Decadent Experience: Conservatism and Modernity

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At the core of literary decadence is a conflicted relationship with modernity. For some decadent writers, the onset of rapid social and technological change could usher in possibilities for living and loving in hitherto unimagined ways, yet for others of a more conservative hue, modernization was to be rejected, tradition embraced. This essay argues that experience can be used as a framework for articulating these very different forms of decadence. The essay begins with an exploration of aesthetic modernity as an attempt to articulate the shock of the new, whereby the experience (present) or sensation becomes the ground for the erosion of collective tradition (experience past). Decadent and aestheticist writers such as Walter Pater, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde embraced these new experiences, rejecting the “fruits of experience” as a ground for knowledge. In contradistinction to this valorization of sensation, I examine the “conservative” decadent aesthetic of Lionel Johnson and Michael Field. These writers’ embrace of nostalgia and jingoistic nationalism, I argue, demands we expand our current critical frameworks to more fully encompass the politics of decadence.

Edith Cooper (1862–1913), the younger half of the aunt and niece who published as Michael Field, wrote in Works and Days on New Year's Eve, 1893: “I do not yet realise where modernity is taking me.”Footnote1 Among decadent writers, she was far from alone in expressing anxiety at the dramatic social and technological flux of the fin de siècle. Along with her aunt, Katharine Bradley (1846–1914), she would use a wide range of literary forms to capture, but also to critique, the experience of modernity. Yet there was little consistency either to that experience or to the literary forms that decadent writers deployed to capture it. Defining the nature of that experience and how decadent literature might respond to it is the task of this essay. Our understanding of decadence has largely glossed over the ways in which it emerges out of the “destruction of experience” that, for Giorgio Agamben, is the constituent feature of modernity. Decadent writers, I argue, responded in two very different ways (often simultaneously): either by reveling in the immediacy of sensation or by valorizing the transmission of knowledge from the past. Of these two, the former has dominated our understanding of decadence, but the latter is just as significant. This latter strain, which I will articulate as a conservative one, will be my primary focus here as I offer two examples of writers whose work emphasized the power of tradition for confronting the experience of modernity: Lionel Johnson and Michael Field.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to) 667-687
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 09 Dec 2021


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