THE DECADENT RESPONSE I: USELESSNESS AND WITHDRAWAL
It was argued in the previous chapter that art, for the bourgeoisie, had a function: to promote the bourgeois way of life, and, as a consequence, art was useful, and the artist's life was similarly useful and purposeful. In a similar manner to how didactic/useful art corresponds to the useful and productive bourgeois way of life, the 'art for art's sake' doctrine, that the Decadent artists adopt, is representative of the Decadent way of life, which is unproductive and 'useless'. It will become apparent that their (the Decadents) conception of art and life as 'useless' is a response towards bourgeois capitalist society and its insistence on purposefulness, productivity and utility. For the Decadents, life is purposeless and useless, in the sense that it has no foreseeable goal, and art is likewise without purpose or use. Art, which exists for its own sake, is merely a pleasurable device that brings some comfort to an otherwise meaningless and painful existence.
I will begin this chapter with an analysis of one of the earliest conceptions of the art for art's sake doctrine: Théophile Gautier's preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835), which Christa Satzinger (1994) claims is "one of the most influential books of the nineteenth century" (p. 171). The preface presents some of the key themes of Decadent art and life, including the uselessness of human existence, and the view of art as a consolation to this fact. I will then look at the analogies between Gautier's and Arthur Schopenhauer's views on both life and art through an examination of Schopenhauer's aesthetics in The World as Will and Idea (1819). Schopenhauer, whose pessimistic theories were a significant influence on Decadent and Symbolist artists, believed that an individual can escape from the harsh realities of the world through aesthetic contemplation. Schopenhauer also instigates another key theme: world-weariness and pessimism, which I will discuss in conjunction with Joris-Karl Huysmans novel A Rebours (1884). I, therefore, will look at Decadence as both a literary movement, and as a lifestyle which strived after non-conformity and "the virtues of individualism" (Ellis, 1969, p. xiv).
In response to the prominence of didactic/useful art, and society's (in the form of journalists and critics) insistence on productivity and utility, Gautier wrote his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835). Ross Chambers (1989) claims that Gautier was concerned with the July Monarchy (1830-1848) of Louis-Philippe (1773-1850), which had taken an "authoritarian turn" (p. 711). This 'authoritarian turn' sees a 'rehabilitation of virtue" (Gautier, 1981, p. 19). The virtuous concerns of society intrude upon the work of the artist, and the artist's life. One such intrusion which Gautier (1981) speaks of is religion: "Christianity is so in vogue in the present mood of hypocrisy" (p. 22). In the previous chapter it was shown that bourgeois capitalist society merged religion with its own values and that art depicted this amalgamation; therefore, religion also became conflated with art. Gautier (1981) claims that "Every newspaper serial turns into a pulpit; every journalist becomes a preacher" (p. 20). Gautier complains that, when the public sees vice, nudity and crime, it focuses on those aspects alone. But, for Gautier, it is not immoral to depict such things, as they are merely a part of the fabric that makes up a piece of art. Gautier (1981) states that it is "ridiculous to say that a man is a drunkard because he describes an orgy" (p. 34). Gautier (1981) believes that is rather "the character who speaks and not the author" (p. 34).
Thus Gautier defends art's depiction of 'irreligious' subjects on the grounds that they do not necessarily represent the artist's disposition. But there is another aspect to religion's conflation with art: the idea of the artist's responsibility to be useful - to offer a beneficial moral commentary that will of some use to society. In response to these demands on the artist, Gautier defends art and the artist from the responsibilities of utility and social rectification. Social reformers, such as Dickens and Gaskell, look at art and ask: "What is the use of this book? How can one apply it to moralization and to the wellbeing of the largest and the poorest class? What! Not a word about the needs of society, nothing civilizing and progressive!" (Gautier, 1981, p. 36). In reply to the altruistic and philanthropic concerns of the social reformer, Gautier (1981) states "No, imbeciles, no, idiotic and goitrous creatures that you are, a book does not make jellied soup; a novel is not a pair of seamless boots" (p. 36). By humorously associating 'jellied soup' and 'seamless boots' with utility, Gautier intensifies his ridicule of utilitarian concerns in art. Also, it seems that Gautier is stating that what is useful for society is tangible, such as 'seamless boots', rather than art, which is ethereal and insubstantial. The only use for art is in being beautiful, which will now be discussed.
