Dandies and Decadents

These two movements grew up side by side, and where one was frequently mistaken for the other, they were truly separate movements. 

 Sir Edward Lytton: author of Pelham and a Dandy

the very image of a Dandy

Two movements which grew up almost side by side, yet had very different modes of expression were the Dandies and the Decadents. The Dandies were primarily English, and the Decadents primarily French.  These two movement almost merged at several ventures, and many Decadents are hailed as Dandies, yet the two movements are actually very distinct. 

The Dandy was primarily an English thing. Gentleman who lived an ideal of elegance and society, for whom dress manners and wit were three building blocks to perfection, and for whom their only real joy was to live in fine society as living tableaux of civilized perfection. These were not necessarily philosophers, nor  poets, but simply civilized men who's only skill was being a perfect gentlemen.

Decadents were a whole other thing.

These men were philosophers of pleasure. They sought elegance, but not for itself as the Dandies did, but for the pleasure it brought.  They sought society for the same reason. Decadence was a French movement and it carried the flavor of the French about it. It was primarily a literary movement, and saw its heyday after the reconstruction of Paris by Napoleon II. The French loved their capital city and when Napoleon razed it to create a modern one, they mourned the old city as a lost lover; but were equally quick to explore the new one with the same erotic energy. The Decadents sought pleasure in every form, but especially traditionally forbidden ones.  Baudelaire wrote poetry [his preferred medium]about prostitutes, drugs, and crime and finished by writing perhaps the most disturbing phrase in Western literature "Qu'importe le duration de la damnation à qui goute l'instant infini de la jouissance "*.  

J.K. Huysmans would do almost exactly the same thing, only under the guise of a fictional hero des Esseintes, as opposed to poetry like Baudelaire. In the first two books of his trilogy Huysmans narrates the life of a man in pursuit of pleasure;  more importantly of forbidden pleasure. He takes drugs, contemplates crime,  and frequents prostitutes all in pursuit of an Earthly paradise. But this paradise seems perpetually beyond his grasp; so in the end [the third book of the trilogy] he converts and becomes a pious man. He always seems to seek his perfection outside of himself, and never finds it. He makes the error all Decadents make- he seeks his pleasure outside of himself. And of course who could forget the the Count de Montesquieu, it was he who was the inspiration for not only des Esseintes, but Mr. de Phocas, as well.

A dandy's perfection in within himself, in fact is IS himself, and he knows he will not find it elsewhere.

Dandies were a different sort. Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton writes in his book Pelham  “I have observed that the distinguishing trait of people accustomed to good society is a calm, imperturbable quiet which pervades all their actions and habits”. I tis this quiet, this "sangfroid" which distinguished the Dandy form the Decadent. He is his own perfection and could see no good reason to search outside of himself to find any other. "Other people are just dreadful, the only true society is one's self. To love one's self is the start of a life long romance". Thus spake Lord Goring from Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" which further enforces this Dandy self sufficiency. It is even rumored that Beau Brummel [the first Dandy] never had a lady, because he could love no one as much as himself.

This is the key difference between the two movements is emotion.  Dandies seek to masters of themselves, and any excess [emotion, decoration etc.] is to be avoided. Decadents seek pleasure, and in the world of pleasure there really never seems to be enough. Their elegance, is misplaced, for where it is true that elegance is primarily to please others, it is not the pleasure itself that is to be sought: and the Decadents never quite got that and it killed them one at a time.


*What does it matter the duration of the damnation to he who tastes the infinite instant of pleasure

 Charles Baudelaire: a famous Decadent

Rumored to be an image of the Count of Montesquieu: the most renown Decadent