Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” (1895–96), by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Truth with a capital T is dead—let’s get that carcass out of the way first. No one book or person holds the answer to the meaning of life; we’re all just experimenting. Or we should be, because nothing deadens the spirit like an unquestioning devotion to established ideas.
This much, at least, has held from the decadent era of the late 19th century until today: We are all in search of personal little-t truths by which to live our lives. And as modern decadents, we live for the quest, because inspiration lurks in surprising spots: the overgrown garden of a Gothic country house, the cozy corner of a Parisian salon, the witty quips of a stage play, the whisper of a mythical peacock in your ear.
How will you find your truth? Any way that pleases you, because pleasure is your compass. Explore the world—every aspect of the world—and let your senses be your teacher, not some old man in a suit. Experimentation is beauty; morals are limiting and nasty. Did Oscar Wilde fret over his louche reputation? Did Charles Baudelaire? Gustave Moreau certainly did not, and Renée Vivien reveled in hers.
So push yourself. In saying yes to new experiences you will find your own philosophy, or at least have some very good times. And probably some scary ones. You will, in short, become an Aesthete: a person who considers beauty and pleasure to be the purpose of life. Forget morals and ethics; you are a disruptor of culture, a sometimes paradoxically pessimistic sensualist, a Dorian Gray on a Grand Tour of the seamy side of life, hoping that somewhere there’s an image that’s aging so you don’t have to.
In a word, you may decay inside—but you look fabulous. The decadents didn’t take time out to write a manifesto, and in fact they did not form an official movement. The name was largely slapped on by editors and journalists who needed a handy label for literature and art that were shaking the culture to the core. Some practitioners identified with the dream-laden Symbolist movement; some would have called themselves simply lovers of beauty and inevitably Aesthetes. They published together (sometimes reluctantly) in the magazines Le Décadent in France and The Yellow Book in England, and sometimes they were friends—but each was a rebel in their own way.
You too should feel free to make up your own terms. Only you can say when you’ve reached enlightenment—or how—or what enlightenment is. Meanwhile, prepare to shock and fascinate the world.
Are you ready? The experiment begins with a few easy questions.
Do you love beautiful clothes?
Who doesn’t? In this sense, whatever your personal taste may be, we are all decadent. You don’t have to dress up in head-to-toe velvet with a gold lace collar—but why don’t you? It will feel fantastic.
Oscar Wilde was the quintessential decadent and dandy—as witty as he was well-dressed, gently born but hobnobbing with déclassé artists; prolific in poetry, plays, and one exquisite novel at the pinnacle of decadent prose. When he began writing at Oxford, he decorated his rooms with peacock feathers, blue-and-white china, and sunflowers, a style of décor lampooned by lesser souls in later anti-Aesthete farces. He also gave the subculture its own recognizable style with his long, wavy hair, plush suits, and Little Lord Fauntleroy cravats and knee pants.
When Wilde’s ambitions were frustrated for a few years after he graduated in 1878, his 1882 tour through the United States, including the hard-drinking Wild (yes) West, is the stuff of legend. It was here that his first stage play, Vera, was performed, and here that he wrote archly for the New York Tribune that “fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months.” Take that to the bank—then withdraw enough cash to go on a real spree. You are inventing yourself.
A mere six years later, Wilde would fashion himself into a beloved writer of modern fairy tales for magazines … then, from 1890 to 1891, the deliciously outrageous Picture of Dorian Gray … followed by a number of brightly mordant stage plays, from Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) to The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). After Wilde’s arrest and prison sentence for homosexuality, his works took a dark turn into De Profundis and The Ballad of Reading Gaol—a less pretty sort of decay.
Wilde’s oft-quoted line “Life imitates art more than art imitates life,” from The Decay of Lying, could be the dandy’s motto, as we dress to look like the paintings and costumes we admire.
He is also happily remembered for zingers such as “I can resist anything except temptation,” “When her third husband died, her hair turned quite gold from grief,” and “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” You’ll find these genuine Wilde-isms and a slew of falsely attributed fakes now printed on T-shirts. Caveat emptor! Ask yourself, “Would Oscar ever have been caught wearing this?” Then neither should you.
The true dandy is also a true artist, wrote Max Beerbohm, who himself was both. Two of his offerings from the early 1890s, “The Incomparable Beauty of Modern Dress” and “In Defence of Cosmetics,” were published in his undergraduate lit mag and won him the friendship of the supreme Aesthete himself. It is no accident that Beerbohm’s prose style, like his subject matter, bears a strong similarity to Wilde’s, whom he called “the Master” and “the Divinity.” But whereas the Divinity suffered after his imprisonment and died at age forty-six, the apostle enjoyed a long career as a satirist and illustrator, author of Zuleika Dobson—and a dandy who sported a quintessential twisty mustache till his death at eighty-three.
