de-siècle’, and ‘avant-garde’, is used to describe a disparate and often contradictory group of writers who were drawn together by a specific combination of historical events, intellectual attitudes, and social and scientific circumstances. The characteristics of Decadence are notoriously difficult to define, and detailed discussions of various critical definitions can be found elsewhere. This chapter will begin by investigating the state of post-Second Empire France, before examining the most significant thematic and aesthetic concerns which developed in this specific historical context, and united (however tenuously) the Decadent writers J.-K. Huysmans, Rachilde (the pseudonym of Marguerite Eymery), Octave Mirbeau, Joséphin Péladan, Jean Lorrain, Rémy de Gourmont, and Pierre Louÿs as well as the artist Gustave Moreau.

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