As Ellis Hanson points out in the introduction to his book, Decadence and Catholicism, Huysmans was not alone in this trajectory. Many of his fellow aesthetes, among them Aubrey Beardsley, Paul Verlaine, Oscar Wilde, and Walter Pater, showed increasing interest in the Catholic Church the end of their lives. “Decadent writing,” Hanson observes, “is often … a continual flux of religious sensations and insights alternating with pangs of profanity and doubt.” Like Tantalus grasping at the fruit, for decadents the medieval world increasingly represented an ideal at once essential to their self-understanding yet just out of reach.
Decadent writers, reacting against the utilitarian mindset that pervaded the industrialized world, had long championed the mantra l’Art pour l’Art – art for art’s sake. No longer, they argued, ought art to be limited by the constraints of sales or patronage, politics or morality. Instead, artists like Aubrey Beardsley drew inspiration from a variety of local and foreign art forms, cobbling together a style that attempted to untether itself from any meaning beyond itself. Their lives of luxury, in fact, were themselves an art form: an attempt to have as many aesthetic experiences as possible, savoring each new sensation in its turn. In the practical, prudish world of nineteenth-century Europe, such radical hedonism was met with consternation. Yet, despite several obvious differences, there was one way in which the decadents were more attuned to their medieval ancestors than most Victorians would have liked to admit.
Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1892
In the medieval world, the concept of Beauty held a role similar to the decadents’ concept of Art – albeit finding its home in the monasteries rather than the brothels. It was an attribute closely associated with God, and it motivated much of the sacred architecture to which the decadents were at once so attracted and repulsed. As Thomas Aquinas puts it, “Beauty and goodness in a thing are identical fundamentally; for they are based upon the same thing, namely, the form; and consequently goodness is praised as beauty.” Beauty and goodness, in other words, went hand-in-hand. In terms of art, the form of a thing – its appearance – and its function in the Mass or in society would have been distinct yet inseparable. Therefore, rather than attempting to justify the herculean efforts of generations of workers on grounds of social utility, efficiency of design, or human progress, medievals would not have found any justification necessary for the rich ornamentation and conscientious craftsmanship of their cathedrals, save to highlight the value of the structures themselves. While decadents, of course, did not have any such metaphysical underpinnings to their mantra, in their perception of beauty they certainly found a greater ally in medieval architects than in their own industrialist neighbors.
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