Baudelaire and the 
Decadent Movement
 by Paul Bourget 
(written 1881) / 
Introduction to Essay by Henri Dorra* 

    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 flesh." 
   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, 17.
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.

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