| At the time he
published this essay, Paul Bourget (1852-1935) already had a reputation
as a novelist.1 States of the soul take precedence over material
considerations in his writings; in this respect he was closer to the symbolist
than the naturalist tradition.
Bourget's text on Baudelaire was one of a series
of critical studies intended to highlight the psychological component of
artistic creativity. In analyzing the pessimism and morbidity of much of
Baudelaire's poetry - which Bourget, like Gautier in his preface to Les
Fleurs du Mal,2 associated with the aesthetics of earlier
eras of decadence - Bourget wrote what amounts to the first manifesto of
decadence. Those who soon thereafter developed similar ideas included the
mercurial Verlaine, who simultaneously upheld what he wittily called décadisme
and conveyed his ironic enthusiasm for the trend in his charming poem "Langucur"
(Listless indolence) by evoking a bored and degenerate Roman at the end
of the Empire;3 Huysmans, whose half-ironic, half-serious novel
Against the Grain at once mocked and praised late-nineteenth-century
decadence; and Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire, two witty journalists
who, under the pseudonym Marius Tapora, published a parody of symbolist/decadent
poetry in Les Déliquesences d'Adoré Floupette [The
melting ways of Adoré Littleflop], which, ironically, helped diffuse
the ideals of décadisme.4 It appeared a year
before the periodical Le Décadent and La Décadence
made their ephemeral appearance.5
For Bourget, social decadence was by no means
incompatible with artistic achievement; it could indeed lead to the creation
of masterpieces. This view of the relationship between art and society
reflects the notion that however great temporal corruption and decay may
be, artistic ideals will transcend them.
It was appropriate that Bourget should call
Baudelaire "one ofthe senimal educators of the emerging generation," especially
because Bourget had come to associate decadence with the primacy of the
aesthetic experience, thus echoing the view of Walter Pater and the aesthetes.
In evoking Baudelaire's imagery Bourget approximates the spirit of romantic
symbolists like Moreau, particularly in the passage that refers to a sky
"as colorful as the background of a picture by da Vinci, with its nuances
of a dying pink and a nearly fading green" and to "the beauty of woman
[that] appeals to him [Baudelaire] only when it is precocious and almost
macabre in its thinness, with the elegance of a skeleton under adolescent
The excerpts that follow are from Paul Bourget, 'Essai
de psychologie contemporaine: Charles Baudelaire," La Nouvelle Revue
13 (1881): 398- 417.
If a special nuance in the meaning of love
and a new way of interpreting pessimism make Baudelaire's mind a psychological
curiosity of a higher order, what gives him his place in the literature
of our time is that he has marvelously understood and almost heroically
exaggerated this special character and this quality of newness.
He has realized that he arrived late in an
aging civilization. And instead of deploring this tardy arrival, like La
Bruyère and Musset, he would have been delighted - I almost said
honored by it.6 He was a man for times of decadence, and he
turned himself into a theoretician of decadence. This may well be the most
disquieting trait of this disquieting figure, and the one most disturbingly
seductive to a contemporary soul.
The word decadence frequently refers to the
state of a society that produces too many individuals ill-suited to the
work of the community. A society must be thought of as an organism.
. . . If citizens in a time of decadence are
inferior as toilers for the grandeur of the country, are they not also
superior as artists delving into the depth of their own souls? If they
are ineffectual in private or public endeavors, is it not because they
are too skilful in their solitary thinking? If they cannot produce the
generations of the future, is it not because the abundance of their refined
sensations and exquisite feelings has turned them into sterile yet refined
virtuosi of voluptuousness and suffering? If they are incapable of the
abnegation of deep faith, is it not because their overcultivated intelli-gence
has rid them of prejudice and because, having circumnavigated the world
of ideas, they have reached this supreme state of equanimity that validates
all doctrines while excluding any form of fanaticism? To be sure a Germanic
chieftain of the fourth century A.D. was better able to invade the Roman
Empire than a Roman patrician was to defend it; but the erudite, refined,
inquisitive, andjaded Roman emperor Hadrian, the art-loving Caesar of Tivoli,
represents a much richer treasure of human acquisitions.7
The great argument against decadence is that
it knows no tomorrow and in the end is always destroyed by barbarity. But
is it not the fate of the exquisite and the rare always to be in the wrong
in the face of brutality? One is entitled to acknowledge this wrong and
to prefer the defeat of decadent Athens to the triumph of violent Macedonia.
