Come all to this, a celebration of treachery.

Decadence is the celebration of the perverted, decaying and unnatural in life and art. It involves a devotion to trickery, deception and pretension instead of striving forward toward ideals and the truth. It also involves gratuitous experimentation, ‘rebelling’ against social norms by indulging in taboo and an excitement toward superficiality and excess. As is the case with all declining empires from Rome to the Ottomans, the United States could be classified as a decadent society, far gone from its republican foundation of scientific skepticism, truth seeking, frugality and austerity. Just as the Roman republic was born by casting aside the shackles imposed upon it by the Etruscans, it would later be enslaved by its own unfettered desire for the over-refined and gilded.

The near complete abandonment of all responsibility, duty and meaning other than appeasing the selfish impulses of the animal ego in addition to a complacent acceptance (if not glorification) of decadent ‘Mission Accomplished’ stage shows is directly leading to the downfall of western society, namely the republic of the United States. We have begun to enslave ourselves. While displays manifest in the fashion of ‘art for art’s sake’ hurt no one, when decadence leaves that domain and begins to determine our actions, thoughts and decisions it contributes to a dysfunctional, violent and apathetic anti-civilization. This decadent supreme is best showcased in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wilde starts off immediately (4) by letting the reader know exactly what type of world he fanaticizes about being able to live in through his muse Lord Henry:

“When I like people immensely I never tell their names to anyone. It is like surrendering a part of them. I have grown to love secrecy. It seems that be one thing that can make modern life mysterious or marvelous to us. The commonest thing is delightful if one only hides it. When I leave town I never tell my people where I am going. If I did, I would lose all my pleasure.”

Although this sort of treachery might be a tolerable pretension for the common citizen, what if a country’s leadership were to revel in dishonesty so? How would the public feel if they knew that their leadership was perpetually deceiving them for their own gratification? How would the public respond if they were aware of illegal wiretapping prior to the Patriot Act in the form of the Echelon program or how the income tax was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court but is still being enforced illegally by the IRS?  In a decadent society where deception has become the common currency, the bovine masses don’t dare stir against treachery, allowing the state to define history, cherry pick their Emmanuel Goldsteins and rewrite their ideologies arbitrarily.

Wilde goes on (5) to argue that marriage is pleasurable because it is a game in which both sides try to be as dishonest as possible while still convincing each other of a façade of honesty:

[The] charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties. I never know where my wife is, and my wife never knows what I am doing. When we meet – we do meet occasionally, when we dine out together, or go down to the Duke’s- we tell each other the most absurd stories with the most serious faces. … She never gets confused over her dates, but I always do. But when she does find me out, she makes no row at all. I sometimes wish she would; but she merely laughs.”

In the real world people have emotions and self-esteem and sexual promiscuity and deception makes meaningless the relationship. In the philosophy of Oscar Wilde, not only should be deceptive and impulsively indulgent as possible regardless of the negative effect we have on people’s lives, we should pretend to be deceptive and impulsively indulgent as possible, even if we are virtuous in the closet. Being a hypocrite is something to be desired. Wilde says through the muse of Basil Hallward in response to Henry’s blatant hypocrisy: “You are an extraordinary fellow. You never say a moral thing, and you never do a wrong thing. Your cynicism is simply a pose” (5) and “I don’t believe that, Harry, and I don’t believe you do either” (7).

In a famous passage obviously influenced by the Marquis de Sade Wilde presents the quintessence of his philosophy, the idea that we should do anything and everything to satiate our desires:

“I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream–I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediævalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal–to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be. But the bravest man amongst us is afraid of himself. The mutilation of the savage has its tragic survival in the self-denial that mars our lives. We are punished for our refusals. Every impulse that we strive to strangle broods in the mind, and poisons us. The body sins once, and has done with its sin, for action is a mode of purification. Nothing remains then but the recollection of a pleasure, or the luxury of a regret. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful. It has been said that the great events of the world take place in the brain. It is in the brain, and the brain only, that the great sins of the world take place also.”

We don’t live in a dream, and as a consequence cannot do anything we want in the real world. Although it might feel good to rape your mother or beat a child to death in a primal way, there will be consequences for your actions, the most severe of which will be on your conscience. We are, contrary to Wilde’s fantasies, more than mere animals. Wilde dismisses this argument saying that “Conscience and cowardice are really the same thing” (7). Although it might feel good to shoot heroin, there is an addiction that follows which may not be pleasant. Instead of falling on an immediate impulse, citizens of the republic should develop prudence and foresight. This sort of pseudo-philosophy has been used most recently to justify the most depraved actions and lapses of duty, responsibility and expectation. Every teenager looking for a ‘philosophical’ excuse to get drunk on the weekend quotes Wilde and I believe this is a great misinterpretation his intent.  Wilde, I believe, crafted these thoughts in rebellion against the status quo of Christianity in the form of Victorian absolutism. While I will agree that a great deal of Christian thought is inherently illogical, especially the condemnation by death of harmless things such as homosexuality and cosmopolitanism, I would not agree that that morality is nothing more than a social fabrication imposed on the people to control them, as Wilde might. I would also full heartily disagree with the notion that we should exploit people in anyway possible to gratify our own mental desires. In any healthy republic, personal desire comes last, and duty to the greater community in the form of being a considerate, concerned and faithful citizen comes first.

In The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion Richard Dawkins argues that humans are innately moral, having inherited certain altruistic genes from our ape ancestors which evolved to create a sense of social harmony within the greater community of individuals. No ape or human society celebrates rape, murder or thievery. Human cultures seem to celebrate the same virtues in mythology: temperance, fortitude, prudence and justice. No one thinks of a sacrificing mother as a fool who should beat her children to death so she could devote more time to beer pong. None of us think that we should throw a person into the gears of a runaway train against their will to stop the vehicle from striking a wall. The truth is, we all have a moral sense which derives partially from biology and partially from human reason. Studies show that people will always come to the same moral conclusions regardless of religion. We do have an internal sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ regardless of culture. We can attempt to bury this moral responsibility with hedonistic escapism, but it will always be lingering under the surface, only smothered by the exciting groupthink mobs or gallons of liquid poison.

Instead of finding pleasure in exploiting the health of the community, couldn’t we find satisfaction in being citizens who preserve and guard it? Instead of constantly seeking the best fix, the most extravagant piece of clothing, the ‘best’ of anything, couldn’t we develop temperance and limit our desires, in product becoming people who desire less, and as a consequence are happy more (The philosophy of Epicurus)? How can we glorify a constant state of falsehood and superficiality where “I choose my friends for their good looks, my acquaintances for their good characters, and my enemies for their good intellects” (9)? The natural mind is not one of desire, but one of curiosity and truth seeking. Decadence is the antithesis of truth, a fashionable, synthetic meme of absolute destruction.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.