Urban Decay

Exploring the metropolis in 1890s Decadent literature and its origins in Baudelaire and Huysman

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An illustrated portrait of Huysmans sat in a room.
A portrait of Joris-Karl Huysmans.

The banner of ‘l’art pour l’art’ has been criticised for providing a shelter for the obscene and grotesque. Taking root from the French artistic movement championed by Baudelaire and Huysmans, the aesthetes’ emphasis on the pursuit of beauty went so far as to guide not just their views on the arts, but on life and pleasure generally, leading to the association of the movement with indulgence and excess.

There can be a beautiful chaos in decay, and the turn of the century saw a new generational anxiety encroaching around degeneration and mass upheaval. From the 1880s, French fin-de-siècle literature and the height of the Decadence movement would come to fruition around this pessimism, but it was pre-empted by Charles Baudelaire in the mid-19th century.

His 1857 Les Fleurs du Mal was a foundational text in bringing motifs of decay in line with delight – his ‘Spleen et Idéal’ examined the corrupted state of society and the boredom he associated with modern life. Baudelaire was fascinated by the contrast of the ephemeral and the eternal, founding his conception of modernity which he would later classify as “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent”. Throughout the collection, his struggle with Catholicism is obvious and perhaps explains part of his draw towards sin. He describes how his soul delights in the fires of Hell in Horror Sympathique (Harmony of Horror), while in Destruction he laments how toy-like he feels at the hands of a demon. Whether this is literal or personal is never made clear, although we can assume the latter; this haunting seems to engender a separation from God and a feeling of spiritual isolation.

Despite its later publication date, French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1884 À Rebours (Against Nature) is equally seminal in the study of decadence and is best known for its profound influence on Oscar Wilde, specifically credited for being the poisonous volume which brings so much devastation in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Huysmans’ antihero, Des Esseintes, praises Baudelaire for having “shown the increasing decay of impressions while the enthusiasms and beliefs of youth are enfeebled”, leaving only “miseries borne, intolerances endured and affront suffered”. It’s evident that Baudelaire’s theories of ennui and the spleen permeated culture and birthed a generation of literature examining urban boredom, morbid curiosity and absolute amorality.

It seems paradoxical that Decadence would associate decay with growing urbanisation, and yet, across all such literature there is a tortured sense of anonymity and listlessness within a crowded metropolis. Baudelaire opens Le Cygne (The Swan) by pairing the metropolitan Paris with the classical exile of Andromache, and yet insists that this is a fertile breeding ground for creative inspiration and memory.

Huysmans’ Des Esseintes also portrays the desire for seclusion within the Parisian hordes, needing to be in the capital to confirm this solitude. Wilde follows this bridging theme of decadent literature in The Picture of Dorian Gray, juxtaposing the self-imposed loneliness of the portrait and the real-life Dorian’s anguished secrecy with the glittering social engagements he increasingly resents.This contrast between reality and artifice is usually associated with Gothic convention, but its prominence across the Decadent should not be underestimated.

However, the metropolis is more than just the culmination of creative exile in bustling society; the urban capital is presented as a place rife with opportunity for observing degeneration, making it the perfect seat of aesthete values and decadent living. For Baudelaire, Paris provided a place to ruminate upon the transitioning landscape and social decline he saw before him, and his famous Tableaux Parisiens are noted for their general absence of city-dwellers, and the later poems Les Aveugles (The Blind) and Les Sept Vieillards (Seven Old Men) are notable for their cruel apathy towards suffering. For Huysmans and Wilde alike, the crowded town provides a cover for hedonistic exploits and the pinnacle of decadent living for the upper classes – Huysmans is detailed in his listing of Parisian boudoirs and excess, while Wilde depicts the seedy underworld of the East End as the centre of vice and degeneration.

As doctor Max Nordau famously wrote of Wilde, the decadence movement was implicitly infatuated with “immorality, sin and crime”. There was something fascinating about social decay, and the complete abstraction of beauty from morality, context or critical analysis. A direct derivative from the Greek word for ‘pleasure’, hedonism is invariably tied up in decadence, but divorces indulgence from the degeneration decadence views as inevitable.

Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray is Wilde’s main mouthpiece for aesthete philosophising, and his separation of art from action as “superbly sterile” is symptomatic of Decadence. The aesthetes sought beauty in artistic expression completely liberated by traditional or contemporary standards, seeing social or political motivations as mediocre and distracting.

This led to decadent literature being seen as perverse, however, Baudelaire’s impassioned verse and the libertine living of Huysmans and Wilde’s heroes are proponents of the amorality of the genre, and all of these three champions of Decadence transgress – and offended – contemporary sensitivities. Huysmans’ Des Esseintes seeks the height of beauty at the expense of compassion in bejewelling a tortoise, describing the creature’s death in such emotionless detail in stark contrast to paragraphs of listing exotic jewels in grandiose luxury. Subjugating the living to the quest for pleasure is comparable to Baudelaire’s intertwining of Debauchery and Death as two good sisters of ‘terrible pleasures’, and Wilde’s tragedy of inevitable death and moral decay is equally intertwined with pleasure.

Though any study of decadence should be considered in the light of its indifference to morality and contemporary standards, the predilection of its literature to morbidity and depravity led to issues of censure, with Baudelaire being condemned “an insult to publicmorals”, fined, and the publication of Fleurs du Mal restricted. The Picture of Dorian Gray was similarly criticised for distorting Victorian standards, and the homoeroticism was obscured in a revised edition.

Though ultimately the French movement failed to sustain itself after the eclipse of its founders, the impact of the Decadence era was felt across Europe and was significant in encouraging the subversion of moral standards. While its ideals were increasingly distorted, betraying that earlier abstraction from reality through application of the decadents’ ideas to social and political exploits, figures such as Wilde still managed to emphasise pleasure above all else.

“Beauty, real Beauty ends where an intellectual expression begins”, claims Lord Henry in Wilde’s Dorian Gray – perhaps we should also appreciate the irony of criticising or reading too far into a movement solely based on sensuous delight.

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