The Lure of Decadence

The month of August which has dawned at the time of writing, has remained one of my favorite months.  The heat of the carefree days of summer has deepened and a certain pre-autumnal richness lends an exotic tropical cast to the weather.  Once I cut the hair of a camera-man who was in Houston in August filming a movie (Texas has appealed to many filmmakers, being a non-union state), he had never been here before, but he said he had just been in the jungles of Borneo and he said that the weather was exactly the same.


August does not quite seem to belong to summer.  Thoughts of children turn to the approaching school year and of the finality of the free time of summer.  As evidenced in the title of one of William Faulkner’s masterpieces, Light in August, there appears an almost Titian crepuscularity in the dusk and dawn.  Although the heat can reach a sweltering crescendo during this month without any indication of the eventuality of autumn, it is frequently relieved by mild tropical showers.  The cumulative effects of light, atmospheric weather and a certain tenebrosity, while being a traditional month for vacaftion in Europe, for me its associations indicate a certain profuse romantic suspension, an attraction to the hyper-refinement of the historically antiquated, of obscure medievalisms, the aesthetic ennui of over-cultured yet decaying civilizations whose glory days have passed yet whose historical record and literatures are still more fascinating than those of the present.  Whether it is a reflection of the long slow declension and dying away of summer in August, my thoughts often turn to decadence.

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Decadence was one of the first major international literary and artistic movements that turned away from the scientific materialism of Naturalism and of its dominance in late nineteenth century culture and its hubristic belief in the inevitability of “progress”.  It also rejected the sentimental emotionalism of the Romantic movement.  There are many elements of the Decadent movement that would be distinctly unappealing to the 21st century: hyper-refined language, aesthetic languor as well as in certain artists, themes that are frankly misogynistic with frequently dark and menacing projections onto women, snobbish anti-democratic sentiments and sometimes blatant anti-Semitism.  Admittedly there is also a certain adolescent aspect to the movement that is also present in the attractions of horror, the macabre along with fantasy genres, and in fact I first became obsessed with the Decadent and the Symbolist movements while still in high school.   Yet there has been a renewed scholastic interest around the turn of the present millennium in the Decadent movement particularly from a post-modern perspective that included many feminist critics, as there were a few significant women writing within that style who explored non-traditional gender themes.


There still remains a strong cultish aura surrounding in particular the French authors associated with the movement, Baudelaire, Mallarme and Huysmanns, even among current nonsensically monikered superlative movements of Post-post modernists or “post-historical” or I might add “post-literary” movements.  While that cultish aura may be strictly sequestered to the hermetic confines of academia and any remaining university presses in the U.S., I am reassured and still swooning in delight to discover that there is still an independent small press in the UK that is almost exclusively devoted to printing works of, or at least evocative or genial to the Decadent movement, Dedalus Books.


The empurpled twilight of August, especially that suspended time before the full onset of quotidian sequentiality that returns around the beginning of the sign of Virgo that is still seasonally retained with parochial correspondences to the beginning of the school year, has a pronounced aesthetic richness for me.  The deliquescence of summer becomes recollected in the reflexive memories of its play and freedom which facilitates the appreciation of aesthetic experience and perception.  The habit of perceiving and associating correspondences with aspects of the external world is a distinct characteristic of any occult or esoteric system.  Being a long time admirer of the revolutionary Christian thinker and activist Matthew Fox’s holistic and cyclic reinterpretation of the mystic path with his “Four Paths of Creation Spirituality”, I would add a fifth path besides the via positive, negative, creative and the via transformative, the via appreciativa.  As all these are essentially spiritual paths, appreciation has become a lost art in the 21st century and has become eclipsed by acquisition, distraction, consumption, not to mention our collective cultural intellectual and academic privileging of criticism over appreciation.  While I have come to associate this path with the natural decadence and its aesthetic reflexivity of autumn, August has its own natural tropical crepuscular foreshadowing.


