Decadence is a peculiar subject. Simon Heffer’s book “The Age of Decadence: A History of Britain 1880-1914” starts with the frivolity of late Victorian England because pomp is always both catchy and tragic. The Empire is dying but no one knows it yet. We understand this is tragic and we’re lead to summon sufficient irony to ask what rough beast is coming in our time. Decadence is a two-for like a single price double header ticket.
If this was all there was we’d forget it but there’s the peculiar optimism of decadence which is its calamitous part.
(One remembers the Titanic’s first class passengers playing ice hockey on the fore-deck.) Early in Heffer’s book he describes Victoria’s “Diamond Jubilee” in 1897:
“When the Queen reached the Palace her vast European family awaited her, and showered her with diamonds. At dinner for the family, foreign potentates and ambassadors that evening – she sat between the ill-fated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the Prince of Naples – she wore ‘a dress of which the whole front was embroidered in gold, which had been specially worked in India, diamonds in my cap, and a diamond necklace.’ 9 A band played in the ballroom while she was pushed around in her wheelchair – she could not stand for long – to greet her guests. So that the splendour could be taken to the people a force of 2,400 officers and men marched from the City of London on the Saturday before the Jubilee pageant, parading through the East End to Bethnal Green and Victoria Park and back. The event also ensured that the city’s lowest classes would be impressed by the power and glory of their nation, would identify with it, and have their patriotism stirred.”
This paragraph has everything we need to know about anticipatory decadence–mortar is shifting but no one must know. But “we know” and so a clear understanding of extravagant collapse depends on our own capacity for comic irony–from our place in the audience we can see the players heading toward their doom. We want to cry out: “don’t do it!”
I remember a friend from graduate school who scotch taped an article about Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on his refrigerator. The headline read: “They Came to Party” or something like that. Of course the Marxists got it wrong! Glitz is the opiate of the masses. The nation is collapsing but look at that parade! And one certainly remembers George H.W. Bush putting on a military review after the first Gulf War while the nation was in a steep economic recession. There he was in his bullet proof triangular review stand waving as the tanks rolled past, all the generals with their scrambled eggs smiling sheepishly. Nothing good comes of political decadence.
I also recall telling a friend in 1991 that the U.S. lost the Cold War because our true enemy wasn’t communism but domestic racism.
Heffer’s book is terrific. He shows how decadence can occupy a dying society’s imagination about the future and I found this passage especially revealing and chilling:
“The new century provoked great interest in futurology, with a sense of fear and hope about scientific developments, notably exploited in the fiction and essays of H. G. Wells. Concern for the future provoked interest in eugenics, and the idea that human perfection could be achieved by scientific means. And there were other speculations about things to come: the newly popular genre of science fiction imagined aliens arriving from another planet; the influx of foreigners from Europe, including Jewish victims of pogroms in Russia and political dissidents from other parts of the continent, created a more cosmopolitan London; and the idea developed of a German threat to Britain, potent among a nation more aware of its possible vulnerability after the less than straightforward success of the Second Boer War.”
Inasmuch as we’re living in the age of Eugenics 2.0 and the decaying discourses of the internet age bring forward lizard people in the pizza parlor one may fair shiver.