The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)

This one ended up being a Low Res Scan for a few different reasons.

First, I was feeling a bit lazy last January when I read it and didn’t make notes on every story.

Second, there are a lot of stories and a few poems in this book, 18 French pieces and 18 English pieces. It’s a sampler of British and French literary Decadence.

Third, a lot of the stories are quite short and a review risks spoiling their often surprise endings.

Fourth, not all of the pieces were fantastic. Since the blogging madness has to have some kind of limit, I don’t normally review fiction that isn’t fantastical in some way.

Review: The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins), ed. Brian Stableford, 1990, 1993.

If this book just had Stableford’s long introduction, it would still be worth reading. Stableford has been writing about weird and decadent fiction almost as long as he’s been producing critical work on science fiction. Here, he produces a useful history and definition of Decadent fiction

Decadence is a concept going back to Montesquieu’s writings on the fall of the Roman Empire, and the first true Decadent work was Charles Baudelaire’s poetry collection Fleurs de Mal in 1857. Decadent fiction was a short-lived phenomenon in France in the 1880s and works in it are sometimes cataloged in the Symbolist movement (which, in my vague understanding, involves non-realistic narratives with allegorical symbols). 

The English Decadent movement was in the 1890s, and, after Oscar Wilde’s conviction for sodomy, few people wanted to be associated with the label. 

Stableford usefully lists Decadent fiction’s primary themes: a celebration of artifice and skepticism of the Romantic ideal of nature (that virtue reposes in nature), impuissance (the feeling of powerlessness), and spleen (an angry melancholy). There was also a drug element. Sometimes, as in Théophile Gautier’s case, drugs were taken under supervision of medical men; however, in other cases, like Arthur Rimbaud seeking his “rational derangement of the senses”, they were not. 

The prevalent Decadent notion was that artistic genius was closely linked to neuroticism. Many characters in Decadent fiction were neurasthenics thus Edgar Allan Poe is an influential figure – Baudelaire idolized him.

It was said that, for the true Decadent who wanted to live the Decadent lifestyle (which was not every one – Rachilde led life as a respectable middle-class woman), there were only two possibilities: suicide or the foot of the cross. Many Decadents did turn toward religion in their later life, and many committed suicide. 

The strain of English Decadence showed up more in stories set in the future. H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine can be seen as having Decadent elements in the Eloi. 

Stableford says that there were many Russian Decadent writers in the early 1900s, and he points to a few Decadent outliers in America: George Sterling and Clark Ashton Smith. Mostly, though, America, with its belief in progress and the efficacy of activity, was very unsuited to generating Decadent writing. 

The attitude of the Decadents living, as they believed, in a decaying world, could be likened to falling from a plane. Without a parachute, it is fatal and short. With a parachute, the experience can be relished, and the landing is soft. The true Decadent thought he lived in a decaying world, but there were plenty of experiences to be sought out though not always through sex or drugs.

Other writers, sometimes associated with the Decadents, didn’t produce work in that vein because they were too interested in political action (thus violating the idea of impuissance) or, like Wilde, in presenting morals. The Decadents eschewed the idea of finding a moral order in nature or tradition and convention.

Stableford provides specific information, though not complete bios, on many of the authors included in the anthology and some that aren’t.

Here are some of the works that venture into the land of the fantastic.

The Glass of Blood” from Jean Lorrain, gives us a take on anti-romantic love when a beautiful and famous woman marries a widower just to be near his daughter. There’s plenty of artifice in this tale, and blood drinking too.

In “The Grape-Gatherers of Sodom” from Rachilde, we learn what the city was like before it became the notorious city of the Bible. It expelled its women and letting one back in corrupted the place.

Remy de Gourmont’s “Danaette” is perhaps a symbolic tale that spends a lot of time on the artifice of lingerie and, perhaps, also explores the idea of impuissance.

It’s another attack on romantic love and a look at the perverseness of a lover’s nature in Catulle Mendès’ “The Black Nightgown”. A man thinks lingerie he hasn’t seen before in his returned laundry means his lover is unfaithful. It’s just a mistaken delivery, but his lover spins a tale about how it symbolizes her mourning when he isn’t around.

Charles Baudelaire’s “The Double Room”, a prose poem, bears the definite mark of Poe’s influence in its anger at “unbearable, implacable life”.

Poe actually gets mentioned in “The Possessed” by Jean Lorrain, and the story is reminiscent of Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd”. Its protagonist is increasingly disgusted by the appearance of the people he sees in public. They are decadence embodied, and the narrator comes to realize he plays his part in this “dreadful hell”. Recreational ether use too.

The Faun” from Remy de Gourmont seems to be another critique of romantic love and society at large. After a party, a woman is upset that, while her husband is solicitous of her in public, he ignores her in private. She conjures up a fantasy of a faun to ravish her. (Though a faun may actually show up.) Then, at the last moment, she is overcome with shame at her fantasy and sees herself naked in body and soul in an empty room.

Rachilde’s “The Panther” is another attack on the idea of virtue being found in nature. It’s also a perverse anti-Aesop fable, specifically a take on his “Androcles and the Lion. We hear about a panther that doesn’t kill Christians in the Coliseum. It is punished. One day a Christian girl feels sorry for it and tends it as its dying of neglect and wounds. The panther kills and eats her.

