Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 10, 2018

Decadence, a Very Short Introduction, by David Weir

I’ve had Decadence, a Very Short Introduction on my TBR for a little while now, but what prompted me to pick it up now was a review of Inappropriation by Lexi Freiman at Theresa Smith Writes.  By the sound of it, Inappropriation luxuriates in decadence, and that triggered thoughts about decadent books in general – some that I’ve liked and others that I’ve disliked, such as a recent book that I abandoned at page 6 because of its disgusting content. (And I’m no prude.  This was beyond revolting.)  But it seems from David Weir’s entertaining VSI that decadence is not so much a quality that can be bandied about in respect of book content as a literary movement.

This is the blurb for this latest addition to the VSI series:

The history of decadent culture runs from ancient Rome to nineteenth-century Paris, Victorian London, fin de siecle Vienna, Weimar Berlin, and beyond. The decline of Rome provides the pattern for both aesthetic and social decadence, a pattern that artists and writers in the nineteenth century imitated, emulated, parodied, and otherwise manipulated for aesthetic gain. What begins as the moral condemnation of modernity in mid-nineteenth century France on the part of decadent authors such as Charles Baudelaire ends up as the perverse celebration of the pessimism that accompanies imperial decline. This delight in decline informs the rich canon of decadence that runs from Joris-Karl Huysmans’s A Rebours to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings, Gustav Klimt’s paintings, and numerous other works.

In this Very Short Introduction, David Weir explores the conflicting attitudes towards modernity present in decadent culture by examining the difference between aesthetic decadence–the excess of artifice–and social decadence, which involves excess in a variety of forms, whether perversely pleasurable or gratuitously cruel. Such contrariness between aesthetic and social decadence led some of its practitioners to substitute art for life and to stress the importance of taste over morality, a manoeuvre with far-reaching consequences, especially as decadence enters the realm of popular culture today.

The VSI begins with an Introduction, followed by four chapters:

  1. Rome: classical decadence
  2. Paris: cultural decadence
  3. London: social decadence
  4. Vienna and Berlin: sociocultural decadence

Then there is an Afterword called ‘Legacies of decadence’, some references and suggestions for further reading.

Weir describes what we associate with decadence: historical decline, social decay (political corruption and excessive hedonism) and aesthetic inferiority.  We know about the social decay of ancient Rome – the decadence of Caligula and Nero et al – from the biographies in Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars and from Tacitus, an historian.  But he points out that despite the fall of Rome and its undisputed decadence, many aspects of Roman culture and ingenuity persist:  the Latin language lives on in the Romance languages, and our system of laws and of representative government is modelled on the Roman Republic.  Rome aided the spread of Christianity after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, and Roman architecture and engineering have had a lasting influence to this day.


So for Weir, Rome not only remains the paradigm of decadence, it also provides the pattern for the inevitable linkage of decline and renewal because of the many social and cultural developments that ensued in the wake of both the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire.  He says that

…this pattern becomes a paradox in the modern era: historical decline and renewal, social decay and regeneration, artistic decadence and avant-gardism appear increasingly interrelated. In fact, modernity itself seems to call for a decadent response, so much so that decadence today may perhaps be understood as the aesthetic expression of a conflicted attitude towards modernity.  (p.3)

Enter Paris as an exemplar of the conflicted sense of modernity, in the 19th century:

Just about every manifestation of decadence owes its origins, either directly or indirectly, to a loosely affiliated group of artists and writers who lived and worked in Paris.  (p.3)

Paris, Weir says, produced Baudelaire (1821-1867), who was the first poet to be retrospectively described as decadent by the first critic of decadence, Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), and it also produced the first decadent novel À Rebours (1884) by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907).  Goodreads’ blurb for this novel confirms it:

With a title translated either as Against Nature or as Against The Grain, this wildly original fin-de-siècle novel follows its sole character, Des Esseintes, a decadent, ailing aristocrat who retreats to an isolated villa where he indulges his taste for luxury and excess. Veering between nervous excitability and debilitating ennui, he gluts his aesthetic appetites with classical literature and art, exotic jewels (with which he fatally encrusts the shell of his tortoise), rich perfumes, and a kaleidoscope of sensual experiences. The original handbook of decadence, Against Nature exploded like a grenade (in the words of its author) and has enjoyed a cult readership from its publication to the present day.

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die describes it as the breviary of Decadence (p.192).

London was also central to the development of decadence, their best known exemplar being Oscar Wilde (escaping from Dublin which appears not ever to have been decadent).  Vienna and Berlin joined in too, but conditions for decadence to flourish there didn’t really come into play until the early 20th century during the Weimar Republic (1919-1933).

Decadence is hard to date, and not everyone would say that it extends so far into the twentieth century as the end of the Weimar era.  A case can be made, however, that decadence reached its peak in the second decade of the Third Republic in France (the 1880s), in the last decade of Queen Victoria’s reign in Great Britain (the 1890s), in the middle of the Archduke Ferdinand’s status as heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary (the early 1900s), and in the tumultuous decade of the Weimar Republic (the 1920s).  (p.7)

[Which just goes to prove something that I read in an entirely different context the other day: social changes take time to spread around the world and shouldn’t be labelled as e.g. ‘the swinging sixties’ without including a context].

… By the time decadence reaches Weimar Berlin it is no longer the province of elites. Ultimately, this democratisation of decadence results in its migration into popular culture.  Indeed, decadence has enjoyed a considerable afterlife in that over-the-top culture known as camp, which the critic Susan Sontag helpfully clarified as an ability to discriminate between inferior art and deliberately inferior art – “the good taste of bad taste”. (p.8)

Portrait of Edward Gibbon (1737-94) by Joshua Reynolds (1723-92) (Wikipedia)

Something I didn’t know, from Chapter 1: it was the Enlightenment authors Montesquieu and Edward Gibbon between them who launched the moral condemnation of Roman imperial life.  (You can see disapproval oozing from the Joshua Reynolds’ portrait of Gibbons, can’t you?!)  In fact, they both attribute Rome’s decline to Christianity because the Christian promise of a future life obviates the need for action in the present.  

