Book Review: Decadence in the Age of Modernism

Kevin Neuroth (Humboldt University of Berlin)

Kate Hext and Alex Murray (eds.), Decadence in the Age of Modernism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019)

Over the past decade, decadence studies have been newly revitalised. In 2017, the Decadence Research Unit, which encompasses the British Association for Decadence Studies as well as the online journal Volupté, was founded. Decadence and Literature, an extensive essay collection edited by Jane Desmarais (Goldsmiths, University of London) and David Weir (Cooper Union) was published by Cambridge University Press this August.

In this context, we are also seeing a reevaluation of the relationship between decadence and modernism, which, for most of the twentieth century, has been an uneasy one. As Vincent Sherry (Washington University in St Louis) demonstrated in his seminal book Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (2014), there has been an ‘occlusion of decadence from the critical understanding of modernism’[1]. Sherry shows that for both early modernists and later literary critics, decadence was a problematic concept that troubled the exclusivity of modernism’s claim, memorably coined by Ezra Pound, to ‘make it new’. As a result of this exclusion, we are only beginning to forge a more nuanced understanding of the role of decadence in the formation of literary modernism.

Kate Hext (University of Exeter) and Alex Murray’s (Queen’s University, Belfast) new essay collection Decadence in the Age of Modernism is a welcome addition to this conversation. Their overview of the field starts with a similar diagnosis of omission: ‘Critical narratives of early twentieth-century literature’, they write in their introduction, ‘have been complicit in the erasure of decadence after Wilde’ (p. 2). The aim of their collection is to trace the various afterlives of decadence in the early- and mid-twentieth century in order to show the various ways in which modernist innovations were fuelled by engagements with decadent writing.

There are relatively few discussions of canonical modernist authors to be found here. Instead, the essays bring into focus many critically neglected figures, such as the novelist Ronald Firbank. In his equally informative and enjoyable essay, Ellis Hanson (Cornell University) notes that Firbank’s ‘unplaceability in a narrative of tradition may be the most queer and decadent thing about him’ (p. 120). Firbank’s novels, he suggests, perform a ‘languorous and distracted drift that defies every imaginable boundary’ (p. 124). Hanson’s essay illustrates the wider project of Decadence in the Age of Modernism, which is to think seriously about the subversive potential of decadence. As Hext and Murray note, ‘the main thread that draws together these twentieth-century innovators in the decadent tradition is their defiant place outside the dominant culture and their use of decadence to critique prevailing ideologies of politics, gender, and sexuality’ (p. 12).

Throughout this collection, it crystallises that it was this critique, more so perhaps than the perceived stasis of its aesthetics, that may explain why decadence produced such firm antagonism in many early modernists. As Kirsten MacLeod (Newcastle University) demonstrates in her chapter ‘The Queerness of Being 1890 in 1922: Carl Van Vechten and the New Decadence’, ‘the association of decadence with homosexuality and effeminacy was a key part of what made it suspect to writers such as Pound, Lewis, and T.S. Eliot in a modernist discourse that was often homophobic and mysogynistic’ (p. 230).

One of the most persistent features of scholarly work on decadence has been its reception as an essentially inner-European phenomenon. Often, the history of decadence is told as one of cultural exchanges between cities such as Paris, London, Berlin and Vienna. It is therefore refreshing that Decadence in the Age of Modernism widens the picture by adopting a decidedly Anglo-American approach. As such, one can find numerous figures here who have so far not belonged to the familiar cast of decadence studies. One example is the writer and painter Bruce Nugent, described by Michèle Mendelssohn (University of Oxford) as a ‘larger-than-life’ (p. 253) character. Nevertheless, Mendelsohn points out in her chapter, his work remains underappreciated in histories of both the Harlem Renaissance and literary modernism. Mendelsohn highlights the distinctness of Nugent’s ‘direct, unabashed treatment of homosexuality and bisexuality’ (p. 251), arguing that he ‘created black queer modernity’ (p. 253).

What also becomes clear in Decadence in the Age of Modernism through discussions of writers such as Nugent are long-term lines of influence that stretch from decadence to, for example, camp aesthetics. For Hext and Murray, both are ‘[languages] of sexual dissidence’ (p. 19). Described by Susan Sontag in her essay ‘Notes on Camp’ (1964) as an ‘unmistakably modern [sensibility]’[2], camp is indeed hardly imaginable without decadence. In turn, Hext and Murray also rightly point out that the very recovery of decadence as a field of study has been ‘greatly helped since the late 1980s by the influence of Queer Criticism and Gay Studies’ (p. 7).

Precisely periodising and defining the terms decadence and modernism has always been a difficult – and perhaps ultimately unsolvable – enterprise. In a sense, Hext and Murray have found a productive way around this conundrum by speaking of the ‘age of modernism’, thus incorporating works not commonly seen as modernist in their own right but which are usefully discussed in its context. However, this approach does risk further blurring terminology that is already somewhat shaky. For example, Joseph Bristow’s (University of California, Los Angeles) reading of Margaret Sackville’s poetry – though very illuminating – could have placed its subject’s work somewhat more explicitly in relation to both terms.

But such are minor criticisms. On the whole, Decadence in the Age of Modernism is a considerable accomplishment that offers much to discover. Among the most interesting contributions is Sarah Parker’s (Loughborough University) chapter on Edna St Vincent Millay, who, in 1936, was one of the first women to translate the French poet Charles Baudelaire’s Flowers of Evil (1857) into English. ‘For [T. S.] Eliot’, Parker explains, ‘Baudelaire was to be rescued from fin-de-siècle decadence and rehabilitated as a key inspiration for modernist poets’ (p. 143). By contrast, Millay’s modernism was forged not in opposition to, but in dialogue with, decadence. What the essays in this volume collectively show is that this dialogue was often most intense in the works of writers such as Firbank, Millay and Nugent, who have long been on the fringes of our understanding of modernism. As such, Decadence in the Age of Modernism succeeds in reconceptualising the relationship between decadence and modernism in a way that does more justice to its fascinating variety.


Sources

[1] Vincent Sherry, Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 21.

[2] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin, 2009), p. 275.

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