The Fatal Idiom: Artificial Paradises of Decadence

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Arnold Bocklin, Isle of the Dead

Now you’re ready for a long and strange trip. The steam is whistling, the sails are billowing in the right direction, and, unlike most travelers, you have the odd advantage of ignorance as to your destination. This is how you wanted it: vive la fatalité!

-Charles Baudelaire, Artificial Paradises

Waste, decay, elimination need not be condemned: they are necessary consequences of life, of the growth of life. The phenomenon of decadence is as necessary as any increase and advance of life: one is in no position to abolish it. Reason demands, on the contrary, that we do justice to it.

-Fredrich Nietzsche, On the concept of decadence

Decay, fragmentation, dissolution, and destruction; the dark erotic and violent formlessness of the grotesque and macabre married to the beauty of Gothic Night. This is decadence… sensual ecstasy and base materialism: the counter-sublime of the Abyss. Late Romantic nightmare that seeks the music not of some heavenly bliss, but rather the cold cruelty of erotic death, unquenchable desire. As Nietzsche would chronicle it, the consequences of decadence are vice— the addiction to vice; sickness— sickliness; crime— criminality; celibacy— sterility; hystericism— weakness of the will; alcoholism; pessimism; anarchism; libertinism (also of the spirit). The slanderers, underminers, doubters, destroyers. Decadence was the first battle cry against the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment – it said:

“Mankind” does not advance, it does not even exist. – Nietzsche

From Baudelaire’s Artificial Paradises to W.B. Yeats’s late Byzantium poems the decadent aesthetic would seek in the figure of Beauty the deathly hue of an immortal excess, an  incarnation in those artificial worlds of imaginative need only what would suffice. “The first time that we met Baudelaire was towards the middle of the year 1849, at the Hôtel Pimodan, where we occupied, near Fernand Boissard, a strange apartment which communicated with his by a private staircase hidden in the thickness of the wall, and which was haunted by the spirits of beautiful women loved long since by Lauzun.” The emphasis here by Théophile Gautier – himself an author of fantastic romances, is on those sorrowful decadents “haunted by the spirits of beautiful women”. The Duke of Lauzun who once owned the Townhouse, that would later be renamed after the Duke as the Hôtel de Lauzun, held a grand salon for all the beautiful people of French Society.  The baron also rented out part of the premises to this decadent tribe of “bohemian princes”, in other words – the writers, painters, and poets of decadence: Charles Baudelaire, Théophile Gautier and Roger de Beauvoir among others who organised suppers where they ate a kind of green jam made from hashish, molasses, honey and pistachios, forming the “Club of the Hashish-Eaters”.1

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Oliva

Baudelaire would describe Hashish as the “drug now before your eyes: a dollop of green jam no larger than a walnut, with a strange odor, strong enough to cause a certain revulsion and mild nausea: which, of course, is also the case with every fine and even pleasant odor when carried to its maximum of potency and, as it were, of density. May I note, in passing, that the reverse is also true: the most repugnant and revolting smells might bring pleasure when reduced to their minimum of quantity and sparsity. — So here is happiness, in the flesh! It fits inside a teaspoon! Happiness with all its intoxication, its madness, its puerility! You can swallow without anxiety; it won’t kill you. Your bodily organs will not be harmed. Later, maybe, if you cast the spell too often, your willpower may diminish, maybe you’ll be less of a man than you are right now; but that punishment is so far down the line, and the foretold disaster is so hard to define! What harm could it do? Tomorrow, your nerves may be a little frayed. Do you not take greater risks every day for smaller benefits? Now it is done: to give it more potency and diffusion, you have even dissolved your dose of fatty extract in a cup of black coffee; you have been careful to take it on an empty stomach, delaying your dinner until nine or ten o’clock, to give the toxin enough time to do its work; in an hour you’ll take a light supper at most. Now you’re ready for a long and strange trip. The steam is whistling, the sails are billowing in the right direction, and, unlike most travelers, you have the odd advantage of ignorance as to your destination. This is how you wanted it: vive la fatalité!“2

Gautier would say of his friend, Baudelaire:

