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The Decadent Counterpublic

  • Matthew Potolsky

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  • Matthew Potolsky
    University of Utah

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Charles Baudelaire opens his influential 1861 essay “Richard Wagner and Tannhäuser in Paris” with a seemingly unrelated defense of writing in the first person singular. Far from being a mark of solipsism, he argues, the first-person singular provides a kind of guarantee to the writer’s audience: “That notorious ‘I,’ which is so often justly accused of impertinence, nevertheless implies a great modesty; it imprisons the writer within the strictest bonds of sincerity” (111). In speaking only for himself, the writer is paradoxically bound all the more firmly to the judgment of his readers; unable to hide behind a pretension of objectivity, he opens himself to the censure of his public. Yet writerly sincerity is more than a hedge against immodesty, for it can also forge bonds of sympathy with widely scattered readers. Implicitly enacting Immanuel Kant’s assertion that judgments of taste are inherently social, Baudelaire suggests that his responses to Wagner are likely to “find friends among unprejudiced readers”: “in describing no more than his own impressions, the candid critic will describe also those of unknown sympathizers [partisans inconnus]” (111). This account of the relationship between the artist and his anonymous audience exemplifies an important but often misunderstood aspect of decadent writing. Although they depict characters who reject sociality and politics for the solipsistic and putatively disinterested realm of private aesthetic sensation, decadent works are dense with reflections on community and affiliation. Many scholars have noted the great extent to which decadent works engage their audiences or address specific communities of readers.[1] But I will argue in what follows that the imagined relationship between the writer and his or her public is far more important to decadence than has previously been acknowledged, and that this relationship underlies a cosmopolitan notion of community that is crucial to the complex political legacy of fin-de-siècle culture.

Baudelaire’s reflection on the potential for aesthetic community arises from a particular moment in the development of print culture and the literary market, in which writers increasingly addressed publics that were at once predictable and largely unknown to the writer. Higher levels of literacy and vastly improved technologies of circulation—from industrialized printing and better transportation to the repeal of burdensome taxes and censorship laws—allowed publishers to target specialized market segments, and enabled readers widely separated in space and time to gain access to cultural materials that in the past would not have been available to them.[2] Baudelaire was highly conscious of these conditions, and often played up his relationship to this emerging public in his poetry and essays.[3] Rather than addressing the kind of generalized bourgeois public sphere described by Jürgen Habermas, however, Baudelaire, like many other writers who followed him, commonly speaks as a member of what Michael Warner has called a “counterpublic.”[4] A “public,” in Warner’s terms, is a self-organized relationship among strangers that is constituted by the circulation of discourses. Unlike other forms of imagined community, such as the nation or social class, which shape members whether they know it or not, publics are fashioned out of discrete acts of textual production, circulation, and reception. They are something more than just the relationship between a writer and his or her empirical audience, however, since both writer and reader presume “an ongoing space of encounter for discourse” that shapes the activities of production and reception (Warner 90). Fundamentally reflexive, publics are at once produced by and productive of discourses and the kinds of attention they receive. “Counterpublics,” Warner suggests, are also formed by the circulation of discourses, but they define themselves against a dominant public—the nation, the market, the professions, or the emerging mass media, for example. “Counterpublics are ‘counter,’” Warner writes, “to the extent that they try to supply different ways of imagining stranger sociability and its reflexivity; as publics, they remain oriented to stranger circulation in a way that is not just strategic, but constitutive of membership and its affects” (122).

