Since the most eloquent decadences edify us no further as to unhappiness than the stammerings of a shepherd, and ultimately there is more wisdom in the mockery of an idiot than in the investigations of the laboratories, is it not madness to pursue truth on the paths of time—or in books?
– Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay
Is the neo-aesthete’s revival of an arch decadence? The artificial enclosure of violence and despair within the neon terror of a refined oblivion devoid of even nullity, a slow infestation of the sublime underbelly of death so vital it inhabits a posthuman futurism without the “post” or “human”?
“Neon is no longer anxious” Eleanor Courtemanche writes… as if anxiety and the uncanny no longer worked for us, as if Freud-Lacan and the Oedipalization were finally a myth of a past refined out of existence. Now the comedy of the nil can appropriate the cliché’s of kitsch within kitsch, expose the throbbing pulse of automated death at the heart of a devitalized voyeurism.
Pain as a commodity, the sacred as a moment between pain and ecstasy becomes in this new economy just one more sad conformity. Pain as the marketable ecstasy of those who have no emotion, the psychopath of devitalized robots and artificial denizens of an apocalyptic comedy at the end of human civilization. No longer the moral hijinks of an outdated derision or scornful hatred of the body, rather the undaunted acceptance of flesh as itself the excess of a last ditch effort to squeeze ecstasy from a devitalized world of cold and impersonal death.
Bear with me as I digress through both decadent literature and critique, gathering a thousand flowers along the way that may dip into that dark abyss of sacred pain and jouissance.
A Short History of Decay
Percy Bysshe Shelley in his infamous poem On the Medusa of Leonardo Da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery brought us the dark romanticism of terror as the breakaway sublime of a new form of Beauty when in his last refrain he stated:
‘Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror;
For from the serpents gleams a brazen glare
Kindled by that inextricable error,
Which makes a thrilling vapour of the air
Become a [ ] and ever-shifting mirror
Of all the beauty and the terror there—
A woman’s countenance, with serpent locks,
Gazing in death on heaven from those wet rocks.
In his early The Romantic Agony Mario Praz would tells us of this new darker romanticism, saying of “Tis the tempestuous loveliness of terror…” that these lines of pleasure and pain are combined in one single impression. “The very objects which should induce a shudder – the livid face of the severed head, the squirming mass of vipers, the rigidity of death, the sinister light, the repulsive animals, the lizard, the bat – all these give rise to a new sense of beauty, a beauty imperiled and contaminated, a new thrill.”1
That moralist Max Nordau in his castigation of those followers of Charles Baudelaire, the Decadents brought forward his harsh condemnation of this night school saying it “reflects the character of its master, strangely distorted; it has become in some sort like a prism, which diffracts his light into elementary rays. His delusion of anxiety and his predilection for disease, death, and putrefaction (necrophilia), have fallen…”2 As for Baudelaire himself, he once stated of modernity:
. . . it is much easier to decide outright that everything about the garb
of an age is absolutely ugly than to devote oneself to the task of distilling
from it the mysterious element of beauty that it may contain, however
slight or minimal that element may be. By ‘modernity’ I mean the
ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half
is the eternal and the immutable.3
In his study of this heritage, Daniel Pick, in Faces of Degeneration would analyze the various threads of this notion of cultural decline into the ugly.3 Degeneration was seen as a general decline in humanity from a previous age as seen in poverty, disease, destitution, degradation, and misery in general. Degeneration was seen as the opposite of progress (which occupied an alternative though rejected view of history) and was expressed as a theory to explain crime, poverty, and the lack of moral character by various European writers and thinkers. In particular, the thinkers Morel, Lombroso, Maudsley, and Nordau wrote extensively on the issue of degeneration as it applied to crime and art. Other European figures focused on the horror of the crowd (as seen in various revolutions in particular the French Revolution) or the rise of Social Darwinism and eugenics. Authors also focused on the themes of degeneration in their novels including those which mentioned the issues of mental deterioration, psychoanalysis, and the decline brought about by entropy. These ideas occupied a prominent place on both the political left among various proposals for socialism and the right which often advocated eugenics (and which came to emerge in the Nazi terror). Pick’s book considers these ideas as they developed in European thought during this period and their role in the continuing history of the twentieth century as it would impact both Communism and Fascism, as well as the medical community by way of Psychoanalysis and Freud’s scientism among other traces.
