Decadence, dandyism and aestheticism in the vampire chronicles.
--F. W. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
"The making of one's life into art is, after all, the first duty and privilege of every man."
--Arthur Symons, "The Decadent Movement in Literature"
The latter half of the nineteenth century was characterised by an awareness of aimlessness in life and by a search for new sensations combined with a disgust for moral and religious limitations. The Aesthetes thought that, through artificiality, meaningless lives could conceivably be transfigured into beautiful works of art. Literary Decadence manifested itself in an extreme aestheticism which despised the natural, worshipped the artificial, and preferred beauty to morality. Aesthetes realized what Oscar Wilde expressed in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891): "All art is quite useless" (6). Wilde was making a case for the primacy of the aesthetic, which was a radical position and a shocking one to the Victorians. The prevalent view of art tended to be John Ruskin's and Matthew Arnold's utilitarian conception of art as a tool for social education and moral enlightenment. The Aesthetic movement, of which Wilde was a major proponent, sought to free art from this responsibility. Instead they believed that art does not have any didactic purpose; it need only be beautiful. This philosophy has its roots in Walter Pater's "modern idea": "To regard all things and principles of things as inconstant modes or fashions has more and more become the tendency of modern thought. To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" (223). "In its primary aspect," he wrote in The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873, revised 1877), "a great picture has no more definite message for us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few moments on the wall or floor" (130). This book was acclaimed by the young Wilde as "the holy writ of beauty," and he echoed its central idea in his introduction to Rennell Rodd's Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf (1882): "Nor, in looking at a work of art, should we be dreaming of what it symbolises, but rather loving it for what it is. Indeed, the transcendental spirit is alien to the spirit of art" (60). In light of "the splendour of our experience and its awful brevity," Pater recommended the path of pleasure, regardless of any consequences. "Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end" (224). Pater held that intensity of experience was more important than ideas of morality. It was not duty but pleasure which should be the cardinal imperative. Life was not a continuously unfolding whole but a "counted number of pulses," and his chief concern was "pleasure in feeling alive" (224).
Critiquing Pater, T. S. Eliot recognized that the Cambridge professor was propounding not a theory of art but a theory of ethics; a design for living, not criticism:
At the center of that way of life is the imperative to regard all experience as an occasion for aesthetic delectation: a seemingly attractive proposition, perhaps, until one realizes that it depends upon a narcissistic self-absorption that renders every moral demand negotiable. "The sense of freedom" is indeed the essence of aestheticism; but it is the cold and lonely freedom of the isolated individual.... Although aestheticism begins by emphasizing form, it ends by dissolving form into the "pleasurable sensations" and "pulsations" that Pater so valued. (Kimball)
Consequently Haggerty speaks truer than he knows when he calls Anne Rice's Vampire Lestat "the Dorian Gray of our nineties" (6). Both characters are amoral and eternally youthful fetishists of beauty. Gelder, conflating the aesthete and the dandy, sees an analogy with vampires: "The vampire is itself, of course, a contemplative creature ... a philosopher and a sensualist, a frequenter of libraries and galleries ... [Lestat] watches the world go past and discourses about it at great length; he collects works of art, wears fine clothes, and refines his sensibilities. In this sense he is, in effect, an aesthete--a dandy." (Gelder 119).
The aesthete-hedonists Lestat and Dorian Gray both share a debt to J. K. Huysmans' A Rebours (1884). In the case of Dorian Gray, this debt is quite explicit. He is, we are told, corrupted by "the strangest book he ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment and to the sound of flutes the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed" (Picture 120). Wilde revealed during the course of his trial that the book, though not named in the novel, was Huysmans' novel. Arthur Symons called A Rebours the "unique masterpiece" of the Decadent movement, concentrating "all that is delicately depraved, all that is beautifully, curiously poisonous in modern art" (Symons 101).
