The Middle Ages… knew that everything on earth is a sign, a figure, that the visible is only worth what it extracts from the invisible; the Middle Ages… which were not gullible, as we are, to appearances, closely studied this science and made it the caretaker and the servant of mysticism.
—  Joris-Karl Huysmans, excerpted from “The Cathedral”

Manuel Orazi, Messe Noir, 1903.

“The tail-ends of the centuries all resemble each other. They are always periods of vacillation and unrest. Magic flourishes when materialism is rife.” 

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là-Bas, 1891.

The fin de siècle preoccupation with magic and the occult was so peculiarly pervasive and profound it makes one wonder if there actually is some mystical magnetism that concentrates at the end of centuries. It is, of course, also a social phenomenon, a strange by-product of societies that think of themselves as ‘in decay’ (in yet another parallel, late Rome was obsessed with divination and fascinated by witchcraft.) The latter 19th Century was a time of curious contradiction – even as popular rhetoric trumpeted on about progress, empire and industry, new ideas and new technology, there was also a distinct feeling that the West was living its languid twilight years. This unique intersection of a material reality of prosperity with an atmosphere of spiritual decline bred the occult mania, largely born of a disgust with the common-sense ugliness of modernity and a perverse nostalgia for a fantastical pre-modern past that never was. The mania’s most popular manifestation was Spiritualism, and séances were held in bourgeois parlors and artistic salons alike. It was unusual if an Idea painter or poet didn’t confer with the Spirits. 

Supposedly rooted in Medieval witchcraft, but in actuality based on the historical fantasy of Jules Michelet and Huysmans, various versions of the Black Mass became quite fashionable, I’d surmise largely due to their erotic elements and nude ‘altars’ – wonderfully, wryly depicted in Orazi’s précieux piece of Art Nouveau. Witches and Sabbats were go-to themes for paintings, and it was basically compulsory for all the eccentric Decadents to indulge in some sort of Satanic dalliance – Jean Lorrain threw a launch-party for Là-Bas in drag surrounded by people in demonic costume while the outrageous Count Eric Stenbock slept under a pentagram with his familiar, a toad named Fatima. Gautier identifies such preoccupations as indeed a hallmark of a Decadent style: “contrary to Classical style, it admits of backgrounds where the specters of superstition, the haggard phantoms of dreams, the terrors of night…move together confusedly.”

Quasi-historian Eliphas Levi’s books kickstarted an earnest revival of ceremonial High Magic, a hodgepodge of alchemy, Egyptian Hermeticism and Christian mysticism that grew intertwined with the world of arts and letters. Yeats, Crowley and Machen belonged to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and self-styled magus Joséphin Péladan founded the Salon Rose + Croix, which functioned both as a magical order and as an exhibition space for Symbolist painting. In this way, Symbolist art itself became a species of magical practice, the artist a magician penetrating into higher (or lower) spheres. 


Des Esseintes had acquired his two masterpieces and, at night, used to sink into revery before one of them—a representation of Salomé, conceived in this fashion:

A throne, resembling the high altar of a cathedral, reared itself beneath innumerable vaults leaping from heavy Romanesque pillars, studded with polychromatic bricks, set with mosaics, incrusted with lapis lazuli and sardonyx, in a palace that, like a basilica, was at once Mohammedan and Byzantine in design.

In the center of the tabernacle, surmounting an altar approached by semi-circular steps, sat Herod the Tetrarch, a tiara upon his head, his legs pressed closely together, his hands resting upon his knees.

His face was the color of yellow parchment; it was furrowed with wrinkles, ravaged with age. His long beard floated like a white cloud upon the star-like clusters of jewels constellating the orphrey robe fitting tightly over his breast.

Around this form, frozen into the immobile, sacerdotal, hieratic pose of a Hindoo god, burned perfumes wafting aloft clouds of incense which were perforated, like phosphorescent eyes of beasts, by the fiery rays of the stones set in the throne. Then the vapor rolled up, diffusing itself beneath arcades where the blue smoke mingled with the gold powder of the long sunbeams falling from the domes.

In the perverse odor of the perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of the temple, Salomé, her left arm outstretched in a gesture of command, her right arm drawn back and holding a large lotus on a level with her face, slowly advances on her toes, to the rhythm of a stringed instrument played by a woman seated on the ground.

Her face is meditative, solemn, almost august, as she commences the lascivious dance that will awaken the slumbering senses of old Herod. Diamonds scintillate against her glistening skin. Her bracelets, her girdles, her rings flash. On her triumphal robe, seamed with pearls, flowered with silver and laminated with gold, the breastplate of jewels, each link of which is a precious stone, flashes serpents of fire against the pallid flesh, delicate as a tea-rose: its jewels like splendid insects with dazzling elytra, veined with carmine, dotted with yellow gold, diapered with blue steel, speckled with peacock green.

