Nietzsche and the Decadence

This paper was presented to the 18th international conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society, "Between Reason and Unreason: Nietzsche – The Enlightenment – Romanticism"
at Queen Mary College, University of London, September 2011

Nietzsche and the Decadence

The Romantic Agony by Mario Praz, first published in 1930 is a fascinating and comprehensive if sometimes tendentious survey of the late romanticism that culminated in symbolism and the decadent movement. As Praz puts it:-

Baudelaire and Flaubert are like the two faces of a herm planted firmly in the middle of the century, marking the divisions between Romanticism and decadence, between the period of the fatal man and that of the fatal woman, between the period of Delacroix and that of Moreau.

By 1880 literary romanticism had left Byronic virility behind and morphed into something apparently sicklier. The fatal man had become the fatal woman. Rousseau and Wordsworth wrote of mountains, of rural Switzerland and the English lake district respectively. Such taste became normalised. By the end of century romantic imagination was centred on Byzantium, with its extreme artificiality, mosaics and eunuchs. Ambivalences of interpretation surround the movement.

P 416, The philosophy of Schopenhauer, the music of Gotterdammerung, the Russian novel, the plays of Maeterlinck, all these were absorbed and digested ….. From about 1880 till the beginning of the present century, the idea of Decadence was the turning point round which the literary world revolved.

Nietzsche was also a presence in this, at least in the way it came to be understood. Sometimes he is considered a part of it, sometimes its most powerful critic. He has different things to say about romanticism throughout his career as his understanding of the place and nature of art changes and develops. Having rejected Schopenhauer's philosophy, he attacked much of the art of his own day as narcotic, escapism, illusion and false metaphysics. His final philosophy of art we may take as that expressed in some of the notes collected in the Will to Power. Here the best art is not thought of as consoling illusion, but affirmation of reality. Such art is not to be counted as romantic.

WP §845 Is art the result of dissatisfaction with reality? Or is it the expression of gratitude for happiness experienced? In the first case it is romanticism, in the second it is glorification and dithyramb (in short apotheosis art).

Many might agree with this, while differing on the crucial question as to what constitutes reality. According to some hostile critics, Nietzsche’s own philosophy is the expression of failure to come to terms with reality, and he is therefore himself to be counted an ultra romantic.
Croce wrote of the decadent movement:-

This malady was due, not so much to a breaking away from a traditional faith, as to the difficulty of really appropriating to oneself and living the new faith, which to be lived and put into action demanded courage and a virile attitude, also certain renunciations of bygone causes of self satisfaction and comfort which had ceased to exist.

What ever we take this new faith to be and for Croce at least we know it was not social democracy, it defines itself as rationalism, deviation from which is dismissed as pathological.

The aesthetics of the later nineteenth century raises philosophical questions. We want to look for a philosophical basis for something that mostly did not articulate itself in such terms. We can do with the guidance of a good literary critic, and Schopenhauer can be even more helpful. Essentially this is an art that offers consolation for a certain frustration. It is an escape from unhappiness into a different form of happiness, so different that it can seem like a renunciation of the will.

Nietzsche’s negative assessment of the culture of his day hinges on romanticism meaning what he wants it to mean. His is a rather partial interpretation. However we explain it, the fact is that there was this body of avant-garde culture. Understanding it differently does not make it vanish. Late romanticism was a style that included quite a lot of diverse views and lends itself to different interpretations.

§846 Romanticism and its opposite. In regard to all aesthetic values I now avail myself of this fundamental distinction: in every individual case I ask myself has hunger or superabundance been creative here?

He includes Rubens and Hafiz as examples of the latter. Then he goes on:-

…creation may also however be the outcome of the tyrannical will of the great sufferer, who would make the most personal individual and narrow trait about him, the actual idiosyncrasy of his pain – in fact, into a binding law and imposition, and who thus wreaks his revenge upon all things by stamping, branding and vitiating them with his torment. The latter case is romantic pessimism in its highest form, whether this be Schopenhauerian voluntarism or Wagnerian music.

But what if the pessimism was not sincere? Nietzsche says Schopenhauer was not sincere. So there are hints of paradox here.

By 1880, Schopenhauer’s influence dominated much advanced art and literature. On one view he was the philosopher of the whole decadent movement, as well as a number of other leading tendencies of the age, such as the novels of Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy or George Gissing. Towards the end of the century fashionable romanticism adopted the philosophy of Schopenhauer. Praz identified 1880 as the year of the apotheosis of Schopenhauer. For the Russian Christian philosopher Solovyev, writing in 1878, Schopenhauer and the even more negative Eduard von Hartmann were the presiding philosophers of contemporary western culture. Like Nietzsche himself he was concerned with the need to transcend pessimism.

