Paris during the fin-de-siècle was a city convulsing with the effects of urban modernity. Industrialization, the rise of the bourgeois middle class, consumerism, and progress through science shaped lived experience. Crowds accelerated by steam engines streamed along widened boulevards to window shop in the arcades (and watch each other). This heightened context of intimate alienation, multivalent democratization, and the bastardization of good taste bred a style of literature that placed the erotic at the heart of its aesthetic. Flesh, texture, lust, pain, degradation, fizzing nerve endings and laconic ennui typified the output of many writers who sought to acerbically lance the bourgeois code of morals, and reinstate the realm of the sensual but extended this into the realm of the pathological, surreal and often depraved. British poet and translator Stephen Romer translated thirty-seven pearls of these in short story form into English, in a collection that paints a vivid picture of the potency and absurdity of the Decadents.
Natasha Hoare: How did you come to translate this collection of Decadent short stories?
Stephen Romer: Well it’s been a long-term interest. There’s a writer called Remy de Gourmont, I can’t remember how I read his short stories a long time ago. I thought they were very sulphurous, rather like fairy stories, but with a strong erotic content. I hadn’t seen them translated. Also the work of Marcel Schwob. Those are probably the two fin-de-siècle writers I first encountered. It wasn’t until a long time later I actually got a contract with Oxford World Classics to do a series of these. I realized they formed a part of a much wider movement. I’ve tried to gather the best of them in this anthology, French Decadent Tales. I was a scholar of Jules Laforgue, Mallarmé, Baudelaire, and T.S. Eliot. I was already moving around in that area.
Natasha: Was Decadent literature a self-defined movement within the arts? Was it an established group of writers who were exchanging ideas and texts?
Stephen: A lot of them knew each other, that’s for sure. It’s quite complicated, Decadence, not least in its relation to the word decadence, small ‘d’. There was a magazine founded in 1882 by someone called Anatole Baju called Le Décadent artistique et littéraire. He invited a certain group to contribute. Really the Decadents gathered under the banner of Joris-Karl Huysmans. There are a few gods; the primal god is Baudelaire, then there’s Verlaine and Rimbaud, two of the most well known. Huysmans began as a naturalist, a disciple of Zola. Then he wrote this shocker of a book called À rebours, which means ‘against nature’, or against the grain. That caused a lot of scandal. It’s the model for Oscar Wilde’s story Dorian Gray. It privileged artificiality over the natural. Art and truth not being collateral, not being identical. A kind of cultivation of amorality. Then there are also the painters, Gustave Moreau, Fernand Khnopff, Félicien Rops, people like that who also contributed to a sort of decadence which looks to the late Roman Empire; Nero or Caligula – it’s gore, it’s extreme sophistication combined with extreme barbarity and cruelty, as in Nero and his Master of Revels, Petronius Arbiter. The elegance of Petronius, and the cruelty of Nero, it’s that sort of conjunction of taste and cruelty, and a kind of glacial sexuality. Also a sort of sexual debauchery of all kinds. This group, however, was never self-consciously a group. As often in these things, these are named post-facto.
…it’s that sort of conjunction of taste and cruelty, and a kind of glacial sexuality. Also a sort of sexual debauchery of all kinds…
Natasha: Was a critical term applied to them?
Stephen: Yes, the term décadent was first used as a term of abuse by a certain Désiré Nisard, who used it for Victor Hugo… There were the Symbolists and the Decadents. That’s slightly complicated to go into, the contrast, because one flows into the other. Mallarmé was the prince of the Symbolists: the art of suggestion, a much more verbal art than the Decadent art, which is really one of imagery and narrative.
Natasha: Were the group engaged in Salon-based exchanges? Was Decadence anchored to the city of Paris, and the particular conditions of that urban fabric?
Stephen: It was very much that. I mean if you take Jean Lorrain, who was an essential Decadent, gay or bisexual, in any case omnivorous sexually. He spent a lot of time in brothels in Paris, as well as in aristocratic salons. He was someone who was at ease in all sorts of different societies. Paris really created someone like Lorrain, although he came from Normandy. A lot of them came from the country, bizarrely, but Paris was this hot-house of sort of Baudelairean urban culture. The notion of the crowd, the notion of the dandy in the crowd, and also the brothels, the availability of sex and drugs, in particular of diethyl ether. That was all part of it. With the pleasures of extravagance and dress. I think the dandy is an urban creation, isn’t it?
