Anatomy of "Decadence"

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Anatomy of "Decadence"

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Title: Anatomy of "Decadence"
Author: Bowles, Henry Miller ORCID  0000-0003-1277-4970
Citation: Bowles, Henry Miller. 2016. Anatomy of "Decadence". Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: Examining the perception of literary decline in Greek, Latin, Arabic, and Persian, this study unearths an enduring taboo, one little changed by place and time, against verbal creation too readily sacrificing “nature” and “truth” to artifice and phantasy. The fading of the taboo after the nineteenth century, when “Decadent” yields to a non-normative name for the present (“Modern”), is without precedent. Demonstrating the opprobrium’s enduring nature, this study compares for the first time four literary traditions’ confrontations with a “Decadence” whose similarities have been conjectured since philology’s “golden age.”

Chapter I examines two ancient polemics against decline, the tableaux of decay painted by the Avestan liturgical texts and the Attic Greek thinkers before new attitudes towards verbal creation. A similar tableau emerges in Roman reactions to post-Augustan eloquentia’s “decline,” as the analysis of Tacitus in chapter II demonstrates. Chapter III gives voice to non-specialist Imperial reactions to the “decline” heralded by the Second Sophistic, analyzing Plutarch’s and Marcus Aurelius’s rejections of verbal art. Chapter IV considers the effort to regulate artifice within the rhetorical tradition, examining the two great Hellenistic and Imperial authorities (Demetrius and Quintilian).

Chapter V finds the prohibition unbroken in the earliest Arabic debate over suqāṭ (“Decadence”). Al-Āmidī’s Muwāzana is a summary statement of the rejection of verbal creation too enamored of facticity. Conversely, chapter VI looks to post-Classical Persian voices enshrining this very conception of verbal creation. Suhrawardī, Mullā Ṣadrā, and Ṣāʾib call for a language reflective of little other than wahm (“imagination”) and himma (“desire”).

Chapter VII examines “Decadence” in Greek and Arabic post-Classical fiction. The erosion of μῦθος by ψυχή as the banal desire of non-heroic protagonists eclipses action, as phantasy, shown through the pathetic fallacy, irradiates out into the world, supports critics’ contention: Imperiousness of imagination goes with the genera dicendi’s loosening and the pull of language from the inhuman towards personal fancy. “Decadence” in fiction reflects a literature democratized, one mirroring (petty-) bourgeois interests. This is, argues chapter VIII, a premonition of Modernity: With Gutenberg and Calvin, with an unprecedented accessibility and banality of letters, the taboo against subjectivism and facticity recedes.
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