Old Furniture” by Catulle Mendès is a tale about the insincerity of lovers, to each other and to the greater world. An adulterous woman and her lover keep breaking furniture in a hotel room. She complains they will be disgraced if they ask for furniture to be repaired; the world will know she has been seeing another man. So, they have the furniture secretly repaired. Despite her complaints, the woman continues in the affair and more furniture is broken. The solution to the problem is simple: complain about the room and ask for another.

Don Juan’s Secret” from Remy de Gourmont spins another anti-romantic love story using that arch romantic figure. Here Don Juan confronts Death. He asks to relive all his memories of his conquests now that he is a “shadow of his former self”. Death agrees, but, in reliving those memories, Don Juan realizes an “elementary truth”. He has become like a rich man without his wealth or a flyer without wings.

The Court of Venus” from Aubrey Beardsley is full of allusions, opulent descriptions, and overly long – probably because it’s an excerpt from Beardsley’s Under the Hill). In it, Venus meets up with Tannhauser in her court. The two, surely the greatest among lovers, are trundled off to bed at the end of the story, specifically compared to children, so this one can definitely be considered to be an anti-romantic story

Ernest Dowson’s “The Dying of Francis Donne” is the contemplations of a doctor who knows he’s dying and goes off to Breton and a village of people he doesn’t know. I’m not sure why Stableford considers it Decadent – possibly because no consolation offered in religion.

R. Murray Gilchrist’s “The Basilisk” is a strange story with many enigmas. I get that its central character, Marina, is speaking metaphorically, speaking about an inhibited ability to love, when she says she saw a Basilisk when young and is now “stone”. She seems to think she is unsuited to reciprocate her suitor’s love. She also speaks of a sacrifice she can’t make just for “short bliss”. But she does make that sacrifice and with unclear results. 

I’m also not sure why the anthology includes Count Stanislaus Eric Stenbock’s “The Other Side”, a rather boring werewolf tale. Perhaps it’s the futility of life highlighted by frequent religious quotes.

John Davidson’s “A Somewhat Surprising Chapter” is a funny satire on Nietzsche overmen and the decadent pursuit of pleasure and abandonment of romantic love – with some flagellation thrown in. Some men are taken by woman to the Underground Hotel, sort of a world within a city, and whipped. One decides a woman he meets there is his true love, and he proposes to her. He’s immediately hauled into a “court” for this sin of expressing such feelings and expelled from the hotel. This is the first part of Davidson’s The Wonderful Mission of Earl Lavendar.

I’ve liked the Vernon Lee I’ve read, so I was happy to see her “Pope Jacynth” in this anthology. As you would expect, the prose is lush, and there are plenty of references to art. The story is perhaps Decadent for its shocking portrayal of God and Satan (were laymen really forbidden in the Catholic Church from reading Job, another story of a bet between God and Satan). Satan gives Otho aka Pope Jacynth everything to tempt him: good looks, strength, intelligence, and wisdom. He’s made pope and, even though he has done good works, Satan successfully accuses him of being “vainglorious”. Satan gets Otho’s body and soul, but God gets his heart which is “full of love and hope in His mercy” – which seems an ill-founded hope given that God gives him over to Satan. Perhaps Stableford considers this a Decadent story because of its attack on conventional morality – Otho does everything right and still loses.

The Nightingale and the Rose” from Oscar Wilde is definitely Decadent by virtue of being anti-romantic. A nightingale gives its life so a student can have a red rose to present to his “love” who asked for it. She is fickle and still turns him down due to his poverty. The student condemns the idea of love and goes back to his books not realizing the nightingale’s sacrifice is an exhibit of selfless love

Ernest Dowson’s “Absinthia Taetra” is a prose poem which seems to suggest that taking absinthe will change nothing.

James Elroy Flecker’s “The Last Generation” is a fine example of futuristic decadence. An intelligent wind takes the protagonist into the future (after he rejects the option of going into the past). He witnesses a violent revolution which starts in Birmingham and takes over the world. Civilization is destroyed, a mass sterilization drug is developed, and humanity will be forced to die out. There is amusing bit with the Mutual Extermination Club in Germany. A woman who evaded sterilization has her baby torn from her and killed. British volunteers keep things going civilization-wise. Food has been stored up so people can live lives of pleasure with no work until humanity dies. The Florentine League, the youngest members of humanity, chose a decadent life of artifice.  (The whole story is a renunciation of Romantic nature worship.) The narrator calls the Florentines “dead aesthetes”, so Flecker is attacking Decadents too. The “prophet” who started the revolution shows up and declares he was wrong in his revolutionary goals. He says he now envisions a greater plan. He realizes he has simply brought an end to one cycle of humanity. The story ends with the last two men on Earth. One dies. The other crawls to a Crucifix, and a new cycle is born with apes making fire. It all seemed more amusing in January than now when we have our own fads intent on destroying civilization

I can’t say I liked all the stories, but there were some authors I’d like to read more of, and Stableford definitely succeeds, in his introduction and story selection, in illustrating what is meant by Decadent fiction.

4 thoughts on “The Dedalus Book of Decadence (Moral Ruins)

  1. If you’re interested in Decadence, I highly recommend: From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present- 500 Years of Western Cultural Life by Jacques Barzun. Brilliant work!

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