The great argument against decadence
is that it knows no tomorrow and in the end is always destroyed by barbarity.
But is it not the fate of the exquisite and the rare always to be in the
wrong in the face of brutality? One is entitled to acknowledge this wrong
and to prefer the defeat of decadent Athens to the triumph of violent Macedonia.
The same is true of the literatures of decadent periods. They too have
no tomorrow. They lead to alterations of vocabulary, subtleties of meaning
that make them unintelligible to the generations to come. Fifty years from
now the style of the Goncourt brothers - I name men who have deliberately
chosen the path of decadence - will be understood only by specialists.8
The theoreticians of decadence would retort: what does it matter? Is the
writer's purpose to set himself up as a perpetual candidate before the
universal suffrage of centuries to come? We delight in our so-called corruptions
of style as well as in the refined beings of our race and our time. It
remains to determine whether the exceptional group we constitute is not,
in fact, an aristocracy and whether in the realm of aesthetics the plurality
ofvotes does not, in fact, add up to a plurality of dunces. It is as childish
to believe in the writer's immortality - soon the memory of men will be
so overloaded by the prodigious quantity of books that any notion of glory
will necessarily be bankrupt - as it is deceitful to lack the courage to
sustain one's intellectual pleasure. Let us take pleasure, therefore, in
the peculiarities of our ideals and forms, even if they imprison us in
a solitude unbroken by visitors. Those who will still come to us will really
be our brothers, and why sacri-fice to others what is most intimate, most
special, and most personal in us?
Both alternatives [producing generations of
the future and becoming vir-tuosi of voluptuousness and suffering] are
legitimate, but rarely does an artist have the courage deliberately to
choose the second. Baudelaire had it and pushed it to the point of foolhardiness.
He proclaimed himself a decadent, and sought - one knows with what deliberate
recklessness - all that in literature and art seems morbid and artificial
to simpler souls. The sensations he prefers are those elicited by perfumes
because they stimulate more than others this I-know-not-what of sensual
sadness that we carry within us. His beloved season is the end of autumn,
when a melancholic charm seems magically to fill a lowering sky and a heavy
heart. His hours of delight are the evening hours, when the sky is as colorful
as the background of a picture by da Vinci, with its nuances of a dying
pink and a nearly fading green. The beauty of woman appeals to him only
when it is precocious and almost macabre in its thinness, with the elegance
of a skeleton under adolescent flesh, or else late in life, in the state
of decline that comes with ravaged maturity:
. . . And your heart, bruised like a peach,
Is as ripe as your body for sophisticated love. 9
Caressing and languid music, rare antiques for his furniture,
and singu-lar paintings are the necessary accompaniments to his dreary
or happy thoughts, "morbid" or "petulant," as he himself puts it with
greater appro-priateness. His bedside reading is the work of exceptional
authors . . . who, like Edgar [Allan] Poe, stretched their nervous mechanism
to the point of hallucination, rhetoricians of a troubled life whose "language"
is "laced with the green of decay."10 He feels drawn by an
invincible magnetism to the glow of what he has called, with justified
outlandishness, "the phosphorescence of decay." At the same time, his
intense disdain for the vulgar erupts in outrageous paradoxes, laborious
mystifications. Those who have known him tell extraordinary anecdotes
in regard to this last point. Legend aside, the evidence unquestionably
points to this superior man's evincing something disquieting and enigmatic,
even for intimate friends. He treated with similarly painful ironic contempt
both the foolishness, naivete', and nonsense of innocent acts and the
stupidity of sins. A little of this irony still colors the most beautiful
poems of Flowers of Evil, and the fear of many readers, even the
most subtle among them, of becoming the victims of his overwhelming disdain
prevents their fully admiring him.
Being what he is, notwithstanding the subtleties
that put his works out of reach of the masses, Baudelaire remains one
of the fertile educators of the rising generation. His influence is not
as easily recognized as that of a Balzac or a Musset because it makes
itself felt on a small group. But in this group are distinguished minds:
poets of tomorrow, novelists already dreaming of glory. chroniclers still
to come. Indirectly and through them, some of the psychological peculiarities
I have tried to bring out in this text reach a broader public; and is
not what we call the atmosphere of a period made out of such penetration?