Far more than just, as Praz puts it, an excuse for a “delicious death agony” Schopenhauer provided a serious philosophical underpinning for the spiritual forces of the age. And much of the art produced at this period was of the highest quality, whatever we think of some of the minor material. The best of those counted as decadents like Verlaine, Mallarmé and Beardsley, can hardly be dismissed as frivolous. The art of the decadent movement was most congenially suited to the philosophy of Schopenhauer, with its strong Buddhistic tendency. Art was understood as a release from the frustration of the will. The fashionable Catholicism of the era could manifest in this light as a sort of bastard Buddhism. Nietzsche was also subject to frustration, but his solution was different. His own will was liable to obstruction by reason of its intense ambition. The discontent of the Nietzschean with society around him, is much to do with ideas held.

The Schopenhauerian music drama Parsifal was first performed in 1882. Despite his notorious hostility Nietzsche described it as a perfect expression of the contemporary zeitgeist and said he regretted not having written it himself. He said it presented the world as a hospital. Wagner's music offered a template for much symbolist and decadent art that was to follow it. Moreau wanted to paint like Wagner’s music, and Mallarmé to write poetry like it.

However, besides Schopenhauer there was another candidate for the philosopher of late romanticism, as Praz brings out most explicitly. This was the Marquis de Sade, hymned as the Divine Marquis, praised by Apollinaire as the freest soul who ever existed. This puts a somewhat different spin on the movement. Sainte-Beuve had written as early as 1843 that the two greatest influences on “our moderns” were Byron and De Sade. Nietzsche was obviously influenced by the whole culture of “our moderns”. He was part of it. Picking out single formative influences may be beside the point.

Rather than Buddhistic escapism, decadence understood as under this inspiration is a form of affirmation, however perverse. Even pity and compassion acquired a sadomasochistic colouring. But there again much hangs upon how De Sade has been understood. Jean Paulhan, author of one of the best books on De Sade, includes Nietzsche along with Lamartine, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Swinburne and others as having had De Sade’s Justine, for a period at least, as his favourite bedside reading. However, there is apparently no evidence that Nietzsche had actually read De Sade. He would have heard of him but not presumably as a philosopher worth serious consideration. Nevertheless De Sade has been interpreted as a proto-Nietzsche, enabling a Nietzschean philosophy to be read back into much late romantic culture.

Most Nietzschean attitudes were far from original to Nietzsche. In Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads there is a great deal of what looks very much like Nietzschean sentiment, and little of the Christian sin consciousness which was still a presence in Baudelaire and Byron. These lines from his Hymn to Proserpine are clearly about transvaluation:-

Though the feet of thine high priests tread where thy lords and our forefathers trod,
Though these that were Gods are dead, and thou being dead art a God,
Though before thee the throned Cytherean be fallen, and hidden her head,
Yet thy kingdom shall pass, Galilean, thy dead shall go down to thee dead.
Of the maiden thy mother men sing as a goddess with grace clad around;
Thou art throned where another was king; where another was queen she is crowned.
Yea, once we had sight of another: but now she is queen, say these.
Not as thine, not as thine was our mother, a blossom of flowering seas,
Clothed round with the world's desire as with raiment, and fair as the foam,
And fleeter than kindled fire, and a goddess, and mother of Rome.
For thine came pale and a maiden, and sister to sorrow; but ours,
Her deep hair heavily laden with odour and colour of flowers,
White rose of the rose-white water, a silver splendour, a flame,
Bent down unto us that besought her, and earth grew sweet with her name.
For thine came weeping, a slave among slaves, and rejected; but she
Came flushed from the full-flushed wave, and imperial, her foot on the sea.
And the wonderful waters knew her, the winds and the viewless ways,
And the roses grew rosier, and bluer the sea-blue stream of the bays.
Ye are fallen, our lords, by what token? we wist that ye should not fall.
Ye were all so fair that are broken; and one more fair than ye all.

When Swinburne was described as being Byron with a difference he corrected this and said:-

I should have bowed to the judicial sentence if instead of “Byron with a difference” you had said "De Sade with a difference." The poet, thinker, and man of the world from whom the theology of my poem is derived was a greater than Byron. He indeed, fatalist or not, saw to the bottom of gods and men.