The social, scientific, and industrial revolutions of the later nineteenth century brought with them a ferment of new artistic visions. An emphasis on scientific determinism and the depiction of reality led to the aesthetic movement known as Naturalism, which allowed the human condition to be presented in detached, objective terms, often with a minimum of moral judgment. This in turn was counterbalanced by more metaphorical modes of expression such as Symbolism, Decadence, and Aestheticism, which flourished in both literature and the visual arts, and tended to exalt subjective individual experience at the expense of straightforward depictions of nature and reality. Dismay at the fast pace of social and technological innovation led many adherents of these less realistic movements to reject faith in the new beginnings proclaimed by the voices of progress, and instead focus in an almost perverse way on the imagery of degeneration, artificiality, and ruin.4
The Mundane World of Sex
The man who proposes a new faith is persecuted, until it is his turn to become a persecutor: truths begin by a conflict with the police and end by calling them in; for each absurdity we have suffered for degenerates into a legality, as every martyrdom ends in the paragraphs of the Law, in the insipidities of the calendar, or the nomenclature of the streets.
– Emile Cioran, A Short History of Decay
In his interview Nicolas Winding Refn remarking on sex tells us there’s something mundane about it, that “it’s something we all do – hopefully,” and “everyone has his own take on it”. Our obsession with porn, violence, necrophilia, rape, perversion, etc. is a way of moving the audience, the voyeuristic eye, the perverse need to observe the outer forms of sex, its visual cues and bodily imprint as if to quantify and measure its dark secrets. As Refn hones in on the key is not the direct visual participation that allows us to sensualize the filmic, but rather by “not showing sex, you’re actually much more sexy, because in not showing sex, you’re forcing the audience to have a very subliminal reaction to it, and everything becomes very specific [to them]”.
The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch among the many bizarre and outlandish images, will find both a giant strawberry (a symbol of earthly pleasure in Medieval iconography; the fruit looks very tempting, but tastes of nothing), and a naked couple copulating within a glass vessel. What interests us about Bosch is not only his strange and beautiful painting, but also his supposed involvement with a heretical sect called the Adamites. This sect, according to de Perrodil’s Dictionnaire des hérésies, des erreurs et des schismes, saw it as their sacred duty to violate the laws which the Creator had given to man. This neatly encapsulates the Decadent impulse. They also wished to rehabilitate Adam and Eve by seeking inspiration from their conduct in the garden of Eden. Nudity and sexual games formed part of their ritual. The Adamites were of course condemned and brutally persecuted by vindictive ecclesiastical authorities.5
An 1893 poem by Albert Samain proclaims “the era of the Androgyne,” who mushrooms over culture like an antichrist. The sex-repelling Decadent androgyne is Apollonian because of its opposition to nature and its high mentalization, a western specialty. It is louring and enervated rather than radiant:
Musique – encens – parfums,… poisons,… littérature ! …
Les fleurs vibrent dans les jardins effervescents ;
Et l’Androgyne aux grands yeux verts phosphorescents
Fleurit au charnier d’or d’un monde en pourriture.
Aux apostats du Sexe, elle apporte en pâture,
Sous sa robe d’or vert aux joyaux bruissants,
Sa chair de vierge acide et ses spasmes grinçants
Et sa volupté maigre aiguisée en torture.
L’archet mord jusqu’au sang l’âme des violons,
L’art qui râle agité d’hystériques frissons
En la sentant venir a redressé l’échine…
Le stigmate ardent brûle aux fronts hallucinés.
