Who are the Decadents? By way of a reply to an inquirer. (from Sept 1917)
A Berkshire correspondent, in the course of a hearty and friendly letter, says:
What is meant by ‘The Decadents,’ in literature? Why are they decadent? I know the dictionary meaning of decadence but I can’t apply it to the work of men like Zola, Maeterlinck, Ibsen,Wilde, Strindberg, Dowden, Hardy, Shaw, Middleton, Francis Thompson and Frank Harris. All of these men may not be generally considered of the ‘decadent’ school, but, to me they represent a certain affinity of spirit – a new phase of literature and life. The list, too, may not be exhaustive; but these are they whose work I am, perhaps, the better acquainted with. At any rate, they occur to me at the moment without searching. And why decadent?
I like reading the plays of Ibsen, Strindberg, Bjornson, Wilde and Shaw (although I never visit a theatre). I enjoy the word-mastery of Wilde, his affectation, his striving after effect, in short, if you will, his pose. I like the scorn and powerful satire of Francis Thompson, the devil-may-care abandonment of Dowden, the pessimism of Thomas Hardy, and the new spirit in the short stories of Frank Harris. All these men stir my emotions and cause me ‘furiously to think.’ Is this a sign of literary decadence or moral degeneration?
I regard these men as delivering a necessary message – that is, all is not well with the world. I like the realism they pourtray. I feel the philosophy they preach. Temperamentally, I find an echo of my own pessimism – hence, I suppose, my appreciation of them. Grant Allen was a pessimist: was he a decadent? If not, why not? By what standard are these men, many of them men of real genius, judged decadent, and who are the judges that have condemned them to posterity?
My query applies, perhaps more particularly to the so-called decadents of the ‘Nineties’ but what of our more contemporary decadents – Marie Corelli, Hall Caine, Charles Garrice, and a host of other ‘popular’ writers whose books cover the railway bookstalls, and crowd out decent literature in the bookshops?
If these contemporaries are not decadents because they do not deal in Realism, and preach only orthodox morality in hackneyed phrase and hoary platitude, is decadence a matter of orthodoxy only, or is it an attitude towards life? Oscar Wilde, I presume, was the arch-decadent. Was Walter Pater, who influenced him, also decadent? In short, what is decadence in literature and why?
I have searched the pages of The Gateway from Vol 1. Onwards for some reference to decadence in literature, and, apart from a condemnation by you of the pessimism of Ibsen and Hardy in particular, and of the philosophy of pessimism in general, you do not appear to have dealt with this particular phase of literature.
May I ask you to be good enough to enlighten me, and, I have no doubt, other of your readers, as to what is termed decadence in literature?
As you may gather from this letter, I do not always agree with your point of view, or your conclusions (where I feel competent to judge between us), but you are always explicit, always interesting, always instructive, and I feel that, providing you have the time, here is an opportunity of explaining to your readers another phase of literature and life.
I am writing to you on this question because 1. The Gateway is the only literary journal I know subscribe to, as it is the only one I know of for the ‘Man in the Street’ that is published at the ridiculous price of threepence. 2) I feel that your knowledge of general literature and your experience of the ‘Nineties’ fit you to deal with this particular phase of literature: 3) I rather think that you will give me a different impression of ‘decadence’ and of ‘decadents’ I have named to what my little knowledge tends to form for myself, and I want to know it: 4) your explanation would be of real value to my mental outlook.
I am hoping that when times are again normal, you will see your way to making The Gateway a weekly instead of a monthly journal.
As the word itself indicates, Decadence means a falling away from the natural impulses and motives of humanity at its best. A love of fresh air, movement, freedom, and right; the instinct of sex and parenthood; the social instinct (friendship) as manifested in the horror at murder and in zeal for the saving of life; pugnacity in the face of whatever interferes with the expression of these instincts – all these are natural, and the absence of them or the perversion of them is decadence.
Everything of course has its limits, its just-enough and not-too-much. Charles Kingsley loved to sit and write in a draught, which to most people is unthinkable; most people prefer a cushioned seat or a bed to sitting or lying on the grass, which is flat and hard, has often stones or humps in it, and is always more or less populated by creepy things; and while one prefers rapid motion, one does not like to motor or cycle against the wind, and a rational being abominates the noise, smell, and jolting of a motor cycle. As regards fresh air, the limit on the one hand is the aviator who enjoys flying, even if he has afterwards to be thawed out of his frozen clothes, and on the other hand, the man of letters who likes to sit in a temperature of close on 90, declaring that his mind functions best when he is very hot. I like to write in a large, airy, book-filled room, having a wide outlook upon grass or corn lands, with trees, a river, or a sea in the distance; but one scribe found his mind worked best when he sat embedded in an atmosphere of rotten apples. I like to think that my taste is the natural and seemly one, and that the artists of the rotten apples and the Turkish bath temperature have degenerate tastes.
