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Chapter one defines and historically situates the intersections among decadence, ecology, and the pagan revival in literature and art. Noting ecological, scientific, classist, nationalist, and imperialist aspects of decadence in its earliest articulations, focus is given to the shifting formulations of modern decadence in particular by such influential writers as Charles Baudelaire, Paul Bourget, and Max Nordau, the chapter offers close analyses of works by Algernon Swinburne such as his poem ‘The Leper’ (1866) and the Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys such as his painting Medea (1868) that demonstrate the complex interplay across these concepts.
Casting fresh light on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century British art, literature, ecological science and paganism, Decadent Ecology reveals the pervasive influence of decadence and paganism on modern understandings of nature and the environment, queer and feminist politics, national identities, and changing social hierarchies. Combining scholarship in the environmental humanities with aesthetic and literary theory, this interdisciplinary study digs into works by Simeon Solomon, Algernon Swinburne, Walter Pater, Robert Louis Stevenson, Vernon Lee, Michael Field, Arthur Machen and others to address trans-temporal, trans-species intimacy; the vagabondage of place; the erotics of decomposition; occult ecology; decadent feminism; and neo-paganism. Decadent Ecology reveals the mutually influential relationship of art and science during the formulation of modern ecological, environmental, evolutionary and trans-national discourses, while also highlighting the dissident dynamism of new and recuperative pagan spiritualities - primarily Celtic, Nordic-Germanic, Greco-Roman and Egyptian - in the framing of personal, social and national identities.
In 1881, Arnold concluded that, of the century’s poets, ‘Wordsworth and Byron stand out by themselves’.1 The judgement was a little more surprising then than it seems now, because the reputations of both were if not in eclipse then at least overshadowed. Between 1840 and 1870 it was the fashion, according to John Nichol, to talk of Byron as ‘a sentimentalist, a romancer, a shallow wit, a nine days’ wonder, a poet for “green, unknowing youth”’.2 After Wordsworth died a fund was established to raise a memorial to him, but it was less successful than had been hoped. Macaulay commented that ‘ten years earlier more money could have been raised in Cambridge alone’. Arnold tells that story in 1879, in the preface to his selection of Wordsworth’s poems, and it was that volume that did most to re-establish Wordsworth’s reputation.3 There were more hands involved in salvaging Byron’s. In 1870, Alfred Austin published The Poetry of the Period, in which all the century’s poets are compared with Byron and found wanting, and in the same year John Morley brought out his essay on Byron as the poet of the French Revolution in the Fortnightly Review.4 Ten years later, John Nichol published the volume on Byron in Morley’s English Men of Letters series from which I have already quoted. But the first sign that a revival in Byron’s fortunes might be under way came in 1866, when Swinburne published his Selection from the Works of Lord Byron.5
Chapter Five, “Shakespearean Clerisies and Perfect Texts,” concerns the activities of the Victorian Shakespeare societies and the ways that textual debates about Shakespeare throughout the century reproduce and inflect similar debates among Biblical scholars. Shakespeare’s cultural apotheosis raises persistent questions not just about the nature of his authorship, but also about the integrity and order of his oeuvre. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as David Scott Kastan puts it, “the desire to recover the lost perfection of [Shakespeare’s] text becomes ever more intense.” Here, once more, we see a clear parallel to Biblical studies. For Shakespeare’s oeuvre, like the Bible, admits endless questions about which readings ought to be most authoritative. And in both cases, the textual problem became a theological one for believers who held that an inspired text ought to be uniform and consistent. Moreover, since textual difficulties in sacred texts have higher stakes than in secular ones, so too Shakespeare’s emergence as a companion to the evangelists prompts further exegesis and, eventually, helps to bolster the development of academic criticism.
British Decadence was, in large part, inspired by the poetry and prose of France. The cross-Channel traffic in advanced literature saw extremes of Francophobia and Francophilia in the British press, with writers such as Émile Zola having translations of their work censored and attacked in the House of Commons while receiving rapturous receptions when lecturing in London. A central figure in this traffic of Decadent literature was the poet Paul Verlaine, whose dissolute life scandalized the British public. As this chapter demonstrates, British writers took from their French counterparts both formal innovation and an antagonistic approach to moral orthodoxies. Verlaine’s queer sexuality and relentlessly self-scrutinizing approach to poetry came to symbolize for a generation of young English writers an intoxicating possibility of a poetic revolution against cultural hegemony. Verlaine’s lecture tour of England in late 1893 represents the highpoint of the British obsession with French décadence before the Wilde trials saw progressive literature retreat into the margins.
Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) was a foundational text for British Decadence. John Ruskin had vilified Renaissance Italy for its moral and aesthetic depravity, but for Pater and his followers the works of artists such as Botticelli, Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci became vehicles for a radical aesthetic that elevated intensity of experience as the goal of life and saw art as the most crystalized form of that experience. The Renaissance offered sensual enjoyment that could transform and re-enchant the experience of modernity. This chapter argues that it was the aesthetic and moral ambiguousness of the Renaissance that appealed to the Decadent imagination – its audacious blurring of the boundaries between good and evil, the spiritual and the carnal, beauty and ugliness, legitimate and illicit pleasures; its radical unsettling of conventional demarcations of gender, sexuality, place and historical period. For Decadent writers and artists such ambiguities were intellectually and personally liberating. Renaissance Italy provided a creative space in which to explore contemporary uncertainties and to mobilize a distinctively Decadent style.
The complex mix of transgression and conservativism in the sexual politics of Decadence is well explored through the Decadent turn back to the ancient world. Looking back to antiquity at the end of the nineteenth century was an complex aesthetic performance, reflecting both genuflection to traditional cultural authority and transgression of modern political frameworks. The Decadent imagination was interested in the aesthetics of collecting. Decadent writers became fascinated by androgynous and hermaphroditic bodily forms, which they viewed as a symbol of decadent collecting culture – an assemblage of pleasurable, sensuous experiences. But the ambiguously gendered body of ancient art, so venerated by Decadent writers, revealed the ambivalences of their gender politics.
Notions of decadence, decline, and decay are intrinsically linked to the history of art. The discipline’s three recognized forefathers ? Giorgio Vasari, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, and Heinrich Wölfflin ? all relied on the concept of decadence (and its antonym, progress) to make sense of the history of the visual arts and to evaluate the art of their times. A developmental model of art was central to the interpretative schemes of these art historians. In this organicist model, earlier developments prepare the stage for what comes later; and after a particular style flourishes for a time, its decline is inevitable as newer styles overtake it. Decadent artists such as Gustave Moreau and Aubrey Beardsley mock aesthetic standards and moral rules, precluding universal appreciation, and proudly so. Decadent artists and decadent audiences are estranged from their society and feel disdain for those who are scandalized by decadent art’s innovative form and immoral subject matter.
Decadents were the heirs of the Enlightenment libertines who took the liberty of exploring ethics in a world in which morality was no longer handed down by God. In such a secular environment, sexual freedom was an offshoot of political and moral philosophy; free love and free thinking went together. The Marquis de Sade embodied the libertine for the eighteenth century, but the fin de siècle expanded the repertoire to admit not just sadism, but also masochism, bestiality, homosexuality and lesbianism, heterosexuality (the word was first coined to name a perversion), voyeurism, fetishism, and all manner of paraphilias (frottage, paedophilia, priapism, transvestism, and vampirism, to name but a few). These topics were mostly explored through imaginative writing (novels, plays, poetry) rather than in lived experience ? what philosophers might call ‘thought experiments’ ? but such bold discussion of taboo subjects came to characterize decadent literature in works by Swinburne, Huysmans, Rachilde, Wilde, and others.
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