ANGELS OF RANCID GLAMOUR: NOTES ON NEO-DECADENCE
I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes. – David Bowie, 1971
In 1971 American writer Gore Vidal wrote an article for The New York Review of Books about the suicide in 1970 of the Japanese author Yukio Mishima (Kimitake Hiraoka). Vidal noted how his first reactions to the affair were solemnly couched in terms of cultural relativism. The event seemed peculiarly Japanese: on the 25th of November, at Ichigaya, base of the Jeitei (Japanese Self Defence Force) in Tokyo, Mishima and a small group from the leadership of his paramilitary Tatenokai (Shield Society) attempted to stage a coup.
Mishima harangued the troops assembled on the parade ground and distributed a manifesto which stated that ‘The honor of the nation is at stake’ because the position of the Emperor has been eroded. The tract ended with an outcry of nationalism: Nippon was more important than liberty, democracy and respect for life. These exhortations fell on deaf ears and he retired into the building where, in the offices of the Chief of Staff, General Kanetoshi Mashita, he committed ritual Hara-Kiri (Seppuku) with the assistance of one of his companions, Masakatsu Morita. Both were beheaded during the ritual.
After studying Mishima’s works Vidal changed his mind, asserting that Mishima’s act was not a manifestation of Japanese right-wing political fanaticism, but was entirely ‘idiosyncratic’.
According to Vidal, Mishima should be understood as ‘a Romantic artist in a very fin de siecle French way’. His aesthetic legacy should be regarded as ‘not a garden but an entire landscape of artificial flowers’. Here, in 1971, in the latter half of the Twentieth Century we find a continuation of the themes of the fin de siecle: a complex of familiar ideas – death, eroticism, artificiality and cultural pessimism. In his book Confessions of a Mask (Kamen no Kokuhaku) (1949) Mishima himself refers to ‘decadence’ in various contexts. He talks of ‘a debasement more evil than that of any normal kind of love. Indeed of all the kinds of decay in this world’, he wrote ‘decadent purity is the most malignant’. Henry Scott Stokes records that Confessions of a Mask was an exploration of ‘aesthetic nihilism’, an attempt to purge the self of a monster within. This decadent monster, this ‘aesthetic nihilism’, becomes an aesthetic of blood and death symbolized by the languorous executions of ephebic youths, or The Martyrdom of St Sebastian, images which evoke the world of Gustave Moreau or Eugene Delacroix, rather than that of the Japanese Samurai.
I discovered hopes the same as mine in Heliogabalus, Emperor of Rome in its period of decay, that destroyer of Rome’s ancient gods, that decadent, bestial monarch.
Gore Vidal explained Mishima’s Romantic-Decadent sensibility by linking it to a perverse eroticism, a version of Rimbaud’s ‘derangement of the senses’, asserting that he wanted a ‘life of the flesh’, of ‘action divorced from words’ hinting at a trajectory of development discernable in Western Decadent literature where the pursuit of ‘pure’ poetic beauty finds resolution in an anguished rejection of language altogether. If language breaks down inertia or direct action are the only alternatives. The fin de siecle cultivation of ‘sensation’ and intensity becomes a cult of action and aesthetic violence, as in the Italian Futurists, Gabrielle D’Annunzio or the German ex storm-trooper Hans Junger. In the early part of the Twentieth Century this cult of action and violence was easy to identify with politics of the extreme Right. It was but a short step from ‘aesthetic nihilism’ to nationalism, Fascism or militarism, particularly the ‘new militarism’ of the 1930s.
Mishima exemplified this trend. In 1966 he wrote Eirei no Koe (Voices of the Heroic Dead), an elegy for the dead of World War II, particularly the souls of the Kamikaze pilots. The book was also interpreted as an attack on Emperor Hirohito for renouncing his ancient divine role at the behest of The Allies in 1946. Mishima grouped this work with two others into a set called The Ni Ni Roku Trilogy, works which fused his ‘hearts leaning towards Death and Night and Blood’ with a Romantic militaristic Imperialism. One volume of the Trilogy, Yokuku (Patriotism) idealized the act of hara-kiri: it is the story of a young lieutenant and his wife who commit joint ritual suicide in the midst of The Ni Ni Roku affair in February 1936, when a group of rebel army officers seized control of the centre of Tokyo and assassinated leading politicians. The officers declared that their action was on behalf of the Emperor, but the revolt collapsed after Hirohito himself ordered their surrender. In Patriotism Mishima vividly describes the samurai hara-kiri death ritual in some detail. The story was used as the basis for a film (1965) in which Mishima played the role of the young officer, killing himself to the accompaniment of the Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan. This fascination with ‘purity’, heroism, youth and death drew upon homoerotic and fascistic notions from Japan’s recent past which Mishima’s contemporaries were trying to forget – Anti-Westernism, Anti-Industrialism, Anti-Modernism. Modernism in the form of extreme Romanticism turns against itself, or, anticipating Post-Modernism, seeks to embrace a
type of Classicism. Mishima defined the modern welfare state as the ‘most desperate of conditions’ and, in his introduction to the Samurai Code Hagakure (Hagakure Nyumon) (1976) quoted the words of Rilke that ‘the death of man has become smaller’ and advocated the idea that ‘bringing death to the level of consciousness is an important element in mental health.’
In his enthusiasm for historic Nipponese virtue Mishima castigated contemporary fashions and criticized what he called ‘the feminization of the male’; he decried: the trendiness of Japanese youth, ‘infatuated’ as he saw it ‘with the Cardin look’, obsessed with trivia like cuff links and smart suits. This was despite a fetishistic fixation with his own appearance and his own homosexuality candidly treated in Confessions of a Mask, where he wrote:
My immorality was a subtle one, going even a step beyond the ordinary vices of the world, and like an exquisite poison it was pure corruption.
