DECADENT ECOLOGY IN BRITISH LITERATURE AND ART, 1860-1910 by Dennis Denisoff, Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger

By Dennis Denisoff
(Cambridge, 2022) ix + 260 pp.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Helsinger on 2021-12-31.

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Dennis Denisoff has written extensively about decadence and sexuality. His previous books include Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, co-edited with Liz Constable and Matt Potolsky (1999); Aestheticism and Sexual Parody: 1840-1940 (2001); Sexual Visuality from Literature to Film: 1850-1950 (2004); andThe Yellow Nineties Online, co-edited with Lorraine Janzen Kooistra(2015). In this new study, he treats leading aesthetic and decadent writers as voices of a late Victorian ecological criticism. What does he mean by "ecological" or by its abbreviated form, "eco-" ? Citing Ernst Haeckel's introduction of the term in his 1866 Generelle Morphologie der Organismen as "the whole science of the relationship of the organism to the environment," Denisoff notes a remarkable coincidence. In the same year, the publication of Swinburne's Poems and Ballads (1866) marked "the beginning of British decadence as a cultural phenomenon encouraging a view of individuals' relation to their environments as rapturous, rupturing, and unstable" (7).

For Denisoff, "environment" means a variety of conditions, social and aesthetic as well as natural, against which the individual rebels; likewise, his "ecological" denotes the particular nature of the relation between those surrounding conditions and the human as individual or species. Since Swinburne's poems and Haeckel's scientific treatise first appeared in the same year but sharply diverged on what constitutes an environment and what sorts of relations to it are possible, Denisoff promptly applies the prefix "eco-" to a host of Victorian writers and artists--not just to Decadence as a late nineteenth-century cultural phenomenon in literature and art disruptive of surrounding conditions. The young Swinburne, for example, emerges as an eco-terrorist (13), while Walter Pater becomes an eco-spiritualist who "portrays pagan myth as a changeable living medium for spiritualities that preceded Christianity and continue to exist today" (34).

These two early influencers share what Denisoff terms an "open" ecology: breaking away from models of an integrated, harmonious, human-centered and knowable world promoted by nineteenth-century natural science and theology, this kind of ecology delivered what Victorians felt as a series of shocks. "A decadent ecology such as that envisioned by Swinburne," Denisoff writes, "differs in being characterized by disruption, defilement, and excess operating beyond human comprehension, modeling, or management" (7). Yet Denisoff cannot readily explain what links Swinburne's eco-paganism or Pater's eco-spirituality to a science of the relationship of organism to environment. Particularly in the early chapters, he seems sometimes to be conducting his argument by a process of relabeling.

In what follows, however, Denisoff breaks new ground. Casting the artists and writers of Aestheticism, Decadence, and late nineteenth-century Hellenism in genuinely new roles, he argues that these pagan ecologists variously wrought uniquely decadent strains of ecological thinking that we can still recognize today. The prescient figures examined in this wide-ranging study include Swinburne the poet and Pater the Aesthetic critic, painter Simeon Solomon and poet Michael Field (Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper), travel writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Vernon Lee, performers Florence Farr and Moina Mathers, and authors William Sharp, Arthur Machen and George Egerton. All of these writers and artists are shown to have explored new relations with the non-human lives and places of the earth while opposing and resisting the triumphalist hegemonies of an anthropocentric, heterosexual, Christian world. Though we consider them late nineteenth-century Decadents, Denisoff argues that they were the shock troops of a new, less settled ecology. By developing an aesthetics of decline, decay, and decomposition, returning to pagan beliefs in a nature animated with conscious spirits, or celebrating uncommon loves between humans and with animals, they anticipated the much more urgent ecologically-driven criticism that has arisen in the late twentieth- and twenty-first century.

