Decline, decay, the falling away from a former excellence. All the conventional definitions of decadence are negative on their face. The term denotes a state of decline, but it also connotes an enlightened view of that decline on the part of the user, who is sophisticated, worldly-wise, and never ever shocked. A very respectable hotel advertises its bar as “elegant, with just a touch of decadence.” “Oh, you are so decadent!” says the lady in the restaurant upon his suggesting that they break the diet and have a hot fudge sundae for dessert. These appear to be innocent uses of decadence, and perhaps they are. Decadence is but a little fling, kicking up one’s heels, winking at the minor rules, an antidote to dullness. Decadence is fun. In a world that is so short on fun, no feeling person wants to be a spoilsport. And yet…fun is whimsy, humor, jest, parody, and play—but decadence? In the cultural trickle-down that produces the popular equation between decadence and fun we can detect the three more sober and sobering faces of decadence: the liberationist, the hermetic, and the tragic. Or they might better be understood as the three masks of the one reality that is-not toputtoofine a point on it—death.
Liberationist decadence was popularized through the misnamed counterculture that emerged in the late 1960’s. It sometimes couples with the hard liberationism of revolution ary change, but never satisfactorily so. Herbert Marcuse’s revolution and Norman O. Brown’s polymorphous perversity were unnaturally yoked in “The Movement.” There were tactical reasons for the hurried coupling, but the affair could not last. The Marxist proposition requires discipline in the long struggle toward the kingdom of freedom, whereas polymorphous perversity is the “realized eschatology” of the kingdom’s present availability in the defiance of all present limits (i.e., “Freedom Now!”). What the hard liberationism of the revolution and the soft liberationism of the counterculture have in common, however, is an opposition to a prevailing culture that they view as dead and deadening. Those whom we view as decadents have their own theories about the decadence to which they believe they are reacting. Our vitalities are their evidences of decay. They demand freedom from the disease that we call health.
Max Weber, that magisterial social theorist, analyzed the discontents of modernity that would produce what might be viewed as a counterdecadence. Rationalization, specialization, bureaucratization—these, he said, produce the “disenchantment” of a world in which system, procedure, and impersonality are worshipped. What Weber saw as a doleful future others declared to be the oppressive present of “the system.” In that declaration Theodore Roszak correctly perceived “the making of a counter culture.” We can only breathe free, it was maintained, if we transcend the rules and disown the authority of the stifling past by which they are imposed. This is liberation from the pervasive decadence of our inherited world. The counterculture was not an alternative culture, for it produced no comprehensive and compelling “meaning systems” of myth, story, mores, and coherent truth claims by which life could be ordered. And it could not long remain even as a counterculture when the culture it intended to counter, and which therefore gave it definition, showed signs of collapsing under the assault. Nor could sundry cultural liberationisms remain significantly radical once they had disowned the past that contains the referents by which radical critique of the present is made possible. Thus cultural liberationism became an unfocused decadence reacting to what was seen as the decadence of its received world.
Without a cultural tradition of established authority, the old bohemianism—necessarily adversarial and sometimes corrective—was no longer possible. In addition, the explosive growth of the “new class” ensconced the would-be bohemians into the leadership roles of the new cultural establishment. At all points of cultural prestige and influence outsiders had become tenured insiders, but they brought with them no agenda other than doing battle against insiders. The traditional function of an elite was to transmit and advance the achievements of the past. That was not possible for an elite that had earned its spurs by disowning the past. Members of the new elite had no function other than to be the elite, to be themselves.
“I wanna be ME!” Rock stars and scholars with foundation grants both said it in their own ways; for both, the imperative was to be liberated, to be “free to be.” It is not easy to be avant-garde when the old guard is in disarray. To sustain the plausibility of the claim that one is defying restraints one must go in search of “last taboos” to defy. Thus the fascination with incest. Thus the resentment of D. H. Lawrence who, in his aim to shock, had it altogether too easy. Thus the professor of English who applauds as a signal of liberation a Hustler magazine cartoon which depicts a doctor copulating with fetuses from late abortions. Thus the popularity of Self magazine, which might serve as the generic titlefor most of the items in the magazine racks.
In a dead world, the self is the only point of life in the universe. On my desk is an official form from a major (and, all things considered, a relatively conservative) church body. It was sent to me by a seminarian and is to be filled out by candidates for ordination. It asks about the candidate’s self development, about her/his significant interactional relationships, about whether she/he feels she/he is realizing her/his potential, and so forth. It does not ask about sin and grace, about the meaning of redemption or the purpose of life. It does not ask about faith in God. Ministry, it is to be inferred, is a matter of feeling free to be oneself.
We are by now all too familiar with liberationist decadence, the first face of decadence. It not only hollows out the symbols and meanings of received culture but it celebrates the resulting emptiness. It does not challenge particular rules but the idea of rules. It can abide neither precedents nor promises, for nothing can be acknowledged as authoritative or binding. The imperial self requires a vacuum in order to be free to be. This is not the demonically heroic nihilism of a Nietzsche. There is little here of the darkness and devastation and will-to-power. No, this is the adolescent’s dream, sleeping by the reassuring nite-lite of the soon-to-be-satisfied self.
