Initially Symbolism and Decadence, both developed in the late 1800s, seem to be similar if not synonymous movements. Both symbolism and decadence reject the realist depiction of life in its unsatisfying ordinariness. Both prize heightened spiritual experience, both condemn simplicity and dreariness in everyday life. Decadence and Symbolism both advocate lives spent seeking beauty and sensitivity. But Decadence and Symbolism are in fact two very distinct and in some ways disparate movements.
One manner in which decadence and symbolism differ is in their approach to nature. Decadence belittles nature in the name of man-made artistry and artifice. As Des Esseintes says in Huysmans’ Against Nature, “There is not one single invention of (Nature’s), however subtle or impressive it may be thought to be, that the human spirit cannot create; There is no doubt whatever that this eternally self-replicating old fool has now exhausted the good-natured admiration of all true artists, and the moment has come to replace her, as far as that can be achieved, with artifice.” Symbolism on the other hand views nature as a means of elevation from the banal realities of life. Symbolists use natural imagery to describe transcendent ideas. Mallarme uses extensive natural imagery such as the sky, flowers, and sunsets. In Symbolism, reality becomes art whereas in decadence art becomes reality.
Decadence views books and poetry as a highly powerful art form with intense influential capacity. A book poisons Dorian Gray and Huysmans describes Des Esseintes’ library extensively. In Decadence, language can create images, and ideas, can create worlds, that don’t exist in reality. Mallarme, on the other hand, thinks that language is extremely lacking. He thinks that words cannot possibly express complex emotions and ideas. They can never properly convey what the mind can think. Yet since we have no other way of communicating these ideas and emotions we have to try our best to use poetry and symbolism to describe them. He says, “languages are imperfect in that although there are many, the supreme one is lacking.”
Decadence scorns the idea of ideals. Greater purpose is not found in Decadent writings. The protagonists of Decadent novels are focused on the accumulation of exotic luxuries and pleasure. This idea of never having enough applies to material excess and indulgent behavior in Decadent literature. On the other hand, in Symbolism, the focus is dreams and ideals. The word dreaming is repeated in Mallarme’s “Apparition” multiple times. In “The Windows,” Mallarme talks about this disgust of contentment with comfort and this unquenchable desire for transcendence. He says, “So filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous, sprawled in comforts where his hungering is fed.” The idea of the Azure in Mallarme’s poems represents the ever-present and incredibly frustrating ideal that the poet is always aware of but can never obtain. So in Symbolism the lack of satisfaction stems from a spiritual discontent.
Decadence glorifies the gory and the shocking. In the Temptation of Saint Anthony, Flaubert describes Saint Anthony attaining pleasure from watching violent and disturbing scenes. The immensity of feeling that horror evokes deems it beautiful in Decadence. Mallarme on the other hand finds beauty in purity. The imagery he utilizes is that of conventionally beautiful things such as stars, snow and fairies.
Decadence’s main focus is the description. Huysmans’ Against Nature is essentially an extremely detailed catalogue of Des Esseintes’ riches. Symbolism is more concerned with the emotions evoked from the work than the actual content of what it describes. The words are just “symbols” for greater ideas that use words as a vehicle for communication.
So while on the surface Decadent and Symbolist writings seem analogous, they actual have very different motivations, objectives, and methods used to obtain them.