Decadent Ecology pairs decadent art and decadent writing. In successive chapters, Denisoff examines the revival of interest in pre-Christian mythologies found in the classics (Swinburne); a new, aestheticized spirituality reaching from the individual out to a Heraclitean world of flux criss-crossed with natural forces (Pater); celebrations of trans-species as well as same-sex desires and affections (Michael Field and Simeon Solomon); the wandering search for an elusive spirit of place (Robert Louis Stevenson and Vernon Lee); a psycho-physiology inspired by the occult and manifested in bodily performance (Florence Farr, associate of Yeats, and Moina Mathers, sister of Henri Bergson); and styles of "intimate decomposition" in both thinking and writing (Irish nationalist William Sharp, Arthur Machen, and George Egerton, whose literary alter ego was Fiona McLeod). To guide us through the works of these very disparate authors and artists, Denisoff skillfully mines a wealth of writings: periodical essays, reviews, and books on topics ranging from psychology and mythology to geology and more. Decadence, he argues, was not only a rubric embraced and productively used by those who were often mocked under its simplifying aegis; it also generated its own kinds of novel ecological thinking.

To show how this thinking anticipated the ideas of our own time, each chapter begins by surveying, rather rapidly but comprehensively, much of what has been written since the mid-twentieth century on the chapter's particular topic. (There is a good deal of summarizing by paraphrase and quotation.) Citing authors from James Lovelock through Bruno Latour and beyond, Denisoff finds their ideas adumbrated in the later nineteenth-century, not only in literature and art but also in the science of Haeckel's Morphologie and Antonio Stoppani's Corso di Geologia (1871) as well as in more familiar works by Charles Darwin and others. While Denisoff's treatment of the philosophical and political issues involved can at times seem somewhat superficial, he demonstrates an impressively broad range of reading. Indeed, in the absence of a formal bibliography, he launches each chapter with a kind of annotated reading list on particular aspects of ecological criticism and theory then and now. These introductory sections doubly contextualize the literary works and art objects on which the chapters then focus.

While the ensuing analyses are sometimes rewardingly insightful, they can also be strained. For readers primarily interested in eco-criticism and theory, there is probably too much detail about individual nineteenth-century authors and their works; for nineteenth-century scholars, reading late Victorian literature and art through the lens of recent ecological theory and criticism inevitably makes for some distortions.

While reviewing both old and recent thinking on his central topics (decadence, paganism, and ecology), Denisoff strives, not always successfully, to indicate how they are conceptually as well as historically linked. Chapter One surveys nineteenth-century ideas of decadence, decay, and decline adapted from biological models and applied to the histories of institutions, states, and cultures as well as to the psychologies and the work of individuals. Beginning with the influence of eighteenth century texts, specifically Michel de Montesquieu's Considérations sur les causes de la grandeur des Romains et de leur décadence (1734) and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), Denisoff briefly notes key mid-nineteenth-century influences from abroad (the poetry and criticism of Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier) as well as speculative and popular scientific books from the last two decades of the century, including Paul Bourget's Essais de psychologie contemporaine, 1883, and Max Nordau's notoriously unsympathetic Degeneration, 1892. In 1895, the same year the English translation of this book appeared, its expression of disgust with decadence was countered by a book titled Regeneration (1895), which insists that decay is a necessary phase in a natural cycle.

Regeneration was written by an Englishman named Alfred Egmont Hake. As the son of the Rossetti family physician and friend, Hake was already heir to that earlier generation of poets and painters of the 1860s including the painter Frederick Sandys, whose 1868 Medea adorns the cover of this book. Denisoff invokes it as a kind of visual emblem for decadent and neo-pagan work from the 1860s. But for the younger artists and writers whose work would form the core of the decadent 1880s and 90s in England, the most influential precursor was Swinburne -- especially through his Poems and Ballads of 1866.

Examining "The Leper" in this volume, Denisoff explores at length its play of aberrant desire with a strange aesthetic. Though he briefly cites "Hertha" (1871) to exemplify Swinburne's classically-influenced, anti-Christian mythopoetics of language and nature, he overlooks the open ecology of such later poems as "By the North Sea" (1880) and some of the choruses in Erechtheus (1876), where the aesthetic and the spiritual are closely imbricated in an exultant paganism. These later poems powerfully embody Swinburne's particular vision of the fluid relations between wind, sand, sea, and light.

