February 15, 2021   5 mins

Five years ago, I finally bailed from the Decadence Party. After rejecting a “rock and roll” lifestyle in my youth — I had seen how the strings were pulled as a teenage NME hack — I eventually made up for it by doubling down on the sex and drugs. But after caning it for three decades, I decided that I’d had enough. Predictably for a mid-50s matron, Christianity and volunteer work had a lot to do with it. I cleaned up overnight — and I can honestly say I don’t miss it a bit.

What do you think of when you read the word “decadent”? Liza Minnelli showing her stocking tops while fascism looms in the shadows? Gatsby laying out his shirts to reclaim Daisy’s love? Julia Flyte’s gift from her rich lover, a tortoise whose shell bore her initials in diamonds? Or was it best embodied by notorious porn purveyor Larry Flynt, who died this week?

Merriam-Webster defines it both as “appealing to self-indulgence — a rich and decadent dessert” and “marked by decay or decline  — an increasingly decadent society.” In other words, it is considered either good or bad depending on your point of view. Not many words take in both the fall of the Roman Empire and a chocolate ganache.

Its meaning has, of course, changed over the years. Certainly things seem to have moved on since the late 19th century, when writers and artists favouring outré subjects became known as the Decadent Movement. As always there was a sizeable gulf between the French and the English; they had the deadly serious Joris-Karl Huysmans, we had the savage amusements of Oscar Wilde.

A magazine, Le Decadent, was founded in 1886 to bring order to their principles, but even then your average self-obsessed, opium-eating onanist wasn’t exactly a team player. A lot of it was little more than a Perve’s Charter. But the Decadents shrewdly saw that hedonism could be dignified with a backbeat of tragedy, and portrayed their excesses as a sane reaction to a mad world. As Baudelaire put it: “Be Drunken, Always. That is the point; nothing else matters… Drunken with what? With wine, with poetry or with virtue, as you please. But be drunken.” With virtue? Yeah, right.

With the twentieth century, the alibis for acting out ramped up as we entered the Age Of Excuses. The barbarism of the First World War was widely accepted as the trigger for the Roaring Twenties, and by the 1950s psychology had found a deep-seated reason for every last bit of bad behaviour.

Then rock and roll came — and the genie was truly out of the bottle. Girls had always hung around entertainers, but never like this. Not so much starry-eyed fans as scalp-hungry maenads, the groupies of the 1960s and 70s cut a swathe through the equally wanton rock stars of the age.

Many of them found their El Dorado in David Bowie, a rock star who seemed to exude decadence with each breath. Could that explain why he was allowed to have sex with underage girls and watch his popularity soar, while other men in his position would have been pilloried?

Perhaps it was simply because he didn’t seem to be enjoying it that much. His decadent behaviour was soundtracked by the splendid output of his cocaine-zombie soul-in-torment period; if he’d acted that way during his “Laughing Gnome” days, he’d have been bang to rights. But played smartly, the decadent card is enough to make people feel sorry for the most egregious of rogues. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” William Blake wrote. “You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.”

But what about those times when it doesn’t lead to a “palace of wisdom”? Today’s decadents seem far more likely to end up in a shack on a cliff edge. “It’s just so lonely at the top,” squeals every showbiz biography ever written, from Charlie Chaplin to the Chuckle Brothers. And judging from the publicity for his Stories I Only Tell My Friends, the actor Rob Lowe seems unlikely to be striking out in a new direction. Lowe had it all: fame, success, teenage girls and even Princess Stephanie of Monaco. But that’s all fine — he just wasn’t happy.

No doubt Marilyn Manson — currently the centre of a huge storm concerning his sexual behaviour — will attempt to go down this more-in-sorry-than-in-salaciousness route if he ever follows up his 1998 autobiography The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell. Perhaps he’ll try to persuade us that he only behaved unpleasantly towards women because he was sad, rather than bad. (Though, while obviously feeling sorry for his partners, one does wonder what they expected from entering into a relationship with a self-confessed Satanist. Foot-rubs and rom-coms?)

The whole saga reminds me of the English dandy and decadent Sebastian Horsley, with whom a prostitute friend of mine fell in love, having been wooed by his assurances that the relationship between hooker and client was the purest possible. He called himself an artist and the prostitutes his muses — but as he produced very little art, it appears the only thing these muses inspired him to do was to go with more prostitutes. When my friend found out that she was one of many, she was (amusingly) outraged.

But Manson and Horsley both surely illustrate something sobering about decadence: that as you get older, you really need to get over it. A jaded palate appears to make the Decadent “up the ante”, and thus turn from something merely silly into something potentially sinister. Surely, for example, we can all agree that sexually bullying the handicapped is never a good look? Yet Horsley ended up in a foreign brothel having sex with a prostitute who literally had no limbs, while Manson once boasted of urinating on a deaf fan. (Having heard his music, it’s a wonder they all weren’t.)

Still, if you know when to get off, there’s nothing wrong with youthful day-trips to Decadence. It’s one of those things, like love bites and Maoism, which you can indulge in when young and pretty, but look rather sad trying to sustain into middle age. Worst of all, it can make you profoundly boring. Its 19th-century adherents went on to embrace everything from Catholicism to anarchy. I started volunteering in a charity shop.

Is that really so surprising, though? Not when you consider that the same waywardness which leads lost souls to decadence will eventually lead them out again — unless pleasure has destroyed them before they get the chance to break free. Because while pleasure, whether induced by pornography or cocaine, appears at first to open up a new world, hold it a beat too long and it ends up shrinking that new realm until you become not a Decadent but a lab rat, scurrying about in your own personal sewer searching for the next lever to pull.

When this happens, people begin to ceaselessly lie to themselves about their behaviour in order to continue it. And perhaps there’s a psychological reason for this: being wicked is always going to seem a lot more attractive than being weak. In every branch of the arts, for example, wicked people are glamourised, whereas the weak are portrayed as deserving nothing but contempt. This often leads to self-deception, as the Decadent insists that the source of their chosen indulgence — be it drugs or porn — is magically free of the misery and broken lives which litter its production.

By any standards, one of the most decadent people who ever lived was the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus, a cross-dressing, sex-mad tyrant who ruled between the ages of 14 and 18. The Praetorian Guard, however, were not impressed and he ended up headless and floating in the Tiber. And we all know what happened to the Roman Empire; brought down, in part, by a religion rooted in humility and self-denial — the very opposite of decadence. One can only imagine what will suddenly spring up to wash away the dirt of today’s Augean Stables. But whatever it is, no doubt we’ll pose for selfies while society burns.

Julie Burchill is a journalist, playwright and author of Welcome to the Woke Trials, available now. Her latest play, Awful People, co-written with Daniel Raven, comes to Brighton Pier in September 2023.