Memoirs and Confessions: The Hybrid Form of Decadent Texts

By Jeremy S. Page
2010, Vol. 2 No. 12 | pg. 1/2 |

Decadent texts are a subclass of literature paradoxically characterised by both creation and decay, and are thus texts that resist a standard classification of genre. That is to say, Decadent texts are always operating with a dual purpose: the literary movement itself critiques and deconstructs the reigning moral and cultural assumptions, while simultaneously creating a collection of works that are to become what they have moments ago destroyed; the Decadent lifestyle is destructive to the undertaking body, yet simultaneously opens up a world of hitherto unobtainable experience. In Oscar Wilde’s words Decadence represents the “subordination of the whole to the parts” (as quoted in Chamberlin 95), the corruption of the whole made necessary in achieving the perfection of one small detail.

Although writing of the fin de siècle of the twentieth century, Richard Gilman maintains that Decadence exists only as a negative force, in opposition to main cultural developments of the period, but the most elegant definition is perhaps provided by Philip Stephan:

The notion of decadence [sic.] involves a sustained paradox, for, unable to choose between two opposing ideas [viz. Romanticism and the principles of Decadence], it cordially accepts both. (Stephan 19)

A Decadent text is one that simultaneously creates and destroys; while it creates a new hybridised form of genre, it critiques and devalues the texts that have come before it such simultaneous processes are discernible in Decadence’s critique of Romanticism. However, that is not to say that the two movements are mutually exclusive. It is perhaps more accurate to say that Decadence was a natural progression from the ‘dead end’ of Romanticist optimism; ‘Romantics who lamented the loss of Eden still worked for social improvement, and decadents [sic.] who decried modern times looked hopefully to the future.’ (Stephan 17)

To maintain a self-consciousness within a Decadent text, their authors must adopt a dual-perspective, one from within the text, and one ‘post-text,’ that is, after the event. As exemplars of this hybridised existence, I shall examine Cleland’s Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure and De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Both are texts classified amongst the ‘Decadent’ works, and both contain examples of this dual-authorship. Furthermore, both texts defy a standard generic classification, except of course as ‘Decadent’ texts, and both are principal examples of the ‘Confessional’ mode.

For De Quincey, the positions of the two authors are clear to determine: the first author is he who is in the present moment, and the second is that older De Quincey, actively involved in the recollection and chronicling of the confessions. In the Memoirs, the fictitious biographical style makes this more complicated, as the authorship is tripartite: Fanny Hill, the young woman who experiences the events first hand; Fanny Hill the matron, actively involved in her own confessional process; and John Cleland, the imprisoned author producing what is, for all extents and purposes, an erotic text.  I will discuss the problematic nature of Cleland’s male involvement with an intimately female text in due course, but first to explore how each text presents the dual-author problem.

Of course, use of the confessional mode is ideal for the problems of dual-authorship by its very nature it requires the greater part of the narrative to occur in analepsis but to use the ‘confessional’ as a generic classification does not contain the complete picture of what the Memoirs and Confessions set out to achieve. Both De Quincey and Cleland are aware of how their respective texts will be received Cleland is clearly intimate with the erotic content of the Memoirs and De Quincey’s defensive tone is immediately evident in the Confessions because of their supposedly outrageous subject matter, and the attempt to discourage this outrage leads to another discord between the voices of the two authors.

De Quincey begins the Confessions with an apology for what is to come, indeed, he is so unsure of the wisdom of publishing, that he has “for many months hesitated about the propriety of allowing this or any part of my narrative to come before the public eye until after my death,” (Confessions 1) but this in itself is a subversive strategy: by allaying the fears about Opium addiction so early in the piece, coupled with the justification provided by the preliminary confessions, De Quincey encourages the reader to accept his reasoning behind the addiction to Opium. De Quincey’s addiction is is not a decadent desire to further his own enlightenment, nor is it an active rejection of the moral society, but simply his attempt at remedying his toothache and “rheumatic pains of the head.”  (Confessions 35)

In this light, we can view the Confessions as almost a medical text, as De Quincey’s ‘daily diet of Opium arises as much out of its material agency as its psychotropic effects, … to turn productive “a state of unutterable irritation of stomach.”’ (Youngqvist 352) The Confessions marks De Quincey’s attempt at rewriting Romanticism, in particular,  the work of Wordsworth (See Youngqvist; North for an account of their working relationship.), but while it creates a new perspective on the romantic text, it also destroys the innocence of those texts in a particularly subversive manner.

