Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

Decadence – The Mirror of Reaction

There is a line (one of many) in the classic film Withnail and I that encapsulates the class dynamics of a dying English aristocracy. The aging gay aristocrat Monty states “It is a terrible time for us, my lads. Shat upon by Tories, and dug up from below by Labor”. This loss of self is perfectly cast, as it is a mourning statement that reflects the former antipathy and dialectic relationships that decadence once held by the gay, decadent aristocracy that been transformed into an antiquarian myth by the advent of the 70s in of the UK.

Decadence is only mirrored by a conservative hegemony – specifically a hegemony which had been in decline since the zenith of the British Empire and the subsequent Great War. Decadence needs conservatism; just as a belief/worship of the devil has to acknowledge the existence of an adversarial Christianity, decadence needs an antipathetic foil.

Another wonderful example is Oscar Wilde’s “masterpiece”, The Portrait of Dorian Gray. It takes place in the world that Monty nostalgically pines for seventy years in the future. The characters are essentially conservative, despite the not-so veiled homosexual overtones of the novel. Wilde worships the landed gentry of England, an essentially outdated class which was already declining in the pre-war period. Despite the characters’ declared break with convention, and embrace of all things sensual, the novel still smacks with the reactionary beliefs of the aristocracy. The Portrait of Dorian Gray is a witty, hyper conservatism, one that dispenses the hypocritical humanism of the gentry. Wilde threatens classic conservatism, all the while staying with the rubric of the reactionary system of taste and convention.

There have been precedents for this “flouting of convention” (that nevertheless stays within the boundaries of conventionality). Byron and many of the Romantic school were first and foremost aristocrats, despite their wildcat claims that Romantics were “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. The Romantics may been substance-abusing polygamists, but it was from a vantage point of privilege and the capability to get away with such acts. And if you need to go a little bit earlier, De Sade and the somewhat legendary Hellfire Club are other such examplesof the decadence trapped within the confines of paleo-conservatism. Disdain for the plebeians still ranked side by side with progressive, adventurous sexuality.

A gay talking-head recently informed listeners that part of the homosexuality, at least during the closeted period, consisted of an outsider status, looking in at conventionality and acceptable sexual roles. With aristocratic decadence, there is no such outsider element, beyond an immediate need to avoid getting arrested for their many “immoral” acts. Wilde’s imprisonment and the banning of his play, Salome, represents the danger of being outwardly unconventionality. Nevertheless, the aristocracy of England and France were still willing to protect their own, despite whatever misdeeds of the Decadent lifestyle. Just as long as the aristocrats in question towed the line and didn’t do anything too publicly. There’s nothing like embarrassment to get British blueblood running up.