Warner’s chief example of this kind of sociability is the queer counterpublic made up of the institutions, periodicals, and speech-genres that constitute a gay and lesbian public sphere. The decadents overlapped to a great extent with the emerging gay subculture of the late-nineteenth century, but their rejection of the dominant public was even more thoroughgoing than this link suggests, for the decadents also vociferously rejected nationalism, working-class and women’s culture, democracy, and many other hallmarks of mass modernity. As Richard Dellamora has argued, in this regard, “Decadent critique can be directed from liberal, socialist, and/or anarchist perspectives, as well as from conservative or even reactionary ones. Whether from the left or the right, however, decadence is always radical in its opposition to the organization of modern urban, industrial, and commercial society” (“Productive” 529). Although this opposition might suggest a turn away from community—and often, as I noted above, comes across that way in decadent texts—decadent writings clearly presume and address an oppositional public of both known and “unknown sympathizers.” One need only point to the many institutions and publications associated with decadent culture. In London, for example, there were periodicals like The Yellow Book and The Savoy, small presses and bookshops run by John Lane and Leonard Smithers, and gallery spaces like the Grosvenor; other cities had similar outlets for decadent works and ideas.[5] Even more pertinently, decadent writers assume the kind of ongoing space for oppositional discourse that, for Warner, defines a counterpublic sphere. These writers shared a restricted canon of classically “decadent” works (Petronius, Sade, Poe), retold familiar stories (Salome, Narcissus, Pygmalion), and alluded to a stock of “decadent” historical moments (imperial Rome, eighteenth-century France) and public figures (Nero, the Borgias). Often treated merely as common themes, these literary materials can also be understood as the means by which would-be decadents asserted their participation in the decadent counterpublic. Drawing upon a body of decadent themes, or alluding to canonical decadent books, is at once a method of composition and a gesture of affiliation.

The decadent counterpublic, like all publics for Warner, was at once empirical and imaginary. Although there were, in fact, small coteries of self-selecting decadent readers and writers in Europe, the United States, and Latin America, the actual readership for decadent writing was by no means as elite or oppositional as the decadents themselves often present it to be. Middle-class readers bought The Yellow Book, and sought out works published by Lane and Smithers; and many decadent writers—Oscar Wilde and Stéphane Mallarmé, among others—wrote for mass-market magazines, and gave widely attended public lectures. It would be wrong, however, to take these facts as evidence that decadence was merely a marketing category, which allowed writers to profit from the symbolic capital of their apparently elitist rejection of the mass public. Granted, there is more than a grain of truth to this characterization, as recent scholarship has demonstrated, but it should not overshadow the political implications of the ways in which decadent writers imagined community.[6] It is telling, for example, that the French word Baudelaire’s translator renders as “sympathizer” in the passage I cited above (partisan) suggests not an emotional response, but a group formed around a doctrine or political position. Baudelaire conflates the aesthetically inclined public of his essay with members of a political collective.[7] This is a consistent gesture in decadent writing, and one that has not received the attention it deserves. Bound by print culture rather than by national origins or class solidarity, the decadent counterpublic is nevertheless a fundamentally political entity.

The defining political principle of this counterpublic was its cosmopolitanism. Writing in an era of increasingly violent nationalism, the decadents might be compared with similarly cosmopolitan political organizations in the period. For example, not unlike the Communist International, founded only a few years after Baudelaire wrote, what we might loosely call the “decadent international” was united by its rejection of the modern nation-state as a foundation for political community. Friedrich Nietzsche’s advocacy of the “Good European” against the specter of German nationalism is perhaps the clearest example of this attitude, though one could point to similar instances in writers such as Wilde, Walter Pater, Vernon Lee, and Baudelaire himself. Decadent cosmopolitanism was far more anti-nationalist than internationalist in any formal way, however. And whereas Marxist internationalism was driven by a coherent program, decadent cosmopolitanism was motivated as much by a general of spirit of opposition as by a strict set of principles. Indeed, the political positions underlying decadent cosmopolitanism were wildly unpredictable, and ranged from anarchism to monarchism, classical republicanism to reactionary conservatism, often existing side-by-side in the same work or a single career. A better historical analogy, in this regard, might be the eighteenth-century “Republic of Letters” that joined Enlightenment intellectuals through the transnational circulation of correspondence and journals, and likewise encompassed a spectrum of political positions.[8] At its most radical, decadence envisions community on the analogy of this kind of circulation, a mixing of dispersed readers and texts without stable institutions or lasting affiliations—a republic of nothing but letters.

And yet even the analogy with the Republic of Letters only goes so far, for the decadents, unlike both nationalists and internationalists, founded their communities on artistic taste, not a shared language, race, geography, set of institutions, or codified political program. The cosmopolitan impulses of decadent writers were specifically cultural, and for that reason, perhaps, limited in their broader political impact—but not in their political intent. When Wilde argues in “The Critic as Artist” (1891) that the practice of “Criticism will annihilate race-prejudices” and end violent nationalism (1057), he is not advocating new institutional frameworks for international relations or seeking to organize followers, yet his claim is surely more programmatic than a call for more art criticism directed to a small coterie of insiders.[9] In fact, it is precisely by way of such discussions of art or critical practice that decadent writers stake out political positions and define their notions of community. Judgments of taste are, for decadent writers, politics by other means.