Yukio Mishima occupies a singular place in the history of modernist decadence. Firstly, he stands for an assimilation of European fin de siecle ideas in Eastern culture, showing how archaic Samurai ethics can be fused with modernistic Western ideas. Secondly, he exemplifies a continuation of Decadent themes and preoccupations well into the postwar era. Thirdly, his works show how certain aspects of Decadence became identified with Right Wing politics. Fourthly, his phrase ‘aesthetic nihilism’ encapsulates the essence of the Decadent movement – an aestheticism which, by its insistence on absolutes (purity, sensation, action) separates ‘art’ from moral categorization in a manner suited to a Post-Christian Nietzschean worldview. Beauty and the flesh become the basis of a cult of elegance and action; a secular and erotic hieraticism. According to Gore Vidal, Mishima’s objective was ‘the exhaustion of the flesh’. He was a ‘Romantic showman’ who ‘chose to die as he had lived, in a blaze of publicity.’ Vidal links Mishima’s fin de siecle outlook with Romanticism, and the ‘Romantic’s traditional and peculiar agony’ which we can identify as a perennial manifestation of a specific type.
The Very Edge Of The World
Mishima’s work highlights a complexity regarding the idea of ‘decadence’; an ambiguity, or a polarization, which permeates the entire fin de siecle tendency. French Decadents of the late nineteenth century like Verlaine, Huysmans or Baju tended to exploit the term as a rallying call. ‘Decadence’ was a symbol of anti-academicism and aesthetic revolt. Elements of the decadent ethos – eroticism, perversity, irony, introspection, pessimism, relativism, the absurd, occult symbolism and camp mannerism – were used in an attempt to construct an ‘alternative’ worldview which incorporated ideas of psycho-social crisis and transformation. The Decadent fixation on ‘sensation’ and hypersensitivity was the basis for an assertion of superiority (or modernity) in contrast with the bourgeois norms and conventions of day to day living.
The early Decadent or Maudit identified him/herself with modernity in the sense later used by Jung when, in 1928, he described the ‘unhistorical’ character of ‘modern man’
Thus he has become ‘unhistorical’ in the deepest sense and has estranged himself from the mass of men who live entirely within the bounds of tradition. Indeed, he is completely modern only when he has come to the very edge of the world, leaving behind him all that has been discarded and outgrown, and acknowledging that he stands before the Nothing out of which All may grow.
In this sense, a Maudit, or an aesthete of The Yellow Nineties, was happy to be called ‘decadent’. But like everything the idea became a fashion and society circles enacted a pseudo-decadent, pseudo-modern charade, participating in a displacement strategy in which the term became a label for objective degeneracy. The norms and conformities of day to day existence are then perceived as ‘decadent’ in themselves. But for Jung the truly modern man is the person who has achieved ‘full consciousness of the present’. Nevertheless in the process of acquiring this consciousness the ‘modern man’ becomes alienated ‘questionable and suspect’; he is a pessimist who views the optimism of his contemporaries as a symptom of universal absurdity and who is regarded by them as ‘degenerate’ because he is ‘alien’.
Yukio Mishima traced his own obsession with masochistic narcissism to his ‘experiences during the war, my reading of Nietzsche during the war and my fellow-feeling for the philosopher Georges Bataille...’. Bataille constructed a complex philosophy of eroticism that attempted to chart the extremes of mystical immersion in excess, torture and sadistic annihilation. But Nietzsche exemplified the alienated Maudit or ‘Outsider’ personality fixated by a form of historical, social ‘decadence’ elevated to the status of a universal principle – European Decadence. For Nietzsche in 1881, Wagner was the epitome of this decadence by his incorporation of Schopenhauer into the scenario of The Ring. For Nietzsche, Wagner, hero of the French Symbolists, was the ultimate ‘artist of decadence’ and cosmic pessimism. In The Ring ‘everything goes wrong, everything perishes, the new world is as bad as the old: the nothing, the Indian Circe beckons.’ Nietzsche’s invective against Wagner knows no bounds:
I am far from looking on guiltlessly while this decadent corrupts our health – and music as well. Is Wagner a human being at all? Isn’t he rather a sickness? He makes sick whatever he touches... For that one does not resist him, this is itself a sign of decadence.
Nietzsche identified Wagner’s art of sickness or neurosis in terms redolent of Decadent symbolism and imagery, furthering the myth of Wagner as a Poe-esque figure with an ‘overexcited sensibility’. The ‘convulsive nature of his affects’ make up ‘the protean character of degeneration’ producing an ‘overexcitement of the nervous mechanism’. Furthermore Wagner is ‘the modern artist par excellence’ because ‘nothing is more modern than this total sickness’. Here Nietzsche links his analysis to the mythology of historical periods of decadence asserting a particular linkage between decadence and modernity. For many this was a firm belief: the modern era was seen as both unique and, in some way an era of degeneration, of termination, of finality. This view has persisted well into the Twentieth Century as the procession events continue to fuel such speculations and confirm their validity. Undoubtedly these ideas find resolution outside/beyond the aesthetic sphere in the realm of religious, apocalyptic or occult sensibility.
In 1965 Frank Kermode lectured on ‘certain arbitrarily chosen aspects of apocalyptic thinking and feeling: of the terrors of Decadence and Renovation, of Transition, and of Clerkly Scepticism’ highlighting the ‘apocalyptic tenor of much radical thinking about the arts in our century’. It becomes necessary to identify our epoch as a neurotic ‘age of anxiety’, suffused by a specifically modern ‘sense of crisis’. Kermode warns against this ‘facile conception’ but nevertheless he is forced to recognize that this crisis ‘is inescapably a central element in our endeavors towards making sense of our world’.
