The Devil's Advocate: Empire, Cynicism, and the Politics of Decadent Literature (From Baudelaire to Burroughs)
Date of Degree
Comparative Literature | English Language and Literature
At a time when Europe’s and America’s ruling class seem bent on exacerbating income inequality, international conflict, and ecological decay while cynically exploiting rising anxieties about our society’s impending decline, it is ever more urgent for cultural critics to investigate the politics of literature that paradoxically celebrates political, economic, and cultural “decadence.” If European and American reactionaries since 1848 increasingly exploited the epithet of “decadent” to fear-monger the working-class into supporting their nation’s imperial ambitions, revolutionary artists and critics have sought to contest and deconstruct such cynical discursive strategies. In doing so, however, many scholars of avant-garde literature have consistently underestimated what makes “decadent” writing so disturbing: not a detached critique of ideological illusions, but, rather, an excessive, if perverse, identification with the sinister undercurrents to a cynical ruling class ideology. By taking seriously what postmodern Marxist critics diagnose as the ruling class’s cynical immunity to enlightenment modes of critique, The Devil’s Advocate approaches “decadent” rhetorical strategies and aesthetic forms as an under-recognized counter-discourse to reactionary movements since the age of New Imperialism. Rather than communicate explicit critiques of imperial ambitions, classic works of twentieth-century “decadent” literature appeal with sarcasm to cynical readers, only to play the devil’s advocate, taking the ruling class’s hypocritical self-justifications to sickening logical conclusions.
To play the devil’s advocate to scholarship that privileges literature’s critical capacities, my dissertation, The Devil’s Advocate: Empire, Cynicism, and the Politics of Decadent Literature (From Baudelaire to Burroughs), traces and contributes to a counter-lineage of Marxist critical theory on the politics of aesthetics. If Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project (1940) sketches the first materialist history of the French Second Empire bourgeoisie’s cynical consolidation of power, in their rebukes to Jean-Paul Sartre’s notion of “committed literature,” Theodor Adorno and Roland Barthes took seriously the ruling class’s resistance to rational persuasion, thereby opening space in post-WWII cultural criticism to consider the subversive potential of literature that does not communicate a clear critical message. Following in their wake, recent theorists, from Peter Sloterdijk and Slavoj Žižek to Eve Sedgwick and Boris Groys, pave the way for a politics of aesthetics capable of coming to terms with “decadent” art’s persuasive power in an age of cynical reason. To historicize my research on the ways literature can still be subversive in our time, my dissertation traces an under-recognized genealogy of French, British, American literature that develops during the long twentieth-century as a counter-discourse to cynical ruling class ideology in France and Britain during the Age of New Imperialism and Britain and America during the Cold War. Such ostensibly reactionary texts as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) adapt, and deploy, rhetorical strategies first refined by nineteenth-century French and British “decadent” writers.
My dissertation’s first chapter, then, explores Baudelaire’s refinement of “decadent” aesthetics as a counter-discourse to the bourgeoisie’s cynical consolidation of power in the French Second Empire’s imperial metropolis. Like “Au Lecteur” that begins his allegory of “decadence,” Les Fleurs du mal (1857), Baudelaire’s prose poem, “Les Yeux des pauvres” (“The Eyes of the Poor”) (1869), implicates his bourgeois readers for cynically disavowing the revolutionary principles of egalitarianism upon which their very power is premised. In response to the reader’s cynical tendencies to find convoluted ways to justify his bad faith and pursue his desire for exotic and unethical commodity fetishes, Baudelaire’s short prose poem, “Assommons les pauvres!” (“Let’s Beat Up the Poor”) (1869), exemplifies the “decadent” aesthetic by celebrating the bourgeoisie’s cynical justifications for exploiting their power, promoting the most Draconian measures for resolving pauperism in Paris. After French poets, from Arthur Rimbaud to Comte de Lautréamont, refined and adapted “decadent” aesthetic strategies, fin-de-siècle British novelists explored a “decadent” rhetorical strategy’s persuasive potential on cynical reactionaries. Following the footsteps of Robert-Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness narrates the effect of such a “decadent” performance on a prototypical colonialist.
Despite extensive debates over the texts pro or anti-imperialist message, the text remains under-recognized for involving Charles Marlow’s cynical disavowals of a colonial enterprise that he nevertheless perpetuates, at least, that is, until he encounters at the frontier his “decadent” doppelganger, Mr. Kurtz. If Marlow exemplifies the cynical discursive practices of bourgeois thought that Franco Moretti uses digital humanities tools to examine in his work on The Bourgeois (Between History and Literature) (2014), Kurtz embodies Baudelaire’s “decadent” sensibility out on the colonial frontier. Like Baudelaire’s “Assommons les pauvres!” (“Beat up the poor!”), Mr. Kurtz’s infamous command, “Exterminate all the brutes!” leaves Marlow unwilling to perpetuate lies on the empire’s behalf. After, then, tracing the development of the “decadent” style and the narrative theorization of its political potential, this dissertation explores “decadent” aesthetics overlooked relevance to twentieth-century Euro-American literature, especially relating to imperial politics. As Europe’s imperial cynicism led to an implosion of violence in WWI and WWII, a series of writers in what Kristeva calls a “black lineage” of writers from Georges Bataille and Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood (1936) to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1924) and Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Voyage au bout de la nuit (1932), continued this “imperial decadent” lineage through mid-twentieth century. If Conrad’s novella sets a template for modernist representations of colonial decadence, from Franz Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” (1919) to D.H. Lawrence’s “The Woman Who Rode Away” (1925), such post-WWII works of neo-colonial “decadence” as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano (1947) and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) adapt Conrad’s vision to a new world order.
After bringing into relief the relative dilution of “decadent” aesthetics in European modernism in the wake of World War I, The Devil’s Advocate then highlights the renaissance of “decadent” culture in Cold America. In William S. Burroughs’ postmodern, collage-novel that maps Les Fleurs du mal onto a neocolonial Heart of Darkness, Naked Lunch, in its surreal anthropology that revels in a sexual tourist’s deviant Orientalism, appeals to and subverts cynical readers by overidentifying with the West’s increasingly cynical imperial ideology during the transition from European colonialism to American-led neocolonialism. Throughout the 1960s, in every medium, from mimeo magazines to short films, Burroughs deployed the cut-up method and collage form as a means of proliferating his “decadent” strategy, fighting fire with fire against the magazine trilogy, TIME, LIFE, and Fortune that broadcast Henry Luce’s imperial vision of the American Century. Burroughs’ work functioned as a collaboration with and influence on a range of postwar American and British artists, writers, and filmmakers. Burroughs’ collaborative projects with Brion Gysin in such works as The Third Mind (unpublished, 1965) anticipated and gave birth to a renaissance of “decadent” aesthetics after the reactionary turn of 1968. Unlike the ironic culture jamming practices of Adbusters, Burroughs’ "decadent" mode of détournement inspired an under-explored generation of counter-culture artists and writers since the 1970s whose work offers underexplored strategies of resistance useful against the reactionary movements of our own time.
Wermer-Colan, Henry A., "The Devil's Advocate: Empire, Cynicism, and the Politics of Decadent Literature (From Baudelaire to Burroughs)" (2017). CUNY Academic Works.
This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Monday, June 02, 2025
Graduate Center users:
To read this work, log in to your GC ILL account and place a thesis request.
See the GC’s lending policies to learn more.