Thus, for Gautier, art is not a tool for society's use; instead, the things that are useful for society are tangible - unlike art. Gautier (1981) claims that "Nothing is really beautiful unless it is useless; everything useful is ugly, for it expresses a need, and the needs of man are ignoble and disgusting" (p. 39). The lavatory, for example, is the most functional and useful place in the home, yet it is hardly the most beautiful. Art, conversely, is useless, in the sense that it has no use-value for Gautier, and is, therefore, beautiful. This conception of art is at odds with capitalist society, which regards everything from the point of view of utility and productivity. Yet Gautier goes further than just describing art as useless. For Gautier (1981), life itself is also useless: "there is very little use in our being on earth and being alive. I defy the most learned of the company to say what purpose we serve" (p. 38). But enjoyment rectifies life's futility for Gautier, and art is one such pleasure that redeems life's purposelessness. Therefore, Gautier's preface outlines some key Decadent principles regarding art, life and bourgeois capitalist society. For Gautier, life lacks any observable purpose, and art, which likewise is 'useless', offers enjoyment, which remedies life's futility.
Gautier's conception of art and beauty as a solution to life's futility shares similarities with Arthur Schopenhauer's theories on aesthetics, which are outlined in his work The World as Will and Idea (1819). According to David Berman (1995), "no philosopher before Schopenhauer has assigned such an exalted place to art" (p. xxx). However, the 'exalted' place that Schopenhauer assigns to art is due to a more pessimistic outlook on life than Gautier's. For Schopenhauer, life is merely a long insatiable process of 'willing', which makes the life of the individual unhappy and dissatisfied. Human purposes are ruled by 'wills' which make life appear to have purpose. But, for Schopenhauer, all human purposes, although they appear to be purposeful, are actually an illusion (Bell, 2007, p. 27), which is similar to Gautier's view of life's uselessness. Life is, therefore, merely a useless process of dissatisfaction and unhappiness due to desires or 'wills', which are themselves purposeless. Although Schopenhauer's world-view is bleak, he does, similarly to Gautier, see aesthetic contemplation as a temporary escape from the 'will'. Art, therefore, offers an escape from the confines of the 'will' and gives purpose to an otherwise purposeless life of insatiable desires. But how and why can aesthetic contemplation offer this temporary release from the 'will'?
Schopenhauer adopted Plato's Theory of Forms. Plato believed that the objects and concepts inherent in this world are the corrupted versions of archetypal Forms found in another, metaphysical realm (cited by Berman, 1995, p. xxix). Therefore, in this world we only perceive an impure version of those archetypal Forms. Schopenhauer (1995) believed that, through mimesis, art reproduces those archetypal Forms, or as he calls them 'Ideas': "Art … repeats or reproduces the eternal Ideas grasped through pure contemplation" (p. 108). Art, therefore, is the only communicator of these 'eternal Ideas'. It is also important to note that Schopenhauer mentions 'pure contemplation' in conjunction with grasping these 'Ideas'. What he means is that, in order to see those 'eternal Ideas', the individual must contemplate art in a certain way - a point which I will now discuss.
Schopenhauer believed that only a certain type of person is able to contemplate art in a way that is beneficial: the genius. The genius, for Schopenhauer, is someone who, like Gautier, leaves all desires and ideas of utility outside of the contemplation of art - and sees art for its own sake. Schopenhauer (1995) states that "genius is the power of leaving one's own interests, wishes, and aims entirely out of sight" (p. 109). This method of viewing art without searching for utility, places Schopenhauer firmly in favour of the art for art's sake doctrine, and at odds with the bourgeois capitalist's construal of art. Those who do not approach art "wholly disinterested" are, for Schopenhauer (1995), a "mass-product which Nature daily manufactures by the thousand" (p. 111). One such 'mass-product' is the bourgeois capitalist, who is not able to see art free from personal interest and utility, as the capitalist mindset searches for productivity and utility. The Decadent artist, on the other hand, is able to attain the disinterestedness that is required from aesthetic contemplation.
Disinterested perception is, therefore, the process by which aesthetic contemplation becomes fruitful. Schopenhauer (1995) believed that the goal of aesthetic contemplation is to "lose oneself in perception, and to withdraw from the service of the will" (p. 109). Whilst under the preoccupation of aesthetic contemplation, you forget that you are an individual with desires and cares, and, therefore, you escape the insatiable 'will'. Also, aesthetic contemplation gives purpose to a life that is purposeless. Yet, aesthetic contemplation is only a temporary escape from the 'will'. Eventually, aesthetic contemplation is interrupted by the demands of life. A more permanent way to escape your will, Schopenhauer believed, is by totally withdrawing from society, and, hence, living the solitary life of the ascetic (which I will discuss shortly).
I have now examined four key themes that are important to Decadent artists and which are also interconnected: the rejection of bourgeois values, world-weariness and life's futility, art's autonomy, and art's reconciliation of life's uselessness. I will now discuss another Decadent theme in response to bourgeois principles: withdrawal. Laurence M. Porter (1997) states that "French fin-de-siècle novelists usually responded to the society of their times in one of two contrasting ways, attack or withdrawal" (p. 99). Whereas Gautier (although he is not strictly a fin-de-siècle novelist) attacked society through his preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin, Des Esseintes, the protagonist of Joris-Karl Huysmans' novel A Rebours (1884), responds to society in withdrawal. I will now turn to the solitary withdrawal from life that Schopenhauer saw as the only lasting way to reject the will and the ridiculousness of life by looking at Huysmans' novel.
