Rowan Pelling: I am decadent, and boy it's hard work

One man's filth and degradation is another man's tea party. More sex, drugs and absinthe, vicar?
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The Independent Online

'What is bleedin' decadence?" asked my taxi driver, as he took me to King's Cross station the evening after the night before. What indeed, I thought to myself. I was returning from the gin-sozzled launch of The Decadent Handbook with a lyric from the SaltPeter EP looping in my head: "I haven't been home since Friday night/ wearing the same knickers but I feel all right..."

I had edited The Decadent Handbook, with the help of James Doyle and Amelia Hodsdon, for the tiny, wayward publishing house Dedalus. And since July I had thought of little else but: whither decadence?

In the literary tradition, decadence is an aesthetic that flourished in the second half of the 19th century. The inspirations for the movement are generally held to be the French poet Charles Baudelaire and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The decadent sensibility was typified by pessimism, mysticism, idealism, elitism - not to mention a penchant for canes, cloaks, hats, spats and other hallmarks of the dandy. The decadents despised the notions of rationalism, industrialism and progress, and sought refuge in social transgression and extreme sensation. In other words: outré sex, drink and drugs, blah, blah, blah. Plus ça change.

The triumph of the decadent movement has been the enduring influence of that sensibility: you only need to take one look at Pete Doherty to know he wishes he was downing absinthe at the Café Royal with Oscar and Bosie. Meanwhile, much of the decadents' literary output has become a fringe interest - which, of course, greatly enhances the perverse pleasure of perusing it. Few people nowadays read the works of J K Huysmans, André Pieyre de Mandiargues and Octave Mirbeau, apart from devotees of the Dedalus website.

Meanwhile, to the cynic, decadence is an egomaniacal, adolescent urge to paint your nails black, worship Nick Cave, get wasted and scream to the world: "Look at me, I'm tortured! I'm different!" Well, yes, that's clearly an element of the persistent allure. And it's true that there's an inbuilt contradiction in decadent philosophy, which means that anyone who creates a work of art or strives for outré effect is putting a most un-decadent amount of effort and concentration into the finished artefact. It takes a certain amount of dedication to become an addict. As we all now know, Oscar Wilde put a lot of private preparation into appearing effortlessly witty in public.

Despite these ambiguities and contradictions, many people claim decadence for their own, or assign it to those they fear and dislike. From the viewpoint of the Daily Mail, decadence encompasses teenage mums, binge-drinkers, gays, Big Brother, Kate Moss and pretty much any kind of sex, apart from the missionary position with your spouse. A YouGov poll last year revealed that 32 per cent of British Muslims agreed with the proposition "Western society is decadent and immoral". But where are these orgiasts in goat masks?

The author Duncan Fallowell declared that "decadence is an aspect of character, not a question of choice". Yet the majority of characters most infamously associated with decadence are fabulous self-constructs who set their dial to corruption. Indeed, decadence is the most self-conscious of aesthetic movements - if you are not conscious of the implications, then you are merely a psychopath.

Fallowell, like the Daily Mail, somewhat confuses decadence with being homosexual: "You don't have to be gay. But if you're decadent you do have to be bent in some way - that is, reconfigured from the banal." But is group sex on Hampstead Heath or are even the diversions of the 1989 Operation Spanner court case (in which some gay men were convicted of assault for nailing their penises to planks of wood, even though it was entirely consensual) less banal nowadays than banging your own spouse? The truth is that decadence is in the eye of the beholder. One person's filth and degradation is another person's vicar's tea party. Even so, I am the first to admit that I am not a leading connoisseur of moral corruption.

Is decadence a creed for the immorally self-righteous from which everyone else should be excluded? Many people who are merely armchair travellers to Gomorrah admit its black and glittering allure. Is it so outrageous that we mortgage-slaves and breeders, who long ago relinquished all claims to decadence, still like to think that someone, somewhere is still lying in the gutter looking up at the stars? Am I pathetic because I enjoyed The Decadent Handbook launch with its naughty-but-nice burlesque dancer cavorting in the 500-year-old wine vault that is now the club Hedges & Butler? Very likely, but who cares?

"You still haven't told me. What is decadence?" the cabbie asked again. I only had a minute as I paid my fare to expound on the subject. "Decadence," I said, "is when you sleep with the daughter, the mother, the under-age son, the father and the dog, give them all syphilis, steal all their money, and leave them in the madhouse." Not that I'd know, of course.