The Temptation of Decadence

The door opens. A woman’s body lies prone on a decaying wooden floor. She’s covered shoulder to foot in pink; an impromptu shroud. A tall man in a large coat moves in, circling the body like a preying shark. He plays with her joylessly, like a cat with a mouse. Satisfied, yet with an air of indifference, he moves back and calls his friend to perform a medical examination. Obligingly, his friend states his honest opinion: a woman; middle aged; dead for a few hours; cause of death? Asphyxiation. The police detective standing to one side, utterly lost, seeks some advice. The tall man feels pride and disdain equally swelling in his stomach as he proceeds to confirm all the above and explain that she was working for the media, unhappily married for 10.5+ years, a serial adulterer with a string of lovers, and had travelled down from Cardiff for a one night stay in London. The other men are stunned at his prowess. 

Such was the first investigative deduction of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock (2010), the plot and characters then follow, like a river, they're strict, yet natural course.  Skip forward to the first episode of the third series (2014), and it is simply a fan-fest. There is little plot, but plenty of banter between the much-loved characters. The fans even become part of the show themselves; many of the scenes becoming little more than their theories of Holmes’ survival. Even the snivelling and jealous Anderson has become an obsessive fan of Holmes, which is altogether inconsistent with his character. His soul was bent to suit the fans; a metaphor for the show. For example, the second episode of the same series has barely more plot than Watson’s wedding. Sherlock began by spurning the sensational and false deduction of ‘rache’ (German for revenge) in favour of the realistic ‘Rachel’, but now, if Holmes ever gets around to a deduction, the distinction would be lost. 

This fan-indulging is an inevitable temptation of the internet, where writers are able to be in greater communication with fans. Its symptoms can also be seen in Doctor Who and many other shows. Game of Thrones is at least a small antidote to this fashionable decadence, (a term introduced for this purpose by Nietzsche), its first series saw its most beloved character beheaded, and no amount of fan-pleading could change that fate. However, the show still paints humans as too ruthless and immoral, so is equally false as for people in general, the main dish is incompetence, with good and evil only as the seasoning. Napoleon's judgement of Tacitus is apt here, "There is no greater and more unjust detractor of mankind. To the simplest actions he assigns criminal motives."  Decadence is simply another form of sentimentalism; a sort of worldly smugness and condescending cynicism. It is kitsch. Indeed, Lord of the Rings (2001) goes entirely the other way; there are no men or women.

The most famous recent example of this decadence is Spectre (2015). Throughout the film, it is as if Bond is being propelled only by a belief in his own myth; the joke being that he is also aware and tired of his own clichés. He seems to be tempting the writers to kill him, as if to say "I'm James Bond, I can't die, I’m going to sit, wait and let the bullets fly past. The villain won't win, so what’s the point in trying?" Killing the villain even proves to be a source of disinterest to our protagonist, although this could be said to allow greater scope In creating future sequels.

I do not mean to say that all fourth wall interactions, or indeed magical realism, are unfavourable, in fact, breaking the fourth wall is an enjoyable and intelligent addition to any dramatic entertainment, but there is a healthy limit. Magical realism, on the other hand, is merely real humans with magical elements thrust upon them, hence a falseness is not necessarily brought about as long as the people themselves act realistically, and with life. 
In an artwork, the creation must run its course, like poor, fateful Oedipus, "Nature has no end set before it. All things proceed by a certain eternal necessity of nature."  Once the characters have manifested themselves to the artist, all he can do is tease their many possible worlds into play. He can only deliver the characters into the world, and force the world onto them; the interaction becomes a natural dialectic, like seed and sun. 

We need artworks that paint humans and our world as they are. The world is certainly not sentimental, nor is it black and white; wholly sensational; egalitarian; moral (a complicated human invention); democratic (Nature is despotic); wholly ‘comedy’ or ‘Low’ in the classical sense of a ‘happy-ending’ (contra High tragedy), and it is especially not made for our pleasure. Indeed, Henry James said poor art sees through "rose-coloured window panes" . The human world is a sway of illusion, it can be noble or base, yet through it all it sings true because it simply is. For example, at the non-sentient level, Nature is nothing but an overwhelming and violent overindulgence. We sense this when we stray from the trodden path and walk into a savage jungle or a wild mountain range, we do not really feel 'at one' with what we find; we do not feel safe as we have left behind the artificial viewing point we know, and thus we experience Nature for what it really is, on its own ground. When we walk in Nature we walk as guests, as spectators, we find ourselves alien and distinct in our surroundings. As Werner Herzog postulates, in a Nietzschean/Freudian spirit, Nature is an overwhelming fornication and collective murder . It is terrible, overwhelmingly sexual, and inherently amoral. It is Dionysus incarnate. Yet it can be beautiful for this very reason, like the tiger for its claws, the shark for its jaws, and man can only hope to restrain it and form some beautiful, though illusory, order on the surface. The author of a work may emphasise a 'meaning', when truly it is just that, an emphasis; one among many possible rationalisations of what has occurred. 

