Decadentism [decadent movement]

Decadentism (or decadent movement) is an artistic and literary movement developed in France and then spread to the rest of Europe, between the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, which opposes the rationality of scientific positivism and naturalism.

The term “decadentism” derives from the French adjective décadent, initially indicated a literary current formed in France around 1880, as a reaction to parnassian poetry and positivism. A poem by P. Verlaine (Langueur, from the collection Jadis et naguère, 1883), in which the poet compares himself to the Roman Empire at the end of its decadence, while “watching the passage of the great white barbarians, composing indolent acrostics”, provided opponents of the poets who were inspired by the model of Ch. Baudelaire (in addition to Verlaine, A. Rimbaud, S. Mallarmé, T. Corbière, etc.) the pretext to call them with the derogatory term of décadents: but those poets assumed as a title of merit the epithet of mockery and gathered around some magazines, the best known of which was Le Décadent by A. Baju, published since 1886.

The term has two explicit meanings: the negative one, used by critics in a derogatory sense, referring to the new generation of poets cursed that gave scandal inciting the rejection of bourgeois morality, placing themselves outside the norm both in artistic production and in the practice of life; and the positive one, later claimed by the poets themselves, understood as a new way of thinking, as diversity and estrangement from the bourgeois society.

This theme of “social decadence” and the crisis of values with strong existential implications was taken up by a group of writers, who founded in 1886 a magazine under the name of Le Décadent, which dealt precisely with the various aspects of the crisis. Two years earlier, in 1884, the poet Paul Verlaine had published Poètes maudits, a work dedicated to his three friends Tristan Corbière, Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud, who became known as the “cursed poets”. This qualification dressed the exponents of decadentism of a certain mythical aura, which will continue in their epigones.

The new art, aimed at the search for refined musicality and precious nuances, consecrated new forms of costume, evoked in the novel by J. K. Huysmans À rebours (1884), whose protagonist, Des Esseintes, lover of inimitable artifice in hatred of all conformity, became the exemplary model of the “decadent”. In the meantime, within the movement, the Symbolist current was enucleated, which, baptized by J. Moréas, found in Mallarmé its recognized master.

Around 1890, with the triumph of symbolism, there is no longer in France a decadent school in the strict sense, but decadentism, understood in the broadest sense, spread to almost all modern European literature, identifying with the very culture of the twentieth century. In this more general meaning, decadentism is the expression of a relationship now of adherence now of revolt of intellectuals against the ruling class, which has replaced the great nineteenth-century ideals with imperialism and exaggerated nationalism, and, proposing a mode of existence dominated exclusively by profit, has worsened class conflicts.

The decadent poetics is born, which rejects the literary techniques based on the logical and rational value of the word and searches for new techniques, which leverage the evocative elements and phonic suggestions to penetrate the mysterious zone of the unconscious. Analogies of decadent attitudes and conceptions are found in various literatures. In England, decadent premises are present in the works of J. Ruskin, W. Pater, A. C. Swinburne, D. G. Rossetti, a typical exponent of English decadentism is O. Wilde, next to which is to remember W. B. Yeats.

In Germany, where the origins of decadent attitudes are to be found in the Romantic heritage and in the music of Wagner, we remember the personalities of S. George, R. M. Rilke, H. von Hofmannsthal. Great importance has in the development of decadent taste Belgian literature of French language, especially with G. Rodenbach, É. Verhaeren, M. Maeterlinck, while in the Scandinavian countries decadent elements can be found in the works of personalities such as the Danish J. Jørgensen, the Norwegian H. Ibsen, and the Swedish J. Jørgensen. Ibsen, and the Swedish J. A. Strindberg. A lyric of decadent taste is affirmed in Spanish literature, from A. Machado to J. Ramón Jiménez, and Portuguese, with E. de Castro.

Russian literature made an original contribution to decadence with V. S. Solovëv, V. J. Bryusov, A. Belyj, F. Sologub, and A. A. Blok. Still to be remembered: in Poland, S. Przybyszewski; in Hungary, I. Madách; in Romania, M. Eminescu; in Greece, K. Kavafis; while in the literature of the United States, decadentism, which has in E. A. Poe its precursor, is mediated in particular forms that are found up to E. Hemingway.

Italy has provided a European model of decadentism with G. D’Annunzio, especially with his novel Il Piacere (1889); but no less decadent, under provincial and rural forms, is the taste of a poet like G. Pascoli. The Italian germs of decadentism then developed, beyond the crepuscular and futuristic experiences, in some forms of hermetic poetry. Today, decadent is generically defined as those art forms that overcome or alter reality by breaking it down into evocation, analogy, symbol, and introspective research.

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