At the Altar of Decadence: A Review of Decadent Catholicism and the Making of Modernism

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Decadent Catholicism and the Making of Modernism
by Martin Lockerd
(Bloomsbury, 2020, 231 pp., $115)

Over the last quarter-century or so, scholars of literary modernism have focused less and less on how the modernists “broke away” from, say, romanticism or naturalism or 1890s decadence. The byword now is continuity, not rupture; the aim is to demonstrate how such artistic and intellectual currents persisted, often as unacknowledged yet crucial elements of modernist concerns and aesthetics. In his terrific new book Decadent Catholicism and the Making of Modernism, Martin Lockerd joins such efforts to “challenge the truism of modernist newness” (10). He does so by demonstrating that the British modernists hardly broke free of their immediate precursors—Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Lionel Johnson, and other writers of the fin de siècle—but instead carried these writers’ decadent spirit forward, even (and sometimes especially) when they disavowed the affiliation.

So far, that may sound like a retread of recent work by critics such as Vincent Sherry (Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence, 2015) and the contributors to Kate Hext and Alex Murray’s Decadence in the Age of Modernism (2019). Recent years have seen a raft of such book-length studies on decadence, many of them stressing the movement’s complicated relations to modernism. Yet they’ve all ignored a central, unmistakable feature of British decadence: its Catholicism. The faith’s profound and varied appeal for decadent writers and artists—converts all, eventually—made theirs “the most profound Catholic literary movement in Britain since before the reign of Henry VIII” (81). Lockerd’s real intervention, then, is to show not just that decadence animated modernism but that “the modernist absorption of decadence involved, and could not help involving, the religious aspect of the movement” (19).

Here he takes his cue from Ellis Hanson, who in the brief conclusion to Decadence and Catholicism (1997) pondered the continued significance of his titular subject for modernists and other twentieth-century writers. “The topic,” Hanson suggested, “could occupy a very long book.” Lockerd concludes his treatment of said topic in under 200 pages: just enough room to make a convincing case that, as he puts it, “no adequate understanding of the relationship between decadence and modernism is possible without Catholicism” (5). This would be news to W. B. Yeats, who thought the Catholic vogue a very fleeting thing, stamped out for good by a new century and new ideas: “In 1900 everybody got down off their stilts; . . . nobody went mad; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten” (qtd. on 1). Yeats had indeed forgotten much, says Lockerd, noting that one needn’t look far among modernist writers for evidence of mad poets and Catholic converts. Nor is it hard to find rather blatant echoes in modernist texts of the decadents’ trademark interweaving of erotic aesthetics and Catholic themes.

As cases in point, Lockerd’s opening chapter adduces striking stylistic and thematic similarities between passages of The Picture of Dorian Gray and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; between Dorian Gray himself and Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus; between certain poems by the decadent John Gray (who inspired Wilde’s Gray and also became a Catholic priest) and by a young T. S. Eliot. Chapter 2 then deals with Yeats and with his sometime secretary Ezra Pound, showing how elements of both men’s poetry contradict their offhand dismissals of the decadents’ legacy (24). With 1920’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley Pound wrote decadence “into history and out of the present” (63). Yet his earlier poetry tells a different story about his debts to the decadents, as do aspects of his public persona—even as Pound labored to cleanse Yeats of the elder poet’s lingering Nineties tendencies, which often manifested in Yeats’s use of religious imagery. Well into his poetic maturity, Yeats “continued to wear the trappings of decadent Catholicism,” even “eroticiz[ing] the passion of Christ in a way that would have put his Catholic contemporaries to shame” (72–73).

In his correspondence with Pound, T. S. Eliot played along with il miglior fabbro’s strident rejection of the decadents. Elsewhere, though, he acknowledged the ’90s poets as important models for his own early poetics. He also may have found important “visual precursors” in the “Catholic and obscene” illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley, as Lockerd demonstrates here in impressive close analyses of both word and image (79). But did these influences survive Eliot’s conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927? Chapter 3 takes up that question in order to establish a continuity and coherence “between Eliot the experimental late decadent and Eliot the orthodox religious poet” (77). Decadent Catholicism presents Eliot’s later poetry as “not a definitive turn away from decadence but a continuation and evolution of Eliot’s own decadent Catholic sensibility” (98). This move enables Lockerd to posit the post-1927 poem Ash-Wednesday as in effect a work of decadent literature, one much indebted to “the last, major religious movement in British literature” (101).

