Decadence in art and literature refers to the cultural period in Europe that occurred in the late 1800s, also called fin de siècle. Decadent aesthetics originated in France and then spread to England and the rest of Europe, and eventually also to USA. The decadent novel is characterised by controversial themes such perversity, narcissism and agony often conveyed using an extremely poetic style.
In her doctoral thesis in English, Tia Stajic Löfgren focuses on the typical decadent theme of immortality-through-art. Stajic Löfgren refers to the theme, which can be found in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) and several other fin de siècle novels, as the metaphysics of art.
‘The metaphysics of art represents a concrete expression of the 19th century doctrine of l’art pour l’art or “art for art’s sake”, which holds art as superior to and exempt from moral principles,’ she says.
Stajic Löfgren’s research shows that also the American 20th century authors Fitzgerald, Nabokov and Pynchon were inspired by the decadent tradition although they revised it to question the metaphysics of art and include mortal fear, which is non-existent in traditional fin de siècle novels.
‘While this denial of mortality in the traditional fin de siècle novel is manifested in daring and perverse experimentation, both thematically and stylistically, mortality is gradually accepted in the 20th century novels explored in my thesis, and this completely changes their narrative structure,’ says Stajic Löfgren.
She concludes that although the 20th century novels are influenced by the decadent combination of the perverse and the aesthetical, these narratives evolve away from perversity to adopt a more human and also spiritual approach in terms of both themes and characters.