In a similar manner to both Gautier and Schopenhauer, Huysmans saw the ridiculousness of life. Havelock Ellis (1969) states that "No one ever had a keener sense of the distressing absurdity of human affairs than M. Huysmans" (p. vi). Although Gautier's criticism of bourgeois society was not only serious, but light-hearted and even at times humorous, Huysmans' protagonist Des Esseintes, whom Ellis (1969) claims is the "mouthpiece of his [Huysmans] most personal judgements" (p. xii) is more serious and severe in his criticisms of the bourgeois world. The world-weariness of Schopenhauer, which is adopted by Des Esseintes, is blamed squarely on the bourgeoisie and their moral values. For Des Esseintes, the rise to power of the bourgeoisie signalled the "destruction of all intelligence, the negation of all honesty, the death of all art" (Huysmans, 1997, p. 205). Once society becomes intolerable for him, Des Esseintes retreats into a "refuge from the incessant deluge of human folly" (Huysmans, 1997, p. 6). This hermitic refuge becomes a place where Des Esseintes can rid himself of his world-weariness and ennui by indulging in the aesthetic contemplation of a Schopenhauerian genius, and also by practicing his eccentric sensualistic experiments.
The aesthetic contemplation that Des Esseintes desires is only possible for him in his hermetic retreat due to the bourgeois capitalist world's "lively hatred of all his own ideals, such contempt for literature and art and everything he himself adored" (Huysmans, 1997, p. 25). The world which Des Esseintes escapes from is a hypocritical and stifling world which oppresses the opinions of those who chose not to conform to its ideology. Des Esseintes states that:
the apostles of freedom, the wiseacres of the bourgeoisie, the thinkers who clamoured for entire liberty - liberty to strangle the opinions of other people - to be a set of greedy, shameless hypocrites, whom as men of education he rated below the level of the village cobbler. (Huysmans, 1997, p. 6)
Bourgeois capitalist society, which prides itself on democratic progress and liberal, laissez-faire politics, uses that liberty to stifle the opinions of those who live and view life differently - a point which I will expand on in my analysis of the harsh treatment of Oscar Wilde. Des Esseintes' withdrawal from the hypocritically oppressive world allows him to indulge in solitary aesthetic contemplation and idiosyncratic pleasures, which are forbidden in bourgeois society due to their worthlessness in the capitalist process.
As mentioned above, Des Esseintes' withdrawal from society permitted him the liberty to indulge in his eccentric pursuits and aesthetic perceptions, without the intrusion and interference of the hypocritical thinkers and "wiseacres of the bourgeoisie" (Huysmans, 1997, p. 6). Des Esseintes' solitary hedonistic life negates the purposeful life of the bourgeois capitalist by refusing to contribute towards the capitalist process. Des Esseintes' hermitic lifestyle is also significant as it negates another aspect of capitalism - family and reproduction. Laurence M. Porter (1997) states that Des Esseintes' withdrawal, which Porter likens to a return to the womb, "represents an attempt to defy family by refusing to reproduce it" (p. 96). Des Esseintes' enforced sexual abstinence, something which Schopenhauer practiced during his life, repudiates bourgeois values of production and family. As mentioned in the previous chapter, the bourgeoisie saw family as the continuation of the bourgeois way of life. Therefore, Des Esseintes negates the bourgeois productive life by withdrawing from society, and, as a consequence, removing any possibility of sexual reproduction - a theme which will be discussed further in an analysis of Oscar Wilde's homosexuality.
Therefore, this chapter has presented some key Decadent themes, which will be expanded on in the next two chapters. It was shown that Decadent artists rejected bourgeois morality and the conception of art as an ethical vessel. The Decadents disregarded the insistence on didactic/useful art, and instead followed the doctrine of art for art's sake. The Decadent view of life as meaningless and purposeless was also discussed, as was aesthetic contemplation as a means to reconcile life's futility. Also, Schopenhauer's influence on Decadent literature was explored, especially his pessimistic world-weariness, which Des Esseintes adopted in his retreat from society and his negation of purpose, usefulness and reproduction. Therefore, life was shown to intertwine with art - the uselessness of art was linked to the uselessness of life. I will begin the next chapter by discussing Charles Baudelaire's conception of the dandy and the flâneur who likewise reject utility. Unlike Des Esseintes, the dandies and flâneurs are societal figures; yet, they nevertheless share Des Esseintes' idleness, non-conformity, and rejection of usefulness and purpose.