The Psychopathology Of Affluence
In the postwar era the terminology of Decadence, let us say Neo-Decadence, has acquired new jargon: malaise, anxiety, defeatism, death-wish, sleaze, solipsism, paranoia, anomie, apathy, vacancy, The Blank Generation, split-consciousness, New Narcissism, The society of the Spectacle, commodity fetishism, Subtopia, urban decay – and above all: CRISIS.
In 1964 Susan Sontag wrote an essay called ‘Notes on “Camp”’ which codified some features of the ‘camp sensibility’, reinforcing the view that in contemporary mass-culture most of the main features of the fin de siecle outlook have been perpetuated. Sontag’s descriptions of the camp sensibility include a love of the unnatural, of ‘artifice and exaggeration’. Camp is also ‘esoteric’ and a private code for the initiated. Above all it is a certain mode of aestheticism which sees the world as an aesthetic phenomenon, not in terms of conventional beauty but in terms of ‘artifice’ and style. Camp incorporates a key element of the fin de siecle mentality because it is based upon the ‘metaphor of life as theatre’. This feature is highly significant. Decadence opens up a view of the world as a drama of spectacle and transformation. The hermetic disintegration of traditional discourse and the semiological terrorism of groups like the Dadaists and the Surrealists propels the artist-poet to the outer limits of the signifiable, to a void of non-meaning as polysemic symbols consume language. The ‘decomposition’ of language induces either inertia or action, either stasis or dynamism. Style becomes all; mannerism sabotages rationality; drama becomes ritual; transformation is manifest in the ordeal of pleasure-pain. Sex and Death are the reverse sides of the same phenomenon. This ritualized, self-imposed drama is exemplified most starkly by Yukio Mishima’s suicide at Jeitei HQ in 1970. Filmmaker Paul Schrader (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters 1985) is reported as saying that this ‘drama’ became the ‘summit of Mishima’s endeavor to fictionalize his own life’. This drive to absorption in self-created psychodramas where the barriers between fact and fiction are eroded is intrinsic to Camp and much of modern Pop; it is intrinsic to the mythology of self-destruction and shamanistic power surrounding doomed ‘superstars’ like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. Often this modern mythology is permeated by a crypto-religious apocalyptic subtext.
David Bowie’s absorption by his alter-ego persona Ziggy Stardust (according to one critic an ‘asexual androgynous Everyman’, according to Bowie himself ‘the prophet of the future starman’) became an experiment in mass-media ritual fictionalization which (almost) got out of control, reaching the stage where the performer ‘gets lost’ in his characters:
I couldn’t decide whether I was writing the characters or the characters were writing me, or whether we were all one and the same.
Bowie has often been called ‘decadent’. So writes Roy Hollingworth in The Melody Maker reviewing Bowie’s ‘first farewell tour’ in June 1973
Bowie whether he knew it or not, created a monster. We were ready to drink from the cup of decadence.
Trouble is few knew when to stop...
In the Ziggy Stardust scenario the world is on the brink of apocalypse (‘Five Years left to die in’) and Ziggy himself (a compendium figure based on Iggy Pop and Vince Taylor, who both took things ‘too far’ – Taylor proclaimed himself Christ onstage) is like some latter-day Orpheus figure killed by his own fans in a welter of messianic references. Bowie claimed to ‘play it for real’, until, in a stroke of marketing genius, he attempted to ‘kill off’ Ziggy at a ‘farewell concert’ (London, July 4th, 1973).
Sontag’s ‘Notes’ constitute a comprehensive inventory of ‘camp’ iconography from the early 1960s. For Sontag, Art Nouveau is the ‘most typical and fully developed camp style’ because it evokes a ‘disengaged, unserious aesthete’s vision’. Aubrey Beardsley (‘cultivated, dandified and a born master of high camp’ – Brigid Brophy, 1979) and the late PreRaphaelite paintings of Burne-Jones locate the immediate origins of modern Camp in the Decadence of the English ‘Yellow Nineties’: the period of that self-fictionalized Tragic Generation of doomed aesthetes. Other Camp icons are Oscar Wilde (of course) and Ronald Firbank whose novels Odette d’Antrevernes (1905), Vainglory (1915), Inclinations (1916) and Valmouth (1919) helped form a bridge between the aestheticism of the ‘Nineties and the Neo-Decadence of ‘the Golden Twenties’. Firbank’s Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli (1926) was a pre-absurdist fantasy of pseudo-religious homoeroticism. Sontag’s inventory also includes Henry James, Jean Cocteau and the operas of Richard Strauss.
Camp in the Movies encompasses The Maltese Falcon, Mae West and the ‘great stylists of temperament and mannerisms – Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead and Edwige Feuilliere. Sontag particularly singles out ‘the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo (‘I’m the twisted name on Garbo’s eyes’ – David Bowie) because camp is the triumph of ‘the epicene style’ and because all style is artifice. Camp artifice must be excruciating or ‘too much’; it must be disengaged and depoliticised (alienated) but also incorporate ideas of fantastic transmutations based on polarities and antinomies: the feminine in men, the masculine in women, the thin, flowing ‘sexless’ bodies of Art Nouveau.
The historical origins of Camp Decadence find their roots in the paintings of Carlo Crivelli and Mannerists like Pontormo, Rosso, Caravaggio and Georges de la Tour and later in the capricious tastes of the Eighteenth Century: Chinoiserie, Gothic Novels, caricature and artificial ruins. Brophy has identified The Brighton Pavillion as a source of Beardsley’s inspiration.
Central to Sontag’s definition of Camp is its subversion of conventional aesthetic judgement: the ‘good-bad axis’. By ironic displacement ‘bad’ or kitsch can become ‘good’, and ‘good’ or ‘serious’ can become tedious and ephemeral. One of the strategies is to ‘dethrone the serious’ camp is ‘anti-serious’ and recognizes that traditional canons of cultural normality have become exhausted and enfeebled (another criterion of Decadence) and ‘inadequate to the culturally oversaturated medium in which contemporary sensibility is schooled’. In her emphasis on aesthetic detachment Sontag identifies a key link between 1960s Camp and the fin de siecle: Dandyism. For Camp is ‘Dandyism in an age of mass culture’ a ‘taste which transcends the nausea of the replica’, pushing aestheticism and nihilistic estrangement into new areas, creating a ‘rare way’ of possession.
