The Bohemian Theory of Decadence

Luc van Braekel, managing editor of The Brussels Journal, has given generous and handsome treatment to my essay on “Poe and his Frenchman, and Baudelaire and his Americans.”  The article is a worked-up version of remarks made at last November’s Baltimore meeting of the H. L. Mencken Club, whose theme was “decadence.”  The subtitle is “The Bohemian Theory of Decadence.”  The essay explores a line of influence passing from Joseph de Maistre and Edgar Allan Poe to Charles Baudelaire and from Baudelaire to a group of American genre-writers of the first half of the last century.

I offer a sample –

Baudelaire, following de Maistre, regarded modernity as a recursion to sacrifice; and quite on his own, Baudelaire also regarded modernity as effeminate, as an abdication of manhood hence also of procedure, discrimination, and moral rigor. For Juvenal, too, with an invocation of whom the present discourse began, the decadence of society appeared, if not exclusively, yet signally, in effeminacy and the abdication of manhood, noticeably in the prevalence of eunuchs and homosexuals among the trend-setting, taste-making elites of the Imperial City, but also in the appropriation of religion by women. (The scholarly consensus, by the way, is that Juvenal was himself homosexual.) In Juvenal again, the reader discovers an anticipation of Baudelaire. What is the satirist’s image of the descent of the social order into formlessness and grossness? In Satire VI, Juvenal records a symptomatic ruckus in the forum: “Now here come the devotees / of frenzied Bellona, and Cybele, Mother of Gods, with a huge eunuch, a face for lesser obscenities to revere.” Rome has indeed, in Juvenal’s day and as he sees it, become one great continuous multicultural and feminist celebration, marked by the “solemn rant,” “Horoscopy,” and ready access to “the abortionist’s arts.”

2 thoughts on “The Bohemian Theory of Decadence

  1. An Alaric or a Theodoric. People forget (or they never knew) that the Gothic kings were, as a rule, thoroughly Romanized aristocrats who wanted to preserve the civilized order. But we can also see the Gothic kingdoms as items in a list of secession from a corrupt and ineffective Imperial administration in the West.


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