The Decadent Movement was a late 19th-century artistic and literary movement, centered in Western Europe, that followed an aesthetic ideology of excess and artificiality The visual artist Félicien Rops’s body of work and Joris-Karl Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (1884) are considered the prime examples of the decadent movement It first flourished in France and then spread throughout Europe and to the United States The movement was characterized by self-disgust, sickness at the world, general skepticism, delighting in perversion, and employing crude humor and a belief in the superiority of human creativity over logic and the natural world
The concept of decadence dates from the eighteenth century, especially from the writings of Montesquieu, the Enlightenment philosopher who suggested that the decline (décadence) of the Roman Empire was in large part due to their moral decay and loss of cultural standards When Latin scholar Désiré Nisard turned toward French literature, he compared Victor Hugo and Romanticism in general to the Roman decadence, men sacrificing their craft and their cultural values for the sake of pleasure The trends that he identified, such an interest in description, a lack of adherence to the conventional rules of literature and art, and a love for extravagant language were the seeds of the Decadent Movement
The first major development in French decadence would come when writers Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire used the word proudly, to represent a rejection of what they considered banal “progress” Baudelaire referred to himself as decadent in his 1857 edition of Les Fleurs du Mal and exalted the Roman decline as a model for modern poets to express their passion He would later use the term decadence to include the subversion of traditional categories in pursuit of full, sensual expression In his lengthy introduction to Baudelaire in the front of the 1868 Les Fleurs du Mal, Gautier at first rejects the application of the term decadent, as meant by the critic, but then works his way to an admission of decadence on Baudelaire’s own terms: a preference for what is beautiful and what is exotic, an ease with surrendering to fantasy, and a maturity of skill with manipulating language
Symbolism has often confused with the Decadent Movement Arthur Symons, a British poet and literary critic contemporary with the movement, at one time considered Decadence in literature to be a parent category that included both Symbolism and Impressionism, as rebellions against realism He defined this common, decadent thread as, “an intense self-consciousness, a restless curiosity in research, an over-subtilizing refinement upon refinement, a spiritual and moral perversity” He referred to all such literature as, “a new and beautiful and interesting disease” Later, however, he would go on to instead describe the Decadent Movement as an “interlude, half a mock interlude” that distracted critics from seeing and appreciating the larger and more important trend, which was the development of Symbolism
Ultimately, the distinction may best be seen in their approach to art Symbolism is an accumulation of “symbols” that are there not to present their content but to evoke greater ideas that their symbolism cannot expressly utter According to Moréas, it is an attempt to connect the object and phenomena of the world to “esoteric primordial truths” that cannot ever be directly approached
In France, the Decadent Movement could not withstand the loss of its leading figures Many of those associated with the Decadent Movement became symbolists after initially associating freely with decadents Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé were among those, though both had been associated with Baju’s Le Décadent for a time Others kept a foot in each camp Albert Aurier wrote decadent pieces for Le Décadent and also wrote symbolist poetry and art criticism Decadent writer Rachilde was staunchly opposed to a symbolist take over of Le Décadent even though her own one-act drama The Crystal Spider is almost certainly a symbolist work Others, once strong voices for decadence, abandoned the movement altogether Joris-Karl Huysmans grew to consider Against Nature as the starting point on his journey into Roman Catholic symbolist work and the acceptance of hope Anatole Baju, once the self-appointed school-master of French decadence, came to think of the movement as naive and half-hearted, willing to tinker and play with social realities, but not to utterly destroy them He left decadence for anarchy.