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the general name for crisis phenomena of bourgeois culture in the late 19th and early 20th century, marked by individualism and by attitudes of hopelessness and aversion to life. A number of features of the decadent attitude also distinguish certain currents in art that are unified under the term “modernism.”

A complex and contradictory phenomenon, decadence originated in the crisis of bourgeois consciousness, reflected in the confusion of many artists in the face of the sharp antagonisms of social reality and in the face of revolution, which they regarded only as a destructive force in history. The decadents felt that any conception of social progress, any form of class struggle, had blatantly utilitarian purposes and was therefore to be rejected. “The greatest historical movements of mankind appear to them deeply ‘philistine’ by their very nature” (G. V. Plekhanov, Literatura i estetika, vol. 2, 1958, p. 475). The decadents regarded art’s renunciation of political and civic themes and motifs as a manifestation of freedom of creativity. Their view of the freedom of the individual was inseparable from the aestheticizing of individualism, and their worship of beauty as the highest value was frequently pervaded by amoralism. Nonexistence and death were constant motifs for the decadents.

As a characteristic trend of the times, decadence cannot be categorized under any one current or group of several currents in art. The attitudes of decadence affected the works of a sizable segment of artists in the late 19th and early 20th century, including many major masters of the arts whose work as a whole cannot be reduced to decadence. The motifs of decadence were manifested in the clearest form for the first time in the poetry of French symbolism—in the work of the so-called accursed poets (P. Verlaine, A. Rimbaud, S. Mallarmé). Their ideas and attitudes were developed by P. Valéry, P. P. Fort, and A. Gide. In Great Britain, features of decadence marked the work of the Pre-Raphaelites (D. G. Rossetti, H. Hunt), as well as of A. Beardsley and A. Swinburne, who were close to them. In Italy, the attitudes of decadence were reflected in the work of G. Pascoli, A. Oriani, and G. D’Annunzio. The influence of decadence was also felt in the work of such major artists of the late 19th and early 20th century as O. Wilde in Great Britain, M. Maeterlinck in Belgium, H. Hofmannsthal and R. M. Rilke in Austria, and M. Proust in France. An aversion to reality, motifs of despair and nihilism, and a longing for spiritual ideals were all given artistically expressive force by the major artists who had been seized by decadent attitudes; these attitudes evoked sympathy and support from realist writers, such as T. Mann, R. Martin du Gard, and W. Faulkner, who had retained faith in the values of bourgeois humanism.

In Russia, decadence was reflected in the work of the symbolist poets (above all the so-called elder symbolists of the 1890’s: N. Minskii, D. Merezhkovskii, and Z. Hippius [for a critique, see Plekhanov’s article “The Gospel According to the Decadents”] and, later, V. Briusov and K. Bal’mont), in a number of works by L. N. Andreev, in the works of F. Sologub, and especially in the naturalistic prose of M. P. Artsybashev and A. P. Kamenskii. The attitudes of decadence became especially widespread after the defeat of the Revolution of 1905-07. Realist writers (L. N. Tolstoi, V. G. Korolenko, and M. Gorky) and progressive authors and critics (V. V. Stasov, V. V. Vorovskii, and G. V. Plekhanov. actively fought against attitudes of decadence in Russian art and literature. After the October Revolution the fight against such attitudes was continued by Soviet literary and art criticism.

Many motifs of the decadent frame of mind have become the property of various modernist artistic currents. Progressive realist art, and above all the art of socialist realism, develops in a constant struggle against them. In criticizing various manifestations in art and literature of the attitudes of decay or decline, Marxist-Leninist aesthetics proceeds from the principles of high ideological content, identification with the people, and party-mindedness in art.


Plekhanov, G. V. “Iskusstvo i obshchestvennaia zhiznl’ In Iskusstvo i literatura. Moscow, 1948.
Tolstoi, L. N. “Chto takoe iskusstvo?” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 30. Moscow, 1951.
Gorky, M. “Pol’ Verlen i dekadenty.” Sobr. soch., vol. 23. Moscow, 1953.
Vorovskii, V. V. Literaturno-kriticheskie stat’i. Moscow, 1956.
Gourmont, R. de. Kniga masok. St. Petersburg, 1913. (Translated from French.)
Merezhkovskii, D. S. “O prichinakh upadka i o novykh techeniiakh sovremennoi russkoi literatury.” Poln. sobr. soch., vol. 18. Moscow, 1914.
Asmus, V. F. “Filosofiia i estetika russkogo simvolizma.” In Literaturnoe nasledstvo, vols. 27-28. Moscow, 1937.
Verlaine, P. Les Poetes maudits. Paris, 1900.
Kahn, G. Symbolistes et decadents. Paris, 1902.
Alběrés, R. M.Bilan litteraire du 20 siècle. Paris, 1956.
Roda, V. Decadentismo morale e decadentismo estetico. Bologna [1966].



portrays the downfall of a materialistic society. [Ger. Lit.: Buddenbrooks]
cherry orchard
focal point of the declining Ranevsky estate. [Russ. Drama: Chekhov The Cherry Orchard in Magill II, 144]
Diver, Dick
dissatisfied psychiatrist goes downhill on alcohol. [Am. Lit.: Tender is the Night]
Gray, Dorian
beautiful youth whose hedonism leads to vice and depravity. [Br. Lit.: Oscar Wilde The Picture of Dorian Gray]
Great Gatsby, The
1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald symbolizes corruption and decadence. [Am. Lit.: The Great Gatsby]
House of Usher
eerie, decayed mansion collapses as master dies. [Am. Lit.: “Fall of the House of Usher” in Tales of Terror]
Lonigan, Studs
Chicago Irishman whose life is one of physical and moral deterioration (1935). [Am. Lit.: Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy, Magill III, 1028–1030]
Manhattan Transfer
novel portraying the teeming greed of the city’s inhabitants. [Am. Lit.: Manhattan Transfer]
indictment of social decay during Napoleon III’s reign (1860s). [Fr. Lit.: Nana, Magill I, 638–640]
Remembrance of Things Past
records the decay of a society. [Fr. Lit.: Haydn & Fuller, 630]
novel by Petronius depicting social excesses in imperial Rome. [Rom. Lit.: Magill II, 938]
Sun Also Rises, The
moral collapse of expatriots. [Am. Lit.: The Sun Also Rises]
Sound and the Fury, The
Faulkner novel about an old Southern family gone to seed: victims of lust, incest, suicide, and idiocy. [Am. Lit.: Magill I, 917]
Warren, The
Haredale’s house, “mouldering to ruin.” [Br. Lit.: Barnaby Rudge]
Yoknapatawpha County
northern Mississippi; decadent setting for Faulkner’s novels. [Am. Lit.: Hart, 955]
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