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Yet one of the most peculiar defining characteristics of art and literature of the Decadent movement is the privileging of the artificial over the natural and of its almost self consciously defiant stance against the ubiquitous Victorian obsession with health and the “healthy” and with highly restrained, often hypocritical sanctimonious definitions of the “natural” and of the wholesome.  Decadent authors and artists, much like the clinical and pseudo-scientific Naturalists reveled in the outré, louche and distinctly unwholesome and often taboo subject matter as if pathology was more aesthetically interesting than the “healthy”.  An American scholar of the Decadent movement, David Weir, like many art historians regards Decadence as a key transitional movement that paved the way for the more popular and culturally familiar movement of Modernism that was so characteristic of the 20th century.  Yet for a movement that I can’t think of as more distinctly culturally un-American in its values and characteristics, Decadence – with its effete and elitist disdain for popular culture and for common democratic tastes and its ultra-refined neurasthenic ennui and its aesthetic introversion.


As the apologists and practitioners of the pan-Indic religious phenomenon known as “Tantric” frequently justified their often transgressive, illicit and macabre practices, texts and culture and their often dismissive and disparaging attitudes towards orthodox religion and spiritual practice by their stance that they were no longer effective in a “decadent” age.  The same culture and artifacts and texts that so shocked and horrified, yet secretly fascinated Victorian Indologists to cursorily dismiss and bowdlerize them as “abhorrent” and “decadent” forms of Eastern religious practice that had “devolved” into occult, magical and obscene ritualism are the same that now seem to dominate western scholarship and inquiry into eastern religious studies and have taken an increasingly dominant influence in popular yogic, New age and alternative spirituality’s marketing of the once dismissed and disparaged abhorrent and “decadent” forms.


It has been said that the entire manifestation of the Decadent movement that was international if brief, was essentially an elaboration of all the themes expressed in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire – exquisitely wrought in at times jewel-like language mixing archaic expression with common slang with willfully crafted transgression of traditional themes and subject matter, conflating the basest subjects of horror and disgust and themes of abject depravity with the language and ardor of the highest mystical aspirations.  While Baudelaire died a generation before the first self-conscious appearance of texts of the Decadent movement, (incidentally he was also responsible for the introduction of the works of Edgar Allen Poe to the French public, which became widely popular and appreciated as high literature rather than mere genre fiction, and whose translations are said to even surpass in effect Poe’s original English) it was one of its most beloved spokesmen and prophet, Stephane Mallarme with his highly esteemed Tuesday evening salons attended by the Parisian literary intelligentsia of Decadence, while seemingly transforming into the Symbolist movement through the development of his own emphasis on the suggestivity of language (very much like Anandavardhana’s Dhvani-theory) at the expense of the expected naming of experience, who exploited the turn of the century anxieties by remarking that “the end of centuries are all the same” and by popularizing the reading and appreciation of the Latin authors of the Late Roman Empire for their highly artificial and decorative rhetorical style.  But it was his implicit embracing of the organic model of culture in his preference for the texts and artifacts of a culture’s declining stages which he found more aesthetically interesting than those of a culture’s self conscious prime.


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Halfway through the second decade of the 21st century, are we as different, as “advanced” culturally, socially and in every way from the late 19th century that gave birth to the Decadents and Symbolists, – as much as we have collectively convinced ourselves that we are?  Even with the development of electric lighting or with computer technology, how much of our basic existential situation has really changed?  While the Decadents turned away in disgust at the positivist hubris obsession with science and “progress” of the late 19th century, and while the looming threat of senseless socio-pathology of terrorism was performed by anarchists with their criminal doctrine of propaganda by the deed, there is something that has developed since the 1990’s, an even greater hubris that is the hallmark of an even greater and more entrenched decadence – the sense that western culture has transcended history, that it can no longer apply to us and that history itself is an antiquated notion now as well as for its fatalistic lack of vision for the future.


While the early Enlightenment political philosopher Montesquieu is generally considered as one of the first western philosophers to popularize the notion that civilizations of necessity have organic phases of existence with inevitable declining stages, it is the contrasting view, with equal logical speciousness, which is still so characteristic of 21st century culture, that of the most recent manifestation of another social and political inevitability as expressed in the title of Francis Fukuyama’s influential 1992 essay, “The End of History and the Last Man”.


