Fanatic of the Decadents

Now that you mention it, yellow does feel to me like the color of disease and decay. Maybe that’s a holdover from my days as fanatic of decadent literature reading the early issues of the Yellow Book.

—Thomas Ligotti

Interviewer: How much of an influence did the Decadents have on your work?

TL: The Decadents were an extension of Poe. He was the writer who, through the translations of Baudelaire and others in France, really legitimized morbidity as a literary subject as well as a worldview. The French already had a tradition of cynicism, morbidity, and pessimism from the eighteenth-century works of authors like Sade, Chamfort, and La Rochefoucauld. I believe that this made them receptive to Poe’s anti-life-affirming genius. He not only appealed to the negative spirit in French writers, but he did it with consummate artistry and technique, which are essential to transmitting one’s attitudes. If Poe had been a bad writer, nobody would have taken notice of him. Even though there already existed a philosophical tradition of morbidity and pessimism going back to the Greeks in the Western tradition, it wasn’t until Poe came along that poets and fiction writers could feel free to express these feelings in literary works. Take the first couple sentences of “Berenice”–” MISERY is manifold. The wretchedness of earth is multiform.” Who in earlier Western literature would have dared to open a short story in this manner except perhaps for the purposes of parody? Poe’s authority in the literary sphere inspired others throughout the world to align themselves with him under the same black flag. In the United States, it wasn’t much of leap from Poe’s declaration in “Berenice” to Lovecraft’s opening of “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”–” Life is a hideous thing . . . .” This is the form of Decadence that has always interested me–the freedom, after thousands of years under the whip of uplifting religions and the tyrannical politics of the positive–which are nothing more than a means for crowd control–to speak to others who in their hearts could no longer lie to themselves about what they thought concerning the value, or rather lack of value, of human life.

 

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