Because “[t]he clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister.” (p.24)

[I guess Gibbon was in favour of a bit of war every now and again, to shore up those all important values].

The Absinthe Drinker by Manet (Wikipedia)

BTW this VSI isn’t just about literature, though that’s what I’ve focussed on.  Weir also discusses architecture and works of art, such as Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and he names his ‘The Absinthe Drinker’ as breaking new ground because of the paradoxical nature of the representation: the derelict man is a definite modern type, simultaneously dignified and sordid.  He also discusses music, mentioning Nietzsche’s essay on Wagner in which he compares the composer to French writers and the emerging tradition of French decadence.  Fiction, essays, poetry and philosophy, however, are the intellectual underpinnings that clarify and explain decadence as a movement, while the visual arts, it seems to me, are used more as exemplars.

Occasionally Weir is a bit long-winded:

Depravity is not necessarily decadence, but the idea of original sin that drives all of the smaller, subsidiary sins that constitute the nature of humanity as orthodox Christianity conceives it, is part of the idea of decadence that begins to emerge in the nineteenth century with the growth of Baudelaire’s reputation. (p.41, that red comma is my addition.  Without it, I had to read this sentence three times to make sense of it.)

But generally this is a beaut book.  I loved the chapter about London’s social decadence – I hadn’t realised that Baron Hausmann’s boulevardes pushed the poor to the perimeters of the city, creating a bourgeois centre while in London, the absence of any plan on the scale of Hausmann’s left in place a patchwork city of neighbourhoods.   And politically, of course, the Brits had stable government while the French specialised in revolutionary fervour.  That difference in urban geography, says Weir, is mapped fairly precisely in the best-known narrative of London decadence, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. As you may remember, Dorian lives in posh Mayfair, but he hangs out in the scruffy East End to undertake his dubious activities.

And while in Paris, modernity was in conflict with medievalism, in London, the architects of much smaller-scale changes in the built environment were inspired by medieval styles as in the neo-Gothic Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.  The leading art critic of the day, John Ruskin took a dim view of Renaissance architecture, (making scornful remarks about Venice of all places) and he promoted Gothic builders as exemplars of art [that] should fulfil both a moral and a social purpose…and never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. An important essayist called Walter Pater took a contrary view, but you’ll have to read the VSI for yourself to find out more about him because already this review is much too long.  There’s also mention of women in the decadence movement: Emilia Pardo Bazan, Ada Leverson, Violet Paget (who wrote as Vernon Lee) and co-writers Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper who published as Michael Field.

The chapter about the sociocultural decadence of Vienna and Berlin was interesting because it was more middle-class than elite and because

…time matters as much as place, and never more so than in Vienna and Berlin.  The elegant decadence of Vienna 1900, like those repressed, conflicted urbanites Sigmund Freud analysed, seems genteel in comparison to the energetic decadence of 1920s Berlin, whose citizens and denizens act as if they have nothing to lose, having lost everything already.  (p.82)

There is more about art (Klimt) than literature in this chapter, there’s a lot about Freud and his analyses, and as you’d expect in the early 20th century, film also gets a mention. So does Hitler’s attack on both modernists and decadents, which is a gloomy note for me to end on.

PS Djuna Barnes Nightwood is discussed in the last chapter, Legacies of Decadence, and Weir also mentions decadence outside Western Europe as in Japan and Brazil.  He says that academic interest in decadence is on the rise, so there may be more to come about decadence in the rest of the world.  Was there decadence in Australia?  I don’t know enough about the literature of that era to know…

Author: David Weir
Title: Decadence, a Very Short Introduction
Publisher: Oxford University Press, (Very Short Introductions series, 2018
ISBN: 9780190610227
Review copy courtesy of Oxford University Press

Available from Fishpond: Decadence: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)



  1. Thanks for the mention Lisa. I’d say this was a more credible read than Inappropriation!


  2. Do you think Norman Lindsay was our very own decadent?


    • Yes, maybe. not just his art, but also his books, like a Curate in Bohemia…


  3. I read two more of Huysmans’s boks this year, The Damned and Drifting, and intend to read more. I was hoping to read about the Decadent Movement but couldn’t find much that was for the general reader apart from this VSI and the Dedalus book. It sounds like this book would be a good one to read.

    Did Aubrey Beardsley get a mention? He seems to me to be the archetypal Decadent artist.


    • Oh, I just noticed that Beardsley was mentioned in the blurb.


      • That’s right. He’s mentioned as an illustrator for Wilde, and one of his risque drawings for Salome is in the book.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds fascinating! Are we allowed decadence nowadays???


    • I’m not sure: we live in an age when anything goes, but when all the forbidden things are now boringly mainstream (tattoos, piercings, dreads, green hair, drugs) there isn’t any shock value and no one takes any notice. It isn’t a commentary on modern life, it’s herd behaviour.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I had no idea that Decadence was a literary movement.

    I have been wondering whether we are entering a new era of (social) decadence – and are heading for a fall. Does decadence have to have shock value? Or is there something more fundamental about the pursuit of pleasure without a moral underpinning. I’ve probably not fully understood your post with all those different types of decadence?


    • I don’t know. Sometimes I feel deeply depressed about the way the world is going, and other times I feel confident that good nature will prevail.


  6. […] Decadence, a Very Short Introduction, by David Weir #BookReview […]


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