Decadent art is easy to spot, but hard to define:
That’s an illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, the most Decadent artist of them all, for The Yellow Book, the publication most associated in the contemporary public mind with Decadence. Beardsley’s aesthetic is as strange and arresting now as it was then, but it’s impossible to say just why it strikes us that way.
The medical term d’art for this kind of thing is ideopathic, which snarky modern residents have reduced to the acronym SBI: Something Bad Inside. I can’t tell you now what’s wrong with Beardsley, any more than a Matthew Arnold type could’ve told you then, but a culture that produces and promotes a Beardsley has Something Bad Inside (I write as someone with a soft spot for the Decadents in general, and Beardsley in particular).
Decadence (or Aestheticism, or whatever “technical” label you want to slap on it) was a minor art movement, but the whole Fin de siècle thing was very, very real. The bourgeoisie were just as sick in their way. David Stove coined the term horror victorianorum for that oppressive feeling we get when confronted with High Victorian pop culture, especially interior design. If the Decadents over-focused on the seamy side of life — you just know the lady in that Beardsley illustration has a social disease — then High Victorian burghers went too far the other way, over-focusing on gloopy mawkish sentimentality and “coziness.” Browse through this and especially this, and pretty soon you too will long to drown in a pool of absinthe and prostitutes. Both are desperate attempts to shut out the dirty, clanging, hustling, machine-driven world that was just about to crush them.
I get a very Fin de siècle vibe in America these days. Ours is a demotic decadence — whereas back then you needed to be independently wealthy to be an aesthete, now all you need is an internet connection and Tumblr. Other than prose style, what’s the difference between Oscar Wilde and a Furry? I’ll give you a few minutes to think it over.
So, too, with our “middle class.” Thanks to cheap credit and free wifi, everyone’s “middle class” in America now. Forget the stuff on the New York Times bestseller list; look at what’s for sale in airports. “Magic realism,” of either the Dan Brown or the Laurell K. Hamilton variety. Pure escapism, but following the same pattern: There’s a whole different world out there, just beneath the surface, full of wonders and terrors… but it’s safe, because Law and Order always prevail in the end. Sound familiar?
Even the explosion in “horror” these past twenty years looks familiar. Leftists dismissed the Twilight series as “the abstinence vampires,” and I’ll admit that’s pretty funny, but absolutely no one remarked on how that’s a straight-up inversion of Dracula (1897). Stoker’s novel was the Victorian equivalent of Cinemax After Dark — the closest thing to porn you could legally purchase — but the theme of both books is exactly the same: Fear of unleashed sexuality, which in 1897 seemed an obvious consequence of the machine age. So, too, with The Walking Dead. Pretentious fans of that show (are there any other kind?) like to point out that it’s the survivors of the zombie apocalypse who are the real walking dead — with society gone, everyone reverts back to their most horrible animal instincts. Paging Dr. Jekyll…. Here too, the theme is the precariousness of Law and Order — any minute now, Science might unleash something that will destroy us all (see also The War of the Worlds (also 1897), in which a vastly technologically superior civilization is brought down by a mere virus).
As much fun as this would be in a Comparative Lit class (if they still had one where you were allowed to read White guys), there’s a point here, and it’s this: The Fin de siècle — the “vertigo years” of Philipp Blom’s wonderful cultural history — ended with the biggest possible bang. The “statesmen,” as I suppose we must call them, of 1914 were middle-aged dilettantes — Nicholas II was 46, Wilhelm II was 55, George V was 49 (and Lloyd George 51). These men’s salad days were the 1880s, when the coming machine age was visible to everyone, but still on the horizon. By the time they were called upon to lead the machine age, the machine age had passed them by. They fundamentally misunderstood the world they led into war, and so the war they led was orders of magnitude more terrible than any other.
We’re at the dawn of a new machine age. One of things I keep banging on about here is how new “Social Media” really is. Most people who read blogs like this don’t really get it, even if we’re on Twitter and Facebook and whatnot. For us it’s a tool, nothing more, in the same way BBS and email were back in the dial-up days — handy and fun, but they don’t fundamentally change our human relationships. None of us, I’d venture to guess, trust anything important to text messages — we might text the wife to please grab a loaf of bread while you’re out at the store, but we wouldn’t try to solve a serious relationship problem that way.
The upcoming generation would. They’re different, the way Beardsley was different — easy to spot, nearly impossible to describe. They live online, in a way that we don’t — that we can’t, even if we were early and vigorous adopters of technology. There’s a fundamental disconnect, which is why our cultural world is simultaneously so cozy and paranoid, just like the 1890s.
What’s going to happen when our crisis comes?Loading Likes...