The mid to the late 1990’s saw the development of an unprecedented optimism and hubris that arose alongside unquestioned optimistic fervor and an almost utopistic inevitability of the burgeoning development of the Internet and especially of its commercial and financial investment opportunities.  A culture of uncontrolled unstoppable growth and escalating greed, which continues today even in the midst of unfavorable circumstances, that arose in the 90’s now termed the “last great decade” in the U.S.; while the inheritance of the decade has seen a confirmation of the fears of the protestors of the WTO riots in Seattle, the disappearance of job security and the idea of life time employment, of the middle class, a whole generation doomed to economic insecurity and the real prospect of not having the same opportunities for success as their own parents and of a culture that is sliding into multi-national corporate plutocracy.  Yet the gold rush of the initial cyber-boom went bust and as all other previous gold rushes, it benefitted only the relatively few; but the internet has remained as the ultimate virtual “bread and circuses” and as the ultimate shopping mall, purveyor of cheap good that are new flashy and shiny, and like the fallacy of the post-historical, the illusion of the post-industrial is preserved by the sordid details of the production of the cheap but flashy goods are discreetly preserved somewhere out of sight where their workers do not have to be given benefits in order to make profit margins the highest possible, while the brick and mortar shopping mall, the symbol of American post-war conspicuous consumption, have all but become things of the past.

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A controversial new cable TV channel Viceland has a show “Abandoned” that features all the many abandoned buildings in the U.S that includes the many abandoned shopping malls they term as “ghost malls”.  The show cites the poor economy, high crime and online shopping as the primary reasons for the mall closings; they are truly unsettling and disturbing images to encounter that have an unexpected visceral effect on the viewer.  While most of these desolate dystopic post-apocalyptic urban landscapes on the show are mainly located around the Cleveland Ohio area as part of the greater Northeastern area that has come to be called the “Rust Belt” due to the presence of the many remains of closed and abandoned factories and old empty and crumbling industrial edifices, Houston TX, the fourth largest city in the U.S. that prides itself on economic opportunities, new construction and development, also has its own share of abandoned buildings and pitifully nearly empty suburban shopping malls.  These images strike at the heart of 21st century consumer culture and poke large and deflating holes in its attempts to insulate itself in a seamless “post-historical” wonderland of shiny “brand new” gadgetry and hype.  They also reveal an underbelly of decadence that cannot be experienced in an aesthetic way like picturesque ruins of antiquated cultures can, but more like the visible signs of cancerous growth, tell-tale signs that the body is diseased and seriously threatened.


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As August has already unfolded into September and has given way to the dawning of the largest full moon of the year as reflections of traditional Japanese aesthetic entertainment of holding moon viewing parties whether inspired by the habits of Chinese scholar poets, memories of my own picnic for the Harvest Moon on the beach in Galveston watching the startling appearance of the full moon, blood red, rising from the rippling oceanic horizon.  The moon, more the ancient symbol of the cyclic phases of the passing of time and of the infinite but forgotten, antiquated reflexivity of the past.  Such a luminal occurrence of shimmering limpidity signal the almost impossible transitional appearance of autumn, a season the aesthetic irony is wholly dependent on the natural cycle of decay and withdrawal.  Japan has the only indigenous aesthetic that consciously includes and directly appreciates the natural decay, the patina of the richness of the retained indications of time and of beauty found in imperfection, the forgotten, the incomplete and even in the twisted, withered and shrunken of wabi-sabi.  I also appreciate visiting cities that retain the rarity in contemporary society of appreciating decay and that do not try to hide or eradicate the beauty found in the graceful aging and even the dilapidation of old buildings, structures and objects.  New Orleans is such a rare exception for America in this and even inspired a local school of interior design that included incorporating the natural decay of materials and historic furnishings such as allowing silver to tarnish or drapes to fray.