With a tense concentration, with the fixed gaze of a somnambulist, she beholds neither the trembling Tetrarch, nor her mother, the fierce Herodias who watches her, nor the hermaphrodite, nor the eunuch who sits, sword in hand, at the foot of the throne—a terrible figure, veiled to his eyes, whose breasts droop like gourds under his orange-checkered tunic.

This conception of Salomé, so haunting to artists and poets, had obsessed Des Esseintes for years. How often had he read in the old Bible of Pierre Variquet, translated by the theological doctors of the University of Louvain, the Gospel of Saint Matthew who, in brief and ingenuous phrases, recounts the beheading of the Baptist! How often had he fallen into revery, as he read these lines:

But when Herod’s birthday was kept, the daughter of Herodias danced before them, and pleased Herod.

Whereupon he promised with an oath to give her whatsoever she would ask.

And she, being before instructed of her mother, said: Give me here John Baptist’s head in a charger.

And the king was sorry: nevertheless, for the oath’s sake, and them which sat with him at meat, he commanded it to be given her.

And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.

And his head was brought in a charger, and given to the damsel: and she brought it to her mother.

But neither Saint Matthew, nor Saint Mark, nor Saint Luke, nor the other Evangelists had emphasized the maddening charms and depravities of the dancer. She remained vague and hidden, mysterious and swooning in the far-off mist of the centuries, not to be grasped by vulgar and materialistic minds, accessible only to disordered and volcanic intellects made visionaries by their neuroticism; rebellious to painters of the flesh, to Rubens who disguised her as a butcher’s wife of Flanders; a mystery to all the writers who had never succeeded in portraying the disquieting exaltation of this dancer, the refined grandeur of this murderess.

In Gustave Moreau's work, conceived independently of the Testament themes, Des Esseintes at last saw realized the superhuman and exotic Salomé of his dreams. She was no longer the mere performer who wrests a cry of desire and of passion from an old man by a perverted twisting of her loins; who destroys the energy and breaks the will of a king by trembling breasts and quivering belly. She became, in a sense, the symbolic deity of indestructible lust, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, of accursed Beauty, distinguished from all others by the catalepsy which stiffens her flesh and hardens her muscles; the monstrous Beast, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, baneful, like the Helen of antiquity, fatal to all who approach her, all who behold her, all whom she touches.


- Joris-Karl Huysmans, À rebours

Joris-Karl Huysmans, Là-bas.

Au reste, il n’y a d’intéressants à connaître que les saints, les scélérats et les fous ; ce sont les seuls dont la conversation puisse valoir. Les personnes de bon sens sont forcément nulles puisqu’elles rabâchent l’éternelle antienne de l’ennuyeuse vie ; elles sont la foule, et elles m’embêtent ! 

Harry Clarke (1889-1931), Illustration pour “Morella” d’Edgar Allan Poe.


Arthur Rimbaud · Paul Verlaine

J.-K. Huysmans · Villiers de l’Isle-Adam

Stéphane Mallarmé · Pierre Louÿs

Robert de Montesquiou · André Gide

* Selection of portraits of French writers by Félix Vallotton, from ‘Le Livre des masques' by Remy de Gourmont.

Gustav-Adolf Mossa, Elle, 1905.

“Hieratic and demonic, her body of pure black onyx attracts and reflects the glow of candlelight. Her firm, round breasts thrust forward, gleaming above the shadowed abdomen: the narrow and flat abdomen which swells out at the place where the sexual organs should be, in the form of a tiny death’s-head.”

Jean Lorrain on a statue of Astarté, Monsieur de Phocas, 1901.

The breed of misogyny that marks Decadent works cannot be revised away. It can’t even be seen as an incidental or passive reflection of the social mores of a more overtly sexist culture. It’s fundamental. The femme fatale is one of the central themes of the Decadence, the feminine presented as an unfathomable force, seductive, capricious and destructive, driving men to madness and death for no reason other than to satisfy her lust for cruelty. There are innumerable examples of this trope – Stuck’s serpent-hugged Eve of The Sin, Delville’s Idol of Perversity, Moreau’s and Wilde’s Salome, Machen’s deadly Helen Vaughn of The Great God Pan, Mirbeau’s sadistic Clara of The Torture Garden, Pierre Louÿs’s Chrysis of Aphrodite, Huysmans’s Mme. Chantelouve of Là-Bas, de Gourmont’s jaded adulteresses. Barbey d’Aurevilly went so far as to write an entire volume dedicated to wicked women, Les Diaboliques. Rachilde, one of the only female Decadent writers, was no less committed to the femme fatale, building  La Marquise de Sade around Mary Barbe, a woman who delights in causing suffering recreationally. Professional misogynist Gustav-Adolf Mossa’s Elle is a kind of ludicrous summation of the fearful feminine that haunted the Decadent imagination. The painting is incredibly tawdry, with all the corpses, skull adornments, ravens and huge breasts making it look more like the cover of an issue of Heavy Metal than a 1905 work of ‘fine art.’ But perhaps this is an appropriate way to depict such a lurid and naïve fantasy. 

