Posted by whetted on April 28th, 2007
After two remarkable assessments of decadence (the first by A White Bear, the second by Joseph Kugelmass), I wanted to add some of my own thoughts to the pot, as it were. White Bear convincingly argues for two kinds of decadance: sadistic and masochistic. It seems White Bear and Kugelmass would agree with me—as per the former blogger’s remarks on Pater and Wilde in Kugelmass’s entry and the latter’s Paterian “gem-like flame”allusion in his own entry—that masochistic decadence is the more generative of the two. That is, of course, if we think of them as separate and distinct; I will come back to this shortly. I think they might also agree with me that, in terms of historicizing decadence (in tandem with the then-inchoate discourses of psychoanalysis) it is also masochistic decadence which remains outside our current cultural understanding of pleasure and the erotics system.
The extreme distance between self and other that marks our lives now is a direct result of the distancing effects of media and technology, causing violence to be consumed on a daily basis—both on television news programs and in other ostensibly mundane realms such as cinema, video games, ad infinitum—and forcing our relation to eroticism and 21st-century decadence into an almost culturally-valorized sadism. Perhaps this is, as White Bear says, precisely what makes historicizing decadence so difficult for students more accustomed to the culturally-assigned “brand” of contemporary decadence—namely, the sadistic brand of pleasure-taking:
My students, I think, are having a hard time grasping what constitutes the decadent because they don’t really understand what a pre-decadent era felt like. All along in my survey class, we’ve discussed how we must look at the causality of texts to determine their ethics, and they get that “back then” people felt this or that way about, e.g., female chastity. But when we’re talking about Dracula or Freud, perhaps it mirrors their own sense of self and pleasure too much to allow them to be analytical about it.
I think it is important to historicize decadence in terms of aestheticism, for without this marker we’ll forever be at sea in a world in which the generative signifier of decadence has long since left us. Perhaps it is useful to understand the aesthetic-decadent relationship in its historicized version though, as White Bear notes, this is difficult to accomplish on a pedagogical level when sadistic decadence is our sociocultural “norm.” I would argue that masochistic decadence—as generative, as “mov[ing] orthogonally against [instead of parallel to] suffering”—is what we seek to expose our students to in teaching figures like Pater and Wilde, and that, in order to see the true sexual and textual power inherent in aestheticism/decadence and sadism/masochism, we need to realize there is, in fact, no separatrix, no binarism.
Commenting on White Bear’s concluding image of the decadent self “feeling [like] an angry bull” in a pen, Kugelmass pinpoints nondualistic qualities that might help us in rethinking 19th-century decadence (masochism) versus 21st-century decadence (sadism). Kugelmass writes that, “[t]here is a symmetry between the gorgeous lucidity of AWB’s initial binary (sadistic and masochistic decadence), and the specificity of the image of the penned bull. The psychic event becomes reified, contained not only by its pen, but by its image.”
That the psychic event—be it textual or sexual, be it sadistic or masochistic—“becomes reified … by its own image” is a revolutionary way of interrogating both the historicized brand of Paterian aestheticism (which I think crucial in analyzing decadence in any Western form) and the sadism/masochism dichotomy that culturally freezes “us sadists” in relation to those (even more) other, 19th-century masochists. We might do well here to briefly recall Freud’s theory of primary masochism and we might also do well here to remember the dead bodies with which Pater is so fascinated and which held aestheticism and decadence in thrall, littering the movement’s works from the father figure Winckelmann’s own body (of work) to Salomé’s figural and prosodic decapitations. Since contemporary culture wishes us to believe we are passive consumers and active, sadistic neo-decadents, it is hard to find the road into that “other,” masochistic decadence (the Wildean “New Hedonism”) precisely because it is anterior to us, pre-dates us, and, as such, exists in the primary position of masochism so that we can deny it. The primary processes have worked their sociocultural and psychical magic, causing us to utterly disavow any association with masochism (in terms of pleasure-taking, specifically, and the erotics system, more generally) and, logically enough, this overturns textual pleasure, in the masochistic model, in favor of violent, sexual pleasure.
This friction or schism is what prevents students from moving into the more “neutral” position of sadomasochism—putting, in effect, masochism back into sadism—and is really the cause of why students, as White Bear observes, have “a hard time grasping what constitutes the decadent because they don’t really understand what a pre-decadent era felt like.” It certainly has a lot less to do with binarisms than we thought, as Kugelmass points out in de-bunking the separatrix by reminding us that one term exists only in relation to the other. Also, a more productive means of “accessing” this other kind of masochism that is 19th-century aestheticism and decadence exists in an image: the superfluous surface (what Sontag famously called “camp”) and the lack of depth; the image valorized in aesthetic-decadent work because it is both a passive object of beauty and an active agent of seduction. Perhaps in rethinking culturally-assigned positions, in terms of violence and sexuality, we can also begin to understand that we’re not that far away from the “road in” to that primary masochism that is “primary decadence”: we’ve only to realize the displacements and sublimations; we’ve only to acknowledge the masochism in ourselves in order to reveal the road back—a road that leads back towards both textual understanding (of aestheticism, of historicized decadence) and sexual realization. This is promising and also potentially revolutionary in that the image—of our own psychosexual fantasies and of Pater’s and Winckelmann’s prized Apollo Belvedere—constitutes both self and other, jouissance and death, sadism and masochism in one, fixed but fluid, organizational system. We might even find a resonant sexual, political, and creative impetus in Pater’s words from The Renaissance (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998):
With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see or touch. What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy. (152)
Obviously, all of these thoughts are fragmentary, but the idea of making a bridge between self and other is essential to uncover within the sadistic/masochistic breach which sociocultural norms regenerate and encourage to mark division concretely. Neither aestheticism-decadence nor sexuality works in that way, to put it simply. I think it might serve us well to not forget the “camp” Sontag found in aesthetic and decadent works of art and to use queerness to theorize decadence, to further stress that self/other and sadist/masochist are not lost within a maze of intended ambiguities (in aestheticism) or culturally-mandated positions of sexual power (in sadism). Instead, there is an ongoing discourse and exchange between the textual and the sexual that queer theorizations of aestheticism and decadence might help us to engage with rather than pit one other against the other other. There is hope and there is value—on pedagogical, textual, and sexual levels, particularly in their intersections—in taking stock of Kevin Ohi’s program of queer aestheticism in Innocence and Rapture: The Erotic Child in Pater, Wilde, James, and Nabokov (New York: Palgrave, 2005):
Aestheticism is queer, but not because it presents positive or charismatic representations of deviant desire, although it often does do that. Rather, it is queer because it articulates desire while refusing to recognize the desire’s representation as necessary for that articulation. Put another way, the disruption of representability inherent in the aestheticist reversal of style and matter is queer. Thus, the recursive turn whereby style or manner becomes the ‘content’ of the text is, for these writers, an experience of eroticism, and the erotic child in aestheticism provides an exemplary instance of an eroticism inseparable from the stylistic, figural, narrative, and aesthetic effects through which its appeal is announced. (3-4) Posted in aestheticism, decadence, queer studies, Walter Pater, Kevin Ohi, Susan Sontag, Freud, pedagogy, sexuality, cultural studies, Oscar Wilde, literature No Comments »