While there is much that is worthy of dismissal in the Decadent movement that descends into “camp” posturing and histrionic self-conscious display of preconceived scenarios and mythologies of the neurasthenic artistic genius like Poe’s Roderick Usher doomed to a fatal self-alienation away from the caustic vulgarity of society and the outside world made unbearable by his own nervous hereditary degeneracy inherited through the “sins of the father”, able to tolerate only the most ultra-refinement of tastes and perverse curiosity and passions in his morbid horror of the conventional and flight into hermetic introversion.  Yet the movement survived in its cultural influences well into the 20th century producing some of the most refined and haunting works of art and literature with real and substantial innovation and experimentation and transgression of form, challenging every convention of the historic canons of taste that fuelled an international explosion of creativity that united emerging frequently warring and antagonistic national cultures purely through common aesthetic aims and grounds.


The irony that the movement was largely inspired by the works of the American writer Edgar Allen Poe, whose mysterious death, all but ignored in a pauper’s grave in his own country and still is primarily viewed as an author of “juvenile fiction”, his works and person interdicted and sequestered into hollow busts of national begrudged recognition in order to delimit his contaminating offense of puritanical morals; it was only due to the translations of Charles Baudelaire (that have been said to surpass Poe’s works themselves) and to France, a generation after Poe’s death to fully achieve the recognition of his full literary merit and accomplishment and implications, to take language to almost its breaking point in refinement, evocation and mystery, and to a level rarely achieved since Elizabethan literature. Yet the international movement even influenced and penetrated the image-making Mammon machine of Hollywood well into the 20th century with the femme fatale character of the silent film era and that inspired the early prodigious literary output of one of Hollywood’s most revered screenwriters, Ben Hecht.


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The French saint and oracle of the Symbolist/ Decadent movement, Stephane Mallarme, whose legacy survives into the post-modern through his in no small inspiration of Roland Barthes’ “death of the author” stance by Mallarme’s creative ideal that not only strives for the “disappearance of the poet who cedes the initiative to words”, but also of an aesthetic engulfment of reality itself in a “vibratory disappearance” into a more original pure work free of contingencies.  His many letters and journals have been preserved that frequently mention his puzzling idealistic project that he considered to be his magnum opus that he never even attempted before his untimely death; he wrote of a “theme of a lone heroic poet in the midst of a ruined city who aimed to bring about salvation of humankind and of redeeming the earth through orphic means and the creation of a text that would replace conventional religion with an unmediated diffusion of the divine”.


The prolific British science fiction writer Brian Stableford wrote the brilliant and dizzying introduction to the anthology, The Dedalus Book of Decadence, that the English authors who were inspired by the Decadent movement were hesitant to embrace it fully or to especially avoid adopting the term “decadent” in part because of Britain’s refusal to even accept the possibility that their own empire could ever be in decline, even though it had already by the turn of the century began to show tell-tale signs and that decadence instead was to be used in reference to other European nations.  Likewise the U.S. has indulged in the arts of projection and blame yet underneath the thin façade of the ever escalating rush for the newest of the new, brand shiny new model technophilia and pop culture, whole urban areas have been abandoned and allowed to rot into ruins, large areas of St. Louis and Detroit especially, where health care still is increasingly becoming less and less affordable, with some of the most advanced medicine in the world becoming more and more a privileged luxury of the fewer and fewer wealthy and no longer a dependable resource of the average citizen, where crippling epidemics of drug abuse are infiltrating all strata of society and where violent crime and gun violence are escalating out of control. What is more decadent, the effete postures of aesthetic fatalistic pessimism or that of denial and complaisance and the ultimately vain attempts to maintain a blind exceptionalist position inherent in the “end of history” pseudo-theory?


While religiously, the end of history is all too often interpreted as the “end times” which Christianity in particular has been predicting the imminent Apocalypse for nearly two thousand years, even shortly after its legalization.  Whereas the Tantras follow Hindu and Buddhist non-linear cycles of time, they are nevertheless not optimistic about human nature and the future of society and humanity.  They predict that mankind has already entered the final cycle of decadence of this world system which will increasingly devolve away from the classical values of the mythic golden age of the past, where deceit and self-interest will increasingly dominate the institutions previously relied upon in trust to order society and provide wise leadership, where spirituality would become difficult if not impossible to maintain and where life spans will become shorter, violent, brutal and uncertain; yet it ironically also predicted that the age would be characterized by technical proliferation and the increasing reliance on the litigious and ambiguous nature of the written word over the implied honest and clear spoken word.


