By Susan Tomaselli
“Decadence is a difficult word to use since it has become little more than a term of abuse applied by critics to anything they do not yet understand or which seems to differ from their moral concepts.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Decadence, we are told by Stuart Kelly, is “like most artistic phenomena…easy to recognise and hard to define.” From the Latin de-cadere, and an aesthetic that flourished in the late 19th century best embodied by French poet Charles Baudelaire and other like-minded “bards of pessimism, disease and the grave”, decadence involves “a falling down or falling off.” What rogue publishers Dedalus offer here is “a useful companion for anyone hoping to embark on a life of debauchery, aesthetic refinement and their constant shadow companion, terminal ennui.” Edited by Rowan Pelling (of the Erotic Review), The Decadent Handbook, is
“an anti-lifestyle guide for people who wish to transform the spirit of the age, or, failing that, ignore it altogether. It’s for all those who seek respite from the worst banalities of modern existence: property ladders, yummy mummies, footie daddies, loyalty cards, friendly bacteria, Glade air freshener, decking, Coldplay, The Da Vinci Code and Natasha Kaplinksy. The Handbook seeks not to instruct, but to offer diverse inspirations.”
“What the fuck does a mummy from Cambridge know about decadence?” barks artist Sebastian Horsley in his ‘Anti-Contribution’. “You pose as outré but you are about as decadent as the St Trinian’s hockey team.. Middleweight, middlebrow, middle-aged, middle-income, middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middle-Enlgand, middling twats.”
Despite such protests from His Royal Lowness – remember, this from a man who crucified himself in the Philippines for art – Rowan Pelling has done a fine job. She acknowledges her short-comings, saying she “would doubtless fail the practical examination but might score a few points in the appreciation and theory papers. What would-be hedonist doesn’t enjoy the vicarious pleasures and perversions of the decadent movement of the arts?”
What would-be hedonist, indeed? Convincing those contributors who are still alive to accept remuneration in absinthe, there are many varied takes on what decadence constitutes and who, drawn from a veritable ragbag of scruffy dandies, hard-drinking libertines and other dead literary hooligans, makes the ultimate Decadent. For Professor Nicholas Royle, it’s Michel Foucault (“a smiling Foucault opened the door: such a scene was revealed, of bodies in action behind the host, that she felt she had no option but immediately to hurry Her Majesty’s cousin away. Pressed by others for further details of what exactly she and the other young woman had witnessed that night, she could not be induced to say another word”); while for Nick Groom it is not just the generic rock star (“an image of reckless foppishness, a vision of intoxication, a grand carelessness and ritualistic squandering of genius”), but Gary Glitter in particular (“whether you like it or not, he is a true outcast – and may be the most decadent rock star on the planet”); and Stuart Kelly makes a persuasive argument for Robert Louis Stevenson, a decadent of the Scottish variety, and not as oxymoronic as you would first think (“with more sunlight, a different doctrinal inheritance and more money in his pocket, he might have been a Caledonian Huysmans“).
Anne Billson‘s ‘Decadent Career’ started with the book Dreamers of Decadence, was launched in earnest with Les Fleurs du Mal, stalled for a while with her failed attempts at being a femme fatale, before finally flourishing in Paris when she expects it least. Philip Langeskov reckons “there is almost nothing to be said for the decadent who has not been seriously ill, or at least given the appearance of being so.” “Life is life,” he says, “but a Decadent life is living.” As “the decadent has a lust for experience that is all consuming,” so “illness..has a lust for bodies whose attentions are elsewhere directed.”
Taking refuge in what Baudelaire called ‘les Paradis artificiels’ of drink, drugs and dreams, musician John Moore gets his rocks off in Bonnigton Square, an essay that probably comes closest to Horsley’s own debasement:
“To watch your blood swirl up into the brownish mixture you are about to introduce to your body is a glorious negation – Life is not sacred, it is something to be played with, interfered with, by those without medical certificates, altered for amusement and risked for nothing more than selfish pleasure.”
