Decadence and the Occult: TU English Explores the Victorian Politics of Diversity

The Decadent movement in art and literature raised more than a few eyebrows from the 1860s through the 1920s in Europe and beyond. Nearly a century later, in an English graduate class of 10 students at The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Professor of English Dennis Denisoff was not surprised when his reading assignments were likewise met with wide eyes. These were the same curious minds who would help lead to the publication of a book and several articles, and Denisoff being selected as Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the University of London – Queen Mary in the spring of 2020.

Decadence in art and literature

“Decadence challenges the influence of capitalism, middle-class values and growing demands for consumerist conformity by destabilizing conventional notions of such things as gender, sexuality, nationality, materialism and wealth,” Denisoff explained.

Providing a voice to feminism, queer rights, environmentalism, paganism and occultism, decadents flouted the societal norms and delved into the weird and macabre. “You will find these portrayals excessive but also liberating,” he added. “They could be salacious or gross, and yet, they suggest there are many other ways to experience the world than most people realize.”

As a sanctuary for those who didn’t conform, decadent writers and artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, Vernon Lee and Oscar Wilde are well known, but in Denisoff’s class, students read more obscure works. English doctoral student Steven Maulden was eager for unusual terrain. “I have always been more into books like Dracula and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but in classes, you usually get Victorian era canonical works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights,” Maulden said. “Writers like Charles Dickens are great, but I would much rather read The Beetle than Bleak House.”

Engaging with stories of the occult and mysteries of the spiritual realm to works in which women take on the traditionally male roles, Denisoff’s students contributed their own knowledge of contemporary politics and ethics to produce new territories of research on writings too often overlooked.

Shh… it’s the occult

Professor Dennis Denisoff with TU doctoral student Steven Maulden
Professor Dennis Denisoff with TU doctoral student Steven Maulden

Setting aside visions of bubbling cauldrons and broomsticks, students were introduced to a more nuanced version of the occult within the decadent movement. “There are two ways of understanding the occult. One is secret societies that have rituals and practices that they don’t share with others as we find with Freemasonry or The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn,” Denisoff clarified. “Another way to see occult is in a derogatory sense to refer to anything that is not a conventional, institutionalized religion.”

As a key component of the occult is secrecy, it is difficult to research its members, but Maulden is teaming up with English doctoral student Beth Csomay from the decadence class to develop an occult membership wiki. “People from anywhere can google it to find out, ‘Oh, Oscar Wilde’s wife was in The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.’ Until we can complete the wiki, no one can do that without specialized archives and resources,” Maulden said.

As he read his student’s papers and listened to intriguing class discussion, Denisoff realized there just might be a book here. Everything came together with Arthur Machen.

Inspiring modern horror:  Arthur Machen

Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen

Inspiring names like horror novelists Stephen King, H.P. Lovecraft and Hollywood director Guillermo del Toro, Welsh author Arthur Machen was at the center of the British decadent movement. After studying decadence and animality with Denisoff, Maulden was moved to enroll in a directed reading course with him on Machen.

Unlike his proteges, Machen is not a household name, and perhaps his unsettling endings are to blame. “There is no righting a wrong. In Machen, the good guys confront the big evil, but we don’t see the confrontation. We just hear about it later,” Maulden said. “Why doesn’t he give us that victory scene? It’s because he is making fun of the idea that the occult could be defeated. The occult is going to be here if it wants to be, and you have to suck it up.”

In the past, scholars have been quick to denounce Machen’s ties to the occult as a phase. He was a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn for only a year, but he was involved with occult studies for decades. “We need to stop devaluing their work or acting like these elements of authors’ lives didn’t matter, because they did. They added to their work,” Maulden argued.

Working together, student and teacher have produced an article by Maulden on Machen’s The Great God Pan, which was recently submitted for peer-reviewed publication, and last year, Denisoff published Arthur Machen: Decadent and Occult Works

A foggy month in London town  

His book led to speaking invitations on decadence and the environmental humanities at the University of Stockholm, University of Exeter, University of Birmingham and the University of London, as well as the month-long Distinguished Visiting Fellowship next spring. While there, Denisoff will conduct additional research on the relationship of Victorian environmentalism and pagan spirituality and give lectures on pagan feminism, eco-decadence and the occult.

“I’m excited about the one-on-one meetings with graduate students at the university, aiming to build connections between students in London and at TU who are committed to developing a historical understanding of the co-reliance and mutual responsibilities among the environment, humans and other animals,” he said.

Decadent literature does not enforce the conventional ideas that humans are the dominant species. Instead, in these writings, the human body count can be quite high, but the reader isn’t particularly moved by human deaths. “Decadence offers a type of environmentalism that destabilizes the models we have received primarily from white, middle-class doctors, scientists and others used to being in charge,” Denisoff added. “Instead, these works engage with a notion of ecology that reflects species interconnections and mutual responsibilities that demand greater humility and mutual sympathy and respect across cultures, ethnicities and species.”

Connecting student and teacher

In the acknowledgment section of Denisoff’s book, he thanks both his “Decadence in Art and Literature” class and Maulden for helping to shape his own research and writings. As Maulden prepares his dissertation, he is appreciative of his bond with Denisoff.

“Over these past two years of coursework, not many people have verbalized the nature of how a relationship between a Ph.D. student and their faculty should go if it’s working right. My relationship with Dr. Denisoff has highlighted how it should go,” Maulden said. “The confidence I got from him made me realize I am smart enough to be here. I can do this.”