[He] loved what is unwisely known as the style of the decadence, and which is no other thing than Art arrived at that point of extreme maturity that determines civilisations which have grown old; ingenious, complicated, clever, full of delicate tints and refinements, gathering all the delicacies of speech, borrowing from technical vocabularies, taking colour from every palette, tones from all musical instruments, forcing itself to the expression of the most elusive thoughts, contours vague and fleeting, listening to translate subtle confidences, confessions of depraved passions and the odd hallucinations of a fixed idea turning to madness. (CB, KL 59)

Friedrich Nietzsche in his The Birth of Tragedy once said that “Apollo could not live without Dionysus.” In describing the Dionysiac he’d ask us to “imagine how the ecstatic sounds of the Dionysiac festival, with its ever more seductive, magical melodies, entered this artificially dammed-up world founded on semblance and measure, how in these melodies all the unmeasurable excess in nature found expression in pleasure, suffering and knowledge, in a voice which rose in intensity to a penetrating shout; let us imagine how little the psalm-singing artist Apollo and the ghostly sound of his harp could mean in comparison with this daemonic popular song!”3 Of course this battle between artistic form – seen in the art of Homer’s epics – and, formlessness – as presented in the art of those great tragedians, Aeschylus and Sophocles played itself out in the mind’s of nineteenth century artists, poets, philosophers, and musicians through an intermixture of classicism and decadence, Enlightenment and Romanticism.

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Odilon Radon,  Spider

“. . . un terme servant à déclasser, exigeant généralement que chaque chose ait sa forme. Ce qu’il désigne n’a ses droits dans acucun sens et se fait écraser partout comme une araignée ou un ver de terre. Il faudrait en effet, pour que les hommes académiques soient contents, que l’univers prenne forme. La philosophie entière n’a pas d’autre but: il s’agit de donner un redingote à ce qui est, une redingote mathématique. Par contre affirmer que l’ univers ne ressemble à rien et n’est qu’ informe revient à dire que l’univers est quelque chose comme une araignée ou un crachat.”*

Georges Bataille: “Informe.” Documents 7 (December 1929), p. 382.

Camille Paglia describes Apollonian art as a stark “line drawn against nature”.4 Nietzsche calls Apollo “the marvellous divine image of the principium individuationis,” “god of individuation and just boundaries.” (ibid., 22)  The Apollonian borderline separates demes, districts, ideas, persons. Western individuation is Apollonian. The western ego is finite, articulated, visible. Apollo is the integrity and unity of western personality, a firm-outlined shape of sculptural definitiveness. Apollo lays down the law. W. K. C. Guthrie says, “Apollo was first and foremost the patron of the legal or statutory aspect of religion.”5  Apollo links society and religion. He is fabricated form. He is exclusion and exclusiveness. Paglia argues that the Olympians as objets d’art symbolize social order. Roger Hinks says: “Olympian religion is essentially a religion of the successful, comfortable, and healthy ruling-class. The downtrodden peasant, harassed by the necessities of keeping body and soul together in a naturally unfruitful land, crippled by debt and social injustice, asked something very different of his gods: the Olympians bore a discouraging resemblance to his oppressors.” 6 Aristocracy is aboveness. The Olympians are authoritarian and repressive. What they repress is the monstrous gigantism of chthonian nature, that murky night-world from which society must be reclaimed day by day. (SP, 73) Those who follow Apollo, follow the sublime – the elevated style of fear and terror; the force of presence, rather than absence; transcendence, rather than immanence. The Apollonian is the enemy of decadence and the counter-sublime of the grotesque and macabre spirit of decay and waste, death and the beauty of formlessness…

The decadents would undermine the Sublime, Analytic (Kantian) or Romantic (Burkean). Decadent literature is essentially pessimistic, and sometimes brutally horrific, but this makes it all the more ruthless in demolishing the pretensions of rival philosophies. It mocks these rivals mercilessly, taking delight in questioning or overturning all judgments that are ordinarily taken for granted. Decadent artists have an avid hunger for sensation, which can sometimes override the overly simple distinctions which are normally drawn between the pleasant and the unpleasant, they know that horror is a stimulant. They also feel that there is some essential truth in horror: that the world is sick at heart, and that even the most obvious of evils— pain, death, and disease— might require aesthetic re-evaluation.7

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Pieter Claesz, Vanitas

During the Nineteenth Century 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. So that we can see this vision of the interplay of form and formlessness, Apollo and Dionysus as a battle within the cultural and political matrix and not just bound to artists in general. In fact I’d suggest that this tugboat or train has yet to finish playing itself out, and even in our own time with a turn toward the non-human and speculative realism vs. the anti-realism of the previous generation of post-moderns we’re seeing this same musical chairs routine under new metaphors, tropes, and conceptual guises.

