An orgy in Imperial Rome, by Henryk Siemiradzki

Decadence can refer to a personal trait, or to the state of a society (or segment of it). Used to describe a person's lifestyle. Concise Oxford Dictionary: "a luxurious self-indulgence". Oscar Wilde gave a curious definition: "Classicism is the subordination of the parts to the whole; decadence is the subordination of the whole to the parts."[1]

In social context, the word 'decadent' is often used to describe corrosive decline due to an erosion of moral, ethical, and sexual traditions.

In literature, the Decadent movement—late nineteenth century fin de siècle writers who were associated with Symbolism or the Aesthetic movement—was first given its name by hostile critics, and then the name was triumphantly adopted by some writers themselves. These "decadents" relished artifice over the earlier Romantics' naïve view of nature (see Jean-Jacques Rousseau). Some of these writers were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe.




Sporty Parisian dandies of the 1830s: a girdle helped one achieve this silhouette. The man on the left wears a frock coat, the man on the right wears a morning coat

A dandy[2] (also known as a beau, or gallant[3]) is a man who places particular importance upon physical appearance, refined language, and leisurely hobbies, pursued with the appearance of nonchalance in a cult of Self.[4]

The model dandy in British society was George Bryan "Beau" Brummell (1778–1840), an undergraduate student at Oriel College, Oxford, and an associate of the Prince Regent, who was not from an aristocratic background and whose greatness was "based on nothing at all," as J.A. Barbey d'Aurevilly observed in 1845.[5] He was ever unpowdered, unperfumed, immaculately bathed and shaved, and dressed in a plain, dark blue coat,[6] perfectly brushed, perfectly fitted, showing much perfectly starched linen, all freshly laundered, and composed with an elaborately knotted cravat. From the mid-1790s, Beau Brummell was an early incarnation of the celebrity.

During his heyday, Brummell's dictat on both fashion and etiquette reigned supreme. His habits of dress and fashion were much imitated, especially in France, where, in a curious development, they became the rage, especially in bohemian quarters. There, dandies sometimes were celebrated in revolutionary terms: self-created men of consciously designed personality, radically breaking with past traditions. With elaborate dress and idle, decadent styles of life, French bohemian dandies sought to convey contempt for and superiority to bourgeois society. In the latter 19th century, this fancy-dress bohemianism was a major influence on the Symbolist movement in French literature.[citation needed]

Charles Baudelaire was deeply interested in dandyism, and memorably wrote that a dandy aspirant must have "no profession other than elegance ... no other status, but that of cultivating the idea of beauty in their own persons ... The dandy must aspire to be sublime without interruption; he must live and sleep before a mirror." Other French intellectuals also were interested in the dandies strolling the streets and boulevards of Paris. Jules Amédée Barbey d'Aurevilly wrote The Anatomy of Dandyism, an essay devoted, in great measure, to examining the career of Beau Brummell.[citation needed]

George Walden, in the essay Who's a Dandy?, identifies Noël Coward, Andy Warhol, and Quentin Crisp as modern dandies.

Decadent movement

Pornocrates by Félicien Rops. Etching and aquatint

Decadence was the name given, originally by hostile critics, to a number of late nineteenth-century writers who valued artifice over the earlier Romantics' naïve view of nature. Some of them triumphantly adopted the name, referring to themselves as Decadents. For the most part, they were influenced by the tradition of the Gothic novel and by the poetry and fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and were associated with Symbolism and/or Aestheticism.

This concept of decadence dates from the eighteenth century, especially from Montesquieu, and 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 Théophile 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, often seen as the first great decadent work, though others attribute this honor to Baudelaire's works.

In Britain the leading figure associated with the Decadent movement was Oscar Wilde.

The Symbolist movement has frequently been confused with the Decadent movement. Several young writers were derisively referred to in the press as "decadent" in the mid 1880s. Jean Moréas' manifesto was largely a response to this polemic. A few of these writers embraced the term while most avoided it. Although the aesthetics of Symbolism and Decadence can be seen as overlapping in some areas, the two remain distinct.

1920s Berlin

This fertile culture of Berlin extended onwards until Adolf Hitler rose to power in early 1933 and stamped out any and all resistance to the Nazi Party. Likewise, the Nazis decried Berlin as a haven of vice.[clarification needed] A new culture developed in and around Berlin, including architecture and design (Bauhaus, 1919–33), a variety of literature (Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz, 1929), film (Lang, Metropolis, 1927, Dietrich, Der blaue Engel, 1930), painting (Grosz), and music (Brecht and Weill, The Threepenny Opera, 1928), criticism (Benjamin), philosophy/psychology (Jung), and fashion.[citation needed] This culture was often considered to be decadent, and socially, morally, destructive.[7]

Film was making huge technical and artistic strides during this period of time in Berlin, and gave rise to the influential movement called German Expressionism. "Talkies", the Sound films, were also becoming more popular with the general public across Europe, and Berlin was producing very many of them.

The so-called mystical arts also experienced a revival during this time-period in Berlin, with astrology, the occult, and esoteric religions and off-beat religious practices becoming more mainstream and acceptable to the masses as they entered popular culture.

Berlin in the 20s also proved to be a haven for English writers such as W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, who wrote a series of 'Berlin novels', inspiring the play I Am a Camera, which was later adapted into a musical, Cabaret, and an Academy Award winning film of the same name. Spender's semi-autobiographical novel The Temple evokes the attitude and atmosphere of the place at the time.

