The Faces Of Decadence

A civilization starts decaying when Life becomes its only obsession. Flourishing ages aim to values per se: life is but a means of attaining them; the individual being is not aware that he lives, he just lives – a happy slave of the shallowness that he breeds, nurses and worships. Affectivity dominates and overwhelms him. No creation without the resources of the "feeling," that are limited; nevertheless, for he who is aware only of their richness, they seem ever-lasting: it is this illusion that gives birth to history. In decaying ages, affective dryness allows for only two ways of feeling and of understanding: the sensation and the idea. We dedicate ourselves to the world of values but by means of affectivity, through it we project vitality in categories and norms. The activity of a civilization in its fertile moments consists in extracting ideas out of their abstract void, in turning concepts into myths. The transition from the anonymous individual to the one that is self-aware has not been realized yet; still, it is inevitable. Measure it: in Greece, from Homer to the Sophists; in Rome, from the old, austere Republic to the "wisdom" of the empire; in the modern world, from cathedrals to the lace of the XVIIth century. A nation would not be able to create endlessly. It is meant to give a meaning and a form to a series of values that dry up concomitantly with the soul that has given birth to them. The citizen wakes up from a productive hypnosis; here comes the reign of self-awareness: from now on, the masses will use but hollow categories. Myths become concepts again: decadence begins. Consequences do not tarry: the individual wants to live, he converts life into an aim, he lifts himself to the state of a little exception. The balance-sheet of these exceptions, that make up the deficit of a civilization, forecasts its disappearance at the same time. Everybody reaches the stage of refinement; but isn't the work of great ages precisely the fruit of the beaming stupidity of the self-deluded?Montesquieu claims that at the end of the Empire the Roman army was made only of the cavalry. But he fails to mention the cause of such a state of things. Fancy the legionary fed up with success, wealth and debauchery after he had crossed numerous lands, and lost his faith and virtue by coming into contact with so many temples and vices, fancy him on foot! As an infantry man, he had conquered a whole world; as a horse rider, he was to lose it. Any languidness reveals a physiological incapacity of adhering to the myths of the fortress. The emancipated soldier and the self-aware citizen collapse under the barbarians. Discovering Life annihilates life. When a whole life, at different levels, is in search of rare sensations, when through the subtlety of taste, it diversifies its reflexes, it accedes to a fatal level of superiority. Decadence is but the instinct that has been soiled under the influence of conscience. That is why we never exaggerate the importance of gastronomy in the existence of a community. Eating and being aware of it is an Alexandrian phenomenon; the barbarian feeds. The intellectual and religious eclecticism, the sensual wit, the estheticism and the scientific obsession with food are various characteristics of one and the same form of spirit. When Gabius Apicius wandered on the shores of Africa looking for spiny lobsters, without actually settling anywhere, because he found no place where the lobsters would please him, he proved to be the contemporary of those restless souls that worshipped countless foreign gods without getting any rest or comfort from any of them.Rare sensations-various gods, parallel fruits of the same dryness, of the same curiosity lacking any inner spring. And here comes Christianity: one God – and the fast. Thus, an age of triviality and sublime has begun…
from Manual of Disintegration, 1949

by Emil Cioran (1911-1995)