Gloire aux sens ! Hosanna sur les nerfs forcenés.
L’Antechrist de la chair visite les damnés…
Voici, voici venir les temps de l’Androgyne.
And, my translation…
Music – incense – perfumes,… poisons,… literature! …
Flowers vibrate in the sparkling gardens;
And your large and androgynous
Phosphorescent green eyes flower
At the grave of gold of a world in decay.
To the apostates of sex, she brings in food,
Under her dress of green gold jewels rustling,
Acidic virgin of fleshy spasms squeaking
And his lean pleasure sharpened into torture.
The bow bites until the violins in the soul’s blood vibrate, an art –
General shaking of hysterical chills struggles
Coming in feelings of geometric defiance…
The frontal assault of ardent hallucinations burn in stigmatic splendor,
Glory to the senses! Hosanna to the federalists nerves.
The Antichrist of the flesh visits the damned…
Behold, here comes the time of the Androgyny.
Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette or just – Colette calls this type of androgyne “anxious and veiled,” eternally sad, trailing “its seraphic suffering, its glimmering tears.”
Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo (written in 1888 and published in 1908), in which the philosopher called himself “a decadent,” opens with a biographical section that resembles a psycho-medical case study of his delicate, morbid nature and physical ailments. The Case of Wagner (1888) treats degeneration and decadence as instantiations of a single discourse: “[T]he change of art into histrionics,” wrote Nietzsche, “is no less an expression of physiological degeneration (more precisely, a form of hystericism) than every single corruption and inﬁrmity of the art inaugurated by Wagner.” He preceded this comment with the claim that Wagner is a decadent, “the modern artist par excellence,” embodying modernity’s sickness. Calling Wagner a “neurosis,” he wrote, “[P]erhaps nothing is better known today, at least nothing has been better studied, than the Protean character of degeneration that here conceals itself in the chrysalis of art and artist.”6 As Foucault wrote in The History of Sexuality, degeneration “explained how a heredity that was burdened with various maladies ([. . .] organic, functional, or psychical) ended by producing a sexual pervert.”7
Late Romanticism: The Gothic Art of Darkness
David Punter in his excellent study The Literature of Pity reminds us that there is a great deal that could be said about the relations between pity and the dark worlds of Gothicism; indeed, “a radical view would suggest that the longstanding association between terror and Gothic has been in part a cover story which places us as readers in positions of power – identifying, for example, with the hero/villain – rather than allowing us to share in the no doubt pitiable plight of the victim/heroine”(107).8
This sense of the voyeuristic element of sex and power comes out in the interview of Refn when he speaks of the stereotyping of porn and violence coupled with the femme fatale, telling us “there is still a very heavily-stereotyped view about women and violence. It’s generally either very pornographic, where it’s sexualizing an act of a violent nature: either by degrading it, or by worshipping it, but in either case purely from a male perspective. And then there is the other version, which is a lot more complicated — that women can be vicious to women, and what’s so wrong with showing that? Because there’s nothing sexual in that viciousness.”