The Decadent movement like the tantric movement in medieval India featured a full spectrum of seemingly contradictory themes and subjects that displayed an almost Universalist traversement and interpenetration of depths of the macabre, the morbid, the perverse and the outright satanic in the sometimes blatantly pornographic illustrations of Lucien Rops and Baudelaire’s Litany to Satan and Huysmans’ possibly accurate description of his own attendance of a Parisian underground Black Mass coupled with detailed description of sacrilegious black magic practices using consecrated Church communion wafers in La Bas, to the heights of the mystic aspirations of its transformed and overlapping ideals in the Symbolist movement, to the revelation of the fantastic, the dream-like and the mysterious seen in the ordinary as in Mallarme’s prose portraits and in the haunting paintings of the combined decadent/ symbolist oeuvre.  All of which fully manifests Anandavardhana’s first millennium triune attributes of the “inner glory of literature in prathayitum in its abilities to create whole new worlds, in sarayitum in its abilities to impart a relish to even the most mundane objects and subjects of the actual world in order that they could even impart an aesthetic response or rasa, and in udbhasayitum, in its abilities to render both the mundane and supermundane bright with a beauty out of the writer’s own genius and of his or her own deft utilization of language”.


Extra-ordinary language is also a key characteristic of tantric texts, sandhyabhasa, “twilight” or secret language; the proliferation of macabre, obscene, criminal and transgressive imagery, themes, subjects and descriptions are a connection to Decadent texts of the West, whose bowdlerizing orientalist scholars ironically projected their own projections of decadence onto the texts, practices and artifacts of the tantric movement.  Yet there is a hidden aspect to both developments, that of a freedom from restriction from convention and from conventional morality, svatantrya which the Trika tradition is sometimes referred to as svatantryavada, and whose hero and mystical model and ideal is often depicted as Bhairava, the contradictory demonic, criminal and transgressive aspect of Siva.  There may be something inescapably decadent about both aesthetic as well as of mystical experience, of the ecstatic – a theme often utilized in the mystical literature of a variety of world religious traditions with themes of excess and the transgression of limitations and in Abhinavagupta’s use of the word camatkara often translated as aesthetic rapture.


As the unimaginable final appearance of the first cool weather of autumn has finally arrived, we approach the Shakta season of Durga puja.  Much of the ambiguities of decadent literature are also present in much Shakta literature, the importance and sometimes glorification of desire and of the senses that are often deified as Shaktis themselves as in the Spandakarikas, which is even mirrored in Baudelaire’s and the Symbolist’s obsession with reviving the esoteric theory of correspondences.  In reference to popular objections of morbidity in the themes and subjects of much of the new Decadent/ Symbolist art and literature, Oscar Wilde retorted to the effect that “what is more morbid than the incapacity for free creative artistic expression”.  Aesthetics may be difficult or seemingly impossible to defend in a world as today, beset with such serious threats and at times it seems as if the very fabric of civilization is at threat to dissolve into chaos, which is a situation that the Decadents were quite comfortable with and found inspiration in themes of ennui and impuissance in the seeming meaninglessness of modern life over a century ago.  Yet the unprecedented over confidence and hubris of the neoliberal doctrine inherent in the “end of history” may be an even greater and more dangerous decadent  morbidity by refusing to look at the past and to learn the lessons of past fallen empires.  The late Gore Vidal, one of America’s last great public intellectuals, besides writing that he regarded “monotheism as the greatest disaster ever to befall the human race”, he was a great proponent of the idea that the U.S. is an empire in the throes of its decline and decadence.  He preferred to call his seven series of well-acclaimed historical novels about American history as the American Empire series that chronicled its inception through to its decline into decadent empire during the Cold War period depicted in its final novel, Golden Age set in WWII and the post war period.  Like Brian Stableford’s insight into the English author’s discomfort with using the term “decadent” to describe their own works, Vidal’s publisher preferred to call his series the American Chronicles almost as if to erase the associations of empire.  His essays on a similar theme range from Decline and Fall of the American Empire to the collection of essays The Last Empire: essays 1992 – 2000, to Imperial America: Reflection on the United States of Amnesia, to probably his most controversial work that claims the U.S. has been in a constant state of warfare since the 1950’s, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Came To Be So Hated.


