The Art of Decadence

  • Bernard Mc Elroy


Decadence and the grotesque have long been at home in each other’s company, a compatibility that suggests a number of interesting questions. Is grotesque art itself decadent? Is it the product of a decadent society? Does the grotesque flourish in those civilisations that have become jaded, have lost their bearings and their convictions, can no longer take life tragically or even seriously, but have abandoned everything for self-indulgence and are, in fact, grimacing and clowning in the imminence of their own demise? Certainly, many Soviet critics have seen such writers as Kafka and Joyce as examples of bourgeois art and capitalist society falling into decadence.1 But long before them, John Ruskin clearly linked the emergence of a certain kind of grotesque art and architecture with ‘the phases of transition in the moral temper of the falling Venetians, during their fall… from pride to infidelity and from infidelity to the unscrupulous pursuit of pleasure’. The upshot is that the architecture of the decline’ is among the worst and basest ever built by the hands of men, being especially distinguished by a spirit of brutal mockery and insolent jest, which exhausting itself in deformed and monstrous sculpture, can sometimes be hardly otherwise defined than as the perpetuation in stone of the ribaldries of drunkenness’ (The Stones of Venice, p. 135).


Fairy Tale Binary Opposition Dream Life Narrative Voice Title Character 
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  1. 36.
    Tony Tanner, in Thomas Pynchon Contemporary Writers (New York & London: Methuen, 1982) pp. 80–1, divides the setting of the novel into the System and the Zone, with many characters inhabiting one or the other, or gravitating between them.Google Scholar
  2. 48.
    John O. Stark, in Pynchon’s Fictions: Thomas Pynchon and the Literature of Information (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980) p. 39, points out the necessity of distinguishing between Pynchon and his characters, a point that should not need making but does, to judge by some Pynchon criticism (see n. 47 above). Stark goes on to examine Pynchon’s complex but methodical ways of organising the vast amounts of information he makes use of in his fiction.Google Scholar
  3. 50.
    David Leverenz, ‘On Trying to Read Gravity’s Rainbow,’ in Mindful Pleasures: Essays on Thomas Pynchon eds George Levine and David Leverenz (Boston: Little, Brown, 1976) pp. 229–49, gives an account of initial exasperation and final enthrallment that many readers will recognise as their own experience of this novel.Google Scholar
  4. 51.
    Gabriel Garda Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Avon, 1971 ) p. 12.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Bernard Mc Elroy 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • Bernard Mc Elroy
    • 1
  1. 1.RomeItaly

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