Stephen Gately and The Apotheosis of Decadence

Google the word "decadence" and you will see what I mean, you will get a trail of associations, night clubs, and fan sites dedicated, dedicated, to decadence. Not that half of them understand what it is or was; to them, a vague notion of being naughty, doing something rude, etc, usually at night, usually dressed in something tight, made from purple velvet. Venus in Furs.

To understand the idea properly you have to at least have a passing acquaintance with its progenitors.

London in the 1890's was, like France, a hotbed of decadence - if you knew the right people. A man of the 1890's considered himself liberated, post-Darwinian, and, bereft of purpose and meaning.

It was a struggle that captivated and determined the course of one well-known life, that of Oscar Wilde, whose novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was a handbook of Decadence. Except that it is, as Wilde protested, a deeply moral book, (the narrative declares of the famous painting: "a visible symbol of the degradation of sin").

Here is typical Dorian:

One evening about seven o'clock I determined to go out in search of some adventure. I felt that this gray, monstrous London of ours, with its myriads of people, its splendid sinners, and its sordid sins, as you once said, must have something in store for me. I fancied a thousand things..

Wilde set out the stall in the book as a kind of handbook of Decadence, often including lists of all the bad things one could do - in case your own imagination faltered. Wilde writes that Dorian was "poisoned by a book". That fictive book was almost certainly inspired by Huysman's Against Nature - a satire on literary realism and decadence. It outdid Wilde on several levels, especially on lists of bad things to do, including, getting a tortoise and covering it in jewels, and having a black dinner party where the food was tinted in dark colours, served by naked negresses, clad only in stockings.

Wilde, like many of us duelled with the good and bad side of human nature. His Dorian was Lord Alfred Douglas, who stuck with Wilde like a clam in the days of fame and success, and who deserted him as soon as disaster struck. Wilde was the artist, Douglas, his homosexual lover, was the parasite. (For the sake of brevity, I have to make this sweeping generalisation - Douglas had some competency as a poet.)

Wilde's downfall, the trials, the imprisonment, the ignominy and his death in a cheap Parisien hotel, are due to his succumbing to the lower tastes, indeed the lower life that Bosie offered him. (You can read all about it in De Profundis). It is not that Wilde was not thoroughly homosexual or thoroughly promiscuous, it is that Bosie distracted him from going on to further heights. When the fall took place, Wilde was, as they say today, on a roll. He had three of his plays running in London theatres. Together they were spending obscene amounts of Oscar's money, with the result that Wilde was bankrupted soon after his imprisonment for the kind of money he would spend in a week.

In a nutshell, Decadence was not so much about sins or committing them, but about staving off boredom and perhaps attempting to discover meaning through new sensations. In order to be decadent you first had to be rich enough to indulge yourself, usually because, unlike the working classes, you had free time. Decadents affected the word "Ennui". It is only now in the 21st Century that it has taken on a different meaning, and that is the pursuit of pleasure and excess for its own sake. Wilde would have been mortified. He saw decadence as a means of artistic inspiration and at worst, a distraction from the serious business of writing.

All this brings me to Stephen Gately, a young man who found some fame, if not in life, then certainly in death. I am not here to discuss the artistic merits, if any. but you may observe that in the end, as he lay motionless on the sofa, whilst his "husband" and someone they picked up at a gay bar were busy in their bedroom, that decadence, for want of a better word, ruled the day and condemned his partner, to a lifetime of regret. I am not suggesting there is a connection between cause and effect here, merely that Gately's partner may have cause to reflect upon the shallowness of his life and how, by accident, that apotheosis of indulgence and selfishness was in the ascendent in the wrong place, at the wrong time.


Jim Baxter said...

Dunno if it's just you and me today WW. If so, please accept my condolences.

There was a fair bit of decadence in Old England in pre-Darwinian times, of course. The Hellfire Clubs come to mind, the whoring and philandering that went on... Boswell for example(although he might have been an exception being a Scot)... Pepys...

Wrinkled Weasel said...

Yes Jim, just you and me. I am not up to doing much else today - possibly flu.

Of course, being very naughty did not begin in 1890, but it became a bit more interesting!

I suppose the simple point I was trying to make, it that there is a difference between being occasionally self-indulgent and turning it into a raison d etre.

Thanks for sticking with it.

Jim Baxter said...

My pleasure WW. Always agreeable to drop by this way.

Yes, rampant hedonism waxes and wanes I suppose. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, chaos.

Gigits said...

A very interesting read, that.

banned said...

BBC Radio 2 was very keen to tell us that the autopsy 'proved' that Mr Gately died of natural causes, move on, nothing to see.

Anonymous said...

"natural" as opposed to "unatural"?

Louis Walsh said...

To be fair there is no evidence that Gateley's husband was sleeping with the Bulgarian in the bedroom. Not seen or heard any anyway.
And Gately was supposed to seldom drink and never take drugs. According to his neighbours and business partners and friends and family and media etc
He was careful with his money and had a holiday home in Majorca. Only a dream for most folk. So hardly a decadent , spendthrift, bankrupt character like Oscar Wilde that you are trying to associate him with.
Ok he was homosexual. Not a crime nowadays and certainly not a reason to blacken the character of someone who is waiting to be buried and is mourned by a lot of people who loved him.

Wrinkled Weasel said...

No Louis. The Bulgarian admitted he was upstairs in the bedroom with Gately's partner at the time of death.

They were probably just drinking green tea and playing Jenga. What else would you do with someone you picked up in a Gay Bar?

Nowhere does this blacken the character of Gately. But there is now a well-documented raft of stories over the past few years that suggest that there is a sub-culture of the gay community whose sole purpose in life is to become as debauched as possible. We only hear about it when somebody is found pumped full of drugs, hanging from the rafters with a pepper grinder up his bum.

Don't pretend otherwise.

Jim Baxter said...

Auto-erotic death is hardly the preserve of homosexual people is it though, er, Grasshopper. In this famous case the (married, to a woman) man tok the 'auto' part rathertoo literally.

Louis Walsh said...

Ok I agree that his husband was probably upstairs buggering the Bulgarian.
But you have blackened his name. You say he was decadent because he was bored. He had no talent. His husband was being rogered by a man they picked up in a gay bar while he died on the settee. And because he was gay he would have been into promiscuity. You must admit it's not the best obituary one could have hoped for. Hopefully we will get something better when we die.

Montague Burton said...

This debasement is hardly exclusive to homosexuality. Presumably old Oscar drew the line at buggering young Queensberry with the windows open in his Hansom cab, whilst parked in a supermarket car park as various minor royals spoffed their manfat over the livery.

WV Splob!

Jim Baxter said...

was what I meant.


Wrinkled Weasel said...

Jim, interesting, but they want $25 to download the PDF!

Montague. From time to time I take a pop at people who happen to be gay. They are not immune from my rants. It's up to you to decide if I am homophobic, or merely dishing out the same piss and vinegar about everybody, regardless of gender, sexual orientation,yada yada,..

Finding King Fu Carradine in a his age! The whole auto erotic death thing seems a bit OTT to me. I actually had a flatmate, many, many years ago, who did it. Left behind a family. To what purpose? Three minutes of sensation? Not a price I am ready to pay.

Whatever happened to sitting by the fire reading a book?

Jim Baxter said...


I could summarise it for everbody if you like. (I didn't have to pay for the article, btw, unless you count the drain on my respect for our fellows as payment - I may strange in some ways but, etc.).

A bit OTT is right. But we would get some surprises if everybody who was up to it were suddenly to turn purple... oh no, sorry, that's not a very good way of putting it.