Meanwhile aside from random bombings and knife attacks at remaining malls claiming ISIS affiliation, a strange phenomenon has appeared across the country, almost as if the boundaries between the massively popular Halloween “spook houses” or the Hollywood horror industry or even reminiscent of the eeriness and moral ambiguity of many children’s “fairy tales” or even of much tantric legends, and that of everyday life have blurred in the appearances of sinister looking clowns in public scaring children and women and apparently trying to entice them into the woods.  Many high schools across the country and in Houston actually briefly closed due to terroristic threats on social media of kidnapping or shooting teachers and students by these creepy clowns, while arrests have been made and most of these were not deemed as credible.


Also the Houston county commissioners have agreed to vote again on a plan to convert the city’s abandoned “elephant in the middle of the living room” in the middle of the city, the “eighth wonder of the world”, the Astrodome completely abandoned and rotting for nearly a generation into a huge indoor parking lot thus saving the structure and the embarrassment of the world’s first domed sports stadium, arena of America’s major “bread and circuses”, likewise inspired by Houston oil man Roy Hofeinz’ visit to Rome and learning that the Coliseum originally had an elaborate tarp system of canvas panels that could be pulled out to shade the hordes of spectators.  Originally named after the baseball team after and evocative of the city’s famous space program which is now no more than a museum and theme park today for a city that no longer has any identity and in many ways never did, the Astrodome was a symbol of pride for the city and the country.  Hofeinz also built the city’s first large amusement park close to the Astrodome that symbolic of the city and of America today was later bought out by a multi-national amusement park corporation and deemed unprofitable and closed and completely raised to the ground, its land completely empty without any trace that it ever existed except for the motorway bridge ramp that would bring park goers from the Astrodome parking lot over the freeway into Astroworld.  More than likely the commissioner’s decision to make some attempt to do something with the structure was motivated by the city’s upcoming hosting of the Superbowl, America’s foremost “bread and circuses” in a means, to use a Texas expression “to put lipstick on a pig”, to cover up the city’s (like many other U.S. cities that are facing bankruptcy) unappealing image issues not to mention that the city’s tallest downtown skyscraper is being vacated and may stand completely empty by the oil company it is named for.



The abandoned Astrodome yet makes a perfect decadent symbol reminiscent of Rome after the city was with all of its technical accomplishments and symbols of empire and civic identity were all but abandoned after wave after wave of hostile invasions to the point that hordes of rootless poor no longer citizenry struggled to live off the land or to align themselves with feudal overlords for protection, squatted amongst the ruins of a once great civilization without a clue to the uses, meaning or purpose of the crumbling edifices that surrounded them.  I find the Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence: Emperors of Debauchery the perfect reading material for watching the almost pathetic display of the 2016 Presidential Debates.


Yet I find it interesting that the Trika Saivist movement and texts deconstruct the dominant tantric narrative of the decadent Kali Yuga scenario and instead posit that the continuous cosmic cycles of creation and destruction were played out collectively in the oscillation of the perceptual, conceptual and experiential consciousness of all sentient beings on an almost atomistic level, that was not sequential, but coexistent, where the immergence of even one simple object of thought or experience in the mind of the perceiver implied the equal destruction of all other objects and worlds.  It is also interesting and I still find it one of the few worthwhile religious and philosophical principles, that of the bodhisattva who renounces his own personal salvation in the realization that as long as beings are trapped in cycles of ignorance and suffering there is no real salvation, and the fact that they are portrayed in Asian art in an iconography of decadence and ethereal expressions of ennui and impuissance.


©Paul Smith, 2016

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