Hermetic decadence, the second face, is something else. More precisely, it is the decadence that would build and inhabit a world elsewhere. Such a world must be sealed off so that its symbols, gestures, and jargon are understood only by those who have been initiated into its mysteries. It is a community attuned to the occult and is typically gnostic. Membership is dependent upon consciousness-raising that elevates one above ordinary cognition. It is a community powerfully attractive to those of refined sensibilities who are repulsed by the vulgarity of the unfeeling hordes. Unlike liberationist decadence, it does not assume that the meanings of the ordinary world are dead or dying, but that they are too much alive and threatening: they are so gross, so ugly—in a word, so awful Liberationist decadence is a reaction to a dead world; hermetic decadence is a refuge from a repugnant world. Hermetic decadence is Oscar Wilde. It is Blanche of A Streetcar Named Desire, entranced by a gossamer world of beauty and besieged by a “real” world of beastliness. It is the Symbolist poets of the late 19th century, who did not hesitate to say that they were constructing a new religion for those who are able to accept it. It is Paul Marie Verlaine settling in for the end, surrounded by the aging prostitutes and young boys who he said were “the muses of my decadence.”
There is no entry for “decadence” in the standard encyclopedias. The term crops up in connection with the erotic, sometimes in connection with violence and the erotic, most often in connection with the homoerotic. That may be because, as some contend, the books are written by raving homophobes. There may be other explanations. While homosexuality is far from being the only form of hermetic decadence, it is the most obvious form in contemporary culture. For Karl Barth, the great Swiss theologian, homosexuality is “the physical, psychological and social sickness, the phenomenon of perversion, decadence and decay” which emerges when man “refuses to admit the validity of the divine command” which stands behind the created order. He cites Saint Paul’s connection of homosexuality with an idolatry that adores the creature instead of the Creator:
For this reason God gave them up into vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature, and likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves the recompencc of their error. (Romans 1)
Barth is not unmoved by the attractions of that which he censures, for he writes, “We know that in its early stages it may have an appearance of particular beauty and spirituality, and even be redolent of sanctity. Often it has not been the worst people who have discovered and to some extent practiced it as a sort of wonderful esoteric of personal life.”
In this view, the decadent is defined by reference to the natural. Today, homosexual advocacy, in union with many other cultural forces, challenges the definition of the natural. More than that, the idea of anything being natural, and therefore that anything could be unnatural, is repudiated. Such advocacy belongs more appropriately in the category of liberationist decadence. Hermetic decadence does not challenge the meaning of natural. It readily acknowledges, indeed exalts in, the claim that it is unnatural. Liberationist homoeroticism today threatens to put an end to hermetic homoeroticism. The liberationists demand that their sisters and brothers come out of the closet. They do not understand that the closet is the world elsewhere.
The third face of decadence is the tragic. Tragic may seem too lofty a term; perhaps it is merely dismal decadence. And yet there is an element of the tragic here, for these decadents believed in the world they now see dying. They were often wholehearted participants in the historical progress which they now see turning back upon us in wrath. They are disillusioned decadents, for in high hope they helped sow the wind of the impending whirlwind. They are not among the liberationist decadents who say there is nothing worth dying for. It is simply that dying for what is worthy, or living for it, will make no difference.
Among their number are the apocalypticists—nuclear, ecological, and other. Paul Fussell says modern memory was shaped by The Great War, the war that taught us that “modern” means “hopeless.” The Arthur Schlesinger who in 1947 urged us to assert the democratic idea as “a fighting faith” now routinely warns us against the hubris of thinking there might be anything universally valid in Western culture. Robert Heilbroner surveys our prospects and advises us that the future is, at best, authoritarian; the world can no longer afford, let alone emulate, the American experiment in democracy.
But this form of decadence is not new. Henry Adams believed that history moves in stages, from instinct through religion, through science, and finally to this century of the supersensual which is decadent to the core. Like others of similar sensibility, Adams would have returned to the religion of the Middle Ages but realized that that was not a program likely to commend itself to the modern mind. Writing to his brother he asked, “How can we hope to see a new world, a new civilization, or life? To my mind we are at the end; and the one thing I thank God for is that we have no children.” In the view of tragic decadence, the dream, no matter how worthy it may have been, is wasted. “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”
These are the three faces, or the three masks, of decadence. They do not disturb most of our fellow citizens. Decadence is not an entry in the minds of most Americans. Those who are disturbed by it try variously to construct a counterculture to decadence. From the bully pulpit there issues old-fashioned American boosterism, and that may help. Moral majoritarians call America back to the Bible, and that may help more than it hurts. Intellectuals who once espoused secular solutions now speak of the need for aspiritual revival and a renewed sense of private and public virtue, and that is greatly to be desired.
But however we counter it, decadence must be addressed in its several manifestations. There is an appropriate word for each type ofdecadence. Liberationist decadence is adolescent; hermetic decadence is precious; tragic decadence is resigned. The first face scowls with fury at the reality that refuses to conform to theself Thesecond smiles, sometimes smirks, and frequently quivers at a world that denies its own. The third is all fortitude, or tears.
The antidote to decadence is not nature but hope. Not simplistic optimism, but hope well grounded in reason and experience. Such hope, if it is to be credible, must have comprehended all the reasons for denying the world, escaping from the world, despairing of the world. It must not signify contempt for the adolescent, the precious, and the resigned. After all, they are participants in the culture that we would help renew; they have their reasons which we can understand and even respect. We have other reasons of which we would persuade them. Alfred North Whitehead said that the only simplicity that is to be trusted is that which is on the far side of complexity. The only hope that will be trusted is the hope that is on the far side of decadence.