Huysman's protagonist, the Duc des Esseintes, retires from the mundane world to spend the rest of his life in aesthetic contemplation. Des Esseintes fills his rented villa with an eclectic art collection, conducts a survey of literature, breeds poisonous flowers, and concocts perfumes. In short, he lives a rarified existence devoted to the gratification of the senses. Dorian Gray, Lestat (and also Whitley Strieber's Miriam Blaylock) exist in similarly opulent and eclectic surroundings. Dorian Gray's catalogue of priceless objets dart is borrowed wholesale from Huysmans. To des Esseintes and his various imitators (fictional and real), life is characterised by a search for novelty and, above all, crushing ennui:
[Des Esseintes'] boredom grew to infinite proportions. His soul was swept by tumultuous emotions: a longing; a longing to take revenge for the boredom inflicted on him in the past, a craving to sully what memories he retained of his family with acts of sensual depravity, a furious desire to expend his lustful frenzy on cushions of soft flesh and to drain the cup of sensuality to its last and bitterest dregs. (Huysmans 6)
In the Decadent feelings of ennui there is an obvious parallel with the immortal for whom life is a struggle against boredom. The being who, "because of its immortality, can read all of literature, see all of theatre and wear all fashions, can only expand for so long before the newness of combination wears thin" (Chandler). For Lestat, "to feel alive would be worth sacrificing his immortality, just for the sensation, a sensation lacking in his vampire existence" (Stein 98). Besides Sade and Wilde, Lestat is in accord with Byron, who wrote in a letter of September 16th, 1813, that "The great object of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even though in pain" (Praz 74).
Like des Esseintes, Lestat and Dorian Gray find it expedient, even necessary, to ignore all religious and moral restrictions in their quest for the most refined sensations. There is an obvious antecedent in the libertine anti-heroes of the Marquis de Sade, for whom the egotistical pursuit of pleasure is the highest principle. Moral norms are often flouted for the sake of transgression, and blasphemy is encouraged. The Vampire Lestat "pursues sensation for its own sake, seeking out intense experience just to give some variety to his endless days ... [He] can free himself from any dependence on the wisdom of older vampires; in fact, he must continually prove his autonomy by rebelling against such rules as vampires have agreed for themselves" (Stein 91, 97). Ultimately, Lestat defines and transgresses all limits. Satan in Memnoch the Devil admits that the vampire has exhausted all possibilities:
You challenged every form of authority, you sought every experience. You buried yourself alive twice, and once tried to rise into the very sun to make yourself a cinder. What was left for you but to call on me? It is as if you yourself said it: "Memnoch, what more can I do now?" (134-5, emphasis added)
Once more taking his cue from Wilde and the Decadents, Lestat realises that he must reject absolutist dogma and find his own truths. Pater urged his students to regard all ethics as "inconstant" and subjective--perhaps even, as Nietzsche suggested, inherently self-serving (See Beyond Good and Evil  I:V). To quote "the cynical ripe dandy who is Dorian's mentor" (Moers 304), Lord Henry Wotton, "The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion--these are the two things that govern us" (Wilde, Picture 185).
Lestat in time develops a Paterian aesthetic philosophy which he terms the Savage Garden, in which Beauty is the supreme quality, transcendent over unverifiable and transitory concepts of good and evil. Unfettered self-development is an imperative. One can retrospectively find the seeds of the Savage Garden in Lord Henry's speeches to Dorian: "The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly - that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to one's self" (90). It is clear, then, that the Savage Garden has its roots in nineteenth-century Aestheticism, as does the notion that individuals must forge their own morality. Thomas Mann claimed that Wilde's epigrams were almost interchangeable with Nietzsche's (169). One can certainly imagine Wilde stating, "Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is life and the world eternally justified" (The Birth of Tragedy  52). Both Victorians changed negative terms like sin and insincerity into positive notions for individual development. For example, Wilde's pronouncements on alleged transgressions:
What is termed Sin is an essential element of progress. Without it the world would stagnate, or grow old, or become colourless. By its curiosity Sin increases the experience of the race. Through its intensified assertion of individualism it saves us from monotony of type. In its rejection of the current notions about morality, it is one with the higher ethics. ("The Soul of Man Under Socialism," Complete Works 125)
Wilde's familiarity with Sade is unclear, but there is a clear congruence in Sade's insistence that conscience is nothing but a reflection of "prejudices inculcated by training and upbringing.... Veritable wisdom, my dear Juliette, consists not in repressing one's vices.... The true and approved way is to surrender oneself to them, to practice them to the utmost." (Juliette  12) As with Nietzsche, "whom he clearly influenced, Sade attacks Christianity's bias for the weak and outcast.... Dominance is the right of the strong.... Surprisingly, Sade's abolition of civil and divine laws does not lead to anarchy. The libertines establish their own rigorous structures, the natural hierarchy of strong and weak, master and slave" (Paglia 236-7).
Though he promised that he would track down Dorian Gray and "kill him like a dog" (45), it is James Vane who is shot like an animal at Selby Royal. His farcical end indicates the absence of a Divine Providence which punishes the wicked and rewards the good. It is a consistent theme in Wilde: Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest remarks, "The good ended happily and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means." (The Importance of Being Earnest emphasis added). Reality, then, must mean the absence of just rewards and punishments. As Dorian Gray observes, after he has escaped the would-be avenger, "In the common world of fact the wicked were not punished, nor the good rewarded. Success was given to the strong, failure thrust upon the weak. That was all" (157).
