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Dedalus Roman

Today we’re going to take a brief journey through Decadence in history (or at least falling outside the usual French/German/Italian fin de siecle axis).  Rather than touch on anything previously discussed in any great depth, this will be limited to the boundaries of the three missives under examination:

The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence: Emperors of Debauchery 
The Dedalus Book of Medieval Literature: Grin of the Gargoyle
The Dedalus Book of English Decadence: Vile Emperors and Reptiles

Our first topic of discussion will be The Dedalus Book of Roman Decadence, an outstanding little introduction to the real history your professors tended to gloss over if not omit in its entirety.  In the hands of skilled authors like Seutonius and (to a lesser extent) Tacitus, those long dead debauches of Ancient Rome come to vivid immediacy, hoary visages carved in stone adorning museum pedestals become real people, with all the failings, foibles, and humanity (for better or worse) of ourselves and our neighbors.

Far from the dusty, “objective” dissertation of scholarly dint, dry and unlikeable albeit peppered with coy hints, suggestions and innuendos, these authors are direct, blunt, and brave enough to bring sordid realities into the spotlight and from archeological digs into the realm of real, daily and present life.  All the vague insinuations you’d heard about the likes of Caligula, Nero, Domitian and Heliogabalus are spelled out in large capital letters, and for this contemporary readers (and readers through the ages) must be grateful.

Thought I, Claudius was saucy?  Shocked by Guccione or D’Amato’s takes on Caligula?  Always felt Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to be quite vivid?  Kiddo, you ain’t seen nothing yet…

Ancient Rome was much like the world of today, where “suffering from an ever increasing chasm between rich and poor, and denied much gainful occupation in a slave-rich society, (its people) had declined into an ominous underclass, a mob whom the emperors must divert and placate constantly with ‘bread and circuses'”.

The parallels are blatant: today substitute UFC and MMA, the 24 hour “news” cycle, “reality TV” and “torture porn” for the gladiatorial arena, while our “elite” corporate “ruling class” steers the direction of our nation, finances and world, stripping long-held and hard fought individual rights in the pursuit of ever increasing hoarding of money and power unto themselves (while the rest of us effectively starve and are forced to submit helplessly to their effective rape of our person, life and future).  ‘Nihil novi sub sole’ indeed…

Interesting tidbits abound, as in how culture and intellect are locked in step with prosperity and support of the arts, while the removal of one surely results in the degeneracy and loss of the other:

“In the past the Romans had been a crude and pragmatic people – essentially soldiers and farmers…

To raise large families and work their fields…these are imperatives that allow little time for the development of sophisticated culture, for art or philosophy; little chance also for sexual activities to be directed at much beyond procreation.  Thus in the early history of Rome we find none of the influence of Greek culture that was later to affect the Romans so profoundly.”

and further:

“…The early Roman was practical and primitive, without the opportunity or incentive to develop the spiritual capacity of the poet, artist and thinker.  The decadent society is naturally one that affords its inhabitants sufficient leisure to divert themselves from the essential and the commonplace.”

There are a few fascinating myth busting factoids, with further applicability and parallels in our current politicosocial situation as in how Nero:

“In spite of his popular image as a depraved and cruel tyrant who delighted in the death and carnage of the gladiatorial combats…actually attempted to ban the killing of gladiators in the arena, so much did he clearly dislike it (there are grounds for believing that Nero initially had the makings of a liberal emperor but was opposed and frustrated in his attempts at various reforms by reactionary elements in the senate…(he) was forced to abandon the attempt by the Roman mob, who were indignant at having their bloodthirsty pleasures so emasculated.”

Or if you prefer, we suffer under tyrants because of an abundance of clueless, low and bloodhtirsty morons who ensure they remain in power over us, lest their sewer-wallowing “entertainments” be taken away.  Need any more proof be offered that we are a society in the final stages of its decline and fall than direct correlations such as this?

All told, I enjoyed this Book of Decadence enough to look into several of the authors involved, but found myself disappointed with the translations – either that or Farrington and the Murdochs truly combed through the likes of Tacitus and Petronius to find what “good parts” they could among the dross and weight of heavy language and desert-parched ostensible ‘objectivity’.

While there are some further amusing moments to be found in the likes of naughty poet Ovid (whose offerings here include a hilarious paean to his inability to, shall we say, uphold the honor of Rome with his saucy mistress) and the Satires of Juvenal, the majority of the real gems come from the aforementioned Seutonius and the nominally authorless Augustan History (here attributed to Lampridius, and often cited as containing more rumor and “slander” than fact, though it’s a far cry from Hollywood Babylon or the National Enquirer).  I look forward to diving into both of these tomes in the near future…

Honestly, there are so many entertaining stories and anecdotes about the men under discussion, I don’t want to ruin it by giving anything away – I wholeheartedly recommend interested parties head right out and pick this one up with due alacrity.  You will not be disappointed, I assure you.

Dedalus Medieval

Next, the inexorable march of time’s pendulum brings us to the Middle Ages, also known as the Dark Ages, and with good reason.  This was, after all, a period where the societies of Egypt, Greece and Rome had given way to barbarian onslaught and their own excesses.  Under savage rule, the common man was reduced to serfdom under a privileged elite (a state which the monied and corporate of our own time seem hellbent to return us to).

Uneducated, illiterate, and comprehending dimly only what they were told through the auspices of the newly all powerful political force of the Catholic Church, subject to traveling “mystery plays” for their edification and ostensible entertainment, this was a grim age indeed – short lifespans marked by hardship, woe, and plague.