Natasha: Alongside the flâneur.
Stephen: The flâneur, exactly. Baude-laire’s meditations on the crowd, this was very germane. Also a lot of these stories take place in ghastly urban spaces. The existence of the hotel, the hôtels de passe, the ‘no star’ sleazy hotel, these were often the places of assignation. In a city that is made easier. Again, the source is really Baudelaire, who was a painter of modern life, privileging the experience of the crowd, also the experience of seeing horror in the crowd, and beauty passing by. Ephemerality, the ungraspability of the city, its continual revelation, shocks of contact and non-contact. Yes, Decadence was definitely urban, as indeed was Surrealism later. These were urban movements.
Natasha: The erotic is obviously central to many of these texts, and it’s a particular kind of eroticism that’s, in places, sadomasochistic. It’s extreme, it’s fetishistic. Why did the erotic take such a central role in this writing? Was it a kind of shock tactic, or a reaction against the kind of bourgeois morals of the time?
Stephen: That’s the big question. Certainly la bourgeoisie in general was part of it, because one of the targets was the bourgeois married woman, or the bourgeois couple, not just the woman. The dreaded bourgeois! Flaubert is also in the mix here, with his realist novels. He was a decadent as well, in his way, as well as being a Realist.
Natasha: A paradoxical position to occupy.
Stephen: Yes, it is, but if you look at his texts, Salammbo is an extraordinary, exotic and decadent work, it’s very different from Madame Bovary. Madame Bovary is stifled in this ghastly provincial, bourgeois background, in which progress – Monsieur Homais really stands for this – is the real god. Scientific progress, liberal progress, democracy (démocrasserie as Flaubert spat it out) – most of these Decadents hated all those things. It’s also political. Some of them, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Barbey d’Aurevilly, Léon Bloy, some of the people in the book, were ardent right-wing Catholics; in a sense, they too were reacting against modernity, as conceived politically as democracy, as vulgarization, as the nouveau riche – the culture of high capitalism, which Paris was a centre of, and indeed was London.
If you read Zola, even in Naturalism there’s a very explicit sexuality going on. In a novel like Thérèse Raquin. They’re linked somewhere, and in Maupassant too, who was very disturbed sexually, I think. I would say it’s an art of the nerves, it’s an art of neurasthenia, it’s when sex has become somehow utterly divorced from love, so it’s also anatomical. It’s Charcot, don’t forget that Charcot was doing his studies of hysteria around this time. It’s also sexuality as automatism, as a bodily reflex, as instinct. All these things being divorced from bourgeois values which was very deliberate.
I can’t remember what he calls it now, Remy de Gourmont has an essay on that in which he systematically divorces adjectives from their usual associations; country from duty, sexuality from marriage and love, et cetera. Baudelaire also started divorcing terms… ah yes, Gourmont called it the systematic ‘dissociation of ideas’.
Natasha: A deconstruction of received traditional values as transmitted through language.
Stephen: Exactly. Which you find in Flaubert’s work, as well as his dictionary of received ideas; for example, all bachelors are going to die miserable, and philanderers come to a bad end. The Decadents seemed to be experimenting with this also. You can’t divorce Decadence from Schopenhauer, or from his philosophy. Schopenhauer espoused the philosophy of pessimism and was deeply misogynistic; for him woman represents only the continuance of the species. There’s a great pessimism also in Maupassant, Laforgue, Schwob, Mirbeau; they all were steeped in the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Again, there’s a full-on attack on idealized romance.
Natasha: At this time was there also a sense of the end of the century and an accompanying idea of entropy, or a de-evolutionary force within these depraved sexual appetites?
Stephen: There was absolutely a sense of degeneration, which then got taken up later politically. The Decadent as a species was both sated and effete (meaning literally ‘sterile’).
