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...
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