I contend that in many ways the male Decadent artists and writers were projecting their own uneasy ideals onto their wicked women. Their male characters are rarely active, or even really present. They are feeble, impuissant neurasthenics with weak constitutions who fester and dream. Review the only male characters represented in the Decadent pictures I’ve covered thus far – a sallow Herod, a withered St. Anthony, some amusingly effete dandies. They are rather interchangeable observers, while the feminine is the subject. It is the willful, disdainful, capricious, fabulously wealthy and refined ‘Salome type’ who remorselessly delights in sin and values aesthetic pleasure and piquant sensation over human life that theoretically represents a Decadent ideal. It is she who was aroused by the bloodsport in the Colosseum, who smells of the hothouse mixed with the charnel-house, she who embodies the lost splendor of the brutal and opulent old world, of Byzantium and Babylon, that so exceeded our dull, frail and ailing civilization in both beauty and cruelty. The male Decadent was titillated by such stuff, but those are difficult dreams to honestly endorse, and in order to mediate his guilty-schoolboy discomfort at treading in such terrifying territory, he ambivalently invoked the age-old motif of the femme fatale. 

When he came to his senses again, he found that he was utterly alone, completely disillusioned, abominably tired; and he longed to make an end of it all, prevented only by the cowardice of his flesh.
The idea of hiding away from society, of shutting himself up in some snug retreat, of deadening the thunderous din of life’s inexorable activity, just as people deadened the noise of traffic by laying down straw outside a sick person’s house - this idea tempted him more than ever.
—  Excerpt from Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Odilon Redon, Black Torches, 1889.

Count Eric Stenbock was maybe the most exemplary and over-the-top dandy-cum-Decadent of the fin de siècle. A sickly, neurasthenic homosexual aristocrat, he was addicted to opium and alcohol, dressed in vibrant hues, lived nocturnally, dabbled in Satanism, wrote homoerotic vampire stories and morbid poetry, filled his lavish mansion with hothouse flowers and exotic creatures, was accompanied by a life-size doll that he claimed was his son and, naturally, died young. It is this bizarre indulgence that we associate with a ‘Decadent lifestyle.’ But many of the great Decadent writers and artists kept their excesses and perversities in their work and lived fairly modest lives. Despite his frightful visionary pictures, Odilon Redon was a simple, sensible man who didn’t even attend séances. Rachilde had a controversial reputation, but abstained from vices and lived a long, healthy life. J.-K. Huysmans, creator of des Esseintes, was a humble civil servant for the Ministry of the Interior. Perhaps this had something to do with their middle class origins, for the ideal Decadent was an aristocrat, and if one is judging by names alone, surely author Jean-Marie-Mathias-Philippe-Auguste, comte de Villiers de l’Isle-Adam was the most impressive. Without titles, even Wilde and Lorrain could only ever be snobs and pretenders, and were probably all the more outrageous because of it. 

He had to live on himself, to feed on his own substance, like those animals that lie torpid in a hole all winter. Solitude had acted on his brain like a narcotic, first exciting and stimulating him, then inducing a languor haunted by vague reveries, vitiating his plans, nullifying his intentions, leading a whole cavalcade of dreams to which he passively submitted, without even trying to get away.
—  Excerpt from Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Joris Karl Huysmans sur Gustave Moreau:

"M. Gustave Moreau est un artiste extraordinaire, unique. C’est un mystique enfermé, en plein Paris, dans une cellule où ne pénètre même plus le bruit de la vie contemporaine qui bat furieusement pourtant les portes du cloître. Abîmé dans l’extase, il voit resplendir les féeriques visions, les sanglantes apothéoses des autres âges."

Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), Hera.

Illustration for J.-K. Huysmans’ À REBOURS, by Auguste Lepère

1903 Edition, Paris, Les Cent Bibliophiles (page 2)

"Par un singulier phénomène d’atavisme, le dernier descendant ressemblait à l’antique aïeul, au mignon, dont il avait la barbe en pointe d’un blond extraordinairement pâle et l’expression ambiguë, tout à la fois lasse et habile."