The decadents are those who deviate from nature or long-established and salutary social practice. The moral decadent is one who does not play the game according to the approved rules, who bilks landladies, runs after other men’s wives, and shirks the maximum number of civic, domestic, and personal responsibilities. In literature the decadent is one whose writing tends to convey the impression that rules don’t matter. He pretends, as Shaw does, that people do what they want to do, and find the reason and justification for it afterwards, if at all. This is very largely true; but the tendency is none the less anti-social, and should not be stated without an accompanying protest. The fact that the wicked often flourish like the green bay tree makes it none the less, but all the more, necessary that we should pour foul scorn upon those who want a greedy handicap in the race; who will not accept the conditions which alone make the race decent, or tolerable, or worth running at all. There would be no sense in playing cards if half of one’s partners were cheats, whose success in gaining tricks did not prove that they were skilled players, but merely that they were unscrupulous ones.
Decadence is another name for immorality, and we brand certain writers as decadent because they make a mock of the things that make life worth living. Thus Nietzsche says: ‘Neither good nor bad, but my taste.’ That is pig philosophy, and it was only natural that Nietzsche should finish up in a madhouse, where the inmates having done as they pleased out of doors, had now to do as their keepers pleased. Not to accept the rules of the game is a confession of weakness. It means that you believe you are so stupid and unskilful that if you play honestly you are sure to be beaten by other competitors. Now, a capable man would rather have the handicap against him than in his favour, because he has enough confidence in himself to believe that he can win even then.
Decadence in Literature
The history of the term Decadent as applied to literature does not seem to carry us far back. The word became noticeably current in the nineties, when the translation of Max Nordau’s book ‘Degeneration’ set people talking. I have not seen that book for over a score of years; but the argument was that literary decadence was insincerity as shown by rhapsody in prose, the use of meaningless refrains in verse, pessimism in outlook, and a tendency to coquet with the unwholesome or positively vicious.
Extensive translation of the verse of Villon, Verlaine, and Baudelaire – men of diseased minds all of them – the poetry of James Thomson (‘BV’) and the prose of Schopenhauer, Hartmann, Leopardi, Amiel, and Ibsen had prepared the atmosphere for an attack on pessimism, and, after the manner of modern warfare, it had to be a flank and not a frontal attack. To say of the pessimists that they were degenerates was a simpler way of casting discredit upon them than to analyse their claims and attitude. Old Judge Braxfield, at the end of a plausible speech from a man on trial for his life, disposed of the prisoner, if not his argument, by saying; ‘Ay, ye’re a clever chiel; but ye wad be nane the waur o’ hanging.’
The Natural History of the Pessimists.
There was, anyhow, plenty of colour for the categorical dismissal of the pessimists as degenerates. Villon, the house-breaker and associate of sluts; Baudelaire, knowing all about opium and hashisch; Leopardi, partially blind and deaf with broken fortunes, bad heredity, and a debilitated body ; Schopenhauer, son of a suicide father and a queer mother; Thomson, with many fine characteristics, but a dipsomaniac whose life was ‘one long defeat’; Von Hartmann, crippled and incapacitated for the military career upon which he had set his mind; Ibsen, the faithless friend, son of a bankrupt, spendthrift father and a neurotic mother – have they not all something of the badge of degeneracy?
The plain answer to the pessimists case is so obvious and so much a matter of detail that writers who would combat it fight shy of direct refutation, especially as they know full well that pessimism is a subjective condition of the mind rather than the result of objective conditions in the life of humanity at large or even in the environment of the dismal one himself. To the pessimist you may say that the duration of life is longer; that there is more freedom from disease; that medicine and surgery are more skilful; that pain is lessened; that crime and violence are less; that the pleasures of life are increasingly numerous and accessible; that laws and manners are both better; and that the outlook for humanity is more promising than ever it was. All that will be true as it is valueless. As Burns wrote:
Human bodies are sic fools,
For a’ their colleges and schools,
That when nae real ills perplex ‘em
They mak enow themsel’s to vex ‘em.
Or as Punch more prosaically said in answer to the question ‘Is life worth living?’ it depends upon the liver. And it does and all, Albert.
Sometimes a Nickname.