Among Nietzsche’s precursors we should surely include the early Swinburne. A generation of rebellious young Englishmen was inspired by the Poems and Ballads which appeared in 1865. Swinburne was one of the key figures in the development of the ideal of the fatal woman, and hence of the decadent movement. In the light of his thoroughgoing paganism it may seem surprising that he should have been so closely associated with the pre-Raphaelite movement, albeit in its second wind, the era of his close friend Burne-Jones.

Those who say we say we read back Nietzsche into De Sade often interpret Nietzsche and his significance very differently from the way in which we may prefer to see him. Writing in the revolutionary era De Sade expresses an earlier form of 18th century materialism, notably that of La Mettrie, author of L’homme Machine, from which perspective he delivers a savage critique of the often facile arguments of the later enlightenment and fights back against the moralising currents. Paulhan says De Sade was as widely read as Marx, and that he knew the Encyclopaedia by heart.

De Sade can easily be misunderstood. As a reductio ad absurdum of facile rationalistic schemes he can be deeply inspiring. To those who refuse to accept the schemes have been refuted this aspect is nothing. If you hold that they are still sound, you will look elsewhere for his originality and achievement. It is exactly the same case with Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s criticisms of so called enlightenment simply wash over a die hard Hegelian. Accordingly he is made out to be saying something quite different. The same applies to De Sade with his searing satire on the revolutionary values of 1789.

Our understanding of intellectual history depends much on whether we think Nietzsche is largely right or just the inventor of an ingenious way of thought. On one idealist reading of the history of philosophy Nietzsche simply created a possible way in which we can think, just as we could have thought in another way. One looks for others who hit on the same discoveries if one is convinced of his fundamental truth. People have seen in Stirner and De Sade the attitudes they might have taken up if there were no Nietzsche. If Nietzsche had not written, the considerations that drew one to him would have drawn one to others.

One is wary about describing De Sade as a direct precursor, because one may be reading Nietzsche back into him. I do not intend to argue for De Sade as an intellectual ancestor of Nietzsche, tempting as it is to do so. There are too many alternative ways in which De Sade is seen and the danger is rather to obscure the understanding of Nietzsche, than clarify De Sade. Much is unclear because of the different ways in which Sade has been understood. If I argue for Sade as a proto-Nietzsche, I would not understand him as genuinely advocating sadistic aggression, or even undermining real morality, anymore than I do Nietzsche.
Many people hold it ridiculous to see this pornographer and blasphemer as a philosopher at all. If we do though, we might see his ideas as clarified by Nietzsche. Apollinaire prophesied he would “dominate the twentieth” century. There are many ways of reading him. Georges Bataille, Simone De Beauvoir, Colin Wilson all read him differently. One of Huysmans' heroes praises De Sade, not as a free spirit but for expressing the innermost spirit of the Catholic Middle Ages, with its Inquisition, its rackings, burnings and breaking on the wheel.

The different ways of reading him mirror different ways of reading Nietzsche. Notoriously De Sade was an influence on the moors murderer Ian Brady, which caused much anguish to Sade’s admirers in the 1960s, like Jeff Nutall author of Bomb Culture (1968). Even in this there is a parallel with Nietzsche, who was apparently inspired the Leopold and Loeb murder in 1924. Leopold’s defence counsel asked the judge:-

“Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?… It is hardly fair to hang a 19-year-old boy for the philosophy that was taught him at the university?”

De Sade’s literary excesses parallel those of Nietzsche, if they are much more lurid.
Even today Nietzsche is sometimes treated in a clearly unfavourable sense as a disciple of De Sade. For example, James Miller’s biography of Foucault presents Nietzsche’s will to power doctrine as essentially De Sade, and De Sade himself is understood crudely. Nietzsche is himself is interpreted as a decadent of the Sadian school, and De Sade is treated as merely an exponent of a perverse individual taste. Philosophy is reduced to peculiarities of temperament.

Nietzschean art is sometimes considered to be even more decadent than the Schopenhauerian. Unhealthy and pathological, his affirmation is dismissed as a form of sadism. Praz writes:-

Certain conformities of thought between Blake and Sade, between Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche and Blake, derive from the fact that these writers were all, in greater or lesser degree, sadists. This accounts for the discovery of a twin mind- of Swinburne in Sade, of d’Annunzio in Swinburne and Nietzsche, of Gide in Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky and Blake.

Others may prefer to say that the conformities of thought derive from the fact that they were all onto something. If we accept Nietzsche, we accept his universal resonance, and take it that the temperament associated with his ideas it is that receptive to certain aspects of reality. The alternative is that his discoveries have no significance, and accordingly what he identified as the falsifications involved in received morality are to stay in place. Even life affirmation is treated as form of sadomasochism. Praz writes on p 294:-

It has been aptly observed that the Promethean attitude is characteristic of sadists- think of Bryon, of Swinburne and of the satanics in general and the Pan like inspiration is no less characteristic.

