The perennial debate concerning decadence continues, with a recently re-translated contribution coming from Henry James' "apprentice" novelist Paul Bourget [his thoughts seem similar to those James himself expresses in his preface to The Princess Casamassima, which is included in the Wiseblood Classics edition of the latter novel]:
In order to evaluate decadence, the critic can adopt two perspectives, so different as to be antithetical. In the presence of a society that is disintegrating—the Roman Empire, for instance—he can, from the first of these perspectives, consider the social effort as a whole and bear witness to its inadequacy…Roman society produced few children; consequently it could no longer muster soldiers for the nation. Citizens had little use for the vexations of paternity, and they hated the crudeness of military life. Linking effects to causes, the critic who examines this society from a general point of view concludes that a discriminating pursuit of pleasure, a subtle skepticism, the exacerbation of the senses, the inconstancy of dilettantism, were the social wounds of the Roman Empire, and will in any other circumstance be the social wounds destined to destroy the entire organism. So reason politicians and moralists, who take an interest in the amount of energy the social machine can produce. The point of view of the pure psychologist will be different, for he will consider the machine in detail, and not in its overall operation. He will find that this individual independence rewards his curiosity with more interesting examples and more strikingly singular “cases.” His line of reasoning will be approximately the following: “If the citizens of decadence are inferior contributors to the greatness of the country, are they not, on the other hand, very superior artists within their own souls? If they are ill-suited to private or public action, is that not owing to their being too accomplished as solitary thinkers? If they are poor procreators of future generations, is it not because the abundance of delicate sensations and exquisitely rare sentiments have made of them sterile but refined masters of voluptuousness and pain?
--From Nancy O'Connor's new translation of Paul Bourget's notes on Baudelaire.