According to Arthur Symons, Stéphane Mallarme likened the Symbolist and Decadent art style as the “pure work,” implying  the “elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields place to the words, immobilized by the shock of their inequality; they take light from mutual reflection, like an actual trail of fire over precious stones, replacing the old lyric afflatus or the enthusiastic personal direction of the phrase. The verse which out of many vocals remakes an entire word, new, unknown to the language, and as if magical, attains this isolation of speech.”  A movement toward music: “That we are now precisely at the moment of seeking, before that breaking up of the large rhythms of literature, and their scattering in articulate, almost instrumental, nervous waves, an art which shall complete the transposition, into the Book, of the symphony, or simply recapture our own: for, it is not in elementary sonorities of brass, strings, wood, unquestionably, but in the intellectual word at its utmost, that, fully and evidently, we should find, drawing to itself all the correspondences of the universe, the supreme Music.”8

scylla-and-charybdis_2

The Decadents and Symbolists were seeking Secular Book that would replace all those monotheistic sacred books that sought control over the minds and hearts of men, women, and children. Jacques Rancière in his Mallarmé: The Politics of the Siren presents Mallarme as neither an aesthete in need of rare essences and unheard-of words, nor the silent and nocturnal thinker of some poem too pure to be written. Mallarm is the contemporary of a republic that is seeking out forms of civic worship to replace the pomp of religions and kings. While Quentin Meillassoux in his The Number and the Siren: A Decipherment of Mallarme’s Coup De Des continues his  philosophical interrogation of the concepts of chance, contingency, infinity and eternity through a concentrated study of Stephane Mallarme’s poem Un Coup de Des jamais n abolira le Hasard, patiently deciphering its enigmatic meaning on the basis of a simple and lucid insight with regard to the unique Number that cannot be another . The Coup de des constitutes perhaps the most radical break in the history of modern poetry according to Meillassoux: the fractured lines spanning the double page; the typographical play borrowed from the poster form; the multiple interpolations disrupting reading. The decisive point of the investigation proposed by Meillassoux comes with a discovery, unsettling and yet as simple as a child’s game: All the dimensions of the Number, understood progressively, articulate between them but a sole condition that this Number should ultimately be delivered to us by a secret code, hidden in the Coup de des, like a key that finally unlocks every one of its poetic devices. Thus is also unveiled the meaning of the siren that emerges for a lightning flash among the debris of the shipwreck: as the living heart of a drama that is still unfolding.

So the Symbolists would notch up decadence into an almost hermetic art of secrecy, a Cabala of the modern Mind and Language, moving between the Scylla and Charybdis of an outmoded dead and dying civilization. Seeking in the counter-sublime, of a dark,and almost Qlippothic cabbalistic system of numbers and symbolic poetic and rogue thought, an imaginative invention of and use of a hyperstitional navigation system that would pass through the uncharted waters of epistemic doubt and ontological unknowns and unknowable’s, and into the new vision without being swayed between the destruction of the symbolic order of the Big Other, or the beckoning and illusory songs of the Sirens of a false promises, political catastrophe, or environmental annihilation. That  Mallarme sought to attain the state of pure music rather than Meillassoux’s state of pure math leads one to realize maybe they intersect at that point where time, rhythm, and the dance of language in the void of voids seem to give birth to meaning. Maybe in the end this is what we need, a way out of the labyrinth of anti-realist closure and finitude and a new symphony of sound and meaning that can give us once again both laughter and communication…

When Bataille once suggested that one might say, and indeed it has been said, that knowing means knowing how, but can we say that because we know how to provoke laughter we really know what causes laughter? It would seem, from the history of the philosophical study of laughter, that such is not the case, for it is, on the whole, the history of an insoluble problem. That which first seems so accessible has constantly eluded investigation. It may even be that the domain of laughter is finally – or so it seems to me- a closed domain, so unknown and unknowable is the cause of laughter. Is this not to ask the same of meaning and communication? Just because we can provoke it, can we also know what causes it? 9

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Modernism, not to be confused with Modernity – or, the Enlightenment project of progressivism – was a reaction against the tradition from Baudelaire to W.B. Yeats’s (i.e., the dark or Late Romanticsm Gothicism of Vampires and Hashish of Gautier/Baudelaire,  the Pre-Raphaelite’s with their endless reduplication of women, or the swing to allegorical and symbolic aesthetics in Stéphane Mallarme and his circle, on to the fall of Oscar Wilde and the English Decadents of the 90’s and beyond which would enter a new stage in the work of H.P. Lovecraft in the early twentieth century. Even Dadaism, Surrealism, and later formulations of art swinging between figural and abstract or the Bataillean informe of certain dissolute and formless artists would play out this dichotomous oscillation between Apollo and Dionysus up to our time.