Baudelaire, for example, is tellingly concerned throughout his essay with demonstrating the translatability and communicability of aesthetic sensations. His account of Wagner is at once a defense of the composer and an effort to demonstrate the ways in which listening to music can join disparate individuals through common aesthetic experiences. Like all the arts, Baudelaire argues, music leaves “a lacuna which is filled in by the listener’s imagination” (114). Rather than being a source of division or solipsistic retreat, however, reception is a fundamentally public experience. Baudelaire explicates this claim by juxtaposing his own literary “translation” (he uses this metaphor insistently) of the overture to Lohengrin to Wagner’s Parisian program for the performance, and to a separate account of the same piece by Franz Liszt. As he notes, the three responses draw upon the same imagery and ideas. On one level, these similarities demonstrate the ability of music to evoke “analogous ideas in different brains” (116). But they also instantiate an ideal transnational counterpublic made up of Wagner, Liszt, and Baudelaire himself, a community of strangers bound by an open-ended exchange of written commentaries on a work of art. While the three members of this impromptu public are divided by space, time, and nationality, and while they do not engage each other face to face, they are joined by their responses to music.[10] Given Baudelaire’s attack on French cultural insularity elsewhere in this essay, this aesthetic community implicitly stands opposed to popular taste and cultural nationalism.

The pervasive decadent fascination with images of crumbling empires, infirm rulers, and moments of historical transition, offers another example of this kind of aesthetic politics. Such images give voice to a running critique of organicism in decadent writing, a persistent rejection (from both the left and right) of political unity, homogeneity, and centralization. The fin-de-siècle vogue for describing the decline of the Roman Empire has more to do with the telling ways in which the empire fell apart than with the mere spectacle of its fall. In his paradigmatic decadent novel Against Nature (1884), for example, Joris-Karl Huysmans celebrates the “decadent” Roman writers Petronius and Apuleius for their radical hybridization of the Latin language, a process he compares to political transition. Petronius, he writes, “borrows expressions from all the languages imported into Rome” and thereby “extends the frontiers and breaks the fetters of the so-called Golden Age” (43). Apuleius, similarly, allows his work to be swept along “in a dense flood fed by tributary waters from every province, and combining them all in a bizarre, exotic, and almost incredible torrent of words” (44). These stylistic innovations foreshadow the collapse of the empire itself. Under the influence of Christianity and the external aggressors, the Latin language, Huysmans suggests, “decomposed like venison, dropping to pieces at the same time as the civilization of the Ancient World, falling apart while the Empires succumbed to the barbarian onslaught and the accumulated pus of the ages” (46). As with Baudelaire’s response to Wagner, Huysmans’ appreciation of late-Latin literature is not directly political, but addresses pivotal nineteenth-century questions about the nature of empire and the fate of modern nations. Praising works that epitomize the decline of the paradigmatic Western empire is a form of protest against contemporary nationalism and imperialism.

I noted above that one of the crucial means by which writers associated themselves with the decadent counterpublic was retelling classically “decadent” stories. As a means of extending my discussion of politics and community in decadent writing, I want to turn in what follows to a reading of one such retelling: Aubrey Beardsley’s unfinished 1896 novel The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. One of the last versions of Tannhäuser in the nineteenth century, and surely the most sexually explicit, this novel demonstrates how decadent works couch political commentary in the least likely of literary and artistic contexts. Like Baudelaire’s essay on Wagner, the political charge of this work is closely tied to Beardsley’s reflexive awareness of the relationship between art and its (counter)publics.[11]

