Decadence, or rather decadence as I have experienced it, seems preoccupied with waging a war against ‘mainstream’ morality. The fin de siècle writers like Oscar Wilde and in some ways precursors of decadence like Charles Baudelaire, define themselves through the conflict and contrast against what would be considered moral, and this contradiction attempts to indicate the irrelevance of morality in artistry and in the living of artistic life. The paradox however is that these really deliberate, sometimes extreme attempts at inversion and contrast, instead of rendering morality irrelevant, only serve to indicate its importance, and reinforce its validity. In The Picture of Dorian Gray’s preface, Oscar Wilde writes, “There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are either well written or badly written. That is all.” This statement asserts the idea of ‘l’art pour l’art”, used to defend his own work from moral criticism of its subject matter. Paradoxically, his own work is a moral condemnation of the attractive features of Decadence and of living life as if it were art, and therefore beyond good and evil. Dorian at the end of the novel is undone by his own desire for experience for experience’s sake, and similar harsh fates are at the end of the stories of all the books we have read this quarter. Is morality then irrelevant to art and life as art? It is hard to believe this, especially when even the artists who believe this seem incredibly involved with consequence, which is itself very sated with the existence of morality.
Another factor that greatly limits the decadents in their quest to present art as amoral is their reliance on language as a vehicle for their cause. Words are not amoral, and by making decisions about word choice, we constantly work with the paradigms of morality and immorality. In Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde shares an exchange about definition of love, religion and the self, and he ends by writing that “To define is to limit.” This is the truth of words, which in their attempt to enable communication require definition and connotation. The definition and connotation of words leads to their moralization. A word like ‘sin’ for instance, even when qualified by adjectives like beautiful and wonderful, still carries its baggage of negativity. Decadents like Oscar Wilde can only attempt to cloak negative words with positivity, but this does not change the reality of those words’ moralization. The artificial, even when packaged as true, cannot shed the definition that limits it, and as unfortunate as that it, it is incontrovertible. Charles Baudelaire, who is credited for starting the inversion that has become associated with decadence, inverts the understanding of beauty to include the dark, sinister and monstrous. He writes “Your gaze bestows both kindnesses and crimes” and “Are you from heaven or the nether world?” and in both instances it is clear that he attempts to portray beauty, which is seen as absolutely positive, as also potentially evil and dark. This is obviously apparent to the reader, but the weakness of this attempted inversion is that it will only be seen as that—an inversion. Beauty will still remain within the limits of its definition and the inversion will only exist as mask or a quirk, but never an absolute reversal. ‘Crime’ does not become positive simply because it is equated with beauty. Its elevation ultimately comes from its redefinition, and not play on words with limited meaning. Charles Baudelaire makes several attempts at this inversion in The Sick Muse, The Swan and The Venal Muse and in each case the limitations of language cripple his attempts at an absolute reversal of the sentiments and value.
Note: I too am aware of the limitations of language in my blog post. Perhaps a new hybrid language is severely needed.
Brick and Lady Gaga