There was a book by a German Jew, Max Nordau, called Degeneration (1892), in which he pinpoints and condemns ‘some kind of Black Death of hysteria and degeneration’, and takes the whole pack of Decadents, Symbolists, Mystics, Wagnerites, Spiritualists etc. to task. He damns them all as ‘neurotics’, as a physical ‘type’.
Natasha: So physiognomy and science coming back in.
Stephen: Not exactly Lombroso, but certainly an attack on the ‘effete’ as opposed to the ‘muscular’! I would say these young neurasthenics were perusing new forms of sexuality. It’s not that eroticism hadn’t been explored before, but it hadn’t been explored quite in such a detached way. Again, I think it does join Naturalism, the more I think about it, in the sense of the instincts it calls forth through prejudices, clichés. These are all laid open by the Decadents. I mean, think of Villiers and his robotic woman Hadaly, in La nouvelle Eve, which is also part of that creation of automatism, really, and in preferring the android to the natural woman, virulently misogynistic.
The dandy is important in these formulations. The dandy is the utterly controlled, unnatural, anti-natural figure. He is well dressed, always perfectly restrained, the enemy of sentimentalism. There again we find the attack on received ideas around the bourgeois evolutionary ménage – it is taken apart by its reduction to Schopenhauerian evolutionary principle. The effort is to discover different sexualities, or sexual stimuli. For example, in the short story by Lorrain, a horrible story really, of the man who falls in love with consumptive women. It’s a very good case in point, it’s not even death and Eros, which is quite a cliché, it is Illness or Disease and Eros. That would be a decadent trope.
Natasha: It’s interesting in that story, of course; the city, or the city space enters back in, because the protagonists are in a theatre and they are observing the strange couple of the dandy and his consumptive lover. Again, it’s about spectatorship, the crowd assembled in new spaces defined by urbanity.
Stephen: It’s very much that, so it’s the dandified kind of chic society and voyeurism.
Lorrain is an example of the perfect Decadent. He’s also very good on voyeurism, and on sadism.
Natasha: Because it’s a dialogue, it performs a self-critique of the decadent figure of the man who is in love with consumptives. You have one figure that is judging the dandy to be ‘a devil, a demon’, and the other is elevating him to ‘artist’ status.
Stephen: That’s right, exactly. One of them is assuming the bourgeois view, which would be ‘how shocking, how horrible’. The other is saying ‘he’s a dandy, he’s an artist, all the nerve ends and all the intensity of the end of this woman’s life will bring erotic focus’. Lorrain is an example of the perfect Decadent. He’s also very good on voyeurism, and on sadism. There’s a novel called Monsieur de Phocas. Monsieur is a Decadent who watches acrobats, and he gets a real thrill from seeing them perform without a safety net. There’s always this erotic edge, which is also based on terror, and awful anticipation. He’s very good at pinpointing those sado-erotic, sadistic emotions instincts that we all have.
Natasha: Were they drawing on scientific findings at the time, or were they casting back to earlier literary formulations of those kinds of emotions, for instance, in the Marquis de Sade?
Stephen: This is an interesting question. Some of them anticipate Freud. Maupassant read the latest discoveries on fetishism. His story The Tresses comes out of Charcot. He followed psycho-medical literature. They were very much apprised of what was being discovered at the time. Others hark back to a different literature, the older generation. Maupassant in particular, because he had experiences of autoscopy, that you find in Le Horla, which is a condition in which you see yourself from the outside, which is a kind of schizophrenia. He was interested in the effects of his own suffering from syphilis. Yes, so notions of fetishes, paranoia, autoscopy, were all in a rich mix during the Decadent period. Pierre Louys has a strange story in the book about conjoined twins. It’s straight out of a sort of medico-legal journal. They were certainly reading the French equivalent of Penny Dreadfuls and the kind of medical horrors that were being discovered and talked about.
Natasha: Were there any female Decadent writers? It seems that women are very often punished in displaying sexuality or erotic desire. I’m thinking of the stories in the book with women lusting through contact with the snow and the fire, especially.
Stephen: Well, there was one called Rachilde, who doesn’t actually turn the tables on them, so she’s as decadent as the others, but she’s an exception. It seems to me it was very much a hysterical young man’s style. I think these Decadents have become a source of interest to American feminist critics who have more or less treated them as an example of a male symptomatology of neurosis, and male desire. I don’t know how you found it when you read them?