When Baudelaire wrote his essay on Wagner, the Tannhäuser story was already well on its way to becoming an important touchstone for post-Romantic writers. The period between the 1860s and 1890s saw versions of the tale by A. C. Swinburne, Walter Pater, William Morris, and John Davidson, as well as Beardsley, to cite just British examples. In chapter eleven of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which depicts Dorian’s corruption under the influence of Lord Henry’s “Yellow Book,” Wilde notes that his protagonist would often sit at the Opera, “listening in rapt pleasure to Tannhäuser” (107). The decadent fascination with Tannhäuser, as many critics have noted, and as Baudelaire argues in his commentary on Wagner’s opera, arises from the story’s opposition of flesh and spirit, the worldly and the divine, and from its repudiation of ecclesiastical authority. Venus in the tale is a prototype for the decadent femme fatale. Originally a product of medieval popular culture, the story seems proleptically made for the decadent sensibility.[12] Yet the proleptic effect of the legend derives as much from the reception of the story as from its titillating or anti-clerical subject matter. Retold once, the story might be regarded as a medium for fantasy or an act of rebellion, but retold many times it also becomes a kind of code, an instance of what might be called mimetic canonization.[13] Often regarded, and easily dismissed, as a form of plagiarism or as evidence of unoriginality, mimetic canonization occurs when a writer announces his or her belonging to a movement by praising and imitating the tastes, obsessions, or works of a “master.” It is among the chief means by which writers affiliated themselves with the decadent counterpublic.

Seen in the context of European nationalism, this kind of gesture gains a significant political charge. Although, as J. M. Clifton-Everest has shown, folklorists earlier in the nineteenth century had traced elements of the Tannhäuser story to myths and historical individuals from several national traditions—Celtic, German, French, Italian—scholars inspired by or opposed to Wagner’s nationalistic appropriation of the legend waged a fierce struggle later in the century over its lineage, arguing for its specifically German, French, or Italian origin and characteristics. As Leah Garrett has noted, Tannhäuser became so closely, even generically, associated with the establishing of national traditions that music from Wagner’s opera was used to open the Second Zionist Congress, in 1898--despite the composer’s well-known anti-Semitism. Decadent versions of Tannhäuser, by contrast, challenge efforts to tie the legend to a single national tradition by stressing the cosmopolitanism of its origins, themes, and popular dissemination. Pater, for example, compares Tannhäuser with the French philosopher Abelard in the opening chapter of The Renaissance (1873), designating both figures as border-crossing antinomian predecessors of a transnational artistic and intellectual movement. Swinburne prefaces “Laus Veneris” (1866) with a fabricated French epigraph. Later writers who allude to Tannhäuser activate a network of cosmopolitan references—Heinrich Heine, Wagner, Baudelaire, Morris, Swinburne, Pater—and implicitly join themselves to this list.[14] True to its plot, the story wanders across European borders. It is at once a narrative about cross-cultural contact—Tannhäuser is a German poet wandering through Europe, who meets up with a Greco-Roman goddess in hiding--and one that develops its meaning through such contact. The decadent Tannhäuser demonstrates the ways in which the political implications of a work depend crucially upon the reflexive contexts of production and reception. Even a narrative closely associated in the period with nationalism and nationalist sentiments can become an avatar of decadent cosmopolitanism.

Beardsley’s novel plays out this resistant political logic on many different levels. Although it is often claimed that Beardsley was apolitical, scholars have begun to find evidence of engagement in his works, most often through his parodic appropriations of recognized artistic styles and public figures. Linda Zatlin has argued, for example, that Beardsley’s work mounts a powerful critique of Victorian sexual politics through its depictions of modern male and female types and its borrowings from the history of pornography. Emma Sutton, similarly, claims that Beardsley’s many references to Wagner and Wagnerism carry a political charge, particularly in The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, where they pose a cosmopolitan challenge to the composer’s artistic nationalism. By filling the text with objects and artworks from “various incongruous periods, national schools, and formal styles,” Sutton writes, “Beardsley subverts the stylistic and national traditions with which Wagner had aligned his own art” (153-54).

The novel carries out this cosmopolitan subversion of nationalism in more ways than just its deflation of Wagner. The Venusberg is an exemplary counterpublic sphere, a literally underground society operating within a hostile world, and composed from a dizzying variety of national, linguistic, and historical traditions. Written in a precious mock eighteenth-century idiom, and referring alike to real and imaginary, ancient and contemporary, cultural materials, Beardsley’s novel is “timeless” in the sense Freud gives to the unconscious: it has no fixed relationship to chronology or temporality, and is organized by desire and the association of ideas. Yet this timelessness has a distinct historical referent in Beardsley’s age, for the Venusberg mirrors the decadent counterpublic, which stands in a similarly hostile relationship to its own world. The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser deftly plays on this resemblance, imagining a range of models for a decadent community of taste, some superceded, some utopian, and others reflecting the conditions of modern print culture. In each case, Beardsley appeals to an empirical and imaginary readership of other decadents, and thematizes the nature and political implications of such an appeal--most notably, its simultaneous address to and production of a cosmopolitan community of taste.

