15 July 2009

The Decadent Literature: Are They Really So Decadent After All These Years

The Decadent/Symbolist literary movement has fascinated me for ages and I actually have a few books from these bunch of supposedly debauched chaps sitting on my shelf for years and recently thanks to my resurgent interest for fiction, I finally plucked them off the pile and finished a couple of them: Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray and Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden. The former title brought Wilde infamy and the latter actually earned the title for the sickest piece art of the 19th century. So what's all the fuss about?

Dorian Gray, one of the most popular titles in paperback fiction actually narrate the downfall of a young man who was endowed with such beauty that after his encounter with, a painter who did a portrait of him with such devilish likeness and a amoral man with plenty of suave and class from the aristocracy, that he began his fall from grace. The pivotal event to his slide was his utter disappointment with a girl whom he had fallen in love. Thereafter he became the god of temptation and decadence embodied, feared and loved by all with his misdemeanor. He remains gorgeous for decades while the painting of his deteriorated with much rapidity and severity. At the end he tried to destroy the painting and he kills himself instead. Dorian Gray is a tale of morality despite the claim for its decadent influence on the public then (in the book he openly references another decadent/symbolist classic, Against Nature by Huysmans which also contributed to the fall of Gray). Gray's misadventures in life was eventually terminated due to his own vanity, in other words, he reaps what he sows in the end. The emphasis of physical attributes and the disregard of a person's actions was the zeitgeist during the turn of the century but isn't it more so today than before? Hedonism for the pure sake of hedonism is the rule of the day. At least for Wilde and others based their belief in the transcendant nature of art, the art for art's sake maxim.

The Torture Garden on the other hand was basically an account of the narrator of the story who relates a lurid venture to the Orient and his encounter with the mysterious lady of his love. The second part of the story which gives us an account of the Torture Garden in China is the crunch of the entire book: description after description of horrid, revolting and inhuman ways of torturing and killing humans off with the utmost sense of pleasure and aesthetic attached to them by the lady. Even the self proclaimed decadent narrator cannot fathom and stomach much of what he witnesses. The lady however, goes through a cycle of regeneration after her every visit to the Garden. The book is thus basically a tale of warning of the sternest level: humans are cruel and some of us given the context will push the envelope of such propensity to its extreme as can be seen in the book. So what is morality and what is its role in the world today?

Both books might not shock any in today's world but the message and characters in them still have plenty of value to us: who are we, as humans actually? Are we by nature evil and amoral and that morality is just a cuff to hold us back from a potentially human hell of wilful cruelty and non-repenting course of self-serving hedonism?

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