Natasha: Yes, they’re difficult to read. I suppose the centrality of the female figure is at least a presence, and you can read it as a pathological relationship. They’re definitely not real renderings in any way; the women are very much fantastical concoctions.
Stephen: One of my favourites is by a writer called Jean Richepin, who’s a sort of joker in the pack, really. His story Pft! Pft! really mocks the men. The women have this unleashed sexuality, and the power they have is enormous. He says in some country, at any time, all men are going to behave in the same ridiculous way in front of this essentially ‘blank’ woman. There’s a wonderful revenge of the female figure there; the professor says I’m going to study her reflexes zoologically, of course then falls in love with her, and of course becomes the most jealous and mad lover and fetishist. It’s more about male neurosis and desire.
Natasha: It’s interesting as well that Don Juan appears twice in the book as a figure. In the first story he is surrounded by courtly women asking him to tell them about his best conquest. In the later story his power is stripped away from him. This emptying of the prime male cipher of virility is marked.
Stephen: This is the Barbey story, which is quite haunting in its way. The story is from a collection called Les Diaboliques, which is really meant to be cautionary tales for Catholics, but of course they’re not. They’re very decadent and sexy. The other story is about how Don Juan is simply made up of his conquests, and there’s nothing to him, apart from all the women, take away their particular qualities. He’s empty, in fact, he’s an empty, hungering and desiring figure.
Natasha: The Les Diaboliques collection was censored at the time by the publisher. I wanted to ask about the reception of these works. Were they judged to be ultimately shocking, or was society able to ingest them without too much trouble?
Stephen: They were up against bourgeois morality censorship, as was Baudelaire and Flaubert earlier on in the 1850s. Barbey would have been. I think things had relaxed by the time of Maupassant, some sort of dam had broken. I can’t recall many court cases. Barbey was of an earlier generation; I think he was even older than Baudelaire. There was a huge extension of the written press at that time, enormous numbers of newspapers and literary journals wanted copy. There was a hunger in the country, there was a hunger for these stories. People just sucked them up, just as they sucked up the Penny Dreadful. As they sucked up horror stories from the press, and Murders in the Rue Morgue.
Natasha: Was that the main mode of distribution for these stories then? Magazines or periodicals?
Natasha: That certainly counters the anti-democratic urge within the Decadent aesthetic.
Stephen: Yes! They were longing for a public. There were hundreds of writers, some of them actually dreadful. I did wade through a lot of shit for the book! These are really some of the gems. Some of the other ones are just really soft porn as well. I tried to stick with the more up-to-date, urban, Paris-orientated ones, in particular. That was a choice I made, to place this group within a particular urban context – a neurasthenic one. Verlaine has a lovely description of the ‘modern’ as being bilious and saturated with alcohol and tobacco, and living on his nerves. That’s the nervous Baudelairean city dweller, over-stimulated whilst simultaneously sated.
Natasha: Yes, there’s this looming figure of boredom.
Stephen: Boredom and nihilism. That’s the point; Des Esseintes in À rebours is essentially bored, so he creates all these very exotic entertainments for himself. His fine bindings, his decadent theology, his taste in Moreau’s paintings, his extremely refined taste in poetry, Mallarmé, et cetera. Also his bejewelled tortoise, his hot-house flowers, his perfume organ. All those are the decadent activities of someone completely aristocratic, princely, who has never held down a job in his life. Which is what you get in Villiers, the famous line at the end of Axel, ‘As for living, our servants shall do that for us.’ Yes, ennui, and over-stimulation at the same time. Boredom and stimulus, often drug-induced stimulus, were essential to this group.
Natasha: When translating these French tales into English, were there particular linguistic barriers that you encountered in terms of the use of double entendre, and certain words that had meaning in French that you lose in the English?