Beardsley was obsessed with publicity, and his pictorial works betray an almost morbid fascination with their public status as material objects. The drawings are full of books, readers, and allusions to classical and contemporary artistic styles, and often include caricatures of public figures--most notably decadent rivals such as Wilde and James McNeil Whistler.[15] They self-consciously underscore their relationship to a public sphere. In a drawing from the third number of The Yellow Book, “Portrait of Himself,” Beardsley depicts himself apparently hiding under the covers of his bed, yet peeking out from behind the partially closed curtains that surround it. The drawing presents Beardsley’s retreat from the public as a kind of performance, both in the picture itself (the curtains recall a theater), and through its publication in an organ of the decadent counterpublic. In another drawing from the same issue, “The Wagnerites,” he depicts the audience at a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, rather than the performers or a scene from the work. The only way that the viewer knows what the audience was watching is the cover of a program--material evidence of a public performance--that sits slightly askew in the foreground of the picture.[16]

Figure 1

The Yellow Book, vol. 3 (London: October 1894) 51.

-> See the list of figures

Figure 2

The Yellow Book, vol. 3 (London: October 1894) 55.

-> See the list of figures

The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser likewise plays up its status as a material object circulating in a counterpublic sphere. This status comes across strikingly in the novel’s complicated textual history. As Stephen Calloway has written, echoing a claim first made by Arthur Symons, Beardsley’s novel “can never have been written with any realistic thought of publication--in the ordinary way at least” (137). The novel exists in at least two printed versions and in manuscript, which Beardsley incessantly revised. The names of its main characters, and even the title of the work, differ in each incarnation. In the manuscript, Tannhäuser is named the Abbé Aubrey, while in the four incomplete and bowdlerized chapters published serially in The Savoy in 1896, with the title Under the Hill, he is named the Abbé Fanfreluche and Venus is called Helen. Finally, in the unexpurgated version, privately published by Leonard Smithers in 1907, nearly a decade after Beardsley’s death, the novel is entitled The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser, and the main characters are renamed accordingly.[17] It is not clear which version, if any, represents Beardsley’s final intention. Indeed, the tangled textual history of this novel, often attributed to threats of censorship, to Beardsley’s progressing illness, or to the author’s late conversion to Catholicism, is better understood as part of the story’s address to its public, rather than an interruption of it. Beardsley writes a “dangerous” book to be passed furtively from hand to hand, like the many other dangerous books familiar from decadent lore, and precisely the kind of book, such as Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin (which Beardsley illustrated) or the “Yellow Book” in The Picture of Dorian Gray, which so often show up in writings from the period. It is telling, in this regard, that there have been two attempts to “complete” the work by later writers. Beardsley’s address to the decadent counterpublic is so deeply inscribed in the work that the posthumous audience can jump right in and take over where the story left off.[18]

Beardsley also addresses and defines this counterpublic by gesturing incessantly to the themes and obsessions of other decadent works. Simply by writing a version of Tannhäuser, of course, Beardsley evokes a constellation of predecessors. The book places itself in a line made up of the many other books, paintings, operas, and poems on the same subject. In the same spirit, he litters the novel with allusions to dozens of other books and art works, both real and imaginary. In most cases, these references serve little obvious thematic or illustrative purpose, functioning instead as second-order allusions, which reference not the original work, but the decadent convention of alluding to rare, foreign, or notorious books and artists.[19] Indeed, books are often named for the purpose of denying their ability to illustrate something. The opening description of the Venusberg, to take just one example, refers to “Gloomy and nameless weeds not to be found in Mentzelius,” and to sculptures that “even outdid the astonishing illustrations to Jones’s Nursery Numbers" (25). Elsewhere Beardsley alludes to specific pages in Alfred Delvau’s Dictionaire érotique moderne (1864), a compilation of French sexual slang. He also describes characters through references to very specific literary and pictorial works. Tannhäuser’s hand looks like the hand of a woman in a drawing by Carmontelle (25), for example, and the bathroom in Venus’ chambers resembles an engraving by Lorette (59). Beardsley does not necessarily expect his readers to be familiar with Mentzelius or Jones, or, with a few exceptions (such as his lengthier references to Wagner) to seek out the artworks he mentions. Rather, he appeals to his reader’s understanding of the function such allusions play in fin-de-siècle writing. In an exemplary instance of the reflexivity of publics, Beardsley’s novel addresses its own counterpublic by reference to the counterpublic called into being by other decadent texts. Much the same thing is true of Beardsley’s pervasive uses of French slang, which underscore the French affiliations of decadence and decadent writers, even when they do not describe obviously “decadent” subject matter.[20]