Applying Nietzsche’s criticisms of Schopenhauer, especially the claim that he was not sincere in his pessimism, to the culture of decadence can bring Sadian influences more into focus. Nietzsche writes:-

For let’s not underestimate the fact that Schopenhauer, who in fact treated sexuality as a personal enemy (including its instrument, woman, this “instrumentum diaboli”) needed enemies in order to maintain his good spirits, that he loved grim, caustic, black-green words, that he got angry for the sake of getting passionately angry, that he would have become ill, would have become a pessimist (—and he wasn’t a pessimist, no matter how much he wanted to be one) without his enemies, without Hegel, woman, sensuousness, and the whole will for existence, for continuing on.

In Beyond Good and Evil he argues that Schopenhauer could hardly have been a real pessimist because he used to play the flute after dinner.

Both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche had objections to the society in which they found themselves. What Schopenhauer deplores as a superabundance of will Nietzsche would put down to frustration of his own. Nietzsche's solution is his doctrines like the will to power, steadfastness in which is to secure morale. Both Nietzsche and Schopenhauer would agree that the experience of art brings a sort of affirmation. If Nietzsche would call it of life, and Schopenhauer of death it is possible to see this as verbal quibbling. Nietzsche himself warns us to beware of saying that death is the opposite of life.

According to Nietzsche, Schopenhauer is wrong to see the pleasure of art as escape from the will as such rather than just escape from the pressure of alien will. He says he allowed himself to be misled by Kantian aesthetics. Freedom from the alien pressure enables one’s own life energy to flow more freely. Schopenhauer identified happiness with escape from the will because escape from the will was the belief with which he identified his own. He understands affirmationist philosophy but mistakenly thinks he is rejecting it.

Trying to follow Nietzsche’s hints as to what a Nietzschean art would be, we should first be clear that asserting reality and affirming it is not to affirm just anything. Some take Nietzsche mainly as rejecting the negativity and effeminacy of the decadence. The Futurists, and the vorticists, as well as fascist and communist art aim to overcome this. Theirs is not necessarily the representation of truth, reality, which may easily in some respects be a pessimistic truth. A celebratory art may affirm and even glorify facts that are in some respects negative. Nietzschean art meant glorification of reality, and if the reality is one of decline so be it. Nazi and Bolshevik art, with their artificial optimism, for all their pretensions to Nietzschean style aggression and determination to found an new order, would not match up to this.

In rejecting romanticism, Nietzsche is obviously not calling for a return to the aesthetics of the non romantic, the so called healthy school, the artists and writers like Dickens, George Eliot, Thackeray and Frith from which the decadents consciously distanced themselves.

With a slight change of perspective Schopenhauerian art becomes Nietzschean, arguably more so than if Nietzsche’s own explicit aesthetic theories had been strictly applied. Not that this has always been understood favourably, quite the contrary in many cases. Comprehensive affirmation, including of the painful and unpleasant aspects of existence, can indeed suggest the Sadian tradition, and there are strong prejudices against this.

Increasing Nietzsche found readers throughout the 1890s. As Schopenhauer’s philosophy led naturally into Nietzsche’s, so art followed the same course. People influenced by him infused his own ideas into their creations, not by following a specific artistic programme he had laid down, but simply because they were saturated in his writings and philosophy. Reinterpreting Schopenhauer we also reinterpret the art he is said to have inspired. We can read it differently, see the overcoming involved in it, even perhaps the truth it succeeded in expressing.

Forgetting Schopenhauer, there is room for other interpretations of the decadent movement, without reducing it to the inadequacy or perversity of the individual. Decadence in the most literal sense, may have been an illusion, a fantasy, but that is not to say there were no realities expressed by this idea, realities more significant than the individual pathology of the artist. In Will to Power §57 Nietzsche describes how disintegration expresses the whole mode of consciousness of the fin de siècle feeling:-

All our road is slippery and dangerous, while the ice which still bears us has grown unconscionably thin

One might take this in Marxist terms as referring to the economic insecurity of his class. But who identifies with “his class” in this sense? Presumably what Nietzsche is thinking of is not just an economic class but an intelligible culture. It is one made possible by a peculiar economic situation, of course, though the poor bohemian artist was part of it.