This new way allows a new style dandy to make a cult out of vulgarity, giving rise to an ultra-modernist aesthetic of ‘trash’, defined in truly Decadent style as unique to affluent societies ‘in societies or circles capable of experiencing the psychopathology of affluence’ as an aristocratic posture. This gives rise to the paradox of ‘good bad taste’ as discussed by Jean Genet in Our Lady of the Flowers (1944) and highlights a continuity between camp taste and Pop Art – although for Sontag, Pop is ‘more serious, more detached, ultimately nihilistic.’ One thinks of the deliberate ‘trashy’ garage band style of The Velvet Underground used as a setting for songs evoking a lyricism of waste, a pathological naturalism of sexual ‘permissiveness’ and the ‘drug culture’ of the New York Underground avant garde: ‘Venus in Furs’ (1967), ‘Heroin’ (1967), ‘Lady Godiva’s Operation’ (1967) and, above all, the literalistic cacophony of ‘Sister Ray’. (1967). The VU and the work of Andy Warhol epitomize Transatlantic Pop Neo-Decadence, creating a style from the dregs of mass culture (photos of Marilyn Monroe, the ubiquitous Elvis images, car crashes, dark glasses, Soup Cans) and the pathological underside of mass culture – pornography, crime, drug addiction, weird cults. Ex-VU lead singer Lou Reed’s solo albums from Transformer (1972) and Berlin (1973) through to Metal Machine Music (1975) made him the ‘Elder Statesman of Ersatz Decadence’ and, eventually, ‘The Godfather of Punk’.
In the context of Camp, Susan Sontag describes three ‘creative sensibilities’ in modern culture. Firstly, serious high culture with its pantheon of truth, beauty and gravitas. Secondly, the mode of extreme states of feeling (Kristeva’s experience-of-limits tradition) which in fact is the imperative driving most ‘modern’ art whose trademarks are anguish, cruelty and derangement, an art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of ‘overstraining the medium’, introducing more and more violent and unresolvable subject matter (as in the work of Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud). But Camp, however, is the third great sensibility of the postwar era although often unrecognized. This is the sensibility of ‘failed seriousness’ and the ‘theatricalisation of experience’ – the incarnation of a victory of ‘style’ over ‘content’ and of ‘aesthetics’ over morality in the tradition of Oscar Wilde: camp is a ‘consistently aesthetic experience of the world.
This Camp Sensibility is the inseparable companion of the aesthetic of extreme states; it may often be combined with it. As in the stage performances of Lindsay Kemp which are simultaneously an exercise in camp humour and an exploration of the death rituals of heightened sensation, blurring the divisions ‘between the avant garde and the archaic, between frivolity and seriousness, passion and parody’ to quote David Houghton.
Primal narcissism, a psychological component of the Camp sensibility, materializes at the limits of experience and symbolizes part of the psychopathology of a fallen world: the Modern World – the world of economic decline and nuclear holocaust, of sleaze and solipsism and the paranoia of The Blank Generation spawned in New York or Los Angeles. This is the decaying universe of zomboid vacancy described by Bret Easton Ellis in Less Than Zero (1986). Reviewer Michael Pye said this book described ‘a new sort of kid’ habituated to snuff movies, video nasties and gang rape (shades of A Clockwork Orange):
Everyone watches, everything might be for sale, everyone lives in some solipsistic world where movie deals are the best connection the kids can imagine. You window shop for life, know where to go to buy ecstasy, visions, energy, sex, a body… and a tan.
Others have analyzed the negative energy of Admass culture, from Hunter S Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey Into The Heart Of The American Dream (1971) (a subtitle with echoes of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) that archetypal ‘savage journey’ of initiation into the void,) to Kathy Acker (Blood and Guts in High School, 1978). Gore Vidal, in a speech given in 1986 proclaimed the ‘death of the American Empire’ caused by the transfer of financial power from New York to Tokyo in September 1985. Real Decadence this, especially when he spoke of the ‘decadence’ of modern language and, how ‘our Republic now begins to crack under the expense of maintaining a mindless imperial force’. He catalogued the evils:
…our cities whose centres are unlivable; our crime rate, the highest in the world; the public education system that has given up… we are a deteriorating empire – currently dangerous to know.
In 1979 Christopher Lasch published The Culture of Narcissism exposing the Neo-Decadence of this decaying American Empire-Dream proclaiming that confidence had fallen to a low ebb, that defeat in Vietnam, economic stagnation and the ‘impending exhaustion of natural resources’ have produced a deep pessimism and ‘a despairing view of the future’. Modern American society is ‘a way of life that is dying… which in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self’. This narcissism (often linked with Decadence via homosexuality) involves a devaluation of the past in a society that has made nostalgia a commodity.
Theatre of the Senses
In England Decadence became chic in the mid-1970s. The Swinging Sixties had made London a centre of Camp Sensibility and the ‘permissiveness’ of the Pop Scene became a hallmark of both Britain’s affluence and its post-imperial decline. By the early 1970s moralist critics and alarmists like Christopher Booker and Mary Whitehouse were helping to create, through their diatribes, a climate of ‘social decline’ and collapsing standards. In 1973 Tom Stacey wrote:
All around us are things we do not like, things we suspect point to the end of an epoch of human history, but which we can do less and less about.
Defining this as the ‘collective compulsion of Sodom and Gomorrah’ he listed the by now familiar symptoms of modern social decadence: empty churches, messianic cults, the increasing artificiality of urban life, dissipation of allegiances, increasing levels of crime and mental disorder, abortion, race-riots, pollution, over-eating, over-breeding, over-consumption...