Beardsley plays on this kind of reflexivity throughout the novel, notably in his disconcerting habit of writing at once as if to the imaginary public of the Venusberg and to a modern audience. Although, for example, he often addresses the modern audience directly, and even apologizes at one point for not being able to convey effectively “the habits of Venus’ retinue” (42), Beardsley also curiously speaks from within the public sphere of the Venusberg, reporting gossip about insignificant characters and claims about popular opinion. Ian Fletcher comments that many passages would be at home in the pages of the Venusberg Society Gazette (“Inventions” 242). Beardsley rarely introduces characters in a conventional way, instead mentioning them as if readers were already familiar with them:

Pulex and Cyril and Marisca and Cathelin opened a fire of raillery. The infidelities of Cerise, the difficulties of Brancas, Sarmean’s caprices that morning in the lily garden, Thorillière’s declining strength, Astarte’s affection for Roseola, Felix’s impossible member, Cathelin’s passion for Sulpilia’s poodle, Sola’s passion for herself, the nasty bite that Marisca gave Chloe, the épilatiere of Pulex, Cyril’s diseases, Butor’s illness, Maryx’s tiny cemetery, Lesbia’s profound fourth letter, and a thousand amatory follies of the day were discussed.


None of the names in this list is obviously significant in the context of the novel (few of them are mentioned before or again, and none plays a major role in the plot). Yet the way they are introduced underscores their significance for the public of the Venusberg, even if it violates the accepted conventions of literary naming that Beardsley’s empirical reading public would expect. Beardsley’s novel mimics the literary effect of writing for a counterpublic. Much as decadent readers will know the significance of the Tannhäuser legend and the other writers who have taken it up, so Beardsley writes to an imaginary audience in the Venusberg that knows about his characters’ histories and personalities. In this instance, however, Beardsley’s empirical readers are, for the sake of demonstration, on the outside looking in.

The mock-dedicatory epistle that prefaces The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser also draws attention to the book’s circulation and readership. Beardsley here appeals to the fictional Italian prince and bishop Giulio Poldo Pezzoli, whom he asks for “protection” and for “the most remote place in your princely library” (22). Beardsley writes as if the public for his work no longer exists: “I know not by what mischance the writing of epistles dedicatory has fallen into disuse, whether through the vanity of authors or the humility of patrons. But the practice seems to me so very beautiful and becoming that I have ventured to make an essay in the modest art, and lay with formalities my first book at your feet” (20). He apologizes for writing in the vernacular, rather than the traditional Latin, fearing that the prince should be “offended by a barbarous assault of rude and Gothic words” (21); and he laments the decline of the critical faculty, writing that “the offices and function of patron or critic must of necessity be lessened in an age of little men and little work” (21).

As a counter to this sense of belatedness and cultural decline--the hallmark of decadent cultural phenomena--Beardsley rhetorically conjures up an ideal public from the example of abandoned or superceded publics and forms of circulation. The most obvious is the cosmopolitan figure of Pezzoli himself--an Italian bishop and nuncio to Nicaragua and Patagonia, whom Beardsley addresses in English. In asking Pezzoli’s support, Beardsley looks conspicuously beyond his national borders for an appropriate audience. He also evokes the model of patronage, which had long since vanished as a reliable means of support for literary artists in the nineteenth century. Patronage, as Beardsley frames it, is based on the exchange of favor for honor, rather than of money for a commodity: “In times past ’twas nothing derogatory for great princes and men of State to extend their loves and favour to poets, for thereby they received as much honour as they conferred” (21-22). Somewhat like the decadent counterpublic, the system of patronage was organized by personal taste, and, by contrast with the modern literary market, enabled the circulation of books outside of a purely economic context. Even more suggestively, Beardsley hints that his patron is a collector of erotica (the name Pezzoli evokes “pizzle,” archaic slang for penis), and thus tips his hat to the clandestine circulation of libertine texts through underground networks of booksellers and collectors. This allusion tellingly sets up the early modern libertines as forerunners of decadence. Indeed, much like decadence, libertinism was a transnational phenomenon, spreading rapidly through seventeenth-century Europe by way of translations, imitations, and underground distribution networks.[21] And like the decadents, the libertines comprised a counterpublic defined by its peculiar tastes and vehemently opposed to contemporary religion and politics.