Janey Place writes that ‘[t]he dark lady, the spider woman, the evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction is among the oldest themes of art, literature, mythology and religion in Western culture’ (1980, p. 35). The conspicuousness of the femme fatale in Western culture has waxed and waned; she features heavily in the tragic drama of the early seventeenth century and was something of an obsession for a number of poets and novelists in the nineteenth century and in popular art in ﬁn de siècle France. She became ubiquitous in Hollywood ﬁlm noir of the 1940s and 1950s, the genre with which the term femme fatale is most closely associated, as well as the neo-noir of the late 1980s and early 1990s.9
Woman as fatal to man has been the primary image in men’s discourse for two-thousand years or more. The more nature is beaten back in the west, the more the femme fatale reappears, as a return of the repressed. As Camille Paglia will remark, “She is the spectre of the west’s bad conscience about nature. She is the moral ambiguity of nature, a malevolent moon that keeps breaking through our fog of hopeful sentiment.”10 The femme fatale became the secret fear men had of women and the natural both within themselves and in nature, she would incarnate that dark power of both the unconscious and the externality of deterministic natural process that men in their religious and sacred mythologies had tried, vainly to surmount through at first philosophy by way of Platonic beauty or the Idea, a notion of the perfect world, a world beyond our delusional one; and, secondly, through the endless world of the grotesque, macabre, and bitter satires from Juvenal to Swift and beyond. With the Romantics things would bifurcate into the aesthetic of Beauty and of Terror, the sublime would seek transcendence or immanent revelation and excess (transgression). One might say that this tradition as a whole in which the path of light and that of darkness lead to a ‘literature of narcissism’. As Refn who directed this film with his daughter in mind, says:
We live in a society where we’re constantly being bombarded by the negativity of the future, the negativity of the digital revolution, the negativity of youth being self-absorbed — like my parents weren’t? I mean, they were hippies! So I think, well, my daughter will grow up into this world of amazing opportunities. And maybe the final frontier is no longer treating narcissism as a taboo, but — on the contrary — celebrating it as a natural evolution of the human psyche.
As Paglia would say, “The femme fatale is one of the refinements of female narcissism, of the ambivalent self-directedness that is completed by the birth of a child or by the conversion of spouse or lover into child. (ibid., 14)” Returning to the image of the Medusa Paglia suggests that “Medusa’s snaky hair is also the writhing vegetable growth of nature. Her hideous grimace is men’s fear of the laughter of women. She that gives life also blocks the way to freedom.” (ibid., 14) The Divine Marquee de Sade once suggested that we have the right to thwart nature’s procreative compulsions, through sodomy or abortion. Paglia would go so far as to affirm that “male homosexuality may be the most valorous of attempts to evade the femme fatale and to defeat nature” (14-15). Suggesting that male homosexuals by turning away from the Medusan mother, whether in honor or detestation of her, had become one of the “great forgers of absolutist western identity” (15).
Novalis and the Kiss of Death: A Poetics of the Baneful
The poet Novalis would develop a complete aestheticism of the voluptuosity, a secret and forbidden world of the sensuous and the mundane held within a an enclosure of the excess of the natural by way of a construction of the artificial. For Novalis himself initiates his account of the human body with the lips and the entire system of the mouth a complex system in which nourishment, elimination, sexuality, and speech are interrelated indeed, by an “anastomosis of discursive individuals” (2: 350). The system of the mouth subtends a “theory of voluptuosity”; yet it is also subject to the dire forces of nature. Nature, characterized by the expansive force of eros, is nevertheless often described in the notebooks in the way a voice in The Apprentices at Saïs describes it, namely, as “a terrifying death-mill,” ”a frightful, rapacious power,” “a realm of voracity and the wildest excess, an immensity pregnant with misery.” Novalis’s theory of voluptuosity culminates in a “poetics of the baneful.” The first kiss is always a kiss of death and the first thing to die is the concept of “firstness,” inasmuch as thaumaturgic idealism does not conjure up a theory of origins.11
Strangely, this poetics of the baneful and malignant would according to Novalis possibly bring about a metamorphosis within the human species and their culture is only we learned love our “illness or pain”:
Perhaps a similar metamorphosis would occur if human beings could come to love what is baneful in the world the moment a human being began to love its illness or pain, the most stimulating voluptuosity would lie in its arms the summit of positive pleasure would permeate it. Could not illness be a means to a higher synthesis the more horrific the pain, the higher the pleasure concealed within it. (Harmony.) Every illness is perhaps the necessary commencement of the more intense conjunction of two creatures the necessary beginning of love. Enthusiasm for illnesses and pains. Death a closer conjunction of lovers. (Krell, 61).