Or perhaps you’d like to travel in the opposite direction, toward ugly-pretty and Aubrey Beardsley. He once declared, “If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.” Indeed, Wilde said the young man was rather peculiar in appearance, with “a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair”—but Beardsley was also a snazzy overdresser, fond of morning coats and yellow gloves. As an independent artist and as editor of The Yellow Book, his black-and-white illustrations helped define the look of the 1890s—just hunt for Vera Historia, a True Story of perverse events expressed in elegant lines, or for his simultaneously elegant and ribald edition of Wilde’s Salome. He died in 1898, at age twenty-five; we can only wonder where else his imagination, and those yellow gloves, might have gone.
Whatever your tastes, your art truly begins on your body. Live like Dorian Gray (or his creator) in satin and brocade, with great hair products and skin care. Imagine yourself inside a sensual painting by Gustave Moreau or Gustav Klimt; spritz perfume everywhere. Your life must be a constant sensual treat.
Will you trust your senses?
If the clothes are tempting but you need a Let’s Go to the lifestyle, begin with J.-K. Huysmans’s 1884 novel, A rebours—translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature. You’ll find a chapter-by-chapter exploration of the senses, instructive and inspiring to a generation of writers. A rebours is generally believed to be “the poisonous French book” that fascinates Dorian Gray. Like so many sensational French novels, it came in a yellow cover, and so yellow was to be one of the decadents’ banner colors.
A desk jockey for the Ministry of the Interior by day, Huysmans exploded into notoriety when he set his shady semi-autobiographical protagonist, Jean des Esseintes, against the grain of polite society: “soaring upward into a dream, seeking refuge in illusions of extravagant fantasy,” as Huysmans explained in a preface penned later. Of the novel itself he wrote, “each chapter became condensed into an essence of jewellery, perfumes, religious and secular literature, profane music, and plain-chant.”
Live that dream and sample the philosophy in the Goth country house to which des Esseintes has retreated. You’ll tend a garden of poisonous plants. Decorate the walls with pictures by Moreau and Odilon Redon. Sigh over the poems of Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire. Kiss a cherry-lipped member of your own sex. You might even choose artificial flowers over real ones; a decadent is forever conscious that art can improve upon nature. But please, we beg you, do not implant jewels into the shell of a live turtle, as happens in one of the most infamous chapters; this is not good for the turtle or for your soul.
Maybe, amid all this experience, your soul will sicken toward pessimism. In that case, perhaps you’d like to return with des Esseintes to Paris, where you still have a lot to see and do.
Or skip over to Italy for a few hours with devil-may-care playboy Gabriele D’Annunzio, another admirer of Huysmans and Wilde. His 1889 novel The Pleasure (Il Piacere) suggested that fulfillment lies in loving first one married woman, then another, and then both—while seducing, say, seven more—dueling with one husband—and losing both lady loves in the end. Where to go after so much sheer event, not to mention a lot of rather preciously alliterative language? To The Triumph of Death and The Flame of Life, plus a series of plays so scandalous that the Vatican placed all of D’Annunzio’s works in the Index of Forbidden Books … which, of course, ensured that they are high on the TBR lists of future decadents.
For an ultimate experience of the lifestyle, we’d pay a call on Eric Stenbock, the Swedish count who set up an indulgent household in London. An alcoholic, drug addict, and animal lover, he kept a small zoo in his back garden, and his bedroom was home to an assortment of snakes, salamanders, and other reptiles and amphibians. He traveled with a dog and a pet monkey—and a life-size doll he tended and referred to as his son, the Little Count. (He may actually have believed himself. As we shall see, hallucinations are part of decadence.) While his greatest art was his very odd life, he also wrote some morbidly fixated poetry and prose in English, including Love, Sleep, and Dreams; The Shadow of Death; and Studies of Death. (You can’t say decadent without decay.)
The decadents’ most beloved painter, Gustave Moreau, summed up the attitude: “I believe neither in what I touch nor in what I see, only in what I feel. My inner feeling alone appears to me eternal and unquestionably certain.” In true Symbolist style, he expressed that feeling prolifically in fantastical, lushly colored paintings that draw on dreams and visions as much fairy tales. In his seductively dreamy Les Licornes of around 1887, gorgeously jeweled ladies are entwined with two wide-eyed unicorns; another favorite is his sly Peacock Complaining to Juno of 1881.
Moreau, fittingly, liked his work much more than he liked other people, and in fact he largely chose to keep it for himself. He refused to sell much of it, so when he died in 1898, his collection numbered more than 1,200 paintings and 10,000 drawings. He ended up leaving them to France—making him paradoxically a misanthropic philanthropist (or at least a generous narcissist) and one of very few artists with his own Paris museum. Salvador Dalí, himself no stranger to sensual indulgence, used to recommend the Musée Gustave Moreau “to those I love,” saying that to visit is “to plunge into this twilight world where, risen from the gulf of erotic and scatological obsession, constellations of precious stones float like so many promises of archangelical redemption.” Share that gorgeousness with someone you love too—or take after Moreau and keep it all to yourself.
You know what to do. Your senses show you the way to follow your bliss. If you create your own kind of beauty, in time the world may come to you—but only if you let it.