Decadence

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2201

Although Richard Gilman brings an impressive reputation to the writing of Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet, his credentials may initially seem off the mark for the task he has attempted. As author of books and essays on the theater, drama critic at Commonweal, Newsweek, and The New Republic, ...

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Although Richard Gilman brings an impressive reputation to the writing of Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet, his credentials may initially seem off the mark for the task he has attempted. As author of books and essays on the theater, drama critic at Commonweal, Newsweek, and The New Republic, Professor of Drama at Yale and CUNY, he seems little fitted by training or experience to undertake a study that is essentially linguistic—the history of the meaning of a complex word, decadence. Gilman knows that he might appear less than qualified, but tries to turn that flaw into a virtue by approaching the problem from what could be a fresh perspective. He soon finds that words such as decadent are difficult to define, since they have no fixed referent, such as horse and millimeter do. Moreover, the meanings of words like decadence seem to change almost unpredictably, depending on who uses them. Although he finds little aid in his search through dictionaries, he writes that this changeableness in the word is something likely to be appreciated by the specialist in lexicography or linguistics.

All this is true, indeed; but the immediate question is, why did Gilman not consult the experts whose acumen he praises? If we suppose, for the sake of argument, that Gilman managed to locate and consult every word written on the meaning of decadence, there still may be a large gap in the underpinnings of this book: the last generation has seen no lack of work on the theoretical study of meaning in language, on how words mean, and on how and why that meaning changes. Yet Gilman makes no reference to those studies; if he has consulted and either profited from or rejected them, we find no evidence of it here.

More seriously, the decision of either the author or the publisher to dispense with such tools of scholarship as footnotes and bibliography has handicapped the book. Too often, the bookbuyer, and more importantly, the opinionmakers, approach the question of a book’s publisher with a certain kind of snobbery: a book from a university press is likely to be thought of beforehand as crabbed, esoteric, dusty, and cluttered with the impedimenta of scholarship such as footnotes, references, and bibliography. It is not that this is true in every case, of course, but simply that this prejudice will face a book from a university press: if a study of Sanskrit verbs appeared, it would not be from a large commercial publisher. On the other hand, we are likely to assume that the “really important” book will be a serious study of wide interest produced by one of the prestigious commercial presses, of which Farrar, Straus and Giroux is certainly one. In the average customer, this attitude shows little more than a deep misunderstanding of what scholarship is; but when the same attitude exists among those people who are important forces in the cultural life of a society, then the likely result is a shallowness of intellectual life, a sort of laborious reinventing of the wheel, as one retraces well-worn paths with an air of fresh discovery.

Someone with that attitude decided that Decadence would not have its pages sullied with footnotes, nor its conclusion clogged with a bibliography, and that decision was a great disadvantage to the book, although it may well please those who think of the external forms of scholarship as dry and pointless. The book is designed for reading, not for learning; for example, the author supplies no footnotes—not even ones that simply supply references. Thus, we find statements such as: “As Renato Poggioli has written in The Theory of the Avant-Garde, ’the most facile and frequent motif of hostile criticism is to accuse all avant-garde art of decadence.’” This sort of comment causes no problems only for the reader who can recall from memory who Poggioli is, and when his book was written, since only that reader can supply the date of publication needed to put the comment in its historical perspective. Those who wish to check the relevance of the quotation by examining its context are also out of luck since the lack of a page number for the quotation means that even an owner of Poggioli’s book has to thumb through the whole work to find the quotation in question. As the comment stands, Gilman does not incorporate Poggioli’s work, he only invokes it, either as an authority or as an especially well-wrought statement of the idea. Nor does the book contain a bibliography that would allow this and scores of similar examples to be cited and located. Consider one last example: “’It is the corollary of this conception of a model performance,’ the art historian E. H. Gombrich has said, ’that once the problem has been mastered the only alternatives are imitation or decline.’” Some small percentage of the readers of Decadence may know that Gombrich is an art historian (a piece of information that Gilman supplies), but will even those few readily place the quotation, without even a title to identify it? It may not always be wise to assume that the reader has the same familiarity with the subject that the author has, yet it is an assumption more likely to be found in a “popular” book than in a “scholarly” one.

However, if the form of Decadence is deficient, what about the content? Gilman may offer arguments of real weight, insights of real value, even if the book is hard to use. One must disagree with Gilman to make this concession, since he seems to reject the possibility of separating form and content; but that theoretical problem is not of importance here, so let us consider what Gilman has to say.

He begins the book with an investigation of the etymology of decadent, and notes that its meaning in the classical period was “a declining, a falling away,” and more interestingly, finds that the word was never used by the Roman historians to describe their own civilization. Gilman can see, though, how the word could have been used to describe Imperial Rome (as it was used later): an apocalyptic turn of mind will find the notion of a decline from a golden age congenial, and this idea will join with an analogy between a civilization and an individual to lead very naturally to the perception of societies in terms of rise, maturity, and decline. Gilman’s real interest in the word, however, begins with the nineteenth century, when, as he discovers, it was applied to individuals for the first time; he asks what is the key question in the book: if decadence means a falling away of power, talent, or originality, how is it possible for some of the most talented and original minds of the time to believe in decadence, to accept it, to embrace it?