As recent scholars of early modern pornography have demonstrated, libertinism was closely allied at important historical moments (Restoration England, pre-Revolutionary France) with a wide variety of oppositional political positions. [22] The link between pornography and politics weakened in the early nineteenth century, but it is clear from the epistle and from many other details in the novel that Beardsley had this association in mind when he was writing The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser. Unlike the abstract “pornutopias” Steven Marcus finds in nineteenth-century pornographic writing, Beardsley’s novel imagines an entire underground society that reproduces the transnational counterpublic of libertine writing, not just the styles and themes of canonical libertine texts. Sex in the Venusberg is a foundational organizing principle of public life. On the one hand, sex in Beardsley’s novel is often performed in public, and in highly theatricalized contexts. Indeed, almost every sexual act in The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser takes place before some kind of audience, and public gatherings are inevitably a prelude to or an arena for sex. On the other hand, however, sex also functions as a form of address in the counterpublic sphere of the Venusberg, much as it does in libertine texts. Libertine literature conflates literary response with sexual arousal; in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s famous formulation, such books are read with one hand. Beardsley’s depictions of public sex fold the libertine relationship between text and reader into the frame of the narrative itself, making it a paradigm for the relationship between the book and its imagined public. The novel, that is, does not (or does not merely) aim to titillate its readers, but alludes to libertine titillation as yet another model for the way books at once address and call into being counterpublics.

There is no better example of this second function than Venus’ daily “performance” with her unicorn Adolphe. Venus begins the performance by warning Tannhäuser to keep his distance from the unicorn because he is apt to get jealous, but also stating, “Adolphe likes an audience” (63). She then brings the unicorn to climax by playing on his “tight-strung instrument” and evoking “an astonishing vocal accompaniment” from the animal (64). This scene is performed for the immediate benefit of the unicorn, but it is also directed toward two other audiences: Tannhäuser, who stands and watches it; and the public of the Venusberg, for whom “the outburst of these venereal sounds” is the signal that breakfast can begin (64). Public sexuality is only partially a matter of physical pleasure; it is also a code addressed to and created for a counterpublic. Indeed, Adolphe is curiously akin to both artist and audience. He is the performer here, and yet is also the recipient of the sort of masturbatory pleasure that libertine texts want to encourage in their readers.

The kind of theatricality suggested by the performance with Adolphe is part of a broader network of allusions to theater and performance in the novel that likewise reflect on the relationship between sex and its (counter)publics. Of all the fine arts, theater is the one most immediately dependant upon the attention of its audience, and for this reason it fits Beardsley’s aims especially well. In almost all of his depictions of theater and theatricality, Beardsley stresses the interaction of the performance and its public, highlighting the erotic effects of performance and reception themselves. A scene from the dinner party is paradigmatic in this regard:

From harsh and shrill and clamant, the voices grew blurred and inarticulate. Bad sentences were helped out by worse gestures, and at one table, Scabius could only express himself with his napkin, after the manner of Sir Jolly Jumble in the “Soldier’s Fortune” of Otway. Basalissa and Lysistrata tried to pronounce each other’s names, and became very affectionate in the attempt; and Tala, the tragedian, robed in ample purple, and wearing plume and buskin, rose to his feet, and with swaying gestures, began to recite one of his favourite parts.


Theater here is the model for, prelude to, or effect of, sexual acts. Characters imitate (Scabius) or perform (Tala) theatrical parts, and, of course, Lysistrata is named after a play by Aristophanes, which Beardsley illustrated in very explicit detail. Two aspects of this description are especially telling. When Basalissa and Lysistrata become affectionate while pronouncing each other’s names, to begin with, they hint that sexual arousal might comes not from the content of the work (the names are not themselves particularly suggestive), but from the relationship of actor and audience itself. Given the proper context for reception, the mere act of addressing language to another can be a source of titillation. Beardsley’s use of the word “express” in the passage is also suggestive, signifying both a linguistic and a sexual performance (ejaculation). Theater in this instance is a means of arousal for the performer, not just the audience. And here again, arousal does not depend on the thematic content of the work being performed, but on the act of public performance itself.

