Decadence then, and now

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Decadence then, and now


Lara Gochin Raffaelli (PhD) Chief Editor at Milpark Education

Even before Covid19 made its insidious, catastrophic, and inescapable way into human life around the world, the study of decadent literature had returned to academic focus, in an era of environmental decline, pollution, and social media distortion of lifestyle, language and outlook. It felt like an ending; it felt that there was no turning back from the destruction of both earth and of human ethics and kindness. Then coronavirus stepped in and humankind had no choice but to isolate itself. Social media became, ironically, the only passage to the world, while nature gradually seemed to repair itself.

Although the virus has not abated, after 19 months, the repair of our ecosystem does not appear to have continued, and nor is it known whether the human kindness and spirit of togetherness will endure, but an inspection of the Decadent literature that prevailed during the last momentous brink in history, the fin de siècle that preceded the two World Wars, now seems even more appropriate than ever, as we explore the motivations behind the destruction of our economy and our environment, and seek to understand whether we can escape it or mitigate it.

In parallel with those who reacted to the 19th century fin de siècle, by withdrawing and seeking solace in beauty, pleasure and exaltation, those of us who reject the rampant consumerism of this current age withdraw to lifestyles “off the grid”, seeking solace in nature and the rehabilitation of the landscape. There may be vast differences in the solace we seek, but our rejection of the consumerist pursuits of the masses is in the same vein as that of the Decadent writers, poets, musicians, and artists. 

In August 2021, my chapter entitled “Italy: Decadent Dichotomies in a Disruptive Age” was published in the Oxford Handbook of Decadence, In it, I explored how capitalism, mass production and colonialism in the late 1890s led to a rejection by intellectuals of the world at that time.

When one is writing on a historical literary period, when trying to define it, one looks at how and why that period is relevant to us today. What is decadent literature and why do we care about studying or reading it? Its relevance might lie in how it contrasts with the present, or how it mirrors it. Decadent literature offers more questions than answers, including “How does today’s world echo that of the late nineteenth century?” and “How does nineteenth century Europe resonate with 21st century Africa?”

How does it indeed? We see nationalism, for one thing. We see the effect of consumerism and capitalism. European decadent literature was about the individual, and their rejection of the masses, while Africa is about the collective, and how the individual reinforces it. Is there a connection? Is there hope for the future? Has the present moment in history led to a particular kind of literature where human feeling is expressed?


22 Sep 2021