Decadence and the making of modernism by David Weir

By David Weir

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Though modernism and avant-gardism are by no means identical, both have futuristic implications at odds with the willingness of the decadent mentality to "do nothing but appeal to defunct civilizations, to predecessor and ancient decadences'' (7475). Thus Calinescu's comment about the decadent rejection of tradition is challenged, yet that rejection may be excused as selective: the decadent accepts certain specifically decadent traditions (such as Byzantine Hellenism or Silver Latin). The point here is thatdespite some qualificationsboth Calinescu and Poggioli think of decadence not as a reaction to an earlier period but as a preparation and perhaps even a catalyst for a later one.

His classic interpretation presents decadence as a merely negative reaction to naturalism and Parnassianism, in contrast to the positive stance taken by symbolism. As symbolism took over from decadence, Michaud says, the expression of sadness and melancholy was succeeded by that of joy in life, vague emotionalism was replaced by the intellectual rigor of a coherent doctrine, and Verlaine was correspondingly ousted by Mallarmé as the predominant influence. Finally, the introversion of a self imprisoned within its own closed world was succeeded by the discovery of a higher reality at once impersonal and general in character.

He takes issue with the traditional way that decadence has been regarded Page 8 in French criticism, that is, as a transitional period of preparation for the symbolist movement in poetry. He questions this restrictive approach whose principal expositor is Guy Michaud: This limited view of decadence as merely an early and gestatory stage of symbolism is put forward and developed, in particular, by Guy Michaud. His classic interpretation presents decadence as a merely negative reaction to naturalism and Parnassianism, in contrast to the positive stance taken by symbolism.

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