Schopenhauer described beautiful art as that which “completes nature’s only half-uttered words.”, for example, the height of natural cinema can be demonstrated by Napoleon (1927), Mr. Turner (2014), and the films of Stanley Kubrick. A particularly natural scene in Napoleon occurs at its end when, having just assumed command of the army of Italy, Napoleon sternly addresses his new subordinates, earning their fear and respect, then, immediately after dismissing them, proceeds to write one of many passionate love letters to his new wife, Josephine. There are many ways this scene could have been artificial or faulty, yet it was done perfectly, in the height of affirmative Nature. This height and health of Nature is found throughout other mediums such as Homer, Shakespeare, Bryon, Stendhal, Thucydides, Sophocles, Caesar's histories, Napoleon's laws, Rabelais, Casanova, Aeschylus, Corneille, Machiavelli, Goethe, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Monteverdi, Bach, Purcell, Mozart, Beethoven, Guy de Maupassant, Aristophanes, Chaucer, Leopardi, Heraclitus, Tolstoy (although he appears almost too moral), Burckhardt, Dante, Virgil, Emerson, Montaigne, Nietzsche, Spinoza, Joyce, Plutarch, Zizek, Junger, Voltaire, and Dostoyevsky. 

  Napoleon (left), the most natural of men, disdaining a feathery fool – an allegory for the natural spirit that pervades the film.

  Napoleon (left), the most natural of men, disdaining a feathery fool – an allegory for the natural spirit that pervades the film.

I do not mean to say that an artwork cannot manipulate natural manifestations as, ultimately, what else is art? Indeed, art should be a stimulant to life, for example, Plutarch artistically used the biographies of great men as a stimulant to heroic and creative endeavours in his own life, rather than the simple pleasure of an escapist running from reality (coincidentally, Napoleon loved to read Plutarch above all others). The art of a culture is its symptom; it shows the difference between a healthy and a sick (decadent) culture, therefore It should come as no surprise that Modernity is a largely decadent culture. Heidegger recognised, as did Nietzsche and Emerson, that great art establishes people, much like Homer’s Iliad. It sets a common grounding of something that we lack more than anything in this relativistic, hand-me-down Christian era. It is a communal reference point, a well of values for a particular society that holds both critique and homage in tension. It lets flourish what is dormant in a society and spurns what is tired; it sets a society on its path. This is great art’s purpose, and how it has influenced history.

However, the material and possible evolutions in an artwork must be natural, and not artificial, otherwise the resulting artwork will also be artificial - an image of an image. It must come from Nature, and not an abstraction. We must re-engage with Nature - human and non-human – so that the artist must work with Nature, not against it; he must affirm it. The fundamental definition of freedom must be redefined. The need for freedom of will came with Christianity (in many ways, modern society is still very much under the Christian influence), beforehand the Greeks and the Romans believed in fate, a wholly determined universe, and in this they were right. They still had the word 'freedom' yet it meant something entirely different to today’s projection. That is, freedom is not freedom from limitation, but action in spite of limitation. It is like the rigours of poetic metre, as even good free verse is deceptively disciplined, and also like the constant discipline that sustained Breaking Bad (2008). To prefer the former definition would be like saying a river is restricted by its banks, so we must remove them, the result of which is a large puddle. Natural art is the river while artificial art is the puddle, and so good art must be naturally limited. 

There will always be trivial, artificial and poor art, but we can know the difference in these relativistic times and satirically expel them from the stage, clearing the space for what is great. Otherwise, if art and human thought do not once again affirm Nature and become natural (and anti-Christian/Platonic), then, in the overwhelming sight of Nature and the Masters, we can only agree with Herzog’s observation that "We in comparison only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel" .