Gilman supplies the answer: those minds did not perceive decadence in the sense of the historical definition; they saw the word and used it in a different way, and Gilman works hard to establish what that vision and that meaning was. This is to say, simply, that the meaning of the word changed. For Flaubert, Baudelaire, and others, the word comes to mean a rejection of the Romantic idea of the natural, a rejection of the notion of progress, and a movement of human values in a new direction.

Gilman’s description of decadence as a literary movement strikes one as convincing and well-documented, and one can hardly doubt that these writers meant what Gilman says they meant when they used the word. Yet Gilman is bothered by some recent and not-so-recent uses of the word that he characterizes as “strange, illiterate, and hyperbolic.” If an English critic is quoted as calling Baudelaire “decadent,” the critic is faulted for using the term as a sign of moral disapproval. Since Gilman has no problem with other terms of moral disapproval, his objection must lie in the critic’s use of this word, without regard to its etymology. If, however, the critic misuses the word by giving it a different meaning, why do the French and English Decadents themselves not misuse the word? They certainly have a nonetymological meaning in mind when the word is self-applied, as it was, for example, in the title of Anatole Baju’s journal, Le Décadent.

The historical exploration of the root of the modern word is largely beside the point if Gilman’s purpose is to look at the uses of the word in the last one hundred and fifty years; one feels more than a hint of the groundless notion that the etymological meaning of a word is the “real” meaning, and that later changes can only be corruptions.

Part of the problem may lie in a notion that Gilman himself exposes. He describes the idea, found in primitive cultures, that there is a magical relationship between names and things, and the subconscious belief that this idea produces: that if a word exists, there must be a corresponding thing. No one doubts that the primitive relationship described actually existed; there is abundant evidence for it. Nor can it be denied that this same feeling regarding words and names still has a widespread life among the näive today (although how widespread it is is a qustion to be investigated, not a principle to be assumed).

Gilman’s task in the book could have been made easier and the clarity of his arguments improved if he had first of all established the present understanding of the relationship between words and things: that a word does not stand for a thing, but rather stands for an idea or conception of something that may or may not exist in reality. This is, of course, the reason why we can have names for things that once existed but no longer do, such as Oscar Wilde; for things that do not exist, but could possibly exist, such as unicorn; and for things that neither do nor can exist, such as time machine. Not making this distinction causes unnecessary problems for Gilman: having established a definition of decadence that satisfies him, Gilman considers someone like Wilde and finds it difficult to reconcile the definition and the actions or works of the man. He therefore concludes that decadent is a term misapplied to either Wilde’s works or life. If the grounds of the argument were shifted just a bit, and it were realized that the person who applied the term was not characterizing Wilde but his own understanding of Wilde, the difficulty might not disappear, but we would have a better idea of where the real problem lies—not in the behavior of the person described, but in the understanding of the person describing.

Gilman objects that the word decadence, in the mouths of detractors of Wilde and others, did not describe a fact, but made a value judgment. There is nothing startling in this process: words such as knave and gossip, for example, begin as neutral, unoffensive terms and end as insults, and it is not hard to see how a word like decadent would go through the same semantic shift. Nor is there any great mystery in the fact that the word meant something different to the French Symbolists and their English followers than it did to those who were alarmed by their beliefs and behavior. Hardly a name for a group, sect, party, or cult does not mean something different to those inside than to those outside it. To describe a particular practice as “socialist,” for example, means one thing in Leningrad, another in Nairobi, and still another in Dallas.

Gilman is harshly critical of C. E. M. Joad’s 1948 book, Decadence; the British philosopher had attempted the same job—to define the word—yet (if Gilman’s account is accurate) Joad strayed away just as Gilman has, but on the opposite side of the road. Joad appears to have defined decadence satisfactorily in the usage of those who (like Richard Le Gallienne or T. S. Eliot) satirized or criticized the Decadents. For the reasons outlined above, it comes as no surprise that Joad’s definition does not describe the Decadents’ work or fit their lives, since he was not defining actions and objects, but particular conceptions of actions and objects. Yet Joad no doubt thought that he had established the definitive treatment of decadence. In fact, it is characteristic of arguments on matters like these that one party establishes a meaning of a word and claims that all other meanings are erroneous, inaccurate, or foolish.

The possibility remains that all parties to the controversy are right: that when the critics call Baudelaire, Huysmans, or Wilde “decadent,” they are using the word accurately to name what they consider an adverse moral effect of the works of those writers; and that when the writers themselves rejoice in the term “decadent,” they too are using the word accurately to label a movement to bring new areas within the sphere of artistic treatment. If the multiple, even contradictory, meanings of the word make life more difficult for the lexicographer, that is the nature of the language.

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