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Gustave Klimt: Death and Life

Death, as the culmination of the process of degeneration, in time emerged as a central motif of fin-de-siècle Decadence, revealing a peculiar fascination not only for the death of beauty, but also death in beauty, the sublimely aesthetic experience of mourir en beauté (dying in beauty). In the Symboliste paintings of Gustave Moreau (1826–98) presented in Paris in 1876, as well as in the novella Hérodiade (1877) by Gustave Flaubert (1821–80). Moreau’s sensual paintings of Salome are also prominently featured in Flaubert’s novel that provided the clarion call of the late romanticism of the decadent movement, as well as the quintessential portrait of the aesthetic decadent hero: À rebours (Against Nature) (1884), by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848–1907). When Huysmans’s protagonist, the self-indulgent aristocrat Jean Des Esseintes, amuses himself by encrusting a tortoise with so many jewels that it dies, the evocation of beauty that leads to destruction can be said to have reached its most grotesque extreme. For the Symbolist painter Odilon Redon (1840–1916), Death personified was a beautiful goddess, a “divine refuge, a happy end to the misery of life”. In the fin-de-siècle experience, death and beauty go hand in hand, as in the case of the dwarf in Oscar Wilde’s tale “The Birthday of the Infanta,” who dies of grief when he realizes that he lacks beauty, and thus perforce must be deprived of love.

Such is the decadent aesthetic, a style – as Gautier would say “summoned to express all and to venture to the very extremes”. Decadence style, he would continue is a “language already veined with the greenness of decomposition, savoring of the Lower Roman Empire and the complicated refinements of the Byzantine School, the last form of Greek Art fallen into deliquescence; but such is the necessary and fatal idiom of peoples and civilizations where an artificial life has replaced a natural one and developed in a man who does not know his own needs.” (ibid.) One last flower from Gautier,

[T]he style of the decadence is no other thing than Art arrived at that point of extreme maturity that determines civilisations which have grown old; ingenious, complicated, clever, full of delicate tints and refinements, gathering all the delicacies of speech, borrowing from technical vocabularies, taking colour from every palette, tones from all musical instruments, forcing itself to the expression of the most elusive thoughts, contours vague and fleeting, listening to translate subtle confidences, confessions of depraved passions and the odd hallucinations of a fixed idea turning to madness. (CB, 221)


  1. Gautier, Théophile. Charles Baudelaire, His Life (English Edition) (Kindle Locations 59-61). LONDON  GREENING & CO. Kindle Edition.
  2. Baudelaire, Charles. Artificial Paradises (Kindle Locations 251-262).  . Kindle Edition.
  3. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy). Cambridge University Press; First Edition (US) First Printing edition (April 28, 1999)
  4. Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae (p. 73). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. The Greeks and Their Gods (Boston, 1955), 189.
  6. Harrison, Jane Ellen. Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion (Cambridge, England, 1912), 46.
  7. Stableford, Brian. Salome and other Decadent Fantasies (Kindle Locations 37-40). Ingram Distribution. Kindle Edition.
  8. Symons, Arthur. The Symbolist Movement in Literature. London, 1908.
  9. October 36: Georges Bataille – Writings on Laughter, Sacrifice, Nietzsche, Un-Knowing – Spring 1986
* Informe: “A dictionary begins when it no longer gives the meaning of words, but their tasks. Thus formless is not only an adjective having a given meaning, but a term that serves to bring things down in the world, generally requiring that each thing have its form. What it designates has no rights in any sense and gets itself squashed everywhere, like a spider or an earthworm. In fact, for academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat. On the other hand, affirming that the universe resembles nothing and is only formless amounts to saying that the universe is something like a spider or spit.——“Georges Bataille: “Informe. “Documents 7 (December 1929), p. 382.

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