As the neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, “Pain is an opinion on the organism’s state of health rather than a mere reflexive response to an injury.”12 The notion of pain, self-inflicted or other inflicted, masochism or sadism is encrusted in human memory, violence, and the sacred:
Pain is not a simple matter: There is an enormous difference between the unwanted pain of a cancer patient or victim of a car crash, and the voluntary and modulated self-hurting of a religious practitioner. Religious pain, secular or institutional, produces states of consciousness, and cognitive-emotional changes, that affect the identity of the individual subject and her sense of belonging to a larger community or to a more fundamental state of being. More succinctly, pain strengthens the religious person’s bond with the divine and with other persons. Of course, since not all pain is voluntary or self-inflicted, one mystery of the religious life is how unwanted suffering can become transformed into sacred pain. (Glucklich, 6)
As Ariel Glucklich will suggest the task of sacred pain is to transform destructive or disintegrative suffering into a positive religious or secular, psychological mechanism for reintegration within a more deeply valued level of reality than individual existence. (Glucklich, 6) Georges Bataille who sought the intimacy of ecstasy within a secular or immanent mysticism was once gifted with some photographs of a Chinese man undergoing the lingchi method of torture and execution, in which ﬂesh, organs, and limbs are slowly sliced from the still-living victim until he succumbs—“death by a thousand cuts.” Bataille meditated upon this “insane” and “shocking” image of “pain, at once ecstatic(?) and intolerable,” with the fervency of a monk contemplating the cruciﬁ ed body of Christ. The meditation elicited an ambivalent spiritual convulsion whose reverberations carried into Bataille’s ﬁnal days.13
In Inner Experience, Bataille sketches a set of practices that foster aimlessness by developing a particular kind of relationship to an unknown—but desirable—object. Bataille wants a project that will undo project, a program with the intention of dissolving intentionality, for the purpose of destroying purposiveness. In the process of discovering a secular form of jouissance Bataille will involve intimacy and a “jouissance of otherness” distinct from masochistic jouissance, a jouissance that “owes nothing to the death drive.” (NE, 65) As Biles and Brintnall maintain this jouissance “has as its precondition the stripping away of the self” and can be described as an “ascetic . . . practice,” insisting that it is not masochistic and, in fact, requires, as an additional precondition, “a loss of all that gives us pleasure and pain in our negotiable exchanges with the world.” (ibid., 65)
The Beauty of Decadence
I think “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future. I’m not critiquing, nor validating. I think you have to accept it in order to examine it. But surely our obsession with beauty is only going to increase. And longevity will only continue to shrink in our perception of beauty, and the ideal will continue to get younger. Those are facts. The question is, how do we deal with it?
-Nicolas Winding Refn, The Neon Demon an Interview
Umberto Eco will align the concept of the Beautiful with the Good tracing it back to that Platonic world of perfection and the real, saying,
‘Beautiful’—together with ‘graceful’ and ‘pretty’, or ‘sublime’, ‘marvellous’, Lucera, Museo Civico ‘ superb’ and similar expressions—is an adjective that we often employ to indicate something that we like. In this sense, it seems that what is beautiful is the same as what is good, and in fact in various historical periods there was a close link between the Beautiful and the Good.14 Notions of the Sublime have been with us at least since Longinus if not before. Harold Bloom, quoting Thomas Weiskel’s The Romantic Sublime relates:
The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and in speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, lies beyond the human— God or the gods, the daemon or Nature— is matter for great disagreement. What, if anything, defines the range of the human is scarcely less sure.15
But is there an inverse to this? What of the grotesque, the ugly, the macabre? Is there a non-teleological and immanent (non-transcendent) form of the Sublime? Or, is this as some suggest rather the realm of the Ridiculous and Comic? For Baudelaire the arch-decadent would harbor the notion that nature is a living temple where confused words would sometimes slip forth from the mute stones releasing the symbolic confusion of human worlds, thereby breaking the Law of custom and habit and freeing the revelations that had been lying imprisoned within the depths of abysses and evil. For Arthur Rimbaud the visionary decadent must undergo a “lengthy, immense, and rational dissolution of the senses,” and would say in his A Season in Hell:
One evening, I seated Beauty on my knees.
