The language of Decadence.
Linda Dowling's Language and Decadence is a major contribution to the scholarship on Victorian fin de siecle. Assiduously researched, tightly structured and dearly expressed, her argument is as fascinating as it is persuasive: the English literary Decadence emerged as a complex reaction to the anti-logocentric implications of continental philology. To approach the period, she maintains, with an all-purpose iconography of effete, effeminate literatti hankering after delicious sins is to leave it largely unexplored. Such a misguided methodology leads only to the high-browed gossip of Rupert Croft-Cooke's Feasting With Panthers. What is needed instead is a study which maps the infiltration of German linguistic philosophies into nineteenth-century debates on the cultural significance of literature, and how the age's prominent authors accommodated the conclusions of these debates. Over the five chapters that comprise her magnificent book, Dowling shows herself to be a superb cartographer of this epoch in intellectual history.
She begins with the most difficult part of her thesis, the construction of a linguistic context for discussing Victorian Decadence. Looking back from Pater to Locke, she outlines how skeptical epistemologies engendered a counter-movement which she terms "Romantic Philology," an attitude towards language positing its one-to-one correspondence with absolute terms such as God, self and culture. The names invoked in this chapter read like a roll-call of eighteenth-century European intelligentsia: de Condillac, Horne Tooke, Herder, Lowth, Hegel, and yon Humboldt, to name a few. This cast of characters plays a supporting role to her central discussion of how Wordsworth and Coleridge differed in their respective approaches to the speech/writing heirarchy of conventional metaphysics. Wordsworth elevated the "purified" speech of rural folk over poetic artifice, but in so doing nearly rejected the value of an English literary tradition. The growth of British nationalism and the decline of belief in the Bible as a source of unmediated truth gave an edge to Coleridge's contention that writing should be the superior term of the hierarchy; his "lingua communis" was to form the new cultural canon. Unsurprisingly, the realignment of speech and writing as they relate to spirit and materiality would not turn out to be as simple as either Wordsworth or Coleridge would have had it.
In the second chapter, Dowling expands on the theme suggested by its title, "The Decay of Literature." Here she shows how the Coleridgean ideal was undermined by the research of the New Grammarians. Sharing Wordsworth's emphasis on spoken dialects of the present over recorded writings of the past, they viewed language as an organism, one subject to the growth and decay of any life-form. This philological fashion produced a crisis: on the one hand, conservative Victorian thinkers turned to literature as a means of preserving its "centre"; on the other, contemporary linguistic investigations indicated that writing is the mausoleum of deceased languages. It was in this context, Dowling argues, that the Decadence was born. "The Fatal Book," both the subject and title of the third chapter, concerns the response of late Victorian writers to the dilemma facing them. Dowling commences this section with Pater, whose work she feels was "an attempt to rescue from the assaults of scientific philology and linguistic relativism an ideal, however diminished and fugitive, of literature and literary culture" (104). That ideal was based on his practive of euphuism, a scholarly method of writing for scholarly readers. Yet his proposal for an educated elite contained the potential to short-circuit itself, for in privileging writing over speech to the degree that he did, Pater alienated himself from the masses whose culture he sought to resuscitate. Marius the Epicurean is a fatal book, not because of its effect on the reader, but because of its internal contradiction: it is designed to exemplify a national language but reveals only an opaque idiolect.
Wilde attempted to reconcile the tension within the Paterian aesthetic by proposing that the voice become a pillar of culture. Whereas Pater espoused literary scholarship, Wilde indulged in conversational gamesmanship. Dowling sees Wilde's linguistic strategy as a problematic synthesis combining the artificiality of written language with the "real presence" of the voice. She explores the other Decadents in the same manner. Johnson relied on the "invisible tradition of civilized speech" (191) in his writings. Dowson created his own lingnistic order by severely limiting his poetic diction. Symons essayed a Wildean synthesis of voice and writing in his hybrid genre the urban pastoral, an uncomfortable blending of the two. Davidson advocated an aggressive return to the vernacular, but puzzingly eschewed the use of regional dialect. When we consider the ambivalent aims of each writer, it is easy to see why the ballad appealed to them; it is part of an established tradition yet its medium is the voice. Her analysis of the ballad dovetails neatly into what she makes of a different non-verbal sign-system, the dance, a transition which enables her to describe the continuity between early Modernism and the Decadence. The final chapter, "Yeats and the Book of the People," examines how Yeats used his own definition of Decadence to define himself, and how he repeated the putative solutions of his predecessors.
What is especially striking about Dowling's book is the scrupulous care with which she handles her topic. Every page bears witness to her scholarly acumen and rhetorical powers. Of course no map, geographical or otherwise, is wholly free of reductionist stains. The spots on Dowling's argument reflect her exclusive treatment of literary Decadence as a style of writing which mirrors the autonomy and artificiality of language. Both John Goode and Regenia Gagnier have made strong cases for considering fin de siecle literature as a literature of resistance against prevailing social ideologies. Dowling does not discuss the ideological features of the period because the boundaries of her definition do not allow her to do so. For her, the Decadence was a purely linguistic phenomenon. On occasion, the very tautness of her definition leads her dangerously close to the precipice of fallacious reasoning. To say that developments in German philology preceded and, in some ways, prefigured the Decadence is one matter. To say that the former caused the latter is quite another. Even the most dilettantish dabbler in cultural studies is aware of the pitfalls in trying to locate the origins of any given movement. One wonders if Dowling had the differences between historical influence and cultural confluence clear in her mind throughout the research and writing of her study. Yet these pedantic quibbles in no way tarnish the lustre of her accomplishment. Indeed, it is difficult for a reviewer to find adequate words to express due praise for this delightful book. Perhaps the highest compliment which one could pay it is to predict that it will become required reading for every serious student of the Victorian Decadence. It certainly deserves to be.
Hertford College, Oxford