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This chapter traces a history of British Decadent sexualities as elemental, pre-normative attractions and fulfilments, considering how early sexological discourse encouraged conceptions of Decadent sexuality to arise and then likewise feed into more recent, posthumanist notions of eco-sexuality. But recognizing a non-binary Decadence of dissemination, proliferation and contagion requires one to imagine attractions and repulsions that do not merely decentre the human, but operate with a conceptual core that itself is not built in response to human identity, culture or politics in the first place. One possibility lies in Heinrich Kaan’s theory, articulated in his study Psycopathia Sexualis (1844), that a natural excess of imagination fosters realms of ‘chaos’ in plant and animal (including human) sexualities. Early sexological works such as Kaan’s encourage one to understand non-normative sexuality not as one of various deviations characterizing the Decadent movement, in fact not as a deviation at all, but as a natural phenomenon that preceded and gave shape to the cultural paradigms that Victorians and those who followed came to see as Decadent.
In 1894, the publisher John Lane issued a prospectus regarding his forthcoming periodical The Yellow Book. In it, he encourages the notion that the volumes' physical surfaces and reputation will mark their owners as discriminating connoisseurs. According to the prospectus, the quarterly would 'depart as far as may be possible from the bad old traditions of periodical literature', and 'provide an Illustrated Magazine which will be as beautiful as a piece of book-making, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and its pictures'. The pages of the first volume, Lane ensures readers, are 'now being especially woven' and the book will be 'bound in limp yellow cloth'. In reality, the periodical was produced with paper that was not unique; for example, it is not rag (that is, it is not made entirely of cotton or linen) and it has no watermark or other indication of special manufacture. The image of exclusivity fabricated through the prospectus reflected neither the material resources nor the cost of production. Lane's language makes apparent not so much the preciousness of the objects as his desire for potential purchasers to expect them to be precious. The rhetoric also captures the popularization of the image of exclusivity that was a driving force behind the rise of commodity culture.
At the same time that Lane issued the prospectus, he also paid to have information about the forthcoming journal appear in other periodicals. This tactic, as Margaret Stetz and Mark Samuels Lasner point out, reflects the populist aspirations on the part of Lane who ‘took every opportunity to insist upon the significance of this venture and to instruct readers in the proper way of receiving it’. In light of Matthew Arnold’s well-known descriptions in Culture and Anarchy (1869) of upper-class refinements as exclusionary and useless, and of the ‘raw and unkindled masses of humanity’ as incompetent at discerning cultural value, Lane’s effort to fuse high-culture tastes with mass appeal can appear to be an enterprise destined to failure.
'Decadence, decadence, you are all decadent nowadays.' Thus bewails the hyper-conservative critic in the essay that Hubert Crackanthorpe published in the second volume of the journal The Yellow Book. Yet while Crackanthorpe was mocking the critics, decadence and aestheticism were a major source of contention from the moment they began flaunting their dissident passions before the British public in the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1890s, many had had enough of the mix of aesthetic idealism, taunting self-display, uncommon sexuality and degeneracy that had become packaged as their defining characteristics. Max Nordau devoted an entire chapter of Degeneration (1892) to chastising both for encouraging pessimism, sexual aberrancy, mysticism and poor taste in clothing. While we might now find Nordau's extremism laughable, his contemporaries did not cast him aside as quickly. Similar arguments were being made even by artists and writers. George Du Maurier, for example, has the hero of his novel The Martian (1898) attack aesthetes as 'little misshapen troglodytes with foul minds and perverted passions'. Even contributors to the Aesthetic or Decadent movement - such as Richard le Gallienne, Vernon Lee and Walter Pater - voiced displeasure with some of their qualities. Meanwhile, late aestheticist and decadent works such as Aubrey Beardsley's drawings and Ada Leverson's short stories imply that the movements had in fact fallen into self-parody.
“‘A woman make an artist! Ridiculous! … Ha! don't come near my picture – the paint's wet. Get away!’ … [H]e stood, flourishing his mahl-stick and palette – looking very like a gigantic warrior guarding the shrine of Art with shield and spear.” As Michael Vanbrugh's outburst in this passage from Dinah Mulock's novel Olive demonstrates, professional women artists in nineteenth-century Britain were perceived by many to be a challenge to male hegemony. Michael's very suggestion that a defense of his authority is necessary, however, exposes the falsity of his own claim for the inherent superiority of men. A provoking counter-image to that of Michael's defense is Anne Brontë's heroine Helen Graham, in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, using her palette knife not only to finance her liberation from an abusive marriage but also, in one scene, to protect herself from a seducer. Mulock and Brontë's two images capture the economic and sexual conflicts which permeated Victorian conceptions of women's relation to the visual arts. The predominant conviction that men were both naturally and culturally better suited than women to artistic professions led society to configure women who attempted to infiltrate the hegemony as a sexually deviant, masculine threat. Conversely, the circumvention of the hegemony through forms of affectionate female–female interaction such as the gift-exchange of artworks was deemed trivial, and therefore sanctioned. As Terry Castle has argued, however, same-sex female attraction also contests men's economic and sexual authority over women.
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