The merchants of doom continued their warnings as 1984 – year of Orwellian nightmare – approached. In the Sunday Times (1983) John Mortimer attacked these assertions of decline as a ‘spurious form of self-indulgence’. Mortimer denied that we live in some ‘period of lurid decadence undreamed since the court of the emperor Caligula’. Others, like Richard Gilman, and D. J. Enright, attempted to explain that ‘periods of decadence’ never existed while seeming to relish the trappings of chic, erotic designer-decadence: bedrooms with mirrored ceilings, black satin sheets, black stockings and garter belts, ‘edible panties and fruit flavoured douches’, reaffirming the dictum of Sally Bowles that decadence was ‘divine… dahling’.
According to July Cooper English Neo-Decadence was associated with ‘sexy actors’ like Malcolm Macdowell (A Clockwork Orange), Helmut Berger (The Damned) Edward Fox and Alan Badel. Chic decadents wear dark glasses all the time and draw their bedroom curtains during the day. Decadence was something you think is ‘rather dashingly wicked’, like going shopping wearing a fur coat and nothing else. You can’t be decadent with short legs. Alice Cooper was decadent – so was David Bowie.
Starting in 1970 with The Man Who Sold The World, Bowie produced a string of albums in the 1970s which crystallized the Neo-Decadent ethos in the UK Hunky Dory (1972), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust & the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973) and Diamond Dogs (1974) These loosely-organized song-cycles (concept albums), together with live concert recordings Ziggy Stardust – The Motion Picture (recorded 1973) and David Live (1974) and Bowie’s on-tour performances comprised a veritable breviary of Camp and alienated eroticism, fusing New York sleaze (a la Andy Warhol and Lou Reed) with outrageous theatricality. Most of Bowie’s songs comprised fractured doom-laden lyrics, which charted his own ritualized psychodrama of self-fictionalization, living-out for all to see an apocalyptic scenario of quasi-science fiction catastrophe illustrated by these lines from ‘Drive In Saturday’:
Don’t forget to turn on the light
Don’t laugh babe, it’ll be alright
Pour me out another phone
I’ll ring and see if your friends are home
Perhaps the strange ones in the dome
Can lend us a book we can read up alone.
This modern apocalypse has an indefinable character: perhaps it is like those described by J. G. Ballard in his ‘sixties ‘disaster novels’ The Wind From Nowhere (1962), The Drowned World (1962), The Burning World (1964) and The Crystal World (1966), all of which depicted impersonal ecological collapse.
Bowie’s stage presentation and theatrical style owed much to dance and mime artist Lindsay Kemp (b.1938) who had met Bowie in 1967. Erstwhile student of painting and design from Bradford College of Art, Kemp, more than anyone (apart from Bowie himself) was responsible for bringing Neo-Decadence to the fore. He created a delirious synthesis of Noh, Kabuki, Commedia del ‘Arte, mime, striptease and Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty in a series of stage shows such as Flowers. A Pantomime for Jean Genet (1968), Salome (1976), Cruel Garden (1978) and earlier works like his production of Genet’s The Maids (1968) and his own Turquoise Pantomime (Pierrot in Turquoise) of 1968.
In Oscar Wilde’s Salome Kemp played the title role of the ‘archetypal lust-filled 14-year old’ making his entrance to the strains of ‘La Paloma’ while The Incredible Orlando played Herodias with false plastic breasts and a live snake. The Times described the ‘effect of a terrible dream’, the ‘ghastly floor-level lighting’ and the ‘Beardsleyan’ Jokanaan (played by David Houghton) who ‘slides by imperceptible degrees under Salome’s silver cloak up to the moment of her blood-drinking kiss.’
Bowie and Kemp joined forces to stage the Ziggy Stardust Shows at The Rainbow Theatre in August 1972, a memorable rock-mime collaboration which launched the ethos of high camp decadent apocalypse to a wider audience. Following this Bowie followed his route to international stardom with Aladdin Sane, Diamond Dogs and films like The Man Who Fell to Earth (1975) while Kemp shocked London with Flowers. This paraphrase of Genet (Notre Dame des Fleurs) struck a savage blow at restricted English theatrical ‘taste’ with its whores and pimps, its agonizingly slow-motion striptease arias and its climactic mock crucifixion. The Sunday Times commented:
Mr Kemp’s timid and infinitely sad Divine tottering like a more than consumptive lady of the camellias, doomed to an exhausted passion and a bloody end.
A key image in Flowers, intrinsic to Kemp’s homoerotic world of ‘rancid glamour’ are lithe boy-angels, figures of Beardsleyesque elegance and androgynous bisexuality. Wild Boys, or perhaps supernatural messengers from Other Worlds, heralds of blood sacrifice. Angels are also a motif in the films of Derek Jarman. Jarman’s work fuses most aspects of 1970s English Neo-Decadence and shares a familial association with both Kemp and Bowie. After working as set designer on Ken Russell’s The Devils (1970) and Savage Messiah (1972) Jarman made a number of films of his own like Sebastiane (1976), an exploration of ‘fatal narcissism’ and sexual martyrdom set in a remote outpost of the Roman Empire (St. Sebastian: ‘danced by Ida Rubinstein, impersonated by Mishima. In love with his martyrdom’). Jubilee (1978) the first of Jarman’s representations of apocalypse used a scenario of Punk anarchy (‘Anarchy in the UK’) and a frame narrative in which Elizabeth 1st is time-shifted into the future by alchemist-magus John Dee and the angel-spirit Ariel to view the devastation of Twentieth Century England. Jubilee was an exploration of ferocity and ‘unrelenting pessimism’:
All sexuality is at the service of death and chaos. Social order breaks down. Narcissism in the image of the pop world replaces that order.., there is no hope of reparation.
