Aestheticism and Decadence
This seminar on late-Victorian culture offers students an in-depth look at the two loosely-styled movements its title names. Some questions we might alter in the asking: what did various writers mean by “l’art pour l’art”? In the face of what orthodoxies did they claim to speak, and what more did they have to say than “art for art’s sake”? What were the ethical ramifications and economic underpinnings of aesthetes’ claims and performances? What kinds of elites did they resist and, in their turn, form? How, under the provisional categories of aestheticism and decadence, do we understand the co-presence—often in a single writer’s work—of such different impulses as artisanal socialism and mass-disseminated taste-brokering? Of utopian thought and the fear of degeneration? How might we constellate these late-Victorian writings with the reception of Darwin; with scientific racism and the discourse of degeneration; with late-imperial malaise and xenophobia; with the influence of Gothic literature, symbolism, and naturalism; with mass culture and mass movements; with the New Woman and the Woman Question; and with the rise and repression of incipient gay culture? And how might we read aestheticism and decadence as laying the groundwork not only for aspects of modernism but also for susceptibilities, critiques, genres, styles, and institutional formations that persist in our own moment? Fiction by Huysmans, Wilde, Schreiner, Hardy, and Stoker; poetry by D. G. Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, Morris, Swinburne, and Field; essays by Ruskin, Arnold, Pater, Nordau, Wilde, and others.