Of course the epithet Decadent may sometimes be a mere nickname, intended to be ‘a nasty one’ for somebody whose ideas one does not like. Some of the names included in our correspondent’s list are surely not rightly there. Grant Allen, for instance, had none of the marks of the decadent. It is true he wrote ‘The Woman Who Did,’ but that tale is a warning rather than an example. For the rest, one cannot conceive of any man who showed more of the signs of enjoying and being interested in life at many and varied points. Man of science, letters, novelist by necessity, a Socialist of the chair who enjoyed scarifying in print the so-called Liberty and Property Defence League, Grant Allen appears to us as an outstanding type of optimist who, without any old-fogey illusions, is vastly absorbed in the Passing Show, and very hopeful that man is capable of working out a higher destiny for himself and gives signs that he will do it.
All that is the opposite of decadence. The decadent says ‘What is the good of anything?’ and he answers ‘Why nothing.’ But Grant Allen bubbled over with fun and vitality, finding good in many things.
As said, Nordau found the great mark of decadence in literature to be insincerity, as exemplified, for instance, in meaningless refrains and the tricks of the poseur in general. According to exponents of the Nordau view, Morris’s ballad ‘Two red roses across the moon,’ is decadent because the verse is written round the refrains instead of the refrain being a mere incident, a kind of dramatic pause to heighten the effect of the lines it followed and preceeded. But if a meaningless refrain be the mark of decadence, then the decay set in long ago, for the use of the refrain is as old as poetry itself; indeed it may be older – refrains of even less suggestion than ‘Two red roses across the moon.’ There are in the rural districts of Scotland man known as ‘diddlers’ which does not mean cheats, but men who are fond of singing meaningless words to old tunes or to improvised tunes of their own such as;
Ring a riddle nick a dairie,
Ring a riddle nick a dee
Fal al de riddle al de ray
Ha hey dum dirrum dey dum daa
Hey the riddle and the oram
Roostie rackety roo roo roo
I give these ancient ones as having less sense than the consecrated Shakespearean
Hey, ho, the wind and the rain.
Or the Scottish
Hey and the rue grows bonnie wi’ thyme
With its companion
The thyme it is withered, and rue is in prime.
It is admitted by exponents of the Nordau view that Shakespeare has a good many refrains in themselves meaningless, but that they are always purely subordinate and triflingly incidental; whereas in the plays of his more immediate successors, Beaumont and Fletcher, the meaningless refrain usurps quite a different place and importance and as time went on poetry declined from the strong naturalness of the Elizabethans till it almost disappeared in the laboured ‘conceits’ and fantasticalities of the age of John Donne.
If this were all that was to be said on the subject of decadence in literature it would not be very damaging to those censured, and would certainly mean that decadence was no new and progressive blight that had overtaken literature.
The truth is, the arts are mostly as sincere as ever they were. Prose and poetry are, indeed, more sincere than ever. Not only is the language more direct and flexible, from use and the good reading and good taste of writers, but artificiality in verse and ‘fine writing’ in prose are less common than they were even in the day of Dickens, who himself loved to stretch a topic out on the rack as if to see how much fanciful rhetoric he could spin over it. This from a true Dickens lover who would abate no jot even of the rhodomontade, now that we have it.
No new thing in life.
If decadence is no new thing in literature, neither is it new in life itself. Effeminacy, cowardice, pacifism, slavish subservience, and all the unnatural physical offences are thousands of years old. In spite of commercialism, wealth, ease, luxury, and the dodging of civic responsibilities in the political field, man is today as game in spirits as ever he was, and is certainly cleaner in his life and surroundings. Johnson drank nineteen cups of tea at a sitting, and declared that he ‘had no passion for clean linen.’ When a prosperous trader complacently showed him his new bathroom, the great doctor said: ‘Sir, are you well?... Then let well alone. I hate immersion.’ Gibbon took so little exercise that he grew unwieldily fat. One day at a country house he required his hat, but it could not be found, and he explained that he had not seen it since he came there six weeks before. That sort of festering slothfulness would be inconceivable now. Drunkenness is dying an natural death from the growth of a sheer physical repulsion against it; and there is also a turning away from rich, heavy, stodgy food. Man is developing a physical conscience in increasing degree; and that makes war against degeneracy.
One might show in some detail how well-grounded are the objections to the teaching of some of the writers whose names are given. But Hardy and Ibsen have been dealt with in The Gateway and James Thomson is the subject of one of our pamphlets. One dislikes going over the same ground again. The Decadents are tired people whose tiredness might be pardonable if they did not seek to make a merit of it and induce other people to be tired also. There was a time when one felt like being out with a tomahawk and scalping-knife where they were concerned; but pessimism is itself a tiresome topic, from which one passes with great readi9ness to something constructive, cheerful and concrete.
‘My what a fine crop of potatoes you have,’ said an enthusiastic onlooker. ‘Ay,’ said the pessimistic cultivator, ‘it’s taking far too much out of the soil. Besides, there will be no little ones for the hens!’ Not much use arguing with that attitude is there?
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