Jarman’s paintings and many of his films are identified with a ‘poetics of fire’ which evokes both the ‘heat’ of the creative imagination and a purgatorial holocaust. Like Kenneth Anger or Pasolini he celebrates the Gay ethos of homoerotic action but fuses it with a vision of magic, alchemy and apocalypse. Jarman has acknowledged the influence of C. G. Jung, specifically the Alchemical Studies and Seven Sermons of the Dead. Describing his poetry of fire he says: ‘There is the image and the word, and the image of the word. The ‘poetry of fire’ relies on a treatment of word and object as equivalent: both are signs both are luminous and opaque.’
Jarman’s films like Jubilee and the later The Last of England (1987) are denunciations of the ‘decay’ of liberalism in ‘Albion’ (Thatcher’s Britain), and the repression inherent in English right-wing class-ridden, Puritanism which is itself a symptom of ‘decay’ because it is degenerate. Film-poets like Jarman oppose this puritanical Augustanism with a contrary aesthetic of occult Neo-Decadence, which is both visionary, and fin de siecle Romantic.
With Derek Jarman the themes of Decadence and Apocalypse find an outlet in films which are not widely distributed. Jarman stands half way between the ‘mainstream’ output of commercial cinema and the esoteric world of ‘underground’ film – the tradition of the ‘independent’ film, the film of avant garde experimentation which developed soon after World War I. In the inter-war years the main source of film experimentation was in Europe, pioneered by the masters of Dada, Surrealism, Cubism and Constructivism. This tradition comprised two approaches: the ‘subjective’ and the ‘graphic’ or abstract (cinegraphic) film. Films like Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony (1921) and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921) pioneered the film of nonobjective abstraction. Others initiated the ‘film-poem’ of stream-of-consciousness introspective symbolism or Surrealism: Artaud (with Germaine Dulac) La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928), Curtis Harrington with The Fall of the House of Usher (1924), Bunuel and Dali with Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), and of course Jean Cocteau with Le Sang d’un Poete (1930). In the late 1940s the focus of development shifted from Europe to America as Nazi cultural purges drove radical artists – Cubists, Dadaists, Surrealists – to seek refuge in The United States.
It is the genre of the ‘subjective film’ which is of interest here.
In the early subjective movies there was a tendency to portray ‘psychodrama’ scenarios in which the filmmaker himself acted the central role, often as an entranced somnambulistic figure (obvious influence of Caligari). In these ‘trance films’ (Parker Tyler) the central protagonist moves in a world of (usually) sexual symbolism in a ‘vertical’ structure which avoids orthodox narrative. An early example of this type of filmic psychodrama was Fireworks (1947) by Kenneth Anger, described by P. Adams Sitney as ‘a tapestry of icons and symbols’ incorporating ‘ritualistic images’. Fireworks was one of the earliest examples of what came to be known as ‘underground’ film, part of a strand of development which moved from these intimate ‘trance’ type scenarios to a ‘mythopoeic’ genre incorporating explicitly ‘occult’ symbolism. Kenneth Anger exemplifies these tendencies with such films as the ‘Dionysian ritual’ Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), Scorpio Rising (1963), Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1980) which incorporate detailed representations of Thelemite rituals with modernistic pop-culture iconography.
Lucifer Rising was filmed over a period of ten years at various sacred sites like Luxor, Karnak, Gizeh and Avebury and featured Marianne Faithful as Lilith and Anger himself in the role of Magus. According to Anger the film depicts Lucifer as the Light God, ‘the Rebel Angel behind what’s happening in the world today’. In the film personifications of Isis and Osiris communicate in a ritualistic call and response, Lilith. The Destroyer climbs to the place of sacrifice. The Magus activates the circle and Lucifer, Bringer of Light breaks through in UFO apotheosis.
These films together with others like Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946) and The Very Eye of Night (1959), or Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) epitomize the Underground before the arrival of Andy Warhol. These films, to quote Parker Tyler,
…illustrate the profound situation of human emotion in the initiation rite, which is a lost tradition of fable except in poetry and dance
While many like Jonas Mekas have attacked the ‘self-indulgence’ and cheap nihilism of The Underground and stigmatized ‘the conspiracy of homosexuality’ in such products as Fireworks and Scorpio Rising and in the cult for Jean Genet. Or criticized the ‘escapism, unresolved frustrations, sadism and cruelty, fatalism and juvenile pessimism’ which seem to underlie the thematics of the movies themselves, others like Derek Jarman or Lindsay Kemp have embraced this ‘decadence’ in defiance, as a battle slogan. For Jarman Decadence is a watchword in a cultural struggle for the rights of the Gay sensibility ‘decadence’...is a euphemism for gay. Whenever I see ‘decadence’ I think I’m winning.
Collapse of the Modern
In the 1950 Preface to The Romantic Agony Mario Praz describes some of the wider issues raised by the historical question of ‘decadence’ – defined, in his terms as the erotic cult of tainted ‘Medusean’ beauty initiated by the pre-Romantics and De Sade. For Praz this is a question of ‘sensibility’ which persists throughout the ages, irrespective of the rise and fall of the religious impulse. Decadence was a ‘case of a sporadic germ which at a certain moment became an epidemic’. He concedes that the most intense phase of this epidemic coincided with a religious crisis, but – he asserts – this only avails to explain the intensity ‘not the nature of the epidemic’. Yet the pessimism at the heart of the Decadent sensibility has now extended to become, in the eyes of many, a characteristic of overriding concern, because it shows how we project anxieties onto historical processes.
