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This chapter considers the importance of life writing to the development of Decadent literary production and to the afterlives of the Decadent movement. Beginning with Walter Pater, we explore the creative approach Decadent writers took to biography and the imagined fictional life. If Wilde, Pater, and John Addington Symonds established the pattern of Decadent life writing, Charles Ricketts and Laurence Housman deployed its practices and politics as they recalled Wilde’s tragic downfall and early death. In the early years of the twentieth century the history of British literary Decadence was still very much contested, and alongside life writing emerged the memoir and the period study that framed the 1890s in relation to the literary innovations of modernism. The creative approach to Decadent life writing waned in the second half of the twentieth century as professional literary critics sought to develop authoritative versions of Decadent biography, a practice seemingly at odds with earlier Decadent practices.
This chapter explores discriminatory language with regard to sexual orientation and sexuality. Starting with the story of playwright Oscar Wilde and his imprisonment, we look at the history of criminalizing same-sex attraction. Ways of talking about same-sex sexuality over time are discussed, both in-group and out-group, and the use of coded language, such as Polari. Slurs are treated, as well as the reclamation of some of these terms, especially queer and gay. We look at historical and contemporary cases of homophobia in language from popular culture and the media.
Recognizing the complexity, strangeness and variety of the Decadent interest in religion, this chapter asks what about religion proved so attractive. Noting some of the scholarly developments in this area since the turn of the twenty-first century, the chapter considers the limits of a secular purview and invites readers to join with the Decadents in seeking a more capacious understanding of what religious belief might entail. The work of reimagining belief has long been part of the life of faith, and the chapter explores this point by developing a theological account of desire in the work of Oscar Wilde and Michael Field. Just because the Christian faith is fluid and complex in the work of the Decadents, it does not follow that Decadence is inevitably heterodox. However, the Decadents’ interest in religion did sometimes take them beyond the Christian faith to other faith traditions and to mysticism and the occult.
Decadents believed their civilization had reached its peak and was on the brink of collapse. The only solution was the destruction of civilization by ‘barbarians’ who would bring ‘fresh blood’ to humanity. Eventually their civilization would also grow old and weaken, and a new cycle would begin. The archetypal model for this trope was the collapse of the Roman Empire. Paul Verlaine’s famous poem ‘Languor’ exemplifies this Decadent motif, on which Joris-Karl Huysmans also elaborates. The first part of this chapter illustrates how Verlaine’s poem directly influenced Valery Bryusov’s ‘The Coming Huns’, a touchstone of Russian Decadence. One of the many variants of the ‘Roman Paradigm’ was the destruction of Sodom, a motif examined in the second half of the chapter, focusing on the poetry of Jiří Karásek. Karásek wrote the first homoerotic verse in Czech literature under the influence of Oscar Wilde, whom he bravely defended as de facto editor of the Decadent journal The Modern Revue. Thus this chapter focuses on two variants of the trope of civilization’s collapse, one influenced by French Decadence and the other by British Decadence.
In 1852, Wagner described his text for the Ring cycle as “the greatest poem that has ever been written.” This chapter asks to what extent the musical innovations – responding to historical linguistics – were formative for a generation of writers as well as composers. To what extent did innovation in one medium engender innovative techniques in another? After contextualizing Wagner’s operatic reforms within his early writings and related moments within the history of the genre, it explores a cornucopia of modernist writers working in the shadow of the Ring cycle: from Wilde, D. H. Lawrence, and Aubrey Beardsley, to Yeats, Mann, and Beckett; from Mallarmé and Dujardin to Zola and Proust, to name but a few. It traces the profound influence on literature of leifmotivic techniques, as “carriers of feeling,” amid the shift to words as a dereferentialized system of signs. The role of alliteration, direct parody, interior monologue, and involuntary memory all contribute to the overall view that appropriation and influence of “reformist” techniques in literature and linguistics remained in the hands of authors, regardless of Wagner’s predictions for his own literary greatness.
This chapter examines the notable revival of the Nero-Antichrist in the nineteenth century and tracks the resurgence and dissemination of the paradigm beyond late antiquity. Why the idea of the Nero-Antichrist regained its potency in this period has to do with the wider context of a nineteenth-century fascination with antiquity, with religious upheaval, with the fin de siècle anxieties about the end times, and with fin de siècle notions of decadence and decline. As case studies, the authors Ernest Renan, F. W. Farrar, and Oscar Wilde allow us to explore how late nineteenth-century thinkers in England and France worked with and reacted to prevailing conceptions of Nero, and negotiated his identification as the Antichrist. All three were finding a place for Christianity in an era intent upon positivist historiography; Wilde in particular shows that the scientific method was not the only option for interpreting the emperor’s role in Christian history.
Literary magazine culture of the 1880s created a rich environment for interrogating the relationship between masculinity, fiction and seriousness. Increasing diversity and eclecticism in periodicals promoted the conditions for experiment and the development of styles of self-conscious performativity, exaggeration, and irony that we might describe as ‘camp’. Reading Oscar Wilde’s essays and dialogues alongside work by Robert Louis Stevenson, James Payn, H.H. Johnston, and Andrew Lang, this chapter explores the interest of 1880s journalism in theatricality, artifice, gender inversion, and an aesthetic of pleasurably ‘failed seriousness’. It argues that the literary magazine, where – as one contemporary critic noted – ‘the style is the essay’, offers a platform for developing notions of identity as fluid performance and all literary forms as inevitable modes of pastiche. Lang’s He, a neglected parody of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novel She, is revealed as a text that is both fascinated by contemporary debate regarding female higher education and enjoys unpicking the self-ironising and knowingly comic aspects of Haggard’s imperial quest narrative. Like so many other works of the 1880s, it uses anthropological and literary self-awareness to bring terms once associated with masculine authority into liberating play.
This chapter reexamines the Victorian three-volume novel and its disappearance in the mid-1890s as an event in the media history of fiction. The three-volume format for novels didn’t come to an end because novelists felt aesthetically constrained by it or because readers suddenly rejected it. But its disappearance had important implications for the form and content of fiction, and it provoked widespread discussion of late nineteenth-century fiction’s relationships to its own media and to others. Building on the work of the book historians who have told the economic story of the three-volume format and its fall, this chapter examines the three-volume novel in a different way: as part of a media system that linked private libraries to publishers in an information empire, that tied the distribution of fiction to its material form, and that aligned novels with other print genres such as periodicals that didn’t center on the single codex book.
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