In these horrible days, education was reserved for and restricted to either the moneyed elite (if then) or novitiates of the Church, who skewed the views of both their contemporaneous subjects and the historical record by taking full and absolute control of same.  Just about all historical knowledge of the time comes courtesy of the “illuminated writings” and texts written and copied by monks like The Venerable Bede, sequestered away in their self imposed jail sentences, and spreading the misguided doctrine that this was somehow “the way things ought to be”, as if tyranny had some magical right to the oppression of the peoples.

Therefore, to speak of Decadence in conjunction with such a time period, one would have to be privy to the secrets of court and cathedral behind the scenes, or in all bluntness, quite misguided.

And so we come to The Dedalus Book of Medieval Literature, which prompts one to come directly to the point.  This book is just terrible.  Can you say religious plainchant, likely transcribed by “naughty” cloistered monks, barely as “spicy” as an excerpt from Chaucer?

Given that both Chaucer and Boccacio, whose Decameron is herein briefly excerpted from, are regularly read and discussed in the earliest of high school English classes across the nation, you get an idea of what you’re in for here, and why Dedalus struck it’s originally planned title of the Book of Medieval Decadence (as it was shown advertised in some earlier Dedalus offerings) in favor of “Literature” – it’s damned disappointing, to say the least.

Despite the presence of a brief excerpt from the trial of Gilles de Rais, John Donne and “The Twa Corbies” proves more risque than the better part of the material here.  Even the all too short chapter devoted to satanism and the like is suffused throughout with religious psychobabble and Church-approved jiggery-pokery.

About the best you get is a sonnet from Cecco Angiolieri, who mixes some surprisingly anti-clerical sentiment with a dash of ribald humor:

“If I were God, to hell the world I’d fling
if I were Pope…I’d take the loot and make the Christians pay!
…If I were Cecco (as I am)…
I’d roger every young and bouncy dame
and leave the fat old slags to other men!”

And on the same level, if a dash more direct, we get a bathroom wall-scrawling Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym, who delivers some “Metrical Verses on the Subject of his Prick”, which features such mellifluous linguistic offerings as:

“On seas of cunt you bob and float…
you’re just one eye, but all the same
you see all women as fair game
…banging gun (which sets on fire each little cunt)
…you’ve brought me lawsuits and distress!”

The overall tone of the book is so light that the author’s apparent idea of Decadence is one Andrew Boorde, who “got drunk in Monpellier in 1542, wrote a controversial treatise against beards, and was once accused of keeping three whores at Winchester” before making the amusingly wry observation that Boorde “puts his finger on one of the real signs of decadence in any society: an unholy urge to take each other…to court all the time, usually about trivial nonsense.”

In all objectivity, the naughtiest material presented herein proves no worse than a standard “bawdy tune” of the period.  For those who’ve never experienced the style, think along the lines  of an Irish pub drinking song, or the waterfront whores in Sweeney Todd.  “Get your anchor stoutly harbored” indeed…can I have my money back, now, please?

Well, after Grin of the Gargoyle, just about anything would prove more entertaining, so here we take on the Book of English Decadence: Vile Emperors and Reptiles.  At least this one was aptly named, because vile is the proper term for it.

Dedalus English

Those familiar with my discussions of the two original Dedalus Books of Decadence are aware that I find the English strain of Decadence quite prudish and lacking in most respects – Oscar Wilde (who I love) is about as naughty as things get.  And honestly, while a fantastic writer, and both one of our most gifted purveyors of the written word and undisputed king of the apropos aphorism and biting witticism, the majority of his reputation as a Decadent (like that of fellow countrymen Algernon Charles Swinburne and Aubrey Beardsley) was based on his personal life rather than his literature per se (bar Dorian Gray and Salome, both quite inspired by Huysmans and A Rebours as well as Gustave Moreau’s Old Testament obsessions).

Some of the usual suspects appear – junkie author Thomas de Quincey, ribald ladies man Lord Byron and his fils du poeme Keats and Shelley, and the atrocious William Beckford, whose much lauded Vathek proves an all but unreadable variant of Sir Richard Burton’s One Thousand and One Nights, but we get a few oddball personages thrown in for good measure: Crowley maligning biographer Arthur Symons and Irish pagan Arthur Machen.

The majority of the entries fall under the heading of poetry – already a huge mistake, as I had previously mentioned in discussion of the original Books of Decadence diptych – and thus the rather lengthy table of contents masks the ultimate brevity of the tome under discussion.  Even the excerpts from longer essays, novellas and the like are limited to thimble width proportions, satisfying neither fans of the original versions nor those who were wondering at their inclusion herein.

In sum, while it’s certainly an interesting prospect to consider the strains of the fin de siecle Decadent movement and zeitgeist as present throughout the annals of history, what we actually wind up with in the books under discussion herein tends to be at best a sorry approximation of same, if not an outright refutation of the very idea that a literarily based and influenced way of seeing the world in terms of aesthetics and the celebration of art and artifice, culture and class in direct opposition and refusal of an increasingly crass and artless society and culture if not empire in its final days of decline could somehow wend its way contiguously throughout the course of mankind and the rise as well as fall of its civilizations.

While the Roman Empire, particularly in the days of its debauch and oncoming sunset under the likes of Caligula, Nero and Heliogabalus (as much a Decadent in pomp and sensibilities as Pope Leo X de Medici) certainly makes a direct match to the sense and sensibilities of Decadence as a movement, it’s quite a stretch to pull in the barbaric, ill-cultured days of the Medieval world, just as much as it is to refer to a proper English Decadent movement – one cannot be prim and proper with the celebration of debauch and liberty.