Decadence, darwinism, science and technological modernity

Abberley, Will (2020) Decadence, darwinism, science and technological modernity. In: Murray, Alex (ed.) Decadence: a literary history. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 136-151. ISBN 9781108426299

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Decadents’ responses to modern science and technology were complex and conflicted. Their concerns with subjectivity, decay and superstition seem unscientific. Authors like Wilde and Huysmans presented art as an escape from the natural universe. However, new scientific models, notably Darwinian evolution, also offered Decadent writers new ways of conceptualizing humanity’s place in the world. Algernon Swinburne, Blind, Pater and Wilde’s visions of life were energized in different ways by evolutionism. They reshaped evolution for their philosophical purposes, downplaying its randomness and implying that the universe developed teleologically. Such attachment to teleology reflected progress, individual freedom and transcendence. In this way, their thinking was often more redolent of Spencer than Darwin. Conversely, as Wells realized, the lens of Darwinism could frame intellect and culture as doomed maladaptations. Hence, Decadents embraced ‘degeneration’ as the price of subtlety and originality. The Decadent fiction of Machen and Shiel was also characterized by ambivalence about science as their plots mixed scientific speculations and gadgetry with occult beliefs and supernaturalism.

Item Type: Book Section
Keywords: decadence, science, Wilde, Swinburne, Wells, Darwinism, Shiel
Schools and Departments: School of English > English
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
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Depositing User: Will Abberley
Date Deposited: 09 Jul 2020 15:17
Last Modified: 19 Nov 2020 13:54

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