The Confessions takes that same awareness of self, a transcendental all-knowing experience that, in Wordsworth’s case, stems from an exposure to nature, and places it in the city of London, itself a slowly decaying entity, while also “taking… as its theme, the artificial paradise of opium.” (North 572) In prioritising the physiology of Opium addiction, the Confessions neatly sidestep being articulated as a drug narrative, allowing De Quincey to present that radical justification for the use of Opium, so against the Romantic ethos: the artificial opiate-induced visions experienced by the Decadent De Quincey are as equally real and valid as the visions induced by the sublimity of nature. Further, De Quincey takes a subversive ‘holier than thou’ approach in his defence of Opium, vouching “meo perieulo” that it is no worse, indeed better, a drug than wine:

“But the main distinction lies in this, that whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony.  Wine robs a man of his self-possession; opium greatly invigorates it.  Wine unsettles and clouds the judgement, and gives a preternatural brightness and a vivid exaltation to the contempts and the admirations, the loves and the hatreds of the drinker.” (De Quincey 38)

Here, De Quincey does not assume the role of Opium merchant, but is simply (and innocently) recounting his own experience to the reader. His defence lies in his autobiographical mode, but it is certain that this is not all the text achieves. We cannot describe the Confessions simply as a confessional narrative (although semantically this would appear to be the case) De Quincey has objectives to accomplish. While autobiographical indeed, the Confessions stem not from a pressing need for the relation of childhood, nor is the sole purpose to be “useful and instructive” (1) or “communicate the result of [De Quincey’s] experiment” (80) as the post-author would have us believe.

Rather, the overriding objective of De Quincey’s Confessions is to challenge the moral gag about the use of Opium, specifically, addiction to the substance. Youngquist defends the Confessions, rejecting a moral judgement of De Quincey as an addict, “not the least because his Confessions does away with its super-sensible grounds,” (357) but this is exactly De Quincey’s objective! To mask his acceptance of the drug in a confused genre, and a recounted factual and autobiographical tale of bodily maintenance.

R.K.R. Thornton describes what he terms the ‘decadent’s dilemma’:

the Decadent is a man caught between two opposite and apparently incompatible pulls: on the one hand he is drawn by the world, its necessities, and the attractive impression he receives from it, while on the other hand he yearns towards the eternal, the ideal, and the unworldly. (quoted in Fletcher 26)

Spackman sees Decadent texts as more trustworthy because of this emphasis on their own creation: a Decadent text is therefore one that “announces itself as a copy and thereby remains dependant upon the thing copied, upon nature, or the real.” (Spackman 39) Rather than attempt to create some sort of artifice behind a texts creation, (while not ‘in-period,’ Walpole’s ruse behind the authorship of The Castle of Otranto comes to mind) a Decadent text is unbearably self-conscious about first, its own construction, and second, how such a construction will be received by an audience.

This is particularly problematic in Cleland’s authorship of the Memoirs of Fanny Hill. If there was moral outcry at the drug-laden content of the Confessions, the response to the publication of the  Memoirs was even more severe indeed, several warrants were issued for Cleland’s arrest upon publication. So, as Dq Quincey does in the Confessions, Cleland employs that technique of obfuscating the true purpose of a text with a confusion of genres.

Fanny Hill does not write to the Madam out of impropriety or erotic desire, but simply recalls at length a series of events, “wrote with the same liberty that [she] led it,” not smut, but “truth! Stark naked truth, is the word;” (15) and Cleland isn’t joking about the ‘stark naked’ part. The two authorial voices of Fanny Hill are at considerable odds with each other in the Memoirs. In chronicling her younger exploits, the older Fanny seems to simultaneously reminisce and reject her scandalous past, and there are several moments approaching metafiction, where the older Fanny is seemingly possessed by the reminder of her younger pleasures:

“I see, I feel the delicious velvet tip!he enters me might and main, withoh!my pen drops from me here in the ecstasy now present to my faithful memory!” (Cleland 216)

Where De Quincey wrote of the transcendental properties of Opium, the same could apply to  Cleland’s depiction of intercourse. Take for example, the recollection of the first coupling with Charles, where Fanny writes of the experience as “insupportable delight! oh! superhuman rapture!”, and questions the “pleasure so transporting?” (60) Much of Fanny’s recollection should be viewed with some skepticism, for if she was so “transported”, how reliable then is her supposedly “faithful memory?” In general, much of what Fanny accounts borders on the absurd, as she:

"…revels in female pleasure. [Fanny Hill] depicts a heroine with a large sexual appetite who engages in masturbation, lesbianism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and flagellation, and who emerges unscathed: rich, married (with children), and happy." (Graham 578)

But, for this ‘absurd’ tale of smut and debauchery, we cannot lay the blame on Ms. Hill herself, for in her defence, her “foundation in virtue was no other than a total ignorance of vice, and the shy timidity general to [her] sex.” (16) She did no wrong, for she knew no better this is the voice of the young Fanny Hill, her older and wiser chronicler now knows much better. It is Freedman’s position that Fanny Hill is not to blame at all for her misdeeds, as the very form of Cleland’s narrative is to blame for her inescapable loss of innocence. As she goes through the novel, performing increasingly lewd acts, “it becomes Cleland’s problem as a good pornographer to keep before he reader some… impression of Fanny’s inner purity for the purposes of titillation.” (Friedman 539)

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