Their Decadence and Ours

The last quarter of the nineteenth century saw movements calling themselves “decadent” in both England and France, and from the modern reader’s perspective there is very little that separates Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons, on one hand, and Joris-Karl Huysmans and Villiers de L’Isle Adam on the other. They wrote in the same exquisitely mannered prose, embraced the same cult of artifice and ornament, took as their anti-heroes the same dissolute aristocrats bemoaning the same prevailing philistinism. At the end of Villiers’ play Axël, the hero withdraws from the world with the parting cry, “As for living, the servants will do that for us.” That is a line Walter Pater would have applauded from his box, if he could have bestirred himself to do something so vigorous. Continue Reading »