This is all most people think of now when they hear the word Decadence: chocolate.
Advertisements for rich chocolate, fudge and cheesecake have thoroughly claimed the term and removed it from any historical context, be it Nero’s or Huysmans’s. This is peculiar, because the word still carries at some level the moral connotation it always has – that of Sin, of decay through indulgence in excess. In fact, the language of Sin is often brought up explicitly in dessert advertisements – ‘sinfully delicious,’ ‘chocolate temptations,’ ‘go ahead, indulge.’ We have chocoholics, Death by Chocolate and devil’s food cake – sweets associated with addiction, death and Satan. Outside of a church, this is one of the only places you still hear the language of Sin in our secular capitalist culture. In the 19th Century, all the pleasures of the body were still sinful – fancy clothes, rich food, perfumes, liquors, sex, sensual art. People still indulged in them, but they knew they were sinning. But the marketplace has realized that the pleasures of the body sell, and a bunch of Platonist Victorian moralizing doesn’t help sales. That culturally-shared strict moral universe that lent rhetorical power to the concept of Decadence (which was never all that evil anyhow) is no more.
Yet we still call it up when we talk about chocolate. Chocolate remains as this dainty little secular Sin. Look at the way it’s presented: those cursive script fonts suggest both expensive extravagance and a ‘feminine’ kind of delicacy. The cultural imperative to police women’s bodies and food intake, the mania for weight loss and dieting, a kind of ascetic self-denial, is the secular stand-in for religious morality. Chocolate is a confection, having no nutritional, practical purpose other than enjoyment (much like all of the Decadent’s pleasures – incense, sex, flowers, ornamental prose, art for art’s sake). Therefore when the presumed-female consumer chooses to buy chocolate products, she’s sinning against the dogma of secular asceticism just because she wants to eat some gratuitous sweet stuff, and will most likely feel guilty. So such advertisements coax and cater in their whispering tones, acknowledging with giddy complicity that a transgression as severe as Sin is being committed, but that it’s okay to indulge yourself – for this special occasion. You can eat dessert, God forbid, without feeling guilty, so long as it’s ‘Healthy Decadence,’ as Devin Alexander’s show is titled.
Having typed out that monumental contradiction in terms, I realize that language itself has become so distorted and meaningless as to approach a nadir of decay that might even give des Esseintes some perverse pleasure… though then again, probably not. I hereby declare this blog finished. The trial of Oscar Wilde put the first nail in the exquisitely carved coffin of the Decadence, World War I put most of the rest in, and a diet book hammered in the final one.
I am unable to stomach the strangely paradoxical hypocrisy and prosaic prating of this artless epoch any longer. I mean to, as best I can, sequester myself from it. Where? In the tranquility of some Trappist cloister, haunted by solemn, silent prayers? In the deaf, dumb and blind drunk depravity of an alcoholic stupor? In the luminous halls of the Palace of Symbols, resplendent with every exotic flower and every esoteric key, where the ghosts of history are confused with the monsters of myth, where the devils of piety dance with the angels of perversity, attended by a glimmering, glorious court – all the strange phantasms and fabulous chimeras of Art? No matter where! So long as it’s out of the world.