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Decadence was the name given, first by hostile critics, and then triumphantly adopted by some writers themselves, to a number of late nineteenth century fin de siècle writers associated with Symbolism or the Aesthetic movement.
The idea of decadence refers to the supposed decline of a society because of moral weakness. The favourite example of this is ancient Rome, where, the story has it, a great empire was laid low by wicked emperors like Nero. Few bother to mention that Rome collapsed after generations of Christian rule. The more dissolute emperors (Nero, Caligula, etc) were often hundreds of years before the end of the empire . The concept of decadence dates from the eighteenth century, especially from Montesquieu. It was taken up by critics as a term of abuse after Désiré Nisard used it against Victor Hugo and Romanticism in general. A later generation of Romantics, such as Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire took the word as a badge of pride, as a sign of their rejection of what they saw as banal "progress." In the 1880s a group of French writers referred to themselves as decadents. The classic novel from this group is Joris-Karl Huysmans' Against Nature . As a literary movement decadence is now regarded as a transition between Romanticism and Modernism.
In modern use, decadence is often defined as a decline in or loss of excellence, obstructing the pursuit of ideals. It is typified by the elevation of cleverness, education, and intellectual pretension over experience, and is often considered materialistic.
Vladimir Lenin continued and extended the use of the word "decadence" in his theory of imperialism to refer to economic matters underlying political manifestations. According to Lenin, capitalism had reached its highest stage and could no longer provide for general development of society. He expected reduced vigor in economic activity and a growth in unhealthy economic phenomenon, because society was ripe for socialist revolution in the West. Politically, World War I proved the decadent nature of the advanced capitalist countries to Lenin, that capitalism had reached the stage where it would destroy its own prior achievements more than it would advance.
Followers of Trotsky have split over the extent to which to uphold Lenin as against Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution. However, followers of Stalin have generally defended the "decadence" thesis of Lenin's theory of imperialism against Trotskyists. Trotskyists tend to stress that capitalism in the West is still progressive and marching forward technologically with the steady accumulation of capital. Followers of Lenin such as Stalin and Mao have argued that there is nothing left for imperialism to do but die, because it has nothing progressive to contribute anymore.
One who directly opposed the idea of decadence as expressed by Lenin was José Ortega y Gasset in The Revolt of the Masses (1930). He argued that the "mass man " had the notion of material progress and scientific advance deeply inculcated to the extent that it was an expectation. He also argued that contemporary progress was opposite the true decadence of the Roman Empire.
- Richard Gilman, Decadence: The Strange Life of an Epithet.
- Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity.
- Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony.
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