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Decadent Writings: A Petit Guide for the Flâneur

It was with surprise and joy that I discovered the existence of La Societe des Flâneurs in my home-town of Liverpool and was therefore prompted to pen this article which I hope will be of interest to those members who are of a literary bent. As an ageing sybarite with neither the time nor the private income to indulge my proclivities to any excess I have of late delved into a number of tomes linked to the decadent movement of the 1880s in France and the 1890s in England.

The idea of the flâneur is very much a creation of the late nineteenth century, to experience the sites and sounds of the city, to indulge ones senses with a miasma of sight, sound, taste and touch. To flan is to walk arm in arm with little Henry Toulouse Lautrec through the streets of Paris to the Moulin Rouge for a skin full of absinthe before returning to the brothel to sleep it off the arms of an available doxy. (Incidentally Lautrec was known as the coffee pot by the whores with whom he resided because he was short but had a big spout.)

This little guide is intended to push those with an interest on a voyage of discovery so the works discussed below are not reviewed or analysed ad nauseam but rather introduced to the prospective reader.

The French decadents of the 1880s certainly influenced their later English counterparts so it would be best to begin with Baudelaire and his seminal ‘Flowers of Evil’. Plenty of poems involving death, booze and genuine awfulness abound in this one and it will certainly put the dilletante in the right mindset for this adventure. It is the strength of feeling expressed which has the power to shock. There are a number of poems of bitter gall addressed to former lovers and a fair number of toothless whores included. Readers would do well to read Baudelaire’s essays on booze and hash entitled, ‘On Wine and Hashish’ which offer an erudite view of the effects of both upon the mind of the flâneur.

We move on to the original decadent handbook, J.K. Huysmanns, ‘A Rebours’. This book was to influence Wilde and Beardsley et al tremendously and is an essential read for anyone trying to understand the standpoint of the movement. The book which is without plot and features only one character, a dissolute fellow named Des Esseintes who uses his substantial income to indulge himself in numerous artificial digressions of the senses. The numerous set pieces include his attempts to make a young man into a murderer and the lavish party thrown to commemorate the death of his libido. The increasingly bizarre nature of Des Esseintes indulgences push him towards ill health and a surprise conclusion.

Wilde’s famous and strangely moral Dorian Gray is well known and involves the seduction of a young man’s morals by the decadent creed with ensuing ghastliness to follow.

For a drier, historical over view of the ideas, personalities and work of the English decadents the reader should take a dip into Passionate Attitudes by Mathew Sturgis.

Finally for some entertaining and strange Conan Doyle-esque mysteries with decadent leanings one should look at the works of occultist horror writer Arthur Machen.

I understand that the flâneurs of the society will able to digest this stuff with an air of amused distraction. The adoption of the decadent philosophy and standpoint is not one to be taken lightly however and those who saw it through to the bitter end either went mad or killed themselves due to amongst other things the fundamental lack of compassion and interest in anything at all other than ones decay. Either that or they converted to Roman Catholicism in an extreme volte face just when death was closing in a la Aubrey Beardsley. To be a true decadent one is always bored, always lugubrious, always depressed. In a way it was a pre-cursor to post-modern disinterest in anything at all with real emotional content, the artificial is all. After working my way through this lot I felt like I needed a read of Cider with Rosie and the Vicar of Wakefield to add a touch of wholesomeness to proceedings.

Dom Newton is a Liverpool musician who has worked with the Retrosexual Burlesque, Howard be thy Name and Doktor Combover in need of venues and events to promote his projects which include the Preacher and his Gay Victorian Vampire Hunter concept.

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Baudelaire, Charles. Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil)

Baudelaire, Charles. On Wine and Hasish

Huymanns, J.K. A Rebours (Against Nature)

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sturgis, Mathew. Passionate Attitudes The English decadence of the 1890s

Machen, Arthur. The Red Hand, The White People, The Three Imposters, The Hill of Dreams

The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Not the Decadent Handbook which isn’t great).