I. Definitions. The meanings of the noun decadence and the adjective decadent are intensely problematic, and one must take care to discriminate the various meanings each term has within particular contexts. The starting point is the observation that both noun and adjective are rooted in the word decay. What, precisely, is conceived to be in a state of decay, and whether said state is positive or negative are questions that are not easy to answer. Here are some basic discriminations:
A. National or political decline. As a historical term, decadence often refers to a late period of empire, with the fall of Rome as the paradigm case. Some imagine that Rome fell because of internal weaknesses that in turn resulted from social corruption and excessive indulgence in rarefied pleasures. In this view, overcivilization or overrefinement result in a sense of apathy and a feeling of unworthiness that involves the wish for renewal from without—the desire for a fresh infusion of barbarian blood. This is an important meaning of decadence because the late nineteenth century is also an age when different empires begin to unravel; hence both the French and the English imagine that they are experiencing periods of national decadence. This idea of decadence, then, attaches primarily to two historical periods: the late Roman empire and the late nineteenth century, with the former period providing a sort of cultural template for the latter.
B. Degeneration. The notion that declining empires are populated by overcivilized weaklings involves the idea of degeneration, which may denote something simple like infertility, but with the more important connotation that conditions of infertility or impotence are the result of excessive, unhealthy pleasures that have replaced the normal, healthy desire to propagate and preserve the species. Hence to be decadent in this sense involves an active antagonism to nature. In the nineteenth century, the German eugenicist Max Nordau wrote an influential book titled Degeneration (published in German in 1892, in French in 1893, in English in 1895) in which he argued that degeneration was a condition of evolutionary atavism; that is, certain members of the human species were “throwbacks” to an earlier period of evolutionary “development.” Nordau explains contemporary art almost exclusively in terms of pathological symptoms resulting from atavistic degeneration. For example, Impressionist painters are degenerates whose eyeballs vibrate and so prevent them from seeing the world as it really is.
C. Cultural decline (negative sense: decadent art). The sense of cultural decline that accompanies the loss of imperial power often involves imitative, mannered forms of artistic expression that seem dead and lifeless because of an empty but excessive investment in formalistic details (unoriginal, derivative, formulaic art). This is one of the more traditional meanings of decadence: it involves the basic organic metaphor that different kinds of art go through ages of youth, maturity, and senescence.
D. Cultural decline (positive sense: art of decadence). Decadent art and the art of decadence are not necessarily the same thing: art produced under conditions of perceived social or political decadence might very well involve special forms of artistic expression that capture the cultural conditions in operation as the overcivilized city or nation approaches its end. At such times classical rules of art are abandoned in favor of new and unusual forms of expression. Théophile Gautier described the language of Baudelaire’s poetry as “le style de décadence” because it seemed to him perfectly suited to articulate the complexity of cultural decline, social decay, and personal corruption. An important idea here is the concept of literary style modeled on decay: just as a body falls apart as it putrefies, so the page gives way to the sentence,