Modernity and the Decadence

THE brain that seeks shadows, nuances, seeks the spectre behind its own thought; that creates newer and unfamiliar combinations out of the old materials of life and thought—that I call the decadent brain. It creates in its destruction. It dives into the bottomless mystery of the things we know and comes back glittering with coral and sea-wrack and sinister phosphorescent gleam.

In the beginning God said, “Let there be light.” In the end the intellect that dissociates says, “Let there be shade.” Infinite variation spins her web before the delighted mental eye of the brain of man tombed in his thought-world. Corporate solidity has by the power of its own immanent thaumaturgy faded into spectral evanescence. Unity, void and flat, is rent by a billion billion fissures. The seismic convulsions of the thought of to-day have cracked in a thousand places the mystical One of Porphyry and the Neoplatonists.

The old ideas that seemed united forever by the power of an indestructible utilitarian principle have been freed from their eternal liaisons by the minds of the great destructive thinkers. Like giant birds they have been set free to rove in the azure of the mental firmament to find strange and often seductive mates. Fatality, wrinkled, fatigued, by the endless sameness of her combinations, clothes herself once again in the flaming garments of youth in the brains of the poets and philosophers of the decadence.

In poetry, physics, practical life there is nothing any longer that does not pass through the spectrum of our overrefined brains, nothing that is any longer moored to a certainty, nothing that is forbidden, nothing that cannot be stood on its head and glorified. The indefinite, the uncertain, the paradoxical, is the scarlet paradise of intellectual intoxication. In the vast inland sea of our consciousness there are only phantom flying isles. With a little thought, with a little sensibility we have gored the heart out of every certainty.

Anarchy? No. It is the triumph of discrimination, the beatification of paradox, the sanctification of man by man, the apostasy from unity. It is just the other extreme of anarchy. In the beginning was unity and chaos; to-day there is nothing but laws and diversity. Unity, the great superstition, sleeps. We have dissolved it into an infinite number of iridiscent particles. Unity sleeps; nothing remains but units.

In the eyes of orthodoxy each newborn thought is a bastard. Into the latrine with it!—while the high-priest of unity stands by and heals up the gaping, blood-oozing thought-cell. But we who strip the petals from the Rose of the World and build mosaics and arabesques out of the débris of the ancient theorems are forever procreating imps and changelings. Thought breeds thought; mood breeds mood; feeling breeds feeling. And so long as this continues to be a psychological law the decadent will have the last word.

Every atom in the brain is now an individual, with its own peculiar sense of smell and its gift of exotic vision. We used to see with our eyes, but now we dissect with them. Our lips listen and our ears perceive colors. Flaubert [17] and the Goncourt brothers found that words were live things, like humans. Words have lungs, words have arterial systems, words have genitals, words have claws and they may be used and used again in a million combinations until the life in them has guttered down to its viewless socket. A word, a musical note, an idea, is that monstrous thing—a shadow without a body, the epitome of life itself.

Nothing which lasts is of value. Permanency, completion, perfection have on them the stamp of death. That which changes perpetually lives perpetually. The eternally fugacious is the eternally youthful. Incessant dying and renewing, incessant metamorphosis, incessant contradiction—it is on these invisible motifs that are builded the symphonies that a single note beings and ends. The infinitesimal contains the all. The part contains the whole. To decentralize a system is to create a myriad new centers. Decomposition is the condition of birth.

Beyond Verlaine, Debussy, Picasso, Arthur Symons, Maurice Maeterlinck, Lafcadio Hearn, Stéphane Mallarmé, Remy de Gourmont, Anatole France, there is nothing. They are the ultra-violet rays in the great aesthetic illumination. They have sucked the marrow out of all their moods and pared their thoughts to the quick. They have sacked the catacombs of feeling and thought and with the bones of ancient skeletons have re-articulated and revivified strange and marvellous sounds and concepts. They have picked apart the old skeins of truth and error and rewoven them into colors of a magic strangeness, and fixed their subtle uncertainties in the fragile frames of their art.

“Show me a man who sees a likeness in things totally different, and I will show you a god,” said Plato. That is the essence of the passion for unity.

Show me a man who sees a difference in things absolutely the same in appearance and I will show you the supreme decadent. The doctrine of relations has become a commonplace. Things are interesting in so far as they differ. I desire a world without a center. I seek the Ultima Thule of each sensation. I love the miscellaneous and the dispersed and the muffled sonorities of weakened forces. I desire as many personalities as I have moods. If I have a personal, imponderable, immortal soul I hold it in no more esteem than I do a personal, imponderable and immortal God. I desire to be ephemeral, protean, and to chase the dazzling butterflies of my fancy across abyss and meadowland and even into those fatal caves in the moon where the Goddess of Lunacy spins her cataleptic dreams.

I will gouge out the eye of every certainty with the bare bodkin of analysis. I find my supremest joy in my estrangement. As I become more and more isolated from my fellow-beings, as the abysm between us widens, I find the colors of my passions shading to deeper purples and the bristles of my thought growing more delicate and the ghostly prophets locked within me gleaming with a clearer vision. I desire to become unfamiliar to myself and to startle the sinister wraiths of my million alter egos from their somnolence into a fuller, more passionate life. In the universe of my brain I desire that there shall be born a new sun each minute and that an old world shall die. [18] I cling to nothing, stay with nothing, am wed to nothing, hope for nothing. I am a perpetual Minute. In the firmament of my interior life I am a Vulture that hovers over the world of sensation, feeling and thought.

It is in the padlocked speech of Maeterlinck and Ibsen that persons utter almost nothing and say everything. Suggestion, innuendo, expletive, the overwhelming pause—it is so in life, in our own speech. In the dialogue of these masters we have the speech of the decadence. The monosyllabic replies swarm with life. The sudden silence is a maelstrom. Destinies are consummated in a dash that terminates a five word phrase. Maeterlinck especially has reached the ultimate of human speech. One almost hears the inflection of the voice of his characters. It is telepathy from the ink-pot. Each sentence is a palimpsest. There is only one chemical reagent that can bring to light the meaning engraved on meaning in these parchments; the reagent of aesthetic intuition. Gautier says that every thought has just one word that is its verbal symbol; in Maeterlinck every word has a thousand thoughts behind it. They inbreed and interbreed. They are incestuous. Maeterlinck and Mallarmé dissociated language until they brought it back to what it was originally, hieroglyph and bare sound-symbol. The unity of speech has been cut to shreds on the monstrous fly-wheel of the modern mind.

Unity, broken into an infinite number of shining particles, is to-day being sieved through the brain of genius, and the flat surface of our ancient heavens is crumbling over the world like a rotten ceiling.

Benjamin De Casseres.


Source: Camera Work, Jan. 1912, No. 37, pp. 17-19