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Chapter Five turns to the Harlem Renaissance author and illustrator Richard Bruce Nugent, arguing that his “Geisha Man,” which centers on the erotic relationship between a white American father and his mixed-race child, should be understood as emerging from his sustained engagement with Decadence and the Salome story. I position this work within the framework of Nugent’s extensive experimentation with Decadence to argue that the text’s Orientalism and its preoccupation with incest should be understood as more than a simple echoing of Decadence’s more troubling tendencies. This content operates within the text in service to Nugent’s efforts to conceptualize mixed-race identity and the rupturing of Black kinship structures within the United States. Salome is for Nugent a story about a fetishized performer attempting to enact erotic agency within a system of fractured familial formations, and revising her story allows Nugent to theorize kinship and multiraciality in relationship to what Hortense Spillers refers to as the “losses” and “confusions” that accompanied the “dispersal of the historic African American domestic unit.” This chapter sheds light on the manner in which Orientalist Decadence was transported across the Atlantic to perform different types of service for Black thinkers in Harlem in the early-twentieth century.
It is difficult to identify Decadent art in the same manner one can identify Decadent poetry or a Decadent novel. This chapter argues that late nineteenth-century neoclassical British, French Symbolist and Decadent painting were neglected by art historians of the first half of the twentieth century, disparaged for their lack of formal innovation, with their Decadent subject matter – in particular its investment in violence and eroticism – largely neglected. Painters such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema and Frederic Leighton were acceptable to a late Victorian art public because their depictions of violent death and sexual dissidence were anchored in the classical past and myth. The nude, when linked to religion, still had the capacity to outrage Victorians, as did artists like Félicien Rops, whose darker, less idealized depiction of sensuality marked them as Decadent. These anxieties came together in responses to depictions of Salome, the ultimate Decadent femme fatale.
‘Decadent theatre’ is not an established genre within British theatre studies. Barring Wilde’s Salomé, Maeterlinck’s Symbolist theatre had little impact on the British stage, though it strongly influenced the Irish theatre. Frequently applied to Ibsen as a term of abuse, ‘Decadent’ denoted plays that challenged social and moral conventions. Sensuality and sexual temptation became a staple within purportedly moral plays, and ‘fallen woman plays’ like Bella Donna (1911) and ‘toga dramas’ like The Sign of the Cross (1894–5) made box office gold. British avant-garde theatre was shaped by Bernard Shaw, who blended realism and theatrical extravagance into an alternative form of Decadent theatre. Shavian realism and social critique were key to the development of the British theatrical avant-garde, and ‘Decadent’ theatre thus took on different forms from on the Continent. The verbally extravagant, self-consciously theatrical comedies of Oscar Wilde produced one brand, whose legacy was the poised black comedies of Noël Coward and Joe Orton. Elizabeth Robins and Florence Bell, by contrast, pushed unrepentant realism to the point of awakening critics’ lurid imaginations.
Arthur Symons’s ‘The Decadent Movement in Literature’ (1893) introduced decadence to English readers by insisting that decadence should be seen as ‘[t]he latest movement in European literature’, rejecting the proposition that decadence might have any exclusively national affiliation. Authors associated with decadence are ‘transnational’ in the sense that they responded to the challenges of working in a space that simultaneously ranged across nations and reached beyond the nation as an ideologically constructed marker of identity. This transnational re-orientation affected the decadents’ taste, modes of production, and individual identities. In short, decadents were aware of inhabiting a transnational field, and they knew that this very awareness formed a key constitutive element of their notoriously slippery shared identity. Indeed, the act of questioning national identity and national feeling was an important part of the decadents’ ethos of transgression. The transnational impulse was thus intimately related to decadent modes of dissent from the bourgeois habitus and sexual morality, as well as from traditionalist requirements of conventional literature.
From its emergence in the mid-nineteenth century, decadence has been, fundamentally, a socio-cultural response to urban modernity. Indeed, decadence is all but unthinkable outside the borders of the modern metropolis. Hence this chapter treats literature less as a literary critic would and more as an urbanist thinker might. An urbanist reading of a decadent text must perforce pay attention not only to urban geography, including the plan of the city in which the work is set, its dominant architectural styles, socio-economic differences in neighborhoods, and so on, but also to the cultural, social, and psychological meanings that the urban setting produces in a particular decadent text. In this essay, the urbanist approach is brought to bear on three novels whose urban geography is especially significant to their respective narratives: Gabriele D’Annunzio’s Il Piacere [Pleasure] (1889), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and Thomas Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig [Death in Venice] (1912). These three works illustrate, respectively, the special relationship of the urban scene to cultural, social, and psychological issues germane to the decadent narrative of each novel.
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