At the end of the nineteenth century, to live a life that was aesthetically satisfying it was felt necessary to rise above the common democratic, utilitarian life that was spreading all around. The ideal of the free spirit involved an aristocratic disdain for happiness, sometimes even for life itself. Even suicide could become an aesthetic act. Embracing and affirming “Decadence” offered a path of escape from the intolerable feeling of being submerged in the mass and a life subject to the value the mass put upon it. Avoidance of this is felt as a precondition of any emotionally satisfying culture.

Before 1914 an aesthetic solution had been found, if only for a class of people. The threat to this class explained the decadent quality of late nineteenth century literature. The objective fact was that the way of life could not last. The aesthetic perception of this fact is romantic agony, as in Baudelaire, Swinburne, Proust, Flaubert and countless lesser writers and artist. The confusion brought about by war and technological change threw all this into disarray.

The 1890s continued the romantic current to the point of final death of a unified western culture, the last time when powerful symbols would well up from the unconscious of all sensitive spirits. The femme fatale was the image of this death, the aesthetic elitism expressed the consciousness of the rising sea of mass culture and egalitarian ideas and the attempt to resist it brought out a flood of images. The meaning of the decadence was a consciousness of this, expressing itself in rich imagery shared by enough people to make the last real unified movement of western culture. The insensitive could not see that anything was dying. Afterwards the sensitive soul had to become an adventurer.

From here there is a natural progression to early modernism, art movements like cubism, expressionism, and surrealism where Nietzsche’s influence is prominent and unmistakeable. Nietzsche like many others desired to transcend romanticism. How far he or any of his rivals succeeded depends much on the meaning we attach to words. Modernism itself is as contentious a term as romanticism. If romanticism means aesthetic experience as escape from an unsatisfactory rationalism, this was not exactly transcended. Nietzsche’s hopes for a new classicism were not realised. But romanticism need not be thought of negatively as forgetfulness of self. It need not lead to the search for salvation in some alien mould as with the antinomianism that converts to another faith. It does not have to be about surrendering power to something else, like the authority of the Catholic church, which is where many of the decadents ended up.

Among the various aesthetic programmes that may be extracted from Nietzsche is the idea of art as consolation. Restless spirits are moved by “the opposite of homesickness” , the need for the radically other. Where the here and now has come to seem the mundane, mired in ugliness, only overcoming that can seem to have any value. Imaginative escape from the false rationality of the present comes to be understood as a most desirable objective. Art is needed to redeem life, creating a vivid image of affirmation and how it can be attained.

When the pressure of mundanity becomes too great overcoming it seems to be the only joy. And contrariwise any joy is an overcoming of oppression. Art is the whole meaning of life, an aggressive struggle against demoralisation. The struggle is everything. Understood thus romanticism is escape into a free world of unlimited meaning. In the exotic is affirmation, the pleasure of art is like that of travel. The unromantic is the forcing of a single meaning, a single interpretation on us all.

People who refuse to see the point of Nietzsche or indeed the point of serious art are happy to take either as viciousness and weakness. So there are very different ideas of decadence, such as how Tolstoy saw the movement. His idea of decadence would make Nietzsche himself a decadent. Some interpretations of romanticism and of the decadent movement may approach the philistine rejection of art altogether.
Much of the society in which Nietzsche lived would have categorised his attitude towards its principles as weakness and sickness. By the official standard he was sick. Up to a point he agreed with assessment, suffering from adverse judgement and from society's neglect. We may seek the root of his perspective in a felt disharmony, a consciousness of sickness and rejection of competitiveness. Out of this develop his pride and contempt. He observes the feelings that arise within him and follows their logic. Soon we arrive at the idea of so called sickness as a mark of higher rank, a form of nobility.

With the Nietzschean revaluation the motive behind much of the art remains. In Genealogy of Morals he writes:-

What then is the meaning of ascetic ideals? In the case of an artist, as we see, nothing whatever!

The Schopenhauerian/Wagnerian philosophy is attacked, but also reinterpreted. Thus Nietzschean aesthetics involves an interpretation of what so called Schopenhauerian and decadent art was really doing, as distinct from what it thought it was doing, and so interpreted it cannot be said it was something to which he was altogether opposed. Even criticised features like its narcotic, romantic and escapist tendencies take on a more benign aspect. A Nietzschean interpretation of modernism, repudiating rationalistic schemes like socialism and eudaemonism, will also think initially in terms of affirmation of sickness. Feeling oppressed by the effects of those schemes, he attacks them, working towards an alternative theory, a new psychology, which is no longer sickness affirmed, or renunciation of the will, but a different view of health with a rational place for art. The ground was far from secure however, and modernism itself became a battle ground for competing ideologies and philosophies, some of which were strongly anti-Nietzschean.

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