Such is the shared amorality of aesthetes and Rice's vampires. As Jennifer Smith points out, vampires are "representatives of the power of the rulebreaker, the being that can flaunt all the rules of society and still flourish" (53). Accordingly, Lestat sees himself "as a hungry, vicious creature, who did a very good job of existing without reasons, a powerful vampire who always took exactly what he wanted, no matter who said what" (The Vampire Lestat 380). Once more there is an antecedent in the Marquis de Sade's oeuvre, where enjoyment is a super-egoic imperative:
Were I to discover that my only possibility of happiness lay in excessive perpetration of the most atrocious crimes, without a qualm I'd enact every last one of them this very instant, certain that the foremost of the laws Nature decrees to me is to enjoy myself, no matter at whose expense.... If from immolating three million human victims you stand to gain no livelier pleasure than that to be had from eating a good dinner, you ought to treat yourself to it without an instant's hesitation. (Juliette 99, emphasis in original)
There are many similar passages throughout the Marquis' literary output. The aesthete must be free of all entanglements and obligations that interfere with taste, including moral ones. "Considered this way it is not important that the court of Louis XV was corrupt, or oppressive, or morally bankrupt, but that they wore wonderful satin bows on their shoes" (MacFarland). Or, as Lestat remarks of the impending French Revolution, "Talk in the shadows of intrigue. Who cares? Kingdoms rise and fall. Just don't burn the paintings in the Louvre, that's all" (The Vampire Lestat 273). One is reminded of Sade's disapproval of the same Revolution: he complained that the executions were enacted for the wrong reasons; that is, politics instead of pleasure.
An aesthete prizes experience over ideas or ideology. Aestheticism in its pure form demands complete freedom: a freedom from moralizing, from commercial interests, from ideology, even from reason itself and certainly from restraint. "If the paintings in the Louvre survive, Lestat doesn't care how many heads roll or why" (Stein 91). True aestheticism is nothing less than a liberation of the aesthetic process from all constraints. Hence Lestat, the lover of beauty, stresses symmetry rather than morality: "Think on it.... There's a perfection in it that you can't deny. We are illusions of what is mortal, and the stage is an illusion of what is real" (The Vampire Lestat 312).
The aesthete, sensitive to the most apparently trivial of details, was originally a "beau" but might now be called a dandy. In the figure of Beau Brummell, with whom dandyism began, one sees the progenitor of the late-Victorian aesthetes. The aesthete, as an amateur, championing the cause of aesthetics over ethics, descends from Brummell's dilettantish interest in all matters of taste. While he occasionally composed verses or drew sketches for friends, Brummell pretended to be neither a poet nor a painter. The purity of his pose alone anticipates the aesthete's status as artist-without-portfolio. Brummell embodies that "delicate art of doing nothing" which lies at the core of the nonprofessional aesthete. Brummell's biographer Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly recasts his subject an artist in life. Brummell's art, unlike that of a painter or sculptor, was neither "specialized" nor "manifested within a limited time" (Barbey 54). Brummell's art "was life itself" (Barbey 42). In this Barbey imbues Brummell with a quality of aestheticism, even a nascent decadence which would be more boldly enunciated by Baudelaire. As a French phenomenon, dandyism would become an intellectual, even spiritual, expression of resistance. The exclusive property of the ton in Britain, dandyism was to be adopted by Parisian cafe society--artists, poets, bohemians. For the artist and flaneur of both beau- and demi monde, dandyism would become an expression of modernity. Due to the influence of Baudelaire, Wilde, Theophile Gautier, Robert de Montesquiou, and others, who straddled the worlds of beau monde and bohemia, dandyism became formally associated with the cult of art and beauty, and the two phenomena have been indelibly linked since.
Just as the vampires are "illusions of what is mortal" (The Vampire Lestat 312), Brummell and his ilk were "magnificent fakes." Garelick describes dandyism as "the artform of commodifying personality. It is itself the performance of a highly stylized, pain-stakingly constructed self.... As a movement founded against nature, dandyism prizes perpetual, artificial youth and a rei?ed immobilized self" (3). Garelick could easily be describing Rice's vampires, artificially youthful and unnatural from their genesis in ancient Egypt.
