Weir on Potolsky (2013)


Potolsky, Matthew.  The Decadent Republic of Letters: Taste, Politics, and Cosmopolitan Community from Baudelaire to Beardsley. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.  Pp. 256.  ISBN: 978-0-8122-4449-6.

David Weir, The Cooper Union

Matthew Potolsky makes a significant contribution to the study of nineteenth-century decadence with The Decadent Republic of Letters, a well-researched and highly readable account of the way authors from Baudelaire to Beardsley understood their art as the common expression of uncommon values. The book is more about decadents than decadence--that is, about an anti-social society of authors who wrote and lived against the grain of their age, but did so with the assurance that they were not alone in their aesthetic tastes and political attitudes. While Baudelaire, Huysmans, Wilde and the rest may have lived their lives apart from the bourgeois public, they were not so isolated and alienated as their social removal from the world implied. After all, Huysmans had Baudelaire, and Wilde had both of them. This is Potolsky's argument: decadents formed a community après la lettre, albeit an imaginary one, "its bonds fashioned through a shared taste for the perverse and a common sense of alienation from the political, artistic, and erotic world engendered by bourgeois liberalism and nationalism" (172). That quote is drawn from the book's postscript and reveals an important dimension of decadence, or rather, of decadents: that they formed a counterculture of elites whose disenchantment with modernity gave political value to their rarefied aesthetic tastes.

Potolsky's conception of a decadent community--writers separated by space and time but united by taste and ideology--is a welcome counter to Harold Bloom's well-worn notion of the "anxiety of influence." Far from being anxious and conflicted, decadents are perfectly at ease with influence: "Reception is for these writers a crucial means of production," and the works they produce are "'decadent' not because they realize a doctrine or make use of certain styles or themes but because they move within a recognizable network of canonical books, pervasive influences, recycled stories, erudite commentaries, and shared tastes" (4, 5). As with so much of decadence, the foundational figure in this context is Baudelaire, whose translations and criticism of the works of Edgar Allan Poe provide "a model of how to be influenced" (2). One of the most important elements of Baudelaire's influential model of influence is its internationalism: the Frenchman Baudelaire finds inspiration in the American Poe, providing a pattern for later writers, like the Englishman Wilde, whose openness to foreign influence was so complete that he wrote his symbolist drama Salomé in French. Actually, Potolsky might have expanded his idea of a cosmopolitan community of decadents to include many more international figures, such as Gabriele D'Annunzio (Italy), Stanisław Przybyszewski (Poland), or José Maria Eça de Queirós (Portugal). And while the book focuses mostly on the usual suspects, namely, Baudelaire, Gautier, Swinburne, Pater, Huysmans, Wilde and Beardsley, another of its many strengths is Potolsky's inclusion of such pseudonymous female authors as Rachilde (Maguerite Vallette-Eymery), Vernon Lee (Violet Paget) and Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper).

Discussion of these authors and a few others is organized into five chapters, the first describing "Aesthetic Community and the Public Good in Baudelaire;" the second analyzing "The Politics of Appreciation" related to Gautier's critical and Swinburne's poetic reception of Baudelaire; the third explaining the tradition of "Golden Books" and the formation of a decadent canon; the fourth examining "Decadent Pedagogy and Public Education;" and the last summarizing "Some Versions of Decadent Community" that comprise "A Republic of (Nothing but) Letters." As several of these chapter titles show, decadents turn republican ideology on its head and imagine a society of non-representative elites whose idea of the public good is aesthetic rather than utilitarian. Baudelaire presented Poe as a victim of democracy, an artist destroyed by the crass tastes of the masses who could not appreciate beauty as the supreme collective good. Strangely, Baudelaire adapted the anti-revolutionary rhetoric of the monarchist Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821) to conflate aesthetic taste and civic humanism, making Poe an exemplary artist who promotes "a public good that the larger populace, driven by private interest that it cannot recognize, cedes for an illusory equality" (40-41). Aequalitas brevis, ars longa.

Having provided the model of how to be influenced, Baudelaire becomes the most influential decadent of all, "master, father, progenitor, precursor" (46) of later decadent writers. He acquired this status largely because of two appreciations: Théophile Gautier's 1868 "Notice" to the third edition of Les Fleurs du mal and Algernon Charles Swinburne's pastoral elegy "Ave atque Vale" of the same year. The analysis of Gautier's much-analyzed "Notice" is refreshing because Potolsky shows, convincingly, that the piece is written as a funeral oration and, as such, has much more to offer than just the celebrated paragraphs describing le style de décadence. Gautier follows Baudelaire's appreciation of Poe in pointing out the political meaning of the artist's life: "Gautier's crucial innovation is to define Baudelaire as a loyalist, a warrior for the poetic ideal, who experienced the extremes of literary life not only out of devotion to his craft but also in the service of an emerging dissident community" (48). Swinburne's elegy likewise memorializes Baudelaire as the Founding Father of "an incipient decadent republic of letters," a community "[u]nited by a divine poetic gift and perverse desire rather than by the quest for democratic participation or national unity" (62).

Potolsky is right to emphasize the anti-nationalist drift of decadence, a feature partly attributable to the break with romanticism, but there are a few counterexamples to his insistence on the decadent removal from the bourgeois class. The Viennese fin de siècle, for instance, involved a high degree of aesthetic harmony between decadent artists and a bourgeois public eager to be infected with the disease of decoration. Likewise, Weimar Germany revealed just how porous the border could be between the bourgeois and the artistic classes. But this is a minor quibble about an excellent study of the ideological dynamics of decadence that should secure Matthew Potolsky lasting membership in the decadent republic he describes.