The Uses of Decadence: On Edward St. Aubyn’s ‘A Clue to the Exit’

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“Decadence” is one of those words whose meanings have been eroded by capitalism’s favorite destroyer of language, advertising. In 2015, you can eat a decadent dessert or rent a decadent hotel suite or find it almost unbearably decadent to nap in the middle of a weekday afternoon. Whereas decadence used to mean ostentatious overindulgence as a symptom of a culture in decline, now it just means ostentatious overindulgence — because, presumably, you deserve it!

This is a definition that weights the term with value judgments — and often endows it with a political agenda, too. What signifies a society on the skids to one person could be a sign of progress to another. We might all agree that the (apocryphal) image of Nero fiddling while Rome burned is decadent, but as regards the present, whether you’d use the word to describe polyamorous relationships or Goldman Sachs executives’ bonuses says plenty about where you fall on the political spectrum.

Despite its diluted definition and subjective nature, decadence can still be a useful idea in art — or a useful perspective from which to create it — over a century after the so-called Decadent movement peaked in France, England, and (to a lesser extent) other European countries. At the time, the term referred to the work of authors such as Oscar Wilde and Joris-Karl Huysmans, artists like Aubrey Beardsley, and the French Symbolist poets. And it wasn’t initially meant as a compliment (though some of its practitioners unsurprisingly embraced it); in an influential 1893 essay on the movement for Harper’s, the poet and critic Arthur Symons described Decadent literature as being “typical of a civilization grown over-luxurious, over-inquiring, too languid for the relief of action, too uncertain for any emphasis in opinion or in conduct.”

While championing a handful of its pioneering figures, Symons declared the movement “a new and beautiful and interesting disease,” but his critique also speaks to what is most compelling about the Decadent aesthetic. In Symons’ view, its central aim was to capture “not general truth merely, but la vérité vraie, the very essence of truth — the truth of appearances to the senses, of the visible world to the eyes that see it; and the truth of spiritual things to the spiritual vision.” Rather than looking outward at politics or society, it zoomed in on tiny personal moments, sensations, and thoughts, endeavoring to represent these flashes of human experience with unprecedented faithfulness.

An image of the poet from Arthur Symons’ Harper’s essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature”

Anyone with a working knowledge of 19th-century literature can name some clichés of the movement: opium dens, love affairs between men (and other then-unorthodox sexual tastes), lush interiors, aristocratic characters, erudite and allusive dialogue. But the best decadent art, then and now, uses these debauched protagonists and their rarefied social worlds as vehicles for deep, resonant psychological insights. In the final words of his essay, Symons names “the ideal of Decadence: to be a disembodied voice, and yet the voice of a human soul.”

Poverty, discrimination, and other societal causes of human suffering have inspired so many — perhaps most — of history’s greatest works of art, and that’s probably as it should be. (In 2015, it seems almost blasphemous to suggest that any story that isn’t primarily about systemic oppression is worth telling.) But by focusing on characters that don’t lack for material comforts or social status, a writer can isolate certain problems that are intrinsic to the human condition — the ones that even the extreme privilege of one-percenters living in a Gilded Age (the original or our present-day reboot) can’t solve.

Chief among these universal problems is mortality, so it makes sense that it’s the central preoccupation of A Clue to the Exit, a novel by our greatest living practitioner of decadent literature, Edward St. Aubyn. Though the book was published in the UK in 2000, Picador has just released it for the first time in the US, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone who belongs to the cult of St. Aubyn’s alter ego and singular achievement Patrick Melrose won’t immediately embrace its morbid, philosophical, and darkly comic story.

Edward St. Aubyn

A Clue to the Exit begins when Charlie Fairburn — a financially successful hack screenwriter with a Tibet-obsessed ex-wife, an estranged daughter, and a garish pink mansion — learns that he has six months to live. In a delightfully, characteristically dry opening passage, Charlie addresses the option of suicide (“I assume I needn’t go into the temptations”) but concludes: “So why not luxuriate in that old-fashioned sense of service? Go on, do yourself a favour, you know you deserve it: let something else finish you off.”

So he does, electing to spend his final days at work on a book about death and the meaning of consciousness, a project his caricature of an agent won’t even think of shopping around unless it becomes a screenplay titled Smell the Flowers and its hero turns out to be “not really dying at all — it’s some other schmuck, a weirdo serial killer: someone who deserves to die.” But first, Charlie feels he must shed the material possessions that are distracting him from his work. He sells his home to the real estate agent who talks him into listing it at well below the market rate and ends up in Monte Carlo, where he plans to gamble away his riches as he writes On the Train. This novel-within-a-novel, which is notable for containing far less action than its author’s own story, tracks the thoughts and conversations of three characters traveling home from a conference on consciousness. (A Clue to the Exit also establishes a sort of St. Aubyn Literary Universe; two of On the Train‘s characters come from the author’s Esalen-set 1998 novel On the Edge, and the third is none other than Patrick Melrose himself.)

It’s in Monte Carlo that Charlie’s deathward spiral achieves peak velocity: in attempting to gamble away his savings, he ends up winning millions more than he arrived with. His (bad) good luck triggers a reunion with a one-night stand from earlier in his journey, the luxuriously named Angelique, a glamorous gambling addict who promises to dispose of his cash at the rate of one millions francs per day. They agree that when the money runs out, their ambiguously motivated love affair will end too. Charlie will leave Monte Carlo, finish his novel, and die.

Has there ever been a storyline more decadent than this one, which moves from the profligacy of the casino to the nihilism of hotel-room sex between deeply disturbed strangers, all as its first-person narrator delves (in real life and in the book he’s writing) into big questions about life, death, and the human brain? In this respect, A Clue to the Exit even tops St. Aubyn’s most decadent Melrose novel, which documents a weekend Patrick spends in New York, consuming frightening quantities of dangerous drugs and grappling with the death of his abusive father.

A Clue to the Exit is a difficult book to spoil. Like most of St. Aubyn’s work, the action (which does feature a few thrilling twists) is secondary to a series of epiphanies, with each new realization eroding the previous ones and leaving the cumulative impression that there’s no such thing as a definitive insight. Even so, I won’t give away the final twist or the final insight; suffice it to say that both are powerful, and that A Clue to the Exit turns out to be a decadent novel (about the writing of a decadent novel) that reveals the decadence inherent in being given the time and means to cogitate your way through your own impending death (and thus your own existence).

It only adds to the story’s resonance that its central character is not only far wealthier than he needs to be, but also the most typical kind of artistic success story in a declining culture: a writer with the capacity to ponder existential questions through art, who has instead made a fortune composing treacly, Spielberg-esque screenplays. It isn’t surprising, either, that A Clue to the Exit‘s final pages include a glimpse at the hotel where Oscar Wilde was arrested. As ever, St. Aubyn reaffirms the value — and the relevance — of his forerunner’s waning aesthetic.