Beginning at the End: Decadence, Modernism, and Postcolonial Poetry
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During the struggle for decolonization, Frantz Fanon argued that artists who mimicked European aestheticism were “beginning at the end,” skipping the inventive phase of youth for a decadence thought more typical of Europe’s declining empires. Robert Stilling takes up Fanon’s assertion to argue that decadence became a key idea in postcolonial thought, describing both the failures of revolutionary nationalism and the assertion of new cosmopolitan ideas about poetry and art.
In Stilling’s account, anglophone postcolonial artists have reshaped modernist forms associated with the idea of art for art’s sake and often condemned as decadent. By reading decadent works by J. K. Huysmans, Walter Pater, Henry James, and Oscar Wilde alongside Chinua Achebe, Derek Walcott, Agha Shahid Ali, Derek Mahon, Yinka Shonibare, Wole Soyinka, and Bernardine Evaristo, Stilling shows how postcolonial artists reimagined the politics of aestheticism in the service of anticolonial critique. He also shows how fin de siècle figures such as Wilde questioned the imperial ideologies of their own era.
Like their European counterparts, postcolonial artists have had to negotiate between the imaginative demands of art and the pressure to conform to a revolutionary politics seemingly inseparable from realism. Beginning at the End argues that both groups―European decadents and postcolonial artists―maintained commitments to artifice while fostering oppositional politics. It asks that we recognize what aestheticism has contributed to politically engaged postcolonial literature. At the same time, Stilling breaks down the boundaries around decadent literature, taking it outside of Europe and emphasizing the global reach of its imaginative transgressions.