1. Paul Bourget was
a poet, novelist, and critic whose worldly wisdom and (eventual) conservatism,
as well as his talent, won him a seat in the French Academy-an honor denied
every other literary figure mentioned in this chapter. (The Goncourt brothers,
however, founded their own academy, intended to be bolder and broader
in its tastes than the French Academy, and Maeterlinek won the Nobel Prize
in 1913.) Bourget's acute interest in the literary life of his time led
him to study the major participants and their impact on younger generations.
His stody of Baudelaire, in particular, sympathetically evokes that poet's
influence on decadent circles. The early decades of Bourget's career are
described in Lloyd James Austin, Paul Bourget, sa vie et son aeuvrejusqu'eu
1889 (Paris: I)roz, 1940).
2 Gautier, Preface to Baudelaire: Les Fleurs du Mal,
3. "But the symbol is the metaphor. It is poetry itself," Verlaine
told a journalist, who quoted him as follows: "'I nevertheless refuse,'
said he, not without a touch of irony, 'to bother with symbolism. I prefer
décadisme'" (Adolphe Possien, "Une conversation avec Paul
Verlaine," Le Figaro, Apr. 4, 1891. The term décadisme
had been coined by Anatole Baju; see below, note 12. For "Langucur" [1883J,
see Verlaine: Oeuvres poétiques complètes, ed. Yves-Gerard
Le Dantec and Jacques Borel (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), 370-72.
4. Marius Tapora [Henri Beauclair and Gabriel Vicaire], Les
Déliqueseences d'Adoré Floupette (Paris: Lion Vanne'
["Exhausted lion," for the avant-garde editor Leon Vanné]), 1885.
The critic Félix Fénéon may have inspired
the two journalists when he quoted Flaubert's earlier, ironic, use of
the term déliquescent: "Je me sens bedolle, vache, éreinté,
scheik; déliquescent, enfin calme et modéré, cc qui
est le dernier mot de la décadence" (I feel bedolle [Flaubert's
own invention, suggesting flabby and useless, probably from bedon
colloq. for "paunch," and molle, feminine form of mou, "soft"],
cow-like, exhausted, indolent and depraved as an oriental potentate, deliquescent,
in the end calm and moderate, which is the last word in decadence). See
Fénéon's review of Lettres de Gustave Flaubert 'à
George Sand (Paris: Charpentier, 1884), in La Libre revue I,
no. 10 (Dec.16, 1884): 331. For the full text of Flaubert's letter to
George Sand, May 26 [18741, see Oeuvres complètes de Gustave
Flaubert, 12 vols. (Paris: Conard, 1930), 5:210.
5. The first, founded by the opportunist Anatole Baju, came
to an end after a few issues but received a new lease on life, once again
under Baju's management. "If décadisme," he wrote, using
Verlaine's appellation in the first issue of the revived series (3 [Dec.
1887]: 3) "is not the final word, at least it is a high and elevated conception
. . . We shall pursue the fight against naturalism for the sake of art."
His ideas were further developed in a manifesto, "Caractéristiques
des décadents," in Le Décadent 3 (Oct. i-iS, 1888):
'-3, in which he associated the title with "all that interferes with the
digestion" of the bourgeois public and, more specifically, with the aura
ofdecadence that characterized "this end of the century." He also associated
the new movement with "logic and, above all, literary probity" and urged
young writers to strive for nothing less than "social perfection." The
periodical published a few important articles on the symbolist movement,
as did La Décadence.
6. Jean de La Bruyère was the psychologically astute,
sometimes cynical, and usually pessimistic seventeenth-century moralist,
author of Les Caractères of 1688. Alfred de Musset was a
romantic poet, novelist, and playwright whose works are Characterized
by gentle irony and suffused sadness.
7. The example of Hadrian may well echo Verlaine's poem "Langucur";
see above, note 3.
8. Edmond and Jules de Goncourt were novelists (authors of
bold naturalistic novels), critics (Edmond was an astute appreciator of
the delicacies of eighteenth-century art), and connoisseurs who assembled
an exquisite Collection of Asian art objects as well as eighteenth-century
drawings and prints.
9. Baudelaire, "L'Amour du mensonge" [The love of lying], in
Baudelaire: Oeuvres complètes , ed. Claude Pichois, 2 vols.
(Paris: Gallimard, 1976), no. XCVIII, I 98 The ellipsis is Bourget's.
10. In a footnote, Bourget cites Gautier's preface to Les
Fleurs du Mal.