In chapter 4 the focus shifts from the most famous modernist Anglo-Catholic to a pair of “anti-Catholics,” George Moore and James Joyce. Catholicism couldn’t serve for these men the function it did for their English contemporaries; for one thing, the “notoriously Jansenist” character of Irish Catholicism, as compared with the Roman or Anglo- variety, made it much less assimilable to decadent art (109). Instead we find in Moore’s poetry “a decadence wielded against Catholicism,” while Joyce “managed to balance his scathing critique of Irish Catholicism with a sympathy, or at least a self-ironizing humor, that is absent from Moore’s work” (117, 130). Especially useful here are some genuinely illuminating readings of Joyce, including a conundrum in the Portrait that I hadn’t fully appreciated: Normally, the küntstlerroman is anything but coy in detailing its hero’s literary or artistic education. Yet somehow the one work we see Stephen Dedalus produce (“The Villanelle of the Temptress”) is thoroughly decadent, indebted especially to Dowson but also to Wilde and Gray—despite our never seeing Stephen read or speak about any of these or other decadent writers. As Joyce presents it, at least, Stephen’s decadent poem requires no forebears—just “a Jesuit education, a healthy sexual appetite, and the Catholic Church” (136). The implied self-sufficiency of that complex of factors gives added encouragement to Lockerd’s claims for Catholicism as a powerful motive force behind decadent poetry.

Chapter 5 investigates the perhaps surprising appeal of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited for two such “divergent discourse communities” as orthodox Catholic readers and queer critics. Waugh has managed to unite this unlikely readership, we learn, by deftly navigating the “mine-strewn no-man’s-land” between Catholic orthodoxy and secular sexual freedom (144). In particular, Brideshead jettisons “gay-straight, queer-Catholic binaries” by having his characters ultimately adopt a mode of living that had lured many a ’90s decadent: celibacy, a lifestyle “at once patently orthodox and . . . perhaps the queerest form of human sexuality” (145–46, 175). The novel’s conclusion emphasizes the necessities of celibacy and of conversion, thus seeming to advance a strict orthodoxy which is hardly amenable to queer theory, let alone congruous with “the decadent Arcadia of Book One” (180). Yet when viewed in the light of decadent Catholicism, Brideshead’s beginning and end seem all of a piece.

In the decades since, the literary confluence of decadence and Catholicism has lost the creative inspiration it held for those of the “Naughty Nineties” and of the interwar high-modernist period. Certain proclivities detectable in Graham Greene and Muriel Spark are nonetheless “far subtler” than the marriage of decadence and orthodoxy in Waugh (181). “More and more,” Lockerd writes in his book’s final, elegiac sentence, “decadent Catholicism can only be found in the faintest dying echoes” (181, 191). It’s not that either decadence or Catholicism per se has disappeared from English literature—just that these tendencies have apparently drifted inexorably apart since the generation of Eliot and of Ronald Firbank.

Firbank, by the way, seems a logical exhibit A for anyone wanting to make a case for decadent Catholicism’s modernist afterlife. And though Lockerd devotes several substantial pages to Firbank’s work, I can’t help feeling that this relatively understudied modernist deserved a whole chapter. Other omissions are more keenly felt—such as when, after all his sustained attention to Ash-Wednesday in the Eliot chapter, Lockerd declines to take up the poet’s Four Quartets. The narrative continuum so persuasively established by the rest of this chapter, from Eliot’s early poems up through Ash-Wednesday, thus never receives the denouement many readers will reasonably expect. Finally, while Decadent Catholicism explicitly limits its purview of modernism to British and Irish writers, a few nods to other English-language literature would have provided welcome transnational context. Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood, for instance, with at its center the decadent queer Catholic Dr. Matthew O’Connor; or the “Bible stories” of Richard Bruce Nugent, a Harlem Renaissance artist and quintessential Black dandy who in the 1920s and ’30s wrote a whole series of these homoerotic fables—all in a style lifted straight from Oscar Wilde.

Speaking of style, I’m happy to report that Decadent Catholicism and the Making of Modernism proves worthy of its subject matter, unfolding as it does in an unhurried and eminently elegant prose. Yet as engaging as the writing is, readers will profit most from Lockerd’s fine-grained close readings and from the importance of his overall argument. The specific religious investments of late nineteenth-century decadence have indeed been underappreciated, even by the so-called new modernist studies: a field which has increasingly turned its attention to matters of religion. Finally, this study is welcome for its fresh, often reinvigorating perspectives on the decadents and the modernists themselves—and on the analogous ways in which all these writers went about the business of retrieving, and repurposing, “the pieces of a blasted religion” (ix).