"Errors in the field of aesthetics spring from the eighteenth century's false premises in the field of ethics" (Baudelaire 31). The primary falsehood is that "nature is taken as ground source and type of all possible Good and Beauty." when in fact "nature," while compelling us to eat and sleep, "teaches us practically nothing" and "counsels nothing but crime" (ibid.). Baudelaire sees fashion as a "sublime reformation of nature, or, rather a permanent attempt at her reformation" (33). Wilde puts his own view of "nature" into the mouth of Lord Henry: "Being natural is simply a pose, and the most irritating pose I know" (Picture 20). "Like the neoclassic, [Wilde] exalts society over raw nature, aristocracy over democracy, artificiality over simplicity, wit over emotion" (Paglia 567). In this Wilde resembles Rice's vampires, and Lestat in particular. In his insistence that beauty can be experienced outside the spheres of art, Oscar Wilde aestheticized all aspects of life, announcing his intention of "living up" to his blue-and-white china and declaring that a doorknob could be as admirable as a painting. Anne Rice's vampires have succeeded in Wilde's project of aestheticizing their world. "For these vampires, spectacle is the only credible substance" (Auerbach 155). To be a vampire, suggests Gelder, "is nothing more than to act like a vampire" (112). At one point in The Tale of the Body Thief, Lestat mourns his "old selves" (Rice, 4); he "achieves his progress by constant change in form" (Chandler). In his willingness, indeed determination, to constantly reinvent himself, Lestat is superbly suited to the modern world. Lestat fares better in the modern age than other vampires because his sense of self is not so clearly defined, other than by the fact that it is constantly in a state of flux. This makes him almost infinitely adaptable. From Baudrillard's America:
The liberated man is not the one who is freed in his ideal reality, his inner truth, or his transparency; he is the man who changes spaces, who circulates, who changes sex, clothes, and habits according to fashion, rather than morality, and who changes opinions not as his conscience dictates but in response to opinion polls. (26)
In other words, artificiality enables mobility. It is the nature of authenticity to be unchanging; the unashamedly artificial is free to change itself according to whims. In The Tale of the Body Thief, Lestat concludes decisively that, in the words of Keller, "the artifice of eternity" is superior "to the vulgarity and limitations of mortality" (32).
Lestat's performative approach to life once more has its roots in nineteenth-century Aesthetic dandyism, which offered Oscar Wilde "the necessary detachment to experiment with new modes of life and to create new experiences and views. His dandyism was not merely a whim or a cheap form of self-advertisement, but a strategy to experiment with different new modes of life, avoiding essentialist conclusions" (Cauwenberge, "Oscar Wilde and Postmodernism"). Cauwenberge goes on to ascribe Wilde's relativism and rejection of Victorian values to his "dubious position as a homosexual and Irish immigrant in a homophobic English society." In other words, Wilde was a queer immigrant, like Lestat. And like his Irish dandy forebear, Lestat is obliged to hide his socially unacceptable proclivities. Keller describes Rice's vampires as "the image of urban sophistication and effeminate gentility" (33), terms which apply equally to Wilde and other nineteenth-century dandies.
The association of Anne Rice's vampires (and also, as previously noted, Whitley Strieber's bisexual vampire Miriam Blaylock) with "high" culture is yet another legacy of Wilde, whose trial crystallized associations in the public mind between aestheticism, aristocracy and queer sexuality (Sinfield 11-12). "The aristocratic leisure of the undead invokes the stereotypes of luxury, decadence, idleness and effeminacy that are a major part of the dominant culture's homophobic fiction" (Keller 33). Wilde's trial and conviction not only associated dandyism with homosexuality, but also the converse. The stereotype endures to this day in the common conception that gay men have superior aesthetic taste to their heterosexual counterparts. "To be a vampire is to be 'cultured'--that is, to have 'aristocratic' tastes--and also (these points are related) to be idle" (Gelder 119). Keller links the vampires' idleness and aestheticism to their "queerness":
The vampires never work in any of the novels. Lawyers and brokers handle the vampires' money, leaving them free to pursue less tedious, more pleasurable tasks. They sleep all day and indulge in the pleasures of the flesh all night.... The aristocratic lifestyle traditionally carries the mark of effeminacy.... The classical and the early modern points of view coded unrestrained sensuality as effeminate. (33)
Sinfield argues that, to the Victorians, effeminacy was associated not with homosexuality specifically but with the perceived elegance and refinement of the upper class. Aristocrats who did not work for a living were feminised as "ethereal, decorative, and otiose in relation to the vigorous and productive values of the middle class" (Sedgwick 93).
