On Decadence

In a remarkable new post at Is There No Sin In It?, A White Bear gives us her “half-assed” (not really) theory of decadence. She writes,

I hold that decadence is taking pleasure in something that either would or does create suffering either in the pleasured self (masochistic decadence) or in others (sadistic decadence).

She then describes examples of both in her own family’s history, both sadistic decadence in the form of practical jokes, and masochistic decadence in the form of addictions, and what seems implicitly to be something like drug- or alcohol-fueled sprees. Reading her descriptions of masochism, I was reminded first of Charles Bukowski and Barfly, next of the music Elvis made at Sun Records, which Greil Marcus linked to the self-destructive festival of the Southerner on a spree. It means spending all your money, losing whole days to blackouts, wandering and sleeping away from home. It is a consuming incandescence, and at the same time as ordinary as country songs (noted over at AWB’s site by one commenter already).

I’m interested in A White Bear’s conclusion:

This doesn’t mean that I’m not still occasionally a deeply depraved individual. I absolutely am. I am, in certain seasons, unkind and venal, driven by libido and ego, competitive, selfish, and cruel. In those seasons, I crave a return in kind from the objects of my worse nature. There is excruciating pleasure in it, and then it passes, and I am once again a lamb.

Max used to talk about the Zen principle of treating each obsessive thought and feeling as an angry bull. You can’t shoo the bull away without making it angry, so all you can do is put a fence around it, feed it every now and then, and leave it to its space. I often feel like I can’t cure myself of my decadent nature, but I can give it its space, feed it every so often, and preserve the rest of my mind from being trampled by it, the way it trampled both my grandfathers’.

This epitomizes the mild, but incurable, disagreement that I have with the Zen way of tending to the psyche; or at least, with the way Zen is practiced in the West. (It’s an appropriation of Eastern culture, to be sure, but often a relatively informed and wise one.) There is a symmetry between the gorgeous lucidity of AWB’s initial binary (sadistic and masochistic decadence), and the specificity of the image of the penned bull. The psychic event becomes reified, contained not only by its pen, but by its image.

For me, the Wildean maxim still holds. The only way to resist a temptation is to yield to it. The technology of thought at work here, designed to contain the sadistic and masochistic impulses towards suffering, also leaves one in total uncertainty about how to designate such containment. Where do decadence and suffering end? If rock ‘n roll is a product of masochistic decadence, as Marcus seems to think, is it a means of containment and catharsis, or an incitement? If practical jokes are an overly extreme form of sadistic humor, what about other kinds of jokes?

For me, recognizing self-destruction, and schadenfreude, and egotism, is like holding on to Proteus. At every point one has to say, this is decadence, and this is decadence. Hedonism is decadence. The obsessive ethic is decadence. Each metamorphosis is subtler, less dangerous, more secret, and more coherent. I am trying to cross the distance between my habits, and the part of me that slips into this or that little death, in protest. The act of naming dispels the break, without banishing what is most vivid. To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.

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