Maria Alvarez conjures Snowball, an imaginary butler “required to indulge in all the debaucheries and pleasures we had grown too tired and bored to enjoy ourselves”; Xavior Roide has the most fashionable address in London (Shoredietrich); Helen Walsh extends the weekend and champions ‘Mad Monday’ (more decadent than deviant sex and Hip Hotels, where drinks are 99p); Erich Kuersten celebrates the bender (“all but forgotten as a legitmate form of self-exploration and abuse”); with its “seductive passivity” and the “communal sensory stimulation,” not to mention the “scopophilia, voyeurism, narcissism and masochism,” Isabelle McNeill makes watching films truly perverse; and Louise Welsh imagines her own funeral: “There will be no pious requests for no flowers please at my send-off. I want gangster wreaths with tributes spelt in flowers.”
Christopher Moore sees no shame in resorting to a guidebook, and what better than Michel Houellebecq‘s Atomised? In ‘Fast-Food and Fellatio, The Quest for Houellebecq,’ Moore uses incidents from that fabled book and sets out to see Paris through the eyes of half-brothers Michel and Bruno. The adventure includes visits to Monoprix, sexual encounters in McDonalds, quaffing the Pape and climaxes with some harsh words from a French friend: “Relating my heroic trip, I tell her decadence is in the mind and is all about context anyway. She tells me I am a trenchant loser and that only the English think M.H. is cool.”
The decadent travel continues with ‘El Hombre Indelible’, in which dandy Dickon Edwards (photographed with the obligatory lobster on a leash in one of the book’s few illustrations) fills in the imaginary blanks in a humorous piece on what happened in December 2005 when Pogues front-man Shane MacGowan buggered off to Morocco before the band’s re-union. “Often bracketed next to George Best and Ozzy Osbourne, as if all legendary over-indulgers are alike,” MacGowan is yin to Edwards’ yang, “English and Irish; White Suit and Black Coat; Innocence and Experience.” Treading in the footsteps of Paul Bowles and William Burroughs, a pleasant time is had by all. Edwards writes that “decades of Decadence have damaged parts of his brain, ..the parts for walking and speaking..have paid the price,” a detrimental toll that results in both being refused passage from Tangier airport.
And yet, despite extracts from the Earl of Rochester, Ocatve Mirbeau, Oscar Wilde, Guillaume Lescable and J.K. Huysmans (and mentions of Verlaine, Rimbaud and the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Byron and his entourage), despite the feast of sex, death and subversion between these covers (and the many pieces not mentioned thus far and worth a read), the Romans, as William Napier gleefully points out, got there first:
“To truly achieve Roman levels of decadence you will need a great deal of money and no scruples. You will also want a menagerie of wild animals, some obedient slaves with no appreciation of their human rights, and amourous inclinations towards at least one other member of your immediate family.”
Empress Theodora exhausted “as many as thirty lusty young slaveboys in a single night,” Tiberius liked to cover his penis in “bread-crumbs so that mullet would come and nibble at it,” Nero liked to dress in animal skins and attack the genitals of those who offended him and Heliogabulus dined on the “smallest, most superficial part of the largest or rarest animal and then throw the rest away.” Caligula, though, takes the biscuit:
“Caligula was so proud of his inamorta that he had a little amphitheatre built specially, where for a denarius or two, the unwashed multitude could come and gawp at their Divine Emperor buggering his sister on stage. He also liked to have another partner involved, ideally the North African gladiator Superbus, who would bugger him at the same time as he was violating his cherished sibling. Incest, homosexuality, exhibitionism, group sex and even a kind of prostitution all in one. Quite a feat of the decadent imagination.”
In comparison, Belle de Jour‘s contribution, ‘The Story of B’, is rather tame.
The Decadent Handbook edited by Rowan Pelling