As Kermode noted there is a real correlation between the ends of centuries and the peculiarity of our imagination, in that it chooses always to be at the end of an era. One understands that there are different historical cycles and that while the year 1900 can be conveniently identified as the ‘end’ of the fin de siecle epoch, other measurements may place this ‘end’ at 1914. But in 1928 C G Jung wrote that the war of 1914-18 not only marked the ‘end’ of the immediate modern epoch but also marked the culmination of
nearly two thousand years of Christian idealism followed not by the return of The Messiah and the heavenly Millennium but by the World War among Christian nations with its barbed wire and poison gas. What a catastrophe in heaven and on earth
Jung itemized elements of cynicism that accrued in the early part of the Twentieth Century and which, in retrospect, show that the pessimism of the fin de siecle was not an isolated phenomenon restricted to a particular narrow point in time. The catastrophic aspects of scientific advance, the breakdown of the deterrent principle, the erosion of all ideals – Christian, humanist, democratic and economic – which cannot stand up to the ‘acid test’ of reality.
Jung avoided the assertion that Western Man is ‘sick’ but put forward the view that modern culture is beset by a ‘gnawing doubt’ and that he has suffered from ‘an almost fatal shock’ and ‘as a result has fallen into a profound uncertainty’. Jung defined this shock as ‘a profound convulsion of the collective psyche.’ He felt that awareness of, and the exploration of, the unconscious mind was an essential feature of this modern problem. Yet upon delving into this inner realm we find an abyss of chaos and terror. Freudian psychoanalysis, itself a product of the fin de siecle, of the collapsing Hapsburg Empire, initiated man into a new world of the irrational, leading to the discovery of ‘sexually perverse and criminal fantasies which at their face value are wholly incompatible with the conscious outlook of civilized man.’ What distinguishes ‘our time’ from all others is the fact that Modern Man can no 1onger deny
…that the dark stirrings of the unconscious are active powers, that psychic forces exist which for the present at least cannot be fitted into our rational world order.
Jung saw this as a situation brought about by The Great War but it can be clearly seen that, while, to the mass of the population, Jung’s observations were relevant to the interwar years after 1919, this standpoint, that of ‘the rebel, criminal or madman’ can be identified as that of the Decadent Maudit exemplified by an unbroken tradition from Poe and Baudelaire to Yukio Mishima, Celine and Burroughs. What better terms to describe the works of Rimbaud, Lautreamont and Hans Bellmer?
This recognition of ‘psychic forces’, combined with a skeptical dandyism, created the obscure non-rational symbolism of Modern Art and imposed upon the isolated poet his role. A role as defined by Heidegger as the ‘poet of the destitute time’ who reaches into the abyss in pursuit, perhaps, of the numinosity which distinguished his works as a bizarre manifestation of ‘the holy’. A form of ‘holiness’ which can only exist in the epoch of ‘the world’s night’, in the ‘heart of the conquering darkness’ (Conrad).
In his essay ‘What Are Poets For?’ (1946) Heidegger defined the essential nature of the phenomenon of universal decadence, symbolized as universal darkness:
There fails to appear for the World the ground that grounds it. . .the age for which the ground fails to come, hangs in the abyss.
Heidegger, in 1946, postulated a monumental change in human sensibilities encapsulated in the ‘destitute time’ as foretold by the poet Holderlin. This is the World’s Night which takes a great timespan (epoch) to reach its middle. He asks
Perhaps the world’s night is now approaching its midnight. Perhaps the world’s time is now becoming the completely destitute time. But also perhaps not, not yet, despite the immeasurable need, despite all suffering, despite nameless sorrow, despite the growing and spreading peacefulness, despite the mounting confusion.
Heidegger, like Nietzsche before him, used poets as symbols for a philosophic exposition of the ‘modern’ condition. Heidegger identified Rilke as a symbolic poet connected somehow with this modern situation, and in a way connected with death. Heidegger said
the time is destitute because it lacks the unconcealdness of the nature of pain, death and love.
Speaking of Rilke, Heidegger said:
Along the way Rilke comes to realize the destitution of the time more clearly. The time remains destitute not only because God is dead, but because mortals are hardly aware and capable of their own mortality. Mortals have not yet come into ownership of their own nature. Death withdraws into the enigmatic. The mystery of pain remains veiled. Love has not been learned.
Heidegger was writing almost twenty years later than Jung who talked about the ‘spiritual problem of Modern Man’ in 1928. He was writing in Germany, in an even more catastrophic time, 1946, after the Nazi conflagration, the manifestation of an ‘aimless dynamism’ (O’Sullivan). As Hitler said to Rauschning in 1934, National Socialism was ‘a revolutionary creative will that needs no ideological crutches.’ Hitler further observed, in an unparalleled expression of total nihilism ‘it has no fixed aim… we know there in never a final stage, there is no permanency, only eternal change...’ According to Noel O’Sullivan it was this directionless energy of Nazism, which was one of the main factors in its ability to flourish in a ‘cultural and political vacuum’. Many non-Nazi intellectuals played into Hitler’s hands because
they tended to succumb to a corrosive, all embracing sense of cultural alienation which made political moderation appear meaningless, even treasonable.
As Jung wrote ‘modern man has begun to see that every step forward in material “progress” steadily increases the threat of a still more stupendous catastrophe’. This is the ‘terrible law’, the Heraclitian enantiodroma – a running towards opposites – blind contingency propelling the world ever onwards like a monstrous negative force: cosmic decay, cosmic entropy.
For Jung Expressionist art indicated how man was trying to turn away from materialism, trying to understand his own psychic situation by delving into the Abyss his own unconscious. For the Berlin readership of 1928 ‘Expressionism’ was a loose term for all modernist movements in Germany which as we have seen were a development of the nineteenth century fin de siecle, mediated by pioneers such as Munch and Strindberg. These ‘Expressionists’ were precursors because ‘all art intuitively apprehends changes in the collective unconsciousness’. Yet what was to come was the brutality of the Nazi reaction of 1933-1938 during which all modern art was condemned as degenerate Kunstbolschewismus.
