Oscar Wilde was not particularly decadent. The Decadents declared that Art must be independent of moral and social concerns. He conducted an anatomy of decadence, through works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, but that was a deeply moral book, despite the author's denials. Even his plays, with such a light touch, were often a gentle critique of Victorian mores.
Wilde took as his source material for that book, the writings of another. That other was J K Huysmans, whose À rebours or Against Nature, was a handbook of decadence. Nobody can be sure if Against Nature was sincere or a massive joke. This is so often the way. The main character in the Huysmans book is a proto Elton John. Jean Des Esseintes is an archetype of the kind of petulant, fickle, rich dilettante whose sojourn through life is tainted with ennui, mediated by myriad sensations and an unquenchable thirst for novelty. Decadence is to seek sensation for sensation's sake. It has no other purpose than to distract and amuse and has the inbuilt quality of being transient and titillating, yet ultimately unsatisfying. Against Nature has many sordid and satirical vignettes, but one of the better known is the Tortoise. Des Esseintes acquires a tortoise and has it encrusted with jewels, so that it will wander about his apartment giving off little coruscating rays of coloured light. The creature dies under the weight of the jewels.
To be fair to Elton John, at least part of his life is not decadent; he gives a great deal of time and money to AIDS charities and still gets involved with musical ventures. He does however, share one thing in common with footballers (football being one of his enduring passions), and that is the state of being enormously wealthy without being enormously sensible.
A word about Symbolists; they are lumped together with decadents but they sought, in artistic terms, to make the words and characters mean more than their face value, as an antidote to the Realism and Naturalism of writers like Zola and Flaubert. Wilde displayed his Symbolist credentials in Salome, but even with this work, critics argue about whether he "meant it" or not - the key to Wilde's work being that it reflected his life, and his work, which was essentially a simulacrum in dramatic form.
* * * * * * * * *
I began writing this because of something completely other. I believe that David Cameron is about to introduce a Tax Allowance for married couples and civil partners. Those who do not fall into this category say it is not fair. Hardly surprising, is it, but I like the idea. I like it, because it is symbolic of a preference for the state of marriage. Knock it if you like, but when two people vow publicly to commit to one another, it is a statement of intent and belief and faith.
The alternative is ultimately a declaration of decadence; to place no such belief in longevity, or faithfulness or hope. I am not saying you cannot be committed without being officially married, what I am saying is that There is a spectrum of commitment, with marriage and civil partnership at the top and casual sex at the bottom. This is a deeply moral statement, I know, but I believe it. If you reject it, you probably do not share my value system, which is fine.
Gordon Brown was recently asked, "What is your favourite love poem?" It is at times like these when all the briefing notes and editorial control flies out of the window. Brown's reply was to open and close his mouth like a goldfish, finally coming up (some time later, and probably after a meeting with his advisors) with the Burns poem, "My love is like a red, red rose"
I would not blink for a second before telling you mine from the poet who was deeply influenced by the Symbolist Movement, William Butler Yeats:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,The Pilgrim Soul - how far away from the trappings of fame and stardom and how much more valuable?
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.