Decadence and excess

October 28, 2012

I was on the train recently when I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the woman in the seat next to me was reading “Fifty Shades of Gray” (Volume Three I think) on her Kindle.

This was an alarming moment. I wondered if I should move seats to give her a bit more privacy.

Is reading this kind of thing a good way to prepare for a day’s work? Since work is a place where games of hierarchy, dominance and submission are played out daily, maybe it is.

But it did make me wonder whether I am living in an age of decadence.

Let’s head first to Wikipedia:

Decadence is a luxurious self-indulgence. It is often used to describe a decline due to an erosion of moral, ethical, and sexual traditions

Comparisons with the Roman Empire (which declined) are always useful. Rome was enough like us to be recognisable but different enough to be shocking. Clay Shirky quotes Joseph Tainter to suggest we are now like Rome and the Mayans – at a point of collapse:

The answer he arrived at was that they hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it.

Did the Romans have a word for decadence?

I asked an expert. On Twitter. Which is how you do it these days.

Mary Beard very kindly responded.

“They would have said ‘luxuria’”

“Luxuria” seems more like “excess” than “decadence”. It means “too much”, not “on a downward path”. The Romans may not have been aware that they were declining.

Certainly what I see around me seems like “too much”.

What makes me gloomy about Fifty Shades of Grey is not so much that it is pornography on the High Street which is difficult to explain to your kids. More depressing is the way that as soon as it broke big publishers immediately repackaged all their erotica in black covers and pumped big piles of it into bookshops.

Presumably on the grounds that if you bought one black shiny rectangular thing then you will blindly buy more and more black shiny rectangular things because they look the same.

So I am now exposed to an excess of black shiny rectangular things every time I go into Waterstones.

Most depressing of all is this tactic seems to have worked.

And no I haven’t read it.

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