Decadent Catholicism and the making of modernism




Lockerd, Martin

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This dissertation intervenes at the meeting point of two current but largely separate critical discourses on (1) the role of fin-de-siècle Decadence in the development of literary Modernism and (2) the relationship between Modernism and Christianity. Two decades after Ellis Hanson’s Decadence and Catholicism (1997), which proved definitively and at length the interdependence of decadent art and the theology, rituals, and symbolism of the Catholic Church, scholars continue to either leave religion out of the discussion of Decadence and Modernism altogether or pay it only glancing attention. Recent years have witnessed a surge of critical interest in the relationship between British Decadence and early-twentieth-century Anglophone literature with the publication of two important books: Vincent Sherry’s Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence (2015) and Kristin Mahoney’s Literature and the Politics of Post-Victorian Decadence (2015). However, these recent contributions manage to avoid any extended discussion of Catholicism. Similarly, those arguing for a greater recognition of the modernist engagement with Christianity – Pericles Lewis, Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (2010) and Erik Tonning, Modernism and Christianity (2014) – tend to overlook or downplay decadent artists such as Lionel Johnson and Ernest Dowson. We have yet to fully appreciate the extent to which “high” and “peripheral” modernists such as T. S. Eliot and Evelyn Waugh looked to decadent artists such as Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley for models of what religious art might look like in an age trending toward secularization. The following pages tell a previously untold history. In this history, decadent Catholicism represents much more than a literary trope developed at the fin de siècle and sporadically adopted in the early twentieth century. Through my research, I demonstrate that the very development of modernist literature depended in part on diverse acts of engagement with decadent Catholicism



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