Idleness invariably leads to detachment from mortals, whose lives so often revolve around the mundanities vampires are spared having to deal with. Auerbach calls Rice's vampires "beautifully devoid of social consciousness" (154) and notes that "[t]hey scarcely participate in history, even as an oppressed race" (153). We have already seen that Lestat is completely indifferent to revolutions, caring more about the preservation of paintings. Auerbach views the "ornamental self-enclosure" (155) of Rice's vampires as part of their appeal in an era of "socially aware" vampires. Lestat "yearns after humanity en masse, but individually humans are too dull for him to worry about ... [He] inhabits a spectacular universe of his own' (Auerbach 152, emphasis added). One is reminded of Victorian criticisms of Wilde's "aesthetic disengagement from life" (Beerbohm 23).
What Auerbach calls the "select club" of Rice's vampires is as exclusive in its own way as the dandyism of Brummell, Baudelaire, and Wilde (155). Their aristocracy of beauty and death betray a concern with status in a world where status is becoming fluid. While always present as international cultural phenomena, the dandy and the vampire (and those who are both) are strongest during such transitory periods when questions of identity come to the fore of cultural consciousness.
Auerbach, Nina. Our Vampires, Ourselves. Chicago: Chicago UP 1995.
Barbey d'Aurevilly, Jules. Du Dandyisme et George Brummell. London: Dent, 1897.
Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life, and Other Essays. Trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne. London: Phaidon, 1964.
Baudrillard, Jean. America. Trans. Chris Turner. London, New York: Verso, 1988.
Beerbohm, Max. The Bodley Head Max Beerbohm. London: Bodley Head, 1970.
Cauwenberge, Koen van. "Oscar Wilde and Postmodernism." <http://members.lycos.nl/oscarwilde/>
Chandler, Anthony N. "Vampires Incorporated: Self-Definition in Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles." 1997. <http://www.collectionscanada.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk2/tape15/>
Garelick, Rhonda K. Rising Star: Dandyism, Gender, and Performance in the Fin de Siecle. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP 1988.
Gelder, Ken. Reading the Vampire. London: Routledge, 1994.
Haggerty, George. "Anne Rice and the Queering of Culture." Novel: A Forum on Fiction 32 (1998): 5-18.
Huysmans, Joris-Karl. Against Nature (A Rebours). 1884. London: Penguin, 2001.
Keller, James R. Anne Rice and Sexual Politics: The Early Novels. London: McFarland, 2000.
Kimball, Roger. "Art vs. Aestheticism: The Case of Walter Pater." <http://www.newcriterion.com/archive/13/may95/pater.htm>
MacFarland, Angus Francisco. "The Triumph of the Whim: Dandyism and the Aesthetic Process." <http://students.usm.maine.edu/angus.mcfarland/ thesisarach.html>
Mann, Thomas. "Wilde and Nietzsche." Oscar Wilde: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Richard Ellman. London: Prentice-Hall, 1969. 169-171.
Mayra, Frans Ilkka. Demonic Texts and Textual Demons. Tampere, Finland: Tampere UP, 1999.
Moers, Ellen. The Dandy: From Brummell to Beerbohm. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1960.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1966.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967.
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 1990.
Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art & Poetry. 1877. London: Collins, 1961.
Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony. London: OUP 1970.
Rice, Anne. Interview with the Vampire. New York: Ballantine, 1976.
--. Memnoch the Devil. New York: Knopf, 1995.
--. Queen of the Damned. New York: Ballantine. 1988.
--. The Tale of the Body Thief. New York: Knopf, 1992.
--. The Vampire Lestat. New York: Ballantine, 1985.
Rodd, Rennell. Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf. Philadelphia: Stoddart, 1882.
Sade, Donatien Alphonse Francois. The Complete Marquis de Sade. Trans. Paul J. Gillette. New York: Holloway, 2006
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Sinfield, Alan. The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde, and the Queer Moment. New York: Columbia UP, 1994.
Smith, Jennifer. Anne Rice: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996.
Stein, Atara. The Byronic Hero in Fiction, Film and Television. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.
Strieber, Whitley. The Hunger. 1980. New York: Pocket, 2001.
Symons, Arthur. "The Decadent Movement in Literature." Harper's New Monthly Magazine November 1893. Reprinted Dramatis Personae. Indianapolis: BobbsMerrill, 1923. 96-117.
Wilde, Oscar. Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Glasgow: Collins, 1994.
--. The Picture of Dorian Gray. New York: Ward Lock, 1891.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
|Previous Article:||Dubya's game: motive utilitarianism and the doctrine of preemption.|
|Next Article:||Pieters, Jurgen. Speaking with the Dead: Explorations in Literature and History.|