Use in Marxism


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 the general development of society. He expected reduced vigor in economic activity and a growth in unhealthy economic phenomena, reflecting capitalism's gradually decreasing capacity to provide for social needs and preparing the ground 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.[8]

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.[9]

Left communism

Decadence is an important aspect of contemporary left communist theory. Today more or less all left communists hold that a theory of decadence is necessary in order to be a Marxist[citation needed]. Similar to Lenin's use of it, left communists, coming from the Communist International themselves started in fact with a theory of decadence in the first place, yet the communist left sees the theory of decadence at the heart of Marx's method as well, expressed in famous works such as The Communist Manifesto, Grundrisse, Das Kapital but most significantly in Preface to the Critique of Political Economy.[10]

Contemporary left communist theory defends that Lenin was mistaken on his definition of imperialism (although how grave his mistake was and how much of his work on imperialism is valid varies from groups to groups) and Rosa Luxemburg to be basically correct on this question, thus accepting capitalism as a world epoch similarly to Lenin, but a world epoch from which no capitalist state can oppose or avoid being a part of. On the other hand, the theoretical framework of capitalism's decadence varies between different groups while left communist organizations like the International Communist Current hold a basically Luxemburgist analysis that makes an emphasis on the world market and its expansion, others hold views more in line with those of Lenin, Bukharin and most importantly Henryk Grossman and Paul Mattick with an emphasis on monopolies and the falling rate of profit.


  1. ^ Chamberlin, J. Edward (1977). Ripe was the drowsy hour: the age of Oscar Wilde. Seabury Press. p. 95.
  2. ^ "One who studies ostentatiously to dress fashionably and elegantly; a fop, an exquisite." (OED).
  3. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. "dude, n. U.S. A name given in ridicule to a man affecting an exaggerated fastidiousness in dress, speech, and deportment, and very particular about what is æsthetically ‘good form’; hence, extended to an exquisite, a dandy, ‘a swell’." 
  4. ^ Cult de soi-même Charles Baudelaire, "Le Dandy", noted in Susann Schmid, "Byron and Wilde: The Dandy in the Public Sphere" in Julie Hibbard et al. , eds. The Importance of Reinventing Oscar: versions of Wilde during the last 100 years 2002
  5. ^ Barbey d'Aurevilly, "Du dandisme et de George Brummell," (published 1845, collected in Oeuvres complètes 1925:87-92).
  6. ^ "In Regency England, Brummel's fashionable simplicity constituted in fact a criticism of the exuberant French fashions of the eighteenth century" (Schmid 2002:83).
  7. ^ Kirkus UK review of Laqueur, Walter Weimar: A cultural history, 1918-1933
  8. ^ Decadence: The Theory of Decline or the Decline of Theory? (Part I). Aufheben. Summer 1993.
  9. ^ Mora, José Ferrater (1956). Ortega y Gasset: an outline of his philosophy‎. Bowes & Bowes. p. 18.
  10. ^ Marx, Karl (1859). A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Progress Publishers.

Further reading

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • décadence — [ dekadɑ̃s ] n. f. • 1468; d une construction 1413; lat. médiév. decadentia, de cadere « tomber » ♦ Acheminement vers la ruine; état de ce qui dépérit, périclite. ⇒ abaissement, affaiblissement, affaissement, chute, déchéance, déclin, décrépitude …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Decadence — Décadence Pour les articles homonymes, voir Décadence (homonymie). Le concept de décadence renvoie à la Rome antique et reste ancré dans la civilisation occidentale depuis le traumatisme provoqué par la chute de l Empire romain. Le terme vient du …   Wikipédia en Français

  • décadence — DÉCADENCE. s. f. Disposition à la chute, à la destruction, état de ce qui tend à sa ruine, commencement de ruine. Ce Palais s en va en décadence. Tomber en décadence. Aller en décadence. [b]f♛/b] Il se dit figurément De tout ce qui va vers son… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française 1798

  • decadence — Decadence. s. f. Disposition à la cheute & commencement de ruine. Ce palais s en va en decadence. tomber en decadence. aller en decadence. Il signifie aussi fig. L adversité, le malheur, la ruine des affaires de quelqu un. Ses affaires vont en… …   Dictionnaire de l'Académie française

  • Decadence — De*ca dence, Decadency De*ca den*cy, n. [LL. decadentia; L. de + cadere to fall: cf. F. d[ e]cadence. See {Decay}.] A falling away; decay; deterioration; declension. The old castle, where the family lived in their decadence. Sir W. Scott. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • decadence — (n.) 1540s, from M.Fr. décadence (early 15c.), from M.L. decadentia decay, from decadentem (nom. decadens) decaying, prp. of decadere to decay, from L. de apart, down (see DE (Cf. de )) + cadere to fall (see …   Etymology dictionary

  • decadence — [dek′ədən sēdek′ə dəns; ] also [ di kād′ ns] n. [Fr décadence, a falling away < ML decadentia < prp. of VL * decadere, to fall away < L de , from + cadere, to fall: see CASE1] a process, condition, or period of decline, as in morals, art …   English World dictionary

  • Décadence — (fr., spr. Dekadangs ), Verfall, Abnahme …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Décadence — (franz., spr. dāngß ), Verfall, Abnahme …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Décadence — (frz., spr. dángß), Dekadénz, Verfall, Abnahme; Bezeichnung einer bestimmten Richtung in der modernen Literatur, im Gegensatz zum Naturalismus entstanden, begründet in einem durch die Überfeinerung des Lebens hervorgerufenen Absterben der… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Décadence — (frz. Dekadangs), Abnahme, Verfall …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

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