What We Can Learn From the Decadent Movement

The Decadent movement taught that you should live your life with the greatest intensity – a dangerous and thrilling challenge.

by Kate Hext at Aeon: At its most extreme, Decadence is a reckless pursuit of intense sensations: one that often teeters on the brink of scandal and sometimes topples over. When Dorian Gray was used as evidence against its author in the decade’s most sensational trial in 1895, there was a moral backlash against the so-called ‘Decadent movement’. In recent decades, the term decadence has been appropriated as a marketing pitch to describe purchasable moments of self-indulgence – a box of chocolate truffles or a spa afternoon at a mid-price chain hotel.However, as it has become a consumer product, decadence has been shorn of its very modern questions about the place of pleasure in our lives and its potential to change our values forever, and these are worth asking.

he Decadent movement began in mid-19th-century Paris. The writers who first defined it and wore the term as a badge, were punks avant la lettre who looked back to the Roman Empire as it collapsed into a torpid, degenerate civilization as a precedent for their own era.In Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), Charles Baudelaire’s poetry captured the perverse pleasure of witnessing decay around them. In the novel À rebours (Against Nature, 1884), Joris-Karl Huysmans’s hero retreats to a mansion alone to experience a series of sensual pleasures. ‘What it wants,’ the French journalist Anatole Baju wrote of Decadence in 1887, ‘is life; it is thirsty for the intensity of life shaped by progress, it needs to get drunk on it … and to set itself aquiver.’

As Decadence migrated to Britain in the 1860s, this endeavor to set things ‘aquiver’ became a responseto new and pressing questions that ran deep into the spiritual foundations of Western society. William Thomson published his theory of entropy in 1850. Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 and The Descent of Man in 1871.In Essays and Reviews (1860), seven prominent members of the Church of England challenged the orthodoxy of the Anglican Church. Alexander Bain founded the psychology journal Mind in 1876. Their works raised innumerable questions for scientific thought and challenges to religious faith.

For Decadence, though, these merged in one existential problem: if, in deep time, the individual is but an ephemeral speck as evolution and entropy imply; if urban migration has unfastened the social and familial ties that define how people should live; if doubt in the verities of Church of England doctrine opens larger, unanswerable metaphysical questions; if we are strangers even to ourselves with unconscious drives we cannot understand as the emerging field of psychology theorized, then how do we make life meaningful? These questions still resonate for many of us today.

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