Stephen: Well, there were some neologisms, yes. One example springs to mind from À rebours – in which the shadow on a plain appears ‘to be powdered with starch and glazed with the white of cold cream’ (poudrée de farine d’amidon et enduite de blanc cold-cream…) … note the natural described in terms of the man-made… They’re hard to translate because of the syntax which is above all dense. Very long, winding sentences, adjectival, Barbey in particular. All those words for ‘light’ and ‘gleaming’. You have to be quite inventive, because they’re very adjectival texts. Except for Bloy, Léon Bloy, he’s wonderfully acerbic. He’s a master of satire, and the acerbic line really. It’s less vocabulary than tone. I worked very hard on the tone. I didn’t want it to sound archaic, but at the same time, there’s so much of an age, there’s so much of an era, that I had in my mind, certain sorts of passages by Wilde, or even Ronald Firbank, or Conan Doyle. That Gothic era; it would have been a huge mistake to have updated it all completely.
Natasha: Is there a sense in which the language and the form is a carrier of meaning, as much as it is conveying the sense of the words? I’m thinking of Swinburne, and the kind of sensuality of the use of language, and the poetry. Did you feel that on contact with the French tales as well?
Stephen: Very much so. Especially in the earlier ones, like Barbey. It’s real prose poetry, lavishly decadent in the sense that you feel no constraints in the way he describes ladies’ bosoms, what they’re wearing, and the qualities of the flesh… I’ve just been reading Roberto Calasso’s book, La Folie Baudelaire, and he talks about how in the paintings of Ingres, female flesh, jewels, and dresses all become one organism. They’re all part of the surface texture of the paint. That’s rather like the language; it’s not just the flesh, it’s the flesh, it’s the clothed flesh, and the jewellery; it’s both flesh and mineral, cold. There’s an enormous coldness in these writers that you get. That is a little part of the dandy. The man in the consumptive story is described in his cummerbund and his dress shirt, and is beautifully turned out. Things like texture, material, jewellery, all that is part of the style, and carries meaning.
Natasha: How do you see Decadents tracking forward in time? What was their lasting influence?
Stephen: Well, that’s an interesting question. I would say that in Surrealism – someone like Hans Bellmer with those weird dolls – the erotic in Surrealism such as Man Ray, must have its sources in Decadence. I don’t think there is a cut-off. If you think of Decadence as something out of the 1890s, it’s in early Yeats, it’s certainly in T.S. Eliot, coming out of Laforgue. It’s in Eliot’s misogyny in the early versions of The Waste Land, that seems to be straight out of Decadent literature. Going all the way back to Jonathan Swift. The Surrealists also idealized women in a different way, and you know, the woman again becomes the driver and inspirer, and subject/object as well. I believe it goes all the way through to Gilbert and George, who have this sort of Baudelairean detachment and dandy-ism. It’s still with us today, not in its etherized, dandified, dinner-jacket variety, but anywhere there’s fetishism, voyeurism. You can see it in the Beat generation and all the way through to J.G. Ballard, or David Cronenberg’s ‘body horror’ films. Decadence (voyeurism, fetishism etc.) is there in Crash. It’s the group of people who all survived car accidents and get a sort of erotic thrill. That could be straight out of a Jean Lorrain. Change comes, and a new classicism, with the Nouvelle Revue Française, in people like Jacques Rivière, André Gide. Ezra Pound, I would say, reacted strongly against it. To him the ‘trappings’ of Decadence looked fustian.
Natasha: Do you think that it’s a continual dialectical note within culture, that there are these moments of stringency, and control, and morality. Then there is a counter movement of decadence, and valuing of the flesh, and of feeling, and of the erotic?
Stephen: Yes, it’s probably more complex than that, but certainly. ‘Cure the soul by means of the senses, and senses by means of the soul.’ That was an anti-bourgeois apothegm by Wilde, and I think it recurs, definitely. Also, Baudelaire was looking for a subject – sometimes all the other subjects run out, you know? Landscape, nature, or whatever the Romantics did was exhausted. Then you find the erotic, the dangerous edge, diabolism, Satanism, then I suppose you go into the occult. So I’d say you kind of go in and out of the occult really, in and out of Gnosis. Pound returning to the image, to the sharply focused ‘phanopoeic’ would be a good example of that. The clear-cut natural image, as opposed to the murky symbolism, the sort of crepuscular impressionism of a Symons or indeed a Symonds. Sometimes you just want to come out into the light, I think. Having translated these stories I certainly wanted to come out into the light.