In addition to the many theatricalized depictions of sex in the novel, Beardsley also depicts two conventional performances in the novel, each of which similarly highlights the public function of sex in the Venusberg and, by extension, thematizes the idea of a counterpublic. The first performance is a ballet, in which a group of libertines, bored with their normal conquests, set out to an Arcadian valley to “experience a new frisson in the destruction of some shepherd’s or some satyr’s naïveté, and the infusion of their venom among the dwellers of the woods” (47). In the first act, the libertines instruct the Arcadian rustics in sexual techniques; and in the second act, the rustics practice the tricks they learned in the morning on the “cultured flesh” of the libertines (51). A pornographic fantasy of cross-class, cross-cultural, and cross-racial seduction, the ballet also recapitulates the imagined relationship between the libertine text and its public, in which reading is a means of initiation or sexual stimulation. It can also be regarded as an allegory about the dissemination of a counterpublic to new cultural contexts. Having introduced the pastoral folk to pleasures “almost too keen for their simple and untilled natures” (48), the libertines “abandon themselves to passive joys” (51) provided by the initiates, who at first could only make “the most grotesque and futile efforts to imitate them” (47), but have now mastered all the new tricks they have been taught. The public becomes producer, and the producer public.

The second performance—of Rossini’s Stabat Mater, a musical setting for the Latin prayer on the Virgin Mary’s sorrows—turns this logic around, showing how even the most seemingly chaste work of art can produce an erotic effect. The audience here responds to the music not with religious feeling, but with a sexual frenzy in which a group of men figuratively feasts upon the sexually ambiguous alto, Spiridion, who sings the role of the Virgin:

The performance provoked enthusiasm--thunders of applause. Claude and Claire pelted the thing with roses, and carried him off in triumph to the tables. His costume was declared ravishing. The men almost pulled him to bits, and mouthed at his great quivering bottom! ... Sup, the penetrating, burst through his silk fleshings, and thrust in bravely up to the hilt, whilst the alto’s legs were feasted upon by Pudex, Cyril, Anquetin, and some others. Ballice, Corvo, Quadra, Senillé, Mellefont, Théodore, Le Vit, and Matta, all of the egoistic cult, stood and crouched round, saturating the lovers with warm douches.


Beardsley underscores in this passage the extent to which the consumption of a work or an artist—literally in this case—depends as much upon the nature of the public that receives it as upon the nature of the work itself. For a standard public, Rossini’s work is akin to religious worship; for the counterpublic of the Venusberg, it becomes a prelude to sexual acts. Whereas the ballet allegorizes the work’s seduction of its audience, this performance depicts the audience’s sexualization of the work. In fact, the audience in the second performance duplicates the division between performer and audience by dividing itself between the men who rape Spiridion and the members of the “egoistic cult,” who watch the attack and “respond” by urinating on the attackers and Spiridion. For Beardsley, we might suggest, every sexual “performance” in the Venusberg has its public, even after the footlights have gone out.

I have tried to highlight in this essay some of the ways in which decadent texts theorize and thematize the possibility of cosmopolitan communities of taste. Baudelaire’s essay on Wagner and Beardsley’s reworking of the Tannhäuser story exemplify this kind of aesthetic practice. Both texts conjure up and address themselves to “unknown sympathizers,” and in this way depict and enact the formation of counterpublic communities. All works address a public on some level, but Baudelaire and Beardsley are particularly self-conscious about their relationship to the decadent counterpublic, making this address part of the very texture of their works. The idea of publicness shapes the themes, the style, and even the composition of both texts. Both writers, moreover, are deeply committed to cultural cosmopolitanism, posing the decadent counterpublic as a subversion of and alternative to received ideas of political community, particularly the nation. The notion of a “decadent international” clashes with the received understanding of the decadents as alienated misanthropes—an understanding, I noted above, that admittedly owes much to the decadents themselves. But the idea of community in Baudelaire and Beardsley is no less politically significant, however unconventionally, than other prominent nineteenth-century critiques of modernity. The turn to a putative “eternity” of art is not an escape from politics, but a form of political subversion. Indeed, as Baudelaire writes in the Wagner essay, “there is nothing more cosmopolitan than the Eternal [Rien de plus cosmopolite que l’Éternel]” (132).