By Alice Condé and Jessica Gossling, Goldsmiths, University of London, United Kingdom
Decadence is like syphilis: you either get it or you don’t’ (Weir, 2017: p. 219). This quip is a humorous way of introducing decadence to students in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths. Decadence – a multidisciplinary critical concept that relates to anxieties about decline and decay and deals in paradoxes such as beauty and the grotesque, pleasure and pain – is a challenging yet rewarding subject to teach. It relates to extreme sensations, perverse desires, and a peculiar ‘taste for the distasteful’ (p. 222). Decadent literature often confronts controversial subject-matter and delves into the darker recesses of the human mind, and it can be daunting to stand in front of a class to present material of this kind. How will students react? Will they ‘get it’? Where to begin charting such a complex terrain whose ‘diversity and resistance to classification’ confound even the most established scholars in the field? (Desmarais and Baldick, 2012: p. 7).
This is where Oscar Wilde comes in. A common icebreaker with a new undergraduate class is to ask each student to talk about their favourite book. Without fail, each year at least one person will mention The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is easy to appreciate the appeal of Wilde’s witty epigrams and Dorian as (anti)hero acting out his every desire in an eternally youthful body. However, while Dorian Gray may be a familiar text to some, very few will have considered it in the context of decadence. In fact, while many will recognize the term ‘decadence’ as it relates to indulgence or hedonism, they are often largely unaware of decadence as an intermittent literary tradition whose most significant flourishing in Britain occurred in the 1890s, Wilde’s heyday. Susan Fiksdal states that the ideal text for stimulating seminar discussion should be ‘complex, multi-layered, perhaps controversial, and open to interpretation’ (Fiksdal, 2014: p. 27). Dorian Gray is thus a good starting-point for introducing literary decadence: we revisit a familiar narrative and tease out significant elements that can be interpreted in new ways from a decadent perspective.
On the surface, Dorian Gray is a typical Gothic novel – Dorian, in love with youth, exchanges his soul for a beauty that never fades. As long as his portrait remains intact his face will not show the marks of his depraved lifestyle, but the painting will. By the end of the novel, Dorian’s pursuit of pleasure becomes overwhelming and he stabs the painting with a knife, inadvertently killing himself. In popular culture, this classic tale of “the painting in the attic” has become more famous than the novel itself and our students come to the text familiar with this symbolism, expecting to be horrified, perhaps also titillated, and often with a set of expectations related to Victorian ideas of morality. Beneath this surface, however, are more complicated and difficult decadent themes related to art, artifice, and the relationship between beauty and decay. As Wilde warns us in his famous Preface, added after the harsh criticism the novel received when originally published in Lippincott’s Magazine (1890): ‘All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors’ (Wilde, 1979: p. 6). Wilde suggests that any controversial ideas that we unearth are reflections of our own perversities: the decadence we find is of our own making.
A perfect example of this, and one of the reasons why Dorian Gray is such a good introduction to decadent writing, is the lengthy description of Dorian’s intellectual, aesthetic, and sensory experimentation in Chapter 11. Frequently we have found that students who have read the novel in the past have skipped over this lengthy chapter (it’s by far the longest in the novel) as plot-wise it doesn’t really add anything. However, what it does provide is a significant example of decadent taste and style in an age ‘at once sordid and sensual’ (p. 143). It just requires a bit of unpicking and exploration to discover it. Inspired by a book given to him by Lord Henry, ‘a novel without a plot and with only one character’ (p. 140) that is commonly understood to be the decadent novel par excellence, Joris-Karl Huysmans’s À rebours (Against Nature, 1884), Chapter 11 details Dorian’s own deep dive into debauchery. Wilde read À rebours during his honeymoon in Paris the year it was published, and this chapter provides a microcosm of the channels of influence between French and English decadence in the 1880s and 1890s. Like Des Esseintes in Huysmans’s novel, Dorian explores many aspects of decadent taste – notably, the relationship between private spaces and psychology, a fascination with Catholic aesthetics and Pagan mysticism, and the correspondences that are revealed when we undertake a profound appreciation of perfumes, music, jewels, and art (to name just a few). Unlike the French novel in which each chapter is focused on one of these themes, Wilde presents these decadent ideas in accessible, bite-sized paragraphs. On publication, critics derided the novel for introducing decadence to the broader public. As The Daily Chronicle described it, ‘It is a tale spawned from the leprous literature of the French Decadents – a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction’ (Anon.,1890: p. 368). In our teaching we use it in the same way. By walking students through this chapter, we are able to provide a decadent amuse-bouche, a taster that precedes our main course.
‘Decadence’ carries a double meaning: decay and indulgence. It is celebrated by those who ‘get it’ and regarded as a sign of degeneracy by those who don’t. Passages of Dorian Gray were read out at Wilde’s 1895 trial for gross indecency as supposed proof of his homosexuality. Yet, as Wilde pointed out, ‘What Dorian Gray’s sins are no one knows. He who finds them has brought them’ (Wilde, 1890). This lack of explicitness makes Dorian Gray an intriguing text that is ideal for introducing notions of decadence to a new audience and encouraging them to actively reflect upon their own responses to suggestions of aesthetic depravity or synaesthetic correspondences. The openness to interpretation offers ample opportunity for classroom discussion and allows students to cultivate their decadent taste before moving on to more challenging territory such as the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and A. C. Swinburne, or novels by Huysmans and Arthur Machen.
This piece was published in the ICTE 2021 fall newsletter. Click here for more great stories!
Dr Alice Condé is a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London and Secretary of the British Association of Decadence Studies (BADS). She is co-editor of Decadence and the Senses (with Jane Desmarais, Legenda, 2017) and co-editor of In Cynara’s Shadow: Collected Essays on Ernest Dowson (with Jessica Gossling, 2019). Her essay on ‘Decadence and Popular Culture’ can be found in Jane Desmarais and David Weir’s volume on Decadence for the Cambridge Critical Concepts series. She can be reached at A.Conde@gold.ac.uk
Dr Jessica Gossling is a lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, Assistant Editor of The Literary Encyclopedia, and Treasurer of the British Association of Decadence Studies (BADS). Her current research focuses on the decadent threshold poetics of Charles Baudelaire, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson. She is co-editor of In Cynara’s Shadow: Collected Essays on Ernest Dowson (with Alice Condé, 2019), and her essay on ‘À rebours and the House at Fontenay’ is published in Decadence and the Senses. She can be reached at J.Gossling@gold.ac.uk
Anon. (1890). Review of The Picture of Dorian Gray. The Daily Chronicle, 30 June.
Desmarais, Jane and Chris Baldick, eds. (2012). Decadence: An Annotated Anthology Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Fiksdal, Susan (2014). A Guide to Teaching Effective Seminars: Conversation, Identity, and Power New York: Routledge, 2014.
Weir, David (2017). ‘Afterword: Decadent Taste’. In Decadence and the Senses, Jane Desmarais and Alice Condé, eds. Cambridge: Legenda, pp. 219-28.
Wilde, Oscar (1890). To the Editor of the Scots Observer. 9 July.
Wilde, Oscar (1979). The Picture of Dorian Gray Harmondsworth: Penguin.