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Decadence (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge)

The picture acts as a drop cap for the text. Purple letter D with a laurel wreath, representing the A to Z Challenge blogging event. Text below the logo says 'Blogging from A to Z April Challenge' and 'a-to-zchallenge.com'

We often associate the Lost Generation of the 1920s with decadence. In fact, that was their way of intending life: a decadent, hedonistic quest for a deeper meaning. 

This generation included people who had actually fought in WWI and people too young to have enrolled but old enough to be impacted by the aftermath of the war. 
For them, the old values of thrift, self-reliance, hard work and civil awareness had become void. 
Had these values helped them survive the destruction of the trenches, or what had come after that? 
They had not. In the mud of the trenches and the battlefield, these values were utterly useless and were, therefore, replaced with others that society at large would often disapprove of, like male friendship and affection, self-preservation, disillusionment about the utility of one’s action. 

When soldiers went home, they brought with them those new values that had served them well in the war and had helped them survive or keep their mental sanity. They applied those new values to peacetime life, passing them on to youth who didn’t experience the war but felt the void of values it created.  

Circa 1930. A messy scene full of people and party apparel from the film “Three Weeks”
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What is Decadentism?

The Decadent Movement was a short-lived but very influential artistic style that actually happened before the Lost Generation was even born, in the 1880s and 1890s. 
Born inside the French literary scene, it expanded out of it in other media (like the visual arts) and countries (in one way or another, reaching most European countries). It was associated with the discourse of cultural pessimism that had emerged among European intellectuals in the late part of the 1800s. They maintain that modernity was a sign of the decline of civilisation rather than advancement. 

The artist was central to the Decadent movement. Art had been a nice addition to anyone’s life, an enrichment, but for the decadents, art was life. These artists maintain that the artist’s life should be artistic, a form of art in itself, therefore different and richer than anybody else’s life. To make it shine, they were willing to sacrifice themselves to art, making their life extreme, exploring extreme pleasure, extreme intoxication (whether of alcohol or drugs), and extreme experimentation. A life that would consume the artist quickly, bringing them often to a premature death. 

Decadence (The Lost Generation #AtoZChallenge) – For the 1920s Lost Generation decadence was a way of intending life: a decadent, hedonistic quest for a deeper meaning #WWI #history #1920s Share on X

Hedonism and the Lost Generation

Pinterest pin. The title reads, "The Lost Generation—Decadence." The black-and-white picture is a still from the 1929 film Gold Diggers of Broadway. It shows a party with a crowd gathered around a table on which a young, scanty-clad woman is dancing. The people around the table are all in smart night dresses and hold balloons and champagne glasses. Baloons are scattered on the floor, too.

It’s not so hard, then, to see why the Lost Generation embraced this concept.
The sense of doom ingrained in Decadentism certainly resonated with them. When all is lost and the future is uncertain, living the moment and making that moment shine is the only thing to do. Living to the extreme, as decadent artists did, and making their lives artistic – therefore memorable, if short – was a sensible course of action for the Lost Generation. 

And because they had (in great numbers) already experienced extreme sorrow and death, these young people now sought extreme pleasure and pursued a hedonistic existence. 

Hedonism is the belief that pleasure – or even the absence of pain – is the crucial principle in determining the morality of a decision.
This concept was tied to youthfulness in that they thought that a full life was intense and burning and, therefore, would soon be gone. 
Forge in the environment of war, where a life could be extinguished at any moment, the Lost Generation felt they could never survive their youth – or surviving would never be worth it – and so they should enjoy it while they could. 


RESOURCES

Ecyclopdia.com – Decadence
Language Humanities – What Was the Decadent Movement in Literature?
Poem Analysis – Decadent Movement
Ethics Unwrapped – Hedonism
The Guradian – Hedonism, sex and fear – why the Weimar republic is in vogue
Historic UK – Bright Young Things

20 Comments

  • Kristin
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 01:37

    It seems like this would be true more for the upper classes that had the money to support such a lifestyle as opposed to working people who were struggling to survive.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2024 at 15:04

      Hi Kristin. So good to see you here!
      Certainly, the more visible expression of hedonism and decadence were of the upper classes. Yet, I think that all young people experienced it in their own way. The sense of having being wronged was quite general, and that’s where these bahaviours originated.

  • Pamela
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 02:41

    Very interesting topic.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2024 at 15:05

      Thanks, Pamela. I’m happy you’re enjoying it.
      I’m impressed by your challenge too 🙂

  • J Lenni Dorner
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 03:07

    Yeah, it’s hard to pinch every penny and such when knowing how fragile life can be and feeling as if tomorrow isn’t likely. I wonder if that decadence will come around again in a few years? As so many people seem to be depressed and broke right now.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2024 at 15:06

      I wonder the same. In so many ways, our world looks like the 1920s, and especially the feelings and the emotions are very similar. There was already a sense of being lost before the pandemic…

  • Anne Young
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 04:53

    all about living for the present and forgetting about the future because in the past the future was not promising

  • Pearson Report
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 05:51

    Having never experienced war, like that generation did, I can’t imagine what was going through their minds – not knowing if tomorrow will even come. Sadly, I think this state of worry, and fear for the future, looms heavy in our current times too – I think every generation has fear of future unknowns to contend with. Rather sad, isn’t it.

    Very insightful post, sending smiles, Jenny @ Pearson Report

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2024 at 20:09

      You’re probably right, every generation has their own fears. Yet I think that today’s young generation has many things in common with the 1920s Lost Generation. Because these two eras are surprisingly similar, I believe.

  • Tarkabarka
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 12:44

    Can’t really fault them for it…

    The Multicolored Diary

  • Torie Lennox
    Posted April 4, 2024 at 16:57

    I never really thought about their flashy lifestyles being the result of the WW1 experience, but it all makes complete sense. They lived the YOLO life many decades before people would even come to coin the term.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2024 at 20:11

      True. They might have been among the first to realise it, at least, in the modern times.

  • Andrew Wilson
    Posted April 6, 2024 at 09:50

    You’re right – the roots of the post-war decadence lied in the pre-war, fin-de-siecle arts movement – hadn’t thought of that…

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted April 10, 2024 at 20:21

      Much of what happened in the interwar years has it roots in the fin-de-siecles world, I’d say. That’s my feeling, at least.

  • Ronel Janse van Vuuren
    Posted April 6, 2024 at 13:30

    Extreme everything probably sums it up nicely.

    Ronel visiting for D: My Languishing TBR: D
    Djinn

  • Birgit
    Posted April 8, 2024 at 01:01

    This was a time when they decided to drink, drink some more and have some cocaine. Look how many stars died of drugs and it was the time of prohibition in the States…forbidden fruit…

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