The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success, by Ross Douthat (Simon & Schuster, 272 pp., $27)
In the 1891 novel Là-Bas, by Joris-Karl Huysmans—the fin de siècle Catholic-convert novelist whose most famous work, À Rebours, was termed by critic Arthur Symons a “breviary of decadence” — decline takes the form of banality. The ennui-ridden writer Durtal, a thinly veiled self-insert for Huysmans himself, scans the Satanic underbelly of the Parisian demimonde as part of his biographical research into the diabolical Medieval rapist and murderer Gilles de Rais. Lured by his mistress, Madame Chantelouve, into a secret underworld of bored occultists and practitioners of lurid, orgiastic Black Masses, Durtal expects to find, among this seedy coterie, a transcendent kind of evil—something, if not good, then nevertheless intensely real: the same diabolism that inspired de Rais both to his atrocities and, ultimately, his racked repentance. But the Black Masses that Durtal attends in nineteenth-century Paris aren’t so much demoniac as—well—boring. Sure, naked women cavort on altars, and unspeakable things get done to profane the communion Host. This is a thoroughly middle-class Satanism, with minimal consequences for its disaffected participants. (“You know,” one of Durtal’s friends archly remarks, “It isn’t easy to procure children whom one may disembowel with impunity. The parents would raise a row and the police would interfere.”) Of the modern Satanist leader Docre, Durtal sadly remarks: “The bloody and incestuous side of the old sabbaths is wanting. Docre is, we must admit, greatly inferior to Gilles de Rais.”
Huysmans’s decadence, and the decadence of fin de siècle France more broadly, is often remembered for its excess: sexual, appetitive, and otherwise. But the crime of decadence, for Huysmans, as for his contemporaries like Rémy de Gourmont or Barbey D’Aurevilly, was less about hedonism than anhedonia: the experience of utter disengagement from the world around them, and the transformation of all experience, including the corporeal, into hollow and onanistic aestheticization. Characters in Huysmans or Gourmont are more likely to fantasize in fetishistic detail about women they haven’t slept with than actually to approach them (to the chagrin, in many cases, of the women). Their Satanism, thus conceived, seems less evil than tragic: the attempt to summon something, anything, beyond the material world. In a Paris beset by the uncanny specters of transformational urban technology—gas lamps, grand boulevards rendering passersby visible, department stores full of lifelike mannequins, the expansion of the bourgeoisie—a Medieval Satan was a preferable alternative to, well, nothingness.
It is precisely this vision of decadence-as-alienation that underpins New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s new book, The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success: it’s a breviary of decadence for an era no less disaffected, no less ambiguous about its relationship to technology, and no less collectively uncertain about the nature of the real.
Douthat’s progressive critics have often reduced him to a pearl-clutcher, cast into terror at any hint of sexual liberation. And the limitations of the Times column format—and the very demands of tweetability that Douthat covers here —have, sometimes, left Douthat more open to such criticism than his arguments warrant.
The length of The Decadent Society allows Douthat to make a far more complex (and more interesting) case. Decadence, including the contemporary Western decadence in which we find ourselves, isn’t just (or even mainly) about drugs and orgies and fast food. Rather, it’s about disembodiment: about a disconnection from a sense of the real that allows a society not simply to abandon innovation but to distract itself from its no-longer-meaningful eschatological end. Not to slouch toward Bethlehem, you might say, but to slump toward Babylon.
Early in the book, Douthat defines decadence, drawing on Jacques Barzun’s definition, as “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.” But The Decadent Society is most salient where it applies that sprawling definition to a far more particular, and distinctive, phenomenon: the way in which the digital space has lent itself to politics-as-performance, in which reactionary atavists and social-justice crusaders alike are able to participate in a simulacrum of heroism. In Douthat’s words, it becomes “a kind of digital-age playacting in which young people dissatisfied with decadence pretend to be Fascist and Marxist on the Internet, reenacting the 1930s and 1960s with fewer street fights and more memes.”
We are, Douthat tells us, exhausted. We make the same movies, over and over (most involving Marvel superheroes or galaxies far, far away). Our young turn away from actual sex and toward the consolations of pornography: sex without human relationship, and therefore without consequence and contingency. We approach “politics the way [we] approach a first-person shooter game—as a kind of sport, a kick to the body chemistry, that doesn’t actually put anything in [our] relatively comfortable late-modern lives at risk.” As Walter Benjamin famously predicted as early as 1939, we aestheticize through alienation, and alienate through aestheticization: living our lives in second order.
What Douthat mostly leaves unsaid (and, given the ideological breadth of his audience, understandably so), is the religious element of this problem. The problem of decadence, the problem of living through-a-screen-darkly, is also the problem of absence. In a world in which nothing is capital-r Real, why should pornography be constitutively different from sex? Why should a Twitter flame war be qualitatively different from a punch to the face? The problem of God, of faith, of a cultural as well as individual understanding of history as a story, with a meaningful end to which we as a culture are headed, suffuses every page of The Decadent Society, even as Douthat stops short (aside from a few sections near the end) of making it his primary theme. “There is a natural human desire,” he writes, “to see history as a morality play in which virtue leaves to strength and decay to destruction.”
What we need, Douthat implies, is a renewed eschatological vision of what history, and what we, are for. It might well lie in the secular promise of the progressive arc of history. It might lie, Douthat suggests in his concluding pages, in turning our attention to the stars: to the thrill of another space race. And it might (Douthat’s sympathies are unsubtle here) lie in religious revival: a communal commitment to the idea that embodiment is meaningful precisely because our bodies are not all there is. Or, perhaps, we might find a fusion of all three.
“It shouldn’t surprise anyone if decadence ends with people looking heavenward,” Douthat concludes, “toward God, toward the stars or both.”
It’s time we talk seriously about how to get there.