For Frank Kermode, lecturing in 1965, the apocalyptic, schismatic character of aesthetic modernism with its paraphernalia of decadence, renovation and transition needed to be exposed as an irrational fiction. By succumbing to these fictions he argued, we commit an error which leads to the ideological expression of Fascism.
Kermode saw the ‘antitraditionalist modernism’ of Dada as the parent of a new ‘schismatic modernism’ for which perhaps the works of Samuel Beckett provide a link. Beckett becomes ‘the perverse theologian of a world which has suffered a fall’. His works embody a ‘flair for apocalyptic variations’, a frustrated millennialism in which ‘time is an endless transition from one condition of misery to another’. All order is corroded by irony, all language (as in How It Is) hovers on the verge of ‘schismatic breakdown’. Kermode moves from Beckett to Burroughs as another exemplar of postwar cultural pessimism. Burroughs purveys the literature of withdrawal, hatred of life, junk nihilism, the ‘language of an ending world’ using the neo-Dada ‘cut-up method’ first advocated by Tristan Tzara.
The conjunction of Beckett and Burroughs represents a transition in the evolution of Modernism. Beckett uses language to create an ultra-minimalism, which illuminates the most extreme reaches of an interior journey (voyage interieur). A voyage into the night within: the midnight terrain of the world’s night of the psyche. To quote A Alvarez:
Beckett’s genius… is like a laser beam, narrow, intense… continually probing deeper and deeper into the same tight area of darkness.
While there is, as John Calder has suggested, a certain affinity between the work of Burroughs and that of Beckett, Burroughs himself has identified a significant difference. In an interview in The Paris Review (1966) and later reprinted in The Third Mind (1978) Burroughs said that his objective was ‘to achieve as far as possible a complete awareness of surroundings’ he continued:
Beckett wants to go inward. First he was in a bottle and now he is in the mud. I am aimed in the other direction: outward.
This reflects a significant change in emphasis. Beckett represents, perhaps, a terminal phase of a particular branch of the European modernist tradition; the tradition of subjective extremism. Burroughs who defined himself as a ‘Cosmonaut of Inner Space’, represents a different path – the path of transformation. Elsewhere he has said
Speaking for myself I am more concerned with the transformation of the individual, which to me is more important than the so-called political revolution.
This goal of ‘transformation’ is a post-Surrealist objective.
It represents, with numerous modifications, an extension of the Surrealist mission, but shorn of prewar political idealism – the sort of idealism which lead Andre’ Breton to involve Trotsky in the FIARI enterprise of 1938. Burroughs still works for the revolutionary objective but his vision is based on biotic rather than social verities. For Burroughs the artist is a guerrilla fighter in ‘the electronic revolution’, enmeshed in bio-technological circuitry, engulfed in the mass media. Admass culture is the battleground for a war fought against demiurgic totalitarian forces, which in works like Nova Express (1965) pursue their heinous objectives on a galactic scale. According to Eric Mottram Burroughs’ work centres on a ‘vision of power and addiction’, he exposes ‘the metaphysics of dependence’ and authority where addiction to authority is seen to be addiction to the idea of an ultimate authority, and the origin of that totalitarian trauma is the idea of god.
In 1939 Herbert Read, writing in Cle: Bulletin mensuel de la FIARI, prophesied that art would become ‘hermetic’, saying
In our decadent society… art must enter into a monastic phase… art must now become individualistic even hermetic. We must renounce as the most puerile delusion, the hope that art can ever again perform a social function.
Beckett’s work fulfils this prophecy, producing a symbolism for the ‘post- historical’ epoch and the very collapse of modernism itself. In its eclecticism and semi-gnostic mythos of junk, addiction, black humour, science fiction and occult demonology William Burroughs inaugurates a subsequent phase or era, the era of Post-Modernism. Yet Beckett and Burroughs traverse the same landscape of decay and desolation – even if they travel in opposite directions.
In 1986 W. L. Webb wrote that, in the company of J. G. Ballard, Beckett and Burroughs occupy
purgatorial landscapes peopled with autistic or schizoid characters… lost in a funhouse of pastiche and near pornography equally affectless and soul-damaging.
Perhaps, as Webb argues ‘in August 1945 something in human character actually died’. Were the Bomb and the extermination camps ‘the End to which our civilization had been tending?’
For Leslie Newbigin, in a report for the World Council of Churches called The Other Side of 1984 (1983) modern society has indeed lost its way. Western culture is in crisis: ‘the threat of nuclear war is a reductio ad absurdam of scientific progress’; not only has Modern Art collapsed into solipsistic nihilism, but ‘the scientific worldview has now begun to reach the end of its useful life’ due to ‘the internal collapse of the scientific world view’s own truth system.’
In the present time the concept of ‘decadence’ has indeed become universal although it may well be that Julie Burchill was correct when she observed that contemporary ‘decadence’ can be debunked as a Cold War fashion accessory: ‘the apocalypse as aftershave – splash it on all over, feel big: stage centre.’ Since the collapse of Eastern Bloc Communism, a masochistic desire for the decline of the West lingers on. It is to be detected in the rhetoric of moralists and in the use of the term ‘decadence’ by cliques of Bright Young Things who want to look ‘pale and interesting’ and for whom the word means little more than ‘having a good time…’
For the original aesthetes of the fin de siecle the decadent era was an immediacy, in the postwar era ‘decadence’ has become a cultural abyss which has swallowed-up the whole of Western Civilisation, creating a void of post modernism, post-industrialism, post-traditional disorientation and negation. As Jean-Francoise Lyotard has observed, the ‘Post-Modern condition’ is characterized by ‘a sort of decay in the confidence placed by the last two centuries in the idea of “progress”... a sort of sorrow in the Zeitgeist...’
Slightly revised version of an essay that originally appeared in Chaos International Issue No 13/14 Sept/Dec 1992 and published by Stride in 1998
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