Decadence for Marxism?: The Debate on Exploiting Literary Decadence for Radical Political Ends in 1890s Bohemia

Kirsten Lodge, Columbia University

Most commentators, as well as the decadents themselves, associate fin-de-siècle literary decadence with “art for art’s sake.” This is why it is so striking to find an extensive debate in Czech journals of 1894-95 on whether or not literary decadence should be harnessed for radical political ends. It is not that the writers themselves were politically radical, as in the case of the later avant-garde; the debate begins, rather, with the provocative argument that the sense of hopelessness and despair typical of decadent poetry should be encouraged in order to hasten the demise of the contemporary “ailing” bourgeois society and thus pave the way for a new socialist era. The participants in this debate were: the socialist Jan Vorel; the well-known critics F. V. Krejci and F. X. Salda; and the two principal propagators of decadence, Arnost Prochazka and Jiri Karasek, editors of the newly founded modernist journal The Modern Revue. The issues raised include: the relationship between literary decadence and the perceived decadence (illness) of society; literary decadence and political movements such as Marxism, anarchism, and social democracy; egoism, individualism and collectivism, and their relation to literary decadence; and the question of “art for art’s sake,” or “the new for the new’s sake.” Should decadence be the slogan of Marxism, as Vorel asserts? Should it serve anarchism, as Prochazka suggests? Or should it remain apolitical, as Karasek desires? Is decadence in literature a symptom of the illness of society, as Krejci argues in depth? Or is the sickness of society no more than a metaphor, as Salda responds? If society is ill, what makes it so and what is the cure? Is decadence a dead end, a transition to a new and better society, or simply a modern literary trend? Can it be equated with egoism, individualism, or even collectivism? I will take a literary-historical approach to this little-studied subject, describing the various positions and contextualizing the debate within the pan-European decadent movement through comparison with similar discussions in other countries, particularly France, Germany and Russia. This paper is suited for either a panel on Czech literature or a comparative panel on fin-de-siècle literature and culture.