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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Decadent Culture - the Rome Connection

Readers, bear with me. There is a Rome connection.

Design of monocled figure,
from The Chap-Book (1894)

The picture at right is a representation of “decadent” culture. Decadent culture was always a minority culture, but it was important. It peaked in Europe and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s and again in the 1920s.

Oscar Wilde
Decadence is related to the word “decay,” and a culture of decadence emerges and flowers at those moments when nations are perceived to be in decay. In Europe, this sense of decay tracks the beginnings of the decline of European empires, or the perception that a given national economy is in decline (for example, the English economy in the late 19th century). In the United States, a sub-culture of decadence emerges when the idea grows that the great American “frontier” is closing, taking with it the frontier strengths and virtues of independence, individualism, and manliness. In both the European and the US situations, some people—those involved in the culture of decadence—

Gabrielle D'Annunzio, poet
flyer and Fascist, in an unusual pose
begin to think that their nations are populated by overcivilized weaklings. Not only do they hink that, but they ACT IT OUT, presenting themselves as examples of these overcivilized, overschooled, exhausted weaklings, as dudes and dandies caught up in their own personal version of erotic, immoral, pessimistic, bored decadence—and, oddly enough, enjoying it in a perverse sort of way. There were sub-cultures of decadence in most large US cities, each with their own ways of acting out and presenting decadence. The Boston decadents celebrated Oscar Wilde. And in Chicago there was a small circle of admirers of—hey, we’re getting to Italy here—the Italian poet Gabrielle D’Annunzio.

Which brings me to Rome. The connection is really quite straightforward. While the decadents were mainly concerned about decline and decay in their own societies, the MODEL for decline was ancient Rome. According to a well-known theory of decay and degeneration, “in Rome, at the Decline, we find precisely as at the present day, an unraveling of all moral bonds, ferocity in manners, unsparing egotism, sensualism and brutality; we find multitudes whose loathing of life impels them to suicide.”

The American decadents believed there was a very close relationship between the decline of the Roman Empire and the decline of the United States in the Gilded Age of the late-19th century: both were caused by a society that valued great wealth and the acquisition of things (economic man) over love, women, and making babies. “Taking history as a whole,” wrote one decadent, women seem never to have more than moderately appealed to the sense of the economic man. The monied magnate seldom ruins himself for love, and chivalry would have been as foreign to a Roman senator under Diocletian, as it would be now to a Lombard Street banker.” American architecture of the period, so the comparison went, was just as taudry, ostentatious, and overly adorned as the Roman architecture of the third century. Chicago’s lavish, sumptuously adorned White City fair of 1893 was as decadent as Caracalla’s over-elaborate baths.

You can read all about Roman decadence in Edgar Saltus’s Imperial Purple (1892). His motto was “I am, therefore I suffer.” Here’s how Saltus imagined a banquet in Augustan Rome: “…the guests lay, fanned by boys, whose curly hair they used for napkins. Under the supervision of a butler the courses were served on platters so large that they covered the tables; sows’ breasts with Lybian truffles; dormice baked in poppies and honey; peacock-tongues flavored with cinnamon; oysters stewed in garum—a sauce made of the intestines of fish—sea-wolves from the Baltic; sturgeons from Rhodes; fig-peckers from Samos; African snails; pale beans in pink lard; and a yellow pig cooked after the Trojan fashion, from which, when carved, hot sausages fell and live thrushes flew.” I can’t wait to try a fig-pecker.

With thanks for your indulgence, and thanks to David Weir’s Decadent Culture in the United States (2008).


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great photo of the flyer there..and a topic that never seems to go out of style..the last we read on the topic however was Cullen Murphy's "Are We Rome?" (though we dont imagine he is a Decadent per se)