– And I found her bitter.
– And I railed against her. …
I succeeded in erasing from my mind all human hope. Upon every joy, in order to strangle it, I made the muffled leap of the wild beast.16
Bataille in Erotism: Death and Sensuality (City Lights, 1986) would report
In sacrifice, the victim is chosen so that its perfection shall give point to the full brutality of death. Human beauty, in the union of bodies, shows the contrast between the purest aspect of mankind and the hideous animal quality of the sexual organs. The paradox of ugliness and beauty in eroticism is strikingly expressed by Leonardo da Vinci in his Notebooks:
“The act of coition and the members employed are so ugly that but for the beauty of the faces, the adornments of their partners and the frantic urge, Nature would lose the human race.”
Leonardo does not see that the charm of a fair face or fine clothes is effective in that that fair face promises what clothes conceal. The face and its beauty must be profaned, first by uncovering the woman’s secret parts, and then by putting the male organ into them. (73).
Ultimately for Bataille Beauty’s cardinal importance in contrast to ugliness is that ugliness ‘cannot be spoiled‘, and to despoil is the essence of eroticism. “Humanity implies the taboos, and in eroticism it and they are transgressed. Humanity is transgressed, profaned and besmirched. The greater the beauty, the more it is befouled.” (73). So that when the director of The Neon Demon as quoted above states that “beauty is everything” is a heightened version of our potential future, we understand that as in Bataille that without Beauty there would be an end to desire and jouissance, that pleasureable pain of sacrifice and an eroticism that gives us the degradation of immanent corruption and evil bliss. The allurements of seduction, the energia of the abyssal darkness, the fleshy excess that invades us from within and without all fold us in a world of delusionary delirium, eroticism and death without end… an artificial paradise and a resplendent inferno of desire.
Laughter may not show respect but it does show horror.
-Georges Bataille, Eroticism: Death and Sensuality
But you know all this, my sweet Beauty. Our only hope is that our present purgatory will come to an end one day: we rub along with it as best we can. What else is left to us? … And as Gozzi said, “We cannot be always laughing…”
-Garielle Wittkop, Murder Most Serene
- Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. Meridian; Reprint Edition edition (1956)
- Nordau, Max. Degeneration. University of Nebraska Press; Reprinted edition (November 1, 1993)
- Pick, Daniel. Faces of Degeneration: A European Disorder, c.1848-1918 (Ideas in Context). Cambridge University Press; Reprint edition (July 30, 1993)
- Marja Harmanmaa and Christopher Nissen. Decadence, Degeneration, and the End: Studies in the European Fin de Siecle. Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (November 19, 2014)
- Medlar Lucan. The Decadent Gardner (Kindle Locations 219-227). Dedalus. Kindle Edition.
- Friedrich Nietzsche. transl. Walter Kaufmann. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. Vintage; Reissue edition (December 17, 1989)
- Foucault, History of Sexuality, 1:118.
- Punter, David. The Literature of Pity. Edinburgh University Press; 1 edition (April 30, 2014)
- Simkin, S. Cultural Constructions of the Femme Fatale: From Pandora’s Box to Amanda Knox. Palgrave Macmillan; 2014 edition (October 28, 2014)
- Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 13). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
- David Farrell Krell . Contagion: Sexuality, Disease, and Death in German Idealism and Romanticism (Studies in Continental Thought). Indiana University Press (March 22, 1998)
- Glucklich, Ariel. Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul (p. 87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Jeremy Biles,Kent Brintnall (Editors). Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (FUP) Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)
- Eco, Umberto. History of Beauty. Rizzoli; Reprint edition (September 21, 2010) (p. 7)
- Bloom, Harold. The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (Kindle Locations 161-163). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
- Arthur Rimbaud. A Season in Hell and The Illuminations (Kindle Locations 373-374). Kindle Edition.