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Introduction: The Scales of Decadence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 December 2021


Recent scholars have been captivated by the indeterminate potentialities that decadence sets not in contradiction to, but in disarming misstep with, Victorian claims of individual, social, and global systems operating harmoniously toward a singular order. These systems also happened to privilege the aspirations of the middle class, the patriarchal machinery, white British colonial expansionism, and anthropocentric privilege. In a scene in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), Oscar Wilde offers a particularly pithy encapsulation of this effective obliqueness and extensibility of decadence in relation to cultural norms. The character Algernon enters the room and, on seeing his endearing cousin Gwendolen, offers the complement, “Dear me, you are smart,” to which she replies, “I am always smart!” The retort's brash overconfidence is diluted by the sense that Gwendolen perhaps misunderstood what Algernon meant; he was complementing her looks, but she may have thought he was referring to her intellect. If so, then she is clearly not as sharp as she claims. But even if she did understand him and was, like him, referring to her appearance, the comment is destabilizing; it renders flat Algernon's attempt to complement her as particularly appealing at this particular moment. Either way, her response is somehow off. And when her suitor Jack follows up this bit of banter by declaring Gwendolen “quite perfect,” she again rebuffs the complement: “Oh! I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.” The humor arises because of Gwendolen charmingly construing the conventional for the philosophical, her seeming inability quite to understand what others mean, her way of taking a simple compliment and scaling it up almost to the level of the epistemological or metaphysical.

Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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