In the ensuing chapter on Walter Pater, which draws on Haeckel and Stoppani, Denisoff freshly reads Pater's memorable Conclusion to Studies in the History of the Renaissance as an ecological declaration: a vision of the human as embedded in a non-human world of sentient physical and chemical forces. Pater describes "our whole physical life in the moment" as one "perpetual motion" of elements weaving us into a vast "design in a web, the actual threads of which pass out beyond it" (Studies, ed. Matthew Beaumont [Oxford 2010], 118). Pater thus offers--according to Denisoff--a spiritualized and aestheticised version of an open ecology (49-50). Then, after a long detour through nineteenth-century paganisms and Pater's own essays on Dionysus and the Bacchae (collected in his Greek Studies, 1895), Denisoff finds Marius the Epicurean (1885) not only dissolving boundaries between the human and the sentient landscape--between the individual body and the outside world-- but also cycling between past and present. In the present as in the past, paganism is a spiritual relation to the world that continually resurfaces, or never goes away. Though Denisoff's argument in this chapter is not always clearly articulated, it establishes Pater as a point of reference productively deployed later on in the book.

Chapter Three is one of the strongest in the book. It convincingly reads the Bacchic figure with a harp in Simeon Solomon's Babylon Hath Been a Golden Cup (1859), Michael Field's ekphrastic verses on Correggio's Jupiter and Antiope (where the sensually replete, sleeping body of Antiope is watched over by a satyr), and Piero di Cosimo's A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph (known in the nineteenth century as Death of Procris):

Piero di Cosimo, A Satyr Mourning over a Nymph, c. 1495. National Gallery, London.

As Denisoff explains, all these paintings and the verses they inspire are overshadowed by the dark spirit of Pan, the satyr-god of music and ravisher of the nymph Procris, whose body he uses to fashion a set of reed-pipes and invent the first Dionysiac music. This is not the dead god of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Dead Pan" (1844), which Denisoff cites (216), but the god of her much darker "A Musical Instrument" (1860), which he does not mention. It is also the ambivalently sexual half-man, half-animal of Pater's "Study of Dionysus" (written in the mid-1870s), which Denisoff cites, and the sad flirt of Walter Savage Landor's idyll "Pan and Pitys" (Latin version, 1815-20; English, 1847) and Stéphane Mallarmé's "L'Aprés-Midi d'un Faune" (1876), which he does not. Though the Pan figure's associations with animality, forbidden sexuality, and music or poetry are in fact more widespread in the nineteenth century than Denisoff suggests, the satyr-Pan, midway between divine and animal, nicely knots together for Denisoff both paganism and a sexually queer decadence around a trans-species ecology of love.

In selecting the authors and artists on which these and successive chapters focus, Denisoff admits that he has a triple agenda (220): he is recruiting fresh voices to ecological criticism, less familiar writers and artists to decadence, and new readers for the decadent work about which he has long written. This latest of his many contributions to Decadence studies supports his argument about its ecological intimations: by embracing an often derogatory term, a range of writers and artists could metaphorically and sometimes literally envision a more open ecology, and could protest creatively against efforts to normalize not only writing, sexuality, and religion but also human domination over and exploitation of the plants, animals, earth, sun, and waters of their natural environment. Decadence, Denisoff argues, provided "the actual energy and politics" for much of the pagan revival as well as for its ecological openness. Besides firing the exploration of alternative, less anthropocentric relations with animals, plants, and places as equally alive and possibly sentient, Decadence inspired resistance to the social institutions and practices that placed humans above and outside the environment, constraining them to live and love in ways that ignored the possibilities and needs of the non-human world. While this line of argument occasionally strains to accommodate a particular text or an image, it nonetheless makes a provocative addition to the study of both decadence and ecology.

Elizabeth Helsinger is Professor of English, Art History, and Visual Arts Emerita at the University of Chicago.

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