The Semantics of Disease in Dandyism12 Mar 2020
During the heyday of the dandy craze about 1818, dandyism was not only adopted by many of the young men, but also found a strong number of opponents. A very common topos during that era was the discourse of dandyism as a disease which is inextricably linked to the idea of dandyism as decline and a symptom of decadence. I had the honour of being recently invited to talk on the correlation of dandyism and decadence during a seminar on decadence in Trinity Hall, Cambridge. The full essays will be published at a later state. Following are some remarks on the semantics of disease in dandyism, that haven’t made it into my paper.
The dandy’s intellectual decay is marked by his dullness, illustrated through a rich set of metaphors that focus on an empty head and the fact that if he thinks at all, his reflections merely span superficial ideas such as fashion and amusement. The physical decay of the dandy is depicted through the frailty of his appearance: the dandy is mostly portrayed as slim and weak, with a tendency to fainting. This physical degeneracy leads to other forms of decay: poverty, an early death, disease, imprisonment, exile.
Degeneration is inextricably associated to decadence in the 19th century. It’s the physical decay that derives from decadence as moral decay. The term ‘decadence’ gained popularity not only in literary circles of the 19th century, but also in medical and psychiatric discourses. The correlation, however, dates back as far as Antiquity, where effeminacy and incapacitation numbered among the pivotal symptoms of decadence. Evidently, decadence turns a once active person into a passive and unproductive idler who will ultimately suffer from his lack of productivity. This is precisely the line of argument taken by critics to dandyism. One observer, in 1819 lamented the „degeneracy of the times, which have produced such worthless anomalies in mankind.“ The central point of critique is the dandy’s indulgence in decadent behaviour which is perceived as immoral and destructive:
“But the DANDIES, instead of dissipating moral corruption, create and extend it by setting examples of idleness, and by devouring the fruits of other people’s industry. We often see an industrial father, mother, brothers and sisters, toiling from day to day, to keep one silly spendthrift in pocket money and fine clothes; and finally perhaps, the whole family embarrassed, or reduced to a state of poverty, if not of degeneracy, by the prodiglity of this one heedless and unprincipled fool.”
The discourse of degeneration introduces the semantics of disease into the concept of decadence. Thus, as a figure who is innately decadent, the dandy is portrayed as mentally and/or physically ill. For example, the idleness cultivated by the dandy is classified as „always infectious.“ Whereas medicine is usually applied to restore health, the dandy debilitates his body through an excessive use of medicine as he intends to suspend his aging beauty.* Dandyism has repeatedly been termed a disease and linked to diseases. Thompson Westcott once described it as „a bad cold, caught nobody knows how, or when, or where, or why. Some may be afflicted because they have the pores of vanity open […] with many it is chronic.“