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'Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet' 1979

What exactly did and does this pervasive word, decadence, mean?

For several centuries at least, it was used to characterize conditions if decline; most notably, the corruption, probably Oriental in origin, that ostensibly led to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Associated with it were flabbiness, luxury, sensuality, a loss of nerve and skill - and, contradictory, excessive concern with formal perfection at the expense of content.

But it is only a little over a hundred years ago that the first person (Baudelaire) was called (by Gautier) decadent.

It was in mid-nineteenth-century France, in the reaction to the triumph of the idea of progress and its associated bourgeois smugness and optimism, that decadence, as a posture proudly denying normal ethical and aesthetic standards, came to the fore.

Soon it reached the England of Swinburne, Wilde, and Beardsley and eventually came to be attached to such disparate phenomena as the Wiemar Republic and Nazism, l'art pour l'art and punk rock.

Richard Gilman, one of our most respected critics, here undertakes to demonstrate that this ubiquitous word may be nothing but a vessel of ambiguity and imprecision, a freelance epithet, as he calls it.

The result is not only a fascinating linguistic exploration but also a study in permutations of belief, a first-rate piece of literary criticism, and an illuminating essay in cultural history.

Richard Gilman

1979

Farrar, Straus and Giroux


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